The new co-heads of the Berlin Film Festival have had an eventful build up to their first edition, which gets underway in two weeks. The festival program has been greeted with cautious optimism but there have also been bumps in the road, including last week’s suspension of the Alfred Bauer Silver Bear Prize and some questions over the choice of Jeremy Irons as jury head in light of comments the actor once made about women and same sex marriage.
We spoke to artistic director Carlo Chatrian (formerly of Locarno) and executive director Mariette Rissenbeek (formerly of German Films) about this year’s lineup, the festival’s direction and some of the noise being made away from the films. The duo declined to answer additional questions about the Alfred Bauer situation but we have covered that here.
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Deadline: How are you feeling about this year’s festival?
Carlo Chatrian: We both feel very excited. Reaction to the lineup has been good and we’re now looking forward to the real reaction once the films are seen.
Deadline: To what extent did you feel like the Berlinale was in need of a refresh?
Chatrian: Any time there is a change, that change implies consequences. The structure and management has changed but I didn’t want want to make a revolution. I always thought there were very good movies here and a very good structure to the festival. Of course tastes may be slightly different, but we didn’t want drastic change. We felt there was a need for some adjustments, so that’s what we did, and after this edition we’ll think about whether there can be others.
Deadline: Yes, the program has been streamlined. What other changes might you look to make going forward?
Chatrian: It wasn’t so much a question of number of films. Berlin, Like Toronto, takes place in a big city. It’s different to Cannes and Venice in that respect. Those festivals are largely for industry. We need a large offering because the audience is very large. But we wanted to give clearer directions to industry about why certain films are in their sections. Forum, Panorama, Generation all have fewer films and we created the new section Encounters which is for more experimental movies which are likely to have a different type of release.
Deadline: You said that thematically this year’s competition lineup touches on the darkness in humanity, and Berlin as a city…
Chatrian: The selection is made without any topic in mind. It’s only afterwards that we get this snapshot. We know we’re living in difficult times. There is a level of anxiety in the world at the moment which is reflected in some of these films. But there’s also comedy and love stories.
Deadline: Which are the potential gems or breakouts we should be looking out for in competition?
Chatrian: We have a good number of films from well known directors such as Sally Potter, Abel Ferrara, Kelly Reichardt, and others. We also have films that come from emerging voices. Argentinian director Natalia Meta was a filmmaker I didn’t know, for example. Her film El Profugo (The Intruder) was a big surprise. It’s a film noir which takes us into a woman’s mind. Also, Brazilian film Todos Os Mortos (All The Dead Ones) from Marco Dutra and Caetano Gotardo – we have a handful of films from director duos this year – looks at slavery from the turn of the previous century. The film offers a very thought-provoking perspective on Brazil.
Deadline: All the movies in competition are world premieres apart from the movies by Kelly Reichardt and Eliza Hittman. Does that imply a struggle to get new movies from women directors?
Chatrian: When we select films, I try not to pay too much attention to the identity of the director. Of course we know some of the directors. But we selected those films because they are very strong. We think their presence here will help the films find a new market and audience. Kelly’s movie is very interesting in the way it deals with the frontier in a new way. Eliza Hittman’s film addresses a really important topic that European and U.S. audiences will relate to. We have a number of women filmmakers from the U.S. across the strands including Hittman, Reichardt, Kitty Green, Josephine Decker etc
Deadline: Yes, but those movies have all debuted at other festivals…
Chatrian: We have a number of U.S. movies which are getting their world premieres here. Funny Face by Tim Sutton, Abel Ferrara’s new film… I’ve said from the beginning that world premieres are not an absolute requirement. I would prefer to give a place to a strong movie that has recently premiered elsewhere than a movie whose quality isn’t as strong. I appreciate that for U.S. independent films Sundance is very important. Selling domestic there is very important to those budgets.
Deadline: Is there enough diversity in the competition lineup?
Chatrian: I know we can do better. In terms of gender we have 6/18 films by women filmmakers. That’s not 50/50 but we’re on our way. We have films from most continents, including a number from Asia. We don’t have many from Africa, but that is more a matter of the production system in Africa. We try to include as much diversity as possible but we should respond to the films themselves rather than the politics they may represent. In the end we’re here to support films.
Deadline: There are no Netflix films this year. Why is that?
Chatrian: We have had discussions with Netflix. They’re a very interesting player in the ecosystem. We have two Netflix co-productions in our series strand. We discussed some movie titles but in the end we didn’t find the right opportunity for both of us.
Deadline: So the door is open for future editions?
Chatrian: Of course.
Mariette Rissenbeek: The Berlinale does have rules. In competition, movies need to have a planned theatrical release.
Deadline: Last year you did have one Netflix film in competition, Elisa Y Marcela…
Rissenbeek: It’s hard for us to comment on previous editions.
Deadline: The festival’s TV lineup has some high-profile, starry projects this year. Would you like to have more U.S. studio movies in competition?
Chatrian: The films are the key point. It’s important to have the studios at the festival and we’re working to bring them here. We have Disney animation Onward as an international premiere, which is important for the public and the press. Focus Features has the Sally Potter and Eliza Hittman films, A24 has one of the films…meanwhile, a film like Abel Ferrara’s is very much independent. This is my first year and I’m happy with the lineup. It’s a good mixture of movies with different backgrounds and there are films which will generate strong debate.
Deadline: To what extent do you feel competition with Cannes and Venice?
Chatrian: I’ve known Alberto [Barbera] for many years, and likewise Thierry Frémaux. Everyone does their own job so comparisons are tricky. I believe there is room for three big film festivals. Our commitment is to make the Berlinale stronger and to make the first quarter of the year stronger. Each festival has its own identity and ours is still being shaped.
Rissenbeek: Berlin has a population of four million inhabitants, which is a good advantage. The other advantage is that we have the Generation section. We’re the only one of the three festivals with a strand dedicated to young people, which is important at a time when people are looking for young audiences. It’s an opportunity to let those youngsters know about the value of the big screen experience compared to watching content on phones, for example.
Deadline: Were you surprised by some of the reactions to Jeremy Irons as jury head?
Rissenbeek: We realize that since the MeToo debate, the sensitivity and awareness around such issues has grown compared to a few years ago. We were aware that Jeremy had said some things which he later revised. He confirmed to us that those remarks don’t represent his general attitude. We were therefore confident that he was the right person to be the head of the jury.
Chatrian: The choice was made because we admire Jeremy’s career and the variety of roles and the cinema he has supported. We spoke about how much he’s looking forward to discussing the films with his jury. Jeremy had already publicly taken back his comments. It’s probably a sign of the world we live in that one aspect of the story gets emphasised more than another.
Deadline: What kind of impact will the Coronavirus have on the festival?
Rissenbeek: There will be an impact. We don’t know exactly what will happen in the next couple of weeks but the attendance from China won’t be as strong as expected. We’ve had seven industry cancellations so far. The situation is fluid.
Deadline: Is Jia Zhangke still coming? [The director’s documentary Swimming Out Till The Sea Turns Blue has a special screening]
Chatrian: Yes, as far as we know. But he does have concerns over the timing. His film is still in post-production and the studio where it’s being worked on has experienced disruption.
Deadline: This year’s later Berlin dates have been welcomed by many I speak to. The festival is further from the BAFTAs, Oscars and Sundance. I know next year’s dates are set but could you look to go later in future editions?
Chatrian: We like these dates. But in 2021 the Oscars will move back to the end of February so we’ll move back to early February. We discussed going in March but then the EFM would be too close to Cannes. SXSW would also be in the way, as would the Hong Kong Filmart.