For ten years, Birgitte Weinberger has been the festival director and head of programming at the Odense Film Festival (OFF), Denmark’s Oscar-qualifying short film festival that is also the oldest festival in the country, screening short films from all over the world since 1975.
Kirsten Ruber has been the festival director and head of program at Go Short – International Short Film Festival Nijmegen since its foundation in 2008. Go Short is the only platform in the Netherlands exclusively for shorts and presents, promotes and distributes them 365 days a year. It is also the Netherlands’ Oscar, BAFTA and European Film Award qualifying short film festival.
Tara Karajica caught up with them at this year’s Winterthur International Short Film Festival.
How did your professional lives intertwine for the first time with the Odense Film Festival and Go Short respectively?
Birgitte Weinberger: I was actually a volunteer at the festival while I was studying at University. The then director went on maternity leave and I took over – they knew me as a volunteer and they rang me up and said: “Could you please work here for a year while she is on maternity leave?” And she decided she didn’t want to come back and they hired me. That was ten years ago.
Kirsten Ruber: I started in 2008 and founded the festival together with two other women who I knew from previous jobs at other film festivals. We had one thing in common and that was that we not only loved film festivals but we also lived in Nijmegen, so we were used to traveling all the time. The politicians were good then because they invested a lot in the big theater in our city and they were like: “There should be a film festival.” So we presented an idea for a short film festival because we thought we needed to have something that didn’t exist in the Netherlands yet and we found out that there wasn’t a broad platform for short films. All the festivals in the Netherlands were screening shorts but more like a side program or just focusing on one genre or one type of short film. We received a little bit of money to work on a bigger plan. We spent one and half years doing that and, in 2009, we presented the first edition of the Go Short Film Festival.
Stimulating the short film industry matters to both festivals. Can you elaborate on that?
K.R.: We imagined the festival as a really big audience festival on the one hand, but also with a structure able to create and sustain a huge industry program from the beginning because we wanted to attract as many industry professionals as possible. So during the first years, we invited people really actively and we promoted the festival, we travelled a lot ourselves inviting people back. Then, throughout the years, the programming grew as did the amount of people attending the festival. I think that was really a catalyst for Go Short because we are not only a festival, but we are also quite active in distribution during the year and we present ourselves as the middle-man between the Dutch filmmakers and the international industry, but also between the international filmmakers and the Dutch audience. We do that with the festival, of course, but also with a lot of other different projects.
B.W.: Well, the Odense Film Festival started in 1975 and it’s based in Odense where Hans Christian Andersen was born. Almost everything in Odense is about him and, in the beginning, it was a fairytale film festival. It was mainly animation from Eastern Europe, puppetries, and Hans Christian Andersen fairytale films. Then, in the 1980s, it became more like we know it now – short films and feature-length documentaries. It was kind of a big festival for the film branch in Denmark, but not an audience event at all because they didn’t have a local director. They hired somebody from Copenhagen and he came in, had a party with all his Copenhagen friends and then disappeared. As I told you, I was a volunteer and I saw this circus passing through town and I just loved the vibe and the films and I thought: “Where are the people? This is amazing! We need to have some roots here in Odense and we need to spread the word to have an audience.” So I cut out the feature-length documentary section and made it a short film festival that we organize locally with a hundred-fifty volunteers. This is a local event for both the Danish film branch and the international one. Like, I think, almost every other festival, we have two or three segments that we actually care about. So, yes, it’s talent development but it’s also about giving the audience an opportunity to look out into the world, to a place where they can meet their neighbors, meet people they would never meet elsewhere.
Talking about talent, you, Kirsten, say that you care about the makers. Can you talk about that?
K.R.: You know, I also care a lot about the audience, but it’s a complex way of presenting a festival because it’s easier, I think, to only focus on the audience or to only focus on the industry. We have a lot of discussions on different subjects with the team about the kind of programming we do, the kind of setting we do do, the kind of location and where we want people to move. I think all these kinds of things are really, really important for both the audience and the industry. The way I see it is that short films have the opportunity to bring both groups together more than any other film form because short filmmakers are so close to the audience and the audience is really close to them. They all think the same way, have the same stories, but one is putting them in film and the other one is just living it. It’s not Hollywood stories, it’s big stories of the people or small stories that everybody lives. Caring about filmmakers is especially important because I think it’s crucial to keep this part of the ecosystem present in a country as that’s what’s essential for the local and national film climate.
We visited festivals abroad ten or twelve years ago and we couldn’t see that many emerging filmmakers from the Netherlands and we thought: “How can this be?” We have so many art schools that teach film; we have a really good film academy, so why isn’t this working? By stimulating the climate and presenting short films as something that you don’t only make at the academy or for yourself as a practice, but as something that you can actually work with in the sense that if you can make a good film, you can actually go anywhere with your good film. So this is what we did. We helped the filmmakers with good films present them to an audience and let them care about it, let everybody know that short films are important.
I think that the most import thing for us festivals is supporting film talent to find their own voice. Create the best platform, bring out the best audience and organize discussions and workshops just as an inspiring meeting point. I would advise young film makers to visit their local international film festival and see as many shorts as possible. See how they relate to these films. And some advice for the best match for their film: do some research for example, check out the competitions of previous editions of festivals and see if your film fits the programming style. Talk to programmers and industry – short film festivals are the best in creating a relax environment for easy networking.
What about the Odense Film Festival, Birgitte?
B.W.: Well, I think it’s a bit different in Denmark because there has been – and there still is – a strong belief that we are a little country with a big film history. For example, we have won quite a lot Oscars for Best Short Film. The goal is something else, I think. Our goal isn’t to tell young filmmakers the importance of short films because they know it. What we can give the talent is a wide range of the best short films of the moment and that is so important if you want to develop your own language, if you want to know what’s going on outside of your little country. So I think that’s the small difference between Go Short and OFF because the tradition is different, or the way we think of ourselves is different.
K.R.: I have to say that in these ten years, I can really see a huge progress. At this point, I think we have so many good filmmakers that are presenting short films and are even working on their first feature films and people are really waiting to see them now.
B.W.: And that’s the funny part of having been a festival director for ten years because now we can see how far they have come because they have to become something other than short filmmakers. But when they do, it’s so nice and so much fun to watch them, follow them and tell their story. We were discussing yesterday whether short film festivals should screen feature films as well, but it’s more about their story: what they were, what they’ve become and the progress, and not so much about the results. That’s the good thing about being old in this business!
K.R.: That’s true! It’s funny… And especially this discussion about short or feature, but it’s more about sticking with one filmmaker no matter what he/she makes. It’s a filmmaker who becomes a bit part of the family.
B.W.: Yes… And they will come back and they will sit in the jury or in a panel…
K.R.: Or present themselves to new emerging filmmakers and talk about their best practices and their mistakes…
The amount of creative makers using the short form is growing and the recent integration and increase of the media in our daily lives has led to the growth of short films, which suggests it is in good shape. Would you agree? What do you think of the situation of the short form right now? How is it in the Netherlands? In Denmark? And can you compare it to the rest of the world?
B.W.: Well, speaking of tradition, when we receive all these submitted films, it’s clear that some countries put more value into short films than we do in Denmark right now. Actually, there’s just been a change because the Danish Film Institute no longer supports short films. That’s a new situation that doesn’t seem to have an effect on the amount or the quality of the short films. But the problem is that young filmmakers no longer have a way outside Denmark because before, the institute would send them to festivals and that’s not happening anymore. Suddenly, there’s a gap that we are trying to fill from now on and we are making partnership agreements so that we can push Danish short films outside of Denmark.
K.R.: There’s always need for more money to produce short films. For example, the film fund supports shorts in different programs and I’m really happy about that. You can also see now that things are changing in the way funders support films. They are letting go of regulations that are outdated and adapting more to a new generation of filmmakers who work differently. That is a good thing and necessary to keep a good breeding ground for talent. And you see that there’s a new tradition in terms of more regional funding and this hasn’t been the case for a long time. This is, I think, a really good opportunity thanks to these new technologies because it’s not only that you can look for the newest talent in film schools, but they can be found everywhere and, for me, that makes it really interesting. There’s a lot of experimentation; there are a lot of hybrid forms and different kinds of experiments with format because that’s what it is – just a format. We screen everything within the short film format and it can be in a single projection in the cinema, or it can also be a presentation or an exhibition, for instance.
What is a good film, according to you?
B.W.: A good film… Well, it depends… And this is a question I get asked a lot and it’s probably the same for you, Kirsten… It’s very difficult to answer because a lot of times my phone rings and people are like: “I really want to screen my film at your festival. What kind of film would you like me to make?” And I can only say that I want to see films that I didn’t know I wanted to see because there are so many well-produced short films that are a rehearsal for something else. And that’s all fine and good, but that’s not my favorite kind of film. I’d love to see films that dare to take chances and try to go new ways, tell stories in a different way. So a good film, well, it depends, we like all kinds of films, of genres and the production value, of course, must be high, but that being said, it can be almost anything. For myself, I like to feel it; I like it to talk to me; I want to watch films where I’m sure that I can feel the director or the film team on the other side and that they really have something in their heart that they simply must express, that they must tell me. That’s a good film for me.
K.R.: I think that it’s quite similar. I’m always looking for a film that I can see the director behind it in a way, that you can see a different style, but it has to touch me, it has to get me, it has to sometimes annoy me, or sometimes make me angry… It’s those films that stay with me for the longest time. I’m not looking for the perfect film at all. I’m looking for a film that is taking a risk and a challenge and even if little things don’t work, I don’t mind.
In the past year there has been a lot of talk about women in film. What is your opinion on this particular topic? Where do you position yourselves in this conversation, and how is it in Denmark and the Netherlands compared to the rest of the world? And, are you (film) feminists?
B.W.: The situation in Denmark is rather bad, actually. There is still a huge number of male directors. I don’t know who makes the films when I see them. It’s very important for me that I don’t know because Denmark is a very small country and after ten years, I know a lot. I like to watch the films with an open mind, so to speak. I don’t have the numbers for this year’s festival, but there are often films with male directors and female producers. We care, but we don’t select based on gender.
K.R.: I think that in the Netherlands it’s a bit better. There are a lot of female directors on the top now and they have a lot of potential. When I make the program, the first thing I look at is the quality of the film. But we do try to have a more or less equal share. It’s about the program in a way, but I have a look at gender as well. It’s just the same as I look, for example, at a balanced international program. For the gender part, it’s the same.
B.W.: We do the same in order to have diversity. But I think it’s more important to look at the stories that are being told.
B.W.: Because personally, I don’t mind who makes the film, but it’s as important to get films from all over Europe, from all over the world, as it is to get stories from both sides. And feminine films are not necessarily made by a female director. So we look, of course, at diversity in the stories, in the films, and we’ll have both genders represented in the stories that are told, but who made them comes second. The film is still the most important thing.
K.R.: We are not founded to be a political film festival, we are driven by what we think suits our artistic voice. Shorts are reflections of society most of the time. I think we have the power to present something different on the screen. It is important that we take this opportunity because we have a big, young audience and we can make an alternative to the dominant single and superficial, sometimes fake, stories nowadays.
W.B.: We are not a political festival either, but you can also give a signal just by doing it. And now, the two of us are females and most of my team is made up of women and that’s not because I hire women for a reason, it’s because they were the best at the time. We have a lot of talks, panels and jury members who are females and instead of making a quota, we just do it, because, of course, we do it; of course, we want equality and, of course, we want to screen all kinds of stories. So I think it’s important. We are very aware of what we do and when I say we don’t look at gender, we don’t. But we do…
K.R.: It’s about balancing… And I am happy to balance a little bit toward the feminist side.
Who is your favorite female short filmmaker? And your favorite short film?
K.R.: There are too many at the moment. Just to start the watch list of newbies, I would say Jaqueline Lentzou, Ena Sendijarević, Sarah Veldmeijer, Farnoosh Samadi, Gunhild Enger, Anouk de Clercq….
W.B.: I don’t have one favorite director, but I think that the Danish director Marie Grathø is very interesting and her first film is still one of my favorites. It’s called Daimi.
What does the future hold for the Odense Film Festival and Go Short?
W.B.: Well, as far as OFF is concerned, we want to make the festival more visible all year long and right now we tailor programs for schools all over Denmark. We create programs with short films and materials for the teachers so that the short films from OFF are something you already meet in school all over Denmark. We curate programs in all the cinemas too. We want to be part of the everyday life and not only one week a year in Odense, but something you think of all the time all over the country. Because we have so many fantastic short films we can curate a program for almost every occasion and short film is the perfect film format for almost every event, so that’s what we’re trying to do now. We want to give the films a longer life, make them visible for a bigger audience because that’s what they deserve.
K.R.: In the really, really short-term, we are working on this great female focus program about Jacqueline Lentzou and I am really, really happy that we have her as our main guest next year. For the last ten years, we have been trying to make Nijmegen the center for short films and we’ll be doing that for another ten years if it were up to me. We also do a lot of year-round projects and I want to professionalize our organization. We occasionally produce a film and I would love to work on that even more, but we are also developing the program. We want to be even more on top in the discussions, not create a discussion but know what the discussion needs to be about and have that discussion with the filmmakers, with the industry, with the audience.
This interview was conducted at the 2018 Winterthur International Short Film Festival.