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ASTRA 2019

Csilla Kató • Head of programming, Astra Film Festival

“The aspect I love most about our audience is its curiosity”


- We chatted to Csilla Kató, head of programming at the Astra Film Festival, about the challenges of curating Romania’s longest-running documentary film gathering

Csilla Kató  • Head of programming, Astra Film Festival

Cineuropa visited the 26th edition of the Astra Film Festival (14-20 October, Sibiu), Romania’s biggest documentary gathering. With 126 films in its programme, most of them features, the festival is curated by Csilla Kató and her very small team. Here is what she had to say about the 26th edition of Astra and its relationship with the audience.

Cineuropa: The 26th edition of the Astra Film Festival has ended. What would you consider to be the strong points of this edition?
Csilla Kató:
For example, the fact that we selected as our opening film Sergey Loznitsa’s State Funeral [+see also:
film review
film profile
. In my opinion, it is a sign of maturity, as at every festival, the opening film is chosen with great care – it is, after all, a statement about the festival’s spirit and agenda. A movie with a running time of 135 minutes, made entirely from archive footage, in which the soundtrack is the only intervention by the director, proved to be the right choice for us. In State Funeral, Loznitsa plays with both the conventions of cinema and the expectations of the audience: the audience is allowed to get lost among archive-footage sequences and is also left to interpret what they see according to their own background and personal perspective. This example of documentary cinema could not have been imagined by any screenwriter and would have been impossible to make within the conventions of fiction cinema. And the film worked well for the audience gathered to attend the opening of this edition.

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Out of the ten films in the international competition, seven were directed or co-directed by women. The same goes for the Central and Eastern European competition, where as many as seven pictures were directed by women. Do you think documentary is more welcoming of a feminine perspective, perhaps because the essence of the genre is empathy towards others?
I would say empathy is only one component, albeit of paramount importance, of the creative process. Of the same importance in documentary filmmaking are dissecting a social phenomenon, like you would with a scalpel, and exploring it through cinema. From this perspective, I don’t see any big differences between male and female directors, besides their preference for a certain topic and their access to that subject matter.

Besides the four official competitions, Astra also explores the most pressing issues of the present in several thematic sidebars.
When we create the festival’s programme, we work hard to ensure that the topics explored by the films and these thematic sidebars form, by accumulation, a “whole”, an overview of the world today, as well as featuring an array of different and exquisite cinematic approaches.

These thematic sidebars are quite flexible. Could you describe the process behind deciding on their specific topics?
Most of the time, the idea for a certain thematic sidebar pops up as soon as we watch a film during the selection process. We encounter several good movies exploring various aspects of the same issue. For example, this year, we had the sidebar about marriage [Sex, Marriage and Beyond], Sex Work Stories and others.

Obviously, we also encounter anniversaries of important historical events – for example, the three decades since the fall of the Iron Curtain. In these cases, from very early on, we pay attention to all of the films in production focusing on that specific topic. Sometimes, the concept of a certain sidebar or its title may even be inspired by a film. Here, I would like to mention the sidebar Europe 30: Inbetweening, a programme curated by my colleague Adina Marin. It starts with the fall of the Berlin Wall and ends with the construction of fences on the southern borders of Hungary, Austria and Croatia – fences meant to stop the so-called “migrants’ invasion”.

How would you describe Astra’s audience? How does the festival strike the complicated balance between what the audience would want to watch and what it should watch?
The aspect I love most about our audience is its curiosity – also, its interest in watching powerful, relevant films. For Astra, the educational aspect is very important, and we never make any compromises in the selection. I have already mentioned State Funeral as our opening film and made a statement about where we stand in our relationship with the audience. Apart from the official competitions, we have the thematic sidebars where we show titles that showcase impressive filmmaking skills and strong narratives. Here, I would like to mention Tomer Heymann's Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life [+see also:
film profile
. It may look exotic and controversial, but this aspect is in fact counterbalanced by the specific focus on the drama of the protagonist. We selected it only because of the compelling way in which the director explores the protagonist's issues.

I would also say that Astra encourages love for documentary cinema by trying out new ways of reaching the audience. For example, this year, we invited director Andrei Ujică for our regular event The Film Collector, in which a well-known director presents his or her vision of cinema. The event was streamed live on Facebook, and it was watched by thousands. Astra is the place where one can embark on and expand the possible journeys and adventures of cinephilia, based on discussions with auteurs with an impressive knowledge of cinema, just like Ujică. Another popular live Facebook event we had this year was the one with famous commissioning editor Peter Dale.

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