Fifty Years of Interfilm

by Julia Helmke

The international church film organisation Interfilm will be 50 years old in October 2005. Why was it founded and how did it develop? Where did it succeed, where did it encounter difficulties? Fifty years is a long time for an international organisation that is exclusively voluntary and has neither permanent employees nor an office of its own. The following article gives an inside view of Interfilm, an organisation that always felt connected with WACC, but that nevertheless insisted on diversity and independence.

Berlin, Cannes, Locarno, Montreal, Karlovy Vary, Riga, Gothenburg, Zlin – there are church film prizes in all these places and more. Across Europe and beyond they host film festivals to which church juries are invited – and in some of these cities, this tradition has existed for over 40 years. Usually this no longer takes place according to separate religious denominations, but ecumenically, in alliance with Interfilm and Signis (previously known as OCIC).

It is an open question whether the men – and few women – from five Western European countries could have dreamed of such a development when they met in Paris in 1955 to talk about the challenge that film represents for the church. As a result of their discussions, they founded the international Protestant organization Interfilm on 22 October 1955.

In the early years they wanted above all to ‘protect’ people from bad films and to promote the emergence and distribution of good films. To do so, they hoped for a close relationship with the World Council of Churches (WCC). But the mass and art films did not completely fit into the WCC’s existing tasks such as mission, world responsibility, theology, and the like. The variety of possible approaches to film also quickly became evident: France pursued discussions about well-made commercial films, Germany strengthened its own Protestant film journalism, and the Anglo-Saxons promoted clearly religious productions.

Commitment was great, but so was Christian responsibility in relation to film and society. Film is the mass medium, and cinema attendance had exceeded church service attendance. Thus the questions arose: What can the church do? How can it act and react? First it wanted to become acquainted with others and exchange ideas, to increase the number of its members and to exert a stronger influence with combined forces. That applied both to church leaders, who often did not exactly know what church and film had to do with one another, as well as to the film industry and interested Christians.

Julia Helmke (PhD) is a Pastor and Interfilm member. After her ordination, she studied film criticism in Munich.