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ASTRA 2021

Csilla Kató • Artistic director, Astra Film Festival

“Documentary is cinema’s most democratic genre”


- The festival is currently unfolding online until Sunday, following a physical edition held between 5-12 September, whose strengths and challenges we discussed with its artistic director

Csilla Kató • Artistic director, Astra Film Festival

On a normal year, the Astra Film Festival screens circa 120 documentaries in the quaint Romanian city of Sibiu. Because of the pandemic and health regulations, the 2020 and 2021 editions had to adapt, but the festival’s mission stays the same: showing the best and most relevant documentaries to its audience. Here is what director Csilla Kató has to say about this goal.

Cineuropa: It is the second edition of Astra that has been affected by the pandemic. Any decisions taken for these two editions that you would keep for the future?
Csilla Kató: The pandemic made us plan a fully hybrid edition, with outdoor screenings – some of them on a lake with the audience sitting in boats, in cinemas and also online screenings. We even prepared for restrictions, but in the end, we were able to keep all these three ways to welcome our audience. As for future editions, we will definitely keep the online component, both in terms of access to the films, and for recording the debates and making them accessible to online viewers.

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The festival had to adapt because of the pandemic, but what about documentary cinema?
The pandemic’s effect on documentary cinema was most visible in terms of the number of films that were produced and not exactly in the topics those films explored. The projects that required being present in communities where health regulations were more difficult to observe had to be postponed, which resulted in a smaller number of films. Since digital production became readily available circa 15 year ago, topics relating to family or relationships were explored with impressive success. Probably the pandemic will create a trend favouring topics that are available in isolation, without a problematic contact in various communities.

One of the most relevant topics of this edition is climate change. What other theme do you find relevant for your audience?
Shaping a programme for a festival is a curatorial endeavour that equals both a statement about the state of the world today, as it is reflected in the available films, and a stance from our entire selection committee: the selected films are without doubt the best documentary cinema has to offer as of today. As for the films competing in our four competitions, we take everything into account, from the project’s intrinsic qualities to the topic it explores and the plethora of ways the film presents that topic to the viewers.

As we live in an era when our attention is permanently engaged because of social media and various platforms and institutions, a film festival has to find its niche, the perfect place to engage the attention of its audience. Every year, documentary cinema allows us to select exactly those films able to make our audience understand global phenomena both from an informative point of view and an emotional, empathic point of view.

For this edition, we observed a trend: many films exposing transformative phenomena both in environment and in society. These titles allowed us to come up with five thematic sidebars: the climate collapse, procreation and the effects of artificial insemination on society, couples facing troubled times (i.e. the ingredients that make a relationship endure), borders (and the absurd ways they affect certain communities), and the indecent end of life (for example dying in total solitude or inhumane burial practices).

Eight of the ten films shown in the Romanian competition were directed by women. Why do you think female directors are more interested in documentary than in fiction?
Documentary filmmaking does not require budgets as big as fiction and most documentaries are not affected by the difficult logistics of fiction. Funds for fiction films are much more difficult to access, especially for first time directors (regardless of their gender), and one must make impressive efforts to stay active and relevant in the industry, otherwise accessing funds becomes even more difficult. Fiction cinema is dominated by men especially because they do not have to put their career on hold for years as many women directors do in order to raise their children. This is why documentary is more welcoming for women. In my opinion, documentary is cinema’s most democratic genre.

The festival’s top award, the Astra Trophy, goes to a film in the New Voices in Documentary Cinema competition. What defines this competition?
We are now going through times of enthusiastic documentary production. Every year, new authors surprise and compel us with their stylistic choices, new ways of exploring slices of life from their surrounding realities, guiding us to the depths of human nature, all while re-inventing the genre’s language. It is the fourth year that the Astra Film Festival gives new shape to its international competition, now titled New Voices of Documentary Cinema: we select first, second or third films of dedicated filmmakers at the beginning of their career, who boldly experiment with the tools of their craft to tackle unusual topics from unusual angles, reaching highly accomplished results. All the eight films stand out thanks to the impressive variety of stylistic choices of their authors, who tackle relevant and urgent matters. Our New Voices competition is a true celebration of the genre!

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