As the 56th edition of the Viennale is slowly drawing to a close, Eva Sangiorgi enters our interview room on the ninth floor of Hotel Intercontinental without seeming at all tired. It’s her last interview of the day, after numerous daily requests from what seems to be an endless count of publications, ranging from local papers and glossy magazines to more cinephile venues. It’s not hard to see why she’s attracting such massive interest on part of the press – it’s the first year of her tenure as the Viennale’s artistic director, a role she’s taking on after the former leader, Austrian film critic and curator Hans Hurch unexpectedly passed away in 2017, having helmed the festival for almost twenty years. With an impressive career at her back – co-founding FICUNAM in Mexico City and leading it for eight years, jury duties at Semaine de la Critique, Doclisboa and Mar de Plata, along with studies in communication theory and art history – Sangiorgi brings a new, distinctive view to Austria’s most prestigious festival: one that is keen on showcasing arthouse cinema from all corners of the world, from the works of contemporary masters to hidden gems from the history of cinema.
Her mandate begins in a year in which Europe’s major festivals are passing through massive shifts: Locarno’s Carlo Chatrian is slated to become the artistic director of the Berlinale as Dieter Kosslick’s term is due to finish at the festival’s 69th outing – taking his place is Lili Hinstin, deputy artistic director of Cinéma du Réel. Meanwhile, Cannes continues to wage its relentless war against Netflix and Amazon Studios at the cost of sacrificing some of its mainstay auteurs such as Alfonso Cuarón or the Coen Brothers, thus opening up an opportunity for Venice (recoiling from a slight slump in relevance) to position itself as its main competitor and to lavish in its new role as the prime hunting ground for the Oscar awards. All the while, festivals are accommodating to the seismic shocks of the Me Too movement – signing equality pledges and suffering intense scrutiny for the way they include women and their voices both in their selections, and into their organizational structures. As a non-competitive festival taking place towards the end of the year, positioning itself as a selection of the best crops of the year in what cinema has to offer across major festivals, the Viennale is also indirectly affected by these shifts, while also negotiating its own, unique voice in the festival milieu.
Most of my discussion with Eva Sangiorgi was centered around the subject of curatorship: from grasping the reins of an already-established festival and negotiating it with one’s own unique perspectives, the shift from directing competitive outings to non-competitive festivals, and the state of the contemporary film industry.
The following discussion took place in November 2018.
FD: What was it like to take on the role of the artistic director of the Viennale? How did you adapt to this change and bring your own style of work into this position?
ES: I knew Hans Hurch very well. I wasn’t really thinking of getting the position, because at that time I was living in Mexico. But I was thinking of coming back to Europe, because I’m Italian. To make the story short, it happened, it was announced in January, but I started work six months ago, because I was working at FICUNAM and I had to finish organizing it. Then, ever since I arrived here, it has been a process. It still is one. There are different aspects – the first is the organization itself, which is strong: it’s a festival with a lot of tradition and the people in each department are very experienced, they’ve been doing this for a long time. It was like jumping onto a horse that is already running. So onto that I brought my own personality.
The first aspect about it which is easily mine is the selection. It’s the beginning of the process which was indebted to the inheritance, the heritage of the Viennale as Hans Hurch imagined it, and worked it. I liked the idea of an audience-focused festival with no competition, where you see the best of the year, you have no world premieres. It was a point of interest for me. The rest was just… little by little, piece by piece, I shaped my personality into it. And with little changes of my own, which will probably be more evident with the second edition. For example, the catalog, that was something important to me, to think of it as an extension of the program. An object that you really want to keep, one that is superficially a very nice object, but with original content –a reflection of the work of thinking about the films and the entire process. As for the rest… I’m interested in films that open up to other disciplines. In this sense, it’s something that happens naturally in cinema, people coming from films and going to theatre, dance, contemporary art, getting into film and the other way around. These are the little kinds of gestures that point out what kind of cinema I prefer, however, it’s a bit difficult to define, because my line is similar to the approach of Hans Hurch, but, definitely, there are also some personal choices.
FD: How would you define those choices, what drives them? Beyond your personal way of looking at cinema, your apprehension of the larger movements in contemporary film…
ES: I have a lot of experience with Latin American cinema, so I brought in more Latin American films to balance out the disposition of worldwide productions in the festival.
FD: You previously worked for FICUNAM, which is a competitive festival. How did you adapt to programming a non-competitive venue? What are the differences between these two lines of work?
ES: The festival I used to work for, FICUNAM, was a festival that I created, so it was my project. Of course, the competition was also a strategy of making the festival more appealing to the directors. We were creating something from nothing – so then, what I did was to make the competition smaller and smaller. It was a very hard exercise in the form of 12 films. And then there were all the sections, too, but the 12 films were a way to offering a vision of different possibilities of cinematic language in the productions of the previous year. So very different objects – of course, it’s only a partial, not a comprehensive view of cinema, because it’s a small number.
Arriving here, it’s just luxury. I don’t want to change it, because I like to work from this position, where I’m defending cinema using a wider range of possibilities. From big production values to homemade films. From very well-known directors to some who are unknown.
FD: I feel that retrospectives are the space where your own personal voice as an artistic director really comes across, especially since you’re not as bound to recent productions as in the main selection. They are very varied and interesting retrospectives – Jorge Acha, as you said, a virtually unknown director, B-Films from the 50s, political films… How did you construct these programs?
ES: When you do historical programs, you must have one thing clearly in your mind – it’s to put a spotlight, to discover or to do justice to films that are forgotten, or to directors that are not quite in the limelight. It’s also a coincidence sometimes, in the sense that I tried to find a case to make the films interesting again. So with Jean-Francois Stevenin, the films are from the end of 1980s, beginning of 1990s… The point is also that the films have recently been restored, so that’s another reason to talk about him. In the case of Acha, it’s the same – they were recently digitised so they were available, it’s their first public presentation in this format. As for Minervini, it was clear – he made a new film – and then I discovered that his films were never shown in Vienna, most of them not even in the whole of Austria, with the exception of a single film. Every other title we had in the programme was practically a local premiere; and I know his work very well, so it was a welcome coincidence. The B-Films were proposed by the curator of the FilmMuseum, Michael Loebenstien, who had also talked about it with Hans, so I thought it was perfect. I love Golden Age Hollywood films, too, but the films presented here are rare, some are almost unknown. And some of the prints in the retrospective actually come from private collections, making the retrospective even more special. With Visual Justice… it has to do with the responsibility of a festival to give exposure to things that are forgotten. In this case, specifically, I wanted a clear political statement, to have films, programmed by Nicole Brenet, which have to do with the responsibility of cinema. Telling the truth, or… not the truth.
FD: What do you think are your responsibilities as an artistic director? Not necessarily towards the audience and the staff, but also to the larger community, to the bigger milieu of film festivals.
ES: It’s easier said than done. Of course, my position is also a political position, in this case. My first responsibility is towards the politics of the image and of the cinema business, let’s say. My responsibility is to stand for a type of cinema that is not the commercial kind. A direction towards which cinema is moving, unfortunately. So that is why I think that it is amazing to work from this position, in a festival without any competition, because I can decide to show films – from the big authors to the small ones – but only films that belong to cinema as a product of art, and not the one of entertainment.
And then, everything is political in cinema. The selection of content in films. At the Viennale, there’s a balance between form and content. Of course, I’m concerned, aware, and interested in talking about the world through the films that I select, even if not all of them are political.
FD: How do you reconcile these two kinds of films that you mention? Of course, they are arthouse, but as you said – gigantic productions such as Roma, Suspiria, The Favourite definitely attract a lot more attention … how do you reconcile them with indie films, and integrate them in a program that manages to be very compact and coherent?
ES: This is just because of the main criteria, which is my interest in form and content. Cinema has infinite possibilities. This is the game, the genius of Hans – because he decided to put everything together in the main program. I, personally, erased the distinction between documentary and fiction, because it doesn’t make any sense to me. But he was playing this game: when you see the catalog, everything is mixed together, from First Man (Damien Chazelle) to La Flor (Mariano Llinás). This is the strength of the Viennale, because you are approaching the audience, too, which is composed of all sorts of different people. It’s a festival that really counts on the box office, we need to fill in both Gartenbaukino and the smaller ones. But to make the credibility of the festival, and of my position as a programmer and director, I really can declare that I stand for every film that I have selected. I said “no” to certain bigger, easy films. But I wanted Lanthimos, for example, because I think that he is brilliant. I stand for Roma, too, it was a return for Alfonso Cuarón to a more authentic voice, and this film is important to the industry, as well. But I also stand for films like Buenos Aires al Pacifico, I fight for La Flor, an epic 14-hour film, cinema that is rather more for cinephiles… or maybe not! This is the magic of the festival, it can give people who come to see First Man the chance to also discover the work of Mariano Llinás.
FD: You said a very interesting thing about erasing the distinction between documentary and fiction. Could you elaborate on this point?
ES: It’s very simple – it’s not something that I’ve discovered. It’s simply a distinction that doesn’t exist from many points of view. One, the language is the same, the cinematographic language, in documentaries and fiction. And then, more and more, films are becoming hybrids, they are shape-shifting. Certain films I don’t know how to define in this paradigm, like Le livre d’image. Is it a documentary? I don’t think so. It’s then also a political statement connected to the fact that it’s a little unfair for certain filmmakers to be defined as documentarists. I think that it’s a category that is closed, and maybe untrue – Minervini is not a documentarist, because he is reacting in most of the cases, in his films, so the fictional aspect is there. And then, as a provocation, there are people who expect to see documentaries. I received a lot of messages from people saying “I only want to see documentaries, why did you erase this?”, “So you can read the text!” (laughs). Then you can be surprised. It’s a playful thing, a provocation – the intention is not to be mean, but to create an understanding about the fact that every production is fundamentally a film, and has the same importance and level. Every film, besides the topic, is approaching different experiences – some even don’t have a narrative –, and has been selected because there is a concern regarding the way it’s telling its story, or creating an experience. Then, to get more into the political ethos – if we talk about eliminating barriers, I’m not the one to create categories, or to enforce them.
FD: How would you characterize the age we’re living in, in cinema? The industry as it stands right now, and the direction it might be headed in.
ES: It’s a very complex question. The industry itself is so big, not only the local one (like local scenes, small productions I’m interested in)… It depends on what industry we’re talking about. Directors are starting to film series because this is business now, and it’s really tricky because there is a point in the language of series which, I don’t know, is just boring to me, it’s very repetitive. The opposite of La Flor. Very much based on the script and, thus,predictable. That is something I see, but there can be a lot of things to say, but even so, cinema still is very surprising.
FD: How do you position yourself on the subjects that have impacted the film industry in the last year, regarding gender parity? Especially considering the specifics of the Viennale as a festival. It’s not the same situation as, for example, in Venice, or other festivals helmed by male programmers, that now find themselves accountable for these issues and have to explain themselves.
ES: From a programming point of view, unfortunately, for different reasons, serious reasons, there are fewer films made by women than by men. Especially feature-lengths. If you see our short film program, it’s almost 50-50. This is serious – it shows that in the industry, less women are being directors, but maybe they’re working other roles in the industry. I’m not the one who will change the results, but even so, we have 20% of feature length films in the contemporary program that were directed by women.
FD: But when I choose a film, it’s because of the criteria, and not because it’s made by a woman – as I hope that I haven’t been chosen for this role because I’m a woman. But, of course, I have a sensibility and interest towards this, so I’m not excluding it. I won’t be using it as a criterion for inclusion, either. The criteria are the same for everybody, but I’m not excluding anybody.
ES: How I position myself… it’s also something natural. We opened the festival with Alice Rohrwacher’s film because it’s one of my favorite films of the year. Then, to be there on the stage, I didn’t think of it but it happened naturally and it was beautiful – we were four women onstage. A lot of the focus was on male directors, but maybe next year the festival will be more feminine.