The Diagonale opened with a gala evening at the Graz opera house which featured the premiere of Goran Rebic’s documentary The Punishment. As the evening unfolded, it emerged that the film’s title was curiously appropriate in a way that festival directors Constantin Wulff and Christine Dollhofer hadn’t anticipated. In response to political protests by filmmakers against the newly-formed right-wing coalition government, the province of Styria (host, through its capital Graz, of the annual fest) had come up with its own punishment, threatening to withdraw the money for the Diagonale’s Grand Prize.
With admirable courage, festival directors and cultural activists stood their ground, determined not to let anti-democratic power games silence them or spoil the fun. Instead, the threat of funding cuts actually seemed to intensify the already exhilarating political debates taking place within the Austrian filmmaking and arts communities. Against the background of government mistrust of artists, the scheduled panel discussions – on themes such as “Scenarios for a new cultural politics,” “Filmic journeys to the former Yugoslavia” and “New directions for young Austrian filmmakers” – became the scene of impassioned exchanges about the social importance of art and the need for new strategies of resistance. With the recent announcements of slashed funding throughout the cultural sector – including the news that the federal film fund would be decreased from 170 to 108 million Schillings in one fell swoop – it is no exaggeration to say that Austrian film may soon be fighting for its very existence. It was especially inspiring, then, to discover that filmmakers and cultural activists are rising to the occasion and fighting back. During the Diagonale there was even a demonstration against the “black and blue” coalition of conservative and right-wing parties, during which festival guests carrying banners marched through the streets of Graz before the eyes of the town’s perplexed inhabitants.
To highlight the filmmakers’ efforts, the Diagonale’s organisers came up with an ingenious programming idea: a call for any and all films about strategies of resistance, to be shown in a daily programme entitled “The Art of the Moment is Resistance.” Responses poured in from amateurs and professionals alike, from people picking up a handycam for the first time ever in order to film a demonstration, all the way to one particular elderly gentleman who started out as a newsreel reporter back in 1948. Because the urgency of the issues demands quick responses, many of the films and videos were somewhat rough around the edges in spite of their compelling subject matter. But several filmmakers succeeded at making surprisingly accomplished contributions in a very short space of time. In a few days of no-budget shooting in their Vienna office, filmmaker Johannes Holzhausen and producer Johannes Rosenberger of Navigator Film interviewed a cross section of average and not-so-average Austrians; the result was Zero Crossing – Conversations in Vienna, an extremely interesting psychological portrait of Austrian society today. And with Auf Widerst@nd, Brussels-based Simon Arazi and Vincent Hufty showed how a variety of media – such as independent radio, the internet, multimedia and street theater – can be used to spread activist messages in original and humorous ways guaranteed to capture the public’s attention.
In this highly charged atmosphere, it seemed that everything had suddenly become highly political. It is important to remember, therefore, that Austrian filmmakers were already working on analyzing social and political problems well before they woke up in February 2000 to discover that Jörg Haider was part of their government. The past year’s documentary output, as screened in the regular documentary programme, included the following dominant themes: multicultural society; ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia; coming to terms with Austria’s Nazi past; and the malaise lurking just below the surface of everyday life.
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