Not a Festival On Demand

in 50th Viennale - Vienna International Film Festival

by Alexandra Zawia

The Viennale is an international film festival. This reads like an uncomplicated sentence, but perceived in a particular environment, it may spark trouble.

The Austrian cultural landscape is such an environment, and the 50th the Vienna International Film Festival not only meant celebration time, but – thanks to a mini-scandal before the festival’s start on November 7th moment for some people to call for a change in leadership and showed, quite clearly, the rather poor, current state of cultural debate in Austria.

Like maybe no other director on the international festival circuit, Hans Hurch is identified with the Viennale 100 per cent. Since his taking office in 1997, this has grown as an identification that he promotes, affirms and defends, mostly preaching to the converted. Nonetheless, it has also always provided grounds for criticism, some people detecting in this unification of person and cause a core problem of the festival, reproaching Hurch, for example, for only showing films corresponding to his personal taste.

Hurch, who has recently prolonged his contract until 2016, is furthermore widely known for not being the biggest fan of Austrian cinema. “I have objections against Haneke”, says Hurch, “against his style and purpose of filming.” Hurch is, however, not an enemy either, and the festival has increased the number of Austrian films shown every year. Even Michael Haneke’s Amour was awarded he Viennale Film Prize this year by an independent jury.

Hurch just doesn’t see it as his duty or responsibility at all to promote or facilitate Austrian cinema. And that’s just fair, even more so because there is an Austrian film festival, the Diagonale, which is dedicated to show all the Austrian productions of a given year.

However, the general debate about what it actually means that the Viennale is an international film festival was fueled anew this October when, during the festival preparations, it became public that Austrian director Ulrich Seidl would withdraw both of his new films, Paradise: Love and Paradise: Faith from this year’s Viennale. The reason: Hurch had denied him the “prime time” screening time of 7:30 p.m.

What at first sight seemed like a quite immature clash of egos in fact quite neatly addresses the basic rupture between two different cultural ideologies as they prosper in a small Austrian environment.

Seidl’s wife being the chief film critic at an Austrian newspaper, it was no surprise that that newspaper published an online notice very quickly, quoting Seidl as saying how “again, the Viennale disregards Austrian cinema and tries to hide it” by giving it “unprominent” screening slots. Immediately following this, the Austrian directors’ association issued a quick declaration in favor of Seidl. “The Viennale is about cinema, and as a director, I am committed and responsible to the cause. When it comes to the program and screening times, I am not and will always refuse to be responsible to anybody. Not filmmakers, not sponsors, not politicians”, answered Hurch.

What was interesting to watch, subsequently, was how Austrian journalists dealt with this situation. And it was not necessarily comforting to witness.

Wolfgang Ainberger, for example, who was codirector of the Viennale with Alexander Horvath from 1992 to 1997, reproached Hurch in an article in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, comparing Hurch’s personal influence on the festival’s program to the infamous leading style of Vogue’s Anna Wintour. “Hurch is a director of taste,” Ainberger wrote, “cynical and totalitarian. Therefore, the Viennale does not show the best and most interesting films of the year, but those which correspond with Hurch’s will.”

“There is nothing more boring than saying Hans Hurch is the Viennale”, answers Hurch to such allegations. “I would have shown the films because I think they are interesting, especially the second one, Paradise: Faith,” says Hurch. “If Seidl tells me now that he doesn’t want to be “put away” in an ‘unprominent slot,’ he only shows his disrespect for all the other filmmakers who are shown at such times. Seidl has had a lot of recognition from Cannes and Venice already. Other, equally good films still need that attention. A film festival – at least as I understand it – cannot be about personal vanities, but it must be about the films, and about the whole those films are able to create together. Seidl is the only filmmaker I can think of now who has ever complained about the screening time. Despite all, I do understand that a filmmaker wants the best for the film.”

The Viennale is known and loved as an intimate and exclusive place for filmmakers, critics, and audience to connect and share the experience of cinema. It is, however, also set in a small country–even more, in a rather small city–with an ever more restricted environment for nourishing free discussion, it seems. The reactions that mini-scandal triggered raised interesting questions about the actual purpose of the Viennale, its purpose with regard of the public money involved, its position as a cultural institution in Austria, and its 100 % identification with Hans Hurch as a director of distinctive taste, understanding and with a certain mission that cannot be separated from the festival’s program and its identity as a whole.

Suddenly, various local journalists – even long-term supporters of the Viennale – in an attempt to track down the answers to those questions, were arguing that Hurch would lose sight of the festival’s public commitment and be misled by his ego.

“What disappoints me is a criticism that hides behind the wrong topic”, comments Hurch. “Journalists suddenly criticizing my autonomy as a programmer. I have no problems with being criticized, but I do have trouble seeing how weak and biased journalists become as soon as personal interests are involved. With this particular case, many journalists here in Austria have personal affiliations with Austrian filmmakers, be it by personal involvement in their projects or be it the fact that their girlfriend, husband, or whoever works with the filmmaker. Suddenly, they disregard all their objectivity and turn 180 degrees to arguments that fundamentally contradict what they themselves have always supported in the Viennale.”

“The fact that the Seidl-discussion was carried out this way, shows in what a poor state the cultural discourse in Austria is,” Hurch continues. “The cultural milieu here has become so narrow and so small that it only promotes nepotism. I do not at all exclude myself from this biotope but I do claim my independence. What this discussion and the way it is carried out shows is that journalists here are no longer acting responsibly in relation to their objectivity. It is exactly that ‘cause’ that I always claim to be my only reference within the festival, which journalists are also responsible for. The cause that emerges from the active profession, and which stands by itself, and which belongs to everybody. If journalists tell me that I am responsible to the taxpayer, I have to reply that they are responsible to the bank sponsoring their newspaper.”

Being criticized for unifying his persona with the ‘cause’ is understandable to Hurch, but “it is as legitimate as criticizing a filmmaker for making all the decisions when working on a film”, he says. “Of course, I, too, have to submit to a lot of compromise, from sponsors to digitalization. But the program I put together is something I want to be responsible for, feel responsible for. Any person who comes to see a film during the Viennale can know that it is my responsibility that this film is shown here, absolutely regardless of whether or not the audience will like it.”

Hurch does, however, admit to flaws in the program. “I am showing 140 new films and some of them are ambivalent and have weak spots. But every single film I’m showing is still worth it, I think.” Being himself a part of what he calls an ‘Austrian biotope of frenemies,’ is it difficult for him to decline a film from a filmmaker friend?

“Especially because I appreciate the filmmakers, I have no problem telling them if I don’t think a film is good enough to be shown during Viennale,” explains Hurch.

“Take, for example, Klaus Lemke. I discovered him for Vienna two years ago and brought him here because I really wanted for him to have more attention. He sent me his new film this year, and I did not like it at all. I wrote him a letter, explaining why I did not want it to include it in the program. That is something I am not doing easily.

Klaus is my friend. But he replied ‘Love and respect, always.’– That is classic. That shows he appreciates being treated honestly and he is not dumb to think lying to his face would do any good.”

In Austria, however, Hurch does not see any serious cultural discourse happening anymore. “It is difficult for journalists in Austria to really deal critically with the work of filmmakers, be it Ulrich Seidl, Michael Glawogger, Peter Tscherkassky, Gustav Deutsch, or any other – because everybody is somehow affiliated with one another.

The problem is also that the filmmakers do not even look for a critical examination of their work, with the result that no critical reception is happening in their own country.

This is an extremely unproductive state of things.Therefore, as long as I am able to do so, I will try to shake this up.”

Hurch is well aware that not all festival directors share his way of approaching things:

“The program in Locarno this year, for example, was opportunistic, trying to serve certain segments. I also realize an increasing disappointment with so-called big names in reknown competitions, like Cannes. Take, for example, the new Terrence Malick and you have to ask yourself: Has he got his brains fried or is it those who selected that film?”

For his own festival, Hurch “would love for the Viennale to be what Rotterdam used to be in the past: open, focused on film, committed, not hierarchical, small enough.”

And of course, he will always continue to show Straub’s films – “until I die.” But: “I can name reasons which anybody will understand.”

“The Viennale is not a festival on demand”, Hurch says, and at the same time admits, “Maybe what intrigues me about cinema is that you can trick someone and still get away with it.”

Edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum