Martha Otte • Director, Tromsø International Film Festival
"I find small festivals in strange places with no industry presence the most exciting"
by Kaleem Aftab
- Martha Otte, director of the ongoing Tromsø International Film Festival, talks about the joys of putting on a film gathering in the Arctic Circle
This year's Tromsø International Film Festival is taking place from 14-20 January. On the opening day of the event, we chatted to its director, Martha Otte, about how the gathering has grown and changed in the 14 years since she started heading up the programme. This year’s guests include Gaspar Noé, who will present his amazing dance-party film Climax [+see also:
film profile], and there is a talk on sustainable film productions. The festival opened with a screening of the Norwegian title Where Man Returns by Egil Håskjold Larsen.
Cineuropa: How long have you worked at the Tromsø Film Festival, and what changes have there been in this time?
Martha Otte: I started off as a short-term staffer (two months) in 1998. 2005 was my first festival as director. The festival has changed in almost every possible way: when it started in 1991, it was a four-day event in January organised by the municipally owned cinema at their two single-screen venues – which meant all the screens in Tromsø. Today, the festival is an independent foundation with 12 year-round employees, running a cinema all year and organising a silent film festival and a children's film festival in addition to the main film festival in January, which has grown and is now a seven-day event. We screen films at the municipality's multiplex (six screens), our own single-screen cinema, and for just that week, we add over 1,000 seats by rigging three more venues with top-notch screening equipment. Then there is an outdoor screen on the main square, free of charge and open to everyone.
What is the status of the Tromsø Film Festival in terms of its size and scope in Norway?
The question of status is hard to answer objectively. We aim, of course, to be the best at facilitating quality cinema experiences on a year-round basis. The festival in January has the largest audience of individuals who purchase their own tickets, as opposed to groups of pupils who see movies programmed by their teachers, with free tickets sponsored by others. At least one-third of our audience comes from other places far away from Tromsø, which I think is unique among film festivals in Norway. We don't compete on the number of titles in the programme. We have a fantastic audience that would rather choose between three screenings of fewer (and better) films, instead of one or two screenings of a wider range of titles. That makes the festival more of a shared experience.
What type of films do you look to screen at the festival?
Good ones! We are especially interested in films that are "off the radar" and are not standard festival fare, which doesn't mean experimental; it just means we want to make our own discoveries. Narrative film is central to our profile, though it is not a defining factor per se.
What are the sections of the festival, and how do you divide them up?
The major distinction is between the "main" programme, which consists of feature-length films that we invite to the festival, and the regional Films from the North sidebar, which is based on submissions. The North for us is the circumpolar region, so north of the Arctic Circle. That programme includes shorts, documentaries and, as of 2019, also feature-length films.
Within the main programme, we have sections that are the same every year: Competition, Horizons, Eastern Horizons and "Overdrive". We also work thematically. This year, for example, we have a focus on the socio-political situation in Brazil, and a selection of films about espionage during the Cold War, with a balance between the movies made in the East and the West. Some years we have director portraits. I would call the way we work enthusiastic and organic. Once we find a good film or two that excite us, we explore the possibilities for developing a theme. We don't find a theme first and look for films afterwards.
How is the industry side catered for? Events such as Polar Bear Pitching seem fun, but what’s the upside for industry?
We work closely with the regional film industry in order to be the best possible arena for them to meet, network, increase and share their competency. "Region" for us is both national and international, so our industry events try to connect on both of these levels. We collaborate with the European Documentary Network and the North Norwegian Film Centre on a pitching forum called North Pitch - Below Zero. We work with the Norwegian film distributor and exhibitor organisations on a programme that will be relevant for their members. No matter how many industry events we organise, I would say the real upside for the industry is to be in the cinemas, experiencing what filmmaking is all about: seeing how the audience embraces good films.
What changes have you seen in the festival landscape and what do you see happening in the future?
Actually, I don't see any real changes in the festival landscape. Aren't people pretty much talking about the same stuff all the time? Personally, I find small festivals in strange places with no industry presence the most exciting, and I want to think that the future lies there.
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