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Interview: Jessica Manstetten, organizer of the MuVi Prize

We spoke to Jessica Manstetten who’s responsible for organizing the MuVi Prize—the music video prize at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen.

The 59th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen is set to kick off at the beginning of May and, running across six days, it shows over 450 productions from some 60 countries in around 100 different programmes. This year will see the festival showing 131 new works from over 40 countries in the International, German and NRW Competitions, the Children’s and Youth Film Competition and the MuVi Award for the best German music video. As we at EB are keen on tracking and examining the myriad developments within the realm of the music video it seemed fitting to speak to Jessica Manstetten, who has curated the national music video programme since it became part of the festival in 1999.

I’d like to begin with how this all came to be. The Oberhausen Short Film Festival is quite a well-known and highly regarded event—it’s been going since the 1950s. How did you come up with the idea to include music videos?

This is the 59th edition of the festival. The festival committee consists of three people, headed by Angela Haardt, which decides the programme. There has always been music videos sporadically included in the program, I remember a really beautiful one by James Herbert. It was more of an experimental film but was put to the R.E.M song “Low”—so fundamentally a music video. In 1998 when Lars Henrik Gass took over the festival he had the idea that the festival should show respect for music videos as an independent artform, something that is more than just an advertising channel to help record labels sell more albums. Given that at the time there were a lot of Germans producing interesting works in this field, the decision was made to embrace music videos and include them in the festival. Another important element of the decision was to win a new audience for the festival, particularly younger people.

When was that exactly?

1999 saw the first MuVi prize.

How did it all work with submissions? Where you inundated with thousands of directors who had shown their videos on music television and wanted to show them at Oberhausen as well?

In the first two or three years we worked closely together with people from the industry who knew the genre and could give us tips, but then it evolved fairly quickly and we developed our own way by putting out a call for submissions. By 2003, when I was more involved in the actual curation, it became clear that we weren’t interested in the mainstream films. We also wanted to be open to films where the artist makes their own music or where the whole piece is self-produced and wasn’t made under contract with a band. The majority of the films that we get are actually like this, completely self-produced or “unofficial” videos.

You’re saying that it’s not important to you whether the band has commissioned or was officially involved in the video? That it could just as well be a film student who decides to make a film for a band that he likes.

Yes. University films are usually part of the program. It’s not important whether the music is new, the only thing that’s important is that the filmmaker has sorted out the rights to the music, at least by contacting the band and making sure that they agree to an unofficial video playing at the festival. Some of the films might be made to the music of Radiohead or Sigur Ros and have nothing to do with the band officially.

You receive so many submissions from filmmakers wanting to show their videos but only choose ten. How does the selection process work? Are there particular characteristics that you look for when deciding which videos to accept?

There aren’t any specific characteristics but, as with anything, the film has to have a good idea behind it which we can perceive through the work. We’re also interested in different visual techniques, we’ve had quite a few animations, particularly in videos for electronic music where there’s no band to perform in the video. Films simply need to have a visual approach that excites us and captures out attention. The question of whether they are the “best” films is always open to debate, but these are the types of films that we want to show the public. It can also be a performance video, more than just the classic band playing in the forest or whatever, but something with a specific artistic approach. It could also be found footage or anything else, but it needs to elicit a reaction from us.

I remember that there were two different video prizes. Is that still the case?

The MuVi prize is only for German films, but we have quite a broad definition: either the production team or the director must be from Germany. For example, if a production team is from Hamburg but the director is English, that would still be accepted under our rules. Or if someone from a foreign country moves to Germany and lives here for two years and makes a video in that time, we would also consider that German. There is only the one prize open for competition, but this is accompanied by a screening for international music videos called MuVi International. Oberhausen has, for almost 30 years,  had a youth program, and we show music videos by filmmakers from as young as 14 years old. We perhaps show different types of music in this program and we really focus on animation techniques, stop-motion and things like that, and how these are executed technically.

Are there any particular highlights from all of the videos that you’ve seen over the years? Any suggestions for our readers?

Something that stands out is the work of an artistic duo by the name of Luigi Archetti and Bo Wiget. They are both musicians who make the music themselves, which they then accompany with weird performance videos where they ironically make fun of pop culture. One of the videos is called “Best German Music Video”—an ironic reference to the prize. On our website there’s a list of the favourite picks from our juries over the years and you can get a good overview of the some of the best videos.

Generally speaking, what sort of feedback have you been getting about including music videos in the festival? Do people approve of your attitude and approach to music videos or are there critics?

It’s an interesting question. From the perspective of the public, the MuVi prize has been a great success in terms of bringing a younger audience to the festival, and most of those who regularly come for the MuVi prize or MuVi International will also go and see other sections of the program. It’s also easier for people to be involved in this part of the program compared to say the international competition section, because it’s less demanding and more entertaining as the films are generally shorter and there is music. At the same time we’ve always been open to borderline cases; we showed a film where the artist made visuals to accompany his whole album which was 40 minutes long. We showed the whole work and people walked out of the theatre saying, “That’s not a music video!” So you could say that the feedback we get often relates to our audience having a certain idea about what a music video actually is. There is some divergence of opinion there maybe, but also convergence. The classic example this year is Heinz Emigholz, the experimental filmmaker, who has a film in the MuVi prize which features his visuals to an entire Kreidler album. I find that really exciting because normally you’d say, “Come on, Heinz Emigholz and music videos, give me a break”. Or Michel Klöfkorn, who made a film for Garagentoren by Sensorama that won the prize in 1999 and has gone on to international acclaim. It’s interesting when people just decide they want to make a music video and to move over into a different artform, such as Carsten Nicolai, who most people would think of primarily as a musician, but who has also produced audio visual works as Alva Noto which have been shown in the MuVi Prize. I find it much more interesting to have all these different approaches brought together rather than having one production company that makes all the videos for different bands.

Returning to the voting process, you select the films for the program and put them up on the website for people to watch and vote for. Does the entire voting take place online? What exactly does the jury do?

In the first few years there was no online prize, there was just the jury, which was international and was originally made up of five people but is now just three. The jury is usually made up of filmmakers, musicians and journalists and up until last year there were three prizes but now there are only two. The jury watches the ten videos and decides which they want to award with prizes—and must explain why. On Saturday night the MuVi Prize is presented after the films have been screened to the public and the directors have had a chance to be introduced to the audience. So it all happens at once, the screening and the presentation of prizes.

So what is the online voting for?

The online voting is for the People’s Choice award, for which the winner receives 500 euros. So in total the jury awards two prizes and there is one additional online People’s Choice award. It’s always interesting to see how that one turns out, because it isn’t always the one that you think will win. There was a year with a entry by Die Ärtze and we were sure that they would win, but they didn’t. Sometimes the same video that wins the Jury Prize wins the People’s Choice award, sometimes not.

Votes can be cast here on for the 15th MuVi Online Audience Award starting next week, April 3rd. Stay tuned.

Published March 26, 2013. Words by moritz.schmall.