Annina Wettstein is a member of the selection committee at DOK Leipzig and Program Advisor for the International Film Festival Rotterdam. She studied social anthropology, French literature and business economics at the University of Zurich. She spent several years as Head of Program at the Solothurn Film Festival, where she was also in charge of curating historical programs. Previously, she worked for Fantoche – International Animation Film Festival and as a lecturer at the University of Zurich, among other things. Annina lives in Berlin and Zurich. She is a member of the non-fiction commission of the Zurich Film Foundation.
Tara Karajica caught up with Annina Wettstein at this year’s Winterthur International Short Film Festival, where she was in the International Jury.
You studied social anthropology, French literature and business economics. How did you end up in film?
Annina Wettstein: For me, it was not so unexpected to have ended up in film. I have always been passionate about cinema in my private life, growing up in a very cinephile family – the first film I remember seeing as a child was L’enfant sauvage by François Truffaut. As a lecturer at the University of Zurich, I supervised film projects which where an integral component of project courses. As I wanted to work in the “real world,” I decided to leave the University and cancelled my PhD. I started with an internship at the Basel-based distribution company Cineworx, and pretty soon, I got a job offer and continued working there. That was kind of my start in the film industry. It was an eye-opening experience because it was my private passion out of which I was able to earn a living. I’m still very grateful for that key moment.
How did you start working for the Solothurn Film Festival and then subsequently for DOK Leipzig and International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR)?
A.W.: A lot of it has to do with the international network, which I have always had. Before my job in Solothurn, I worked for the Fantoche International Animation Film Festival. There, it was kind of an internship as well and I was the assistant to the director. I was in charge of film programs and I could just jump in right away. At the Solothurn Film Festival, I started as the Project Manager of a short film tour and Head of the Guest Department. In fact, I always had the wish to shift to the program department. It’s just an opportunity that I was given and I ended up being Head of Program and member of the selection committee. This is how my career as a festival programmer started. During the years, I built a strong network. The job in Solothurn was very fulfilling and I had a lot of responsibility, yet I was ready for the next step in an international context. Only after moving to Berlin was I appointed member of the selection committee for DOK Leipzig and Program Advisor for IFFR.
Can you talk about your current roles as programmer and consultant at different film festivals? How different are they from one another and what do you do at each film festival?
A.W.: They are pretty different, in fact. At DOK Leipzig, we are a rather a big selection committee of seven people. There are no sections or territories we split. We share the films we see as first previewers – which are randomly assigned – short and feature length documentaries and animated films. Of course, I’m always scouting, bringing my background and my network along. DOK Leipzig is about curating the whole program within the selection committee. The decisions are made all at once, in two different selection slots. In contrast to this, at IFFR, I work as Program Advisor and scout for the German-speaking regions, meaning Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The scouting and research work brings me closer to the directors, producers, distributors and sales agents. I’m closer as well to the decision process, which is more flexible due to the division in the territories. It’s not a selection board yet the final decision round is held within the group of programmers, obviously. Another difference between the festivals is the focus: DOK Leipzig is a festival for documentary and animated films and we have a whole variety of films coming from all over the world with all the narratives you can imagine, including hybrid forms. For IFFR, I’m looking for first, second or third films (Bright Future section) and the core identity of IFFR is the focus on new cinematic narratives and boundary-pushing visions.
What is the selection process like at these film festivals? What do you look for when selecting a film?
A.W.: For the two festivals, it’s different. Cinema is so fantastic as you can merge the topic and the cinematography. For me, it’s crucial to feel that there is someone who has the urge to tell a topic and he/she wants to create a cinematic universe out of it; someone who is looking for a visual language and is interested in exploring a creative artistic process, which, for me, is crucial. In terms of quality, you always have a subjective view and a background you bring along. I’m, of course, intrigued to discover new forms of narration, unusual topics and the use of hybrid strategies. At DOK Leipzig, the aspect of curating a program with its different sections is an important part of the work of the selection committee. In my position at IFFR, it’s a lot about discoveries and the questions: “What is new cinema? What are the new forms?” It’s evident that there is not a clear answer to this and you have to discuss it in an ongoing discussion. The claim for a strong cinematic approach is essential.
Do you operate by quotas in your selection? Are you mindful of the presence of female filmmakers when you are selecting?
A.W.: I am. Leipzig made a strong move – even before 50/50 by 2020 – by announcing a quota for the German Competition first. A quota is ambiguous and you can be for it or against it. For years, everyone has been repeating that something needs to be done to support female filmmakers – but nothing changed. So it was really important to send out a strong message. We, programmers, really care about the gender balance, but you always have to keep an eye on it. At DOK Leipzig, we have had 45% of entries by female filmmakers, so it is really good. For me, it’s just normal to be aware of it and to push women forward when I am convinced by their work. It’s the same with diversity, you have to be self-aware of your European gaze and at the same time, stay open to other narratives, other esthetics, other approaches from all the parts of the world.
When you select films, can you/do you exclude your personal taste? If so, to what extent?
A.W.: I think it’s not possible to completely exclude the personal taste. It would be a lie if I said I can put aside my subjectivity. But, of course, when I am in a selection committee, it’s not about bringing in the films I’ve discovered and that I love – it’s always about curating too, being aware of the audience and the profile of the festival. For sure, you have your taste and you burn more for certain films because you are just overwhelmed by them.
What is a good film according to you?
A.W.: A film that works with a strong and radical artistic cinematic language. A film that succeeds in telling a unique story in a congenial visual and acoustic language and with an immersive effect, which, actually, is a basic characteristic of cinema, even without 3D or VR.
What is a good curator and programmer, according to you?
A.W.: You have to be very open-minded. You have to travel, talk to people, cross borders, go to exhibitions and be aware of tendencies and signatures of other festivals. But, at the same time, you always have to think about the audience. In the end, it’s about how you can make a film visible and let the audience discover films they are maybe not used to seeing in regular theaters.
How often and how much do you fight for a film?
A.W.: I think it’s just natural to fight for a film you love. When I’m really convinced that the film should be in the program and that it’s an important complement. When you have a competition with only ten titles, sometimes I have the crystal clear opinion that a certain title must be there, so I’m really fighting for it. Yet, I could not say it’s for every film because it’s complex and a development in the discussions, as well.
There has been a lot of talk about women in film in the past two years. What is your opinion on the situation? Where do you position yourself in this discussion? And how is the situation in Switzerland?
A.W.: I was very lucky that I never felt a disadvantage because I am a woman. At the Solothurn Film Festival, I worked with the first female director in its history, Seraina Rohrer, and it truly was an inspiring collaboration. She was a demanding mentor and always supported me. In Switzerland, we have a strong network of female filmmakers, the SWAN (Swiss Women’s Audiovisual Network). The Locarno Film Festival has a female artistic director, the Solothurn Film Festival, Visions du Réel, the Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival as well… I think it’s pretty good, but we had the second big female strike this June in Switzerland. The first one was in the 1970s before we could vote, so we can’t really say: “It’s all set.” Not at all. Sometimes, I am a bit confused because I have the feeling that the current discourses are even more dividing. It’s connected to social media; it’s connected to the state of our agitated society. Now, we are all in this bubble. Maybe there is no other way but to separate in order for the gender balance to be achieved and that we don’t have to talk about it anymore. But we are not there yet. It’s important to fight because otherwise it’s not possible to reach equality.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
A.W.: This is really hard to talk about favorites. I always discover a lot of female filmmakers at festivals, like the work of Josephine Decker which I really like. I like the films of Céline Sciamma and Angela Schanelec. It’s a very different style of cinema, but I really like her way of telling a story. As for the documentary filmmakers, this year I loved the films of the two Armenian directors Tamara Stepanyan and Silva Khnkanosian or the Syrian filmmaker Zeina Alquahwaji.
How do you see the short form today?
A.W.: I think it’s still the place where you can try things out. For example, here, in the International Competition, we had amazing visions of what filmmaking can be. Interestingly, the tendency is to turn to longer short film forms of, for instance, thirty minutes. Sometimes, there’s no need for a film to be a feature length film. It’s always connected to the upcoming filmmakers and that’s a bit sad because there are renowned filmmakers in Switzerland who only work with the short form. Many of them work in the experimental art scene. I think it’s a place where you can find new visions because most titles are directed by young filmmakers, so it’s interesting. There are so many great short film festivals with industry sidebars too. For short films, it’s so important to have festivals because it’s always about the visibility.
How do you see the Swiss film industry today?
A.W.: There has always been this history of strong documentary filmmaking, maybe more in the German-speaking part of the country while the French-speaking part has always been more into the narrative kind of filmmaking. The funding situation is very good compared to other countries, and we have a lot of initiatives. There are more and more female producers too, but as always, there could be more…
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Winterthur International Film Festival.
Photo credit: Susann Jehnichen.