Celebrating its 40th anniversary, the International Film Festival Rotterdam remains a major champion of indie and experimental cinema — despite a difficult climate for arts funding in the Netherlands.
The little festival Hubert Bals founded in 1972 — with guests staying on river barges — has mushroomed into one of the most important arts events in the Netherlands and one of the biggest public film events in the world.
Last year, there were 353,000 visitors to the films, exhibitions and shows staged by the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). It runs this year from January 26 to February 6.
The festival, operating on a budget of around $9.7m (€7.2m), will be celebrating its anniversary in style. “If you are 40, in Roman numerals it is XL — and we are having an extra large festival this year,” explains festival director Rutger Wolfson.
His team has commandeered 40 extra locations all over the city to hold jubilee events. These include the eye hospital as well as the newly rebuilt Lantaren Venster, which will be one of the festival hubs and where Tiger jury member Lee Ranaldo of rock band Sonic Youth will play in concert.
A one-off programme, The Return Of The Tiger, will showcase new films from former IFFR Tiger winners, among them Koen Mortier’s 22nd Of May, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff and Patrick Keiller’s Robinson In Ruins.
But amid the fanfare of the 40th anniversary events, the festival is facing an increasingly hostile climate for public funding of the arts in the Netherlands. The new Dutch coalition government formed in the autumn is threatening deep cuts to arts and culture budgets.
It is anticipated the festival’s support from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science will fall, but it is yet to be determined when or by how much. The festival’s Hubert Bals Fund, which backs film-making in developing countries, is likewise under threat in the longer term. “We are concerned, obviously, but don’t know exactly where we stand,” Wolfson reflects on the battle for arts funding in the Netherlands.
Reassuringly, new sponsors are on board. Dutch telecommunications outfit UPC will be the main backer for the next three editions.
Asian titles roar into town
The festival is on a solid footing this year. It consistently manages to attract mass audiences to its main screening venue, the Pathé multiplex, with a programming policy showcasing experimental arthouse fare.
The emphasis has never been on stars or red-carpet premieres. Nevertheless, Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling and Michael York are expected for the screening of Lech Majewski’s The Mill And The Cross, about the artist Pieter Bruegel.
Rotterdam 2011 will also have a strong Asian and Middle Eastern emphasis. The Tiger competition, for first and second features, will showcase two titles from South Korea: Park Jung-bum’s The Journals Of Musan and Yoon Sung-hyun’s Bleak Night, both prize winners at Pusan last year.
Further highlights include US director Laurence Tooley’s Headshots, Indian film Image Threads, Rainy Season by Iranian film-maker Majid Barzegar (which recently won an award at the Didar Festival in Tajikistan), Eternity directed by Thailand’s Wise Kwai and Flying Fish by Sri Lanka’s Sanjeewa Pelanwattage.
But although the screenings are popular with the local audience, the festival is fighting to maintain its relevance in the international film market where the type of esoteric arthouse cinema it champions is becoming marginalised.
To this end, it is increasingly involved with distribution initiatives designed to help the type of cinema that the festival champions find a way to audiences. This year, it is beginning to work with Festival Scope, the new business-to-business online platform which allows film professionals to view selected festival titles on demand.
“That’s part one, of course, getting your films visible so they can be picked up and seen,” Wolfson notes. He is also working to team up with a Dutch distributor to allow selected films to be streamed via the IFFR website. The festival also has its YouTube channel for showcasing short movies and features.
In December 2009, IFFR launched Cinema Reloaded, aimed at using online crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding to allow festival-goers to produce and finance the kind of films they love to see at Rotterdam. Wolfson admits the scheme has not raised as much money as hoped. However, Alexis Dos Santos is now shooting his short Random Strangers which raised close to $5,200 (€4,000) through the scheme.
Malaysian director Ho Yuhang is also pushing ahead with his untitled project, which has raised about $2,600 (€2,000) of its budget via Reloaded.
Rotterdam is positioned in the calendar between Sundance and Berlin, and as budgets have tightened some buyers and sales agents have questioned whether they still need to attend. Wolfson insists the event is as relevant as ever to the international industry.
“Rotterdam is in a very good position because we have a strong and clear profile,” he says.
“It’s a very artistic profile. People with special, artistic, high-quality films know that Rotterdam is a very good place to take them. They will be noticed and there is a more open attitude towards adventurous work than perhaps at other festivals.”
Rotterdam’s co-production market, CineMart, now in its 28th edition, has spawned many imitators. The event showcases to the international industry 30-35 projects annually, which tend to have budgets of $1.3m-$2.6m (€1m-€2m).
Some notable successes have been coaxed into life at least partially through CineMart. These include Samuel Maoz’s Venice Golden Lion winner Lebanon, Ruben Ostlund’s Involuntary and Pablo Trapero’s Lion’s Den. Meanwhile, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Elena (a CineMart project in 2010) is reportedly generating interest among this year’s A-list festivals.
Some familiar names are in CineMart this year. There are new features from Czech animation legend Jan Svankmajer (Insects) and Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam (Camiel Borgman). Meanwhile, festival favourites such as Carlos Reygadas (presenting Post Tenebras Lux), Alexei German Jr (with Under Electric Clouds) and Andrei Zvyagintsev (with Daddy) are also back in Rotterdam.
This year, there is a new Eurimages award worth $40,250 (€30,000) which will be given to one of the projects, and replaces the Prince Claus Award. There is also an Arte France Cinema Award, worth $13,400 (€10,000).
CineMart head Marit van den Elshout acknowledges that in order to maintain its relevance in a time of economic turbulence, “We have to really look at solid projects.”
Around 25%-30% of the budget is expected to be in place before a project is considered seriously for inclusion in CineMart. “If it’s a first-time director and there is not a well-known producer, it has to be an amazingly strong project,” van den Elshout explains. The selection committee this year includes Frank Peijnenburg, director of acquisitions at leading Dutch distributor A-Film. His presence reinforces CineMart’s commitment to “really look at projects from a market perspective”, as van den Elshout puts it.
“For people who buy films, they tend to wait until they can see a bit more of the film,” says Peijnenburg. “They don’t start participating [at an earlier stage] like they used to.”
On one level, such caution among financiers heightens the importance of CineMart. Pia Marais, who won the CineMart prize last year for her project Layla Fourie (backed by Pandora Film) and whose earlier film At Ellen’s Age also came through CineMart, is upbeat. “The award [for Layla Fourie] and being at the CineMart did help,” she says of the film, which was a South Africa-France-Netherlands-Germany co-production. “CineMart opened up another way of financing the film.”