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What to expect from Berlinale’s daring Forum section

INTERVIEW! Berlinale's Forum section celebrates 50 years of daring, independent curating with a woman as its new head. We met film critic, former taz editor and curator Cristina Nord for a chat on “think films”, feminism and counterculture.

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Photo by Michael O’Ryan. As Berlinale kicks off today, we caught up with new Forum head Cristina Nord to find out what to expect from this year’s sidebar.
Founded in 1971, in the spirit of coun­terculture, the Berlin Film Festival’s Forum tests the boundaries of conven­tion. It benefits from being independently curated, unlike sections like Panorama and festival newbie Encounters. The Forum side­bar isn’t always an easy sell, with four-hour long essay films and daringly experimental fare – but patience is rewarded, as the section’s risk-taking programme yields results. Recent­ly selected films such as Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog and Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline have been clear standouts from the festival as a whole, all strands included. This year’s continent-hopping 35 films shown at Arsenal have a focus on South America. Make sure to grab tickets for the opportunity to catch hidden gems which, for the most part, will struggle to find distribution. Your first year at the helm of Forum will be marked by a full retrospective of the section’s kick-off year. Why choose to show the 1971 programme in its entirety? Showing the full selection was a simple and charming way to look back to that time, when so much was happening in terms of counter­culture. There was a lot of upheaval in the air. When watching the films in the programme, I was struck by their unabashed willingness to provoke. Of course, a lot of topics that were controversial back then have since become part of the mainstream. Take a film like Rosa von Praunheim’s It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives: there was a long process of integrating a homosexual agenda into mainstream society. I don’t want to say that everything is now resolved, but we wanted to reflect upon this very development; how something that was very countercultural in 1971 and its accom­panying dialectic have evolved, and how they resonate today. The 1970s were an era of radical libera­tion, and artists could get away with doing, saying or showing things that they wouldn’t be able to do in 2020. Were there films that were provocative back then and might still be – or even more so – now? A film that comes to mind in the Anniversary programme is Sergio Citti’s Ostia, which shows violence in drastic forms. That particular form of storytelling is something you wouldn’t find today, or at least not easily. Overall, I was struck by how daring the 1971 selection was. Meanwhile, we have the feeling in 2020 that certain achievements that were the fruit of the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s are still being heavily debated, questioned or even actively threatened by the political situation we are living in, and not only in Germany. Can you give us an example? Think about the AfD attacking theatres and cultural pro­grammes in Germany, for example, or what’s happening in Poland, Hungary or Brazil. I went to Brazil recently, and I was deeply shocked to see how a thriving film industry might come to an end because the Bolsonaro government has deemed it their arch enemy, making funding so complicated that it will become impossible for all those directors to finance their films. The current backlashes we are facing today will be among the topics debated at our panel this year. Five decades down the road, what sets Forum films apart from all the other Berlinale sections? You mentioned young, “out-there” filmmaking… Is that it? We don’t naively cling to that concept, but it’s still very important for us to be a platform for young cinema, for daring and innovative films reflecting upon the medium itself and which move between the classical genres of documentary and fiction. This can include essay films, for example, which I have a soft spot for, but also genre films like the kung-fu greats from the Shaw Brothers, which would equally have their place in Forum. More daring films have difficulties finding an audience and I think that with the festival, there is a lot of atten­tion, as well as a lot of willingness on the audience’s behalf to expose themselves to films that are more challenging. More concretely, how do you spot a Forum film when you see one? I think a good example is Thomas Heise’s Heimat ist ein Raum aus Zeit (Heimat is a Space in Time, screened at 2019’s Forum), which is a won­derful Forum film for me. It’s demanding, you have to engage with it while watching it, and it finds a convincing, aesthetic way to convey what it wants to convey. It’s a ‘think piece’, something which gives you reason to reflect on and broaden your way of thinking with respect to both politics and society. So, what can we expect from the 35 films in Forum’s 2020 selection? Many films explore important, timely topics from a unique angle. Take Luz Nos Trópicos, by Paula Gaitán, a film from Brazil that’s more than four hours long, which is already demanding in the era of short attention spans we are living in! The film has different levels that eventually intertwine in crazy ways and delves into the great beauty of the Amazon river. It makes you think about how that region is under threat at the mo­ment. I’d also single out our opening film, El Tango Del Viudo Y Su Espejo Deformante (The Tango Of The Widower And Its Distort­ing Mirror), Raúl Ruiz’ first, never complet­ed film from 1967, finally finished last year by his widow Valeria Sarmiento. What are your ambitions for your tenure as the head of Forum? I have a big heart for films that make you think. It goes without saying that cinema isn´t just a sensual pleasure, but also an intellectual one, and I’d like to combine the two. I know this isn’t a radically new idea and something Forum has always been doing, but I’d like to broaden this aspect. And I think that we’re also aiming for the weirder stuff, the more demanding, one-of-a-kind films. As the first woman to be appointed as the head of Forum, you’ve already be­come a sign of the times and a symbol of a more diverse, feminised Berlinale, so to speak. How do you deal with that? First of all, I consider myself a feminist. If I weren’t a feminist, I wouldn’t be sitting where I am now. Up to a certain degree, you need to have a feminist agenda as a woman if you want to move up in the cultural sphere. What I mean by that is that I am convinced of the fact that women are perfectly able to do all sorts of jobs and that there’s no such thing as a natural man’s or woman’s job. And as I don’t believe in such things, it’s hard to say if I’ll do things differently. One thing I do pay attention to is including female directors in the selection. But this year, only one-third of the Forum selection is made up of films by women. Why is that? Yes, it’s not ideal, but the ratio reflects what there was to choose from film-wise. I would have loved to have seen more films made by female directors among the 2000 films we saw in total. I went to Italy, for instance, watched around 70 Italian films and only four were made by women… Do you believe in a quota system? I total­ly believe in having an inner compass which tells you that if you have to choose between two equally good films, you might want to pick the female director so as to have more diversity. But this is not something that is or should be set in stone. The Berlinale has shown, more than other festivals over the years, that the ratio is improving. When I hear [Venice Film Festival director] Alberto Barbera say that for him it’s “quality first and then gender”… It was never about privileging gender over quality in the first place! It really makes you want to urgently rethink about what you perceive as “quality”. This year is also the beginning of a new era for the festival, with Carlo Chatrian taking over from Dieter Kosslick. What are your hopes for the future of the Berlinale? I think that after one person has been running an organisation for a very long period, it’s al­ways a good time for change, regardless of that person’s achievements. I used to work for the Goethe Institute, and the direc­tors there change every five or six years. It brings about a lot of positive processes and I think that’s what we’re experienc­ing now with the Berlinale. There was that kick-off meeting in January, the whole team was there; new executive director Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo gave small speeches and there was a reception after­wards. To see the energy in the room gave me a lot of optimism!