The Keyword is Diversity – An interview with Allan Sørensen

The Titanic International Film Festival starts on 10 April so I have sat down with Allan Sørensen, the programme director to discuss this year’s programme, particularly the Scandinavian / Nordic films shown during the festival. We have talked about the aspects of diversity, Scandinavian societies, and even about Lars von Trier, although it wasn’t my initial intention to do that.

Let’s go back in time a bit! I know that you used to work at the Danish Film Institute. Could you talk a bit about that? What did you there exactly?
I was a programme editor of Cinemateket; my tasks involved organizing retrospective screenings, for instance. I also did a series called Danish on a Sunday. The idea was to present Danish films with English subtitles to foreigners living in Copenhagen who don’t speak that much Danish. We wanted to give them a chance to see what Danes were talking about, which films they went to see. So if you were new to town, you sort of got an idea of how it was.

Allan Sørensen

So it isn’t true that the Danish audience doesn’t like Danish films. I have heard that not so many people like what Lars von Trier is doing now.
I think that goes for a lot of film-makers like him. Béla Tarr is not that popular in Hungary, for example, but I think they are in the same league of incredibly distinctive film-makers. We have a saying in Denmark: A prophet is never well liked in his own time or place. It’s only after his death people start at least appreciating him. Lars von Trier even abroad is not widely popular. He is not a popular director, there are certain groups of people who are very enthusiastic about his work. He really is an avant-garde film-maker, and he doesn’t aim to be popular.

But let’s back to Titanic! How did you get involved in the work of the festival? I know you joined last year but nothing other than that.
Last year was my first time. I was looking for work. We had left Denmark and were living in Munich and in Vienna for a while. We needed a change, and as it appeared to us that we were edging closer to Budapest, we moved here. I visited Titanic as a civilian back in 2013, and the idea just struck me: Why not trying to reach out to them and see? I wasn’t aiming to become the programme director, I didn’t know that was in the cards. Our festival director György Horváth was looking for someone to put together the programme, he really liked my CV, so it just happened, I got lucky.

I assume many people are curious about how you select films. How do you find them? Or perhaps do they just come to you?
It’s usually me seeking them out. I do a lot of research. For instance, I went to the London Film Festival last October. There are quite a few films in the programme that I have seen there. That was like a scout mission. Nonetheless, it’s not something that is different from what I used to be because I always loved films. I always followed the news and the festivals online, and read film reviews. It is just a natural continuity.

I suppose there is a great variety of films you can take into consideration when it comes to screening them at Titanic. Is it easy to decide on them?
You definitely have to make some tough choices. I wouldn’t say it’s easy but it’s fun. Of course, you can’t get everything you want: We have a very limited budget at Titanic for paying for screenings. There are a lot of factors among which I need to balance. But in spite of this I would say it’s an immensely satisfying programme and I’m very proud of putting it together. There are not so many films regarding which I feel I have missed out because we couldn’t afford it or it was not possible to have it.

In an interview you’ve mentioned you have watched all the films…
Almost, I have watched 45-47 out of 52 films. Our festival director went to the Berlinale in February so he selected a few films from there that I have agreed on but not seen. I’m looking forward to seeing those. Hopefully, I get there during the festival.

They Have Escaped

For my thesis on the online communication of the Gothenburg International Film Festival and the Clandestino Festival, I read a book that was entirely about film festivals, one chapter specifically discussed festival films. Scholars tend to speak about typical festival films. Do you think it’s important to have festival films at Titanic, or can one already find some in the programme?
I would not say we have many typical festival films at Titanic this year, and that might have a lot of to do with me. I know which type of films you’re talking about, let’s label them festival films as, I agree, it can be a category. For me they are too much involved with themselves, they are too navel. This is something I don’t really tolerate well, I guess. You do get those unique voices, such as Lars von Trier, who is just a real talent. Love him or hate him, you cannot ignore him. His films always bring something. Although more of his films can be characterized as festival films, even if because of his name they have a higher profile than other typical festival films.

Independent film productions that try to be more accessible and actually want to engage with the audience and not just turn to itself all the time are closer to my heart. I really like those films that are clever and original but don’t speak down to its audience but they actually try to speak to people. I think we have a lot of films like that. That is what I was aiming for, that’s my personal preference.

Was diversity of film-makers in your mind when selecting films?
It’s funny that you have mentioned that because this is in fact my key intention for assembling this year’s festival programme. For instance, all the films in competition have female protagonists, while four of them are directed by female directors. That is something I decided to do consciously. It has been a really hot topic these years. The other day I saw Keira Knightley talk about the real lack of female directors, not so much even, but the female narratives. She was speaking mainly about Hollywood, which is understandable, as she knows that, but it’s a general trend. It’s really striking to me that still in 2015 the field of cinema is so male dominated.

Combining this with a lot of other factors, one of them being that the two previous winners (Lore and Viktoria) of Titanic had female directors and actually featured female protagonists, my thought was: Let’s try to make a statement here, let’s try to go for a competition angle here!

I don’t want to talk about equality as such, I’d like to talk about what you have been saying, about diversity. That is the keyword here. Nonetheless, it’s not only about those aspects, but a mix of genre, having something for everybody. I want the programme to appeal to as many people as possible. I don’t want all 52 films to appeal to everybody, one cannot love all the films.

The Look of Silence

Every year there are quite a few Scandinavian films shown at Titanic. Could you talk about what kind of films we can see this year from the Nordic region?
We have a Swedish and a Finnish film in competition. The Swedish one is Underdog set in Oslo…

Yes, I have seen the trailer, and I’ve planned to ask you about this film in particular, since I don’t think a lot of people living in Hungary are familiar with its topic, that is Swedish people go to Norway to work. It is the same with Hungary and Austria.
It’s true, there was a really nice parallel there. It was also interesting to me, as a Scandinavian, to learn about the Swedish working class or underclass working in Oslo.

How do you think the Hungarian audience will react when they see that the situation is not as perfect as they might imagine?
This is one of my favourite topics. I meet so many people here who speak a little Danish because they have spent half a year in Denmark, but it can be Sweden or Norway as well. A lot of people here have this admiration for Scandinavia, but maybe they went there only for a short visit and all they know is our ideas and ideologies. So they have this sort of fairy-tale view of Scandinavia sometimes.

It’s not that I don’t understand why people want to escape from here to go to seek a better life in Scandinavia. It’s understandable enough. Still, it’s good to adjust people’s expectations a little bit, at least, that he/she don’t necessarily enter perfect societies in Scandinavia. Underdog can be an eye-opener.

Could you briefly introduce the other films as well?
The other film in competition is from Finland. Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää has made this great, quirky wild story called They Have Escaped. He adds a lot of remarkable imaginary to his work, he is quite an artist when it comes to the visual part.

We screen a documentary as our closing film, which might have not happened at Titanic before due to the fact that we are mainly a feature film festival. The audience will see The Visit by Michael Madsen, who is famous for his previous film Into Eternity that takes place up in Finland below ground where they store a lot of plutonium and radioactive waste. I like him because even though he is an intellectual film-maker, he is really someone who speaks to people and wants to engage, exactly that type of artist I have just described above.

His new film is a mix of documentary and staged fiction about an existing UN department in Vienna where they are preparing for a visit from out of space. He got full access once again. He is sort of making a scenario: Let’s say the visitors from out of space are here, so we’re speaking directly to them into the camera. We only present it on the last day so I’m really looking forward to see how people receive it. It possibly will be quite a surprise to people.

In addition to that, we have collaborated with Magyarhangya to screen Out of Nature, which also gets a cinematic release in Hungary thanks to Scope 50. It was one of that last films we have secured to have a screening, and we are really pleased that we could work with Magyarhangya on this. It will be presented with Proletar, a Norwegian short film.

In the western The Salvation you get to see Mads Mikkelsen on the loose in the Wild West. Westerns are very close to my heart. I also wrote my thesis on westerns placing Cormac McCarthy as the centre of my piece of writing. This film follows Danish immigrants who sought their fortune by going to the US. It doesn’t try to subvert the genre, but it’s enjoyable. Going back to documentaries, another film (The Look of Silence) by Joshua Openheimer will appear on our screens. It’s really admirable what he is doing as a director.


What are the venues this year?
Of course, our main festival centre is Uránia. Visitors can explore the world of cinema in Puskin, Toldi and Örökmozgó, and a few music documentaries will be screened on A38. One of them (Sumé – The Sound of a Revolution) is from Greenland capturing a story that not many people know about, neither in Denmark. In the seventies, a rock band rebelled against the Danish sovereignty of Greenland through their music and words.

How many countries showcase their motion pictures at the festival?
50 feature and 2 short films shown represent 35 different countries. It should spread out as much as possible. That is what I am aiming for. Next year I would like to bring more Asian films. We have a section but I want to expand it even more. One continent that is completely untouched is Africa, which is not my intention, just bad luck. In the following year I’d like to include one or two African films as well. Nevertheless, I’m really proud of how we manage to cover the map of world.

Do you intend to present more documentaries as well?
No, I think this is good number. We are a feature film festival and as such we have quite a few documentaries. There are ten in total including the music documentaries, so that is actually 1/5 of our programme. That is a substantial number. It also means that we can allow ourselves to make a very exclusive selection of the best of the best. In all modesty, I think we manage that. Budoku took place last year in May, but is not happening this year, which is a real shame, but I’m pleased to say that we happen to have no less than 10 documentaries in our programme. I hope people who were looking forward to Budoku, at least, appreciate the fact that we managed to get some really good documentaries. Hopefully, they go and watch them at Titanic.


Written by Barbara Majsa

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.