Interview with the Organizers of Down Under Berlin Film Festival

A look into the 9th edition of Down Under Berlin, the only Australian and New Zealand Film festival in Germany, with Sabrina Wittmann and Auste Serapinaite

September 26th, 2019
Jovan Tripkovic, News from Berlin
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Sabrina Wittmann and Auste Serapinaite

At the beginning of our conversation, Sabrina Wittmann and Auste Serapinaite, the directors and organizers of Down Under Berlin Film Festival told me that they are film enthusiasts and that they love what they do.

The 9th edition is on 26-29 September 2019. Last week, I had the opportunity to talk to them at Moviemento Kino, the home of the only Australian and New Zealand film festival in Germany and the leading one in Europe. Below is the transcribed conversation that I had with them.

How did the festival get started?
Sabrina: It was founded by the Australian, Frances Hill who came to Berlin in 2005 and missed seeing Australian films in German cinema. The festival was actually started as an Australian film festival, with a little bit of New Zealand films, spread in between. In 2015, the official title was changed and it became an Australian and New Zealand film festival.

How many people are involved in the organization of the festival?
Sabrina: This year, we have around 10-15 team members including us two board members or festival directors. The number of team members varies because some of them volunteer only during the festival days, while others are involved throughout the entire year. For the festival, we’ll be 13 people running the daily screenings and receptions.
Auste: Our volunteers are either working in film or they are interested in film or they come from Australia or New Zealand and just want to be involved in a project related to their countries.

How difficult is to organize this kind of festival?
Auste: The festival is four days long – and we started in January. And since then we’ve been working close to full time. That’s how long it takes to organize the Down Under Berlin Film Festival.

Do you get any help from the Australian or New Zealand Embassy in Berlin? Do you get sponsored?
Sabrina: The Australian and New Zealand embassies have been our partners for quite some years now. However, we don’t get general state funding or anything. The Embassies provide either financial support or support with the receptions. This year, the New Zealand Embassy is sponsoring the opening reception. In the past they paid for films as well. It depends what kind of support each country is able to give to us every year. They are our biggest sponsors are we are very grateful for having them. When it comes to other sponsors, it is quite difficult for us. Germany is far away from Down Under and there are not many companies who would be interested in providing their sponsorship.

How much of the Australian and New Zealand cinema do we really know in this part of the world?
Auste: I think they are pretty well known in the circles that are interested in film in general. During international film festivals you can always see Australian and New Zealand films. However, not as many as we would like but some films get cinema releases here in Germany. We would love to see more films from Australia and New Zealand getting German cinema releases. That was the reason why this festival was started. Because there wasn’t that many Australian and New Zealand films to see here, in Germany. I wouldn’t say that the Australian and New Zealand film is a mystery here in Europe.
Sabrina: I guess, we filled the gap. Many people know the actors from Australia and New Zealand, who are now working in Hollywood. Probably, they know big films. Maybe they’ve seen Australian and New Zealand films but they aren’t aware of the fact that they are from Down Under (Note: German television stills dubs all foreign films).

Do you think that your festival filled the cultural gap between Germany and Australia and New Zealand?
Auste: Yes, I think so. Especially because we emphasize and support short and indie filmmakers. It is not that easy to come across short films or indie films. You either need to go to film festivals the cinema or wait until it’s they’re made available online on Vimeo. We always support short film makers.
Sabrina: I agree! We give short filmmakers a platform by screening their films. We also promote them on our website, social media and introduce them to interested parties. We have recurring filmmakers. We’ve worked hard to build up relationships between us and filmmakers as well as film schools from Australia and New Zealand.

What is the big thing at Down Under Berlin 2019 edition?
Sabrina: Everything (chuckles)! Most likely our opening and closing night film. So, the closing night film will be Mystify: Michael Hutchence about the late INXS singer. Unfortunately, he died several years ago but he had a very interesting life and this documentary shows rare archive footage of it. The opening film is quite the opposite. It’s the debut feature of Dustin Feneley’s called Stray. It is a stunningly beautiful film about two lonely characters, social outsiders, who meet in the cold mountains in New Zealand. I think this film shows that even debut feature films from these countries can be real cinematic gems or even classics. Also, we have a variety of short films.

How do you select films for the festival?
Auste: The organization of the festival begins with the selection of the films. We open submissions in the beginning of the year. And we accept them for several months. Filmmakers can send us their films. In the last few years, the number of submissions has been steadily growing. I would say that from year to year we have a forty percent growth. At the moment, we are talking about hundreds of submitted films, which is really good because we have a huge variety of films that we can choose from. Then comes the time when every movie has to be watched by the team members. We watch every single film carefully, rate them and then, at some point, the team members discuss the films: do we think they fit our upcoming program, and what do we like about it them. That’s basically how it works.
Sabrina: I would like to add that in some years, we get a lot of short films but not many feature films. In that case, we need to purchase films from distribution companies. We actually buy these films to fill the program. For example, if we don’t have a documentary feature film, we need to buy it. If we don’t have a comedy feature film, we need to buy it and so on... However, this year we have only one film that has not been submitted. The rest of them were submitted: short and featured films. This year, we were very lucky!

Final question. What is the future of Down Under Berlin film festival? Where do you see the festival in five years?
Auste: Next year, it will be the 10th anniversary of Down Under Berlin. It is quite a big year for the festival...
Sabrina: I think it depends. We are all volunteers. Every year we ask the same question – will we get sponsors and support. Depending on that we can plan what’s going to happen. We have dreams but we can’t say what happens in five years. One thing we are looking forward to is franchising. We would love to have a day or a week long Down Under Berlin festival in different cities of Germany. For that you need supporters and sponsors and that’s why we can’t yet promise it – but this is something we would like to make happen. 


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