Can you talk about your work as programmer for “The Days in Venice” (Giornate degli Autori)? How did you start?
Renata Santoro: I started working for “The Days in Venice” in 2006 when the artistic director changed and the new one needed a person for the communications department of “The Days in Venice”. So I dealt with sponsors, organizing events, and taking care of everything related to communications. And that was very interesting because I really had the opportunity to learn how the behind-the-scenes part of a festival works, in terms of how a festival exists because you find money, sponsors and people supporting it. This was very important because when you go scouting and trying to find the right film for your selection, you also know in which kind of context the film will be screened and what kind of environment you have around. I think that’s something that everybody should be aware of because when you are a pure film critic you see the film in a certain way; you see a film only from an artistic point of view only because of your taste… You have to be aware that the festival lives because of the contribution of many people and because you are looking for an audience and press coverage. So I think that this part of my job was very useful for the second part of my life in “Days in Venice.”
This happened when, at a certain point, we really grew a lot and we started to receive more and more submissions, we were more known in the world of the film industry and producers and sales agents started to be very interested in our section in Venice. The film office was very tiny at the time – we only had one programmer and the director and the vice-director watching the films. For example, at big markets like in Cannes, they needed to cover a lot of screenings, and they couldn’t, so they asked me because I was in Cannes with my communications job. And so I did and I was lucky enough to attend a couple of screenings that were very interesting and one of these films was selected for our sidebar. When they decided to build up a bigger group – now we are four – of people for the film office, they asked me to join them and leave my job in the communications department and become a programmer. I feel I am very, very, very lucky because this is the best job in the world and not only because I see many films! I can assure you that watching around three hundred titles in one and a half months can be very tiring and not all the films are interesting or good. I always try to watch at least half an hour of each film even when I am very, very tired because I know all the hard work that goes into making a film.
When I know the film is not good enough, or doesn’t fit our selection even if it is a good film, I still try to watch as much as possible because the other part that I like very much about my job is meeting people, producers, sales agents, filmmakers… You get a lot of energy from them, a lot of creative input, a lot of interesting ideas, but that means that you know how much they put of themselves and their lives into their projects and that’s why you need to treat their work with respect and watch the film. That’s also why, at the end of the process, we have to say no to all the films we have watched, except for the twelve that we have selected. For the ones that I took care of, for which I had contacts with producers and filmmakers, I never send a simple rejection letter, I always send a personal letter explaining why we didn’t choose the film, what the problems were and if the film would fit another festival better and I suggest them where to apply. I try to be as personal as possible because I know how important it is for them to get a personal feedback and not a standard rejection letter saying “Sorry, we didn’t select your film.” It takes me ten working days and nights to write letters of rejection. But on the other hand, these bring me a lot because after my rejection letter, I had many letters back thanking me for the rejection and the explanation and I kept in contact with all these people. Whenever they have new projects – even scripts – they send them to me to get an opinion, so I keep in touch with many of them and this is so enriching and interesting to me not only as a programmer, but also as a human being.
What can you say about your film background?
R.S.: I have a very classic education in Film, but I have always been very passionate about Film. I belong to a generation that had a lot of cine forums when we were young, from Eisenstein to Antonioni – the most difficult things, we were there and we watched and discussed every film. I also grew up with a mother that took me to the movies every afternoon after school, to watch whatever film in a small, dirty cinema. They also smoked in the cinemas at the time when I was 6 or 7 or 8. I was totally in love with Westerns – I still like them very much. My youth was very much full of Hollywood films and classic Italian ones, then when I was in high school, I moved on to discovering these big auteurs, these masters of film. And little by little, out of curiosity you go and try to discover new things…
What is a good film according to you?
R.S.: For me, a film is something that in, a way, shows something that is familiar to you, that you can recognize easily. But on the other hand, it has to bring something new and give you something to think about. Of course, you can enjoy films simply because you cry or you laugh, but if you add to this something that is interesting because you say: “Oh, I never thought about that or from this perspective” or “this is totally new” or even better, “I don’t understand completely what he is saying and I would really like to understand” you are there and you are trying to understand… And for me, that is the best combination.
How would you say that your personal background combined with the fact that you are a woman contributes and shapes a bit your selection, the films that you think are the best fit for every edition?
R.S.: I don’t know. I have to confess that I have never asked myself this. I have never thought about this and I will think it over more after this interview. It’s interesting what you are asking. Very simply, I can say that after becoming a mother, for example, my way of watching films totally changed for many reasons. If a film talks about maternity or children in general or taking care of somebody weaker, I feel more moved than before, for sure. I feel that I am much more involved. I had my feelings before, I wasn’t a stone, but it became more and more evident for me that I react much more to these issues than I did before. I think it might be because the experiences of a woman are often different in life. Life shapes you in a way and therefore your reactions to films change because you have experienced things during your life. It’s also more a matter of content probably. On the other hand, from the aesthetic point of view, this is more related to your education, your cultural background and this doesn’t depend on the fact that you are a woman or a man. So for example, for certain things I think I am more critical than my male colleagues when a topic regarding women is treated in a way that for me is too easy and sometimes when my colleagues say: “Oh this is interesting! This promotes the right of women in this way” I feel angry because I think we, as women, are subtler when we watch films because we probably know this subject a little bit better, we are more used to dealing with this kind of topics, so we are even more critical even if it’s a film made by a woman. Even more perhaps.
I think they are growing and we are going towards gender equality, for sure.
How would you characterize the presence of women in the industry part of the film business? And where do you position yourself in it?
R.S.: I think that the situation has changed a lot in the last fifteen years. And now when I go to Cannes for example, when I have meetings, I mostly meet women as heads of sales agencies, as producers or filmmakers… But there are more and more young producers and sales agents. Also in the film institutes, most of the heads, especially for festivals or promotion, are women. I must say, in my case, it makes a big difference. It’s maybe simple to say this, but for example, when I travel for my job and I want to go together with my family and my daughter who is five years old, asking a woman this is easier and they are so much more accommodating. Maybe men would react the same way, but asking is easier because they understand because we are women dealing with the same problems. It changes my professional life a lot dealing with women at key positions because asking for such small things and trying to make them understand why I have certain limitations in my movements is much easier than before when I had to talk only with men no matter how open and nice they were. There are more and more programmers but still too few festival directors, with certain exceptions – very interesting ones, must I add… There is Teresa Cavina – I am speaking of Italy, for example – who was one of the co-directors of the Rome Film Festival for a while and then she was appointed director at a few other festivals in Asia and the Middle East. She is an incredible professional. She is fantastic and very passionate! I could say the same for Giulia d’Agnolo. She is now in the Selection Committee and one of the main programmers of the Venice Film Festival and she used to be the director of the Torino Film Festival. She is amazing, very determined and full of energy! There are a few of them… Still too few, but all of them very inspiring women.
Now broadening a bit the scope, what do you think of the situation of women in today’s film industry?
R.S.: I think they are growing and we are going towards gender equality, for sure. Of course, society is changing, laws are changing, we are changing, the world is changing, so it’s going better and better. I remember when I was thinking about the situation twenty years ago and how many female filmmakers there were and I was like: “Oh my God! There are so few!” and I often didn’t like the films made by women. I remember admiring the work of Kathryn Bigelow for example. She was bold. I also remember thinking about female directors and writers trying to always overdo it. I know it was a natural reaction probably, but there was a lack of irony and subtlety and they were always a bit overdoing it. Now, we have amazing female directors. I love many of them. I could name many of them from Jessica Hausner to Andrea Arnold… There are many, really. It’s changing and you can watch a film and not think about the fact that it’s a man or a woman and that’s very important. In Italy, we have a very long tradition of fantastic women in editing for example. They are still very important. I remember reflecting on the fact that the best documentary filmmakers were women in the last few years. This is still something that I am thinking about because I still think that female documentary filmmakers are exceptional and the way women look at reality shows talent and capacity to register the right things. Now, we have the opposite. The women have become maybe more cynical in a way, but in another, more realistic and abler to capture reality.
If you could say one thing that would improve the situation of women in the film industry, what would it be? And how would you fit your work as a film programmer for “The Days in Venice” in it?
R.S.: That’s difficult. I think that we are on the right path. We should try and represent our problem more and more in any possible way. I am thinking especially of other countries. For example, if we could share more ideas and have film schools in countries where women have less possibilities and programs where they are included more. That would be very good because giving voice to these women is very important. I am thinking more in this direction rather than about our situation because I think we are privileged and we will be more and more able to be visible in the industry. As for myself, I hope to continue to do my job as I am doing it, and discover new talents and new realities.
This interview was conducted at the 2018 Vilnius Film Festival – Kino Pavasaris.