ROME – When film critic and former Turin Intl. Young Film Festival director Alberto Barbera was handed the reins of the venerable Venice fest late last year for a four-year term, the film community voiced almost unanimous approval over the appointment of a proven programmer and organizer rather than a celebrity figurehead or political puppet.
As his first Venice Intl. Film Festival gets under way, Barbera faces the true test of maintaining this approval.
“This is the first year, with all the difficulties, uncertainties and approximations that entails,” Barbera tells Variety. “But what should be clear from the program is an indication of the direction in which we intend to steer Venice.
Vehicle for innovation
“My hope is that the festival will become an active vehicle for research, creativity and innovation, and a link between all operators in the film sector, whether they be from the majors or the independent sector,” he adds.
With a solid track record of uncovering and fostering new talent, and plowing new film terrain such as the Far East, Iran and Central Asia during the earliest phase of these regions emergence, Turin long has enjoyed a reputation as one of Italy’s most critically and commercially successful fests.
“I guess the most important thing I bring with me from the Turin experience is the curiosity to seek out new talent as well as an attitude of extreme openness, without preconceptions and prejudices in assembling a program,” Barbera says. “At the same time, I’m aware that Venice is an entirely different event; it’s one of the biggest and most important festivals in the world and as such has a certain role to fulfill.
Changing face of cinema
“Venice cannot ignore its tradition and its historical significance and therefore must continue to be a window for auteur cinema, with its customary attention to the most significant forms of creativity and individual expression in film,” he continues. “But the festival also needs to increase its attention toward the changing face of cinema.”
Perhaps a sign of this focus is the establishment of New Territories, a sidebar section devoted to cutting-edge film, video and docu work of both feature and nonstandard length.
While many would argue that film fests such as Locarno, Rotterdam and even Turin cater sufficiently to this more marginalized area and a major-league event like Venice should stick to big guns, Barbera sees this kind of forum as indispensable in any modern fest lineup.
“Clearly, the heart of the festival is the eighty features in the main sections,” he offers. “I have no intention of transforming Venice into a specialist event; that would be reductive. But with this small, lateral program dedicated to research and experimentation, I want to give people the opportunity as they take in all the important new features of also casting a glance at the new directions in which cinema is moving.
Quality over quantity
One significant change made by Barbera this year has been to reduce substantially the number of films selected and to stagger screening times, thus allowing festgoers with sufficient stamina to catch the entire lineup of 81 features, and 39 short- and medium-length works.
“Cutting back on numbers in a certain way boosts the quality of the program because we’re presenting what I believe is the cream of recent film production,” Barbera says.
“The choices we’ve made are precise, perhaps even rigorous, but they take into account the very complex reality of film today, a reality full of contradictions.”
Big fish in big pond
The transition from heading a successfully established niche event like the Turin fest, with a loyal press following, a solid infrastructure and steady support from its home city, to a high-profile, notoriously problem-plagued, bureaucracy-laden and frequently criticized event like Venice would seem a major leap. However, Barbera says that so far the frustrations are balanced by satisfactions.
“Perhaps it was impossible to try to make major changes in the space of only a year,” Barbera concedes. “There are major objective difficulties involved in introducing improvements and innovations to Venice’s organizational plan, many of them linked to the physical limitations and logistical problems of the Lido and the lack of adequate screening venues. But we’ll face those problems in time.”
The fledgling Venice chief said his biggest satisfaction has come from establishing a relationship with the U.S. majors, having dealt only rarely with studio product during his Turin years.
“I believe we’ve created the basis for a solid, mutually beneficial rapport that’s destined to develop in the coming years,” Barbera said.