Pandemic prepping at the Berlinale

Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian defend their new gender-neutral best actor award and explain how they'll be running Berlin's biggest cultural happening in the midst of a pandemic.

Berlinale power duo: managing director Mariette Rissenbeek with artistic director Carlo Chatrian.
Berlinale power duo: managing director Mariette Rissenbeek with artistic director Carlo Chatrian.Benjamin Pritzkuleit

Berlin-At the buzzing Berlinale offices at Potsdamer Platz, it feels like we're already in the middle of the Berlin Film Festival that takes place every February. But there are still four months to go before its 71st edition kicks off – under extraodinary conditions.

Ms Rissenbeek, Mr Chatrian, the Berlinale 2021 will being taking place in physical cinemas despite the corona pandemic. Why is this so important to you?

Mariette Rissenbeek: We want to use it to strengthen cinemas. Streaming has increased due to the pandemic and cinemas were closed for a long time. So it's very important for us to send out a signal that we believe in the big screen and in the cinema as a place of communication.

Carlo Chatrian: Every film festival is striving to show their films in theatres. During the lockdown, some had to change their plans. But now festivals are even taking place in places where the pandemic had a major impact: Venice, San Sebastian, Zurich and, in a few weeks' time, Rome and London. They are able to guarantee the safety of visitors. On the one hand, we have an obligation to the film industry, which is longing for places where people can meet. On the other, it's a pleasure for us to be able to offer the cinema experience.

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Mr Chatrian, you were just at Venice Film Festival. How was it?

Chatrian: I was in Venice and in Zurich. They were moments of happiness. People weren't not afraid. The organisation was very good. There were clear instructions. In Venice, you had to wear a mask everywhere, which basically made it easier than constantly taking it off and putting it on again. Online ticketing worked very well. I didn't experience a single crowd. There were fewer visitors, that made it easier. Above all it was a boost for the entire industry.

The Berlinale is a festival for the general public.  Last February, 334,000 tickets were sold. That won't be possible in 2021, will it?

Rissenbeek:  Unless we rent 20 additional cinemas.

Do you intend to do so?

Rissenbeek: We have to see how we can expand our capacities. If not every seat can be occupied, we won't be able to sell as many tickets as in 2020. We're aware of this.

Chatrian: We don't want to punish our audience. But we have to be realistic. It's a question of the budget.

Infobox image
Photo: Benjamin Pritzkuleit
The new Berlinale bosses
Managing director: Mariette Rissenbeek studied German, sociology and theatre studies in the Netherlands. After two semesters at FU Berlin, she stayed in Germany. She worked as a producer, then switched to German Films, a promotion agency, in 2002. She joined the Berlinale this year.
Artistic director: Turin native Carlo Chatrian studied literature and philosophy. He wrote for film magazines and has published several books on film. In 2002 he joined the selection committee of the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, and became its artistic director in 2012. He took the reins of the Berlinale with Rissenbeek in 2020.

Has coronavirus resulted in fewer film submissions?

Chatrian: During the summer we watched more or less the same number of films as in 2019. Films can still be submitted until the end of October, so it is difficult to say at the moment whether there will be fewer in the end. In any case, I'm not worried. Quantity is never a problem. It's all about finding the right films.

From 2021, no Silver Bear will be awarded to the best male and female actor. Instead, just a single gender-neutral bear. What led to that decision?

Rissenbeek: I've been working in the film industry for a long time, and the only prizes that distinguish between the sexes are actor awards. All other awards - best director, best camera and so on - are given regardless of gender. We're aware of the different opinions on gender-neutral awards and respect the different perspectives. But we think that we can also use it to advance the debate on gender justice.

Men are twice as likely to be seen in movies as women. They speak more and play more influential roles. So more men should be awarded the Silver Bear in the future, right?

Rissenbeek: If we make the bear gender-neutral, the jury will have to think more about what it actually wants to award. Why should there be different forms of evaluation for male and female performers?

But women are still underrepresented in films.

Chatrian: You're talking about quantity. The awards are about quality. I don't believe that women and men have different techniques and need to be evaluated differently. Of course, the decision is triggering debate, but that's a good thing.

The only advantage I see is that from now on you can also award a bear to non-binary people.

Rissenbeek: It is a good thing that in future we will no longer have to address the question of gender when we select the best actor's award.

Chatrian: The number of people who are refusing to align with a particular gender is growing. We do not want to exclude them.

The Actors' Association criticises the fact that the gender-neutral bear does nothing about the inequality of opportunities in the film industry.

Rissenbeek: But the Silver Bear, as he has been until now, has not done so either. You have to start earlier when it comes to equal opportunities for men and women in the industry. Our decision should be a contribution to deepening the discussion on what needs to be done to empower women.

The Berlinale's "mission statement" states that the festival sees itself as a driving force in the film industry. One goal is more diversity. What can the festival do to promote this goal?

Rissenbeek: The Berlinale has always shown films from a lot of countries and from many different perspectives. The festival wants to be a motor for diversity. We're dealing with this question more and more, both internally and externally. How diverse are our teams and committees? And how can we reach a more diverse audience?

Chatrian: We encourage diversity through our selection of films. And through the people we work with. Of course, we need to revisit this issue again and again.

Rissenbeek: The Africa Hub in the European Film Market has existed for a few years now to give the African film industry more presence. The World Cinema Fund promotes the diversity of the global film industry by supporting projects from countries with weaker film infrastructure and strengthening cooperation with German producers. The Berlinale Talents programme brings together young filmmakers from all over the world, so the Berlinale has done a lot to promote diversity.

A few days ago a study on the Nazi past of Berlinale founder Alfred Bauer was published. Can you explain how it was kept hidden for so long?

Rissenbeek: People with a Nazi past worked in several post-war cultural institutions. One wonders why people didn't take a closer look back then, why they didn't ask more questions. But presumably the focus was more on the future. They wanted things to continue, to allow the world to reinvent itself. Society often needs time to take a critical look at its repressed past. For us it's important that Bauer's Nazi involvement has now been exposed.

Chatrian: You have the right to ask this question, but it relates to the whole of society. History is a process. We're constantly rewriting it. By doing so, we understand better who we were and who we are.

This article was adapted from the original German by Maurice Frank.