Austrian fests back on track after split

Diagonale drama follows successful event

After a tumultuous two years, calm appears to have returned to Austria’s small but vibrant film fest scene.

The Diagonale, the all-Austrian festival at the center of an acrimonious two-year battle between the local film industry and secretary of state for the arts Franz Morak, unspooled in the picturesque medieval town of Graz this year as if nothing had ever happened.

Kicking off March 14 with Joerg Kalt’s “Crash Test Dummies,” fest racked up a record 25,000 admissions in its six days. Jessica Hausner’s “Hotel” took the top pic honor.

Then six weeks after the fest wrapped, two out of the management team quit. Robert Buchschwenter and Georg Tillner stepped down due to clashing views about how the event should be run. Birgit Flos remains as artistic direction; Oliver Testor joins as administrative head. “The triumvirate structure made it difficult for us to work together,” says Flos. “It has been painful and difficult but we remain positive.”

In 2004, the Diagonale was nearly cancelled amid an uproar sparked by Morak’s heavy-handed attempt to expand its focus beyond Austria to Eastern Europe.

After the 2003 edition, he ignored industry calls for the reappointment of Christine Dollhofer as artistic director, installing instead Serb Miroljub Vuckovic of the Belgrade Film Festival.

The move provoked a boycott by the local industry and the creation of the renegade Original Diagonale. Within six months, Vuckovic resigned. The Original Diagonale team put the 2004 fest together in less than two months.

“Last year there was a sense of triumph that we had managed to maintain control of the event and pull it together at such short notice,” says Tillner. “This year we really wanted to calm things down a bit.”

Dollhofer is now based in the upper Austrian city of Linz, where she heads the fledgling Crossing Europe Festival aimed at European cinema, with a focus on innovative first and second works tackling contemporary issues.

“Although the Diagonale was focused on Austrian cinema, it would always devote some space to neighboring films so I had built up quite a network,” says Dollhofer. “I find the international aspect (of the Crossing Europe Festival) really refreshing.”

Meanwhile, Austria’s main film event, the Vienna Intl. Film Festival, is thriving. It posted record attendance of 81,000 admissions in October vs. 75,000 in 2003. To cope with the rising numbers, another screening venue will be added this year.

Fest director Hans Hurch says one of his biggest challenges is maintaining the event’s intimate atmosphere while allowing it to grow. “It’s a fine line between being too big and too small.”

Hurch says it is the festival’s lineup of fare outside the mainstream that draws the crowds. “We also screen more commercial titles,” he notes. “The festival is an important platform for Austrian distributors, but its appeal goes beyond that.”