The International Film Festival Rotterdam ended last weekend on a more upbeat note than many would have predicted when the festival began a fortnight ago. There had been mutterings among staff about cutbacks to its budget. Some outsiders had questioned the coherence of the programming and what appeared to be a lack of direction at the top. Rotterdam, already squeezed between Sundance and Berlin, was now facing competition from a trio of Middle Eastern festivals (Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Marrakech), all with deep pockets.
By the end of the festival, while questions remained about the structure of the festival and how it will develop in future years, the consensus among sellers, critics and buyers was that Rotterdam works well both as a showcase of world cinema at its most diverse and as one of the first key European industry events of the year.
Titles which provoked a strong critical response include Jose Luis Torres Leiva's The Sky, The Earth And The Rain ('a Carlos Reygadas film without the story - infuriating but stimulating' said one critic), Thai director Aditya Assarat's Wonderful Town, which picked up one of the three main Vpro Tiger Awards) and the opening film, Lucia Cedron's Lamb Of God (picked up by Cinemien for Benelux and a strong favourite with Rotterdam audiences).
Rotterdam may not have the profile of, say, Berlin, but it is still an excellent launch pad for European arthouse titles. Last year, for example, Belgian producer Eurydice Gysel of Cccp brought Koen Mortier's debut feature Ex Drummer to the competition. Mortier was unknown internationally but his controversial film proved an immediate succes de scandale. Sales agent Wide Management came on board and many international deals were closed on the film, including Tartan for the UK and A Film for Benelux.
Once Ex Drummer had been noticed in Rotterdam, it became that much easier to generate interest in Berlin's EFM. 'A lot of people saw Ex Drummer in Rotterdam's Tiger Competition last year,' Gysel says. 'There was a buzz around it. This gave us extra stimulus.'
Gysel was back in Rotterdam with Mortier's new project, 22nd May. Again, she claims to have had a fruitful experience. During CineMart, Cccp closed a deal to bring IJswater Film on board as Dutch co-producers. Gysel is now looking to find German partners. Meanwhile, in Rotterdam, various sales agents have also been tracking the project, which Mortier hopes to get into production by the end of the year - with a view to releasing it on May 22, 2009.
Delegates largely dismiss the notion Rotterdam is being squeezed by Berlin and Sundance. Philippe Bober of Paris and Berlin based sales and production outfit The Coproduction Office argues it is a far more effective showcase for European arthouse projects than Sundance.
'Just check how many key European executives are going to Sundance,' Bober says. 'In my opinion, some of the best producers are going to Rotterdam. They are presenting the projects themselves and they are certainly not going to do it in the Middle East or at Sundance.'
Bober spent four days in Rotterdam last week and regrets he didn't stay longer. 'What is fantastic is you have the core business there,' he says.
One observer is even more blunt, saying European arthouse titles have 'microscopic' visibility in Sundance. 'It makes absolutely no sense to go there... no-one is interested in what I am doing.'
There is sometimes a sense Rotterdam's co-production event CineMart and the main festival are different events. Those attending the former, caught in back-to-back meetings, rarely have time to engage fully with the latter. However, for sales agents who delve through the titles on offer, there are riches to be unearthed. A few years ago, for example, Bober spotted Carlos Reygadas' Japon in the festival's video library. The Coproduction Office went on to handle both Japon and Reygadas' follow-up, Battle In Heaven, helping kick-start the Mexican auteur's now blossoming international career.
French producer David Thion of Les Films Pelleas, who attended CineMart this year with Mia Hansen-Love's The Father Of My Children (a fiction project inspired by the death of legendary European producer Humbert Balsan) was likewise enthusiastic about Rotterdam. He points out simply having feedback from international distributors and sales agents is useful: 'It is always interesting to know how the market is going to react your film.'
'We'll be back next year because (Rotterdam) has been a good way for us to announce that we are starting to be involved more and more in production and co-production,' says Anais Clanet of Paris-based Wide Management. The titles Wide was promoting included Hormoz's I Dreamt Under The Water, a sexually explicit drama set in the north of Paris which Wide co-produced. The film was recently picked up by TLA for the US and the UK. Wide also acquired Mahmoud al Massad's Recycle, screening in the festival's Time and Tide section.
New French sales company Elle Driver was also in Rotterdam. According to Eva Diederix, the sales and acquisitions executive at the company, the festival was an excellent launch pad for Marcos Jorge's Estomago: A Gastronomic Story, an international premiere in the Sturm Und Drang section. The film scored high in the festival's public audience polls.
'Rotterdam is comparable to a small Toronto festival. It has that kind of feeling. For us as a new company, it was good to get to know new producers and new projects,' Diederix says. 'CineMart is one of the best co-production markets where you search for projects.' She adds Rotterdam is a useful place to start discussions 'pre-Berlin'.
Elle Driver is likely to go on to pick up one or two projects from CineMart. However, echoing some of the critics in Rotterdam, Diederix suggests the films in the main programme aren't always distinctive. 'There are a lot of Latin films or Asian films you have seen before and that are not very original,' she says. 'We're looking for something different in general.'
It remains to be seen how Rotterdam will be structured next year. At the time of writing, a decision has yet to be announced on the appointment of a new artistic director and whether the programme will be trimmed or expanded. However, there is little sign the festival's influence is diminishing. The delegates canvassed by Screen International all said they would be returning.
Lamb Of God (Cordero De Dios) (pictured) by Lucia Cedron was one of the rare opening-night films being talked about as the festival ended nearly two weeks later. The drama, about an elderly man kidnapped during Argentina's economic crisis of 2002, forcing his exiled daughter to return to Buenos Aires and confront her family's past, is Cedron's debut feature and is produced by veteran Lita Stantic. International rights are still up for grabs although several sales agents attending CineMart were keen to see it on the basis of festival buzz. Cinemien has struck a deal for Benelux.
Persepolis continues to wow audiences around the world, proving an Iranian woman's coming-of-age story can cross borders (as it did after its world premiere as a prize winner in Cannes 2007). Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Oscar-nominated French-produced animation is based on her comic books. It scored a high 4.59 average out of a possible 5 from the Dutch audiences. In second place was the popular Stomach (Estomago: A Gastronomic Story), a Brazil-Italy co-production about power, sex and food, which has been picked up for sales by Elle Driver.
Aditya Assarat (below), the director of one of the three Tiger winning films, Wonderful Town, was consistently tipped to be a competition winner throughout the festival. His poignant portrait of a sleepy town still suffering the after-effects of the 2004 tsunami now goes to Berlin (in the Forum) and he is planning a second feature, High Society, to shoot in Bangkok at the end of 2008. Assarat plans to continue to work in Thailand, after continuing his education at NYU and USC.
Other notable talents to emerge were Dutch comedian Theo Maassen (above), who switched gears to play an escaped psychiatric patient in the popular and controversial local drama Nothing To Lose (TBS); and US director Jake Mahaffy, a Sundance Lab veteran, who made a lot out of a low budget with his travelling salesman story Wellness. Also attracting attention was Mia Hansen-Love, former assistant to Olivier Assayas, who makes her directorial debut with Tout Est Pardonne.