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Film Festival Foundations

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An interview with the European Union Film Festival Organizers

By Baltazar Peña Rios

An eager audience at the European Film Festival’s opening night on March 5 Photograph courtesy of the Gene Siskel Film Center.

An eager audience at the European Film Festival’s opening night on March 5 Photograph courtesy of the Gene Siskel Film Center.

The 13th Annual European Union Film Festival was held at the Gene Siskel Film Center March 5 – April 1, 2010. When the festival was first developed, there were only 12 nations in the European Union (EU); today, there are 27, each of which was represented in the festival.

Academy Award nominated films were featured, including: “The Misfortunates” (Belgium), “The World is Big But Salvation Lurks Around the Corner “ (Bulgaria), “December Heat” (Estonia), “Slaves in Their Bonds” (Greece), “Chameolon” Hungary), “Draft Dodgers” (Luxembourg), “Broken Promise” (Slovakia), and “Landscape No. 2” (Slovenia). “The Dancer and the Thief” from Spain opened the festival, and the event closed with the Irish film “The Secret of Kells,” an Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature.

Prior to this year’s festival, F Newsmagazine sat down with the event’s programmers Barbara Scharres, who has been involved since the inception, and Marty Rubin, who began co-programming the event in 2001.

How did the festival begin?

Scharres: I founded the festival in collaboration with a committee of people from different consulates and cultural institutions in Chicago — it began … as an experiment. I had done a project that involved three of the nations. It focused on young European directors; there were various problems involved in that. You know, it was an OK series, but it wasn’t the success we had hoped for since a couple of the directors that we targeted weren’t able to come. But it was a good example of what could be done.
At that time I was attending regular cultural meetings with international counselors in Chicago. We talked about cultural matters and we talked about film things. It turned out that several representatives there were really interested in doing something with film that focused more on the EU itself and brought some attention to the scene there. This idea started developing in discussions and we agreed that we would try to collaborate on [an] EU festival as a trial run to see how it went the first year. No one had to commit to continue doing it if it wasn’t a success.

What were the most difficult issues to agree on?

Scharres: I think the biggest difficulty to get over with was getting all the nations to agree that all the films had to be new — they had to be Chicago premieres. Many nations have access to films that are several years old and that their cultural ministries have designated as their official representative films. Every time they get [an] inquiry about a festival or some kind of cultural program they just bring out the same old film and say “OK, here’s our official film.”

We didn’t want that kind of festival. We wanted something that was going to be a new, fresh, ground-breaking event. Every consulate would be involved in promoting the festival throughout the community. We also decided from the very beginning that the film that would be shown at the opening would come from the nation that held the presidency of the EU at the time.

How did the festival develop from that first experience?

Scharres: The [first] festival was a considerable success. It surpassed all of our expectations, but it was never a done deal that it would happen again. We had to have some evaluative meetings and we had to talk about whether everyone wanted to participate again. So it was voted that we would do another festival the next year. And for the first several years the group really wanted to consider whether we could go on to the next one. Now, of course, it’s automatic — there’s no discussion of that.

How are films chosen? How much input do these cultural organizations and consulates have?

Scharres: We have complete artistic control.

Rubin: Recommendations are sometimes valuable in alerting us on what films they’ve heard about and have created buzz back in their home country. Sometimes they also alert us on films that we can get for free or on reduced rates through certain programs, but the final decision is always ours.

Something that I imagine happening in a film festival that takes films from every country of a specific region is that each year you could get a dominance of a specific subject. For example, the Holocaust seems to be a subject this year. Has this happened other times?

Scharres: [The Holocaust] seems to be a pervasive thing in the film world. Everything from “Inglourious Basterds” to these Holocaust films we’re showing at the festival. It seems to be a subject that a lot of filmmakers have worked on this year.

Rubin: It has probably happened other years. It’s almost the law of averages, if there is some trend that’s significant in the European cinema, the odds are we are going to pick up a few films that deal with that subject.

Scharres: The Holocaust is easier to identify as a “thing” that a movie is about, but there are more general themes. I think I’ve seen, over a period of years, a greater number of films that involve some kind of really transgressive violent behavior, and more nations have directors working in this way. Nations like Austria, Belgium and Slovenia … definitely produce films that seem to aim in that direction.

A lot of the films in the festival are promoted as Oscar material. How present are other festivals? How about other festivals, such as Cannes, Berlin or Venice?

Scharres: One reason we mention the Oscars is because the American public responds to the Oscars. We’re also appealing to many different ethnic audiences that might be interested in the films that their countries submitted to the Oscars, but they wouldn’t have any other way of seeing. All those other festivals you mention definitely feed into our festival too, especially Cannes.

It is a big responsibility to try to bring movies to the festival that wouldn’t be shown in Chicago otherwise; and to also try to bring films that may be shown around later commercially, but that would still improve the festival. How is this balance found?

Rubin: A lot of it is circumstance. Some times there is no choice and it depends on what’s available — we don’t pick films in this ideal vacuum. A lot of factors influence our decisions. One is the premiere factor. If a film has played in the Chicago International Film Festival, it is out for us. We start out by finding out what kind of films are available to us, rather than starting out with a wish-list and then fulfilling it.

Scharres: Sometimes we really set our hearts on a film and don’t manage to get it because of budget reasons.
It’s great that because of the films you show, you give an impression of a festival that everybody would want to show films at, when you really have to go and fight to get them.

How does the spirit of the Gene Siskel Film Center make its way into the festival?

Rubin: We’re very open to submissions. Unless we feel like it’s obviously inappropriate for our situation, we’ll take a look at everything we can — that is how occasionally we pick unexpected discoveries. A big part of our mission is to encourage local filmmakers.

Scharres: As far as our mission goes, we don’t consider smaller films as something outside of our scope. Everything is a possibility.

Rubin: We’re currently very religious as far as trying to show as big of a diversity in films. We’ll do Jim Henson, The Muppets and avant-garde films.

Scharres: The goal of the festival represents the goal of the Film Center as an organization. This year we have a range of popular movies, avant-garde films, documentaries, films directed by both men and women, and gay themed films. The festival tries to be representative at both an artistic and cultural level.

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