Rutger Wolfson, director of the International Film Festival Rotterdam made an impassioned defence of the work of Rotterdam's Hubert Bals Fund (HBF) at the opening of the 38th edition of the festival last night.

The fund, devoted to supporting filmmaking in developing countries, has just received a qualified vote of confidence from its principal backer, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Aid.

Wolfson expressed his relief that after a period of uncertainty, the Ministry has decided to maintain its backing of HBF but he added a note of caution:

'I'm very glad that the minister for development cooperation, Bert Koenders, has decided to continue the support for the HBF. However it is still unclear how substantial the support will be in the coming years.'

Wolfson argued strongly that the HBF, which this year is celebrating its 20th anniversary needs stable funding to flourish.

'Perhaps the Netherlands doesn't count as a strong film nation internationally, but it does have two festivals that belong to the international top of their field. This festival, of course, and the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam.

For these festivals (and thereby also the Netherlands) to remain strong international players, the Hubert Bals Fund and the Jan Vrijman Fund (of the IDFA) desperately need continuity in the current level of funding.'

Wolfson's speech was made in front of a packed audience, including the minister of education, culture and science Ronald Plasterk and the new mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb.

He was speaking just prior to the screening of the official opening film, Michael Imperioli's The Hungry Ghosts, a world premiere in the festival's Tiger competition.

Sopranos star Imperioli was in attendance for the screening of his debut feature along with producers and several cast members.

The film, an ensemble drama about various New Yorkers facing crises in their lives, was warmly enough received, although some festival attendees felt it lacked the edge that normally characterizes Rotterdam opening films.

This year's Rotterdam programme has a new look and Wolfson took advantage of his speech to explain his decision to streamline Rotterdam's programme.

'The festival's reputation for discovering new talent is reflected in ''Bright Future',' Wolfson said of the section devoted to first and second films.

The flagship of the festival, the VPRO Tiger Awards competition, is part of this section.

In its new 'Spectrum' section, the festival aims to present the work of more established filmmakers. The third section in the programme, Signals, is devoted to identifying new developments in cinema.

Whatever the changes, Wolfson insisted that Rotterdam remains an attractive port of call for directors with challenging new work. 'Film makers love to bring their films to Rotterdam, because they know the audience here is always incredibly open and curious,' the festival director said.

That support of new and innovative work was underlined with the outdoor screenings of three specially commissioned films by Carlos Reygadas, Guy Maddin and Nanouk Leopold that kicked off proceedings alongside the screening of Imperioli's The Hungry Ghosts

The films were projected high on the sides of buildings in the city's centre.

In Maddin's Send Me to the 'lectric Chair, which screened on a permanent 7 minute loop from 6pm until 1am, audiences saw Maddin's regular muse Isabella Rossellini being slowly fried on a wooden electric chair.

Reygadas' Serenghetti is a film of a woman's football match high in the mountains of Mexico. Leopold's Close-Up, made in collaboration with visual artist Daan Emmen, is a 420 minute close-up of three faces.

All three films, screening in IFFR's Signals: Size matters section, were produced by London-based Illuminations.

Guests expected in town over the next 10 days include Claire Denis, Jean-Claude Brisseau, Jerzy Skolimwoski (subject of a retrospective) and Raul Ruiz.

Despite the credit crunch, the festival reports no decline in interest in its coproduction market, CineMart, with over 800 delegates expected to attend from January 25-29.