Wieland Speck is in charge of the Panorama program of the Berlinale and the famed TEDDY competition, devoted exclusively to films with gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender themes. Set up in 1985 as an official Berlinale program the Panorama focuses on issue-oriented features and documentaries by first and second time international film directors and has been programmed since 1997 by Wieland Speck. Speck has the rare distinction of being an accomplished film director and writer whose works ranges from educational HIV/AIDS shorts to documentaries like ESCAPE TO LIFE: THE ERIKA AND KLAUS MANN STORY screened at the 2005 Berlinale.
Claus Mueller How many submissions did you get for the Panorama this year?
Wieland Speck About 3.500 with overlaps to other sections of the berlinale, for example 2/3rd of the competition films and many from other sections
CM I understand you had 6000 submissions all together for the 2013 Berlin Film Festival
WS Actually over 7000 total
CM If you have that many films submitted in addition to those you and the other programmers select at film festivals, how do you establish your final program?
WS For the Panorama about 25 people are involved assembling a program that I watch; this includes the ten who decide the final selection, who also do the final competition selection with Dieter Kosslick [Director of the Berlinale]. As you know I work for the competition in the first place and have built up in the 80s and 90s the network of delegates which are part of this process.
CM Including pre-selections you have only 25 people involved going through 3.500 productions. How do you do justice to all these productions?
WS That is not possible if I use the term justice. That applies if I were to watch all of them, but even that will not work since I am not the judge but the programmer; the curator. Let me put it this way; I could do two programs of good films that would work in Berlin, one program with 100 productions with good productions and another one. I feel sorry for the many films we cannot place in the program, for their film makers and ourselves.
CM Given the growing number of submissions, Dieter Kosslick mentioned several years ago that very good films can fall between the cracks [of the selection process].
WS Well that is possible. On the other hand not only has the number of films quadrupled over the last 15 years, but also the number of festivals has increased tremendously.
CM Bruno Chatelin lists more than 6000 festivals in his comprehensive data base. There are at least several thousand more too small or specialized to attract attention.
WS Exactly. So film makers have more opportunities. It does not mean that every festival has only quality films. I cannot show all the quality films I find. Still many films find their way through the whole jungle into cinemas.
CM Well, some film festivals are set up for other reasons. You attend and cannot find outstanding films. But film makers have submitted their films and can now report back to their funders, dentists or relatives, that they have been selected.
WS Well that is true
CM Out of the 52 films shown in the Panorama you had 29 world premiers. How many of those were handpicked ahead of time, selected at other festivals or identified before they entered the festival circuit?
WS Not many. Rather the films picked earlier are probably not world premieres. I have a couple of films from Sundance, a natural choice since our schedules are so close and two to four films from Toronto. These are films which I feel the Berlin audience needs to see as well as the European buyers who do not attend Toronto. They are films which naturally do not end up at the American Film Market. It is a question how many films have to be totally fresh for the market. If ten of my 52 films already had some exposure that is fine since the market still has to chew on forty.
CM Did you detect this year any new themes or trends with respect to the Panorama and the Teddys?
WS In general for the Panorama the eternal theme of sexuality plays a big role but that’s no surprise. But the way how film makers look at sexuality this year is interesting insofar as everyone seems to have taken it a step further. The observations have become more experimental. Experimental not in the sense of experimental filmmaking but in the exploration of sexuality, not only using the conventional ideas everyone has; you do not have to show the sex act since we all know how a sex act works. This certainly holds for the Panorama. There are many films this year which explore heterosexuality in a fresher way than in the past.. Actually it is interesting that the heterosexual view of sexuality is fresher and the view of homosexuality is more mature this year. This is certainly a shift.
CM We observe at the festival and market an increase in independent productions and participation of more independent film makers. What accounts for it?
WS It is definitely a sign of the times. We travel all over the world and we bring back some sort of new Zeitgeist stream of the past year which often is an indicator of what is happening in the commercial world a year later. That the American independents are back is of course a great joy for us. Their productions were a major leg of our programs through the mid nineties. Then there was a decline of innovative American independent cinema and we had only one or two American fiction films, though still lots of documentaries. Now American fiction is back with a fresh approach going from extremes like UPSTREAM COLOR [Shane Carruth] to DON JOHN’S ADDICTION [Joseph Gordon-Levitt] and everything in between such as CONCUSSION [Stacie Passon].
CM Yet there seems to be some sort of paradox. When I interviewed Beki Probst [Director of the European Film Market] she spoke about the enlargement of the market. Without abandoning the traditional art house and independent tracks the market seems to be expanding into a more commercial orientation as indicated by the Weinstein Company’s acquisitions. As reported in the trades the independent were not doing that well at the market. What accounts for that?
WS That’s not a contradiction. Actually it is disappointing since I want the independent films that we rave about to find an audience. Therefore we need buyers, but we know that the market is conservative and that it takes time for the market to realize what is going on. If the [buyer’s] funds are restricted they have to play it safe and that means a conservative approach.
CM Due to economic constraints?
WS Absolutely. The money has a different taste this year. It really depends on how we can seduce the buyer to pay up. We started this year with a new look on American independents, next year the buyers will have understood because independent films will win awards during the next three days. Also keep in mind that it is not too late since many deals are made after the festival and market have closed down.
CM What about digitization?
WS Three years ago everything was 35 millimeter and today we say thank God everything is DCP [Digital Cinema Package]. So we go with the flow. We cannot control or manipulate that development.
CM Digitization also entails the constant creation of new platforms of distribution. What is the impact of the new distribution possibilities?
WS It will have an impact but this is where we are conservative waiting to see what the market does. We have to observe and adjust ourselves. Certainly we will not assume a front runner position.
CM There is a possible problem with digital recording, the instant capture of reality. One could suggest that digital cinema lends itself to become less reflexive than the traditional film making approach. Any comments on that proposition?
WS Interesting theory. This is a Zeitgeist phenomenon rather than a technical one. Of course having everything everywhere at any time changes how we perceive and receive information or enjoyment or whatever. I see this in a much wider context. Of course we know that young people flip quickly through film history and see bits and pieces when they talk ablaut Renoir. We know they have not necessarily seen the films [they discuss].
CM Well I do wonder sometimes what happened to reflexive film making.
WS I know what you mean. That’s why we need to have a grasp of history to understand where we are and where we want to go. That’s why we show old films to bring in the idea of links to the past which are vivid in what we are making today, just look at the documentary [by Sandra Pechtel] THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER on Roland Klick, the hottest guy [director of numerous features in the 70’s and 80’s] who was placed under the carpet afterwards. We do that kind of work.
CM When you look at the Forum you have the Expanded Forum entering the art sphere. At the Berlinale, Dieter Kosslick is adding new components each year and the EFM is enlarging into the commercial area. What about the Panorama?
WS Look I have an audience I can rely on which I am very thankful for, an audience that exactly goes for the films we show It’s an incredible strength I cannot value highly enough. Also Panorama is always feeding the art house core. This core will remain my target and I will strengthen it as long as I live. When I look at the cinemas of Berlin and at the audience they serve I know these are the cinemas I love; cinemas that need the films I bring. We have a healthy situation which I try to keep.
CM Your emphasis on theatres conveys that you are not so much concerned with the impact of new platforms, such as VOD or other streaming sources?
WS Not really, television did not kill cinema, VHS did not do it either though it was bigger. You have the physical element of going to the movies, the social aspect of attending film or coming to a festival, which should not be underestimated. Soon people have will have enough from the thousands of friends they have on face book. New opportunities will come. Congregation of human beings in the flesh cannot be replaced.
CM To return to television, Dieter Kosslick suggested that high quality television programs by established film makers could become a section of the berlinale. Any comments?
WS It is a new take mentioning it. It is not a new take doing it. We have in the US a new tendency among high caliber mavericks, critics and cinephiles who rave about TV series. We could not follow in Europe much down that line since our television has always been much better than American TV. If there is something I like I would support it but I am not going down that route. You have great film makers and great stars [from prior years] that pop up today on television. This is actually a way for us to follow our film makers through their careers.
CM Do you see any changes for the Panorama next year?
W S Not at all… I am surrounded by people who invent and re-invent themselves all the time. I will continue feeding the market with the films that they expect and will do the same for my audience…. As long as that works and my intuition is good I will continue what I am doing.
CM Thank you for your comments.