Almost Too Much of a Good Thing

in 53rd Viennale – Vienna International Film Festival

by Stefan Grissemann

It is easy to get lost in the tightly woven programs of the Viennale: See a nasty little indie film in the morning, skip work and move on to mid-day projections of far-out documentaries and disturbing avant-garde shorts; in the afternoon you can go for one of those bitchy B pictures of eras long gone by, then dedicate your evening to one or two pieces of contemporary cinematic exotica – simply because they are there to be seen (and rarely do they disappoint). Vienna’s international festival is a fabulous place to explore and drift through the thicket of roughly 300 hand-picked films, a two-week fever dream ripe with tributes, mini-homages, retrospectives and urgent cinematic propositions.

One could reasonably argue that the audio-visual overkill that the Viennale keeps producing (more and more so, as time goes by) over the long fortnight is not really instrumental in focussing attention on the state of cinema auteurism, because the festival overstrains even film professionals who have nothing to do but watch movies and detect new trends. This year alone the program featured not only huge retrospectives dedicated to Austrian camp & trash movies and animals in cinema, but also a series of films from economy-stricken Greece and tributes to Hollywood actor-director Ida Lupino, the lately deceased Manoel de Oliveira, the Argentinian indie-impro maestro Raúl Perrone and the Uruguayan experimentalist Federico Veiroj. Among everything else, this festival offers almost all those highlights from Berlin, Rotterdam, Cannes, Locarno, Venice, Toronto et al.

A good part of what the Viennale presents will never be distributed in Austria – so in many cases the festival presentations will be the only opportunities in Vienna to see those less commercially minded concoctions on the big screen. Close to a 100,000 tickets are being offered to cinephiles each year by the festival. It is fair to say that the Viennale has established itself as a consistent draw and a fixture in Austria’s cultural life. And the fact that this year’s revenues were (only slightly) lower than in previous years should not worry anyone – those are the risks that come with daring programs, risks that can (and should) be taken. Popularity is not everything when creating a meaningful and necessarily subjective overview of the year’s major film works. Catering to the tastes of an assumed audience should not be in the forefront of thinking. After all, the Viennale – like any given art house film production – receives considerable state and city subsidies in order to be free and not too dependent on the goodwill of its paying clientele.

One thing is curiously lacking, though – there’s hardly any attempt anymore to openly debate the many questions surrounding a film industry in turmoil (with, say, the rise of Pay TV film production, and the ongoing, quite drastic, fall of theatre admission figures among younger people). To be sure, there are talks with filmmakers right after the screenings of their works – but those discussions rarely address larger issues. They usually stick to the individual film the audience has just seen. It is a little disturbing to see how a really successful, intelligently fashioned festival seems to have lost interest in the intellectual deepening of the many aspects surrounding the productions it exhibits. But that can be amended too: let’s hope for 2016.

Edited by Yael Shuv