Now a year into his second term as director of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), Rutger Wolfson is presiding over challenging times: he said the festival has seen official subsidies – which make up a third of the festival’s budget – reduced by 20 percent, while arthouse cinema struggles to locate funding and audiences.
But the IFFR had been undergoing a rethink about its operations well before these issues emerged, Wolfson said. A streamlined festival program comes with new elements, such as its co-production market’s introduction of Art:Film -- a collaboration with Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX festival which brings five artists’ projects in touch with potential financiers in the film industry.
In between meetings in the middle of the festival, Wolfson – who left his career managing contemporary art centers and institutions to lead the festival in 2008 – talks to The Hollywood Reporter about this latest invention, IFFR’s support for suppressed filmmakers and the future of film (and film festivals) under the onslaught of other media such as television.
The Hollywood Reporter: What is the main challenge, if there’s any at all, of putting the festival together this year?
Wolfson: There are many small challenges, but there are new things we want try out, which is interesting to see. Within CineMart there’s the Art:Film program – which I think is exciting because of my own background. It’s interesting to see how these artists are looking at the film industry to make their projects. Some seem very savvy about it and seem to understand what to make their work, while some are still very in an artist’s frame of mind.
THR: It’s interesting as it mirrors the challenge of film festivals these days, which aims to bring art and commerce together.
Wolfson: We’ve always been very lucky in the sense that we don’t make compromises when it comes to programming – we just program what we like. That’s quite special for a large cultural event like ours, because you usually have to cater for others to make the programming to make it work. But in our case, it’s the other way round – we can do a [Ukrainian auteur] Kira Muratova retrospective because we believe in it. But we also have bigger films like Stoker. But the fact that we don’t make compromises in our programming secures faith from the audience.
And we are lucky enough to find all kinds of partners who can relate to that and help us strengthen the festival in terms of sponsors. What is interesting is that we have two new partnerships with the Port of Rotterdam [Authority] and the Erasmus University. The way we built these relationships is that we don’t want them to be just sponsors, it’s not just about asking you for money; we really want to see how we can enforce each other’s networks and how we can strengthen each other’s own fields. It’s still very early days but we have very nice moments with academics looking at our films from their perspectives to give us depth and context, and they can bring students, which is good for us.
With the Port Authority, there are many ways we can do it. That’s quite fresh and we are excited and very much want to develop this. The Port of Rotterdam has an ambition of making Rotterdam a port city again, so they are looking for ways to make the port more visible in the city. We can be good partners for them, because filmmakers can supply five new ways to make the port more visible in the city.
THR: How was the process of getting the titles you want for the festival?
Wolfson: We have 25 films [in the program] which had received support by the [festival’s] Hubert Bals Fund and 16 former CineMart projects, so a lot of films and projects we had a long relationship with. They know the festival and the support we can give, and the platform itself. It’s still a highly respected festival and people like to be here in terms of the artistic credibility it gives to the filmmakers, and there is a prominent industry presence and an appreciative audience at an open-minded festival. Of course, every festival fights for a few films in the world, and it’s normal, but we are in a very good place to make the festival wonderful.
THR: But was it tough to battle with Berlin over, say, American indie titles? Quite a few will be making their European premieres there rather than here.
Wolfson: We have been starting a real effort to invest more in our relationship with US independent film industry, because we had slacked a little bit. But with good sales agents and good US producers here, we’re looking to expand on that. Of course, some films go to Berlin but so many films get made in the US, and Berlin is looking for certain things and we’re perhaps looking for other kinds of films. We’re investigating it and returns are coming around.
THR: On the other hand, can we say the festival is also serving a role to return voices to the artists who are stripped of them, what with this year’s Inside Iran program and the invitation of Ai Weiwei to be a member of the competition jury?
Wolfson: A strong part of us is to engage with filmmakers, and filmmakers in Iran at this time are having particularly difficult times. And we found a whole generation of very different new voices – when you think of Iranian cinema, you think of [Abbas] Kiarostami or [Jafar] Panahi, with a certain filmmaking language with which they are associated and is still very influential. But these younger filmmakers, they’re completely different. Like Mohammed Shirgavi’s Fat Shaker [about a father who uses his son as bait to blackmail rich women] – it makes you think, what is this? And it’s still very subversive, but it's got something very new and we’re very excited about it.
Our aim is also to show a little bit about the atmosphere in which culture can exist in Iran. In public space almost nothing is possible, but in private space it’s very different. They’ve got a very vibrant scene in Iran in people’s homes. So we built this tea house [in a gallery under the De Doelen cultural complex] to allow people to see a bit of a cultural life there. In fact, a lot of Dutch-Iranian people from all over the Netherlands have found this tea house and are now having tea there – a lot of them are refugees, intellectuals, and they think it’s great to be able to communicate there.
THR: So can we say the festival is positioning itself also as a social advocate?
Wolfson: Of course, but it’s also about very good art. So you can read it as something very political but at the same time you have Ai Weiwei, who’s not a 100 percent filmmaker or film industry professional but something with an interesting artistic perspective, and it will be interesting to have his views in the discussion [in the jury].
THR: Is the festival also seeking to examine changes in film as a medium, with the Changing Channels program featuring film directors making TV series?
Wolfson: Ten years ago, this will be the first place to find people who were totally against television, who might see it as inferior to cinema. But a lot of things have changed, the conditions in which you can see films in your house with television sets which are fantastic. And there’s a lot of freedom for interesting filmmakers to work for HBO or other channels which give a lot of creative freedom or are willing to take risks. Our programmer Inge de Leeuw discovered [Hirokazu] Kore-eda, [Kiysohi] Kurosawa and Agnieszka Holland are all doing this, and they make very good work ... for some filmmakers, it’s a great possibility.
It’s a particularly nice bridge to another focus program this year on the German television director Dominik Graf, who has found more freedom to do what he wanted to do in Germany, because directors a generation before him, like Wenders or Fassbinder, had created such a mold of what cinema should or should not be. And he’s not comfortable with that and television became the place where he could do things creatively.
I’m not exactly [sure] how you could make a comparison between him and the filmmakers we are showing in Changing Channels, but the obvious comparison is that they have lots of opportunities [in television] now. It’s very hard to get your films financed, you have to wait a long time, but sometimes in television there’s so much money to make things and such a system behind it. I spoke to Kore-eda and this series is like nine hours and he spent four and a half months shooting it, so these projects could be quite gigantic.
THR: With the rise of television, and filmmakers opting to work for that medium, people are saying how it’s the beginning of the end for film. Do you think it will happen?
Wolfson: No, I don’t think it will happen. Cinema is very specific and it will draw filmmakers to do certain things with it. Hopefully, in the future television will become an important source for financing of films again, because for getting projects financed, television is more or less out of the equation, especially in Europe, but in a roundabout way it might come back.
THR: What do you think are festivals’ role in keeping arthouse cinema alive?
Wolfson: Since the industry is under so much financial pressure, festivals like ours are actively supporting film projects – either by developing them with financial support in the Hubert Bals Fund, or through CineMart. I think festivals will become more important as the institutions within the industry – because, paradoxically, we had full houses for films which won’t even be distributed [in the Netherlands], or if they are distributed, nobody will show up [at the commercial-release screenings].
We’ve always been looking at new ways of distributing films, so we started this YouTube channel a few years ago and now we’re working with Under the Milky Way and iTunes. It’s something like an experiment, but I think festivals can play a very important role for filmmakers to get access to new channels of distributions, and using our brand to get these titles visible through our platform. Festivals like Rotterdam can play a more important role in where things are going and use their position to create possibilities for filmmakers.