Looking back at FSF 39 ½
Shooting the opening was great fun!
Thursday morning, October 29, 2020. The weather: 5 °C, a light wind, and plenty of rain. Conditions for shooting under the open sky could have been a lot better. Weeks of planning had gone into preparing all the scenes that were to be shot that day for the opening of the digital edition of FILMSCHOOLFEST MUNICH. A decision had to be made: shoot in spite of the bad weather and freeze our asses off, or postpone the shoot until Saturday in the hope of better weather? We decided to shoot on Saturday and were not disappointed. Perfect weather with sunshine and a bright blue sky greeted the festival team as it gathered at Odeonsplatz with golden balloons and handmade face masks to celebrate the opening of the festival in front of the camera.
We moved on to the nearby Hofgarten (palace grounds) to record intros. We wanted to make the opening as attractive as possible for an online audience, so we decided to produce the whole thing in the style of a TV show with different segments about the history of the festival, the jury, and themes that were common to a number of the films. That meant shooting many different intros several times until everything was just right. After the whole team had shouted a welcome to the camera on the steps of the Bavaria statue, some of us went into the office to shoot the scenes of our more or less fictional conclusion to the opening. The festival organizers became actors without further ado.
Barely two weeks later, on November 12, 2020, the time had come and FILMSCHOOLFEST MUNICH 39 ½ opened as a digital festival after months of preparation. At 8:15 p.m., the opening went online on our website, and half an hour later, the entire program of films. This time there was no buffet, no free beer, and no students dancing and celebrating in the foyer of the University of Television and Film Munich (HFF). Instead, we met with the filmmakers in a video call after the broadcast. You can also raise your glasses via webcam, after all. And then it doesn’t matter whether it’s afternoon in the United States, evening in Germany, or the middle of the night in India.
Instead of sitting in the lounge at the Filmmuseum, where we usually interact with the audience and students, we sat at home or in the office while people around the world streamed the films. It was a rapturous feeling, especially since we had pre-produced the content. That’s how it was with the Q&A videos that the directors themselves had recorded and sent to us, as well as the side events. Since the Seriencamp in Munich was also being held online at the same time, the obvious thing to do was collaborate on a talk that could be shown at both festivals. Gerhard Maier, Seriencamp’s artistic director, told us in an interview that in his experience, people who make series are taught little to nothing about the field of serial storytelling during their time at film school. We wanted to look into this and organized an online talk with four students who are already working on their own ideas for series. The findings coincided with Gerhard’s impressions. None of the four participating universities offers serial storytelling in its curriculum. In view of the booming market for series, some changes ought to be made here. The four students also see it this way.
During our preparations, we kept looking at Budapest with concern. The management of the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) was recently taken over by a foundation close to the right-wing nationalist government of Viktor Orbán, causing the university to effectively lose its autonomy. The institution was subsequently occupied by students, teachers, and other staff. It was clear to us that as a festival of film schools, we had to express solidarity with the occupiers, especially as we have close ties to the university: SZFE graduate Hajni Kis was on our jury this year and received the VFF Young Talent Award last year. Through her we established contact in Budapest to organize an online talk about the situation. Anna Lengyel, director and lecturer at the SZFE, and film student Dorka Vermes, both of whom were among the occupiers, agreed to talk to us. The discussion was moderated by journalist Susanne Burg, who immediately used the conversation to report on the situation in Budapest in her program on radio station Deutschlandfunk Kultur. Just before the date we’d scheduled, however, the Hungarian government announced a radical lockdown with restrictions on going outside, and we weren’t able to record. Anna Lengyel had to attend to the fact that her theater premiere could not be held, and Dorka Vermes had to work out an approach regarding the university occupation, which was then ended for the time being in order to conform to the pandemic order. We postponed the interview, but were able to catch up on the day of the festival opening and put it online with a slight delay. In the end, we benefited from the postponement, because we were able to discuss the very latest developments in Budapest, including the preliminary end to the occupation.
For us, having the festival online this year was a stopgap measure. Nevertheless, we tried to make it possible for the students to interact with each other in the digital realm and from afar.
In addition to small welcome packages with handwritten postcards that we sent all over the world, we organized watch parties and discussions via a private Facebook group that our guests from Europe, Asia, Australia, and South and North America joined. Both of these may have been only a minor substitute for a real get-together here in Munich, but fortunately, the interaction among the students and their positive feedback showed us that a feeling of hospitality can be created even with little means and across thousands of kilometers.
Even some of the finest moments of a film festival can be experienced over such a vast distance — such as the reactions of the winners when the awards were announced. The element of surprise still works online. In video conferences that we organized under false pretenses, we were able to more or less surprise the students with the news that they had won, and thus show their astonished faces. We pre-produced the award ceremony analogous to the opening to make it as attractive as possible to the audience. Here, too, there was a small closing celebration with the students afterwards, who again insisted on coming to our online meeting at any time of day or night to talk about the films at the festival.
After 10 days of the festival and 10 awards presented, we can definitely say: Many thanks to the 73 directors in total, whose amazing films made this edition of the festival something very special. Many thanks to the award sponsors, who supported the up-and-coming filmmakers with 35,000 euros in prize money even in this difficult year. And many thanks to our audience, who unfortunately couldn’t come to the Filmmuseum München this year, but were able to watch the best student films worldwide and from home.
With this, FILMSCHOOLFEST MUNICH will now be going into hibernation and will be back next year — because then it will be its 40th anniversary. Until then: stay healthy!