Based in Switzerland, John Canciani has been the Artistic Director of the Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur since 2013 and has curated programs for different festivals and art institutions. He’s a founding member of Pro Short, the Swiss Short Film Lobby, a film curator at the Cinema Cameo in Winterthur, where he advises the program manager, regularly curates film programs and moderates film talks, and a member of the Swiss and the European Film Academies. John is also a board member and expert at the Foundation Visions SudEst. He has a Master in Advanced Studies in Curating and has published an issue of the “OnCurating” Journal with the title “The future of short films.”
Ahead of the 2022 edition of the Winterthur International Short Film Festival, Tara Karajica talks to John Canciani about this year’s edition of the festival, film curation and the short form.
How would you define the Winterthur International Short Film Festival, its artistic direction and the festival’s Competition sections?
John Canciani: The competitions are certainly about representing what we see as relevant. We open up a window, look at what’s out there and try to show the breadth of the contemporary short film production. What is important is what is relevant at the moment in terms of aesthetics, form, narration and subject matter. On the other hand, we also look at historical currents, such as the strong tradition of short film in the context of political film. Diversity has always been in the DNA of the Kurzfilmtage, but we have certainly aimed to avoid a purely Western perspective by including voices from different regions. These films should tell their stories from their point of view, with the risk of not being able to understand all the details because they use different cultural or social codes. It is important for us to feel the authenticity and urgency of these stories.
What can you say about this year’s selection?
J.C.: Besides what I have mentioned before, we discussed what works on a big screen in terms of image and sound, so what we are looking for is a cinematic experience. This year, we are moving completely into cinemas, with seven screens in total. Before this year, we used to build cinema equipment into theater venues, which had its disadvantages, especially regarding the quality of the sound. Already last year, when we came back after our online edition, we wanted the audience to feel why it’s worth coming to the cinema. We have a wide range of topics. Many of the films are very engaging. Gender roles and self-determination have certainly been given a larger place, as the social discourse surrounding this topic is also strong here at the moment. Where our world is going is also one of the central questions in many films.
When programming and selecting films, can you exclude your personal taste? If so, to what extent?
J.C.: This is crucial for me and should be valid for all programmers. Of course, taste is important, but firstly we need to add films to our shortlist that we think have a relevance and should be watched by all programmers. When we must select between different films which are comparable, we need parameters. One of them is taste, besides many others. Outside of competition parameters, this may be less the case, but also here I think the topic of the program should guide my choices and have a higher priority than the personal taste.
How do other festivals influence your selection and, consequently, the concept of the festival?
J.C.: It’s hard to pick out an example, but I believe everything has an influence on our reflection. It can be the programming, structure, guests, formats, etc. Then, we see what we do with these reflections. I believe every festival can be inspiring no matter its size, reputation, and budget. I think we have to look in all directions, not only up to the next bigger thing.
What do you think of the underrepresentation of short films in the media?
J.C.: Of course, it’s a pity and it often feels like shorts are not worth writing and reading about. But it’s, of course, complex. For sure, there is a lack of canon and therefore often film journalists, film critics and film academics just forget about short films. I’m aware that sometimes it’s hard for journalists to write a full text about a short film or a short filmmaker. But often when I read a text about a filmmaker, the shorts are not even mentioned in their oeuvre. For example, when someone writes about Miguel Gomes, why not mention Redemption? – an absolutely amazing piece of work by him. Just mentioning the film will make readers interested in checking out this film that they have probably never heard of. Talking about this work within the text would be amazing. I think we could discuss this for the rest of the interview.
What is your opinion of the situation of short films today? What is the situation like in Switzerland?
J.C.: That’s a big question with many different aspects. Generally, it has never been easier to make films. The technical equipment has become accessible. The know-how is there. There is still an increase in productions. Maybe not as much as five years ago in terms of shorts, but still, it’s increasing. I can talk about the production situation here in Switzerland. On the one hand, we have different film funding possibilities. In the past years, there was a big aim to professionalize structures to get funding. This means that often filmmakers depend on working with producers to fulfill the demands that are needed. The main governmental film funding agencies prefer it when experienced producers work with filmmakers, especially with the young talents. The Swiss Association Pro Short (https://proshort.ch/) made a study, which will be discussed as part of our Industry Days, and proved that one minute of a short film is significantly less subsidized than one minute of a feature film. This makes shorts much less attractive for producers, something we hear regularly about. The effort to produce a professional short film is huge when we think about the context of potential funding and what can be accomplished with festival wins, sales, etc. Hence this contradiction that is in favor of more experienced filmmakers to find an experienced producer since it’s a lower risk when they invest in a short film. I don’t want to say that films must only be produced within these funding strategies. I’m a great fan of independent and low-budget films, but I would like that filmmakers be given a choice regarding the way they think it is best for their project and not forced in a direction.
In that sense, can you talk about the festival’s collaboration with Pro Short?
J.C.: As one of the founding members and still active members of the board, I have always wanted to have a strong exchange. We decided at a very early stage that Winterthur is the place to discuss matters among us, and often connect it to the industry activities, meetings, exchange with the shorts industry and have our general assembly. So, it’s our Think Tank. To communicate with the industry – and here we mean the film industry in general – we use the Solothurner Filmtage (National Festival), Visions du Réel or Locarno Film Festival. We have the tradition to have an event in Locarno at the lake, where we invite the Swiss film industry, but also all international guests of the festival who are connected to short films. Evrey year, “Chat’n’Swim” is a bigger success.
The festival’s website states: “All you need to enjoy short films is an open mind for new discoveries and surprises.” Can you talk about the festival’s audience and support?
J.C.: We are very lucky to have a big crowd and very dedicated regulars coming every year. We are one of the top events in Winterthur that attracts visitors from the region including Zürich and from further away. Being the most relevant short film festival in Switzerland and fully dedicated to this form, we have a big credibility within the Swiss industry, filmmakers, students and cinephiles. Besides that, many people understand that we don’t want to show what can be seen on television everyday, in cinemas and online at any time. It’s not about judging, since many things on the channels I have mentioned are great, but why ask money for a mini version that already exists somewhere else? We can offer an alternative. The audience has a big choice of different types of filmmaking, ranging from entertainment to artistic films. Debates, exchange, but also parties make the festival a special place. We have proven in the last twenty-five years that the audience can trust us and that it’s worth to keep an open mind and discover new things that we as a festival have carefully selected for them.
What advice would you give to young filmmakers when submitting their film to the Winterthur International Short Film Festival?
J.C.: Fill in the form as carefully as you can! Our job is to make a selection, which means excluding many works and films. I’m aware how much energy, personality, emotions and resources go into a film, no matter whether we think it is relevant or whether we like it. We are not the filmmakers’ enemy, since we love cinema and we need their films, but like I said, we have to narrow it all down. Also, not selecting a film doesn’t automatically mean that we don’t like it. There are many factors why a film gets into a competition or not. Some things have nothing to do with the film as such and filmmakers can’t influence it – it’s out of their hands. This said, I hope filmmakers can respect our work and selection.
Can you talk about the festival’s Short Film Conference membership?
J.C.: Sure. We see our membership as being part of a community where we share values. Every festival has their own specialties and ways to work. This often also has to do with local characteristics or structure and the history of an organization. Within the conference, we have a direct access to each other to have an exchange, learn from each other and more importantly to understand other opinions. We try to help each other where we can and that’s also the reason I’m on the board, because I believe we can inspire each other and help, no matter the size or direction of a festival. Together, we are stronger than we think – if we keep on being active, of course.
What lies in store for the Winterthur International Short Film Festival for this year?
J.C.: There is so much, but maybe some of my personal highlights.
The Swiss Competition has nineteen films out of which eighteen are world premieres… So, there is a lot to discover!
Our main focus this year are the Andean states, which include Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. It consists of eight programs. Within “Los Estados Andinos,” we have two historical programs curated by Federico Windhausen with rare films. “Blurred Lines” has its roots in the tradition of magic realism and deals with creatures in different forms. “Stories of the Uncanny” is a view on contemporary animation as engaged and political film.
I’m very proud to have Kurdwin Ayub as “Person in Focus” with a masterclass, a short film program and her most recent feature film, Sonne, one of the Berlinale hits this year.
“Films in Dialogue – Re: Dear Oleksiy…” is a program that is very close to my heart. This program is based on the idea of an exchange between pen pals. The dialogue begins with an email from me to Oleksiy Radynski, a Ukrainian filmmaker, writer, and activist, in which I recommend a film and share my thoughts on it. Oleksiy, in turn, responds with a message and a film suggestion. A ping-pong-like conversation evolves, both in the emails and in the film program. This experiment shows how a program can be created intuitively as well as collaboratively. The full dialogue can be read here: https://www.kurzfilmtage.ch/en/programme/2022/Special-Programmes/Films-in-Dialogue-Re-Dear-Oleksiy-/event
We have been trying to get A Wall is a Screen to Winterthur for quite a while, and this year, it will finally happen.
Last but not least, we will have two very interesting installations at our new partner location “oxyd,” which I can strongly recommend to visit.