An interview with Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck, head of Berlinale Shorts, together with an overview of events related to short film at the Berlinale, the largest audience festival in the world.
Glitz, glamour and short film: On 16 February, the 73rd Berlinale – Berlin International Film Festival – is beginning and not only feature-length movies are getting the red-carpet treatment and attention: A total of 70 short films are running in the festival program, accounting for about a quarter of all the 287 films being shown. In addition to Berlinale Shorts, the Forum Expanded (16 of 36), Generation (31 of 87) and the Perspektive Deutsches Kino (3 of 13) sections are also screening short films. Two talks are complementing these Berlinale’s film screenings. The “Shorts, Communities and Conversations – Short Films and Social Work”* panel discussion is, for instance, focusing on the use of short films in therapeutic work. And at the Berlinale Talents “Short Symphonies: Directors’ Scores” event, the head of Berlinale Shorts, Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck, is speaking to three of this year’s short film directors, Anthony Ing, Billy Roisz and Christian Avilés, about the music in their films, which they themselves composed.**
The screenings and panel discussions reflect only those parts of the festival that are open to the public. Behind the scenes, much is also been done for short films in order for them to finally grace the silver screens more frequently and appear on other applications. Such as with the Short Form Station, for instance, the Talent Lab of the Berlinale Talents (24 to 31 January), the Berlinale’s talent promotion initiative coordinated by Sarah Schlüssel. Ten selected talents from the short form field – which also includes Web, XR and VR formats – were given an online opportunity prior to the festival to polish and discuss their projects and, with monitoring support, advance them to the next level. During the festival, these projects are going to be pitched at the European Film Market (16 to 22 February). It has become a tradition for various institutions and projects related to short film, including the German Short Film Association AG Kurzfilm, to also present themselves at this event.
Nevertheless, the Berlinale Shorts section, where shorts have been accorded their own exclusive spotlight since 2007, is and remains the most important home to short film at the Berlinale. From 2008 to 2018, this section was headed by Maike Mia-Höhne, who is now the director of the Kurzfilm Festival Hamburg. The section frequently screens political and artistically demanding films that resonate with the overall Berlinale. And this is also the case in 2023: The program has been drawn from the complete range of short film forms, from classic animated films to hybrid and essayistic works, through to documentaries and fictional films. Two German films can also be found among the 20 works selected here: The Waiting from Volker Schlecht, an animated documentary about species extinction and research, as well as Mwanamke Makueni from Daria Belova and Valeri Aluskina. This film reveals, in a style that almost seems French, the longing of a man for his wife who is incarcerated in a Kenyan women’s prison.
The person responsible for this 17th edition of Berlinale Shorts is Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck, who has been its curatorial director since 2019. A classically trained and educated filmmaker, she works (and has worked) much in the field of video installations and contributes her expertise as a member of juries and selection committees, in addition to presenting and moderating. At an audience festival such as the Berlinale, which has gained much acclaim internationally for its feature-length filmic forms especially, why is short film so much in focus? Marie Ketzscher has spoken to her about this and other aspects of the Berlinale Shorts section, as well as about the short film business, for shortfilm.de.
shortfilm.de: This is now your fourth edition as head of Berlinale Shorts. 2020 was still a “normal” year, but it was then followed by two COVID editions with numerous restrictions. How did the preparations work out for this first post-pandemic Berlinale Shorts?
Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck: Among the colleagues here in the office we recently realized that the preparations are going quite smoothly right now, no hectic rush involved. And we asked ourselves why that was so. Until someone said: With all that behind us, what else could possibly happen? Which is exactly right: During the COVID years we had to deal with so many uncertainties planning the festival. Yet we still got it up and running. And with this experience to look back on, you’re much more relaxed when it comes to tackling problems. Likewise, by now we’ve gained far more routine in our new roles in our team after already working on three editions together.
shortfilm.de: What are the most striking features for you in the short films selected this year?
Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck: I don’t see the parallels that much at all in terms of the filmic content or themes, but for that in their formal aspects. And on a formal level, what stands out is how the fictional is being embedded in real contexts. And this goes as far as factually portraying real places and times, such as in NUIT BLANCHES, which is set in the election night on 22 April 2022 in France, or in the Chinese film WO DE PENG YOU (ALL TOMORROWS PARTIES), which starts on the last day of the 1990 Asian Games in China. That filmmakers would want to locate their films in such specific contexts is something that amazes me.
shortfilm.de: Do you think this is a trend whereby the fictional also wants to become authentic no matter what? Could we perhaps even speak of a development here, that there is now a focus on authenticity, a claim to authenticity that spans the media and concerns society as a whole?
Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck: I don’t feel that the films raise some claim to authenticity through their being embedded in reality. The opposite is true: This approach is more likely to result in fictionalization. And going back to the two examples mentioned earlier: Neither of them conveyed: “Look, I’m real because I’m happening here at this place and at this point in time,” but rather: “Look, I’m fiction. And I’m using a real background in front of which I’m happening as fiction.” It’s very interesting how they turned that around.
shortfilm.de: Which word would you use to describe this filmic form? The term “hybrid” has perhaps become a bit stale by now, but would that be a conceivable category here?
Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck: For me, hybrid is more of a stylistic category. Meaning that it is one I would chose when someone applies and uses both means – those of the fictional film and those of the documentary – in a work. The Australian film MARUNGKA TJALATJUNU (DIPPED IN BLACK) is an example of this: While it is scripted, it’s also autobiographic. With the enacted parts and those captured on a documentary level interwoven with each other, so to speak. Another hybrid film is THE WAITING. The sound consists of an interview with a biologist, with the images being incredibly elegant animations. It’s concerned with species extinction, but also with the question: How does research actually work?
shortfilm.de: Abortion, drug escapism and balconing represent just a few of the themes to be seen in the Berlinale Shorts program. I feel that this year’s edition is very bleak – especially when it comes to the perspectives of and for young people. There’s a certain hopelessness which permeates most films, ranging from the latent to the obvious. Is that something you noticed, too?
Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck: Not really. We do have HAPPY DOOM, the tragicomic LA HERIDA LUMINOSA (DAYDREAMING SO VIVIDLY ABOUT OUR SPANISCH HOLIDAYS) , or even FROM FISH TO MOON that explores the everyday world of the supermarket with an element of lightness. IT’S A DATE is a film that first grabs you by the thrill of it all. And WO DE PENG YOU (ALL TOMORROWS PARTIES) is just wonderful. It truly sweeps you away and into the night after you leave the cinema. So overall, the impression we had during the viewing process was a different one: That maybe this program is lighter compared to past years. But perhaps it’s different when you see the films combined with each other? I prefer to leave it up to the audiences to judge this, and I’m looking forward to their reactions.
shortfilm.de: The Berlinale is a film festival for its audiences, so you’d think that Q&As are a well-established practice here. Yet you’ve programmed an event that is explicitly called “Shorts take their time.” What’s that all about?
Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck: The whole Berlinale is very tightly planned timewise, so when it comes to our Q&As with the filmmakers, we have to keep a close eye on the time and we’re not able to open them up to the audiences. Which is really a pity, because the great thing about the Berlinale is the fact that the audiences can join in and become so involved. This is the reason why we decided four years ago to first launch the “Shorts take their time” event with audience participation, and we’ve managed to have the cinema to ourselves for two-and-a-half to three hours. The idea behind the event is the following: You discuss each and every film with one another until there’s nothing more left to say. And it’s only then that we continue with the next film. The people who go to these screenings know what to expect. And on top of that, the smaller cinema is nice and intimate hopefully, and less daunting. Four years ago, word spread quickly about the event and the screening was sold out in no time. Ultimately, “Shorts take their time” is a win-win situation for everyone involved. And it’s also a nice format for the filmmakers because they get a completely different response and feedback to their films.
shortfilm.de: I mentioned that I felt the program was somewhat pessimistic. Funnily enough, there is one film that does stand out for me as being optimistic and that tackles the #MeToo subject or, even more generally, the male gaze: Ours. A female filmmaker wants to make a film using an amateur filmmaker’s footage – and basically stumbles upon images of and from women that disturb her in-between the images of nature she was sorting through.
Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck: The film is highly relevant for me, because the director Morgane Frund was not content to remain with her revelation of the male gaze and expressing her indignation, believing to be in the right. Instead, she goes further and says: This hurts, but I’m going to enter into a dialogue now and express my discomfort. That process also requires that you take the other side seriously and engage yourself with it – which is hard work! And as the audience members, we have the privilege of being able to witness this painstaking work. Which is the reason why I’m really looking forward so much to sharing OURS with the audiences, and I’m certain that the discussions this film kicks off will continue. I guess you could say: The film is still far from over even after the closing credits.
shortfilm.de: The program does indeed seem highly artistic and experimental for an audience festival. And you’re also active as an artist, both filmically and with installations. How important is this aspect for you, also in terms of your work as the head and curator of the Shorts section?
Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck: We didn’t have any agenda during the viewing process. For me personally, my perspective on films is perhaps shaped by my classical training and education in animated film and documentaries, meaning that I’m quite strict when it comes to the craftsmanship components and aspects. That’s why I’m always delighted when someone uses and applies this craftsmanship in an unconventional manner. Which is also the exciting thing about short films anyway: That they use diverse aesthetics and are able to combine them. This is far more difficult when it comes to feature-length films, because the viewing habits and expectations of the audiences are much more narrowly set. But there are also entrenched viewing conventions with short films. For instance, a short film is happily used to determine whether a director is interesting and if they justify future investment. In this case, the short serves as proof of potential. By contrast, here at Berlinale Shorts, it’s all about the short films as such, which we regard as autonomous artworks. And we often don’t know very much at all really about the people who’ve made them.
shortfilm.de: Over the last few years, much has happened when it comes to short film. One example of this is the German Short Film Award, which is already the highest prize in monetary terms for a short film in Germany. Or the Short Film Day events on 21 December each year. Do you have the impression that such developments represent a boost to the awareness and perception of short film?
Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck: Both of these events are great developments for the short film sector, the filmmakers and the audiences – especially when you then take a look at a map of Germany and see how many institutions, locations and initiatives participate in the Short Film Day events and how different they all are from each other. And more and more people really are becoming involved here. In my opinion, the actual audiences for short film are far greater than we could ever imagine. It’s just that these audiences still aren’t aware of us. This is something I notice, for instance, at the shorts/salon*** events – the people there are completely enthusiastic about them and quickly become regular visitors. And even more visitors would certainly come along if there were more short film events and people got wind of them.
The complete Berlinale Shorts program is available here.
* Shorts, Communities and Conversations – Short Films and Social Work: Tuesday 21 February, 10:30, Canadian Embassy; free admission – prior online registration required
** Short Symphonies: Directors’ Scores: Thursday 23 February 14:00 to 15:30, HAU3, tickets available at Berlinale ticket shop
*** The shorts/salon events launched by Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck and Sarah Schlüssel are intended to provide a space for dialogue, playfulness and society by connecting film screenings with sociopolitical input or discussions. Appropriately, they are also held in one-off locations where you would not immediately expect to find them, such as in libraries. Admission is often free of charge.