A scene from festival film The Duke, starring Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent.

The pandemic is still raging—a fact that has caused the Palm Springs International Film Festival to yet again change things up.

There was no festival in 2021—you know why—and the 2022 festival was scheduled to include the return of the star-studded Film Awards gala at the Palm Springs Convention Center. Kristen Stewart, Jennifer Hudson, Andrew Garfield, Lady Gaga and many other marquee names were slated to show up, walk the red carpet and accept awards in front of a crowd of about 2,500 people.

Then came omicron. On Dec. 20, festival organizers announced it was cancelling the 2022 Film Awards, and would instead partner with Entertainment Tonight for a televised celebration.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that as of our press deadline, the screenings portion of the Film Festival is still taking place—with masks and proof of vaccination required—from Jan. 7-17.

Several days before the Film Awards event was cancelled, I spoke to Lili Rodriguez, the artistic director of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, about the return of the festival in the midst of a pandemic.

“I think everyone who prepared the event was hoping that our numbers would go down,” Rodriguez said. “They’re not going down. We’re still in a pandemic, but because there are vaccinations, and people were getting vaccinated and returning back to the theaters, we knew we could pull this off. We’re taking all of the precautions that we could take. We’re doing proof of full vaccination—that means two doses for us. We’re also asking people to keep their masks on indoors. For us, it really was about just keeping a close eye on what was happening around us. We’re still doing that. We’re not beyond the pandemic, and I think we have to remain flexible and adjust if anything is necessary.”

A proof-of-vaccination requirement is common at events these days, but PSIFF organizers made other changes to assure the screenings are as safe as possible.

“We’ve shrunk our programs a little bit to make room between screenings for cleaning, and to make sure that people have plenty of time to check in and show proof of vaccination, and aren’t rushing to the next screening,” Rodriguez said. “We’re at 129 films this year, and in 2020, we had 192 films. We’re also staying at 70-75% capacity in all the venues. You’re not going to go into a theater that’s packed with people. We want to make sure that people have enough room to spread around if they feel more comfortable that way.”

The tagline for the festival this year is “Welcome Back.”

“We missed a year, and we miss our audience,” Rodriguez said. “Some of the movies are from 2020 and 2021, because we’ve been working on this for two years. This year, we have three new sidebars, and one of them will probably be a permanent sidebar, Cine Latino. It just makes sense for the desert to have a section for Latinx perspectives.

“More on the celebratory side, we have two programs that highlight entertainment, so we have a section on music, to put people in the mood, and then we have a section on movies, and movies about movies. That’s one of the ways that we’re welcoming people back.”

A scene from festival film Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over.

The weirdness of the last two years caused Rodriguez and her team to make some changes in the way films are chosen for the festival.

“There was a lot to choose from, and every year, we certainly leave some movies behind that we wish we could fit,” Rodriguez said. “… There’s a new way that these films are coming out (streaming), and (producers) are not holding off to play more festivals. We usually only show movies that haven’t been available theatrically, but make exceptions for some of the films in the awards. We played what we wanted to play this year. We have one or two titles that are older than 2020, but those titles are films that have not played around a whole bunch. They haven’t been available in the theaters or on streaming, so they’re movies that played and kind of went away because of the pandemic.”

The pandemic also had an effect on the films themselves.

“Filmmakers make films about what they see around the world, so we’re seeing it (the pandemic) in the movies,” Rodriguez said. “But if you look through the program, and you read about what these movies are about, there isn’t one topic that ties them together. We try to do that on purpose. We’re showing films for different types of people—films that run the gamut and are different genres. We don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves into a particular narrative. … I don’t want to watch 10 or 15 movies all dealing with the pandemic. I don’t think other people want to watch that, either.”

While the PSIFF focuses on films, large and small, from around the world, organizers each year pick some Local Spotlight films, made by filmmakers from the area.

“I think the most we’ve done in the past is three, but we have five excellent films that are shining a spotlight on our local community here,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s a really fantastic way to bring the community back into focus.”

While this year’s festival will be different in a lot of ways because of, well, you know, Rodriguez and her team are adamant that it will still be the same old festival that patrons have loved for years.

“I think the pandemic gave us all time to reflect on what we’re doing, and think about what else we can do,” Rodriguez said. “We have those conversations every year after a festival. We do wrap meetings, and we talk about what went right and what we could have done better. It’s wonderful to do it again. The festival itself is an established institution that has things that work with it. I don’t know that we’re changing too much, truly, because it works—and that’s what our audience likes, and that’s what we like.”

The Palm Springs Film Festival is scheduled to take place from Friday, Jan. 7, through Monday, Jan. 17. For tickets, updates and more information, visit www.psfilmfest.org/film-festival-2022.

Matt King

Matt King is a freelance writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. A creative at heart, his love for music thrust him into the world of journalism at 17 years old, and he hasn't looked back. Before...