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Critics’ Week: Frédéric Jaeger and Dennis Vetter talk Berlinale blind spots

INTERVIEW! Ahead of Woche der Kritik, Feb 19 through Feb 27, we caught up with its Artistic Director Frédéric Jaeger and Head of Programming Dennis Vetter to discuss this year’s edition and the role of Critics' Week in the Berlin film scene.

Image for Critics' Week: Frédéric Jaeger and Dennis Vetter talk Berlinale blind spots

Photo courtesy of Berlin Critics’ Week, kicking off Feb 19 through Feb 27. Full programme here.

Running alongside the Berlinale, Woche der Kritik delivers an alternative and streamlined programme of films and debates, focusing on a variety of issues that mainstream festivals so frequently side-line, including the routines of the film industry and curation blind spots inherent to festival programming. (Read our festival preview of this year’s Woche der Kritik.)

We met with Artistic Director Frédéric Jaeger and Head of Programming Dennis Vetter to talk about this year’s sixth edition, the role Critics’ Week plays on the Berlin film scene, as well as their hopes for the Berlinale under a new leadership. 

Why would you say that Critics’ Week is such a vital presence to have on the Berlin film scene? 

Dennis Vetter: Berlin is quite rich when it comes to a culture of criticism, so I think it’s quite natural to have a critics’ week in Berlin, especially in tandem with a big festival like the Berlinale, which still connects itself to political questions. We think it’s vital to expand these questions on the formal side as much as possible. 

Frédéric Jaeger: There’s also a real eagerness for critical discourse in Berlin, which wasn’t being always being met by the official programme of the Berlinale. Both in the city at large and in the cinephile community, there was the request for a place to meet and question what all this big industry – which is what a festival is – is all about. Festivals are industries, big ecosystems which are nice to be on the border of, in order to be able to shine a light on the routines and the way things are carried out year after year. This was the starting point for us, the reason to get engaged. 

What have been the challenges inherent to running this festival these last few years? 

FJ: The biggest challenge, like everything, has been the money! (Laughs) But it’s always good not to have too much money because then you keep yourself very honest and free. The main issue is that there’s nothing sure about the existence of Critics’ Week from one year to the other. We need to set it up each year and make sure we can go on. And we’ve been looking at our own routines and question what we’re doing with our own programme, in order to not keep repeating ourselves. 

DV: We try to apply a sense of criticism to the interior structure of the event, so we’ve been negotiating team structures and decision making. It’s been interesting seeing how to work outside of a classical festival context. 

Would you say it has been difficult fostering a cinema culture in a city like Berlin? 

FJ: It’s easy to have this culture for a short period of time, because people are excited to be at a festival and all come together. We’re in a lucky position in that people come from all over the world for this period of time. We hope to give impulses that can hopefully carry on over and after the course of our events. But in Berlin, I believe there’s an eager scene. 

You’re running alongside the Berlinale – have there been any tensions or toe-treading with the festival? 

DV: What we say is that we see the Berlinale as part of the festival industry and we find this kind of massive conglomerate of cinema culture difficult. We’re trying to create an alternative, with a small programme and a space to create focus and in-depth discussions. 

FJ: The Berlinale has a lot of films and they choose to have a very broad selection. We’re all curious to see how the change in direction this year will impact relationships, as the new duo seems more open to critics and Carlo Chatrian was a critic himself. There’s something to be explored there. 

DV: Also, in a selection so big, there are bound to be blind spots, which are impossible to avoid, and naming these blind spots has been something we’ve done over the years. We try to raise the political questions that are implied by the mere size of the Berlinale. 

Do you have any specific hopes for the Berlinale going forward? 

FJ: It’s all about communication. In festivals, it’s all about the way people talk about the films, the way they communicate their enthusiasm and perspectives on the films. It’s not only about having “good films”, but about putting them in a frame and context of cinema worth fighting for. My hope for the Berlinale would be for them to talk more about cinema. 

What can we expect from this year’s edition of Critics’ Week? 

FJ: We will show 14 films, with two films per night. We looked for films that compliment and contrast each other, and our programme this year includes various themes. For example, we have the theme of “auto-agitation”, in which we’ll be looking at how filmmakers are agitating themselves and getting into a combative mood, so to speak. 

One film that stood out for me in this year’s programme was Abba Makama’s The Last Okoroshi. It’s great seeing a space for Nigerian cinema, which is particularly vibrant and frequently underrepresented in the festival circuit.

DV: We’re very happy to have Abba Makama’s newest film, as we showed his previous film, Green White Green, which explicitly negotiated film culture, the preconceptions about Nigerian cinema and the foreign gaze. It’s the first time we bring back a feature director to the festival. Abba Makama is an amazing director but he has been somewhat surprisingly underrepresented. His films were shown in a few festivals, but we are surprised and frustrated that he has not been more visible in the past few years. As to why that is, there are always blind spots, and if curators don’t address and actively work against them, then these blind spots will always remain unchallenged. 

FJ: It’s also linked to the question of how you question your own perspective on what “quality” is. Cinema can offer many experiences in many different shades. And when you scout film festivals, you can often recognise patterns of similar sensibilities and representation. There’s virtue in trying to step back from personal tastes and looking at filmmakers working differently in their aesthetic terms, for example. It’s important to not look for films that feel similar to what you’re used to. 

DV: There’s also a link here to the way of speaking about cinema, which is connected to auteur theory, which is often based on white male directors who have become important and been kept important in the festival landscape. I think it’s a question of negotiating basic terms and ideas, including what we consider to be “quality cinema”. 

What guests are coming this year? 

DV: One of our guests is American critic Girish Shambu, and he has been writing for years about the issues we’ve been talking about, especially terms like “cinephilia” being coded and dominated by particular ways of speaking about cinema, and how it excludes others. 

FJ: We also have the Turkish collective Altyazi, who are trying to work for free cinema culture in Turkey. We’re inviting them so they can tell us more about their project and how their work has been influenced by recent changes in politics. 

Regarding the opening conference this year, your programme states that it is “without theme”. What are the reasons behind this? 

FJ: We decided that always setting a provocative question to frame the year of cinema that has influenced us was repeating our own position. By not setting a theme, we’re looking for other people’s takes and not just our own. We did make an open call for submissions of themes to discuss, and what came out of this was the decision to do a workshop on the right-wing influence on cinema. We’ll be looking on how to spot it and what we can do against it. We’re also going to be looking into whether German cinema is too focused on filmmakers’ class and upbringing, if it’s too much focused on middle-class, bourgeois stories. So, there are themes to the debates throughout the festival, but for the opening, we wanted to open up to what others want to put forward.

Woche der Kritik (Critics’ Week) | Hackesche Höfe Kino. Feb 19-27. See the full programme here.