Austria: A Small Country With Its Own Cinema

Culture & Science
18 December 2011, 10:00

With the support of the Austrian Cultural Forum, Dnipropetrovsk hosted a two-day festival of Austrian cinema. Barbara Pichler, director of the Diagonale Film Festival in Graz which shows Austrian films, was in charge of the event. She told The Ukrainian Week about Austria’s support for national film making, trends in Austrian cinema art and the search for Austrian identity.

U.W.: What were you guided by in selecting films to be shown in Ukraine?

We decided these would have to be films about contemporary Austria. Initially, I drew up a shortlist from which we later chose Revanche and Nordrand (Northern Skirts) They depict two opposites: the former is set largely in the countryside, while the latter tells about life in the city suburbs and touches on migration.

U.W.: The female protagonist in Revanche is a prostitute from Ukraine. A Ukrainian periodical published a piece announcing this film in which it claimed that most prostitutes in Austria come from other countries. Why is she Ukrainian in this film? Is it a stereotype?

No. It is a tragic fact that many women from Eastern and South Eastern Europe are forced into prostitution in Austria. The protagonist is not shown in a stereotypical way in the film. This woman's profession is less important than her personality and her relationship with the male protagonist. Of course, her profession does matter, but this is more of a playwriting tool. We had to show a situation of coercion from which she had to escape and which, in turn led to all the other events in the film.


U.W.: How important to your festival is participation in events outside Austria?

We are happy to seize any such opportunity. We cooperate with many cinema forums in the world festival network, but we do not have contacts with similar events in Ukraine. Your country is fairly close geographically but very far away in another sense. Relations between our countries in the area of cinematography are insignificant. It should be said that people in Austria know little about Ukraine. But this is likely to change after the European soccer championship.

U.W.: What trends can be observed in contemporary Austrian cinema?

Nordrandby Barbara Albert gave birth to certain trends. But that was nearly 12 years ago, and a new generation of directors has come. Of course, they produce different films and tell different stories. There has always been distinct experimental cinema, avant-garde films, in Austria. This tradition has continued since the 1950s and now uses digital technology. Another trend is actively developing documentaries. In this case, a film is really used to present a certain view on the world which affords a better understanding of this world. Films that prefer realism are the most successful ones in this category. Films with a real foundation are, in my opinion, more successful and convincing in Austrian cinema. The situation with comedies is more complicated. Mainstream Austrian cinematography very often tries to copy successful recipes from Germany or the USA. These films, of course, “don't work” and are not especially interesting in the artistic sense.

U.W.: What makes government programs for supporting Austrian cinema special?

Austriaoffers various opportunities for filmmaking, but no films are produced without government support. Our market is too small for that. The country is tiny, and it is impossible to make a profit with a film there, even if it is a major box office hit. There are various sources of financing, in particular the Federal Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture. Experimental innovative films that do not target a wide audience but emphasize artistry are more likely to attract such funding. Feature-length films – both fiction and popular documentaries – can seek support from the Austrian Film Institute. Apart from central government financing, there are also local funds in certain federal lands. They can provide additional, smaller additional sums for a film. In addition to these two sources of financing, feature-length films also need the support of Austrian television. So the system is set up in such a way that to produce a big-budget film, you need to obtain funding from these three sources. Truly big films also require international co-production.

Young artists apply to the Ministry of Culture for support. There are also special programs to facilitate such cinema artists, but it is very difficult to get into this niche. The biggest difficulties are experienced by those who want to take the step from short films to feature-length pieces which have bigger budgets. So, many people fall by the wayside.


U.W.:  Do you lose filmmakers to more powerful industries, particularly Germany?

Yes, there are quite a few Austrian filmmakers who go to Germany later in their careers. Many among those who stop shooting films and focus on television go there simply because Germany has a bigger market. A majority of actors and actresses work both in Austria and Germany. Moreover, Germans are also our most important partners in co-production.

U.W.: What does Austrian identity mean to you? Is it still being shaped, or has the answer been found?

The question of national identity should probably not ever be exhausted. I am Austrian, but it would be difficult for me to describe what it means in general. To me, the very idea of the national is, in a sense, somewhat in the past. Because of this it is interesting for me to stop and think: Why does this film festival have to be “national”? At the same time, the example of the cinema forum itself tells me how important it is to have it. We are a very small country located in a language space we share with a much bigger, dominant neighbor. It is important for us to have this kind of festival as a way to better learn our own cinema. It is also an opportunity for filmmakers to meet and exchange experience. However, there is no point in filling the program with exclusively Austrian films without letting anything else in. That is the reason why I introduced new elements into the program when I took over management of the festival three years ago. One of them is the presentation of co-productions in which Austria's participation is insignificant. Earlier we did not have the right to show films like that. It injects other aspects of European cinema into our festival, which are at the same time very natural, because they concern Austria, too. Moreover, every year we invite an international guest – an auteur with highly individual films that are of interest to the public and cinema artists and which, at the same time, somewhat change our view of our own cinema.


Austrian production

Die Vaterlosen (The Fatherless) by Marie Kreutzer, 2011

A father's death brings together two brothers and their sister. Another sister, who disappeared 20 years ago with the breakup of a hippie commune, reemerges and stirs their suppressed childhood memories.

Import/ Export by Ulrich Seidl, 2007

The characters seek a better life and earnings, but go opposite ways: Olga goes to Austria in the West, while Paul heads to Ukraine in the East.

Funny Games by Michael Haneke, 1997

For two hours, some brazen young men humiliate a family couple, their son and a dog. Not every viewer can endure it, but the director stubbornly tries to get them engaged in precisely these “games.”


Desert Flower by Sherry Horman, 2009

Waris Dirie, a young Somali girl, flees from her family at age 13 to later become a world-renowned model. The film is based on an autobiography which became a bestseller.

The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke, 2009

The director dissects society “pregnant with Fascism” in a Protestant village in northern Germany on the eve of the First World War.

Der Untergang (Downfall) by Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004

This film is about the last days of Hitler’s life and the fall of his regime.

Luna Papa by Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov, 1999

Chulpan Hamatova, Moritz Bleibtreu and Nikolai Fomenko act in a vivid pseudo-exotic comedy about a not exactly immaculate conception.

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