Leadership questions overshadow Rotterdam

Can one of Europe’s leading (and largest) film festivals accommodate a part-time director? And how long does it take, exactly, to find a replacement? These are some of the questions overshadowing the Intl. Film Festival Rotterdam, the first fixture on the annual Euro fest calendar.

For its 37th edition, running Jan. 23-Feb. 3, the event will be overseen by Rutger Wolfson, director of the De Vleeshal center for contemporary art in the Dutch town of Middelburg. But his is supposedly an interim appointment — made, according to Wolfson, “because the festival’s board wanted to have time to search for a new director. And in fact, they’re talking to various people at the moment.”

This begs the question: Just how much time does the Rotterdam board need? The previous director’s departure was announced back in April — yet as late as September, during last year’s Venice fest, tongues were still wagging over who would take the reins permanently.

Several names were touted as possible contenders: Vienna Film Museum majordomo Alexander Horwath (who was apparently offered the post — twice, according to some accounts — but declined), Christian Jeune of Cannes (negotiations with whom reportedly stalled while contracts were being drawn up) and longtime Berlin

Panorama programmer Wieland Speck (who expressed a reluctance to relocate to Holland).

But as the weeks became months, with no name forthcoming, speculation grew that the board’s primary consideration lay in appointing a Dutch national, a claim lent credence by criticisms from various board members reportedly leveled at Brit Simon Field during his tenure, ended in 2004, that he’d never learned the language, or chosen to live in the city full time. “Simon was,” as one senior Dutch industry figure put it, “far too British, too intellectual, too art-for-art’s-sake, for the Dutch social-democrat approach to the arts.” (IFFR board chairman Melle Daamen declined to be interviewed for this story.)

In the fall of 2007, Rotterdam announced “organization and artistic substance” would be handled by Wolfson, while Stef Fleischeuer, director of Plan F, a local management consultancy firm, would serve as “interim business director.”

Both men have links to the festival — Wolfson has been a member of its board since 2004, while Fleischeuer sat on the Advisory Council of the Tiger Business Lounge, “the club of business friends of the IFFR” — yet neither boasts much in the way of film industry experience. Both appointments were for the 2008 edition only, and both positions were part time, with Wolfson in particular making it clear that he intended to continue his duties at De Vleeshal, at least for the foreseeable future.

“They (the board) initially had a fixation on national identity,” confirms one Dutch producer, who wants to remain anonymous, “but I also have the impression that they were not very adventurous, creative or, most importantly, informed in their search. So the whole thing just smacks of a holding pattern while they try to decide exactly what it is they’re looking for.”

By and large, fests are more than simply the whim of their artistic directors, who might only program one or two sections themselves. The majority rely on an array of programmers, consultants and far-flung scouts, all feeding their picks back into the mix. Rotterdam, which has nurtured a team of like-minded selectors, is a textbook example of this; Toronto is another. In each case, the sheer size of the program (Rotterdam unspooled 236 features last year) precludes any single curatorial vision.

But for better or worse, the director is the public face. And ideally the entire program and event reflects, at least to some degree, the character and interests of its chief.

Thus, as a.d. from 1996 to 2004, British programmer Field defined Rotterdam as a cinephile’s playground, championing a who’s who of international arthouse and avant-garde filmmakers: One of his proudest moments, he claimed, was having experimental heavyweights Michael Snow, Stan Brakhage and Peter Kubelka all grace the guest list. The result might have seemed rarified to acquisitions execs hoping for a pickup, but in Rotterdam — not exactly a hotbed of cultural activity — it rarely failed to find an audience, with locals flocking to sample even the most highbrow selections.

Field’s successor (and former co-director) Sandra den Hamer was regarded as being strong on the local industry but less so on international cinema. Her abrupt departure to head the Amsterdam Filmmuseum — after 21 years with the fest, yet just two editions in the driver’s seat — led to rumors of a putsch. Her defenders claim that the once-in-a-lifetime offer of overseeing one of Europe’s most prestigious film archives, in a brand-new building, was simply too good to refuse.

Add to this ongoing renegotiations with government funders (the fest is due to renew its four-year agreement) and a rumored desire by the Rotterdam city council to shift the festival from its traditional location, around Centraal Station and the Doelen complex, across the Nieuwe Maas river, and it all makes for an interesting time at the fest.

Wolfson is adamant that he will not rejoin the board after his stint as artistic director (“that seems silly to me”) — but confusingly, he also confirms that the board has begun to consider him as a permanent replacement.

Would he consider staying on? “I’ll only decide that in the event that they ask me.”

Clearly this dance is not quite over.

COMPETITION JURY

VPRO Tiger Awards Competition jury for first or second feature films

  • Renata Litvinova, Russia, filmmaker/producer and actress
  • Tiziana Finzi, Switzerland, deputy director, Locarno Intl. Film Festival
  • Jafar Panahi, Iran, filmmaker/ producer
  • Rieks Hadders, the Netherlands, former deputy director of the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam
  • Royston Tan, Singapore, filmmaker/producer
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