The 43rd International Film Festival Rotterdam celebrates its usual independent, global spirit — as well as marking the 25th anniversary of the Hubert Bals Fund. Plus, a preview of this year’s CineMart selections.

The 43rd edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) opened on Wednesday (Jan 22) with two films that are both indicators of the unique Rotterdam mindset.

For the public, there is Spike Jonze’s offbeat modern romance Her, sure to draw Rotterdam’s famous large cinema audiences, and for the industry there is Anup Singh’s Qissa, a window into envelope-pushing independent film-making across the globe.

This has always been a festival attracted to the idiosyncratic and the experimental. This year looks set to follow that trend, despite one key difference: IFFR has a new (interim) artistic director in the shape of Mart Dominicus, who stepped in to replace Rutger Wolfson when Wolfson fell ill late last year. (Wolfson is expected to return to duty in the spring.) 

Dominicus is a well-known figure in the Dutch film industry. He is a lecturer at the Netherlands Film Academy and has been on the festival’s supervisory board since 2010. He is quick to point out that the festival programme was nearing completion when he called in during November.

 “It wasn’t easy but the advantage was that the programme was more or less already finished. Maybe even 90% was fixed,” Dominicus states. “It is more or less a duty as a member of the board. In times of problems, you have to be there!”

 At first, he jokes, he felt he had jumped onto a runaway train. “But, on the other side, it was also quite comforting that there was a strong team and a strong programme. My part is relatively small. The festival misses Rutger of course enormously but at the same time, you notice that there is a strong organisation.”

25 Years of Hubert Bals

Key parts of that organisation include CineMart (see below) and the Hubert Bals Fund. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the influential Bals Fund, which supports film-makers from developing countries. The fund has backed more than 1,000 films in the last quarter of a century including Palme d’Or winners. However, its government support, which comes from the Ministry of Foreign Development, is being withdrawn, which sees the fund fighting for its financial life.

Dominius and Iwana Chronis, manager of HBF, both express confidence it will continue. As it looks for new financing, the fund is well placed to receive support from the European Union’s new Creative Europe programme.

Whatever else, this year’s edition will showcase what the fund has achieved over 25 years. A special festival programme, Mysterious Objects, includes HBF-backed work by such figures as Carlos Reygadas, Chen Kaige and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

“The Bals Fund is that important for the festival that we will support it anyhow,” Dominicus declares, pointing out the part HBF plays in supporting new talents. “It is part of our whole strategy to be more than just a festival.”

That ethos is also behind the launch of IFFR Live. The new scheme, backed by the European Commission and run in collaboration with Fortissimo Films, Doc & Film and Trust Nordisk, is designed to promote and stimulate the European distribution of arthouse films. The idea is for a series of IFFR premieres to be screened simultaneously at the festival, in cinemas across Europe, on VoD and on pay TV. The new venture will be launched with a summit on January 26 and should go live from 2015 onward.

Facing Dutch cuts

As Dominicus acknowledges, these have been tough years for arts funding in the Netherlands. IFFR has had to make cutbacks, reducing its staff and trimming overheads. Its budget is currently at $9.2m (€6.8m) - down €500,000. Dominicus is confident that the festival now “will manage quite well”.

“When the [financial] crisis started, it looked quite disastrous but my impression is that we’ve now found a mode in which we can go on for quite a few years,” he adds.

It helps, too, that the decline in audiences evident two years ago appears to have been arrested. In 2013, audience visits were at 280,000 — fewer than the 340,000 the festival attracted in 2011 (during its 40th anniversary year) but up from 274,000 in 2012. That still makes IFFR one of the biggest public film festivals in the world.

It is an axiom, oft repeated, that the films and film-makers are what matters in Rotterdam, not starry names on a red carpet. Even so, there are some intriguing attendees.

From the UK, Clio Barnard (The Selfish Giant) and David Mackenzie (Starred Up) are in town. Venice Golden Lion winner Gianfranco Rosi will be accompanying his documentary Sacro GRA.

Kristin Gore (daughter of US politician Al Gore) will be attending to support Mark Jackson’s Tiger contender War Story which she produced. The film, starring Catherine Keener, is sold internationally by US outfit Visit Films.

Visit Films has a further six titles in official selection at IFFR. Visit founder Ryan Kampe tells Screen, “We tend to have some overlap with Sundance in that a number of films that premiere at Sundance then have their European premieres in Rotterdam or Berlin and it is a balance between the two festivals. If we wait much beyond Berlin to premiere in Europe we miss a number of important regional festivals throughout the continent. And we have to evaluate if the film will begin to “age” if we bring it to market in Cannes, so Rotterdam really works as a bridge for us to the market in Berlin as buyers will see reviews and feedback from Rotterdam, ahead of our meetings with them in Berlin. Additionally or some of the first time filmmakers who are having their world premiere in Rotterdam, it helps us have them establish a brand and work into a larger infrastructure and support system for their future projects.”

A signal to Europe

One special programme this year is Signals: State of Europe. This originated with Wolfson but is fully championed by Dominicus. “[Wolfson] was very much emphasising that the festival should take part in discussions that are going on outside film — and that Rotterdam was not only a place where you show films and talk about film but also that there is an interaction between film and society.”

Throughout the festival, there will be screenings and discussions linked to the vexed question of European identity. Dominicus cites Claire Simon’s fiction/documentary Gare Du Nord as one of the most important films screening in the State of Europe sidebar, describing it “as a very interesting impression of Europe nowadays as a melting pot not only of different people but of different stories and different moods”.

The main competitive strand of the festival is, as ever, the Hivos Tiger Awards Competition. First and second time feature directors compete for three awards worth $20,350 (€15,000) each. Dominicus suggests the level of the competition is “quite high but also very diverse”. Alongside more conventional films, he points to Austrian director Peter Brunner’s My Blind Heart, a poetic study of disability and victimhood. “I am sure a lot of the people who will see it will be shocked. It is quite heavy and darker than dark … there are very few festivals that will be able to add such a film to their programme but we do!”

That is the Rotterdam spirit in full effect.

CineMart: partners for production

Squeezed between Sundance and Berlin’s European Film Market, Rotterdam is seen by many Europeans as an important industry event — especially the festival’s co-production market, CineMart. Now in its 31st edition, it is the oldest event of its kind and one of the most respected. Films from Breaking The Waves to The Magdalene Sisters have been kicked off in Rotterdam.

“CineMart is a good place to meet co-producers and start talking with sales agents,” says producer Marleen Slot of Amsterdam-based Viking Film.

She will be presenting her new project Monk, a Little Miss Sunshine-style family drama/road movie directed by Ties Schenk. She describes CineMart both as “a quality label” and an excellent place at which to start speaking to potential co-production partners and sales agents.

Acting festival director Mart Dominicus points out that CineMart has “a personal, informal and intimate” atmosphere that other film business events lack.

This year, 25 projects have been selected from over 400 submissions. There were 32 selected last year.

“We chose to downsize the selection a little bit to really give the projects enough space and the full attention of the attending industry,” says programmer Bianca Taal.

As ever, there are projects from well established names as well as from relative newcomers: Fresh, the new feature from British director Peter Webber (Girl With A Pearl Earring), will be presented by its producers Didar Domehri, and Gael Nouaille from France’s Full House; Japanese auteur Naomi Kawase’s new film An: Sweet Red Bean Paste, produced by Kumie, is also looking for financing; American director Eliza Hittman is bringing her new untitled project, about a teenage girl from rural Pennsylvania who risks everything when she hops a Greyhound bus to New York City for a secret abortion.

CineMart project budgets tend to be between $950,000 (€700,000) and $2m (€1.5m). In general, projects are expected to have around 20% of their funding in place.

Art:Film, the venture launched last year by CineMart and CPH:DOX to connect the art world and film industry is continuing. The three titles selected are Fierté Nationale by Sven Augustijnen, Invention by Mark Lewis and Tarda Primavera by Michelangelo Frammartino.

The underlying aim is both to help films get made and to give them exposure. Taal points out that CineMart, like the festival as a whole, is “director-driven”.