Festival structure undergoes radical revamping


What: Rotterdam Intl. Film Festival

When: Jan. 21-Feb. 1

Where: Rotterdam, the Netherlands

When Rutger Wolfson was named artistic director of the Rotterdam Intl. Film Festival in the fall of 2007, his immediate focus was making sure the 2008 edition ran smoothly. His appointment was just for one year and there was little time to make changes before the fest unspooled in its traditional late January spot.

Now Rotterdam’s permanent director, Wolfson has both the mandate and the time to put his imprint on the fest. For 2009 he has radically streamlined the format in order to bring out the festival’s key values.

“I wanted to re-find what Rotterdam stands for artistically, and I wanted to make that very visible in the program structure,” he explains.

He also thinks visitors will notice the difference. “I hope that the structure is simpler and clearer, and will allow us to give more attention to individual films or projects.”

The nine sections of 2008 have been merged into three — Bright Future, Spectrum and Signals — each mixing features, short films, art installations and live performances.

Bright Future presents new works by novice filmmakers, and includes both the fest’s top honor, the VPRO Tiger Awards, and its short film competition.

“Discovering new talent is one of the strong points of Rotterdam,” Wolfson says.

Spectrum is given over to more seasoned artists. Signals presents thematic programs and retrospectives.

This year, Signals includes Size Matters, examining how the size of screens influences filmmaking and the viewing experience, whether on microscreens or supersize public displays. Part of the project is the commissioning of new works from Guy Maddin, Carlos Reygadas and Nanouk Leopold, to be shown on vast screens attached to three city-center office blocks.

This is something Wolfson is particularly keen on in the 2009 program. “Screens are everywhere nowadays, even in public spaces, but it is striking that what you see on these screens is often commercials or information. We want to see what filmmakers can bring to them,” he explains. “It’s a direction in thinking that we want to address in the festival, and now with this more flexible structure, programs like this become more visible.”

Wolfson’s decision to drop the separate sections dealing with short films and the crossover between cinema and visual arts comes from a feeling that the advances in visual language these formats contain were being sidelined. “Given that we think these developments are really important, we want to give them a more central place in the program,” he says.

Although Wolfson is from a visual-arts background, he insists that the changes will not dilute the importance of feature films at the festival. “The Tiger competition is one of my darlings,” he says. “I pour a lot of time and energy into that. There are some great films in there.”

And the new format has not changed the balance in the festival. “The number of feature films stays the same, and the same goes for exhibitions and life performances. It’s more a matter of how you think about the structure of a program and how you present it more conceptually,” he explains.

Rotterdam’s main industry components, the CineMart co-production market and the Hubert Bals Fund, are untouched by the changes. However, Wolfson wants the fest to do more to promote the international sales and distribution of films selected for the Tiger Awards. “We love the films in our competition dearly, and we want to support them to find an audience outside of festivals,” he says.

But he is not yet ready to go into details. “We are talking to a lot of people, making plans and trying to work out practical ways that we can support films in the competition,” he says.

The aim is to be inclusive and not just target Tiger winners, with tailor-made solutions a possibility. “Each film needs a different approach, has a different audience, or different ways of reaching an audience, so that definitely needs to be taken into account,” Wolfson says.

He hopes to have a more concrete package in place for the 2010 edition. “Sorry to be so mysterious, but it is still under construction,” he says.

While Wolfson has made significant changes from within the festival, the need to deal with outside threats has receded. Pressure to relocate from the festival’s traditional location around Centraal Station and the Doelen complex to new developments across the Nieuwe Maas river has been diluted by the impact of the global financial crisis. The new developments are slowing down and the older cinemas in the center of town that were set to close are now remaining open.

“It’s very hard to predict with the financial crisis how new development projects will go in the next few years, but for the moment I think we are in a good place,” Wolfson says.

Meanwhile, increased funding for the next four years has been negotiated with the two main public sponsors, the city of Rotterdam and the Dutch Ministry of Culture. While this puts the fest on a sound footing, Wolfson would like to do more. He is working on plans to seek out new sources of public and private funds, despite the challenge this presents in the current financial climate. “It might be difficult, but we are ambitious,” he says.


Marlene Dumas, artist (South Africa/Netherlands)

Yesim Ustaoglu, filmmaker (Turkey)

Kornel Mundruczo, filmmaker (Hungary)

Park Ki-yong, filmmaker (South Korea)

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