Berlinale Shorts 2023. Short Talk with Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck

Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck was born in Frankfurt/Main and grew up in Indonesia, Japan, England and Bavaria. She studied at Camberwell College of Art and Design in London and received her degree from Film Academy Baden-Württemberg/Ludwigsburg, focusing on animation and documentary filmmaking. She has been curator and head of Berlinale Shorts since June 2019. She works with the moving image in various ways. For twenty years, she has been active as a programmer (Filmwinter Stuttgart, Kasseler Dokfest, ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival among others), moderator, jury member and panel participant. From 2007 to 2019, she served as a member of the selection committee for Berlinale Shorts. Her primary focus is the short film format. In addition, she has conceived and realized video installations for exhibitions, stage works and concerts like for example Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Hygiene Museum Dresden, GRIMMWELT Kassel, Humboldt Lab, Bauhaus Archive Berlin, Constanza Macras/DorkyPark, Mathilde Monnier, Schauspiel Köln, The Wooster Group NYC, the Berlin Philharmoniker and opera houses in Berlin, Frankfurt and Zürich. She teaches film theory and video practice at various art schools.

At this year’s Berlinale, Tara Karajica talks to Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck about the short form and this year’s edition of Berlinale Shorts.

How would you define the Berlinale Shorts section and its artistic direction?

Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck: At Berlinale Shorts, we see short film as an art form in and of itself. When people compare Film and Literature, they say the feature film is like the novel and the short film is like the short story. And, for us, short film is a poem – it has different roots, different possibilities. It has different liberties than the feature film or the novel. And, we are curious about that, about all the different ways short films can express themselves. So, in our case, short film is not so much a tool for talent scouting as an artistic tool for expression. Also, the audiences that come to us, I think they know that. We have a general audience in Berlin and we have an industry audience. It’s a very lively, well-attended festival and the audience is very curious about these kinds of films.

What can you say about this year’s selection? What would the focal points be this year?

A.H-D.: So, the focal points always emerge after the selection, because we go into the selection without having a specific theme or topic or agenda in mind. The pattern is that red threads appear once you have the selection in front of you, once it’s finished. And, this year, I have the feeling the stories are very heterogeneous; it’s very diverse and it’s more in the way people tell their stories that I see parallels. Almost all the films are somehow connected to reality or they mix fiction and reality in a very interesting way. That’s one thing. And, the other thing is that I think more than half of the films are made by women or co-directed by women and in more than half of the films, the main protagonist or one of the two protagonists is a woman. So, you will see different kinds of very interesting women in this program, which again, happened this way. It wasn’t something we looked for, but more and more people are telling stories with female characters in the lead, not necessarily only about women or feminist films, it’s more that the lead is female.

When you’re programming and selecting films, can you exclude your personal taste? If so, to what extent?

A.H-D.: I think it’s very difficult to exclude a personal view or approach. Then again, taste is a different topic. I did turn down films because I realized I liked them, but they’re not really good, they just pleased my taste. That’s why I have a very strict selection committee who, in case I fall for a film because it pleases my taste, will surely let me know that it’s not a good idea to choose this film or that film. But, then again, of course, the selection is, in the end, my selection because I’m in charge of the selection. It’s not an equal voting system that we have. It’s one person who selects, supported by an advisory team made up of eight people. So, yes, I’m in charge, but it’s maybe something more complex than taste that is at stake. But it is a subjective selection, for sure. Art is always subjective. It’s very difficult to make an objective selection. And, that’s why I’m so glad that there are so many short film festivals around because they all have very different profiles. Even the A-list festivals which also have feature length films, but also the very prestigious short film festivals often select very different films and I’m very glad about that, because it shows that the world is very rich and the artistic expression is very rich and there are very different ways of choosing. Quality is also a difficult word because everybody has different criteria for quality. So, yes, Berlinale Shorts is hopefully a very good selection and indeed more of a subjective selection.

What do you think of the underrepresentation of short films in the media?

A.H-D.: They don’t know what they’re missing out!

That’s what I’ve always been saying!

A.H-D.: We do have a great audience here at Berlinale Shorts and very good and big cinemas to watch and enjoy the short films, and the rest of the world just doesn’t know what they’re missing out on! But the doors are wide open, the arms are wide open. Just come over and enjoy!

I couldn’t agree more! What is your opinion of the situation of short films today? How is it like in Germany?

A.H-D.: I think there are excellent short films out there. Every year, I’m amazed by the quality of the work and the diversity of the work and it’s just such a pleasure to go through the submissions and pick what we would like to share with the audience. So, I think the treasure trove that short film provides is amazing and beautiful and very, very, very good and very rich. I also have the feeling that the audience is there. There are a lot of short film lovers out there. And, I’m sure there are also a lot of short film lovers out there who don’t even know they are short film lovers yet. Also, short film festivals like Hamburg, Oberhausen, Interfilm, Dresden, Winterthur… They’re also well-frequented. So, I think that in that respect short film is doing well. When I look at the numbers of short film festivals and the attendance of the audience, I would say that short film is thriving in Germany. When I look at the general awareness in terms of short films and press coverage in the big media outlets, I would say no. Again, they don’t know what they’re missing out!

You have already mentioned the support of the audience that Berlinale Shorts has, but can you elaborate on that a bit more?

A.H-D.: In Berlin, we’re very spoilt because Berlin loves the Berlinale in general – maybe also because it brings some light and glamour to the gray, depressing winter. Thanks to the festival, people can snuggle up in the cinema and dive into different worlds and escape this great sadness out there on the streets of Berlin. They study the whole catalogue inside out, and they have elaborate plans when they want to watch what. Often, people take time off work to go to the cinema and stand in line to get tickets. So, it’s a pleasure in general to work with this audience or for this audience. And, the Berlinale as a festival is very generous with short films in the sense that we get the big cinemas and we get to repeat every screening four times. So, there are a lot of chances for the audience to see the short films. And, we start with the premieres already on Monday. So, the whole week is full of short film screenings. We’re almost always sold out and the audience like to be engaged. They like to be challenged, be thrown into different words and different aesthetics and go from one short film to the next and join this sort of rollercoaster ride. It’s a very open-minded, curious audience. We always have a Q&A after each film and, when I started four years ago, we introduced a special repetition screening called “Shorts take their time,” where we invite the audience to join the Q&A. For those screenings, we block the cinema for three hours and we talk about each film, until there’s nothing left to say and then move on to the next film. We started this format four years ago as an experiment. And, after two days, all the other screenings were immediately sold out. People really enjoyed it, and they come back for that. So, I would say, short film as a conversation starter is definitely working and short films can attract big crowds.

That is absolutely fantastic! What advice would you give to young filmmakers when submitting their film to Berlinale Shorts?

A.H-D.: There is not much advice I can give. But don’t bother writing emails! I prefer to see the film rather than read emails. We get a lot of emails when people promote their films and tell us why it is such a relevant, important, amazing film. I don’t get to read them because I don’t have the time to read them. There is somebody in the office who reads them to make sure that we don’t miss any important information or questions. But don’t waste your time on that. It’s more important that you have made a beautiful film and shared it with us. Make sure the subtitles are correct. We see more and more subtitles that sometimes seem to be done by Google Translate because they often don’t make any sense. Put some time and money into that. Then, you can also follow us on social media to see what kind of films we present.

How difficult is it to make the Berlinale Shorts stand out and not be engulfed by the whole Berlinale experience?

A.H-D.: I think the Berlinale has always been a very good, generous place for short films because our screenings start already on Monday and we get the big cinemas. We get to repeat the films several times. And, we also have some special screenings for short films. So, there’s a lot of space and time dedicated to short film, especially compared to other big A-list festivals. And, our awards are handed out at the same Awards Ceremony as the feature films. So, at the Berlinale, there are two Golden Bears; one for feature film and one for short film. All the others are Silver Bears. They are handed out at the same Awards Ceremony with the red carpet and TV, on Saturday night, in a huge auditorium and all the celebrities. So, the shorts are definitely part of the game. And, at the same time, we have big curatorial freedom. We don’t have to please anybody; we can do what we think is right for the program and what we think is relevant for the audience. I think that the Berlinale is a good place for shorts. Also, our artistic director, Carlo Chatrian, watches all the films that are being screened at the Berlinale. That’s really important to him. And, he has seen all the short films as well. We often have conversations about them. He gives me his opinion, but lets me do what I think is right. But he also follows what’s going on in the short film world and how it connects to the future.

How would you say that the Berlinale Shorts section has evolved over time?

A.H-D.: It started in 2007. And then, I think, in 2008, already Maike Mia Höhne took over. Before that, the short films were screened before the feature films and they were spread all over the Berlinale, in all the different sections. I think the award for short film has always existed. But then, Dieter Kosslick decided it needed a section of its own to really give short film the place it deserves, to give it special attention. Maike Mia was very good at curating a specific profile and making some demands. One demand was to move the Awards Ceremony for the shorts from, I think, Thursday night to Saturday night. She said: “No, people, this is also a Golden Bear! We need to be with the other Golden Bear (for feature film) at the official Awards Ceremony!” It took her a few years and a few battles, but she managed to move it from some afternoon event to the big auditorium on Saturday night. The number of screenings has stayed the same. It has always been five, I believe. The number of films became less because the films became longer and we couldn’t squeeze so many films into five programs anymore. But, this year, they became shorter again. We were very surprised that some of the programs are just a little bit over sixty minutes. So, we have the five slots, twenty films, and less film-minutes than in the past.

How many careers has it launched? How important is it to win a Golden Bear for Best Short Film on the short film festival circuit?

A.H-D.: On the short film festival circuit, to be selected at the Berlinale Shorts is in general quite helpful because all the programmers from other festivals immediately ask for screeners – even as soon as the press release is out. So, everybody’s very curious to see those films and want to think whether to invite them to their own festivals. Some of the films were very successful on the festival circuit without having received a Golden Bear. One example is Haulout. Will My Parents Come to See Me was nominated for the European Film Award and won many prestigious awards without having won a Golden Bear to start with. So, the jury’s decision and the festival circuit are not necessarily the same. It doesn’t matter so much because the festival circuit is curious about the whole lineup anyway. So, even if you don’t win a Golden Bear as a statue, the bear on the logo is already very good.

According to you, what can we do to make sure short films are more visible and to preserve them?

A.H-D.: I think short film has a potential to be screened in so many different contexts outside the festival circuit because they are short and they can be combined with other forms of expression. If you look at film history, short film started as a circus show with a magician before the film and maybe a music performance after it. So, this potential of combining different short films with one another and putting them in a different context, as well as combining them with something completely different is something we could exploit much more. That’s why a friend of mine and I started shorts/salon (, where we bring together short films, expert knowledge, curiosity and playfulness and take it all to places that are maybe not expecting us.

Photo credits: ©AnjulaSchaub.

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