Forced online once again – this time due to the Omicron wave – International Film Festival Rotterdam is still going to surprise the audience, assures festival director Vanja Kaludjercic, ready to celebrate its 51st edition. The event will open with Amanda Kramer’s “Please Baby Please” on Jan. 26.

“That’s the idea. To surprise, but not just for the sake of surprising,” she says. “When I first started coming here, IFFR could always blow my mind like that; show me what cinema can be. Something that can feel like an unexpected choice for IFFR is, in fact, inspired by its freedom.”

Remembering the past is crucial for Kaludjercic, as she already pointed out when announcing this year’s streamlined lineup. “This is what these last three editions were very much about,” she notes, also mentioning “25 Encounters”: a new initiative comprising a selection of films, which will be available to the audience from Feb. 6, as well as conversations featured in a printed publication.

“We brought in quite a few luminaries but also some people who are perhaps not the most obvious choice,” she adds, mentioning a chat between a die-hard IFFR enthusiast and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, awarded at the fest in 2003 for “Blissfully Yours.”

“Two of the kindest people came together and had the sweetest conversation. It’s really examining our past, where we are now and where we would like to go, because occasionally you look back and go: Maybe there are some aspects that we didn’t spend enough time exploring or representing? We want to use the festival as a launching pad, but not just for the upcoming filmmakers. At IFFR, we just think differently.”

Appointed festival director in 2020, Kaludjercic was looking forward to what was supposed to be an in-person event this year, ultimately hampered by the nationwide curfew-turned-lockdown in the Netherlands.

“It caught us all by surprise – we were already at the finish line. I will go down in history as the festival director who didn’t manage to have a festival for two years, at least not on site,” she jokes.

The sudden change forced her team to make some “incredibly tough choices” (Steve McQueen’s long-awaited installation “Sunshine State” will no longer be featured), yet IFFR will still try its best to create a sense of community, also among the filmmakers.

“Last year, our conversations with the rights holders went from ‘no way’ to ‘maybe we should’ and ‘yes please.’ You could see how the attitude [towards online screenings] was changing, but what we are experiencing now is different. People know it’s more likely for their films to end up on the big screen and sometimes they opt to try their luck elsewhere. Still, we noticed that you can create a very nice sense of cohesion between the filmmakers, and we are going to do it again. We introduce them to each other and it just gets the ball rolling.”

While some films were always supposed to be available online, at least to the Dutch audience, others, including competition titles, will be shown just to the industry and press.

“Our jury will see them on the big screen, here in Rotterdam – it will be a very exclusive private screening! And we will show them to our audience once cinemas are open again. Now, we wouldn’t be able to give them the kind of attention and exposure they really deserve,” she says.

“Seeing how quickly we could all adapt during the pandemic was encouraging and there is a tremendous amount of work that can be done online, but there are things that you can’t, and shouldn’t, even try to replicate. I regret it enormously and really hope this is the last time I am saying that. And experiencing it, first and foremost.”

UPDATE: Rotterdam revealed Wednesday that the world premiere of Mijke de Jong’s “Along the Way” would screen in cinemas in Rotterdam, Groningen and Amsterdam during the festival’s closing weekend, taking advantage of the Dutch government’s decision to re-open cinemas from Jan. 26.