Interview Thibault Van de Werve - Short films Programmer at the BIFFF

Learn more about what film festivals are looking for in a short film with short film programmer Thibeault van de Werve talking about the requirements of the world-famous Brussels Independent Fantastic Film Festival

Interview Thibault Van de Werve - Short films Programmer at the BIFFF

Interview Indie-Clips X Thibeault van de Werve

Short films distribution in festivals - the programmation of the BIFFF

Ambre: Hello Thibault!

Thibault: Hello!

Ambre: Can you tell us more about yourself and your role at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival?

Thibault: My role as the head of short film programming involves managing the selection committee. We have 6-7 people on the committee. Some handle all sections, others only one or two. I watch all the films and then distribute them to others. Not everyone sees everything. Some see a lot, others a bit less. Together, we make the selection. Then, I contact distributors and film teams to confirm selections, gather materials, answer their questions, and organize the screening order. I handle all of that.

Ambre: Do the people on the selection committee generally want to be involved in the screening order of the shorts?

Thibault: It depends. These selection meetings take time, so sometimes we do it with just two people and propose the program, but we always discuss it with everyone. I'm not a dictator! (laughs)

Ambre: What kind of people make up this selection committee?

Thibault: Several are employed at the festival or collaborate with it in some way. Two of our projectionists are part of it. Another is a volunteer, an actor who works in acting and the arts. Everyone is closely or remotely connected to the festival, cinema, or the arts. We are quite a diverse group. There are only three women compared to four or five men, and I’d like more diversity, but in terms of personality and background, we are varied, which allows for diverse selections representing what’s happening, and I’m happy with the committee members' profiles.

Ambre: Is it important to you that the teams are varied?

Thibault: Very important. It's becoming less common, but we still see too many festivals or committees that are too male-dominated. It’s no longer acceptable.

Ambre: Speaking of you and your background, how did you come to be a short film programmer at BIFFF?

Thibault: Wow! (laughs) Well, I've always been passionate about cinema. For years, I wrote on forums, then on the Cinephilia blog in 2013. I started attending BIFFF as a journalist in 2013, then did an internship at BIFFF as part of my studies two years later as a press intern. Later, I returned as a volunteer, hosted Q&A sessions for feature films, then worked at the BIFFF Market in 2018. After 2018, I replaced a colleague who handled accreditations and short film selection. She had thought of me beforehand, and that’s how I started. Since watching films has always been a passion, they naturally approached me for the role.

Ambre: Were you drawn to BIFFF because you particularly like genre films?

Thibault: I've always watched a bit of everything. Horror wasn’t my favorite genre. I preferred fantasy and science fiction a bit more... But I didn’t have a particular passion for genre cinema over others. BIFFF was the first film festival I attended, and I quickly fell in love with it. The atmosphere and everything were surprising the first time I went. It quickly became my favorite festival as an attendee.

Ambre: What do you think are the biggest strengths of the short film format?

Thibault: If we talk purely cinematographically, you can make concept films—films with simple ideas that you can apply and develop sufficiently in a short film, which you couldn’t necessarily do in a feature. I’ve been doing this for five years now, and I’ve reached a point where we’ve selected shorts that directors later adapted into features. I’ll give two examples of great shorts.

One had a brilliant idea set in a car, about a guy locked in a trunk having a dialogue with his kidnapper. It worked great as a short but was a disaster as a feature. The feature barely reached 1h10 or 1h20, but the director had nothing to make a feature out of.

On the other hand, there’s a film called Cerdita (Piggy). The director made a fantastic short that she later adapted into a feature. Watching the feature, I wondered if she had first written the feature and then made the short to eventually make the feature. But no! She first made the short and then developed the feature, which worked well. This shows that sometimes you have a great idea for a short that you can develop well in fifteen minutes; it doesn’t need to be longer. The short format allows you to develop cool film concepts and see if it would work to expand into a feature. Also, some stories don’t need to be 1h30 long.

Ambre: Some stories are worth being told in 15-20 minutes.

Thibault: Yes, exactly. The short format wraps it up nicely. And from a career perspective, starting with shorts is necessary. You can’t start directly with a feature, saying, “I have a feature idea.” Okay, what have you done before? Nothing. Ah. As a programmer, I see more and more people whose shorts we’ve selected who later moved on to features that we also selected. So yes, it’s possible. Don’t think, “I’ll make shorts all my life!” Some do and that’s fine, but if you want to move to features, you have to start with shorts.

Ambre: Yes.

Thibault: Some people don’t realize this. I notice many filmmakers don’t understand how the industry works behind the scenes. They know how to write, direct, and edit a film, but they don’t understand or know how to make their film exist afterward. What is the circuit, the economic model? In shorts, the economic model is very limited.

Ambre: It’s true that some shorts die after the final cut.

Thibault: In shorts, you have the festival life, TV purchase, and that’s it.

Ambre: Some don’t even make it that far.

Thibault: No, it’s unfortunate, but some don’t make it to festivals. Making a selection isn’t easy. Not being selected doesn’t mean your film isn’t good. It competes with other films that might fit better in the selection. Each year, we choose films we might like a bit less but find relevant to include for their screenplay, theme, artistry, a good concept, or a great performance. There’s an interest, and we believe it’s important to show this to the audience, even if it’s not perfect. Rather than only showing our perfect favorite films that everyone would love, we show what we think has talent, which might not be flawless. We don’t always choose our favorite films; it depends.

Ambre: I was going to ask: in your selection process, what makes a film stand out? Are you looking for uniqueness?

Thibault: Yes and no. During the selection process, we see films that stand out, that the whole committee liked. We start watching films in early October and finish in late January or early February. When it’s time for the final selection, we look at which films were our favorites. We watch them again months later because films seen early in the selection might seem less impressive six months later. Conversely, films you didn’t rate highly initially might stick with you for months, so you revisit them and realize they were good. Once you’ve filtered through everything, you see how your selection shapes up, which films to put in competition, which to screen before a feature because it’s a short, funny, or gory story that fits well. You compare many incomparable things. Some films address profound topics, others are very funny or effective. You figure out how to articulate all this in your selection, and there’s no recipe for doing this. Criteria vary greatly. Later in the process, the length of the short film also plays a role. Do you prefer two 10-minute films or one 20-minute film? We consistently prioritize artistic reasons like direction, concept, an excellent actor, or subject. For example, Au Prix de la Chair (2024 selection) is original! It’s a fixed shot of an eye, and you see what’s happening through the reflection in the eye. This film wasn’t initially a favorite, but we found the concept very interesting. Criteria are complex.

Ambre: It’s good for directors to know what happens behind the programming process and realize that not being selected doesn’t mean they didn’t meet the criteria.

Thibault: Absolutely. For our European screening, our goal is to showcase European films, and sometimes some countries are more represented than others, like France, Spain, England... Even if we think all English, French, or Spanish films are great, we won’t have a European program with 15 films from seven Spanish and eight French ones. The Greek film, which we might find slightly less impressive than four French ones, still has something special, and it’s good to include other countries. Country alone isn’t a criterion, but we try to vary. It’s a mission, actually. We’re here to showcase European films, and if we receive an Estonian film—rarely, but it happens—we should consider it. Even if there might be other films we prefer, there’s a mission as a festival to show what exists.

Ambre: I think the audience appreciates the variety.

Thibault: The festival’s goal is to show what you wouldn’t see elsewhere.

Ambre: What was your favorite short film at BIFFF 2024?

Thibault: I love the whole selection! But to answer, I really liked Lullaby, which I put in our selection. I think Musical Monster, which I put before a feature, is really fun. I chose these two because they stick with me. I rewatch them often when presenting them before a screening, and I still enjoy them. I’ll also mention Bestia from last year’s selection, a Chilean film nominated for an Oscar. It’s very good, a stop-motion animation. There’s a punch and brutality in it that you feel and that remains with you.

Ambre: What’s your favorite feature film at BIFFF 2024?

Thibault: I love almost the entire selection, but I really enjoyed Evil Does Not Exist by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, which was well-received. It’s a great film. I also liked The Invisible Fight, a crazy movie from Estonia. Tiger Stripes and When Evil Lurks were also very good, and A24's Talk to Me was quite intense. Choosing one is difficult because they’re all great in different ways.

Ambre: What does the future hold for the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival?

Thibault: We’re always looking to improve and evolve. Our focus is on expanding our outreach and improving the audience experience. We want to continue showcasing diverse and unique films from around the world and supporting filmmakers at all stages of their careers. There’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for what’s to come.

Thibault: I love the entire selection! But to answer the question, I really like the film Lullaby that we featured in the European competition, an English-American film that talks about immigration. I really appreciate how the director decided to address this topic, especially since it is a personal story for her... The film moved me a lot, the photography is superb, the settings... It's fantastic.

Ambre: It's true that this one brings tears to your eyes.

Thibault: But I love so many films!

Ambre: It's true that having been present at the European competition screenings, each of them had its uniqueness, and they all touched us in different ways. We remember each of them well. I have a question I like to ask audiovisual professionals: what advice would you give to young directors who want to distribute their short films in festivals?

Thibault: Try to find a distributor ideally, save money because it's expensive. Sending your film to festivals is not free. More and more festivals are charging fees otherwise they receive all sorts of submissions. So, first, thoroughly research the festivals before sending your film. If there are specific themes... Don't send a comedy to a horror festival; you must not be off-topic. But you also need to have a budget, clearly, it takes time, it costs money, and you need to target what you want. Establishing a festival release strategy is not simple.

In genre cinema, there are circuits that exist and are interesting. Of course, there are generalist festivals that also screen genre shorts, like Sundance, SXSW, Toronto, to name just these three, but there are genre festival circuits. The Méliès Federation circuit, of which BIFFF is one of the founding members, really includes many genre film festivals, including Sitges, which is the biggest genre festival in the world, as well as big festivals abroad: Fantaspoa in Brazil, Fantastic Fest in Austin, Bifan in South Korea, Fantasia in Montreal... And I'm really talking about the biggest ones, including BIFFF. BIFFF is in the top 5-6 genre film festivals worldwide.

Ambre: How many films are generally selected each year?

Thibault: This year (2024), I think we had 40-45 films selected out of 600 submissions. Some films, I went to find myself by looking at the programs of other festivals, and then we receive some films before they are screened at other festivals, sometimes even before their world premiere. Sometimes we've had more films selected; it depends on the duration of the scheduled sessions. It's not the same every year.

Ambre: I imagine it takes you several months to prepare the entire selection?

Thibault: Submissions open at the very beginning of September and we close submissions at the end of January, then we start the selection at the beginning of February for the event which takes place in April.

Ambre: That's quite a restricted time?

Thibault: For shorts, we do the entire selection at once and getting the material isn't too complicated. For features, we select gradually. It's the features that are more annoying (laughs).

Ambre: Are you also involved in the selection of features?

Thibault: I'm on the feature selection committee, yes. But I don't handle requesting the materials, etc. I just watch the films. Well, just... (laughs), it's already a lot.

Ambre: To conclude the interview, tell us more about your future plans! And do you already have information about the next edition of BIFFF?

Thibault: No, it's still too early! (laughs) Now I'm going to enjoy my summer and then I'll resume at the Venice Film Festival at the end of August, I'll probably follow up with the San Sebastian Festival which I've been attending for a few years, then the main work for BIFFF will restart at the beginning of October. I handle the shorts but also the guests at BIFFF, so during the festival, most of my work is with the guests, non-stop all day from morning to evening, organizing everyone's transport (between the hotel, the festival, the restaurants...).

Ambre: How can directors submit their films to the next edition of BIFFF?

Thibault: All the information will be on the official BIFFF website. For submissions, we use Festhome. Short film submissions will probably open around January 26, somewhere around there.

Ambre: Directors can also find the BIFFF short film calls on social media:

Instagram: @bifff_festival

Facebook: Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival

Website: BIFFF

Thibault: Yes, absolutely!