Interview - The heads of Vienna Independent Shorts

As part of Vienna Independent Shorts, currently occurring in the Austrian capital, Nisimazine is running a young journalism workshop to encourage a new generation of young film critics and journalists. Cineuropa Shorts is showcasing some of the work done daily by the journalists.

Today Nisimazine and journalist Miha Veingerl spoke to the heads of VIS, festival manager Benjamin Gruber and artistic director Daniel Ebner about the state of the festival, its development from a small student project to an Oscar-qualifying festival, the meaning of "independent", as well as about their own motivations and preferences.

Nisimazine: How would you describe your festival?

Daniel Ebner: In our opinion every festival is a multi-layered organism with lots of different facets. The top layer is the obvious one: VIS is a short film festival showing films no longer than 30 minutes. These films can be narrative, experimental, animated or musical, which could be seen as a plea for the diversity and pluralism of the short form. We try to be very open and always look for unconventional films and works that try out new things, incite curiosity and inspire fantasies.

At the same, time we consider ourselves to be a political festival with a very open-minded and open-hearted attitude. Furthermore, we have a strongly non-elitist approach which means that we present the old and the new, an experimental and a fun narrative short with the same passion and love. And of course there are many more layers - creating a space for dialogue, caring for our guests, trying out exciting, new things, and partying like there’s no tomorrow (while still being serious about films).

N: How did VIS begin?

DE: The festival began as a small students’ project in 2004, with all the advantages and disadvantages coming along with untamed will. At the time, we didn’t really know what we were doing and made a lot of mistakes. But we were eager to learn and improve every year - and after a few years we found out that something had grown here which was worth taking seriously.

Benjamin Gruber: What fascinates me is the energy that is set free during the time of the festival. Organizing a festival usually involves a lot of people putting in a lot of hours and effort over the course of many months. I joined VIS when it still had a lot of the grass roots atmosphere to it and am very grateful to be a part of its development and growth in the past years.

N: Regarding the name of the event – how far from the initial concept of “independent film” did the content of the festival get removed?

DE: I think that the term “independent” was always more about being independent from official institutions, especially in the beginning. In the first year of the festival we even had a panel discussion asking: “What the f*** does ‘independent’ mean?” In my opinion, every kind of film-making that cannot be commercially exploited is "independent" - and short films mostly don’t generate a lot of money. By now we don’t really think about being "independent" that often anymore - and many people call us “Vienna International Shorts” anyway. So to be honest, maybe it’s about time to get rid of the “I”.

N: This year VIS became the first Austrian Oscar-qualifying festival. How did you achieve this? What does it mean for the festival?

BG: Almost one year ago we sent a package containing a few signed forms, a festival catalogue and some photos to Hollywood. And then there was a long silence that lasted until the beginning of this year when finally we received a letter, informing us that we had become the youngest and Austria’s first Oscar-qualifying festival. This means that the best animated and the best fiction film of the festival – both selected by the festival’s juries – get on the Oscar longlist, which is the first step for film-makers towards receiving one of the highly coveted golden statues. It is a huge honour and confirmation of the work we are doing and the way we are going.

N: How would you position VIS in general in comparison to other important European short film festivals like Oberhausen, Clermont-Ferrand or Tampere?

DE: Obviously, VIS is much younger, so we still have a lot of work to do to build up a reputation like theirs. These festivals have done a lot for the short form, but at the same time they have become huge institutions and therefore may be a bit less open to new developments. We try to keep the festival rather small in some respects so that we remain versatile and flexible in regard to programming and organization. But in other respects, we need to institutionalize it so that we can be a trustworthy partner for public funding institutions and private sponsors. Right now we’re happy to collaborate with these “older” festivals and learn from them, and at the same time build up our own reputation on the festival circuit.

N: If you think about the situation abroad, would you consider Austrian politics and funding more or less film friendly?

BG: After Oscars for Austrian films in 2008 and 2013, public funding institutions have been focusing strongly on production of new films. While we completely support this development, we see that the current funding system comes at the expense of the funding for film festivals, which have evolved into platforms that complement the role of cinemas, and are often even more efficient at drawing large audiences.

What is definitely hindering the development of the festival is the lack of funding – which in turns sometimes commands creative solutions, but mostly spends a lot of our energy that could be better invested.

N: How do you program your festival, by acquisitions from other festivals or through submissions from the filmmakers themselves?

DE: Both. We receive about 3,500 submissions and travel to 15 to 20 festivals each year. In the end the competition is composed of 50 % submissions and 50 % invited films.

N: The festival description mentions short films, animation and music videos, which are situated between serious topics and camp. What do you personally prefer the most?

DE: Personally I love black and surreal comedies. But I also know how hard it is to make a good comedy and the good ones are very rare so I’m also pretty picky in this respect.

BG: What I like most in short films is to be surprised and I find that more often than not experimental films capture my attention and stick with me the longest.

You can read the interview, and find more Nisimazine articles about Vienna Independent Shorts, HERE

28 May 2016, by Cineuropa Shorts