Amidst the residual sounds of fireworks, Berlin’s UNKNOWN PLEASURES festival opened on New Year’s Day with the German premiere of Land Ho! by Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens. An apt selection for the start of a new year, the film follows two retirees traipsing around an otherworldly Icelandic landscape as they attempt to renegotiate their fragile relationship and make the best of unexpected, and unwelcome, changes in circumstance. Their luxurious vacation and playful interactions almost offset the characters’ under-the-surface desperation, as the film successfully portrays the oscillations between sadness and joy as a balancing act that must be carefully mastered throughout a lifetime.
Land HO! was only the first screening of a sixteen day program dedicated to North American independent cinema. This year’s programming consists of the German premiere of much-touted festival favorites such as Robert Greene’s Actress, a screening of Tim Sutton’s Memphis complimented by a live show by the film’s subject- musician Willis Earl Beal, and a special program dedicated to the essayistic works of Alfred Guzzetti, to name a few.
Founded seven years ago by Hannes Brühwiler, the festival welcomed New Yorker Andrew Grant as a co-programmer in 2011. Rooftop’s Danielle Kourtesis caught up with them to discuss their collaboration and this year’s selections.
Rooftop Films: Hannes, what was the impetus that lead you to found the festival?
Hannes Brühwiler: For years I’ve been interested in American independent films and I’ve always tried to see as many as possible. But it’s true that at the very beginning of UNKNOWN PLEASURES there was a group of films that I’d seen and I said to myself that someone has to screen them in Berlin. Among them were films by Aaron Katz, Josh and Benny Safdie, Joe Swanberg, and Barry Jenkins.
RTF: How has your vision evolved over the past seven years? Which core values are still intact?
HB: Several ideas are at the core of the festival and haven’t changed much since the first year, but were refined and adjusted. We have quite a broad definition of what an independent film is and screen fiction films (from no budget to pretty big budget films) alongside documentaries and experimental films. I like very much this mix of different types of filmmaking presented next to each other and we are careful not to create an hierarchy among the selected films. Another important aspect is that we don’t understand ourselves as a “best of” festival, or a place where the most talked about films of the year are shown. Rather, our events are driven by careful programming and present a subjective view of what we think are some of the most interesting films of the past year.
RTF: Did you know that there was already an audience in Berlin or did you have to cultivate it?
HB: I was hoping that there was an audience but I also knew that I’d have to be careful about programming. We can’t program 20 films which are totally unknown. Each year we try to find a balance between films by known filmmakers and present them alongside smaller films. The idea is of course that the bigger films help the smaller films. In some cases this doesn’t work, but our general belief is that it works quite well.
RTF: Andrew was added as a co-programmer four years ago. How did you begin your collaboration?
Andrew Grant: When I was running Benten Films in the US, Hannes got in touch with me regarding a few titles we distributed, and we began an email-only collaboration. We finally met in person at the Berlinale in, I think, 2008, and then again when I moved to Berlin in 2010, at which time Hannes asked if I would like to join him in programming the festival.
HB: I actually contacted Andrew seven years ago for the first edition. He distributed two films by Aaron Katz which I was hoping to screen. A couple of years later I read on his blog that he moved to Berlin and I immediately wrote to him.
RFT: How has the festival changed with Andrew’s input?
HB: Before Andrew’s arrival I did the programming all by myself but I missed the feedback. I love the fact that Andrew and I argue over films. I believe that the program is much better because of that. Most of times we agree on which films we want to screen. But it gets really interesting if we disagree and it helps our programming.
RTF: Would you say you have two distinct programming personalities?
HB: An obvious difference is that I’m looking at American films from an European perspective.
AG: Even outside of the American indie world, Hannes and I have about a 75% overlap on films we love, and discussing/defending/arguing the other 25% is always fascinating, as both of us are equally passionate. Yet more than any other cinephile-friend or colleague, Hannes’ arguments for a film always give me food for thought. This same model applies to the festival as well, where there are always a handful of films we disagree on, though in this case I feel the disagreements are more cultural-based, rather than of taste and/or aesthetics. Being an American, as well as being somewhat connected to the American indie film scene, obviously plays a large part in how I respond to the films we consider for the festival, and I often find myself wondering how this film or that film will play to a European audience. But each year there are only two or maybe three titles in the final program that we don’t quite see eye to eye on. (I won’t say which.)
RTF: What differences (if any) do you see between American and German film audiences?
AG: This is a great question, and one that can (and perhaps should) serve as a subject for a book. But one thing I will say is that German audiences seem to be less interested in name recognition. In the States a film can have a fascinating synopsis, but if people don’t recognize the director or any of the stars, many people will stay away. My impression is that it’s the films’ theme/subject that attracts audiences. The reaction varies tremendously, and that’s reflected in the post-screening Q&As we have with visiting directors. A perfect example would be Joanna Arnow’s I HATE MYSELF :) which prompted a line of discussion here that differed entirely from that in the States.
RTF: What compelled you to relocate to Berlin?
AG: Actually, it was personal reasons that led to my relocation, fueled by the increasing difficulty of surviving financially in NYC. Berlin is quieter, more spacious, much greener, and infinitely less expensive! I was thrilled when Hannes made me the offer, and my only regret is that my other work (I’m producing a feature documentary film for a Norwegian filmmaker) has taken so much of my time this year. Still, we’ve seen the festival grow each year, and I think that we’ve done a good job at continuing to build greater awareness.
RTF: Which resources do you find most valuable to your programming?
AG: Obviously festivals like Sundance and SXSW are helpful in alerting us to what’s out there each year, and what’s getting spoken about, but we also look to individual critics, bloggers, and other filmmakers for ideas. In fact, some of our favorite discoveries each year are films that haven’t received that much attention back home. Putting those films in the spotlight gives me tremendous pleasure — such as Gina Telaroli’s HERE’S TO THE FUTURE.
HB: Like Andrew mentioned, in the US there is Sundance and SXSW. But there are also quite a lot of great regional film festivals, like in Wisconsin or Sarasota. And then some European events like Locarno or the Viennale, those two festival usually have quite a strong lineup for American films. In addition to festivals I ask friends in the US for suggestions and I’m reading several blogs.
RTF: Correct me if I am wrong, but you do not officially accept submissions. How might a US filmmaker interested in showing their work at your festival attract your attention?
AG: It’s true we don’t have an official open submission policy, but that’s simply a question of resources. I’ve worked for other festivals that accept submissions, but only get around to watching a few minutes of each film, or in some cases not at all. We don’t want to be like that. Yet each year we do receive queries from filmmakers, and both of us are always accessible via email, Twitter, Facebook, etc.
HB: It’s true, we don’t have an official application process. But of course we are happy to look at the films that filmmakers send us and we did select some of those films. The best way to contact us it via facebook or email.
RTF: You don’t use pre-planned themes for the festival. Do they emerge nonetheless? In retrospect are you able to you identify a thread to broadly describe this year’s program?
HB: We never program with a theme in mind but suddenly some themes appear. This year, for example, there are several films which play with fiction and documentary elements like HERE’S TO THE FUTURE!, ACTRESS, or MEMPHIS. Abel Ferrara’s WELCOME TO NEW YORK could also fit into this category. To play with genres, expectations, and cross borders is certainly crucial to our selection. Another thing that’s very important to me is our special program. In the past years, we dedicated those programs to filmmakers like Thom Andersen, John Gianvito and Travis Wilkerson. This year we will present the work of Alfred Guzzetti and continue our exploration of filmmakers whose works are located somewhere between documentary and essay filmmaking. For some time now I’m also fascinated by the filmmaking scene in and around Boston and hope to be able to continue my research of the Boston film community in the coming years.
For more information: www.unknownpleasures.de.
UNKNOWN PLEASURES, Jan 1-16 | Kino Babylon, Rosa-Luxemburg-Str. 30, Mitte, U-Bhf Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz