Since 2016, Sebastian Höglinger and Peter Schernhuber have headed Diagonale—Festival of Austrian Film. Here, they speak with mdw Magazine about film festivals in general and also provide a sneak peek at Diagonale’18.

Sebastian Hoeglinger Peter Schernhuber
Sebastian Höglinger and Peter Schernhuber have headed this Graz-based film festival since 2016. ©Lukas Maul

Why should filmmakers participate in film festivals?

Sebastian Höglinger (SH): There are various festivals out there with various functions, like your classic, multi-genre ones and others that are more themed. Diagonale, for its part, is a festival that’s devoted to Austrian cinematography in all its breadth. So particularly for young filmmakers, it can be a good platform for attracting public attention. We also pay special attention to showing films in optimum quality both to the general public and to industry insiders.

Peter Schernhuber (PS): Ideally, a festival draws attention—from multiple places: from the industry, and also from the general public. If you take a look at everyday cinema programming, you’ll notice that certain kinds of films are shown not there, but almost exclusively at festivals. That’s relevant to filmmakers, because they often begin with shorter forms. So festivals serve an essential function for them.

What’s the actual role of a film festival?

PS: A festival should be a place that sparks interest on multiple levels, and it can also prove its value by discovering young names. One important thing for us was to deliberately do without introducing a young filmmakers’ category—instead, we run a competition where films from various contexts vie for attention and hopefully also correspond to one another in certain ways. Our point here is to give young filmmakers a chance to stand side-by-side with established directors.

SH: We likewise try to create spaces where it’s possible for filmmakers to engage in exchange, because our concept is also one of intergenerational dialogue. This takes place as a matter of course at our industry events like the Diagonale Film Meeting and the Cinema Next Breakfast Club. What’s more, Graz is a great place to do all this since most of the industry folks work in Vienna and have to make a special trip to Graz for this purpose and this purpose only. They then end up bumping into each other out in the streets or in the cinemas—and that’s useful, too.

How do you decide what films to programme?

PS: At Diagonale, the idea we start from is different than at other festivals, where the artistic directors’ own tastes formulate an offering to the general audience. As an instrument of cultural policy, our mission is to spend a single, concentrated week procuring as much attention as possible for Austrian film.

SH: But with that said, we do still want to formulate an individual stance for the festival, to take a position, so we don’t just automatically show everything—which wouldn’t be possible, anyway, with the amount of material being produced in Austria. Our selection process is done by a screening team that includes experts on every genre, and all of the screenings and team discussions take place with one of us two present. We score things primarily in terms of the following questions: What did the filmmaker set out to do? And what does the film set out to do? Is it, for instance, a film that wants to address a large audience? Or is it an experimental work? And finally, we ask whether the film does justice to these goals. We make our decisions as a group, and we stand behind every decision to accept or reject.

PS: Ideally, the result is a festival that settles down somewhere between being representative and having its own stance. A festival where, ideally, films don’t have to hope for attention individually, but instead give rise to overall narratives—to which end we also do special programmes positioned around the main one. Admittedly, we’re pretty romantic about it all, and we do assume that the people in our audience will end up seeing more than just one film. And if a visit to the festival also produces a certain narrative of its own, or moments that you remember for years to come, then we really have accomplished something.

Do you pay visits to other film festivals?

PS: We do. Good festivals that address both the industry and the general public can be worlds unto themselves and test-runs that show you how films do with audiences. But even so, we absolutely do have to keep an eye on the regular cinema business. I also find it important to visit festivals featuring other forms of art and creativity in order to see how they deal with certain things and what strategies they choose. Otherwise, you’re in danger of living exclusively within your “film festival” echo chamber and having your blinders on way too tight.

SH: On the other hand, it’s not our explicit responsibility to hit every festival, because our focus is on Austrian film. So while we can go to this or that international première—which is also a nice, esteeming thing to do—we’re not your classic film festival heads who go around scouting for films. Film festivals are places for us to gather ideas, see how the others do things, and see what formats exist that might also be interesting for Diagonale in Graz.

Can you give us a hint about what’s in store for us at Diagonale’18?

SH: The festival will once again centre on the competition, of course, and with the submission period for that now over, we’ll soon be starting our intensive screening phase. In any case, there will be another historical special: while our 2017 focus was on pop and Austrian film, 2018 will feature views into and out of the provinces, the relationship between the urban and rural spheres. This narrative will also feature questions about provincialism in film.

PS: And a topic that’s begun playing a role over the past few years will be with us once again in 2018: the question as to the cinema as such, and the associated challenge of how to deal with our cinematic cultural heritage and thus with “cinema” as a cultural technique—and how it might be possible to preserve both of them free of nostalgia and false purism.

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