Silke Räbiger on Germany's International Women’s Film Festival

Silke Räbiger on Germany's International Women’s Film Festival
This year's International Women's Film Festival in Dortmund opened with Sally Potter's "Ginger & Rosa" (filmstill).
(Courtesy Concorde / © Guido Schiefer)

BERLIN – It’s not that men aren’t allowed at the International Women’s Film Festival. Actually, they are very welcome — in the audience. The IWFF is Germany’s largest festival for female filmmakers, cinematographers, and composers.

Founded in the 1980s as a merger of Cologne's “Feminale” festival and its Dortmund counterpart “Femme Totale,” the IWFF began networking with film festivals outside of Germany early on. This year’s program, titled "Excess," presents British director Sally Potter’s new feature film “Ginger & Rosa,” Polish director Ma?goska Szumowska’s dramaIn the Name Of,” Aida Begic’s “Children of Sarajevo,” and “Pluto,” a thriller by Korean filmmaker Su-won Shin, to name but a few.


BLOUIN ARTINFO Germany talked to the festival’s artistic director, Silke Räbiger, about the feminist roots of the IWFF, male audiences, international relations, and Dutch-Peruvian filmmaker Heddy Honigmann, who will receive this year’s Dortmund Honorary Documentary Film Award.

In what context was the International Women’s Film Festival founded in the 1980s?

Originally, the festival was strongly motivated by the women’s lib and the student protest movements of the '80s. Back then, women realized that though men were considering themselves progressive, they didn’t have a lot to celebrate, [in the real world] just as much as in the film world. Female topics and experiences weren’t represented in film and young experimental filmmakers had a keen interest in exploring the female body. Female sexuality was depicted quite explicitly in the early years of the festival. So, in the beginning it was very much about self-assurance and about raising awareness for the role women filmmakers played — and had played in the past.

Let me guess: early film history is full of forgotten women?

Exactly! There’s a long history of female filmmakers. In 1896, Alice Guy was the first woman to shoot a feature film, which would probably be considered a clip today. There were women in Hollywood, think of Lois Weber, and also in France, Germaine Dulac for example. But they never enjoyed much recognition.

So what were the reactions to the festival in its early years? And what did those “men who thought themselves progressive,” as you put it, have to say?

It was very much a female enclave in the beginning, there’s no denying that. The first festival took place in Dortmund in 1987. It featured German filmmakers who had already established themselves, Helma Sanders-Brahms for example, and Helke Sanders. But also young filmmakers from Austria who were more interested in their own sexuality than in the political agenda, which caused a fair amount of controversy. All in all, it was a pretty much exclusively female event.

And today?

It’s a completely different picture. We have repeatedly stressed that this is not a festival by women for women, but rather a festival to show good movies made by women and to illustrate their achievements in the industry. We have a very mixed audience these days.

Next to its program, the IWFF does a lot of international networking. Was that always a priority?

Our first festival featured mostly women from our neighboring European countries. But as early as 1989, we put a special focus on Soviet film – the Soviet Union was still intact then – and invited a strong delegation of 20 filmmakers from different Soviet countries. With respect to its programming, the festival became international [beyond European borders] fairly soon. With respect to our networks, we restricted ourselves to Europe for quite a while. In 1991 we held our first conference for women’s film festivals in Europe, which we gradually extended over the years.

Last year, we hosted a very large networking event that was attended by numerous film festivals and networks and resulted in a stable global network. It’s so much easier today! Back then, we didn’t have the internet or Google groups or Facebook, it was extremely arduous to make contact. One day after our meeting last year, we already had a contact group and not much later there was a website, it was amazing. Melissa Silverstein from the Athena Film Festival in New York was one of the women who really pushed it, thanks to her it came together very quickly.

Your festival presents films by women directors but it also supports female cinematographers and composers, as well as other professionals from the industry.

Yes. We always try to have different focuses. One festival was dedicated entirely to scores and composition, we also collaborated with the magazine Filmdienst to produce a series of albums where female film composers could present their work. Additionally, we award a prize for young cinematographers. Our festival also provides great networks in Germany, bringing together women who wouldn’t meet otherwise and who can build networks of their own here, also during our workshops and talks.

The Dortmund Honorary Documentary Film Award, also presented by the IWFF, goes to the Dutch-Peruvian filmmaker Heddy Honigman this year.

Yes, and I am very pleased about that. Heddy Honigmann is a wonderful documentary filmmaker who will be honored for her lifetime achievement. She has a fabulous way of approaching her protagonists and getting in touch with them. Migration and music are the topics she is interested in, partially because of her biography. She’s a fascinating woman who has lent the European documentary film a very special touch. She is presenting two of her films at the festival, which makes us very happy. It’s a great honor for us.