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“I’m not diplomatic”: Nicola Galliner

INTERVIEW! Ahead of the 25th Jewish Film Festival Berlin, the spirited brain behind it traces its unlikely history and explains how it evolved into one of Europe's leading Jewish film festivals. Catch the festival at various venues Sep 8-17.

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Photo by Daniel Cati. Nicola Galliner looks back at her 25 year’s showcasing Jewish films.

A fixture of the Berlin Jüdische Gemeinde, which she helped shape and shake since she moved here from London 50 years ago, Nicola Galliner’s also a name to be reckoned with among local cinephiles as the spirited brain behind one of Europe’s leading Jewish film festivals. Launched in 1995 with eight films in one cinema, Nicola’s Fest has morphed into a major event on the local film calendar with 50 films across 14 venues in Berlin and Brandenburg, a success she obviously relishes with communicative bonhomie. We met with Galliner for a light lunch at the Lubitsch on Bleibtreustraße, a suitable location for a chat about Jewish film and Berlin!

You launched the JFFB in 1995. How did it all start? Was the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival an inspiration?

Yes, it was! I was working with the Jewish community at the time and we got sent a programme from the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. I used to live around the corner from the old Arsenal – when it still was on Welserstraße – and I ran up to the Gregors’ (Ulrich and Erika). They’d received the programme too… And I said, “Wow, what an amazing idea, let’s do something like this!”

What did the first edition of the festival look like?

We started the festival in 1995, in the wonderful arthouse cinema the old Arsenal used to be, with eight films. I don’t remember who gave me the tip, but somebody told me about a very good film by a young, first time Danish director that was a Jewish family story. The film was Freud’s Leaving Home and the director was Susanne Bier! She drove all the way to Berlin while extremely pregnant. I remember saying , “Goodness, I’m so honoured that you came. But what happens if the baby arrives?” She said, “No, no, he’ll wait.” And he did! It turned out she very much wanted to come to Berlin because her father was a Berlin Jew who’d escaped to Scandinavia. Her son must be exactly 25 now, like the festival! When I see how successful she has become, I feel so proud. It was a lovely Jewish film and such an amazing way to start our festival.

What’s a Jewish film for you?

Fifteen years ago we asked this very question to 30 people – and of course everybody had a different view. A colleague from Munich said that it was about the audience – if they eat and drink and talk through the whole film then it’s a Jewish audience. Former director of the San Fransisco festival Peter Stein used the famous quote, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” There is no easy answer.

I remember you telling me about people recurrently asking if JFFB was a festival about Holocaust film.

It’s such a traumatic event in German and in Jewish histories that it defines many things for several generations. We always have films that deal with the Holocaust, but most of our picks are about contemporary issues.

Looking back, what major changes have occurred over those 25 years?

I think we have changed from being that little local festival to a major player in Germany and that’s really nice. What’s also fantastic is the amazing success story of Israeli films that 25 years ago no one had ever heard of. Now they are in all the major festivals and getting prizes. So there definitely are parallels. It’s amazing.

For a while Berlin also had an Israel Film Festival and the distinction was not always very clear to people. About half of the JFFB films are from Israel, right?

Israel produces such an extraordinary amount of films! They have 12 film schools and even a film school just for religious people. That is fascinating because 90 percent of the pupils of that school are women – for men it’s not really a profession that’s looked upon positively! I think one could have at least three Israeli film festivals plus two Jewish ones, to show all these films. We try to maintain a balance between Israel and the rest of the world. But there are just so many great Israeli films!

Any personal favourites?

The most extraordinary film I think that we have ever shown was the Israeli horror film Big Bad Wolves. I really hate horror films, but this one I just fell in love with. And it stars Lior Ashkenazi – a mega star in Israel and one of our most memorable guests ever! A couple of years ago, we also showed Prisoners of War, the Israeli TV series Homeland was based on. That was fantastic!

This year you’re showing a few episodes of Autonomies, another very hyped Israeli TV show…

Autonomies is a sci-fi series that says a lot of relevant things about today’s problems between the orthodox and the secular parts of society. I first saw it in New York where people absolutely loved it.

You even hand out awards, right?

Yes, and all sponsored by the same generous family of the late Gerhard Klein who was a child actor in 1920s Berlin – he played in the first production of Emil and the Detectives! He managed to escape last minute to then-Palestine and came back after the war. He had a very famous cinema in Dahlem called Capitol Kino, where he’d also organise literary readings and all sorts of interesting events. He would always call me to tip me about films or give me his feedback about the festival. When he died I said to his widow, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a prize under his name?” and she thought it was a great idea. A few years later the daughters said, “Well, shouldn’t we do another prize?” And so on. By now we have three – best feature, best documentary, and best German film with a Jewish subject…

I heard you tried to invite Barbara Streisand…?

Not me! I had a really nice boss at the Jüdische Gemeinde who always wanted to invite Barbara Streisand to Berlin. And we all thought he was quite mad – she famously always refused to come to Germany. But somehow he got her phone number, and one day he said, “Nicola, let’s call Barbara Streisand.” So he called her and put her on the loud speaker and said, “We’d love to invite you to Berlin to give a concert.” And she hung up on him! She ended up coming several years later, in 2007. By then everyone was coming to Berlin, it was not seen as so negative anymore. Actually her concert at the Waldbühne coincided with our closing event in Potsdam, and some papers rung us up asking whether it was connected to the festival! But, no, it wasn’t!

You seem to have a flair for debuting directors and films that are set for greatness: It started with Susanne Bier, and last year, it was The Cakemaker, your prize winner, that ended up as Israel’s contender for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards. It’s impressive!

In 2006 we also had that very nice short by Ari Sandel. We liked it so much that we showed it every single evening, and people went mad about it. It was called West Bank Story and the next year he got an Oscar for it!

I heard your International Film Critic Jury is appropriately all-female this year…

Yes, we have a four-women jury, and we have Marlyn Vinig, Israel’s only Orthodox Jewish female critic.

Do you care about politics? You showed Samuel Maoz’ Foxtrot last year and that wasn’t very popular with the Israeli government. Do you ever feel pressure to be diplomatic?

I’m not diplomatic! I always get it on the head for that reason. We are an independent festival. We can show whatever we like. I thought Foxtrot was an excellent film and I showed it.

Recent polemics surrounding the resignation of the Jewish Museum director showed how sensitive Jewish matters are in Berlin. Do you think it’s become worse?

The debate on what a Jewish Museum is, should be or do, what and who a Jewish Film Festival should represent was always there. One of the first Jewish Museum directors was sacked in 1998, remember? So it’s a long ongoing story. But you know what I think is getting worse in this country? Antisemitism. Definitely.

Have you personally observed more antisemitism around you?

What I’ve observed is the total lack of interest that people who should know better show in Jewish issues – this festival for example. I spend a lot of time running around and looking for funding. It doesn’t interest them. I also see that it’s become really quite accepted now that people get away with antisemitic remarks. I have been here for 50 years and I find that the development is shocking and frightening. I would not send my Jewish child to a public school any longer.

Meanwhile Germany is really supportive of Israel, the Bundestag recently took a highly controversial stance against the pro-Palestinian BDS movement, calling it ‘antisemitic’, which divided the Jewish community itself…

This is Germany, and for obvious historical reasons you can’t have a “boycott” of Israel in this country. I think that there are things that you have to do here, which you might not have to do in other countries. That’s my opinion. People who criticise this really don’t have any idea where they are.

The Festival opens on Sep 8 with Dror Zahavi’s Crescendo (19:00) at Potsdam’s Hans Otto Theater and takes over 14 cinemas across Berlin, Potsdam and Brandenburg. Fifty films (OV with English subtitles) over 10 days, closing out Sep 17 with The Mamboniks (20:00) at Filmtheater am Friedrichshain.