George Clark on the evolution of Rotterdam Film Festival
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George Clark on the evolution of Rotterdam Film Festival
Poster for Jean Renoir's film that inspired the inception of the Cannes Film Festival

Poster for Jean Renoir's film that inspired the inception of the Cannes Film Festival

The first aim of the approach is to confront audiences with new trends in filmmaking Hubert Bals in 1972 1

The International Film Festival Rotterdam was founded in 1972 by Hubert Bals, a legendary figure who ran the festival up to his early death in 1988. His cinephile legacy lives on in the festival’s commitment to new trends in filmmaking from across the world and in the festival’s production award named after him. The Hubert Bals Fund, was designed to help innovative work be realised in the developing world, has supported over 400 works from Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America.

The International Film Festival Rotterdam holds a position as a young and adventurous festival, but is nearing its 40th birthday, and for the last decade that I’ve been attending, it has gone through various changes. To understand where it might be going, it’s worth reflecting on how film festivals originated – and some of the reasons for their very existence. It is a complex and interrelated history; festivals were often established to promote a specific agenda or to act against the bias of other festivals. To understand these unusual international events and how they operate now, it’s useful to reflect on their origins, and how things have shifted and revised over the years.

Famously, the world’s first competitive film festival, Venice – the Mostra di Venezia, was supported and endorsed by Mussolini and its main prize the Coppa Mussolini, was noticably bestowed upon films from countries of the fascist alliance. Reputedly, it was this bias and the awarding of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia over Jean Renoir’s celebrated anti-war masterpiece La Grande Illusion that inspired the inception of the Cannes Film Festival. Designed to be independent of political control and censorship, the first Cannes festival was held on 1 September 1939 but only managed an opening night before being closed onto the outbreak of World War II the following day.

After that war, many international festivals and arts events were created and engineered along national lines, often with an explicit agenda to promote democracy and fight against the threat of fascism. FIAPF – Fédération Internationale des Associations de Producteurs de Films –  was established in 1933 to serve and govern film festivals, and gave the following instructions in the 1950s for how and why festivals should be run:

All film festivals should contribute to better understanding between nations and support development of the art of film and the film industry.2

This advice was taken on in Germany, and in particular with the formation of the Berlin Film Festival, developed by an American Film Officer and British colleague in West Berlin in 1951. Soon after, 1955 saw the first edition of renowned art event Documenta, which started with an exhibition of Modernist work banned by the Nazis as ‘degenerate art’ and in 1958, the short film festival in Oberhausen adopted the motto “Weg zum Nachbarn/Way to the Neighbour” and prided itself as a forum for exchange between cultures. It’s interesting to reflect on the political nature and at times radical stance that underlined the international nature of these early events, especially as many festivals now seem to operate under the same criteria but without the explicit political commitment of their founders, and are often dependent and to some degree controlled by a level of government support from around the world.

Post-war, festivals experienced a major upheaval in Europe in the late 1960s, most notably at Cannes where united French filmmakers closed the festival in protest demanding radical reforms in cinema. The following years saw this more politicised generation create a new type of festival across Europe, opposed to the competitive mainstay of festivals. At the Berlinale, Ulrich Gregor and Manfred Salzgeber founded the Forum des Jungen Film in 1971 and La Quinzaine des Resalisatuers was established at Cannes, both anti-festivals to run alongside the main competition. And it was at this time that Hubert Bals founded the festival in Rotterdam. As Ulrich Gregor declared, these new initiatives saw their role to “publicise and support progressive and avant-garde developments in film from around the world”.3

The Berlinale has just held its 60th anniversary edition, Rotterdam will hold its 40th edition next year. One of the central venues in Rotterdam, the Lantaren/Venster, the hub for short and experimental film and also performance and expanded work, has hosted its last festival in its current location, next year it will have moved to new premises in the south side of the city. This venue with its multiple auditoriums all of which break out into the same central bar was the first location for the festival and its very architecture was a major contribution to the festivals legendary early years where unprecedented collisions of filmic culture that took place. A famous anecdote recalls how exploitation king Russ Meyer could be seen after the screening of Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979) discussing distribution in Germany with Jean-Marie Straub, the epitome of uncompromising European political cinema.

So what role do festivals play now and in what way are they still relevant? What is to happen to these festivals in the future? The early days of Rotterdam and the Forum seem to be both experimental and yet politically committed, they seem to define, no doubt helped by the years that have gone by, powerful new trends and commitments in the history of cinema, but what of those trends now? Festivals such as Rotterdam have outlined one path through their integration of visual arts into their programme and championed work supported and produced within that context. But in recent editions the festival seems to be refocusing in a different direction. The Festival’s director, Rutger Wolfson (formerly director of the centre for contemporary art De Vleeshal) has sought to reaffirm it’s commitment to cinema rather than art, and even starts his introduction to the festival by referring to his past “when I still worked in the art world”.  Was the substantial involvement of visual arts in festivals a blip? A condition affected by the boom in the art market that has now subsided? Is it possible to separate innovative film and video from the visual arts anymore?

One of the Festival’s ubiquitous guests this year was the acclaimed Portuguese director Pedro Costa (a devote of Straub and his directing partner Danièle Huillet), who is celebrated as a champion of rigorous cinematic form, yet Costa’s work has increasingly found support through the institutions of contemporary art rather than cinema. Tellingly the most exposure his work has had in the UK was at Tate Modern last year. His presence at the Festival and its various venues was met among filmmakers and critics with a hushed reverence and rumours of overheard conversations permeated throughout the event – especially his supposedly overheard statement that “we should do everything we can to resist this!” which was seen as a condemnation of the self-congratulatory world of festivals.

1 ‘Film Lived in Rotterdam in these days’ by Jos van der Burg, 25th International Film Festival Rotterdam Catalogue, p.165, 1996

2 1st Berlin International Film Festival: archive

21st Berlin International Film Festival: archive


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