Have You Met... Berlin Art Film Festival's Toby Ashraf

The Berlin Art Film Festival took place this past weekend in the Moviemento Theatre on Kotbusser Damm.  We had the privilege of speaking to the festival’s program coordinator and organizer: film critic and aficionado Toby Ashraf. Read through to the end for a special list of some of Ashraf’s favorite must-see films about Berlin.


How did you put together the program of the festival?  Were there certain themes you were trying to explore or certain stories you felt you needed to find?  

This year, the idea of topic-driven short and medium-length films was made possible because of a longer preparation and viewing period and through more in-depth research.  This hadn’t been necessary for last year’s festival because I knew pretty much immediately which films I wanted to present then.
Through going to more festivals and contacting more filmmakers and distributors, it became obvious that this year would once again have an organic threat that I wouldn't mention and see if people would find out for themselves. Last year, it was the very strong and prominent idea of urban drifters; this year it was more of a political and sociological (and critical) cinematic view of life and change in a city that is to often and too easily mystified and romanticized.
I knew, this year I had to curate a refugee programme in the light of everything that went on from Oranienplatz protest to the current failure of Berlin politics and I knew we had to talk more about what happened to the city in terms of affordable living space, a development I found very much represented in films that talked about the urban development after the wall came down.

Also, this year, I wanted to take the idea of artist's film more seriously, contacted galleries and showed films that are rarely screened in a cinema context and gave new perspectives on the work of visual artists whose work is rarely shown in curated programmes together with works by other filmmakers. The KOW and the Buchholz gallery were generous enough to give me their films and let me include them in a bigger picture of Berlin art films. I was also interested in going more in depth in the works of actors and directors and had three In Fous programmes which gave you better ideas of the cinematic works of say Anne Ratte-Polle, Isa Genzken or Lior Shamriz.


What has been the reception to this year’s festival?  
This year's festival was completely different from last year's.  I need to quote a friend who said that the first festival was more event-driven. We had more premieres, more current films, a porn live-dubbing, and eventually Nan Goldin showed up as a surprise guest for the closing film. This year, the attendance was lower, but much more constant and the reception more appreciative in terms of content. Iris Praefke of the Moviemento said, that this means, that the festival works as a festival and I guess that's true while last year, the fact that someone was doing this at all was new and innovative enough to draw attention. This time people studied the programme more, came more often and no one walked out, which is - in the light of sometimes edgy and daring programmes - a huge compliment.

This year, I had the impression that people didn't feel the need to share it so much on Facebook, which has mostly to do that on social media, the idea of "success" is often too quickly evaluated by likes and a general professionalism in promotion which hides the fact that this festival is still not funded, still a high-risk enterprise and still very much dependent on filmmakers and friends supporting it—virtually and by coming to the screenings.


There was a nice moment on Sunday in the “On Architecture” screening when you shared a story about Thomas Arslan, the director of festival selection Am Rand who was present for the screening.  Can you share that again for us?

Yes, it was his film Der Schöne Tag (A Fine Day) that I recorded from TV after I had read the review and was dying to see it. Nowhere in my area growing up was this film being screened and I had to wait for—I assume it was—two years to record it from TV. I watched it on a small screen and knew that through the poetry of his storytelling the and the magic of his cinematography, I needed to be part of a summer day in Berlin just like Serpil Turhan's main character.


I know it may be hard to choose, but what were the highlights for you of the past weekend?  Were there any special moments with some filmmakers or audience members?

The FILMING REFUGEES program was wonderful, not only because it was packed, but more importantly because it was very unpredictable. Many Syrian friends of Ahmad Faraj [the main protagonist of film selection WADA] came and many African refugee activists who were part of the other films were present too. After one film on the Oranienplatz protests, one man yelled during the credits that he was part of what was shown and that he would wait outside if anyone wanted to support him financially. This moment was a very honest and unforeseen intervention into a cinematic setting in which it was at first more about the filmic strategies of refugee portrayals. When all of a sudden, the protagonists take over and bring you back from experimental formats to a day-to-day reality, you need to think about curating and the film/life relations anew.

Also, I loved giving out shots during BILDNIS EINER TRINKERIN, the fact that everyone waited at 2 am for a Q/A after a long and daring porn film.  I also thought that the GERMANY, REVISED programme was really strong in making a statement about the political timelessness of certain cinematic observations.


Berlin has developed the reputation of having so much “space” or “freedom” for people, especially artists or people in “othered” categories or subcultures.  I think many of the films support the idea of Berlin as a place with abundant space for expression and culture production. 
There are also films in the program—like Post Migrations and On Architecture—that show a different side to the story: that Berlin is losing space or developing it in the “wrong ways”, or that Berlin certainly has space but not all people are welcome to occupy it and call it their own…
Can you speak more about this tension between freedom and constraint in politics of space in Berlin? How do you think space, and specifically space for film and arts, in Berlin is changing?

The correlations of free public spaces, artistic freedom, personal liberation, precarious living have changed dramatically. Ten years ago, we didn't have to think about rents and that made up for artistic and cultural exploitations we all have been facing for long - even Helge Sander talks about it in REDUPERS, a film made in West Berlin, end of the 1970s.  Big parts of Berlin have been sold and so have the few remaining wastelands that helped built Berlin's reputation of a free metropolis with endless political, social and artistic liberties. The idea of occupation was real and it gave you a feeling of possible rebellion and urban alternative participation.

Many things have changed and it started with investors and the selling of East Berlin after the Wall came down, a fact that only became apparent to me in its obvious historical development after watching some of the films (again). The small occupied space of the refugee camp at Oranienplatz was one example that was mirrored in the police seige of Kreuzberg after the refugees occupied the Gerhard Hauptmann Schule. I was part of the protests and this entire shocking failure of Berlin's politicians, culminating in the catastrophic handling of the situation at LaGeSo politicised me even more and made me want to put together a programme through which political discourse was more visible and approachable instead of just concentrating on the poetics of some Berlin films - which are still very much there, even in the more political films. Starting with A LOW LIFE MYTHOLOGY and ending with Isa Genzken's discussions if political art can exist if only rich people buy it, I wanted to make a statement and hope that people got it.


Tell us about your personal journey with film.  Where did you begin? And how did your passion develop into writing film reviews for for Stil in Berlin and now coordinating the Berlin Art Festival?

Film became an addiction and sort of a life essence for me from a very early age. Growing up in a small town in Lower Saxony with only one slightly art-housy cinema in a time before online streaming became a major archive for film buffs, I was desperate; I started to learn the repertoire of the local video stores better than their employees and began recording a lot from television, becoming relatively good at editing out commercials and making tapes with similar films.
Berlin was a destination not only for personal sexual freedom but also for catching up with film history. I knew I could watch whatever I wanted whenever I wanted and spent a good time of my first years in Berlin at Arsenal and renting complete filmographies from filmmakers like Pedro Almódavar at the Videodrom.
After finishing my studies I had a hard time getting jobs as a film critic (still not easy) and my university friend Mary Scherpe, whose blog Stil in Berlin had gained some enormous popularity in the meantime, let me write a weekly column about the film I thought was most provoking and edgy and unusual.
Out of this, the idea was born that we should do a film festival, which in the end I organized all by myself and concentrated on films that were shot in Berlin and depicted the city in an unusual and innovative light.


An intentionally maddening request: can you put together for our readers a “starter-pack” of must-see movies about Berlin?



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Find our review of the Berlin Art Film Festival 2015 here


2nd Berlin Art Film Festival 
10. - 13.12.2015 @ Moviemento

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