by Roderick Conway Morris

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Alberto Barbera Returns to the Venice Film Festival

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 29 August 2012


Alberto Barbera put together three intelligent and well-received Venice International Film Festivals from 1999 to 2001. He was preparing his fourth in 2002 when Silvio Berlusconi came to power and he fell victim to Italy's political spoils system. In the customary postelection auto-da-fé, the board of the Biennale installed by the previous administration was replaced, along with the directors it had appointed.

Mr. Barbera, 62, has been director of the National Museum of Cinema in Turin since 2004. When Paolo Baratta - now president of the Venice Biennale, which organizes the film festival as well as the art and architecture events - invited him to dinner at his Rome apartment just before Christmas to share his thoughts on the direction of the film festival, Mr. Barbera said nobody was more surprised than he to find himself invited to return to Venice to resume his work.

His predecessor, Marco Müller, was artistic director of the event for eight years, the longest of any incumbent in the festival's 80-year history.

'Marco did a great job with the programming but the event became unmanageable,' Mr. Barbera said in an interview in his office on the Lido. 'Last year there were 180 films. We don't have enough room to show that number of films over the days of the festival. It became impossible to follow everything. So my first priority was to reduce the number of films.'

The new director has brought the number of features in the three main categories down to 55, 18 of them in competition, five fewer than last year.

When asked whether much had changed since he last directed the festival, Mr. Barbera said that a decade or so ago it was much easier to have direct relationships with filmmakers and producers. 'You could go to meet them at festivals, go to the studios,' he said. 'Now it's much more difficult to find this immediate, instant contact. You find yourself dealing with the marketing people, the sales people, the publicity people and you don't know who's in charge. You can't get a quick and clear response.'

Studios and producers have become more risk-averse, he said, more obsessed with the bottom line.

'Unlike in the past, the only element that counts is money,' he lamented. 'And it costs a lot of money now to bring a film to a festival. It involves a big outlay to bring the talent and all the back-up people. And there's a risk involved. The studios don't have any control over the press or public reaction, and they don't like it if they get bad reviews. They prefer to be in control of the process. To screen the film to the press that will co-operate. It's much safer to decide who sees the film, to skip the festivals and do press junkets instead.'

There is also an increasing wariness at appearing in competition, he added. 'The U.S. studios especially can be reluctant to be in competition because they don't want to be in competition and lose. Ten to 15 years ago, the studios were keener to use festivals and be in competition to launch their productions, but not anymore. This is particularly true of the U.S. studios, but not only. There are two big U.S. productions in competition this year, by Terrence Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson. But they have such high profiles in any case that they don't mind taking a chance.'

There are also a score of women filmmakers, a higher proportion of women than ever before. Was this a conscious choice?

'No, this was not intentional at all,' Mr. Barbera said. 'I honestly had no idea that there were so many women filmmakers on the list this year, until one of my collaborators on the staff pointed it out to me.

'I don't like the idea of having ghettoes for particular kinds of filmmakers. When we do the selection, I often don't know where or who it's coming from. I often don't even register the director or producer. When I've seen it, if I'm interested, it's at that point I find out more information about the film.

'But that there are so many more women filmmakers is a sign of the times,' he continued. 'Up till now the film business had been a male universe, but that is obviously changing. This is something that's happening in all kinds of areas of society and women are finally becoming better represented in film as well.'

Venice has traditionally been seen as primarily an art-house festival, and previous attempts to turn it also into a major marketplace à la Cannes have so far met with little success. But Mr. Barbera is returning to the issue with a new project.

'It's no longer enough to say that our core business is to defend auteur cinema,' he said. 'We need to act as a bridge between filmmakers and the rest of the industry.

'I made a mistake when I was last the artistic director at Venice,' he admitted. 'I thought that the market was not really necessary with modern communications, the Internet and so on. But over the last 10 years it has become clear that it is more necessary than ever. And to make a market here in Venice we have to invest, to build it year by year. To make it a venue that can't be skipped.'

This year there will be a five-day slot for buyers at the beginning of the festival. The buyers will be able to see all the films and others from the festival's archives. 'We've extended special invitations to around 100 buyers for this first event and almost all of them have accepted,' Mr. Barbera said.

'Today festivals need to support cinema more than ever by helping the filmmakers meet the market,' he said. 'With digital and other technologies, in many ways it's become easier and sometimes cheaper to make films, but if anything it has become more and more difficult to sell them.'

A further initiative to help aspiring filmmakers instituted by Mr. Baratta and Mr. Barbera is the founding of the Biennale College of Cinema, which will invite first-time directors from around the world to spend time in Venice attending workshops and receiving training from professionals.

Fifteen applicants will be chosen to develop projects and of those three will be given budgets of €150,000, or $188,000, each to return to their countries and make features to be premiered at the Venice festival in 2013.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023