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‘Great Freedom’ Director Sebastian Meise on Inequality in Film: ‘We’re Still Far Too Fixated on Our Western Bubble’

Great Freedom International Features Shortlist
Courtesy of Everett Collection

In a new series, Variety catches up with the directors of the films shortlisted for the International Feature Film Oscar to discuss their road to the awards, what they’ve learned so far, and what’s taken them off guard.

In “Great Freedom,” the winner of the runner-up prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, Austrian director Sebastian Meise takes an empathetic look at the relationship between two prisoners in a German jail: convicted murderer Viktor (Georg Friedrich), and a gay man, Hans (Rogowski), imprisoned repeatedly over three decades under the country’s homophobic Paragraph 175 statute. The film is Austria’s entry in the International Feature Film category of the Oscars, and is one of 15 films to be shortlisted.

What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the best international feature Oscar?

It’s incredibly exciting, and personally, I wasn’t expecting it at all. When we finished the film in June last year, the Oscars weren’t even on the horizon. It was a strong year for international filmmaking. Many films were held back during the pandemic and then all came out at once during that brief window of time. We knew it was going to be very difficult to find a place alongside all the big productions and to now be on a list with some of the most important international films of the past year obviously makes us all very happy.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of your campaign thus far?

That I am now unable to travel to the U.S. due to the current spread of COVID. I was in New York and Los Angeles for our campaign in November and December. That was a great experience. I met a lot of people and had wonderful and in-depth conversations about our film but also about filmmaking in general. Ultimately, that’s what the whole process is about: the exchange with filmmakers who work in a completely different environment. I am very grateful to have had this opportunity. The recent developments with the coronavirus prevent this exchange from continuing. It’s very sad because it makes the whole campaign much more impersonal.

Although you are shortlisted in the international feature category, the best picture category has been devoid of non-English language features. “Parasite” (2019) was the first winner in history. Do you feel international voices are siloed in media and film criticism?

Basically, it is extremely difficult to be seen with a film. The world is big and there are countless excellent films. Very few make it into the international spotlight. Unless you’re an established director, that has a lot to do with luck: At which festival the film premieres, which people see it there, what momentum it gets, and which distributor is taking it. When all the factors come together, a kind of snowball effect can occur that allows the film to embark on a long and intense journey. But, of course, it can’t do it on its own. For a film like ours, you need many people who believe in it, invest in it and work hard to ensure that it goes beyond its own borders.

Are there ways to improve this process when it comes to awards season?

Unfortunately, I can’t really judge that, because I still know far too little about the Academy’s voting system. I’m just getting to know it.

When trying to get consumer audiences to watch an international feature, there seems to be a focus on the length of a movie, but when something like “Avengers: Endgame” gets a three-hour runtime, Marvel fans are ecstatic and say they could go longer if they wanted to. Is that fair?

I am generally rather skeptical about the tendency for films to become longer and longer. In a cinematic story, two hours is something of a magical limit for me. This may be old-fashioned, but that’s how I work. Of course there are exceptions, rare epic masterpieces in film history that can last three or even four hours, but in general reducing a story to two hours is the ideal form for me. Both dramaturgically and rhythmically. Every film has its own pulse, but I’m a proponent of concentration. In this sense, I personally have no problem with the focus on the length, also because runtime is an important criterion, especially for theatrical distribution. Whether Marvel movies are compact enough to last three hours, I can’t really say because I rarely watch them.

The Academy has favored European countries, with Italy and France winning triple the number of times than a country like Japan. How can we encourage more diversity from all countries globally?

By delving deeper into films that are made far away from us. Historically, the U.S. and Europe are closely linked. Of course, there are also many overlapping points in filmmaking. Although American and European cinema have grown in parallel, they have always influenced each other. Asian cinema, for example, has only gained in importance in the last 20 years, both in Europe and in the U.S. Films from Korea, Thailand or Japan are increasingly affecting our cinematic consciousness. A cultural exchange has started, which is enormously important in a world that is becoming more and more linked together.

Unfortunately, this does not yet apply to films from the African continent. Very few of them make it to us. We can only encourage this exchange by watching the films that come from these countries. The more we want to see them, the more they will come to us. But we’re still far too fixated on our Western bubble. This certainly has something to do with convenience, because it can sometimes be exhausting to decipher codes that we find difficult to understand and to immerse ourselves in cultures that are foreign to us. But it is precisely the medium of film that gives us a great opportunity to experience realities and stories from countries that we believe have little to do with our everyday lives — they do have a lot to do with us.

You are representing your country to an American awards body (although there are voters who are international). How do you feel about being that representative?

I don’t feel like I’m representing an entire nation. I made a film that was entered into the Oscar race by Austria. Only one film can be chosen and it was ours. I’m very happy about that and of course it’s a great honor. But in the end, any other Austrian film could have been selected, because, as we all know, there are no categories of good and bad in art. In this respect, our film does not represent the whole of Austrian filmmaking. Because that is very diverse.

As your country’s representative film, is there any government grant/fund you can access for the campaign?

Yes, there is. But the main part of the campaign is taken over by MUBI, both organizationally and financially. MUBI is the greatest luck of all for our film. They take care of it in such a passionate and personal way and they invest so much — I can’t say enough how happy I am for this collaboration.

Members have to opt in to vote for nominees for international feature. On the Academy Streaming Room, they separate those films, and there is no charge for placing them on the platform. However, for $12,500, a film will be placed on the best picture section, adding an increased chance of viewing, which benefits financially lucrative movie studios. Not every filmmaker or country has the means to pay that fee. In addition, the Academy charges for email blasts to members with reminders to vote, and hosted Q&As. Do you find the process of getting nominated fair? If no, how would you like to see it change?

It’s probably not fair, but I don’t have a solution for it either. As I said, I know far too little about the academy’s voting system to judge it. But when it comes to marketing a film, money plays a central role. Advertising creates awareness, so whoever has the money to make themselves visible has a fundamental advantage. This is the basic principle of the capitalistic social system we have created and which most of us support every day, no matter how unfair it may be. Of course we have to question that, but then we have to create an honest alternative.

Many other film prizes work differently [such as the] Austrian Film Prize. There all films are sent into the race, which should guarantee equal opportunities. But I wonder if that’s not a bit of an illusion. It is impossible for the members of these academies to see all the films put up for nomination. The majority manages perhaps a fraction of that. Certain films are then seen that have already been successful anyway, that have been to the important festivals and have strong distribution, which ensures that they are noticed. These few films are then selected and the others don’t stand a chance because they are hardly ever watched. So basically it comes down to the same thing, only that in this case the pre-selection is made by the mechanisms of the free market economy. I think that is the core of the problem. As long as we choose to uphold the system we live in, there will never be fairness in this world.

What impact do you hope the film will have on the audience’s view of people who are different from themselves?

Our film is about the criminalization of homosexuality, which unbelievably continued in Germany and many other Western democratic countries until the turn of the millennium. But more fundamentally, it is about how systems control and oppress people and how humanity cannot be completely destroyed institutionally. The longing for freedom and love is one of the strongest human forces and it will always find a way. I am convinced of that.

Today we are seeing that ultra-conservative powers are getting stronger again around the world and, with little resistance, once again endangering hard-fought democratic rights. Maybe that’s what I’m hoping for with this film: That we think together about which world we want to leave our children in — one in which discrimination and oppression are commonplace, or one in which all people can develop freely and unconstrained.

What project are you working on next?

I’m working on something autobiographical right now. Unfortunately, it is still too early to talk about details.