Jerusalem Film Festival 2010: Interview with Thomas Hailer

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The garden of the Jerusalem Cinematheque was as much a part of the 27th Jerusalem Film Festival as the screening rooms. Wandering out in the summer breeze to meet friends, make new friends, share recommendations and talk about movies – which is almost as fun as seeing them. Among those enjoying a quiet moment in the garden was Thomas Hailer, Program Director of the Berlin Film Festival and juror of the Israeli Film Competition at the festival, who took some time from his busy schedule to talk with Midnight East.

Since we could not talk about films, at least not the ones screened at the festival, we asked Hailer to talk about his sense of the festival’s atmosphere, and were rewarded with a mischievous smile and a nod toward the Jerusalem landscape, surrounding us with its beauty and history. “It is a very traditional place,” said Hailer, “and it is important to me that the festival is linked with a cinematheque and archive – that films are treated well here, in the physical sense as well. It is informative and satisfying to see a part of the harvest of this year’s Israeli films.”

His own experiences are of a very different scale. The Berlin Film Festival, along with Venice and Cannes, is one of the major international festivals, not only in terms of sheer numbers, but in its impact on the film industry. The numbers are daunting – his ballpark estimate is 380 films in 10 days, 280,000 tickets sold and 45 venues. Hailer says, “From now until Christmas the festival will digest 6,000 films of which about 380 will be in the program – and the program should be more than the sum of these films, they should relate to each other.” This is where Hailer comes in – communicating with the different Heads of Sections as films are selected and making sure that although each section is autonomous, ultimately there will be a sense of the festival as a whole.

Hailer began his involvement with the Berlin Festival as Director of the Young Audience Section (Kinderfilmfest), and in that capacity, had initiated a redesign of the program, saying, “There had been programming for ages 4 – 13 and I added a section for teenagers 14plus [the introduction of the 14plus competition led to the 2007 launching of the new Generation section]. It’s a stupid idea to get young audiences used to quality film then just when life gets tricky and you start to get all pimply and smell bad and have self-esteem problems anyway, to expect them to see films where they are treated like kids.”

His own career path in its diversity and circuitry reflects a curiosity and openness to change that has perhaps uniquely prepared him for his current role in the Berlin Festival. A student of theatre and literature, Hailer says, “When I was 18 I was convinced that I was a theatre person, but I was soon lost to the academic world. In the beginning of the 80s I worked at an independent theatre company, a fringe theatre. I worked with my brother in Berlin. Then at the end of the 80s the wall came down and it was a hysterical chance to work in a small municipal theatre in East Berlin with a theatre director I had worked with before – as director in residence.

After a while I realized that I needed a change – I love it but I don’t love it that much. Then by coincidence I had a call from a friend in a dance theatre in Geissen (close to Frankfurt) a Pina Bausch style company with dancers and actors. They have two big performances a year. I was production dramaturg – a term more common in Germany than here. Creating the work in a process with the actors/dancers, the production dramaturg is involved from the beginning. He is paid to be aware and to keep a little more distance from the project. If the project is to worship Fellini, then the production dramaturg may say – you’re getting lost you’ve begun dealing with Mastroianni…”

The cumulative result of his artistic exploration led to Hailer’s “Finding out that consulting artistic projects is my cup of tea and I returned to Berlin, which I had never really left.”

As a consultant, he began to focus on media for young audiences, saying with humor, “I suddenly became an expert on young audiences. If you deal with kids [people say] the end of your career is close…but I find it inspiring.” In Hailer’s case, it was not at all an end, but the beginning of a new and exciting chapter, not only for him personally, but as harbinger of a new “generation” at the Berlin Film Festival.

What does he focus on as Program Director? The starting point is unequivocal: “Every program should have formally strong films.” As for trends, Hailer says, “There are constant communication trends. You guys [journalists] put the issue thing on us, you need something to write about…the issues are around and filmmakers have their antennas out, it’s not us [the festival directors] looking for issues.”

When Hailer talks about communicating something beyond a list of films, and creating a connection, he is referring to a process that runs deeper and is more subtle than targeting trends. “When you are at a festival seeing films suddenly the films start talking to each other behind your back. The films are teaching us,” he says. 

What is the role of the Berlin Festival in promoting German film? “Huge,” says Hailer, “since Dieter took over the festival [Dieter Kosslick, Festival Director since 2001) one of the main issues is to create a more significant platform for German film – Perspective German Cinema. Each year we show films from new directors whom I guarantee you wouldn’t know. And a unique feature of this program is that there are no limits – it is not defined by length or genre – simply a platform for new filmmakers. The festival has influenced German film in a complex way.”

Turkish-German director Fatih Akin, whose film “Soul Kitchen” is currently showing in Israel, is a good example of a young director who got his start at the Berlin Film Festival – his film Head-On received the Golden Bear Award in 2004. Asked whether he feels that there has been growth in the film industry in recent years, Hailer says that while he is not sure of the numbers, if one is talking about feeling and intensity, his response is: “Definitely. Many new directors appeared after the first dot.com economic crisis when the bubble exploded. Small complicated art house films received more space – it was not about showing off, there was time for people who had a story to tell, who really cared about something.”

Although his own experience is with a very large scale festival, his advice to festival goers is good advice for any festival: “Don’t try to see everything, because you will lose the experience. You make a choice.”

AYELET DEKEL & SHLOMO PORATH