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Carlo Chatrian on Splitting Berlin Film Festival’s 71st Edition into Virtual and Physical Events

Carlo Chatrian Berlin Film Festival Artistic Director
Courtesy of Alexander Janetzko/Berlinale

For his debut edition earlier this year, Berlin Film Festival artistic director Carlo Chatrian was, in hindsight, quite fortunate. The 70th edition of the Berlinale and the European Film Market took place without a hitch Feb. 7-17, shortly before most of the world went into lockdown due to coronavirus.

Next year is a different story. Chatrian and Berlin’s executive director Mariette Rissenbeek have been forced to come up with a two-stage festival as COVID-19 infection rates have hit record levels in Germany. A virtual event will take place March 1-5, and a physical gathering called Berlinale Summer is planned for June.

Chatrian spoke to Variety about how he and Rissenbeek have been navigating the many organizational challenges posed by the pandemic and the reasons for their tough decision to radically alter the Berlinale’s 71st edition.

What’s going to happen with Berlin?

The 71st edition will have a totally new and unprecedented formula, just like the year we have been through and the times we are living in. In order to fulfil our mission, we have put in place what we call a festival in two steps. It’s just one festival, but we are going to have two distinct, yet related events.

We have two goals to fulfil: one is to support the film industry through our selection, but also give them a space to meet, even though this meeting won’t happen face-to-face, but rather online. The other goal is very particular and very dear to Berlin: it’s to be able to offer a theatrical experience to our audience. From the moment we understood that these two elements couldn’t stay together because of the way the pandemic is evolving in Germany, we took the only decision possible, which was to separate them with two distinct events.

So how are these two events going to work?

There will be a first step in March with online activities for professionals and the presentation of our lineup. And then later on, in the beginning of summer, in June, there will be what we are calling the ‘Berlinale Summer.’ It will be a celebration. We really would like to highlight the joyfulness in a more relaxed atmosphere at that time.

Will the public film screenings at Berlinale Summer be the same titles presented in the lineup to professionals in March?

Yes, if that’s the angle you want to use. My angle is that the first step is the market, which is bigger than our lineup. So, the first step is the market, [Berlinale Talents], the World Cinema Fund and the Co-Production Market taking place. In order to support the market, of course, the Berlinale 71 lineup will be there and we are confident that it will support the market. But it’s not going to be an online version of the festival, because the festival itself is the sum of the two events.

Talk to me about the decision-making process behind this re-conception of the Berlinale

Let’s try to make a long story short. When we announced we wanted to have the Berlin Film Festival taking place physically, this was in late summer. We were confident because of the way Germany handled the first [coronavirus] wave. The experience I personally had in Venice and in Zurich confirmed that. From late October/beginning of November the situation changed. Germany entered a lockdown, and all throughout Europe cases increased in a very dramatic way.

So at that point, the first plan we put in place was to postpone the festival. Of course, that plan was discussed with German authorities. More recently, because of the curve of the pandemic, especially in Germany, we understood that the possibility of postponing the festival was no longer on the table.

One the one hand, we don’t know [what will happen] and authorities cannot tell us what the situation will be. On the other hand, we would have been sending out a kind of contradictory message to the city [of Berlin], because authorities are telling citizens to stay at home for several weeks or months, but then we would have been telling the world to please come to Berlin at beginning of spring. We also had the option to cancel the festival completely, but because of the the support we received from the government, both politically and financially, and because we got so many messages from the industry and from theaters here in Berlin that canceling the festival would have sent a bad signal, we decided to try something new. There are a lot of question marks, of course, but we will find the answers by doing it.

Let’s drill down on the market. It’s clearly important for the industry to have a market in March

The EFM and other activities play an important role in the global film industry. And it’s very important that these activities happen in the first quarter, not only because it’s the first big event of the year, but also because it helps other markets and other festivals have their activities. We really wanted to have a physical market, but decided it was better to have an online market than nothing at all.

Regarding the public event in June, do you expect talent to come to Berlin with the films?

We call it a celebration, and to celebrate an event you need films, but also the people who made them, as well as the audience. It is our wish to have the filmmakers [and] the people who worked on the films to be celebrating with us. But I guess you know better than me, in these times, we can’t be sure of anything!

For us, it is a wish, and we are working to have that in place. Of course the Berlinale Summer is not the festival — it’s a different model. Not only because of the number of films, but because the goal is a different one. Precisely because the market will have already happened, the angle won’t be focused so much on international, but rather on, as I said, a celebration. And depending on how the pandemic evolves and how things will be in April/May, it can have a more international profile, or less so. But this is not the goal: we don’t want to have a festival with new titles happening in June. The titles that we are going to show in June are the titles that will be unveiled in our lineup [in March].

When will you be announcing the lineup?

We have to discuss this, but I think, as usual, 20 days before the market, which starts March 1.