To all film directors starting out: 'Surprise me!' says Christoph Terhechte
As the Berlin Film Festival opens this week, the head of programming for the Forum of New Cinema selects the films and directors to watch
As the Berlin Film Festival opens this week (10-20 February), Christoph Terhechte, industry insider and Head of the Forum of New Cinema, spoke to Phaidon.com about the next generation of promising directors and why the element of surprise is what makes a great film.
Q: For the book Take 100 you selected ten of the most promising film directors working today. What agenda were you considering when you were making your decision?
Other film festival curators for the book Take 100 had already selected a lot of my natural choices. That would suggest that there is a kind of understanding among film festival curators as to who the most promising and upcoming film directors of the future are, which is reassuring.
With my selection, I wanted to make sure there was a mixture of the people whose works we had discovered or presented at the Berlin International Forum of New Cinema and whom I had discovered at other festivals. For example, we showed at the Forum in Berlin: The Exploding Girl directed by Brad Gray, Beeswax directed by Andrew Bujalski, and Windows on Monday directed by Ulrich Kohler. Whereas I actually saw Ho Yuhang’s film _Rain Dogs _at the Pusan Film Festival although he wasn’t among the directors chosen by Kim Dong-Ho in the book, so that was my reason including him. Malay cinema in general has what you might call a sort of Third World touch, but in recent years there has been a new generation of directors, like Ho Yuhang and Tan Chui Mui, approach things differently and have a very fresh view on cinema and style.
Ho Yuhang in particular is someone who is very knowledgible in terms of cinema. I think one of the differences in this new generation of filmmakers included in the book Take 100, is that they take their references from many different places which opens up the possibilities of their filmmaking. They are still very much aware of their national identity as filmmakers but they have a broader view of the possibilities of cinema. When they come from places where they don’t have easy access to films but because of DVDs and online services they have discovered more about world cinema - it has shaped their own style.
Q: Was it a difficult process to decide which emerging directors to include or are there some obvious choices for you?
There were definitely some obvious choices – and even some funny choices. When I approached Brad Gray for his film _The Exploding Girl _I was a bit afraid he would be shy because his wife, the director, So Yong Kim was not chosen by me. But in fact she had already been chosen by another film festival curator for inclusion in the book – so Gray was very happy to also be included in Take 100. I thought that was particularly funny because I was worried about the opposite happening. I knew I wanted to include Gray and we’ve shown all his films in our programme over the years.
Q: What did you want to say with your choice of filmmakers?
A list is always limited which is the point of a list. So I would not want to say that these are the only promising directors. I know there are a few other filmmakers who should or could be in the book. And within the book there are also some filmmakers whose work I am not familiar with, so the book has helped me to discover a few. Miguel Gomes – whose films I’ve only seen since reading about him in Take 100. My list is a suggestion of people who I have come across and want to highlight. I know that a different list of authors would have come up with a different list of directors. These are my choices because I happen to know these people. I think they are great and I think that they will continue to make great films and I’d like people to discover them. It’s all about their potential.
To me a great film is one that surprises me. And a film that surprises me must come up with something that I cannot define beforehand or else it would not surprise me. It is undefinable. I know filmmakers who live as cineophiles and reference what they see, and those are not the ones that I would include in such a book. The directors I chose where able to reference films that they had seen but also merge the style that influenced them with their own national cinema and their own ideas. That is very important to me. I don’t like the type of international festival film that could have been made anywhere. The films that I chose are all films which speak about their place of origin and the culture that the filmmakers grew up in and they are all films that have something of the individual in them.
Q: You’ve picked one classic film that you believe has influenced contemporary cinema. Which film did you pick and why?
Stroszek (directed by Werner Herzog) was an independent film in cinema long before there was this whole thing about independent films. It has all the spirit of an independent film in that Herzog was not just following a pre-defined script but including real events and people he encountered while making the film. It’s a very low budget film. It’s a film with non-professional actors. These are a lot of the characteristics which came to define independent cinema in many parts of the world later. So it is a very avant garde kind of film in that sense.
Q: Can you tell me about your experience of the International Forum in Berlin, and the programme this year?
I’ve been head of the International Forum for 10 years. Programming for the Forum is different from compiling a list of films and directors for Take 100 because those were films I was already familiar with and just needed to think about them again. When I am programming for the Forum it’s the opposite. I act very intuitively. I see films and sometimes have to take decisions immediately, sometimes based on other films that I've already invited, so that the programme makes sense. The curatorial work is a very interesting and intuitive process. I can never say what I am looking for because if I knew what I was looking for then I wouldn’t be surprised anymore. That would take all the fun out and I want to transfer that spirit to our audiences. And as I was saying, a great film should surprise me.
We’re known for looking for films which do have a certain avant garde style or a form that is much more conscious than that of mainstream cinema. So form may be visible in the films that we are showing but that’s something we encourage. We like to be surprised and convinced by any element of a film. If the choice makes sense and form and content don’t drift apart, then that’s perfect for us.
Q: What should someone thinking about going to the Berlin International Film Festival know?
One film that I particularly enjoyed and would recommend is the Swiss film Day is Done, directed by Thomas Imbach, because it is so highly original and well made. It’s a long time observation from the director's studio - watching the street in front of his building in Zurich in wide angle and telephoto lens. On the soundtrack Imbach uses messages that people have left on his answer machine over the decade and these messages tell a life – several lives. So the story becomes very deep through these messages. To give you an example, there’s one message from his father and mother saying 'we’re back and had a nice holiday'. At first you think it seems a bit funny but the next message, a little later, says 'the chemotherapy is very going well'. Things like that are very touching. And I’ve never seen a film where someone would use messages from their answer machine in connection with the images he catches over the years from his window. It is very well made in terms of style and sound.
Another highlight is an Argentinian film I discovered when I was in Buenos Aires. It’s called Ausente (Absent) by a young filmmaker could Marco Berger and is very atypical for Argentinian cinema. It's a film about how people look at each other. A story of a teacher and a pupil and the pupil is in a way abusing the teacher, but you don’t really know why. And the taboo is being exploited by the pupil not the teacher. A very interesting story and very well made.
We're also not afraid of very long films. We're showing a Japanese film called Heaven's Story (directed by Zeze Takahisa) which is five hours long. It's a real epic about revenge. A monster of a film. And something I enjoyed very much when I saw it and I think audiences will too. So there you have three recommendations from a programme of 39 films.
Q: How does the city of Berlin contribute to the festival?
The festival’s audience is the biggest in the world. We have about half a million visitors. Berliners love the festival. Many people take a vacation during the two weeks so they can see a maximum number of films. I think it’s the perfect place for the festival: we don’t have a beach or a lot of sunshine during the festival in February so people are not distracted. They have a great time seeing films that they couldn’t possibly see during the rest of the year. And Berlin, unlike Cannes or Venice, is an audience festival not made for the professionals. It is comparable to Toronto in that sense. But I think Berlin's Film Festival is much more visible in the city during these 10 days than the Toronto festival although I don’t really know why. Berlin has this real festival feeling.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring film directors?
That's a very interesting question. If someone is aspiring to become a film director then I would assume they would know why they would want to be a filmmaker. And that they know about the art of cinema. If you don’t really love to see films made by other people then I don’t see the point of making films yourself. And the other point to make is: don’t listen to anyone but yourself.
Q: How do you see the future of film?
In terms of cinema and the projection and technical elements I see a lot of things changing. But I still believe that the form of feature length films will not change that much. Films between 70 – 300 minutes, whatever the director chooses, are perfect for telling stories; it's a convention that works. I don’t really think that the digital distrubtion of film will change it much. Of course the internet is much better for the short form film. But I don’t think the feature film as such will disappear because you need that for storytelling. Although it has meant that as programme curators, we have to see a lot more films these days. The reward is that we get to see a lot more films that wouldn’t have been made otherwise. And more films mean that we have to dig deeper to find the good films. There are some films that wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for this new medium.
Christoph Terhechte, thank you.