Carlo Chatrian on Hopes and Challenges in Taking Over Berlin Film Festival

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Carlo Chatrian

The head of Switzerland's Locarno Festival is ready to take on the German giant.

Back in 2012, when Italian journalist and author Carlo Chatrian was appointed artistic director of Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival, he said he hoped the festival wouldn’t change him.

Six years later, it's he who has left his mark on the fest.

If there was something that tied together Chatrian's Locano lineups, it was the element of surprise. Every year, he offered up something entirely new, introducing festival audiences to often unknown directors, presenting career retrospectives full of long-buried films, and bringing in American talent with no significant European fan base. But obvious through it all was his delight in cinematic discovery, rooted in his formative years as a cinephile, moviegoer and sharp-eyed intellectual.

So the best advice for those speculating about what Chatrian will mean for the Berlin International Film Festival — last Friday, he was confirmed as Berlin's new artistic director, taking over, with Mariette Rissenbeek serving as managing director, from outgoing Berlinale boss Dieter Kosslick, after the 2019 fest — is to expect the unexpected.

Chatrian is loath to talk much about Berlin, being heads-down focused on rolling out his last edition of Locarno, which takes place Aug. 1-11. But naturally, he's already thinking about what he’ll miss about the historic Swiss festival, which has taken place every summer since 1946 in the sleepy resort town on Lake Maggiore.

In the intimate setting, Chatrian can be seen at nearly every main screening, including in front of the 8,000-strong audience at the open-air galas on the Piazza Grande, introducing each film and guest with a few kind words.

"I don’t know whether I’ll be able to do this in Berlin," he tells THR by phone from Locarno. "It’s a different setting, and usually the festival director is not introducing films. This is something I’m going to miss, where I can give a brief hint into the emotion of the film without spoiling anything."

But Chatrian plans to stick to his curatorial instincts when it comes to picking films for Berlin. He still lives for the thrill of surprising audiences and discovering new talent, and he is steadfast in his belief that festivals exist to advocate for films that might otherwise be ignored.

"Every film festival director wants to surprise their audiences in their own way," he says. "I hope I won’t change myself. I said it when I was appointed in Locarno, and I’m saying it again: I hope I will still be able to put myself in the shoes of a viewer. I think this is very important when we select films, to think about the people who will watch the films. So I hope that my outlook upon films won’t change much."

But he does acknowledge that the shift to Berlin — a festival of a scale larger in terms of the number of screenings and the size of the audience — will mean changes in approach. "Of course, when you are working in another festival, it’s also the setting of the festival that interferes in a way with your work, which is normal," he says. "But the struggle is always to convey something of yourself and also the group you're working with."

Chatrian will also be walking into a battle he didn't start. Kosslick, who has run the Berlinale since 2001, came under heavy fire of late from members of the German film industry, who accused him of lacking a clear curatorial vision for the festival and of neglecting Berlin's tradition of intellectual arthouse cinema, particularly new German films. 

On the other side, there is a call for Berlin to become more commercial and attract bigger Hollywood or Oscar-favored titles. Many look to the success in recent years of Venice, which has improved its international profile by shrinking its competition lineup and focusing on high-profile films with awards buzz. 

Asked how he’ll respond to the different demands of arthouse and Hollywood in Berlin, Chatrian acknowledges it will be difficult. "Of course it's impossible to please everyone. [But] the solution is not to give a little bit of everything to everyone."

"I need some time to understand better in a practical way what the challenges are," he adds. "At the same time, I think that Berlin has an identity that is very much related to the city, very much related to the history of the festival, and my job will also be to adapt myself, or rather to find how can I be part of the history of this festival. I don’t believe that someone can arrive and change everything all of a sudden. It's a process."

While Chatrian says he's immensely honored and excited to take on his new position, he acknowledges that the leap from Locarno to Berlin is a big one. "It is really on the other extreme of the festival spectrum, not only because Locarno takes place in a small village and Berlin is a metropolis, but the perception of the festival and the audience is very different," he says.

"Also, the weather is the opposite," he jokes, hinting at Locarno's summer climate, which is very different from Berlin's notoriously cold winters.

"The challenge is to be able to handle a festival that is a huge machine with so many sections, so many people involved," he says. "I need time to be acquainted with this new dimension."

Chatrian has attended the Berlin festival for the last 15 years as a professional and knows the main venues, but he realizes this is only scratching the surface of the immense event. "I have to understand very well what it means to screen a film in one venue or in another one," he says.

Chatrian, who speaks Italian, English, French, and Spanish, but not German, says he is also looking forward to learning the language and moving part-time to Berlin. "It's a city full of opportunity, not only with cinema," he says. "Doing a festival in such a big city, this is such an important element in understanding the cultural scene, and to see whether there is some kind of cultural connection. This is the moment to me where everything seems possible."

One thing that will be on his mind with the Berlinale is discovering a new generation of German filmmakers. "This is part of the scouting work that I will try to do. I think there is this need for finding new voices in German cinema."

He gives the example of Cannes' small showing of German film this year, with only Ulrich Kohler's In My Room in the official selection. "I know there are new directors, new voices, everything. The matter is to really give them space," Chatrian says.

"I really believe that filmmakers form themselves by watching films and discussing with other filmmakers. This is part of the job that I hope I will be able to do," he adds. "My contract is for five years, so I hope that from the first one until the last one there will be a renewal of the German director, and simply of new cinema voices in general."