The Berlin Film Festival, running 16-26 February, is easily my favourite film-going time of the year, and the Berlinale Shorts is currently my favourite section of the entire line up. The shorts are often confrontational, conversational and confounding, expanding on topics of ownership and perspective as well as opening up new ways of looking at both cinema and the world. DN was lucky enough to have garnered a sneak peek at some of the short films, which tackle globalisation, establish a firm women’s gaze, and balance the personal and political, all the while moving between documentary, animation, live action and pure video art. We also had the pleasure of interviewing video artist and Head of Shorts Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck about the ins and outs of curating for the Berlinale, including how the 20 films are selected, how they collaborate with other sections of the festival, and the power of the short film as its own art form.

Can you start by telling me about your background as a curator and your current role at the Berlinale?

My background is actually as a filmmaker. I went to Film Academy in Baden-Wurttemberg in Ludwigsburg. It’s a very traditional classic film education where I studied animation first then I graduated in documentary filmmaking. During that time as a student I already worked for film festivals such as FilmWinter Stuttgart, Trickfilm-Festival Stuttgart and Kurzfilm Biennale, as a moderator and a member of the selection team.

My main profession is still as a video artist. In the winter I work for Berlinale, and in the summer I do my video selections. I was on the selection committee for the Berlinale for 12 years then I was asked if I wanted to be the head of the section. Now I’m running Berlinale Shorts for my fourth year.

We are always happy to show all the different varieties and possibilities that you have with the short format.

And you have a video film in the selection! Happy Doom by Billy Roisz. Did you always want to have something that references your work as a video artist? It feels quite different to the rest of the films in the programme, as it’s pure abstraction and colour. What’s it like picking a film like that alongside the rest of the selection?

Berlinale Shorts has always had a strong tradition in experimental films. Since I’ve been running it, it’s less purely experimental films than we used to have in the past, so I was very happy when Billy sent us her new work because I think it’s her third or fourth film in the festival. We are always happy to show all the different varieties and possibilities that you have with the short format. And we don’t get that much purely experimental work in the submissions so we’re happy when we do get something and we can share it with the audience and put it in the programme.

Happy Doom by Billy Roisz

How many people do you have on your curation team? What qualities do you look for in a curator?

There are eight people plus me. In our case, the pre-selection team is the same team that discusses the final shortlist. When we can’t make up our mind I have the final decision. I also have to present the films to Carlo Chatrian, our artistic director. He usually lets me do what I want, but he wants to see all the films that are being screened at the Berlinale.

Our selection team all have very different backgrounds. Some of them are filmmakers like me, or they have the tools for making films; we also have people from a more academic or film theory background and also people who work more in the art field or with cultural events. We have different ages and nationalities. Some have been with the Berlinale Shorts since the very beginning.

It’s important that it’s somebody who has worked in the selection team for a festival already because we get so many submissions. This year we got 4300 submissions. To keep the focus and concentration and still be able to recognise when there is a gem hidden among this huge pile — you can only train that when you have done it.

This year we got 4300 submissions.

I can certainly relate to that! Is it an open selection process or do you invite films? I know it has to be an international premiere but you do have, for example, Jill, Uncredited, which premiered at the London Film Festival in October…

We don’t go scouting to other festivals because the chance that we can accept a film is just too low. There’s too much time and energy involved to find a film like that. But we do send out a call for entry to all our alumni. And we have delegates in other countries. They know the local film scenes better than us in our Berlin office. And we have a few people who advise and give us recommendations. Sometimes when I see a film or know a previous work from an artist, we put them on our call for entry list and let them know once the submissions are open, even if we don’t know if they have a film. So it’s a mix of submissions that come out of nowhere and requests. I would say that maybe a quarter of films have been requested or recommended. The other films are just beautiful surprises we find in the submissions.

Jill, Uncredited by Anthony Ing

Berlinale Shorts are just one part of a large selection of shorts being presented in the film. There are also shorts presented in Generation and Forum Expanded. Is there ever any crossover between the selections? Do you ever receive a short and believe it might be a better fit for those competitions instead of your own?

There’s a lot of crossover. We do recommend films to each other. Sometimes people don’t really understand what the sections are about. Sometimes we realise that we are actually the wrong people for a film and send it to the other section. So nothing gets lost. Generation is films from the perspective of a child or a teenager. Expanded is even more experimental than us and also in a certain discourse. You can’t submit films to Forum Expanded they only scout and invite. But sometimes we have a film that we decide is interesting for them and recommend it to them.

There are films from all six continents, and plenty of films from women and people of colour, making it a very diverse programme. I know there’s no specific quota but is this something that you do think about in curation?

It kind of comes automatically because we’re interested in unique, special voices and they often come from the margins. And the margins are very often marginalised groups. So that’s one sort of logical consequence. I’m always interested in who’s talking. Is somebody talking about something else or is somebody expressing themselves? I’m always more interested in the ones that are expressing whatever they have to express. It doesn’t have to be about themselves, but it has to be a genuine expression. That often comes from backgrounds that are not from the centre of attention.

I’m always interested in who’s talking. Is somebody talking about something else or is somebody expressing themselves?

That shapes the selection process, but the film comes first. It’s not so much the topic because we don’t know the filmmaker’s gender, ethnic background or whatever. But you usually feel whether there is a genuine something behind it or whether it’s a projection. And we also have local networks across the world to make sure that call-to-selection is being picked up in diverse places.

Berlinale Shorts

Across the films I noticed a theme of cross-cultural collision. There are the negatives of globalisation, such as in The Waiting and Terra Mater – Mother Land, there are emigrant stories in Les Chenilles and Back, and there’s a beautiful holiday story in La herida luminosa. Was this a theme you were working towards or is this something that evolves naturally once you have your selection?

While we’re watching, we’re not looking for anything. We’re looking at the films. So the patterns and themes, they emerge when we have the shortlist on the table and realise, “Oh my god, so many films about…” whatever it is that year. So the patterns emerge afterwards, it’s not part of the selection process. These films are just a reflection on what’s going on out there and what filmmakers are busy with and want to talk about so it shows the world we live in. We don’t have a guideline we want to share because if you have a guideline like, we want to do something about the refugee situation or climate change, it makes you blind to all the other beautiful films. If a film doesn’t tick that box, you’re likely to overlook the beautiful qualities a film has. For example, Happy Doom has no specific topic. Then when I have to write the press release, I notice there’s a recurring theme.

While we’re watching, we’re not looking for anything. We’re looking at the films.

The Oscar nominations were recently announced, and only two films from Berlinale 2022 made the cut. The Quiet Girl, which played in Generation, and Haulout, which played in the Berlinale Shorts last year and featured in our top 10. Is it a great honour when a film picked from the Berlinale makes it all the way to the Oscars?

We’re happy for the films, it’s not so much about us. We are happy we could share it with the audience, but we’re just happy that a film like that, with such an important topic and such amazing editing, could be nominated. Even if they hadn’t selected the film, it’s brilliant anyway.

The Waiting by Volker Schlecht

In the last few years, the Berlinale Shorts has become my favourite section at the festival. What do you think shorts offer that perhaps feature or medium length films can’t?

They have to focus. They have to know what they want to say. They have to be very precise in their filmmaking. The other thing is that the short film enjoys a great freedom in any direction. Freedom of tools, freedom of aesthetics, freedom of choice. And I often think that because it’s kind of under the radar, it doesn’t get that much attention. I think being under the radar is a great place because you can do whatever you want without being bothered about pleasing expectations, or the market, or any system. You can focus on what you want to tell and the best way to tell it.

You can peruse the full Berlinale Shorts programme over at the Berlinale website. Keep your eyes peeled for our top recommendations at the end of the festival.

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