Berlinale Shorts 2020: The Spanner in the Works

In 2020, Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck has taken over the leadership of Berlinale Shorts from Maike Mia Höhne. In this interview, she discusses the changes she has (not) made, what makes the Berlinale special, the strengths of short films, resistance and empathy with a flower.

Lona Alobeid, Amina Alobeid, Rahaf Alobeid in So We Live by Rand Abou Fakher

This year, a new chapter is opening for Berlinale Shorts because you have now taken on the leadership of the short film competition. Which changes does this entail?

There are no big changes for Berlinale Shorts. I was on the selection committee for twelve years, so I’m familiar with the section’s profile and I am happy to continue the path we are on. I guess this is also why my former boss and previous section head suggested me as her successor.

At the same time, as section head I’m seeing Berlinale Shorts from a new perspective because, rather than just spending my whole time in a dark screening room, I’ve also been to other festivals. It’s become clear to me what a privileged position the short film enjoys at the Berlinale. Here, the short form is recognised as an autonomous artistic expression – not as a commodity or a calling card, but as a cultural asset. That isn’t something that can be taken for granted. I’m delighted that we can continue this approach and that we have an audience that enjoys it and ensures the cinemas are full. It’s fantastic to be able to design a programme for such an audience.

What makes the short film particularly interesting to you?

I am interested in the artistic freedom of the short form. It can, but it doesn’t have to, fulfil expectations. Our society and our culture increasingly wants to please the audience. I find this rather uninteresting. I don’t want the arts to regard me as a consumer or to try to please me. I want to view the world through the eyes of an artist and, in doing so, gain a different perspective. That is, at heart, what I find interesting about culture: that the artist succeeds in making the world tangible to me, to see things in new or more complex ways and to understand them. The short film is often overlooked in the world of cinema, it flies under the radar. And that creates a freedom that artists know how to use.

How to Disappear by Leonhard Müllner, Robin Klengel, Michael Stumpf

That also gives it political clout. The way the short film can breach conventions gives it a much greater power to make a statement or scrutinise things. Like, for example, How to Disappear by Robin Klengel, Leonhard Müllner and Michael Stumpf, a film that, by questioning the rules of a computer game, develops a complete treatise on social relationships and constraints. Do you have an eye on the selected films having a political context, or is it completely open?

During the selection process, we are completely open. A film must simply be good, it must be up to the standard of the competition at the Berlinale and be able to walk the red carpet with its head held high. It is difficult to precisely define it but for us – the selection committee and myself – the number one priority is to look for this quality. The works we screen often have a political edge but, as I said, topics and content aren’t decisive for the selection. For this reason, I also don’t read any synopses – except maybe afterwards, if I couldn’t follow a film. It is only when the selection is on the table that you notice: “Ah, we have quite a lot about death this year – as always – but also a lot about consolation.” Then the topics and overall themes begin to show.

Perhaps one difference from previous years is the increased number of fiction films. But that emerged from the submissions and was not planned beforehand.

Atkūrimas (Dummy) by Laurynas Bareisa is such a classically told short fiction film that never lets up the tension.

You couldn’t cut a single image. Every frame is precise and magnificently composed, without foregrounding the technical craft. Atkūrimas (Dummy) reveals in 13 minutes how abuse of power and moral cowardice go hand in hand. It puts in a nutshell something we observe every day or even experience ourselves.

Making a short film requires a smaller team and lower budget than a feature-length film. This means a short film can be much more flexible. And it doesn’t have to conform to the viewing conventions that are so incredibly difficult to break. It can always choose the form it needs. Laurence Bonvin, for example, finds an outstanding, abstract form in Aletsch Negative to talk about glacial melting – and she doesn’t need to add any facts or figures because the film’s abstract colours and sounds convey the melting glacier with a great immediacy. How to Disappear, on the other hand, offers a conversation about war and, above all, peace. We talk far too little about how to create peace and sustain it. What does it mean to desert and how do you actually go about it? What are the consequences? The film negotiates these questions theoretically via the medium of a computer game in which digital soldiers attempt to desert. A game is training for reality. Soldiers, for example, use video games to rehearse military action. As a counterpart we have Veitstanz/Feixtanz which we have conjured from the archive. For this film from 1988, when the Berlin Wall was still in place, director Gabriele Stötzer asked her friends in Erfurt to dance themselves into ecstasy in a location of their choosing. It had to take place outdoors, because Super 8 needs a lot of light. At the same time, in East Germany you could only get permission to make a film if you belonged to a film club – which Stötzer did not. So they simply saw how far they could go and carried out their dances in open fields, in the middle of the city or in a courtyard. Later, Stötzer and four women she knew from various artists’ collectives occupied the first Stasi (East German secret police) regional office in Germany. That was in Erfurt, six weeks before the occupation of Normannenstraße (Stasi headquarters) in Berlin. In an interview, she revealed that, looking back, the collective guerrilla filmmaking was like a training for the later occupation of the Stasi building. Art as training for reality.

Genius Loci by Adrien Mérigeau

The film Genius Loci by Adrien Mérigeau creates an entirely different kind of reality. It is a frenzy of a film that completely pulls you in and sweeps you along.

Yes, an animated film with beautiful drawings that don’t just want to shine for their own sake. They give us access to the perceptions of a teenager. What is going on in her head? Genius Loci clearly illustrates how art can be a medium to transport the audience into the perceptions of this girl. The animation can visualise what no other medium could.

Or make it come alive for us.

Exactly. And it requires just 16 minutes. The counterpart to Genius Loci is the observational documentary Huntsville Station by Jamie Meltzer and Chris Filippone. The film shows the brief moments experienced by a few people at a bus stop. They have just been released from long-term imprisonment and are waiting for the bus to take them home. The film captures emotions and moments via very simple means, details you’d probably look for in vain in a fiction screenplay. Its sketchiness allows us to get close to the protagonists without us getting to know them.

One overarching theme of this year’s programme is freedom, but in an ambiguous interpretation. Is your leadership of Shorts also characterised by an ambiguity: on the one hand, you have more freedom in the selection; on the other, new duties and challenges?

The title to the foreword in the Berlinale Shorts brochure is “The freedom to seize your freedom”. I’m interested in the question of how you can deprive yourself of freedom, for example, by self-censorship or pre-emptive obedience. And what happens when you indulge yourself by taking the liberty of doing things in the way you see fit. To be able to choose between these two types of freedom is also a form of freedom, though sadly not one granted to everybody. Answers can be found partly in the films themselves, partly in the way they have been made. But also in the selection and compilation of the films, which was my task.

Huntsville Station by Jamie Meltzer, Chris Filippon

However, freedom also means taking responsibility. I do indeed have the task of freely creating the programme; but, at the same time, I also have the responsibility to constantly scrutinise my decisions and our selection process. The selection committee is obviously very important in this process. There are nine of us: Wilhelm Faber is an old hand of the Berlinale, as is Egbert Hörmann, who also views fiction films for Panorama. Sarah Schlüssel was programme coordinator at Berlinale Shorts for many years and knows the section like the back of her hand. Judith Funke from Cologne and Maria Morata from Spain are both curators and film academics. Simone Späni is a Swiss film producer who is well versed in the African film scene. Saskia Walker, Alejo Franzetti from Argentina and myself are filmmakers; Alejo’s focus is on fiction film whereas Saskia moves between fiction and documentary and I work primarily in installation and, in terms of educational background, am at home both in animation and documentary. Thus, we have a combination of very different points of view which can often lead to long yet fruitful discussions, sometimes spanning several meetings. Our new Artistic Director, Carlo Chatrian, was also an important partner to me. I presented him with all the shortlisted films for viewing and we then discussed them together. It was a very nice and interesting process to get to know each other by exchanging our thoughts about the films. Sometimes we had very different responses but his principle was always: “Invite the films that you find important.”

Are there going to be Q&As for the films?

Yes. As in previous years, we’re having a short Q&A directly after each film. An innovation this year is the “Shorts Take Their Time” event in Zoopalast 3. The programmes are rescreened there and we’re taking the time to have a more in-depth discussion after every film, with the public having the opportunity to join the conversation. For this reason, the event is being held in a small cinema where people can feel relaxed, sit back in the comfy chairs and immerse themselves in the world of each film in a stress-free way. Another innovation is that, on Berlinale Publikumstag, we’re screening “Shorts Docs”, that is, all our documentary works in one block. And the animation films can then be seen in one block, too. In the evening, we’re screening the winning films from the 2020 Berlinale Shorts and, at 4.00 pm, the section-spanning “Queer Mix” of short films with LGBTQI* content. This means that on Publikumstag you have the chance to see the films sorted by topics and genres.

You said that no attention has been paid to topics or content?

Not in the selection process. But we do in the dramaturgical combination of the films in the five competition programmes. To find a dramaturgy for 24 films that must fit into blocks a maximum of 90 minutes each is an art in itself. The goal is to make sure the works complement and enter into a dialogue with each other.

How did you select the three main still images?

I obviously love each and every film. And if friends ask me which programme they should see, I can only say: all of them! To have to reduce things to three film stills is no easy task. We have tried to find three images that best reflect the broad range and passion for experimentation in Berlinale Shorts.

2008 by Blake Williams

A passion for experimentation as in 2008 by Blake Williams, for example, which you have to watch in 3D?

Yes, you need 3D glasses for this film. 2008 has a strangely long-lasting effect. It unfolds its magic, but it needs some time to do so. I think it’s wonderful that an abstract, experimental film requires an entire cinema to put on these horrible glasses. And then the audience doesn’t see a spaceship flying around but, instead, an abstract structure that develops its own dynamic. This is initially unsettling. Blake Williams uses the huge gestures of the giant illusion-machine that is cinema to make a small experimental film from structures that have, in turn, been filmed off an old cathode ray television. That is enchanting and, at the same time, quite rebellious.

And perhaps also quite subversive. Something also demonstrated in the films that focus on death, but in a very warm way. In Playback. Ensayo de una despedida (Playback) by Agustina Comedi, a person is given the right to a dignified send-off after their death. That is something incredibly beautiful in the face of a tragic situation. Also, not submitting to external circumstances, as is shown by Charlotte Mars, for example, in Girl and Body. There is a rebellion here. These films shake you up.

It’s great to hear you say that. This rebelliousness, these small spanners in the works, are a topic that can really be found across the entire programme, even though this wasn’t one of the selection criteria. In Filipiñana by Rafael Manuel, one of the workers is constantly lying down in the hidden corners of a golf course, trying to disappear. Gumnaam Din (Missing Days) by Ekta Mittal from India is also about disappearing. The film is very poetic, very calm. You have to go along with it in order to see the story emerge and let it carry you away. It is about people who have gone abroad to look for work. Their trails have been lost; perhaps they don’t even want to be found. The director has a very idiosyncratic film language. It is hard to tell if the film is fiction or documentary – somewhere between the two. And actually, it doesn’t matter because it is about capturing this feeling of disappearance – from both sides: from those who are searching and those who have gone. In So We Live by Rand Abou Fakher, the family doesn’t know whether their son and brother is still alive or has already been killed in the war that is raging outside, beyond the darkened windows. The camera moves relentlessly around its own axis, without any cuts. It is as though the dead young man is standing in this empty centre.

Nancy Denis in Girl and Body by Charlotte Mars

Inflorescence by Nicolaas Schmidt is also very rebellious in its own way...

It’s possible that this film will come back to haunt me. But in a delightful way, because it touches me in a way I cannot put into words. It is extremely comforting, even if the mood is threatening. The film leaves open what the rose with the small German flag in the background actually means. But for me personally, Inflorescence captures my current attitude towards life, a feeling that: “We must now stick together and see to it that the rule of law and democracy are not crushed by this threatening storm front.”

The picture is very memorable – simply because you are forced to look at it for a very very long time and to listen to the song that is being played in an endless loop.

That is the power of cinema: as a member of the audience, I empathise with a rose that is being buffeted by the wind. The fact that film can manipulate our emotions in this way – so that we suffer with a plant – is wonderful. Every single time.

At a party someone recently told me that art has the task “to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed”. I’ve not yet discovered the origins of this quote. But it neatly sums up the Berlinale Shorts programme. And that’s not a bad statement to end on.

T by Keisha Rae Witherspoon

Another motif to be found throughout the programme is disappearance and consolation. These moments of getting a helping hand. T by Keisha Rae Witherspoon begins like a YouTube video and lands on a planet I’ve never been to. The film has its own language, its own universe, its own seriousness, impertinence and bolshiness. I’m fascinated by how in T, in the same way as in Playback. Ensayo de una despedida (Playback), the performative becomes a consolation: how grief is transformed into a theatrical performance, and how this performance creates a community in which you are no longer alone with your grief.

Marianne Métivier’s Celle qui porte la pluie (She Who Wears the Rain) also does something that cinema does particularly well: tell a story through pictures. The film simply asserts that the grief of this young woman, who is the protagonist of the film, is lying in her living room in the form of a giant pig. We accept this because it is consistent and pinpoints the feeling of a young woman in a very difficult phase of her life. Or the scene with the woman in the hut: we don’t know who she is but she appears at just the right moment to say the right thing. I don’t need to know anything else about her. To take the liberty not to explain everything rationally is what makes this film so distinctive and so wonderful.

At a party someone recently told me that art has the task “to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed”. I’ve not yet discovered the origins of this quote. But it neatly sums up the Berlinale Shorts programme. And that’s not a bad statement to end on.