Shaping future of cinema in Southeast Asia | Sunday Observer
Berlinale Talents

Shaping future of cinema in Southeast Asia

9 July, 2023
Berlinale Talents 2023 (Picture credit: Berlinale Talents web)
Berlinale Talents 2023 (Picture credit: Berlinale Talents web)

In an interview conducted via Zoom, the Sunday Observer engages in a conversation with Florian Weghorn, the Program Manager of Berlinale Talents (BT), to delve into the evolving language of cinema and its artistic expression. With a focus on Southeast Asian cinema, including Sri Lankan cinema, we discuss the role of Berlinale Talents in supporting filmmakers, promoting creative independence, and fostering inclusivity and diversity in the global film landscape.

They also examine the prevalent anthropological perspective through which Southeast Asian cinema, including Sri Lankan cinema, is often approached in the Euro-centric international film festival arena, prioritising explorations of issues, community dynamics and identity politics.

Joining forces to shed light on the interplay between artistic innovation and representation, this interview offers valuable insights into the efforts and initiatives undertaken by Berlinale Talents to shape the future of cinema.

Q: Over time, the understanding of uniqueness in an artist and their art has evolved. As Berlinale Talents, how do you define the language of cinema and its artistic expression?

A: As Berlinale Talents, our understanding of the language of cinema and its artistic expression has evolved over time. Defining this language is a complex and highly personal task, as it involves interpreting the messages conveyed by films and how we, as filmmakers, communicate through this medium. In the context of Berlinale Talents, where we embrace a diverse range of filmmakers, it is the unique perspectives and individuality of each artist that contribute to the beauty and strength of this cinematic language.

The essence of this language lies in collaboration, which begins early in the production process and becomes interwoven into the fabric of the films themselves. It is the amalgamation of different perspectives, the coming together of various crafts, and the remarkable outcomes that emerge when these elements harmonise. We firmly believe in and champion a shared understanding of collaborative filmmaking, one that values and respects all the different disciplines within the realm of film.

By embracing this approach, we strive to create films that are a testament to the power of collaboration, showcasing the results that can be achieved when diverse talents come together to bring a shared vision to life.

Q: How does BT support the creative vision and impact of filmmakers in Southeast Asia? How does the BT programs ensure the creative independence of artists, and as a European organisation, do you recognise any distinct characteristics of Southeast Asian cinema?

A: Berlinale Talents, despite its roots in Germany and the European cinema landscape, is an international event that embraces filmmakers from around the world. The core idea behind also the Berlinale at large is to create a space where filmmakers from diverse backgrounds can come together, transcending borders and cultural barriers. It is a platform that celebrates the multitude of films, languages, and origins in cinema.

Florian Weghorn 

The Berlinale Talents program is committed to supporting the creative vision and impact of filmmakers, including those from Southeast Asia. The program seeks to bring together different perspectives and foster an environment of exchange, rather than imposing a Eurocentric viewpoint or promoting a specific European perception of films. The belief is that when 200 filmmakers from about 60 countries gather in one place, it becomes a space for sharing and mutual learning. Berlinale Talents recognises that talent carries the responsibility to share, allowing participants to contribute and receive valuable insights and experiences.

Participants from Southeast Asia have always been an integral part of Berlinale Talents, as evidenced by the number of applications and participants from the region. While the number of filmmakers from a specific country such as Sri Lanka may be relatively small, each individual is equally recognised and valued alongside all other participants.

The program acknowledges the distinct characteristics of Southeast Asian cinema and aims to learn from the diverse means of filmmaking employed in different countries. This includes considering the unique backgrounds, supporting systems, and educational structures that filmmakers in Southeast Asia navigate.

Berlinale Talents believes that there is much to be gained from the experiences of Southeast Asian filmmakers and that also European or other Western filmmakers can learn valuable lessons on how to advance the art of filmmaking, even in challenging circumstances. It is a reciprocal exchange where knowledge and insights are shared, creating a win-win situation for all participants involved.

Q: How do you perceive the current state of Southeast Asian cinema, particularly Sri Lankan cinema, in terms of artistic innovation and representation? Are there any initiatives or efforts by BT to promote Southeast Asian cinema in the global platform?

A: Berlinale Talents acknowledges the current state of Southeast Asian cinema, including Sri Lankan cinema, in terms of artistic innovation and representation. While the Berlinale World Cinema Fund supports film projects from various regions, including Southeast Asia, there is a recognition of the need to improve interconnections and co-productions between filmmakers in the region and those from other parts of the world. However, it is important to note that Berlinale Talents does not solely focus on individual countries or film regions.

When inviting filmmakers from Sri Lanka, their backgrounds are taken into consideration during the application process. However, once they participate in Berlinale Talents, they become part of a larger community of filmmakers on a global scale. The program values their contributions as artists, emphasizing their individual perspectives and what they bring to the field of filmmaking.

Attending Berlinale Talents is a moment in a filmmaker’s career where they reflect on their achievements and contemplate their future trajectory. The program has an open and flexible approach, not solely judging participants based on past accomplishments or their participation in major festivals.

Selection criteria focus on factors such as resonance and the impact they have already created with their work within their means and their regions. Filmmakers who come to Berlinale Talents typically have something to offer and are seeking to enhance their international recognition and achievements. Berlinale Talents provides a platform to support them in this regard.

Q: How does BT ensure inclusivity and diversity in its selection process, particularly when it comes to underrepresented region like Sri Lanka?

A: Ensuring inclusivity and diversity in the selection process is a key priority for Berlinale Talents. To achieve this, we maintain a strong commitment to openness and continuously evolve our program’s preferences and tastes. We evaluate the representation of countries and regions in the applications each year, aiming to address any underrepresented areas, such as Sri Lanka. Our goal is to create a wide range of perspectives and voices, and we receive applications from around 130 countries annually.

Internally, we make sure that the teams involved in selecting and inviting filmmakers undergo regular changes. This diversity of teams helps to incorporate various cinema languages and project evaluations, including those from Southeast Asia. Our reapplication process is a powerful tool for ensuring openness. It allows individuals who may not have been recognised or had the means to attend in a previous year to have their experiences and progress considered in subsequent applications.

Berlinale Talents 2023 (Picture credit: Berlinale Talents web)

We continuously refine our application itself to promote inclusivity and better understand the structural circumstances in which applicants work. One example is the question about the applicant’s background and the challenges they face. This provides insights into their support systems, areas where assistance may be needed, and their reflections on their own circumstances. By considering these factors, we gain a deeper understanding of applicants and their contexts, even in written form.

Q: Are there any collaborations or partnerships with Sri Lankan organisations or institutes to enhance the opportunities for filmmakers and professionals from the country?

A: Currently, there is no specific collaboration or partnership with Sri Lankan organisations or institutes. However, participants from Sri Lanka, like those from other countries, often receive support from local institutes such as the Goethe Institute and other film organisations when they attend Berlinale Talents. In terms of the applicationprocess, Berlinale Talents reaches out to organisations, film schools, and film institutes worldwide to foster early networking and engagement.

The program values ongoing connections with applicants, participants, and alumni, considering it as part of acontinuous relationship within the filmmaking community. While there may not be aspecific collaboration with Sri Lankan organisations, Berlinale Talents aims to provide opportunities and support to filmmakers from various backgrounds through its inclusive and open approach.

Q: In the context of Euro-centric international film festivals, Southeast Asian cinema, including Sri Lankan cinema, has often been predominantly approached from an anthropological perspective. This perspective tends to prioritise exploring issues, community dynamics, and identity politics, rather than emphasising character-driven narratives that delve into the depths of human subjectivity. Regrettably, this limitation of Southeast Asian cinema is not only prevalent among festival circles but also influences the artistic choices made by filmmakers in the region. How do you explain this prevailing anthropological perception and the tendency of filmmakers to conform to these limitations?

A: Thank you for raising this important question. To address this issue, it is crucial to engage in open conversations with journalists, participate in film forums, and foster exchanges that allow for a broader understanding and appreciation of diverse perspectives.

Berlinale Talents, with its gathering of 200 Talents from over 60 countries, serves as a platform for learning from one another and experiencing the beauty and strength of this exchange. It is through these interactions and the continuous engagement of our extensive alumni network that we strive to challenge preconceptions, broaden our perspectives, and eliminate stereotypes in our approach to cinema. While Berlinale Talents aims to avoid eurocentrism, we acknowledge that there may be limitations, and we are committed to ongoing self-reflection and improvement in our understanding and appreciation of films from different cultural backgrounds.

Q: In recent years, a discernible trend has emerged in the international film festival arena, where many films appear to adhere to cookie-cutter mould to secure a presence in these festivals. As BT, what measures have been implemented to safeguard the preservation of artistic values and foster innovative ideas in cinema?

A: If we are looking for a philosophical explanation, it goes back to the core ideas of Berlinale Talents. We create a framework that embraces the discretion of coincidences. With 200 participants, it is impossible to fully know each person beforehand. Therefore, our focus during the application process is to understand how much applicants are willing to share, what they can offer to the larger arena of filmmakers, and how they can reflect themselves through their work.

While we are interested in the topics, narratives, and approaches that filmmakers choose, we do not have a formula to determine what is right or wrong. Some applicants ask whether they should submit a project that aligns with what they perceive as a “Berlinale film.” In response, we encourage them to explore their own unique perspectives and present something different, helping us to move forward and discover new and innovative ideas.

It is important to note that Berlinale Talents receives around 3,500 applications each year. It is impossible to establish rigid selection criteria that categorise applicants vertically. Therefore, we take a horizontal approach, evaluating each filmmaker based on the criteria of relevance and resonance. These criteria are flexible, and we treat every filmmaker equally, considering their individual contributions and potential.

By embracing openness, encouraging uniqueness, and applying flexible selection criteria, Berlinale Talents aims to safeguard artistic values and nurture innovation in cinema.

Q: Can you provide information about notable Sri Lankan filmmakers who have participated in BT programs over the years? Explain why these filmmakers are considered promising and noteworthy?

A: Certainly! It’s important to note that Berlinale Talents embraces a wide range of disciplines, beyond just filmmakers with projects. Professionals from various fields, such as production designers, actors, and cinematographers, also participate. For instance, Chatra Veeraman, a digital set designer working in VFX, attended Berlinale Talents this year. His innovative projects and contributions to the regional film industry provided valuable insights into this emerging field.

But also over the years, Berlinale Talents has had the privilege of hosting several notable Sri Lankan filmmakers who have made significant contributions to the industry. One such filmmaker is Vimukthi Jayasundara, who participated in the program’s inaugural year in 2003. Vimukthi’s talent and potential were evident from the beginning, as he went on to achieve recognition at prestigious film festivals such as Cannes and Venice. Despite the passing years, the connection between Vimukthi and the Berlinale remains strong. He served as a jury member for the GWFF Best First Feature Award in 2022, demonstrating the enduring relationship fostered within the Berlinale Talents community.

Another noteworthy filmmaker is Sanjeeva Pushpakumara, who participated in Berlinale Talents in 2012. Sanjeeva served also as an expert for our Asian partner initiative Talents Tokyo and later returned to Berlin through the Nipkow Art Residence, a project lab collaboration in the city. These and other opportunities allowed for continued engagement and reconnection with Sanjeeva over the years.

Other, more recent Talents from Sri Lanka include Rajee Samarasinghe, who participated in the Doc Station in 2020. Doc Station is one of Berlinale Talents’ talent development labs focused on documentary filmmaking. Rajee’s project, “Your Touch Makes Others Invisible,” showcased his talent and led to ongoing communication and project proposals, demonstrating the lasting value of the connection established through Berlinale Talents.

Bavaneedha Loganathan, another talented person, joined us in 2020 as well, just before the pandemic. But also the following two online and hybrid editions in 2021 and 2022 allowed for meaningful exchanges among participants from diverse locations, including Sri Lanka. These connections emphasized the program’s commitment to international collaboration and mutual respect, even or especially in challenging times.


Would you like to join the Berlinale Talents community?

Berlinale Talents is the talent development program of the Berlin International Film Festival, with project development labs taking place digitally in late January and an onsite summit with panels, discussions and networking opportunities during the Berlinale each February.

Berlinale Talents is aimed at film and television professionals with a track record of work. We are currently open to film actors, audience designers (i.e. curators, cinema or festival makers), composers, cinematographers, directors, distributors, editors, film critics, producers, production designers, sales agents, screenwriters, sound designers and digital set designers.

Talent comes with the responsibility to share, and BT entire program, from the Summit events to the Studios and project development labs, is focused not just on what the experts have to offer, but what Berlinale Talents can bring to the group too. Each and everyone’s input and the interaction among the participants drive the sessions forward and are a valuable addition to the tapestry of the six days.

Application Deadline: September 4, 2023 at 12:00 noon CEST.