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Jenni Zylka: Berlinale PC Moderator with Style
by Karen Pecota

During the Berlinale, my colleagues and I attended many press conferences (PC) moderated by journalist Jenni Zylka. Our immediate impression: her fashion savvy! She dressed in modern retro clothing and wore big round 1960-style hoop earrings that accented her face as well as her pretty red-colored hair. A totally cool and fun look! In addition to her savvy fashion sense, we observed that her gracious mannerism set the tone for a comfortable atmosphere. (Often, in the press conference room, the hustle of camera people and journalists can make an annoying humming commotion which is often disorderly). She gave the impression that she was in charge of the program for the scheduled 30 minutes but not the center of attention. We enjoyed her style and learned a great deal concerning the art of moderating.

Jenni took a few minutes out of her busy Berlinale schedule to talk about her role as a moderator and why she enjoys her job.

KP: How long have you been moderating?
JZ: This is my seventh year, but I paused one year: I was planning to moderate the Berlinale press conferences in 2004 while I was pregnant. I was scheduled to discuss a movie with Robert De Niro, but I got very ill and had to lay flat on my back. I could do nothing for three weeks, which, unfortunately, was exactly during the time of the Berlinale.

KP: Have you facilitated other press conferences outside the Berlinale?
JZ: No, but I have moderated other venues, e.g., interviews and television talk shows in reference to political discussions. I wouldn’t consider myself a professional moderator, I even normally don’t like being on stage, but I enjoy working during the Berlinale. This is the only film festival which I facilitate as a moderator.

K: How did you get your first job as a moderator?
J: I was asked by a friend. My friend knew that I could speak well in front of people and also knew of my passion for film. I am a film journalist by profession. When my friend approached me, it was because the festival was looking for a moderator. During this time, it wasn’t necessary to make a formal application. The head of the festival gave me a chance on my friend’s recommendation. I was hired! It has worked out very well for me.

KP: How would you compare your moderating to that of your colleagues?
JZ: I don’t really know because I never seem to have the time to sit in on their press conferences. Our schedules for the Berlinale are very full. We all have our own styles which makes us a well rounded and diverse group.

KP: What does your job require of you?
JP: This job is enjoyable but it is not easy. On one hand, I need to be totally correct with my facts and information. My English has to be good and spoken clearly. I can’t afford to make many mistakes because then I am criticized and people will say, “She isn’t qualified for her job!” I must be very polite and show hospitality to our guests as well as the audience. I have to recognize that I am not the important one but that my role is important. I am not at all the center of attention! I make sure that the questions and answers run smoothly. I must have knowledge of the film; be observant of the questions and help to direct the questions so that they are understood by the guests. This helps the guests give good answers and the journalists receive interesting information.

My moderating job requires me to be in a sense “all things to all people.” Since I am representing the Berlinale, the festival host, I am not allowed to be critical. My opinion must be kept to myself. That can be very difficult, especially if I didn’t like the film and would like to ask, “What were you thinking, making this terrible film?” Sometimes the films are just plain boring and sometimes it is a struggle to think of good questions. This can be stressful and uncomfortable. I always have to have a mental list of questions for each film just in case there is a lull in the PC. In reality, I put a lot of pressure on myself but that is the way I handle my work. It works for me!

KP: How do you prepare yourself for the PC?
JZ: I try to see the movies I will work before the opening of the Berlinale. I prefer to prepare ahead as much as possible, but sometimes there are no early preview showings. I then view the film for the first time with the accredited journalist during the festival. If this happens, I only have about three minutes to prepare before the PC begins. Ideally, I try to research what I can, on each film but often that is not enough to give a good introduction of the film for the PC. I like to comment on the formal aspect of the movie and that is not always initially visible. However, I have my list of standard questions that are helpful to make good transitions to keep the journalists on track. It is better if they can stick to asking questions about the film. I personally like to know how they found the actors or the script. Or, what kind of research did they do for the film, etc. These answers are always interesting.

KP: What signifies a good moderator?
JZ: In my opinion, in this particular setting, as a staff member of the festival who is on stage, I believe one should stay in the background. The festival PCs are for the journalists. The press conference is their forum to interact with the film guests. And the guests are present to promote their film. I allow the journalists ask their questions even if I think the questions,being asked are not good, it is not about me. While I am preparing for each press conference I make special notes of my interests, or questions or whatever. (I can use these questions if there is a lull in the press conference where no one is asking and I have to fill the time). But, I would not push my questions before the journalists. I can’t do that and I would not do that… I want to open the door for the journalists to make their presentations. I need to make the people feel at home: guests and audience. I would never tell an actor or director that he did a terrible job even if I thought it wasn’t the best. Everyone should feel comfortable to engage in the spirit of the question- and answer-time. This is important!

KP: Name two of your most memorable guests.
JZ: Daniel Day Lewis. I had him twice….Four years ago with the film The Gangs of New York, and he was very kind and friendly. Then last year he was here with Rebecca Miller (Arthur Miller’s daughter), his wife, who directed the film, The Ballad of Jack and Rose. It played in the Panorama section of the festival. The film was great and I really liked it….I had a chance to talk a while with both of them about their film. That was a nice experience. I had mentioned to Daniel Day Lewis that I had the pleasure of moderating the press conference four years ago with him and he said that he remembered – that of course was only him being very polite! I had the feeling that he was sincere in his conversations regarding the festival, the political climate in Berlin, etc. I had the feeling that he honestly wanted to know and he was being himself. I thought he was genuinely interested in things other than himself. His wife was also very kind. Her father had passed away just a couple of days before they arrived in Berlin and he was so attentive to caring for his wife during her time of mourning. It was impressive!

Dustin Hoffman was here three years ago with a movie where he played the role of a strange but wild father and he was totally crazy. He was talking to me and everyone else all the time and trying to make jokes. Very comical! He was making people laugh like a weird, crazy clown. He was sitting next to me during the PC and rarely stopped talking. It was unusually funny, but very strange too.

KP: What is a dumb question?
JZ: How do you like Berlin? This is the dumbest question I have ever heard. The question is hard to answer! Our festival guests are visiting Berlin because of their film and generally not as tourists. Most of the time these people don’t even have time to sightsee because they fly in for their film début one day, see their hotel, maybe attend a party and leave the next day. And really, who will say they hate Berlin?

KP What are some of the better questions you have heard?
JZ: It depends on the movie. Sometimes the music plays a big role in the film or maybe it is the cinematography. And usually good questions focus on the strengths of the film. My boyfriend is a film musician and if the music is exceptional I like questions that have some reference to that venue. I have always been into film music. Also, any questions relating to the storyline or where the idea for the story originates are always interesting.

KP: Over the past seven years, what festival stands out to you?
JP: Oh! Yes! It was in 1999 or 2000. This was a special year and it was very different because there was so much money devoted to the film business. It was the year when American Psycho was showing. There were many elaborate parties. You would not believe it! American Psycho promoted a party with a champagne pyramid and millions of oysters. I thought I was in heaven. It was like a paradise with so much good food to eat and lots to drink. Very expensive items too. Every big party was fashioned after that style. I think it was my first or second Berlinale. It was thrilling to think that I might experience that every February. Unfortunately, that was the last year where the money flowed so freely in extravagant style. It was very impressive to say the least. I had never seen anything like that before or since.

KP: What is one nice benefit of your position?
JZ: The accreditation as a moderator is one of the best accreditations you can receive in the festival and I am allowed to go in and out of any film freely. I don’t have to queue up for films anymore. This is really great! (Jenni smiling at Karen)You know what I mean, don’t you?
KP: I am totally envious!

KP: Is there was anything that you would like to add?
JP: I must say that I feel honored that you chose me to be interviewed. Since I try to stay quite invisible while I am moderating the press conferences, I am flattered that you noticed me and my work. I feel lucky to have this job and I try to do it well. I enjoy it! I am a movie fan and I really love it.

Jenni Zylka’s long list of credentials include film journalism, author of two novels, Beat Baby, Beat? And, 1000 Neue Dinge, die Man bei Schwerelosigkeit Tun Kann. She is currently writing a screenplay for the camera which will be a female caper story. Among other things you can hear her voice on the radio, television and of course, moderating press conferences during the Berlinale. Jenni and her partner have one son and live in Berlin.