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  • Berlinale 2021: “Going digital was never an option.”


Berlinale 2021: “Going digital was never an option.”

What’s in store for Berlin’s wold-famous film festival? We asked artistic director Carlo Chatrian about the plan for this year’s edition – on and offline.

Image for Berlinale 2021: “Going digital was never an option.”

What’s in store for Berlin’s wold-famous film festival? We asked artistic director Carlo Chatrian about the plan for this year’s edition – on and offline. Photo: Berlinale

The 2021 Berlin Film Festival will not go ahead in February as planned, and Berliners will have to wait until June to enjoy their annual film fix. Berlinale boss Carlo Chatrian shares his plans for this year’s two-step instalment, digital festivals and the impact of streaming on the film industry.

In hindsight, you got very lucky that your first year as Artistic Director of the Berlinale was the last year the festival managed to go ahead uninterrupted by global events. For your second, it’s the first ‘cancellation’ since the first edition in 1951.

Well, we’re doing our best not to cancel the event this year. It won’t be the usual festival; however, we will be able – or should I say, we should be able, because we never know what the future holds – to put in place a line-up and present these films first to the professionals online in March and then to the public in physical screenings in June.

Regarding last year, yes, we were very lucky. However, it has to be said that while a lot of the films we presented were lucky to benefit from one of the last ‘normal’ film events, they suffered because festivals are in place not only as single events, but as part of a chain. Most of the films we presented had their journey to cinemas disrupted because of the pandemic, and a lot of the films are still waiting to be released. So, they weren’t as lucky as we were.

Can you walk us through the decision to make this year’s Berlinale a two-part event and what this 71st edition will look like?

We, Executive Director Mariette Rissenbeek and I, hoped to have the festival happen in February as usual, but given the evolution of the pandemic, we understood that that was not going to be possible. Even pushing the dates back was going to be tricky, because right now, the conditions aren’t there to have a public event in a European capital city. The Berlinale, as you know, is a big event for professionals, with one of the biggest film markets in the world, but it’s also a public event.

We thought about how to preserve these two parts of the festival, which usually happen simultaneously. These two parts have different goals and different targets, so we decided in an unprecedented decision to split these two parts and have a two-step festival. The first step will take place from March 1-5, for the industry, and the second step in June, for the public in the cinemas.

Are you happy with this solution?

We’re aware it’s not the best solution, but that was the only one we found to preserve the professional life of films and the public event in safe conditions. Due to the evolution of the pandemic and because of the weather, we hope it will be easier in June to gather people.

The moment of celebration will happen in June.

I will say that we are very lucky to have the government backing us, because in order to put in place this new formula for 2021, we needed more funds, and they were very helpful with that. And this is a big difference between European festivals and US festivals – we are more supported by public money, so on the one hand, we have more restrictions, but on the other hand, we are freer to go on with our projects. Especially in Germany, where culture has such a high position.

With regards to the June event, will it be a full-scale festival like we’re used to, or much like the Cannes film festival did at the end of 2020 with a reduced number of days?

In terms of size, we are working to have a festival with all sections in place, as we believe the identity of the Berlinale is the sum of the different sections. The Berlinale is a big galaxy with planets and each section represents a planet, with its own identity. Each section will have a reduced number of films, and the number of screenings will also be reduced, but it won’t be as scaled back as the November 2020’s Cannes event you mentioned. Berlin is bigger than the city of Cannes, and we have the desire, but also the duty, to give something to Berliners, especially after all the grey lockdown days.

What should Berlin audiences expect, besides sunnier days?

The details of the June events are still in progress, but I can tell you that we are not planning to have an accreditation system. We want, on the contrary, to support the Berlin cinemas. It will be something new, something different, and also weather wise, it will be an easier way to celebrate, as Berlin in June is great and we want to take advantage of that. We’re already in contact with open air cinemas.

But again, before unveiling the summer event, we need more time. It’s a work in progress, and since each section will have a limited number of titles this year, we will have less slots available for this amount of films, and therefore our decisions are made more difficult. And of course, a big part of what we are able to do depends on the evolution of the pandemic and the restrictions that will be in place.

Was there ever at any point a discussion to completely hybridise the Berlinale and follow the digital example of other film festivals like TIFF or Sundance?

That was not an option for us. I totally understand why Sundance and others are going digital, because the US cultural system for festivals is very different from Europe. European film festivals are part of a chain but also part of how we consider cinema – the collective experience is something we consider to be essential, very deeply rooted in the word ‘cinema’.

It’s less about watching films and more about watching films together, sharing time and space. I am aware that in the future, there will be more and more ways to have different formats, and maybe for some festivals, going digital is a good way, but for Berlin, the collective experience and moment is very much essential, and we didn’t want to get rid of that.

You were in Venice last year, where the festival went ahead with less accredited members of the press, allocated seating for screenings, and higher levels of security protocols. Were there talks of following a similar model?

The Venice experience was a very rejoiceful one, and I believed everyone at that time thought it was a new beginning. Unfortunately, the pandemic hit Europe very hard in late autumn. We’ve talked a lot with our security department during this time, because some of the measures put in place during last year’s Venice festival were very effective.

But the Berlinale has a totally different setting compared to Venice – the Lido is an island, and Berlin has several venues all over the city. You cannot create the same bubble. It’s sad, because our department worked for very long on developing a concept that was good for security, but hopefully this work will be useful for 2022, because we will have to deal, if not with the pandemic, with this new world where safety has to be taken into consideration in a more serious way.

Will the Berlinale 2021 competition titles be revealed soon, and will this year’s Bears be awarded in March or at a later date?

Yes, the reduced line-up will be unveiled at the beginning of February [Feb 08-Feb 11]. As for the awards, we are planning to have the juries watching films in March and we are planning to announce the winning films at the end of the March event. But the actual awards ceremony, the moment of celebration, will happen in June.

Apparently, the number of submissions from filmmakers this year is 10% higher than in 2020. Is that the case, and are you surprised by this?

Yes, we have received more films compared to last year, but to tell you the truth, I was not surprised, because that was more or less the case for Venice and also Cannes. The problem right now is that we will have less slots available for this amount of films, and therefore our decisions are made more difficult. Sadly, each section will have a limited number of titles this year.

What lessons can be learned or long-term repercussions identified for film festivals in the wake of the pandemic? Is it time to start rethinking festivals as a whole, especially when it comes to the carbon footprint linked with travelling and inviting talent to the events?

That’s a very good question. I believe we’re still too much into the storm to see what will remain, hopefully in a good sense and not just in a sense of ruins. The biggest change this year was that travels were not possible, and a big part of the selection of films relies on travels. Not only because we watch films on site, but because of the conversations we can have with producers, filmmakers and colleagues.

This year, we did this but via technology, and I think that this will stay in place for the next selection, for instance. As for the presence of talent and filmmakers at the festivals, it’s an important question. The Berlinale is very aware and careful not to increase the levels of pollution of the world we’re living in. At the same time, because of the lockdowns all around the world, I feel that there is a big desire to be face to face.

It’s less about watching films and more about watching films together.

My feeling is that as long as the physical presence of talent and people is possible and safe, it’s important. There is an urge to have this, even if it is on a reduced scale, which is also good, because we’re not living in a model which is viable. But I do believe that it is important to share a room with other people. A big one, a small one – the size doesn’t matter because being face to face with people is a different experience.

This year would have also marked the first time that the acting awards at the Berlinale were gender-neutral. Can you tell us a bit more about the reasoning behind this change?

This decision is in many ways the result of living in a city like Berlin, which is very much at the forefront of progressive elements in our culture. We don’t want to get rid of cultural difference and identities, but it’s good when these things are not barriers.

There were a lot of discussions over the past months about this change – some are pro, others against… Sadly, because of this year, it won’t be possible to fully evaluate the result of this change, which will still go ahead, but we did it to open discussion. I don’t believe this is the only way to do it, but this is a way of creating more awareness and opening doors.

The pandemic has closed theatres, delayed film releases and as a consequence, streaming numbers have rocketed over the past year. We also found out late last year that Warner Bros. would implement a simultaneous release strategy with the streaming platform HBO Max. How do you see these changes affecting the movie industry and will they damage the theatrical experience?

It’s a change. And like with every change, you can witness both sides. To me, when the offer is wider, it’s always good. I don’t see streaming platforms as the devil. Right now, considering the nature of the moment, I believe they are doing a good job in supporting the film industry. Without streaming platforms, the year 2020 would have been a catastrophe. At the same time, and I think those working in these streaming platforms are aware of this, the theatrical experience gives something different.

I don’t see streaming platforms as the devil.

I’ll be honest with you – I do also watch films on my laptop. It’s not the best way, but because of my life, my traveling, sometimes watching a film in better conditions isn’t possible. And because I watch films all the time, I know that to go to the theatre and watch a film on a big screen with other people, it’s a totally different experience.

Do you think that the cinema experience will be negatively impacted by such changes?

Let me tell you this, because this is really important to me – when I attended festivals as a younger cinephile, the greatest joy was the people, the connections, and the fact that you often didn’t choose the film you were going to watch. Of course, you can do this with streaming offers, but in a festival, it was because people talked and recommended on the spot. Whether the end result was a great surprise or a disappointment, it didn’t matter – what mattered was meeting others.

Festivals and cinemas offer the possibility to have a moment of surprise, which is one of the greatest joys of my job. My colleagues and I are really committed to supporting cinemas and this kind of experience, but we’re also aware that this is not the only one. And if I’m doing this job right now, it’s because the TV exists, something at the time which was supposed to kill cinemas also.

When I was growing up in a small town in Italy, the television was my only way of seeing movies. I don’t see it as: either you go to the cinema or you watch movies at home. On the contrary, you can enjoy both, and in the future, there will be more cooperation between the two of them.

Image for Berlinale 2021: “Going digital was never an option.”

Helen Mirren receives the Honorary Golden Bear at the 70th Berlinale in 2020. Photo: IMAGO / snapshot

We’re already seeing it now, as many upcoming award ceremonies, including the Oscars, have changed their rules so as to include streaming-only titles…

Yes. I don’t know if these changes will stay in place in the future, but you’re right, there is already a lot happening now. For this year, I think it was unavoidable, because 2020’s theatrical releases were so reduced and almost impossible in a continuous way. All over the world, cinemas are in a very difficult position.

They have indeed faced an unprecedented crisis during this ongoing pandemic. Are you optimistic audiences will return to cinemas, and how does the Berlinale plan to support Berlin’s kinos, who have had to remain closed for so long?

By nature, I am an optimistic person. I always try to see the good side of things, and most of the time, what matters is the way you look at things rather than the things themselves. What’s certain is that there will be changes for theatres – I don’t know if it will be in the number of theatres or their way of showing films.

But these changes were already in place – the pandemic was only an accelerator. I am confident that people will go back to theatres. Not only cinema lovers like us, but I’m also thinking about my kids, for example, who are not cinephiles but they do enjoy watching films in the cinema, and they miss this at the moment.

As for our support for cinemas, we plan to set up partnerships and organise summer events, including outdoor screenings. We have been in discussion with several parties and cinemas, like Wolf in Neukölln, and the Yorck Kinos, AG Kino, and others. We are willing to help in any way we can. The problem is right now that we have to wait a bit longer for cinema life to get back to normal, and it’s difficult to support them at the moment with the continued levels of uncertainty.

Stay tuned for our complete lowdown on this year’s Berlinale – what happens when, and how you can watch Berlinale films this year.