Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the Film Festival Cologne will be one of the first major festivals in Europe to take place entirely physically as the coronavirus continues to wane in Germany. It runs Oct. 1-8. Launched in 1991 as the Cologne Conference, as it was known until 2016, the international film and television festival celebrates some of the year’s best feature films, series and documentaries.
This year’s Best of Cinema Fiction selections include Todd Haynes’ environmental drama “Dark Waters,” starring Mark Ruffalo, and Josephine Decker’s biopic “Shirley,” featuring Elisabeth Moss as novelist Shirley Jackson. Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round” (pictured) is also among the films making its way to Cologne via the festival circuit. Among the works being presented in Top Ten TV are the BBC series “Trigonometry,” which follows a young married couple in London whose life takes a turn for the better when they take in a flatmate; and “Parlement,” a sitcom set in the European Parliament from France Televisions, Belgium’s Be TV and German pubcasters WDR and One.
While the pandemic may be posing a new set of challenges, festival organizers sought from the outset to go ahead with the event.
“The premise that film festivals serve an essential function to the ecosystem of cinema that cannot be reproduced by virtual events was the starting point for our decision to have as much physical and real as possible, albeit under very strict corona conditions,” says Martina Richter, director, Film Festival Cologne. “Fortunately, the cinemas here in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia have been open again since the beginning of July, so we can hold about 70% of our screenings and sessions compared to 2019 in accordance with the applicable hygiene and distance regulations.”
The fest will, however, forego receptions. Richter is nevertheless hoping for more than 20,000 visitors this year.
“To enable all festival guests to have a pleasant and safe stay at our festival we have worked out a strict concept for hygiene and social distancing based on the latest COVID-19 protection provisions,” Richter says.
Health safety measures include rules to allow full traceability of all visitors, a general obligation to wear face masks until reaching designated seats and the separation and distancing of different groups of visitors in cinemas.
“Furthermore, the starting times of all screenings have been adjusted to avoid accumulated crowds of people and to allow a thorough cleaning and disinfection of the cinemas after every screening,” Richter adds.
The festival is also launching a massive social-media campaign to support the program and industry events but will not be streaming its panels. A format created for the Producers Xchange program, for example, mixes a viral discourse about the current challenges of the industry to supplement the real event. Short interviews with major industry players have been prepared for social media and distributed via Facebook and Instagram to target and highlight Producers Xchange, part of the Sessions industry event series.
“All this has cost a great deal of effort, but will lead to the development of a content platform that will allow the festival in future to additionally take place virtually throughout the year,” Richter points out.
In addition to Producers Xchange, which is dedicated to the current challenges facing the German content industry and will this year examine how German producers are surviving 2020, Sessions also offers a number of events that showcase the latest developments in the film and TV sector, including:
• European Series Day, which examines Europe’s most important series makers and the latest developments in the field.
• Future Day, which looks at how digitization is influencing content and storytelling.
• Global Day, which discusses storytelling as means of reaching sustainability goals and how activists can successfully use audiovisual media.
• Sports Day, which examines how soccer documentaries such as “All or Nothing” are serving as a motor for the development of a new type of non-fiction fare.
While this year’s fest will officially mark its 30th anniversary, the celebration actually began earlier this summer with retrospective screenings that included TV series and films like HBO’s “The Wire,” Werner Herzog’s 1999 doc “My Best Fiend,” Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People” and Nick Broomfield’s “Biggie & Tupac.”
“With over 50 physical screenings, we have been celebrating our anniversary in Cologne’s cinemas and open air since July, bringing a truly unique cultural offering back to the city in times of corona, which was very well received,” Richter notes. “By accompanying the jubilee summer with the already mentioned social-media campaigns, we hope that the real event in October will get the appropriate attention and that people will lose their fear of going to the cinema again completely.”
The fest’s 2020 lineup is largely European, in part due to the worldwide pandemic. “For us, it’s always about presenting some of the best audiovisual content in the world,” says Richter. “It’s also important to us to capture the zeitgeist of present times and to give our audience a feeling that we ourselves feel when we make our selection. This might sound corny, but a festival should always want to surprise and challenge its audience. This is only possible if you rely on your intuition and your own taste and not just submit to market conditions.”
Richter points to Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s French drama “Gagarine” and thrillers like Mexican helmer Gerardo Naranjo’s “Kokoloko” and Yong-hoon Kim’s Korean pic “Beasts Clawing at Straws” as good examples of such surprises.
The fest boasts eight sections, among them Top Ten TV, Best of Cinema Fiction and Best of Cinema Documentary.
“The TV and the two Best of Cinema sections are the heart of the festival’s competition and the overarching theme of this year’s festival is ‘in suspense,’ which is reflected in many films and also describes the general state of society, processes and actions in everyday life,” Richter says.
“Films such as ‘Proxima’ by Alice Winocour or ‘Ema’ by Pablo Larraín show very impressively how drastic decisions in life can put everything in a state of weightlessness. This regularity is even intensified in the pandemic. We are also curious to hear what top stars like Mads Mikkelsen have to say about the current situation.”
Mikkelsen is attending the fest with director Vinterberg for the screening of their new film, “Another Round.”
Screening in TV Top Ten are such upcoming European productions as “Pan Tau,” an English-language, live-action, 14-part series for Germany’s ARD based on the classic 1970s Czechoslovakian children’s series of the same name about a magical being who helps kids in need. English comedian and magician Matt Edwards (“Britain’s Got Talent”) stars. Also being presented are Canal Plus Poland’s Polish-Ukrainian-Czech crime drama “The Pleasure Principle” and HBO España’s “Patria,” about the impact of the Basque Country’s armed conflict.
“The Top Ten TV selection is a very subjective selection tailored to the profile of the festival, which is indeed more European this year than in other years,” Richter says. “On the one hand, this is due to very strong content that is currently being created in Europe. For example, we are showing the outstanding BBC documentary series ‘Once Upon a Time in Iraq’ by James Bluemel and the true-crime fiction miniseries ‘Des’ with David Tennant. On the other hand, it is also related to the fact that we have taken into account that it is more likely to bring the makers behind the productions to Cologne if they don’t have to travel from the U.S. — which is hardly possible at the moment anyway.”
The fest is also paying tribute to German helmer Dominik Graf with this year’s homage showcase, including such works as 2002’s “A Map of the Heart,” the hit 2010 crime series “In the Face of Crime” and 2014’s historical romance “Beloved Sisters.”