BERLIN & BEYOND 2010: Interview With Festival Director Sophoan Sorn

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Sophoan Sorn is a Cambodia-born, American multi-faceted artist and film festival programmer. A miracle child, he was born in 1985, two weeks after his mother's water broke, in a refugee camp on the border of Cambodia. He arrived in the United States of America in 1991 with his family. He began classical and contemporary piano studies at age 11. An honor graduate of Lodi Seventh-day Adventist Academy Class of 2003, he has been studying at San Joaquin Delta College and the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, focusing on Film.

From 2001 through 2010, he was proactive in the California Central Valley's art scene--working in documentary filmmaking and photography, performing as a contemporary and classical pianist, programming cultural arts events, and volunteering for local and international non-profit organizations. He served on various community projects, and contributed his talent diversely to arts, cultural, educational, health, humanitarian and religious institutions.

In 2007, he founded the San Joaquin International Film Festival. In 2009, the festival expanded into a year-round program as the San Joaquin Film Society--with its diverse slate of events, including: the World Cinema Series of unique mini-festivals focusing on particular nations or cultures; and the San Joaquin Children's Film Festival. Sophoan's collaborative spirit, innovative leadership and steadfast advocacy supported the growing culture of the San Joaquin region.

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Michael Guillén: Your arrival to the Goethe Institut and Berlin & Beyond (B&B) has involved navigating some choppy waters: namely, the resituation of the festival into San Francisco's already-crowded October landscape and your replacement of former Festival Director Ingrid Eggars. Let's smooth those waters first. What do you feel you will be bringing to B&B that will be a signature contribution to Bay Area audiences?

Sophoan Sorn: My first concern was simply to make sure B&B would continue to happen past its first 14 years. Secondly, I come from a background of diversity and--though I program from an international perspective--my work reflects the diversity of the San Franciscan community. Cinema is an all-encompassing and embracing art and communication form and so B&B isn't just about German or German-speaking people. For me to be invited as Festival Director speaks to the Goethe Institut's commitment to diversity, and a different, fresh approach to the festival.

I've also brought new partnerships to the festival. When "Rudy" de Baey, President of Goethe Institut San Francisco, brought me into B&B, one of his hopes was that I would reconnect the festival with old friends along with building new partnerships and friendships. If you look at the roster of supporters that we have for the festival, we've achieved just that.

Guillén: I appreciate your emphasizing the festival's commitment to diversity, with your appointment to Festival Director being a primary testimonial. I am intrigued that someone born in Cambodia is helming a festival of German, Austrian and Swiss cinema. Were you familiar with these national cinemas before you accepted the position with B&B?

Sorn: My family and I moved from Cambodia to Stockton, California in 1991 and about five years ago I began working on creating the San Joaquin International Film Festival (SJIFF). I founded, directed and programmed that festival for its first three years. I also developed programs catering to Latin America and helped create the San Joaquin Children's Film Festival. Curating these events involved collaborating with several different countries. I developed connections with German and Austrian film distributors through programming these San Joaquin festivals.

For example Doris Dörrie--whose film Cherry Blossoms opened last year's B&B--was a contact of mine because she went to school in Stockton at the University of the Pacific. Cherry Blossoms played at SJIFF and won a jury prize there. With regard to Swiss film, Marcello Marcello was the opening night film at our 2009 SJIFF and Denis Rebaglia, the director of that film, is on the board of Swiss Films. As for Austrian film, I programmed Thomas Woschitz's Universalove (2008). So, yes, there has been linkage to these national cinemas but now with this opportunity at B&B I've been allowed to focus my lens.

My hope is not only to transform B&B into a more universal program that will attract an audience beyond B&B's core group--which we truly value!--and to expand outreach. We've tried to achieve that with our co-presentation partnerships with fellow Bay Area film festivals. Honestly, I see the Bay Area as a globalized community, much like Germany. It might seem incongruent at first to have a Cambodian Director for a festival of German, Austrian and Swiss film; but, we're in San Francisco where all things are possible. I consider it a smart, creative and innovative decision on the part of the Goethe Institut to have a director from a different cultural background. Diversity is beautiful.

Guillén: It certainly is. Regarding shifting the festival to October, I can see the immediate benefits of B&B linking in with German Currents in L.A., particularly with regard to enhancing the festival's spectacular dimension. Can you speak to the decision to go that route?

Sorn: That linkage occurred before I arrived on the scene. B&B remains the largest German-language film festival in America. Our festival has 27 feature-length films. Our partnership with German Currents in Los Angeles involves only about 9 films--which is about as many as they have in their festival--but, this allows us to share talent. When guest artists want to fly to America, they think of three major cities: New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Having at least two of these territories share talent during a competitive awards season--which has just launched--is attractive to these artists. Not only do we get to share the talent, but we share the costs of shipping prints for the shared nine films. This also gives a bigger marketing advantage to our main supporters like German Films. They benefit from such coordination and it encourages them to support us even more. An American analogy to German Films would be the American Film Institute. German Films is the national institute of films in Germany. Our second major partner is Lufthansa who helps us fly this talent to America.

October is a great time of the year. Most festivals are about premieres and new films; but--when you have a festival that takes place in October--we can include programming from the whole year. We can include films from so many great festivals that have had works premiering from Germany: Sundance, Tribeca, the Munich Film Festival, Locarno, and especially the Berlinale. Obviously, the largest German film selection is at the Berlinale and for us to be able to work around that benefits us. Further, many of these German films open in Germany in the fall so having them programmed in B&B is a parallel release between Germany and America.

Guillén: Have you received much consular assistance?

Sorn: All four consulates--Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Luxemborg--are involved, not only as supporters but co-presenters. They've all been wonderful support for community outreach.

Guillén: You stated earlier that your initial concern was simply to get B&B off the ground and running in October. How much of your fingerprints are all over the programming?

Sorn: I pretty much reviewed all the films. First, I wanted a program that reflected the current state of German cinema. Second, I wanted diversity in the program. Third, I wanted a program that would celebrate and enrichen the human experience. As one sidebar, we have three English-language films this year: Animals United 3D, Pope Joan, and the Rock Hudson documentary. This year we also have a focus on women and their roles in society: Pope Joan, When We Leave (the German Academy Award® entry), The Last Giants, Silvergirls, Julia's Disappearance and the just-announced revival screening of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Lola.

Guillén: I meant to ask, why a revival screening of Lola (1981)?

Sorn: I love Fassbinder! It's unfortunate that he died young but he left a legacy. His films are unique, intentional, and vivid and we wanted to show a film from a legend of the German New Wave. Lola also fit perfectly with our focus on women this year. It's a political film set after the Nazi regime when Germany was experiencing an economic boom. People used their affluent lifestyles to try to forget what had just happened. At the same time it's a wonderful story about a woman who works as a prostitute but also craves her independence. She has her own mind and her own thoughts. Barbara Sukowa delivers a wonderful performance in the role of Lola.

Guillén: I was also heartened overviewing this year's program to see your representative inclusion of filmmakers from the so-called "Berlin School": Thomas Arslan (In the Shadows) and Benjamin Heisenberg (The Robber). Can you speak to that?

Sorn: I can't speak too deeply about the talent from the Berlin School because that wasn't the criteria by which we were selecting films for B&B. It was more that we found In the Shadows and The Robber within the German programming at this year's Berlinale. Then again, when I'm looking for films it's not always about the films that are the most-awarded or the most-celebrated. I look to give opportunity and showcase filmmakers whose talent promises in some way in the future to satisfy the public. In the Shadows is a low-key drama, no special effects, that reminds me of a popular German television series Tatort. TV is big in Germany. Getting a gig on TV can be an even greater break than cinema for many well-known filmmakers. Germany's TV audience is near 80,000,000 people.

Guillén: Can you speak to your sextet of short films this year? I was glad to see that at least a couple of them are animated shorts.

Sorn: Sure. We chose six short films to play before the feature films rather than within their own shorts program. We believe these shorts reflect innovative, creative and talented filmmakers who have promising careers. For example, A Lost and Found Box of Human Sensation by Martin Wallner and Stefan Leuchtenberg is an absolutely beautifully made film. When I first started programming film festivals, I curated several short films as part of my endeavor to build connections and make friendships because short filmmakers are the filmmakers of tomorrow.

Guillén: My final question is most likely an unfair one; but, I'll ask it anyways. If you could name three events at this year's B&B that you wouldn't want your audiences to miss, which would you recommend?

Sorn: I would recommend the opening night feature Vincent Wants To Sea because it's a simple, meaningful film about three strangers-become-friends on an adventure. One has Tourette Syndrome, one has obsessive-compulsive disorder and one has anorexia. It's a moving, funny, and charming screenwriting debut by the film's star Florian David Fitz. Right now he's one of the hottest stars in Germany because he's on a soap opera and he'll be at B&B to introduce both Vincent Wants to Sea and Men in the City.

My second recommendation would be Feo Aladag's When We Leave, Germany's Academy Award® entry. I first saw this film back in June when it arrived on the scene. It's the only film in the program that made me cry. It's such a moving film about the world issue of honor killings in the Turkish-Germany community. It's an intelligently-told story and the screenwriting and directorial debut of Feo Aladag.

The third film I would vouch for would be Jan Tenhaven's documentary Autumn Gold. This is a powerful, inspiring and--for me--a victorious film about 80-year-old athletes who are racing against the clock of age and disease, battling the many obstacles that try to stop them; but, which they will not allow to stop them.

So those are the three films I would say, "Catch them! Catch them if you can!"

Cross-published on The Evening Class.
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