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Interview with Dennis Vetter and Mathieu Li-Goyette
The Joys Of Debating

Dennis Vetter is film critic, moderator and program curator, as well as co-founder of “Woche der Kritik” in Berlin, the Berlin Critics’ Week. Since 2020 he is the artistic director and part of the curatorial team. Mathieu Li-Goyette is a Montreal-based film critic, film curator and editor-in-chief of online film-magazine Panorama-cinéma.
Dennis Vetter is film critic, moderator and program curator, as well as co-founder of Woche der Kritik in Berlin, the Berlin Critics’ Week. Since 2020 he is the artistic director and part of the curatorial team. Mathieu Li-Goyette is a Montreal-based film critic, film curator and editor-in-chief of online film-magazine "Panorama-cinéma". | © Tatiana Braun/Goethe-Institut Montreal

Dennis Vetter is film critic, moderator and program curator, as well as co-founder of Woche der Kritik in Berlin, the Berlin Critics’ Week. Since 2020 he is the artistic director and part of the curatorial collective. Mathieu Li-Goyette is a Montreal-based film critic, film curator and editor-in-chief of online film-magazine "Panorama-cinéma".  

By Tatiana Braun

2024 celebrates the 10th anniversary of Woche der Kritik in Berlin. How has the festival developed?

Dennis Vetter (DV): Well, structurally, the festival had been clearly defined from the very beginning and hasn’t changed so much over the years. We never had the ambition to create a festival based on growth. For us, concentration was the most important point. Our goal was to create a space where people meet, exchange, and think together about cinema, about festival culture and about the Berlinale and its politics. Already in the first year of Woche der Kritik, the festival and its concept has been very well accepted, people came and were engaging in our discussions.

What are the things that have changed over the years?

DV: Over the years, we have been exploring new formats to speak about film. We were consciously trying to hack and to question the routines of the classic Q&A, which is often very standardized, with a very low amount of time to speak and all focused on the director.

All your film programs at Woche der Kritik are followed by a discussion with the filmmakers and/or invited guests that are sometimes unrelated to the films or even film in general. How has your approach to these discussions evolved?

DV: By inviting people who are not connected to the films we want to challenge the way directors are positioned in film conversations. This is a way to establish trust with the people who are participating in our discussions. Because of that, we have tried to move away from the concept of provoking a fight to question each other's positions. Now, we are basing our discussions on trust and on mutual interest in each other's thoughts and perspectives on the films. To do that, we try to work with our guests early on.

What impact do these principles have on your festival curation?

DV: We curate films based on the concept of initiating in order to initiate a discussion with our guests and our public. By putting films together that come from different ways of filmmaking or bring different aesthetics to the discussion, we aim to create a dialogue between the films themselves. We try to find films which have a strong, interesting and engaging aesthetic position about which we want to think together. And this might include opposing it.

We consciously want to acknowledge disagreements and foster honest exchanges.

Dennis Vetter

You mentioned that, in the early years of the festival, you were going for a fight. Could you elaborate on that?

DV: Thank you for asking, because this is also very important to us! It is part of the self-definition of Critics' Week.  Accepting that there are disagreements between guests on stage and the public and that there might be reservations or doubts about the films is not something larger festivals or industry-driven events usually do. However, we consciously want to acknowledge disagreements and foster honest exchanges. The term of “debate” is,  at least in Germany not necessarily a positive term and tends to make some of our guests a little insecure when they hear it. Especially within film and festival culture, honest reactions are rather withheld, it is not an environment in which artists are given spaces to grow. At Woche der Kritik, we are actively encouraging discussions with the audience, because many audiences feel insecure when it comes to speaking about film.

What about debate culture in Quebec?

Mathieu Li-Goyette (MLG): We don’t have a comparable debate culture in Quebec. We like the Anglo-Saxon way of keeping things smooth without being too harsh.

As you are pushing for debates around the films you select and confronting different positions within the films, but also filmmakers and critics - I am wondering about your selection process. How are your internal film selection debates going at Woche der Kritik? And how do you make sure that your selection is diverse and inclusive?

DV: Yes, we are having a lot of debates about our selection within our team! The film selection at Critics' Week is handled by a committee of international film critics. Mathieu was a former member of the commission; this is how we came to know each other. We are trying to bring in critics who have backgrounds in different film cultures to create a heterogeneous selection that represents different aesthetics or ideas of filmmaking. For me, a heterogeneous selection is not only connected to politics but I'm considering this from an intersectional angle. Gender balance is one aspect we consider when we create our program but there are also many other layers like of course cultural backgrounds of the filmmakers or different production backgrounds. The realities from which the films come. Yes, and the same principles are of course applied for the guests we invite.

We are not picking films based on topical connections. We bring films together which initiate  a dialogue with each other. We are not accepting submissions but are actively researching films. We are approaching people from film culture and beyond and ask them what films they think should be discussed at this moment. It's a system based on recommendation and dialogue. Then, we have a Berlin-based team of cultural workers, festival organizers and moderators who react to the film selection and who are creating debates around these films. Together, we create titles for the programs, which are not topical, but rather – hopefully - conversation starters.

Mathieu, you have been in the selection committee for Woche der Kritik in 2018: How was this for you and how did the debates go for you?

MLG: It was a revolutionary experience for me! In 2018 I had already curated some programs, mainly retrospectives for the Cinémathèque québécoise but only on a local level. It was the first time that somebody handed me a list of 150 films that I had to watch to write little snippets of opinion about them and then debate, debate, debate about each film with the other committee members. I think one of the things that really charmed me at Woche der Kritik is this intertwining of different styles of film productions, genres and aesthetic propositions. To me this – through debate – is a great way to shake off the main discourses and all the elitism that surrounds major festival competitions. It’s a way of seeing cinema as something intrinsically heterogenous.

there's kind of a programming vacuum in Montreal

You mentioned that you received a list to watch for the selection but did you, as a member of the selection committee at Woche der Kritik, have the possibility to also propose films?

MLG: I proposed some Quebecois films because that was the only avant-garde milieu of filmmaking that I knew well enough. Among others, I suggested a film by Montreal-based filmmaker Olivier Godin. His film had been selected and it was one of the first times one of his movies was shown outside Quebec. And I think this has really benefited his career both abroad and in Quebec. Even for me, as a film critic, there was a before and an after having been part of Woche der Kritik. It was a transformative experience and gave me confidence.

How did Woche der Kritik change your approach to film criticism and film programming in Montreal?

MLG: It was my first time traveling outside of Quebec as a film critic and it made me feel like I can have a place in the milieu and contribute in a sustainable way. The experience had a deep impact on my work in Montreal and my approach to our film magazine Panorama-cinéma. It helped us to become ambitious and apply for public grants. Today, the magazine is supported by grants, so we can pay our critics, which wasn't the case for a very long time. The concept of Critics' Week was not only a transformative experience for me personally, but it showed me that we can forge something out of the discourses around films, that we can build something out of the intellectual and cultural exchange, which is super inspiring!

I would like to know from your both point of views, what is your motivation for organizing a Critics' Week? What has been your motivation at the very beginning of Woche der Kritik and how has that changed over the years? And what drives one to create a completely new Critics’ Week in Montreal?

MLG: After that experience at Woche der Kritik in 2018, we went to Berlinale and the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) and realized how many interesting movies and filmmakers we never heard about because they were never shown in Montreal or in Quebec. We became aware that there was so much going on outside that we were never shown. So, we asked ourselves: Why is that so? There is this big cinematic ecosystem in Quebec and in Montreal. It is well-funded, and the Quebec film industry produces around 50 feature films per year, which is a lot compared to the population in Quebec [8,5 million persons in 2021. Ed.].

We have a very lively local film industry and at least four or five well-funded film festivals in Montreal. However, the festival industry seems to become more and more risk averse and is mostly interested in selling tickets. At the same time, we lost a lot of arthouse movie theaters, as well as a lot of independent distributors here in Montreal and Quebec and those who remain no longer have the backbone they once had. The space to screen less mainstream-oriented films has become more and more narrow in Montreal and Quebec over the past 10 years. In 2019, a colleague of mine saw Mariano Llinás La Flor in Rotterdam. The film was amazing, and we wanted to make it happen in Montreal, but no festival selected it. I mean, what I want to say, is that I think it's a festival's job to program that kind of film, even if it's a 14-hour movie! We cannot just expect that the distributors will gamble on that kind of film. But the local festivals didn't do it. Panorama-cinéma finally co-presented it in partnership with six or seven different organisms working together to present the film here and make Mariano Llinás travel to Montreal for a week. It was a lot of effort, but it was totally worth it. The event was sold out and people were happy. Ultimately, this made me realize, there's kind of a programming vacuum in Montreal. With Semaine de la Critique we want to expand the somewhat traditional milieu of cinephilia and moviemaking in Montreal. We want to respond to systemic pitfalls, because we think that for once, film critics are in a good position to do so.

DV: We wanted – as film critics - not only react to film culture as it is, but to actively create alternative spaces in which different kinds of conversations about film can happen and in which films can be appreciated in a different way. We wanted critics to become visible as public speakers presenting their positions on stage. Looking back on the last 10 years, I believe that sustaining these spaces takes time and energy. But the reactions of our guests have shown us how much this kind of space is appreciated. However, we had to learn a lot when it came to facilitating discussions in different ways.

Can you elaborate on that? What are your most important learnings when it comes to facilitating a different culture of debate?

DV: The feedback and experience of the last 10 years encourages us to carry on this project and sustain it. For the future, we hope to continue learning with our guests, to evolve this festival further as a platform and to establish a space in which people can trust each other to speak openly. We wish to show people that questioning a film doesn’t mean to sabotage the filmmaker but rather to support their work in an honest way and allow them to grow by having sincere conversations. Establishing this kind of space takes a long time because building up trust within the industry requires investing a lot of energy and having these – sometimes difficult - conversations. And, yes, some conversations didn't work out and some of our guests have been frustrated or puzzled by the format. But we needed this time to learn and evolve and understand the industry better, to be able to speak openly about film but in a different way. The milieu in which Berlin Critic’s week is evolving is ever changing and so are our motivations and perspectives. In that sense, just the fact of doing a Berlin Critics’ Week is meaningful.

In Berlin there’s the Berlinale and most prestigious Critics' Weeks, for example in Cannes and Venice they are linked to some major festivals with which they are in some kind of - more or less critical – dialogue. Mathieu, as your festival will happen in Montreal in January 2025 -

MLG (laughs): That's the plan!

- what is the local institutional monolith that you are trying to question, turn around or at least to tickle a bit?

MLG: There’s not one festival in particular that we want to criticize or target. I guess, it's a bit of all of them. [laughs] We are determined to show documentaries, genre films, independent films, anything that could fit and make a coherent program and generate interesting discussions about it. We want to work for the films and the filmmakers rather than pushing some revenge agenda towards the festivals in Montreal.

Apart from snowstorms and the fact that the Montreal Semaine de la critique won’t be linked to a festival, what else makes it special?

MLG: I guess one big difference is the fact that it is initiated by a film magazine and not a critics’ association. Inevitably, this will be reflected in the programming. [ With the exception of the Chicago Film Critics Association's Critics' Week, which operates on a different, more localized model, Montreal's Critics' Week will be just about the only Critics' Week in North America. Ed. ]

Networks of solidarity and collaboration

How did the idea of making a film festival materialize?

MLG: For many years, we did these classic lists with the best films of the year, and every year it was the most clicked and discussed article in our magazine. It was not a top 10, it was a top 30 list and contrary to other film magazines in Quebec, we included a lot of films that were never shown here. Just to say to your readers: Here are 15 films that are amazing, which you can watch in local cinemas but there are also these other 15 films that you should note down and put on your radar. We've been making these lists for 10 years now and always published them in January, so I think that setting the date to January pretty much meets our beat of how we structure our work, and when we reflect on films as an editorial team.
Dennis, are you and/or Woche der Kritik involved in this endeavor of establishing a new Critics’ Week in Montreal? And if yes, how?

DV: Well, the decision is up to Mathieu and his team! In this moment we are exchanging ideas, and I personally don’t know all the details of their plans yet. We just had a gathering of international film critics’ initiatives here which was the first gathering I have heard of so far of international critics’ events. I believe these networks of solidarity and collaboration and shared passion are very important when the work cannot be funded in a way it should be.

Mathieu, how are you selecting the films for your first edition in January? Will you do it like Woche der Kritik? Is there a core team and you'll also invite external curators?

MLG: Oh, in fact, we didn't really know what to expect but for us, speaking about our festival plans for Montreal with other film critics in a bar in Berlin made things become somewhat more real. So right now, the plan is to have a programming committee of five or six different people. There will be two people in the core team of which one seat goes to somebody from our magazine and another person that will change every year. I always wanted to invite people from our magazine or from other magazines to do some programming because there are so little opportunities to learn about programming as a film critic. And I think that when you're a film critic and you're starting to do programming, it totally changes the way you see films. You understand so much more about how the industry is working, how films are circulating. Finally, I believe that it makes us better film critics. I would also love to keep one seat for our Quebec Film Critics’ Association and then two people from an international context to make sure to have a heterogenous and diverse selection.

Do you already have specific people or regions in mind that you’d like to invite or take a closer look at?

MLG: We still have a little time to prepare, but already we can say that Ariel Esteban Cayer, who was previously programmer at the Fantasia Festival, and who co-directs the Blu-ray label Kani Releasing, is going to be the director of programming. And, of course, I'd like Dennis to be involved in some way...

Circling back to what you said before about the Quebecois being a bit restrained and not wanting to debate too much: What will be your plan to change that? Do you have an idea on how to get them into it?

MLG: I want our Q&A's to be an open space, inviting everybody, even people who are not necessarily familiar with cinema. I absolutely want to avoid having an elitist event, and I think there's many ways of opening a discussion.  One idea we had, was to do a prospective Q&A. You hand a little piece of paper to everybody who enters the screening room, and you ask them to write a question, their expectations, or hopes about the film on the paper, and then you take all the papers, you put them in a bag, and then after the film, you do your debate only based on these little bits of paper.

Dennis, did you do that with the little notes at Woche der Kritik?

DV: No, this is new for me!

It's a great idea to lower the bar, especially as people associate film critique with some sort of cultural elite that feels very eloquent but at the same time difficult and inaccessible. 

MLG: I imagine that this little game with the papers could smoothen things a bit, it might take the fear of asking even difficult questions and guests won't take it personally, because the setup makes these preliminary questions kind of innocent. It's only an example but we want to try out things to offer a soft entry to debating culture around film but without making it uninteresting or too easy at the same time.

I love that!

MLG: By doing that, you kind of erase the fear of asking a stupid question, because all questions are potentially stupid in that scenario, as nobody has yet watched the film. I think it's a fun thing to do, digging into issues like hype around a film. It counteracts that tendency to write about films – be it in a professional context or on Letterboxd [Letterboxd is is an online social cataloging service - Ed.] – only oriented on our expectations and to feed into the hype around a film. Honestly, the hype machine around a film is something that I fear and that I hate but that I also find very fascinating because it exists at the intersection of film marketing, auteurism, attention economy and social media. It's like a big cloud around the film and I'm asking myself how we can slice through it, deconstruct it, to better süeak about it. 

How will you choose your guests for your film discussions?

MLG: That's a good question! I don't know how they do it at the Berlin Critics' Week because the lineup is always super fascinating and out of the box, but we definitely want interesting guests to stimulate compelling discussions. One of the speakers at that conference about Q&As a couple days ago, Jens Geiger, I think, from Filmfest Hamburg is doing this thing...

DV: Cinephiles Quartett. - Cinephile Quartet.

MLG: Yes, right! And the idea behind this project is to invite four different people who are not from cinema at all, but who are specialists or well-known people in their respective fields, be it like musicians, poets…

DV: …or soccer teachers! I think he mentioned a soccer coach.

MLG: Yes, it's a great idea to mingle sport! I might be dreaming but imagine we do a program around competitiveness and we would get someone who plays for the Montréal Canadiens hockey team for a discussion - it would be full house and it would be such a different crowd of people. It would be interesting to crisscross these experiences, ideas and thoughts in a discussion!

Could you speak a bit about the importance of curating and the act of opening spaces and facilitating discussions that might help an audience to form opinions about films, about visual culture and about moving images in general. Especially in these times where we are kind of surrounded by moving images all the time.

DV: The work of curating is often measured by its outcome, but I think the platform we try to create at Woche der Kritik, is one where we look beyond the curated program and see film culture as an ecosystem in which there is a lot of – invisible - labor. I think it's very important to make that work visible. However, it's complicated to summarize how to approach visual culture these days, because I think it is a question of different generations of audiences, curators and filmmakers with their different politics that are confronting each other here. And within all that, it becomes very difficult to speak about our relation to images. I also believe that the inclusion of different generations into dialogues is something which is underrepresented currently. Mathieu, you were speaking about creating a space which is inclusive, and which invites audiences that are not necessarily familiar with cinema. audience or cinephile audiences. Actually, I believe that the cinema space is best suited for inclusive conversations. It has very different logics to it than, for example, art spaces and galleries which are often very classist and exclusive and feel inaccessible to many. A cinema is a space which brings together many different audiences and presents also a broad variety of politics on screen. I strongly believe that the cinema is a space for gathering in our societies and a very democratic space on top of that.  

MLG: It's tough to add something to that, but I'll try. I think that sometimes we can get the feeling that there's one main conversation in cinema in a year or around one specific film. One of the first steps to open the discourse around film and to open debates and discussions is to cut through this illusion of there being a sole conversation or discourse on a film.

DV: I agree, so much.

MLG: We've seen it in the past year for example with movies like Barbie and Oppenheimer which were so polarizing in many – interesting - ways. But I mean, for one year, we spoke just about these two films, and you had to pick a side. You see it a lot on Letterboxd, how the app participated in this polarization. Letterboxd has become, in the past couple of years less and less a space of exchanging, of cinematic discoveries and of making lists, but more and more a kind of bizarre Twitter space where one just shoots this one snappy sentence to trash the film or say how it's a masterpiece. I guess, this development just kind of follows the same narrative as our society, where the political discourse also is more and more about polarizing and creating a following. There's this great text in our last online dossier about queerness and dancing…

DV: It is by Heidi Salaverrìa !

[Heidi Salaverrìa: Le courage de s’adresser à l’inconnu ou ce que la Salsa queer peut apporter à la culture du débat Ed.]

MLG : Yes, it's a great article on the importance of not staying in the middle, but to learn how to discuss and debate, while acknowledging the other, showing empathy for their opinion, and then kind of following a fuzzy line between the two opinions, but not wanting to win the day or to humiliate the other. – I think, the online discourse and especially Letterboxd are less of an ally or the forums for exchange that they could have been or have been before. One main reason to focus on live conversation with real people in a room and not hiding behind usernames is to acknowledge the need to try and keep these nuanced debates going on.


About Woche der Kritik – Berlin Critics‘ Week

Woche der Kritik – Berlin Critics' Week is a film festival with a supporting program that has been held annually in Berlin since 2015 and coincides with the Berlin International Filmfestival – the Berlinale. On seven consecutive days, a main film is shown, which is linked to an aesthetic or cultural-political topic and provides an opportunity for subsequent discussion.
The festival was founded by representatives of the Association of German Film Critics (VDFK).
Homepage: www.wocherderkritik.de

About "Panorama-cinéma"

Panorama-cinéma is an online magazine dedicated to promoting film culture and new media through a critical and essayistic approach. Its editorial line is driven by a variety of subjects and strives to capture the nature of cinematic experiences and viewpoints through sensitive, articulate writing. Its editorial activities focus on issues linked to the changing modalities of cinematic language and the intermedia realities that are overturning the most conventional conceptions of cinema. The magazine also oversees the production and publication of collective books on cinema, which it distributes and sells. At the forefront of the latest issues affecting moving image, Panorama-cinéma is actively adding to Montreal’s cinematic environment by organising independent film screenings and retrospectives with local partners such as the Cinémathèque québecoise or the Goethe-Institut. Homepage: panorama-cinema.com