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How Indie Film Survives In Austria (Even If You Haven't Heard Of It)

By David D'Arcy | Thompson on Hollywood November 19, 2013 at 10:14AM

"It may not be the most important film festival in the world, but you have the feeling that if a film is here, it is in good hands."
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Beckermann, now 61, has been making films for decades. Her previous documentary was "American Passages," a survey of the U.S. upon the election of Barack Obama with the same multi-character, multi-narrative approach as in "Those Who Go Those Who Stay." Beckermann's journey through and into America tests the American experiment according to how it measures up to the American promise -- unevenly, we learn in her conversations with Americans who seem to be naïve in their views of history and politics, and racist in their everyday behavior.

In conflict there is drama. "American Passages," to Beckermann’s knowledge, has never been shown in the United States. But it's a European perspective from which we could learn a thing or two.

As Beckermann’s grim ode to Europe, "Those Who Go Those Who Stay" has an autobiographical dimension. Beckermann is Jewish, the daughter of a mother who fled to Palestine in 1938 (returning to Vienna after the war) and a father from Czernowicz (a city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that became Rumanian and is now in Ukraine) who fled communism. Austria's former empire was a place of huge waves of internal immigration. Two world wars and a Nazi extermination campaign reminded us that the melting pot could turn deadly.

"Those Who Go Those Who Stay" never becomes so alarmist. It just points in that direction.

"American Passages."
"American Passages."

In a conversation with Indiewire during the Vienalle, Beckerman was asked to define independent film in Austria. "I think there is only independent filmmaking in Austria," she replied. "There are no big companies in Austria. There are many small production companies, there are many filmmakers who produce their own films. We have a couple of funding institutions and that’s it. There's no private money in film in Austria. There's no industry," she noted.

Still, in recent years, the country's profile has risen. "Before Haneke, there was very little attention in Austria to film," said Beckerman, whose films usually play exclusively on television. "We're a country of theater and opera and music, and even today, outside the Viennale, it's difficult to bring attention to what we do." 

That's partly due to audience interests elsewhere. "It’s always the bourgeois public that counts, and they don’t care a lot about movies," Beckerman said. "They care about the Burgtheater [Vienna's most famous theater] and the opera."

Beckermann starts from a different perspective. "My whole background is with refugees, and my whole work is about running away and refugees' memories and on the other hand, utopia," she said. "That's why I made a film in the U.S. How is it possible to build a state with refugees?"

Still, Beckermann is just one voice in a festival that shows a lot more than social and political documentaries.

"The Austrian films that I show have to be seen in the context of an international film festival," said festival director Hans Hurch. "The Viennale should not be the window or the showcase for Austrian film. It would make us a kind of bastard festival."

Hurch has faced some opposition to this approach from the national film scene, but holds his ground. "This helps the films that I show more than if I would show 20 or 25 films from Austria," he said, adding that it means the Austrian films that do get selected stand out. "This is my idea, and it brings me into conflict with the Austrian filmmakers, who want their work to be shown," he said. "It's always been a conflict."

In contrast, Hurch said, the "Haneke effect" in Austria lifts all boats. (Haneke still teaches in Vienna.) "It has been very helpful, but for the same reason that it would be anywhere else in the world," he said. "The politicians here are not very interested in cinema, but if they have a chance to be with a filmmaker if he comes back with an Oscar, or the Palme d'Or, it's the best lobbying for film, for film festivals, for film production -- everything."

But this year, with no Austrian film in Cannes or Venice -- effectively taking Austria off the map for a lot of audiences worldwide -- "then the politicians are not interested in it anymore," Hurch said. "It goes from year to year." 

"In Austria, it's very much about the person of the filmmaker," said Hurch. "It's not the structure, it's not the machine. It's about someone like Michael Haneke or Ulrich Seidl who goes his own way. I think Haneke would have made the same thing if he was Swiss."

This article is related to: Festivals, Vienna International Film Festival, Viennale, Ruth Beckermann, Michael Haneke, October November, Goetz Spielmann, Those Who Go Those Who Stay, Documentary, Drama, Foreign, Claude Lanzmann