An interview with Vanja Kaluđerčić  — programmer of the Sarajevo Film Festival’s New Currents Shorts section

A modern and minimal white tent with plush oriental rugs: a perfect symbol for the duality of the city of Sarajevo where East meets West, and tradition merges with the newest trends. This is where we sat down for a Turkish coffee with Vanja Kaluđerčić after a panel talk organised by the Sarajevo Talent Campus, to escape the heat at the 2012 edition of the Festival.
At the panel talk you all agreed that selection is a very subjective business. This is why we would like to hear your personal story.

I was really lucky. There are not many positions out there for selectors. I started very early: after two years of studying at university I started working in film distribution. 9 years ago, together with some colleagues from the cinematheque in Ljubljana we established a festival in Slovenia: the Isola Cinema – Kino Otok, a festival dedicated to the cinema of Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe since at that time films like that rarely got distributed in a small territory like Slovenia. The idea was to show a small number of films – 25 at the most – but every single director had to come to present their work. It’s a very cinephile-oriented festival that has always been dedicated to auteur cinema. 9 years on, the festival still takes place every year. Today, we think of it as an Island of Cinema – and we programme those films, which are sort of islands themselves. This year, I was the artistic director of the festival, which was quite a challenge, because I had to balance it with other jobs in Paris and Sarajevo. So, Kino Otok was the first festival I programmed, then in 2004 I was invited to Zagreb to take over the Human Rights Film Festival: which was an altogether new experience but a very informative and exciting one. I did the programming for it for four years and it was a great privilege to have such position: we have screened a retrospective on Chris Marker, then a programme dedicated to Susan Sontag that centered around films she has written about – it even included using Andy Warhol’s screen tests of Susan Sontag. We even had an animal rights section one year!

The way in which we programme each festival is completely different. It depends on the emphasis and the topic of the festival. The selection of the films doesn’t only depend on what you like as a film, but also on the festival, the setting: what fits it most and what the audience is interested in most.

How did you get involved with Sarajevo?

 Initially I was involved in Cinelink, the co-production market, but then I met Philippe Bober, the programmer of the New Currents selection and we started working together. This has been my fifth year. Now I programme the feature selection together with Philippe, and the shorts I do by myself. In the New Currents section, we search for new forms of expression, filmmaking, direction, camera, and technique: always something that amazes us – a less conventional type of storytelling. Working alone, you question a lot of things and you make mistakes too. Sometimes I dismiss a film thinking that it is not that good and then I see it in another programme and think, damn, I shouldn’t have done that! Of course, there are a lot of risks when you can’t share the responsibility with anyone else.

Do you distinguish between the meaning of “new and current”, or does the context matter?

No – All that matters is that it is something we haven’t seen before, something that blows our mind. Or something that has a daring subject – there are some really disturbing films in the current selection containing some harsh, violent scenes. You might be wondering how appropriate it is to show all that but while watching it you realise that it is completely justifiable and in the service of the story. As I mentioned earlier, the approach is less conventional, and as such it is full of risks. However, these filmmakers permanently expand our understanding of cinema often transgressing the canons of conventional filmmaking.

Do you think films like these have no place in the official competition sections of festivals?

 I can’t easily answer this question, however, from my personal experience I can say that each film has to be appropriate in its own suitable context. This is the case with the titles programmed in the New Currents.  Sometimes people think they are scandalous and that they don’t belong to festivals – some viewers can get upset and leave. In general, our section has a very loyal and well-established audience, who knows what type of films to expect.

How does the public receive the New Currents shorts?

Generally, well – but I have heard booing too! Last year, we screened one title which I knew would cause uproar, but I loved the film so much that I decided I didn’t care. It is a beautiful film that talks very openly about love, God and faith – in a way, it is too expository for some. But this is what New Currents is about; we screen bold films, unburdened with classical practices.

Is it a different audience that goes to the official selection and to New Current Shorts?

I guess so. I’m sure that cinephiles are thoroughly checking out the entire festival program, but there is an audience that enjoys and appreciates conventional, traditional storytelling, which in most cases turns out to be a pleasant cinematic experience. For instance, it is wonderful to experience the films in the open-air cinemas in Sarajevo. I personally can’t wait to watch some of the best arthouse movies of the year in such privileged conditions. New Currents demands a certain engagement from the audience, but as I said earlier, during all these years, we have had a very loyal audience.

How about your own personal taste? Can you – and do you want to – exclude it when you make your selection?

Personal taste is a very important element of the curating process. Besides the film’s obvious excellence and overall quality, there are a few factors which we take into consideration when we select films: the setting, the topic, and the framework in which we work; take for example New Currents: it’s a framework, where one knows there aren’t many conventional films. But personal taste, I think, is a very important element, to me perhaps the most crucial – excluding it would make it very difficult to do the selection, at least when I’m selecting shorts for New Currents.

Does it sometimes happen that you dismiss a film first but then it haunts you and you return to it after a while?

 Yes – sometimes I put a film aside and go back to it later. Subsequently, I show it to my colleagues and ask for their opinion. It’s great to have the option to work as a team, but it is great to work on your own too. When part of a committee, sometimes you have to give up your favorites because the others don’t like them, but if you work alone, you might select something which you think fits but nobody else does. The downside of working alone is that such practice can bite you back on some occasions.

Can you tell us about the Carte Blanche?

The idea of the Carte Blanche came when we started a short film platform Minimarket. For the past couple of years, we’ve been inviting leading film festivals that have distinctive short film selection to showcase their programme in Sarajevo. The programme in which this is done is dubbed Carte Blanche and its curators are given absolute freedom to make their own choices that reflect their artistic direction. So far, we hosted some of the most prominent short film selections, including the selections of the historical Oberhausen and Rotterdam film festivals, the provocative Berlinale or Directors’ Fortnight, and the well-established Clermont-Ferrand.

What is your opinion about distributing films online?

Nowadays it is absolutely necessary. We have less and less time – while making DVDs and sending them around is expensive, time consuming and certainly not eco friendly. When it comes to short films, most of the pre-selection I do nowadays happens online. Making your film available online is a different question: it can be password protected before the festival circuit is over, but at a certain point, it is good to make films available to everyone in order to make yourself known to the professionals and the audience.


interview by Zsuzsanna Deák and Cristina Grosan