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On the occasion of the Diagonale’23, Cinema Austriaco had the opportunity to meet Sebastian Höglinger and Peter Schernhuber, who have directed the Festival of Austrian Film since 2016 and who will hand over their directorship to Claudia Slanar and Dominik Kamalzadeh from June 2023. Interview by Marina Pavido.
Marina Pavido: This will be your last Diagonale as festival directors. How has the festival changed in these eight years?
Sebastian Höglinger: I think that, on the one hand, the Diagonale is again like it always was, i.e. very rooted in Graz. There have always been very strong connections with local institutions, even outside the film scene, i.e. also with the Schauspielhaus or the Musikverein for example. In fact, there was hardly any place here in Graz that was not involved with the festival. I remember, for example, Ludwig Wüst’s theatre production in the Schauspielhaus, which was of course a highlight for us as well, and I think we managed to bring a young audience to the Diagonale. And of course Graz is still a very good venue, it’s a university town and so on. But still, it has to be said that the development cannot be considered in a linear way, because due to the pandemic priorities were set differently for a long time. But in fact this connection between the audience, the festival and Graz is very strong again this year.
Peter Schernhuber: In general, it can perhaps be said that we watch films very differently today than we did eight years ago. We have also noticed that some films, for example, can only be shown in Graz at later times, because they have different exploitation runs, while other films go directly to streaming partners, so these global developments are obviously also noticeable at the Diagonale.
M.P.: How does the younger and older audience normally react to the festival?
P. S.: What is exciting is that in the film world, where one could say that there is no longer any mainstream or anything like that, but rather a multitude of niches that exist in parallel, the audience is very flexible. So, especially the Diagonale audience, one night they go to watch a programme of short films, the next day they might attend the premiere of a feature film, then they go to watch experimental films, as well as probably watch films on Netflix at home, so there is a great simultaneity in the watching of films.
M.P.: During the pandemic, we watched a lot of films at home. Have you noticed, though, that audiences need cinemas?
S. H.: Especially with regard to the festival, I think so, because it’s basically about creating encounters, starting discussions, and above all the meeting between filmmakers and the audience is simply an essential part of the festival. We noticed that the online festival alternative worked very well for a short time during the lockdown, but then this desire to meet again and share experiences and feelings came back very quickly. In normal cinemas, the situation is still not back to where it was, but at the festival this, of course, represents a completely different reception of film and this art form.
M.P. How important is it that there are always film festivals around the world?
S. H.: I think that festivals are now an extremely necessary reality in the film world and this also means that you can do things there that are no longer possible in normal cinemas. I think that showing historical films, for example, or bringing in films that are simply very expensive, is something that a normal cinema can hardly afford. At the same time, if we think about current programming, film forms such as experimental cinema or short films, in general, have an incredibly difficult time in normal cinemas. Of course, we have to be a bit careful, because today there are many festivals and each festival has a life of its own, with audiences, insiders and the press moving from one festival to the next. For us, however, it is very important that the Diagonale always remains a regional reality and does not simply become a kind of travelling circus.
M.P. Austrian cinema has been very successful in recent years, also at international festivals. What distinguishes this filmography from what is made in the rest of the world?
S. H.: I think we always have to be a bit careful with these perceptions of Austrian cinema from the outside, not to be too romantic, because obviously there is a multiplicity of film forms here and we don’t always talk about classic festival cinema as we know it. But in reality Austrian cinema has a certain courage, perhaps also in the sense that there is already a well-established and relatively well-functioning financing system here that also allows for more experimental approaches. I think that Austrian cinema, considered from an international point of view, is probably strong because it is a cinema that is not afraid to dare. Even in its most tragic forms, there is usually still somehow a certain height of fall and certain moments of peak or bizarreness. I would say that for me, this is an aspect that can be found in almost all Austrian films. But of course this cannot be said of all films. But if one is already trying to characterise it in an important way, perhaps this would be an attempt.
M.P.: Let’s talk a little about your career. You founded the Youki Film Festival. What are the main difficulties when you want to start such a project in Austria?
P. S.: Initially, in 1998, there was a European film festival in Wels called KINOVA, which was an attempt to establish Wels as a film festival town. In fact, the Österreichische Filmtage had already been held in Wels in the 1980s and 1990s. Within this European film festival, there was a youth section for students, with the difference that not films for young audiences, but films by young people were shown. This was very important. The main festival could no longer be realised for budgetary and political reasons. The youth festival, on the other hand, remained and from it emerged the Youki Film Festival, whose founder and long-term director was Hans Schoiswohl. He used to inspire and empower young people, and I was one of those young people. Unfortunately, he died too soon and it was not clear how Youki could continue. Fortunately, the city council decided – and it was a very brave step – to entrust the task to the young people themselves. Then Sebastian joined in and we were allowed to run the Youki from 2009 to 2014, even changing it a bit because music, pop culture, meetings and debates were very important to us. We moved away a bit from the classic film festival for young people and children to a youth media festival, as it still is today.
M.P.: How did your collaboration with the Diagonale start?
S. H.: We both started here as interns, but we had already worked in other festivals, including Crossing Europe, which was the starting point for both of us, and we realised that we were interested in festival work. So we arrived at the Diagonale and started working in different areas: press office, guest department, catalogue writing, programme consultancy, etc. We experimented with almost everything and when the call for applications came, we decided that we would simply prove that there is a younger generation that also thinks about structures and festival management. We sent in our CVs and that was that. Then came the surprising call.
M.P.: What advice would you give to someone who wants to run or found a film festival in the future?
P. S.: I think the most important thing is simply the enthusiasm for the festival and – it may sound a bit vain or socially romantic – also the willingness to start from below. The great thing about our experience at Youki is that we didn’t just run the festival, we climbed the ladders and put up spotlights when there was a concert in the evening, and things like that. Learning how to run a festival from below helped us a lot. What we learnt a lot from other people and colleagues, especially older colleagues, was when the film series and programmes were made, when there was a lot of euphoria and competence in terms of content. A festival should not be founded with purely economic aims, but rather, starting from content, enthusiasm, euphoria. That way you are prepared to accept certain situations from the outset.
M.P.: Are there any films or directors that have been particularly significant for you?
S. H.: I can think of names like Kurdwin Ayub, whom we had the pleasure of hosting in Wels and who was present at the Diagonale until the opening film. It was especially nice to be able to observe and accompany an entire career and, of course, cultivate it at certain stages. Then there are also in the experimental and pop sphere names such as Viktoria Schmid, whom we also hosted at Youki and with whom we started a project at the Diagonale 2015, even before directing the first festival. We have also long followed the career of Siegfried A. Fruhauf, just to give a few examples.
P. S.: And of course there are also films by directors of whom we are simply fans, such as Ruth Beckermann or Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel. Sebastian, for example, often mentions Wolfgang Murnberger’s film Himmel oder Hölle. Murnberger’s career then developed in a completely different way, he devoted himself more to television, but Himmel oder Hölle is one of his earliest works and for us still one of the most beautiful ones.
M.P. What are your next projects after the Diagonale?
S. H.: We don’t know yet, let’s see what possibilities will occur to us.
M.P.: Which three adjectives could describe your personal experience with the Diagonale?
S. H.: Challenging.
P. S.: Exciting.
S. H.: Irritating (laughs)
P. S.: I think it was challenging because of the great work to be done, exciting because of the enthusiasm and passion in working, but also sometimes totally irritating when you have to cancel the festival two weeks before it starts. In that case it is definitely irritating.
S. H.: For me, irritating, however, is not always meant in negative terms.