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Venice Chief Alberto Barbera on Collaborating With Toronto and Why Fall Film Festivals Are Key to Global Restart Effort

Venice Chief Alberto Barbera
Jacopo Salvi/Courtesy Venice Biennale

Venice Film Festival artistic director Alberto Barbera has been through a rollercoaster ever since the coronavirus crisis struck.

But he never stopped working, and on Tuesday unveiled a 60-title lineup which, while a bit thin on Hollywood glitz, represents the core essence of Venice any year. A rich roster of quality films from top global auteurs and some newcomers that confirms “the vibrancy of contemporary film,” as Barbera put it in his introduction. The lineup also includes a “female component” that until this edition had been lacking and limited to “embarrassing percentages,” as he noted. Of the 18 films competing for the Golden Lion, eight are directed by women, selected “exclusively on the basis of their quality.”

Barbera spoke to Variety about how he’s managed to assemble what hopefully will be the first major post-pandemic physical film event.

Tell me what’s it been like navigating this coronavirus crisis while trying to assemble Venice.

The main problem is that for months, I operated in total uncertainty. At first I thought we couldn’t have the festival. Beyond some generic hope, the idea that Venice would be cancelled like so many other events was a very dominant one. Then, we understood that we had a chance. All this time I never stopped working, always acting “as if” we were having the festival. But it was like working in a vacuum. Once we understood that we could have the festival, other uncertainties kicked in: about the number of films we would be able to invite. Due to security protocols, at first we thought we could only invite 25-30 films. So I wondered if it was worth it. Then we got past this. We understood that A) we could have the festival; and B) we could have it with a significant number of films… But up until the end, until yesterday, uncertainty pertaining to the availability of films (from outside Europe) was an everyday occurrence. It’s been a continuous stop and go.

What’s been the latest source of your uncertainty?

The cancellation of Telluride has been an unexpected blow. Until two days prior, everything was tranquil. Producers had figured out their marketing strategies and were looking at the possibility of doing Telluride, then Venice, and then Toronto to promote their films for fall releases for which they need a stronger promotion than usual.

The cancellation of Telluride threw a monkey wrench in all this. Even the producers who were really confident went back to doubting and decided to wait for better times ahead. I’ve seen it all! This kept the selection in limbo more than usual. I’m still waiting for a couple of answers…We haven’t closed the process.

How is the usual Venice/Toronto dynamic playing out in this new world? 

Each of us makes their choices in line with their tastes and audiences. But the basic attitude has changed. Until last year the attitude was a de-facto competition, though not an out-and-out war…This year that’s all changed. We all understood that we were in a extraordinary situation. We started talking as early as the beginning of April. We stopped thinking in a logic of competition between festivals and of festivals identity. The most recurring words in our exchanges were ‘solidarity’ and ‘collaboration.’ Solidarity not towards each other, but towards the entire film industry.  We said: ‘If there is a film that we all like, that we want to promote together, we will find a way of doing that.’ This has happened with “Nomadland,” but it will also happen with other films such as Gianfranco Rosi’s “Notturno.” I hope this different attitude will carry over to next next year as well.

How much did the Oscars being pushed to April impact the availability of films for Venice and Toronto? In other words: how much will the role of Venice and Toronto as Oscar drivers diminish this year?

Probably yes. But it’s not a big deal; it’s not essential. It’s understandable that in a year like this that we give priority to other purposes of a festival. Nobody can hold it against us that this year Venice and Toronto will have either less movies or less glamour. Or less Oscar contenders. 

The most pressing issue is getting people into movie theaters.

That’s our fundamental role. Festivals are huge magnet. Their audiences are always growing. To restart with festivals, to prove that we can go back — in total security and tranquility — into movie theaters is crucial. It’s crucial because we know that lots of spectators are afraid of going back to see a movie in a theater. Once audiences return to festivals, other audiences will also be more prone to go see movies, especially the new ones screening at festivals that will be released in the fall.

All the delegations are invited. You have several U.S. films. What’s the situation in terms of coming to Venice from the U.S.?

We can only hope that current restrictions will be lifted. Otherwise it’s unlikely that guests from the U.S. and other countries will be able to come. Europe is still closed to visitors from non-European countries…We will see. But we know that rules can change. There are 5 weeks to go until we start and it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen.

It’s clear that after lots of back and forth the reported collaboration with Cannes hasn’t happened. Will Thierry Fremaux be coming to Venice and is some kind of Venice/Cannes collaboration still on the table?

The reason we didn’t come to a collaboration agreement with Cannes is that, while we were discussing it, things changed so drastically that it no longer made sense to share a lineup or things like that…It wasn’t ill will on anyone’s part. It just didn’t make sense. But since we made this choice together and have continued to talk about what we could to together I can confirm that there will be something that we will collaborate on. We are working on it and fine-tuning the details, and will announce it in a few days.