Programmers challenge audience expectations

With newly streamlined sections combining multiple formats and styles into fewer but more diverse categories, the Rotterdam Intl. Film Festival’s 38th edition takes a battering ram to the divisions isolating arthouse from art gallery.

Though long apparent in the fest’s programming, the trend’s codification comes as no surprise now that topper Rutger Wolfson — former director of cutting-edge contemporary arts venue De Vleeshal — received the festival board’s mandate for a four-year term following the uncertainty surrounding his temporary appointment last year.

For the chief programmers, little seems to have changed in the way they make their selections, though the question on the minds of outsiders is whether Rotterdam can continue to sustain its staggeringly loyal audience (355,000 attendees in 2008) with a diet of increasingly challenging fare.

The cautious but determinedly optimistic “yes” coming from the chief programmers derives from Rotterdam’s unique profile. As short films and German-language programmer Peter van Hoof sees it, Rotterdam audiences aren’t looking to scoop their friends by seeing films sure to get distributed a few months later: “The main thing is this weird combination between short films, film experiments, world cinema, all at the same time. Rotterdam is five or six different festivals.”

Along with a quasi-religious devotion to an auteurist conception of cinema, this diversity is key to the festival’s vision.

“There are wonderful films we all love to see that focus on storytelling first, to the point where the filmmaker blissfully disappears,” says Gerwin Tamsma, chief programmer of the Bright Future section. “They’re not films I disagree with necessarily, but they’re films that can be seen in cinema or on TV. What we like is more personal filmmaking, where the voice of the filmmaker is clear and not just part of the machine.”

But does this policy of showcasing challenging directors wind up actually limiting diversity?

Grumblings are occasionally heard within the industry that the selection is getting ever more inaccessible and unmarketable (and I’ll admit to occasional eye-rolling after sitting through one more grainy work featuring gratuitous sexual depravity and smatterings of blood, helmed by yet another twentysomething with a digital camera). That said, surely there’s a place at an increasingly crowded table for a major festival to champion works that might be on the fringes today but may enter the arthouses — though never the multiplexes — of tomorrow.

“I think the community accepts that we have accessible films, and sometimes less-accessible films,” offers Asian specialist programmer Gertjan Zuilhof, and it’s this mix — which includes, crucially, exhibitions and installations — that keeps people coming. With young people all too happy to watch films on their laptops, festivals need to push the idea that what they offer is unique, and Rotterdam’s programmers, in particular, understand the necessity of setting their event apart from anything else available today.

This year’s edition emphasizes the concept. The section Size Matters comprises three films to be shown on extra-extra-large outdoor screens in three downtown locations: Helmers Carlos Reygadas, Guy Maddin and Nanouk Leopold were specially commissioned to create site-specific works much in the way contempo artists craft installations for particular locations.

As Zuilhof explains: “In a way, it’s a quite easy and obvious way to show that we’re trying something different. You run a certain risk that it can be misunderstood — the big gesture — but that’s part of what we do, that’s the challenge in this film festival landscape, that you can come up with something new every year.”

Zuilhof is in charge of the Hungry Ghosts program, a focused look at East Asia’s particular engagement with the supernatural. By also curating a group exhibition on the theme, featuring helmers such as Garin Nugroho and Lav Diaz and located in the former Photo Museum — redesigned to resemble a haunted house — Zuilhof and the Rotterdam team reinforce the idea that the festival, like an art exhibition, is a one-time opportunity to see a unique assemblage of works and, equally important, to see them within a communal atmosphere.

Of course feature films and docus, especially those by emerging talent, continue to be a vital part of the festival’s makeup. Tamsma is especially excited by Harutyun Khachatryan’s “Border,” a look at the Armenian-Azeri conflict, while Alexis Dos Santos’ “Unmade Beds,” preeming at Sundance, is the eagerly anticipated follow-up to the Argentine helmer’s award-winning “Glue.”

Zuilhof is keen to plug “The Forbidden Door,” a psychological horror film by Indonesian helmer Joko Anwar, as well as audience-testing Dutch director Cyrus Frisch’s latest, “Dazzle,” the first 40 minutes of which are reportedly in near total darkness.

Some may view this year’s opener, Michael Imperioli’s helming debut, “The Hungry Ghosts,” as Rotterdam’s begrudging acknowledgment that name recognition is a necessary driving force in the increasingly competitive business of festival promotion. Though the “Sopranos” star’s presence could spike initial press coverage, he’s unlikely to personally generate pages of ink if the film itself doesn’t hold its own.

“There is a little pressure on us to be more commercial, or industry friendly” Tamsma admits, “but, having said that, I think there’s always a matter of balance. Of course it’s difficult to revitalize and renew the same idea all the time, so you have to constantly think of new ways of what the festival can do.”

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