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German Sci-Fi Love Is Growing: The Berlin Sci-Fi Filmfest

Imagine starting a science fiction film festival in a place where no international sci-fi festival has gone before. (Yes, Star Trek pun intended). Now, imagine holding the festival in a historic theater (the Kino Babylon) that first opened in 1929 and still has its orchestra pit and cinema organ to lend you a sense of history as you watch films about the future. That’s the Berlin Sc-Fi Filmfest in a nutshell— science fiction lovers, a successful startup international festival, and a fantastic classic cinema to host it. To learn more, we spoke with the directors of the festival — Alex Pfander, Jack O’Shea and Anthony Kelly — about their love for science fiction and what fans can expect at the Berlin Sci-Fi Filmfest this year.

RECURSOR: Tell us about how you became interested in sci-fi, and some of your favorite sci-fi books and films.

ANTHONY: I became interested in sci-fi whilst very young through the TV series Lost in Space. Once in my teens, books like 1984and The Andromeda Strainand films like Planet of the Apesgot me completely hooked.

ALEX: I was 6 years old, and the first ever film scene I remember was when the Tusken raider tried to hit Luke Skywalker with the Gaffi Stick in the first Star Wars movie (IV: A New Hope). I think I watched every Star Wars movie at least 50 times. That ignited my love for science fiction and fantasy. Later, I moved on to more mature sci-fi like Star TrekAliens2001Silent RunningBattlestar Galactica, DuneMission to MarsInterstellar, and the list goes on. Duneby Frank Herbert is still one of my favorite sci-fi books.

JACK: I became interested in sci-fi by working as Alex’s First Assistant Director on Mission Backup Earth(an award-winning sci-fi web series).

How did you become interested in filmmaking?

ANTHONY: I trained as an actor and at one point, I was in a kids’ TV series called For Amusement Only. The director had some issues with other strands of the series and virtually left me in charge of running my segments with a cameraman and soundman. After that, I decided to start directing and writing and have produced two feature films, a number of documentaries and many short films, only one of which is sci-fi — I Came from the Future — that deals with a man committing suicide and wondering how he got there.

ALEX: My Star Warsfanboy life got me into roleplaying games. I played Star Warsfrom West End Games, then later many other systems like Cyberpunk,Call of CthulhuStormbringer, and Shadowrun.After we played all the adventures that you could buy, I had to start writing my own stories. This is what got me into writing and into directing.

JACK: I personally have not been a filmmaker. I have worked in production and finance and have had my own businesses in the past.

What inspired you to start up a sci-fi film festival in Berlin?

ANTHONY: The inspiration came after the three of us met through Webfest Berlin. We decided that what they had created was something very interesting both as a platform and a business model. Alex said, ‘We could do sci-fi,” as there was not one single sci-fi festival in Berlin at that point. We looked at each other and said, “Let’s launch this rocket!”

ALEX: In 2017, Mission Backup Earth was selected into the Philip K. Dick Science Fiction Film festival in New York — a huge honor. I attended the festival, and we won Best Web Series. The quality of the 100 official selections was amazing, and I thought, “Why don´t we have a science fiction film festival in Germany? People in Germany must see this.” So we did it.  

JACK: From a personal point of view as a businessman, this seemed like an opportunity to fulfil a niche in the market and work with people like Anthony and Alex on a professional business venture.

What’s the mission behind your film festival?

ALEX: Science fiction in Germany is still a niche. There are almost no sci-fi films produced in Germany. The German film industry is afraid about the cost and can’t compete with Hollywood. But the German audience is very much into science fiction (like the whole world). Our mission is to shed more light onto sci-fi in Germany and encourage German filmmakers to create more science fiction films.

What challenges have you faced in getting the festival started?

Berlin Sci-Fi Film Fest on Recursor.TV

JACK: Having three festival directors from three different countries and backgrounds means we analyze and prepare carefully. Each challenge is met at face value, and there is always one of us with enough experience in the area to deal with it.

ANTHONY: It is all about learning from the mistakes and building on the successes. By having a strong team who trust each other, we’ve learnt we can overcome any problem.

What has been satisfying about running a film festival?

ALEX: Getting in touch with fellow filmmakers, connecting them with the audience, and all the wonderful, interesting people we met who are also into science fiction.

JACK: Building a business that counts for something involves hard work. It requires a great deal of effort, and that effort is rewarded by growth and acclaim.

ANTHONY: One of the most satisfying aspects is the sense of community created with the filmmakers. These guys spend their hard-earned money to make a product and submit to the likes of Berlin Sci-fi. When they make the effort to visit a city like Berlin, in a cinema like Babylon, and meet a team that truly believes in them and wants to help them gain momentum behind their film, their joy becomes ours.

Tell us about the festival’s growth and what you expect this year.

ALEX: In the first year, we screened 66 selections on two cinema screens. In year 2, we screened 138 films on three screens and had some sci-fi themed events. This year, we want to expand our little exhibition place even more into a sci-fi convention.  

JACK: The growth from the number of submissions has been very high, which is down to the reputation we are developing. The number of seats filled has also increased. The audience response has been incredible. We try and make it like a family event, rather than just a series of screenings.

ANTHONY: To keep up our momentum, we have also started a monthly screening program at Il Kino in Berlin. The first screening of our 2018 re.Run program was phenomenally successful. This has helped in gaining press, which will help increase the number of attendees this year. 

Tell us about the unique aspects of your festival that set it apart.

ANTHONY: First, we were the first sci-fi film festival in Germany, a country that is not excited by the genre as the UK and USA are. But we have proved that there is a market and that there are many more German filmmakers interested in the genre. Second, we want it to be not just a film festival, but an event. Last year, we had a sci-fi art exhibition from Simon Lejeune; his work is truly outstanding and he wanted to join one of our panel discussions, something else that goes down really well with the audience. 

JACK: We have plans to expand — this applies to each year and especially with events around the film festival itself. These include sci-fi board gaming groups, VR gaming sessions, and a number of workshops on everything from budgeting to film scoring. This year will feature even more.

What films have been screened at your festival and gone on to great success?

ANTHONY:I can name a number of films that have gained momentum from being in our festival — The BeyondGalactic Galaxy, and Subverse, to name a few. The Beyond(Winner Best VFX 2017) by Hasraf Dulull has had a great deal of success on VOD platforms, and landed the director with a contract working for Disney. There are others — such as Zero Gravityand How to Build a Time Machine

ALEX: Chris Reading (Director of Somnium, 2017 Selection) recently did Alien: Containment for the 40th anniversary of the Alien franchise.

JACK: The Beyondwas very successful, as was Adam Peiper.

What are some of the most interesting films you’ve screened?

Berlin Sci Fi Filmfest on Recursor.TV

ANTHONY: It is a long list, but my favorites from 2017 were Adam Peiper(short horror film, Spain), How to Build a Time Machine(feature documentary, Canada), Jovian Project(short animation, USA), and from 2018 — Aliens Found Footage Fiasco(animated web series, Germany), Generation Mars(web series, Denmark), and Violentia(feature film, Canada).

ALEX: The Beyond (UK feature), FTL (USA action short), Dystopian Lovesong (animation, USA), Origin (drama short, USA), Subverse (web series, UK), Zero Gravity – Mission in Space (feature documentary, Germany).

JACK: CTRL-Z (short comedy, UK), Dear Mankind (web series, Germany), and Olfactory (drama short, USA).

Tell us about this year’s programming.

ALEX: We are planning to expand our festival more into a convention-like event. We met very cool people at last year’s German Comic-con and are hoping to get more sci-fi themed exhibitors involved. There is a new group of Alienfan cosplayers who might bring some face-huggers and colonial marines. Then there is a collector with original Deep Space Nine costumes, and many more. 

ANTHONY: I am a firm believer that no one can watch films all day. But with so many side attractions, you feel it is almost like a convention. This is very specifically enhanced by having a roaming pack of cosplayers. The audience and the filmmakers love having their photos taken with them, and it really brings things to life. 

JACK: The object is to try something new each year, see how it goes, see what people really enjoy. The program is laid out into six, 2-hour sessions for each day, and we have to factor in three cinemas. This year we are keeping one cinema exclusively for feature films, and we will swap the program for Friday and Saturday between the smallest cinema and the large 500-seat cinema. Last year, the filmmakers loved the chance of seeing their short films on a very huge screen.

To learn more, visit the Berlin Sci-Fi FilmFest website. The festival is scheduled for November 29-30, 2019.