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Filmfest Hamburg’s 30th a Damp Squid
by Marinell Haegelin

Filmfest Hamburg (FF HH) is Germany’s third largest film festival after Berlin and Munich, and culls films to screen from multitude sources, including the Cannes Film Festival. Back in the 1950s through the 1980s variations of the film festival sputtered on/off until in 1992 when the festival as we know it truly took hold. Exuding smalltown coziness it doesn’t tout being international, which is fair enough as much of its information is only in German.

For its jubilee celebrations FF HH greeted a bevy of filmmakers—477 from 31 countries, and hosted Ukraine’s Molodist Kyiv International Film Festival’s organizers and filmmakers at the Alabama Kino. FF HH’s program showed 116 feature films from 58 countries in nine “something for everyone” sections at five central cinemas with film directors/writers, actors, producers present.

Plus, since 2003 when Albert Wiederspiel was appointed the MICHEL Kinder und Jugend Filmfest (children/youth film festival) simultaneously runs. Three days of Industry Days workshops took place, plus the third Explorer’s Conference re contemporary filmmaking challenges. Five films were shown in “Filmfest ums Eck” (film festival on the corner) in seven neighborhood cinemas. Having 41,500 festivalgoers over ten days prompted Festival Director Albert Wiederspiel to say, … “We thank our audience from the bottom of our hearts for this enthusiasm and are happy about these good numbers in a situation that is still extremely tense overall.”

So, with all this going for it, why was the film festival’s 30th Anniversary such a damp squid for some? Other than the weather early on.

Where was its White Tent? That provided a melting point for industry / press professionals attending, for impromptu encounters with people, spotting the festival directors, and a certain sense of comradery. The disappearance of that and Abaton cinema pushed filmmakers / accreditees et al. into a void. After 20 years as director, you’d think Wiederspiel could’ve found people willing to reach deeper in their pocket to save the White Tent. The “pop-up” café, available in CinemaxX Tuesday to Thursday, supposedly from 11-18:00 saw little action from journalists I talked to. As one wrote, “They were preparing food, which looked quite good, but they told us it would be only ready in 15 minutes and unfortunately, we had to go to a screening. By the time our film was finished the cafe was closed!”

The out-of-the-way event bar, under overhead train tracks around the corner from CinemaxX and on a busy thoroughfare, was considered an apt replacement… young, accredited members liked FF HH’s Filmfest Bar. Herr Wiederspiel and second in command Kathrin Kohlstedde were said to be MIA (missing in action), albeit later I heard they were hanging out in front of the Bar most nights. Most disconcerting for press and industry members was being abandoned in the wasteland between the multiplex and Metropolis cinema, dodging across the terrifying stampede of cars on Gorch-Fock-Wall. For many, Dammtor train station’s quick meals / takeaways provided lunch.

The hodgepodge list of industry screenings wins the worst-ever award. Films were not in order of starting times with one film in the morning scheduled at ten, and then afternoon screenings were packed showing no rhyme or reason. Two shorter films might be offered instead of staggering longer / shorter ones; often films were scheduled so there wasn’t enough time to get from Metropolis to CinemaxX, and some films were obviously for young audiences. We had to book / print public screening tickets ourselves; initially there were technical glitches.

The Edinburgh Festival, operating since 1947, declared bankruptcy this year. Not immune to post-COVID-19 challenges the festival team dealt with CinemaxX being understaffed and unable to run more screenings simultaneously to “not having the money.” Yet only one Hamburg film festival (in June) offered virtual and in-person accredited program screenings.

Thinking outside the box could work wonders; one US film festival offered a post-festival list of films to screen virtually to paying ticket holders. Obviously, Filmfest Hamburg plays an important role in the community and needs to think outside that box.