Sergio Fant
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Sergio Fant
Sergio Fant, Photo Daniele Federico (www.becomingaphotoeditor.com)

Sergio Fant, Photo Daniele Federico (www.becomingaphotoeditor.com)

APEngine caught up with Sergio Fant, programme advisor for the Venice Film Festival, to ask him how he got started – and kept going – curating film, and about the changes at Venice.

You’ve recently started working for the Venice Film Festival, but before, how did you get started programming film? Which films and filmmakers inspired you?

It all started back in 2000, together with my friends Pauline De Raymond, now at the Cinémathèque Française, and Paolo Simoni, who later on founded the amazing Home-Movies Italian amateur film archive project. We were all based in Bologna at that time – I was studying film, and at the same time gravitating towards and doing small  jobs for the local cinematheque. All through my University years it was my daily pusher of cinematic dope!

Every summer, the Bologna Cinematheque hosts the Cinema Ritrovato Film Festival – a unique event devoted to early, silent and classic cinema, featuring rare gems and restored prints, and which gathers scholars, film archivists, programmers and film buffs from all over the world. Despite our almost total lack of programming experience, we thought it offered the perfect frame for a whole new sidebar devoted to found-footage – and all possible ways of ‘recycling’ and re-working on and with film material. To our own great surprise the idea was given a green-light and we were given a slot for every day throughout the festival schedule.

We called it Cinema2 – Cinema Squared – and it went on for four glorious editions! Within the context of a festival celebrating film history, we were showing how film can be turned upside down, re-used and re-written by experimental filmmakers and artists. My knowledge up to then was mainly classic and new cinema, then in the late 1990s I started to get frustrated – on the one hand, just writing about films – I felt it was more urgent and rewarding to actually show films instead. And on the other about the contemporary narrative cinema I was seeing.

So that got me to look at other traditions and possible histories – to documentary and experimental film. Experimental film has unfortunately been quite neglected in Italy – it’s seldom shown, barely made (nowadays at least), and not taught at all. So we had to start from scratch and make the best out of what was available to us: a few books on the subject in the Cinematheque’s library, outdated catalogues of film cooperatives and distributors, friends at places like Light Cone in Paris and Sixpack in Vienna.

Cinema2 really was the turning point. It’s when I found out that I loved that moment when lights go off, and on the screen the programme that you imagined and worked on for months unfolds, which suddenly, with some luck, seems to make some sense!

Moreover Cinema Ritrovato allowed gave us the most challenging but also exciting audience: we rookie programmers found ourselves showing stuff to an audience including people like Tom Gunning, Alexander Horwath and Philippe-Alain Michaud. It was also a great chance to start building a network of contacts, collaborations and friendships, which proved to be crucial to  programming and discovering works and filmmakers over the following years.

I’m afraid that too long an answer to just the first part of your question, but it will spare me the embarrassment to pick some inspiring filmmakers and works out of the many I could think of!

I’ll let you off! What kinds of festivals and projects did you go on to?

Following the Cinema2 project and the thrill it gave me, I took the irresponsible decision – at least for the Italian cultural and working situation – to try to make film programming my job. It turned out to be less insane that I’d thought it would be, because I found that in Italy, paradoxically (well, we’re great with paradoxes!) there may be a lack of resources, but there’s an over-crowding of events, and a few festivals were in need of someone with a more open view and network of connections, hopefully along with some knowledge and taste, to bring fresh air into their programmes.

So that’s how I found myself programming several – mainly documentary – film series in very different contexts. Not just film festivals, but also as part of events devoted to literature, the environment or current affairs. And each time I had the chance to test the audience with some totally unexpected experimental additions to otherwise mostly straightforward – but I hope thoughtfully programmed – selections of documentary based works.

For my avant-garde and experimental film programming experience, I would say the most key collaborations have been the ones with the Pesaro Film Festival, where for instance I had the chance to show Ben Rivers’ work in Italy for the first time. And with the BilBolBul Festival of Comics and Illustration, where for three years I’ve programmed a slot of experimental animation works – in 2007 I curated an Animate Projects retrospective.

And most of all, a perhaps obscure but great project: the Gorizia Film Studies Spring School held at by the University of Udine e Gorizia. It’s basically an academic event which lasts one week, and they had the bright idea to invest resources in hosting a pretty ambitious programme of screenings and live events to go along and hopefully connect and enrich the experience of the PhD students and lecturers attending panels and workshops. That’s how, thanks to the programming job, I carried on along with my friend and fellow conspirator Andrea Lissoni (mastermind of the Netmage Festival in Bologna). Over the past five years, Gorizia, a barely forgotten and sleepy little town on the far north-east of Italy, has been visited by filmmakers and artists such as Guy Sherwin, Anthony McCall, Bruce McClure, Gustav Deutsch, Mark Lewis, Manon De Boer, Gianikian and Ricci-Lucchi, Phill Niblock, Matthias Muller, Victor Burgin, Thomas Köner and curators Chris Dercon, Mark Nash, Berta Sichel, Edwin Carels, Jean-Pierre Rehm and Paul Willemsen.

By the way, the Spring School existence is at present threatened by financial cuts planned by the University, I invite everybody to sign a petition to support the project.

In 2006, I got the chance of a collaboration with the then new Rome International Film Festival, which went on for three editions, then at the beginning of 2010 – the call from Venice… just in time to celebrate my first decade of film programming!

For Venice, you’re scouting for work for the Orizzonti section – “dedicated to new trends in world cinema”. This year, for the first time, it’s opening up to all ‘extra format’ works. I think that may be a term that gets lost in translation! What are ‘extra format’ works?

Well, that’s funny, because when I read the English version of that announcement, I’d wondered what that literal translation of ‘fuori formato’ would sound like! But that’s also an interesting symptom, because, when talking about avant-garde and experimental cinema in Italy, that tradition was never celebrated but almost feared as something too obscure -  there’s always a problem in calling things with their names. You still hear Italian festivals  calling their feature documentaries ‘docu-fictions’, in a desperate attempt to avoid people mistaking them for factual TV shows on World War II battles or wild animals.

I mean, instead of ‘artists’ film’ we would have the proper definition ‘cinema d’artista’, but that smells of unsuccessful 70s attempts by doubtfully talented painters, or on the other hand, there’s the term ‘videoarte’ which recalls ’80s bulky TV sets with blurry images of naked people doing weird things! But that’s really because we (well… they) have a problem with that history of moving image based works of art that runs parallel or within both film and visual art histories. That’s why people writing press releases and leaflets look hard for the weirdest definition to avoid the taboo words, coming up with things like ‘extra format’.

But I think it makes some sense in the tradition of a festival such as Venice, where feature films are the main focus of the audience and the press attending, so that ‘extra-format’ can mean ‘all-non-feature’, both shorts and mid-length films. There will be a new award for the best film between 30 and 60 minutes, and I certainly think it’s a good idea to put a spotlight on this format.

Unfortunately ‘extra-format’ in this case doesn’t mean works outside the single-screen-projection model and movie theater setting – the festival won’t be able to host multiple screen pieces or live cinema events. But the Venice Biennale, which hosts the film festival, also hosts the contemporary art biennial, where you can nowadays find plenty of film and video based installation works. So I guess the cinema projection should remain the frame of reference of a festival such as Venice.

Beyond just short and longer form works, it seems like quite an overhaul of the Orizzonti section – with talk of it being a “laboratory for different artistic voices”, and seeking a more dynamic overview of the “new forms adopted by the expressive languages used in cinema.” It feels quite radical step for a major festival like Venice to be taking – what do you think has prompted this?

Yes it’s a major step, but it’s good to remember that there was a time when film festivals, even major ones like Venice, were actually much more flexible, perhaps accidentally, and less formal then we’re used to know them. Just take short films, which is the category under which catalogues usually file experimental films as well. During the ’60s, Venice could boast more then a hundred of shorts each year, with a selection we might find weird for today’s programming standards. They included educational films, for instance, along with some of the first experimental films from the US being shown in Europe. So it’s cool to think that, you know, we’re opening a “laboratory for different artistic voices”, but those are just statements, and one has to look further then that. Not forgetting that to take a broader view at what cinema is doing and could do, is basically an attitude which was taught by the avant-garde since the twenties.

As to how and why Venice has taken this step now – it’s something that should be asked to the festival director Marco Müller, since he boldly took it in the first place, and that led to my chance to be involved. But I’m sure it was prompted by a desire to re-affirm the place and role of shorter works within the festival schedule – merging the former short film programme Corto Cortissimo into the Orizzonti sidebar, which was traditionally offering a lineup of just features and a few feature-documentaries.

Orizzonti showcases the most innovative and challenging works, often by younger directors, and it’s the main Venice Festival section beside the Competition awarding the Golden Lions, so I’m sure this placement will allow shorts and mid-length films a much stronger visibility. Beside the slots at the mid-sized Sala Perla venue I hope we’ll have the chance to programme some at the huge and amazing PalaDarsena theatre – 1,300 seats! -  as well.

The reshuffle in the programme is also an evolution in the shorts selection: Corto Cortissimo was a showcase of mostly narrative shorts, as that was the main genre that got submitted and Venice wasn’t a festival which underground filmmakers or visual artists where thinking about in the first place when considering where to enter their new projects.

Now, with the shift to Orizzonti, part of my job is to change this reputation, by talking to people and institutions in the context of experimental cinema and visual arts (…we’re dong it right now…), to let them know that Venice aims to become a new platform for their work, not to replace others that are already doing a great job, but to join and hopefully reinforce a common front.

Do you think that coming under the auspices of La Biennale di Venezia provides a particular reference or context – an association with all those other art forms?

Well, you got it – that would be a dream. The Venice Biennale is really a unique institution in this regard, dealing with… almost all different art forms, and at those high standards. Personally, I’m used to thinking in curatorial terms about what films to show that puts my programming in dialogue with other matters, subjects, ideas or concerns. So it would be great to programme films not just for the Mostra del Cinema, but for the Music Biennale or the Architecture Biennale. Not to mention the Art Biennale of course, where moving images are already a means of expression used by artists both in the national pavilions and in the curated shows.

But I know that such a huge and prestigious institution has its traditions and rules, which you can’t change in a day, like it might happen in a smaller event or within a festival with a programme which might be more flexible or is partly re-arranged yearly according to trends, suggestions and ideas (I’m thinking about Rotterdam). But I’m sure this hope to have a stronger connection with the other departments of the Biennale is shared by Marco Müller himself, and perhaps the overhauling of Orizzonti, in itself a big step, is also one in the right direction to also have a stronger exchange and association between the different Biennale’s departments.

And with the changes, what are you hoping for? What can we expect?

Hopes… as you can imagine being my first year in Venice, well I have many hopes, too many perhaps! I would say I see two different sides to all this, and therefore I have two different sets of hopes…

One concerns Italy and the state of its artistic and visual culture, which often works according to its own outdated rules, disconnected from the more exciting and actual concerns which on the other hand connect artists and their talents and people with their interests across most of the rest of the world, from Western to Asian countries, to from Latin America to the Middle East. In this regard, I see this also as a political challenge, since what’s going on in Italy, and not just in the arts, is a closure to our own little businesses and problems, resulting in the inability to look far away to get a deeper and more articulate view of what the hell is going on just across our borders… or actually just beyond the screens of our TV sets!

Over the years I’ve witnessed it even with younger audiences at film festivals and other cultural events – shaking their heads at anything slightly challenging or which defies their comfortable viewing habits. While abroad you see that younger people are the most hungry for something that offers new angles on reality. So I hope what we will show them in Orizzonti will be like a healthy shock, and if we succeed in nurturing a new interest and curiosity for other forms of moving image, then perhaps that can infect some of the many other film festivals across the country. Usually such contaminations should start from the bottom and spread to the top, but… remember those Italian paradoxes! It might happen, or at least that’s my wish, the other way around – that it will be a festival such as Venice to feature and push forward works and visions which might later on be picked up and further investigated across the country.

On the international level, I’m aware that we’ll not be doing anything much revolutionary, since there are other festivals – not least Oberhausen and Rotterdam, to which I own much in terms of viewing experiences and knowledge – which long ago created space for a proper consideration of… ‘extra-format’ films and videos – taking them seriously and not as a kind of ‘Junior Film League’. At the Mostra it will not be possible to do some things (just think of relaxed and in-depth Q&As following the screenings… with fans screaming for stars on the red carpet in the background and journalists rushing to the next premiere?!?). But I hope that screening their works at a festival like Venice will allow filmmakers and artists to benefit from some of that good old prestige, not just enjoyable in itself, but which may even help when looking for finances and exposure for their projects.


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