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Another Festival’s Approach to the “Experimental” Bad Name
by Marinell Haegelin

Flummoxed by the number of films labeled Experimental at festivals the past few years, after this year’s International Kurz(Short)FilmFestival (IKFF) I interviewed co-director Sven Schwarz.* Prompting this was, leaving an IKFF special program—eleven shorts labeled Experimental were shown—I happened to see Ulrich Ortlieb who’s with Filmfest Hamburg (FFHH). Talking about films we’d seen led to film categories, i.e. the idea for this interview article. Ulrich (Press) organized an interview with Jens Geiger (Programming). When we met mid-July, I quickly discovered that with developments in filmmaking, new technologies, et al, those at the forefront are on a classifications slippery slope. And it’s not getting any easier.

Marinell Haegelin: How are films selected?
Jens Geiger and Ulrich Ortlieb: Primarily, from submissions that fit our standards (length, production year, etc.): we receive 600 – 700 feature films a year. Also, potential film selections come from other festivals, film markets, and from distributors. These four sources provide approximately 1,000 films for us to weed through.

M.H.: What ratio of films that you receive does not fit in to existing categories?
J.G. and U.O.: An educated guess is that 25% of the films we receive don’t fit clearly in to existing categories. We rewrite 90% of the filmmakers’ synopses we receive, emphasizing what made us choose a particular film. 5-10% of synopses come from distributors that are better than the ones we receive from the filmmakers. We look at the essence of the film to help us classify it.

M.H.: How do you categorize these films, i.e. what basic guideline do you use?
J.G. and U.O.:  Different labels are documentary, fiction, experimental, and last year (2013) we introduced Hybrid. At the beginning of the catalogue, we defined what Hybrid means for us: just that it’s not clear! We coined this label because we didn’t know where to put a film—we were receiving more and more “experimental.” Jens specifies, “For the program department it was a way to (hopefully) get people to think about these gray zones – to try to get people to talk about how films aren’t always clear.”

M.H.: Would it be fair to say other festivals and / or film markets are experiencing a similar dilemma / uncertainty?
J.G.: I would guess so. (We) all have the same starting point, although some festivals like the uncertainties – Marseille (France) looks for Hybrid films. FFHH has a big audience and populace; I think it’s positive not all want run-of-the-mill films – (our) audience is more educated and savvy. Maybe we’ll get to the point where there are no labels: films A, and B and C. We see each film as a piece of art. Right now, that’s not realistic… people want, and we try to give, guidance. It would be nice to reach this point.
U.O.: People understand movies differently. We don’t automatically agree with labels another festival’s given a film, which indicates we got different things from the film. There’s always growth in our work (over the years), whereby at some new stage, I think borders get more fluid, I hope…

M.H.: Film festivals are one of the few viable avenues for independent filmmakers to show their films, and for audiences to see something new, albeit perhaps non-commercial.
J.G. and U.O.:  It’s talking about very different approaches between film festivals, markets, and distributors. For industry, it’s a big problem. There’s a new level of mainstream independent filmmakers, i.e. Alexander Payne, John Waters, Jim Jarmusch. That’s what festivals are for – a sort of buyers field. For the small filmmakers that\'s more important, since festivals are still one of the few sources for raising money. The last five years they’re asking festivals for screening fees to cover their costs. Young filmmakers are shocked how little they’re offered at (film) markets. (We) understand; everybody in the industry’s trying to find new ways to raise money.

M.H.: Have you had conversations with others in the industry about creating new genre / category titles?
J.G. and U.O.:  It’d be harder for industry; they have strategies regarding titles and genres for targeting peer groups (to sell their product.) (We’re) not thinking about genre titles per se: we concentrate on matching certain types of features to put sections together – it’s a luxurious position. For short film festivals, it’s harder because they have to put together a number of (short) films just to create a program.
J.G.: We try to give (films) a color and tone, but label as little as possible… (we’re) reluctant to be too specific, instead leave audiences some space to breathe. We’re not so arrogant as to say what a film is. U.O.: (We) give orientations so (audiences) don’t get lost, and have the freedom to see what they want to, or do see, in (a feature) film.

M.H.: Would you consider working with IKFF to develop contemporary genre titles (for local film festivals at least) thereby possibly becoming (industry) pioneers?
J.G. and U.O.:  Yes, it would be great to develop common strategies: a Hamburg labeling guide perhaps the film buffs would like. From in-house discourse, we developed (and intend keeping) last year’s Hybrid label, “like two ends of one very long line.” Some art school students came and talked to us specifically about their films being Hybrid, which opened interesting commentaries.
J.G.: But how we choose films, and how IKFF does is very different. I think they’re doing a great job. (So it) wouldn’t be a good idea for every festival to have the same labels, (and I’d) be surprised. Different festivals have different audiences with different expectations. Each festival wants their audiences to attend and then experience their own idea of a film.

*Companion interview article with Sven Schwarz available at: > Behind the Scenes > Internationales KurzFilmFestival Hamburg: 2014 > “Experimental” Getting a Bad Name at Film Festivals