DISPATCH contributor Kathinka Engels met Marita Quaas founder and 7-year artistic-director of the European Short Film Festival – UNLIMITED (now called KFFK / Kurzfilmfestival Köln) to talk about short film, how to make a good festival and finding the right moment to let go.
KE: A little more than ten years ago you founded UNLIMITED, the short film festival within the city of Cologne. What interests you in the moving image and in short film in particular?
MQ: Back then, I definitely preferred film and especially art film to theatre. It was the artistic side that fascinated me. In short film I was most interested in the destruction of the form as is often done by experimental film. The destruction of the form was something that always fascinated me, because my viewing habits were challenged and I had to readapt my expectations. I’m very good at close observations, and get bored easily by films that tell a story from A-Z following the classic rules of filmmaking. Therefore, I was delighted whenever I came across an enfant terrible where I could experience and explore new narratives or new forms of imagery. I want to be surprised by film. While often being more experimental, short film has the ability to be close to the zeitgeist and experiment with the newest technology. This is connected to a small or in fact sometimes no available budget for short film. Thus, short films don’t have the compulsion to please as many funders or as large audiences as feature films that require a higher budget. They can be freer and more experimental.
KE: When and why did you decide that you wanted to create a short film festival?
MQ: I had taken over the direction of the short film festival, Short Cuts Cologne, two years before founding UNLIMITED. When Short Cuts came into trouble because of the producing institution, I detached the festival from that institution and founded Kurzfilmfreunde e.V. as a registered association to run a new short film festival. Using the network and reputation I had acquired for Short Cuts Cologne, I created UNLIMITED as an independent festival. We called it UNLIMITED to highlight the limitless nature of film. Film as a medium without boundaries.
KE: What were the various steps on the road to Unlimited #1?
MQ: First of all, it is important to create or have a good network, meaning that you need institutions, people or companies who are willing to fund the festival. Funders such as the city council, the county or the film and media fund (Film- und Medienstiftung Nordrhein Westfalen in our case) are vital to contribute to the basic festival budget. But I believe that private funders or companies are just as vital. Many companies pay only very little tax or none at all, I think they should give back to the community by funding culture. Then, we also needed a good network within the film world for submissions and programme co-operations. Thus we needed a good mailing list to reach filmmakers, institutes, universities and associations not only for the programme but also for jury members and to create a good supportive network with other European festivals. We did not really have the funds to travel to various festivals, but we researched their programmes. Unlimited was a member of the AG Kurzfilm, which made it easier to get into contact with German film festivals and filmmakers and back then there still was the European Cooperation of Film Festivals for contacts all around Europe. These associations could be really useful because online submission tools such as Reelport didn’t exist when we started. Another large part of the preparation was the programme development, deciding what kind of competition and focus we wanted. This included the task to distinguish UNLIMITED from the other festivals in the area, with Oberhausen being the biggest. However, Cologne has a couple of famous film schools such as the KHM (Academy for Media Arts Cologne) and the IFS (Internationale Filmschule Köln). Therefore, we decided to focus on student short films with special attention to talent from Cologne and Northrhine Westfalia. One of the really hard bits of festival preparation was marketing and press work. We never really managed to get a lot of press coverage. I mean which newspapers are actually writing about art?
KE: Could you tell us a bit about your curatorial practice and aim as director of Unlimited?
MQ: Well, the thing is that we cannot always embrace the luxury of artistic self-fulfilment. As a festival director you really have to keep an eye on how much of the budget you spend and often we had to compromise with regard to our sponsors. I would have loved to spend all the budget on showing films and having the filmmakers visit the festival and I would have happily ignored marketing. But you always have to distribute the budget sensibly to satisfy the funding institutions. We even curated a couple of programmes along a certain topic with the aim of receiving funding from certain institutions. But despite all that we also allowed ourselves programmes where we could be entirely free, such as showcases of filmmakers we really liked. They were curated either by ourselves or the artists. One of those was a showcase of the Irish filmmaker Ken Wardrop. It included the film Undressing My Mother (2004), which had such a wonderful closeness and intimacy. I really like intimacy in films, the ability to create closeness and reveal something that has been hidden, to make the invisible visible. Johannes Duncker, who now directs the festival and is a filmmaker himself, has the same ability.
KE: Do you have a favourite film or programme that was screened at Unlimited?
MQ: My favourites always were experimental films and documentaries, or even better experimental documentaries. I also remember very vividly a programme by Super 8 artist Helga Fanderl. She screened films for the audience herself on a super 8 projector on the stage. I really liked that this emphasised the live-character of a festival and gave another dimension to this liveness.
KE: What do you think were the greatest challenges of running a short film festival?
MQ: The most difficult part is definitely financing the festival. I always felt bad for my team, because I could pay them so little. The other big challenge was to build a great team and lead that team, especially - once again - financing that team was difficult. That was why I returned to research and writing for television after I gave up festival direction. I wanted to earn some more money myself for a while. It really is a problem that jobs in the cultural sector are just really badly paid. Moreover, there is the challenge of constantly redefining the festival, create something new and keep it exciting. If it becomes too institutionalised and the creativity and innovation get lost it can easily turn into a zombie. So it is important to keep the programme flexible and keep being inspired.
KE: And on the other hand what did you enjoy most?
MQ: Viewing the submissions, programme development and curating the programmes. It is a huge creative act and it is the branding of the festival. However, sometimes viewing submissions could be both a blessing and a curse. Watching and assessing up to 1000 films in a relatively short period of time can be really hard and it broke my heart if there were really good films which we couldn’t show. I also always enjoyed meeting the filmmakers. I just really was more of a host, meaning that I celebrated with my filmmakers during the festival as long as possible. I soon had the reputation as the festival director who always is out and about with her filmmakers until early in the next morning. I really enjoyed being with them and showing them around city. Then, I loved putting together my team. At some point we were an all women team, but I got a couple of men in to keep the balance. A diverse team is vital to have various points of view. Rather importantly for festival work, I also enjoyed creative problem solving. There always are major or minor catastrophes when you do festival organisation. Other companies can simply buy a solution, but we never had the means to do so. We simply had to be creative and find a cheap way around a problem. In addition, as festival director you are always producer, and I always enjoyed bringing together various people, institutions and artists and find that it works fine and something wonderful is created. This often happened through my networking. I did not control these co-operations but let go at the right moment to allow the situation to unfold independently. Our children’s workshops would be an example. We brought children and artists together within the rooms and facilities of the KHM (Academy for Media Arts Cologne). This generated wonderful projects and art.
KE: In 2013, after seven years you left UNLIMITED and gave the position of the director to Christine Bernau and Johannes Duncker. Was that a difficult decision and what made you take that step?
MQ: Including the two years of Short Cuts Cologne I had been a festival director for 9 years, and I honestly had enough. Again and again I reached my limit and could not overcome certain issues. For example, I was frustrated because I could not enlarge the budget. Having to deal with the same seemingly unsolvable issues time and time again reduced my motivation. I thought that others might be better at this. I had done good work for 9 years and decided that it was enough. Therefore, leaving wasn’t a very hard decision. A while later a colleague of mine said to me: “Marita, I think it is great that you leave UNLIMITED!” I wanted to be angry but he said that it was a real compliment and thinking about it, I mean, how many artistic directors remain in their seats for decades, too comfortable or scared to leave but I had the courage to leave. For some reason it is also quite often men who hold their positions for so long, but by that they impede change and refuse to give a chance to the young. In festival work there is a creative act of letting go and allow the things to develop independently. This is something I learned as a mother. It is a very important step and leaving the festival worked out nicely. My successors developed the festival creatively and managed to raise audience numbers significantly. I learned that it is just as important to find the right moment to leave as it is to find the right moment to create an event. I like being flexible. I enjoyed creating and directing the festival and I enjoyed leaving it and watching how it developed.
KE: What are your current projects and plans for the future?
MQ: After having worked for so long with film and moving image, I am currently much more interested in other forms of art and communication. I’m most interested in live communication and creative dialogue. I’m not entirely sure what kind of cultural event I can create from this, but this is my great passion at the moment. Otherwise I’m working in systemic coaching, but I would love to return into the cultural sector, because for me this is a political activity and social challenge. And when I say I’m interested in dialogue I don’t only mean intercultural dialogue but dialogue in general. Which word do I use and what’s the effect of the sound of that word? So, I’d like to do something with the spoken word as creative act and art and all that in combination with the art of dialogue. But I don’t know how this will come together, yet.
Images courtesy of UNLIMITED.
Words by Kathinka Engels