The Current Debate: A Cinephile’s Survival Kit to Quarantine

A tentative guide to some of the best festivals, archives, and catalogues offering free films to get you through the isolation.
Leonardo Goi

Above: Jia Zhang-ke's The Visit

While the future of film festivals remains uncertain, a coalition of 20 among the world's leading fests (including Cannes, Venice, and Berlin) have joined forces to create “We Are One,” a new online film festival that will stream some of their films free of charge on YouTube, with optional donations going the World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 relief fund. Scheduled to run May 29 through June 7, “We Are One” may hardly be the future of film festivals, as per Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian, and the event will only feature titles from the partner festivals' previous editions, as Jeremy Kay reports at Screen Daily.

Yet streaming has, for the time being at least, proved crucial in helping the industry stay afloat, and "We Are One" is certainly not the first fest to be rolling out digitally (indeed, a number of platforms—MUBI included—have been running virtual cinemas and online festivals for years now). Nor is this the first initiative to promise free access to its goods. In fact, the amount of films available gratis through digital archives, festivals, and other programs has grown exponentially over the past few weeks, raising a crucial question every quarantined cinephile must grapple with: where does one begin to look? Here’s our own tentative guide.  


  • Long before “We Are One,” the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) has been offering free access to over 300 films released between 1988 and 2019 (including nonfiction works by Victor Kossakovsky and Pawel Pawlikowski).
  • In Greece, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival has commissioned new short films from world-renowned auteurs, and made them available through the fest’s YouTube channel. Tune in to watch quarantine-inspired works from Jia Zhang-ke, Denis Côté, and Radu Jude (among several others). 
  • And in Italy, while Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato hasn’t officially cancelled or postponed its late June rendezvous (yet), each Thursday the festival’s streaming channel “Fuori Sala” offers free films fished from its endless collection of restored classics. 
  • Back in March, Women Make Movies launched the WMM Virtual Film Fest to commemorate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, but in response to the global health crisis, the festival has been expanded and extended until May 31. Sign up for free to watch films by women and join an international audience of 8000—and counting. The fest hosts a “Films, Interrupted” series that showcases WMM-distributed films whose screenings were cancelled during the pandemic: each is available for a limited window, and whenever possible, the screenings are followed by filmmaker Q&As. Still on the subject, don’t forget to subscribe to the Streaming in Isolation newsletter put together by FFFest - Celebrating Women in Film, a digest highlighting seven films made by women for you to stream each week.
  • Short film enthusiasts may want to take a look at My Darling Quarantine: programmed by the International Short Film Community, the online short film fest vows to present, each week, seven short films dealing with the subject of dystopia. 
  • And speaking of shorts, Mailchimp has teamed up with SXSW to bring you over 50 free premieres of short films originally scheduled to screen at the Austin-based festival, cancelled due to the pandemic.

Above: Denis Côté's cnfnmnt e/scp(i)sm


  • As for experimental films, multidisciplinary artist Kate Lain has unveiled an astounding gold mine via her Cabin Fever, a Google spreadsheet originally intended for her quarantined students that has grown to encompass hundreds of films from cineastes around the world, all gratis. The list, which Lain has divided into recommendations depending on the moods one may experience while in isolation, is being constantly updated.
  • From France, the Collectif Jeune Cinéma has released over 250 titles of its impressive catalogue of experimental cinema on Vimeo, a vast number of which will remain online after the quarantine, too.
  • And if you’re looking for underground and exploitation cinema, Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn’s streaming project byNWR—whose films have shown on MUBI in the past—is worth a visit, with free curated series developed in partnership with editorial director Jimmy McDonough and guest editors.


Aside from festivals and ad-hoc initiatives, archives, museums and cinematheques offer a dauntingly vast sea of digitized content. To help orient yourselves, the International Federation of Film Archives has put together a list of all FIAF affiliated institutions screening free content online.

  • Noteworthy from the U.S. is a virtual film series put together by the Museum of Modern Art: “Virtual Viewings: Home Movies.” Drawn from the MoMA’s 2019 “Private Lives Public Spaces” exhibit, the program features a number of home videos capturing glimpses of bygone decades and footage of New York shot by amateur cineastes.
  • North of the border, the National Film Board of Canada has made available a selection of its classics and new titles, though the highlight may well be a selection of free features and shorts from the Indigenous Cinema Collection.
  • Outside the U.S., the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) has launched “Screens and Streams,” a free weekly selection of AFAC-supported independent Arab films.
  • Through its YouTube page, The Korean Film Archive is giving free access to some of its restored classics, together with a list of seven titles hand-picked by Bong Joon-ho as part of a program he oversaw at the 2019 Lumière Film Festival.
  • And the National Film Archive of Japan is showing early Japanese animations from the collection of Tokyo’s National Film Center, all free of charge, and with English subtitles.
  • Arsenal, the Berlin-based institute for film and video art, has given free access to “Arsenal 3,” a streaming area otherwise reserved for the German institute’s members, with curated film series that include works previously screened in the Berlinale Forum or Forum Expanded (arguably the greatest find may be the late Sarah Maldoror’s 1969 short Monangambeee).

Above: Sarah Maldoror's Monangambeee

  • As for France, the Cinémathèque Française has launched Henri, a streaming platform named after its co-founder Henri Langlois. Every night, at 20:30 Paris time, Henri screens a film restored by the Cinémathèque, as well as other rare or unreleased gems.
  • Also in France, each Wednesday at 15:00 Paris time the Centre Pompidou presents a free film picked from the museum’s sprawling collection (previous titles include Marguerite Duras’s 1979 short Les Mains Négatives).
  • And at The Future of Film is Female, a new streaming channel has been launched to showcase free short and feature films by FOFIF filmmakers—a chance to discover new voices of indie cinema.


To be sure, the list above offers a tiny fraction of all that’s currently available for streaming gratis around the world. For one thing, it does not consider the ever-growing number of filmmakers who’ve taken it upon themselves to make their works available online for free. Over at Hyperallergic, Dessane Lopez Cassell has put together a phenomenal list to help you locate some of the most exciting names and projects (to which I’d add Isiah Medina’s Inventing the Future). But as Lopez Cassell herself notes, “not every artist can afford to make their work freely available:" as generous as the cornucopia may look, the breadth and wealth of our cinematic heritage will only survive if we all help support it, all the more so in these troubled times. Which is another way to say that:

…if you plan to do a deep dive into [these] links or films found elsewhere, please consider donating directly to the artists. (This especially applies to artists with disabilities and chronic illnesses, who have long been making work while managing varying levels of confinement, limited mobility, and a historic lack of institutional support, well before our current moment of “social distancing.”) If you work for an institution or otherwise have a platform, consider inviting some of these artists for a paid screening in the future so they can share their work and earn a living. Because at the end of the day, no one should have to work for free.

The argument holds for all the other online archives and initiatives we’ve highlighted above. Please donate whenever and wherever possible, to the artists themselves and to the causes they champion, and happy streaming.

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