A Conversation with Rutger Wolfson: "I Didn't Come Crawling Out of a Cave"

A new director, a new logo, new program sections, new films — Rotterdam’s new festival director is keeping himself busy. After serving as temporary director last year, he has now been officially assigned the post.

Dana Linssen/Jos van der Burg: Your first act as festival director was to rearrange the program. Was there a need for this?

Rutger Wolfson: The previous structure had been intelligently thought out, but it didn’t work for two reasons. Firstly in terms of communication. Somebody used the expression “You can’t see the trees”, sorry, ‘You can’t see the forest for the trees’. No, it’s the other way around. Normally we say ‘You can’t see the forest for the trees’, but in our case you couldn’t see the trees for the forest. In other words, we’d created a wilderness in which you could no longer discern the individual films. But the films are what it’s all about.

We decided to emphasize the festival’s key strengths. First of all, the discovery of new talent (Bright Future, which also includes the competition), followed by our sense of taste (the Spectrum section, with its masters and the best from other fests), and thirdly our habit of asking incisive questions and signaling things, which is reflected in the Signals section.

Another reason for the re-evaluation is that Rotterdam has always been at the head of the pack when it comes to exploring all forms of cinema outside traditional movie theatres. Think of Exploding Cinema and the expanding short film section, which always focuses on innovative filmmaking. It was time to take the next step and not keep those sections relegated to the sidelines anymore. This is why we integrated them into the main program.

Why is this important? Experience tells that people come for the films, not for what’s happening on the sidelines.

We should strive to offer them a richer experience based on their initial interest in film.

Is that the task of a film festival?

The interesting question is: “What is the future of cinema?” Your conception of a film festival depends on how you answer this question.

How do you answer the question?

Of course, film is and remains our core business, but I’m curious to see whether we can apply all the knowledge and experience that comes with cinema to other areas. The Size Matters program is an attempt to transplant the cinema experience to the outdoor space.

Is this more than just a fun experiment? Are there developments in cinema today that give this idea more relevance?

Well…., err…

Some argue that for instance it’s time to develop a fresh critical approach for what´s happening with cinema online.

Even in that debate you’ll see that people fall back on an existing critical vocabulary.

But the question remains why it’s necessary for a film festival in the classic sense — as you describe it in your corporate policy — to transform itself into a hybrid festival of image culture. Has the old-style Rotterdam run its course?

What we’re trying to do is to increase urgency and relevance. If you stick too rigidly to the classical model, you distance yourself from all kinds of developments surrounding film and media in society at large. That’s dangerous. We want to be a festival that has its eyes wide open to the world.

One could also argue that the world is already reflected in the films. You come across as a kind of preacher or a dietician telling people what’s good for them.

I’ve been called worse. But so what? The point is that you make use of the power of your own enthusiasm. I have a lot of faith in cinema and its potential to chronicle evolutions in society.

Do you have more faith in cinema or in image culture?

In the end, I think I have more faith in cinema. Image culture is such a vague term. Try giving a definition of image culture. We are a film festival first and foremost.

A festival that, in your words, should develop into a hybrid festival of film-related image culture.

We’ve been heading into that direction for while, with sidebars on television and video games.

Doesn’t this open the floodgates to all kinds of marginal events, like that indoor soccer tournament a few years ago?

That tournament was part of a program that interrogated the future of film festivals now that more and more people limit themselves to downloading films. Whether the game itself was amusing or not wasn’t the issue, it’s the interrogation that matters.

Is that debate still relevant for the festival, in other words: is your staff continuing this interrogation?

It’s too big of a question to allow for a single, all-encompassing answer. All kinds of factors play a part: developments in the economy, in the media…

Let’s start by approaching it practically: will there still be a Rotterdam film festival ten years from now?


What will it look like?

Roughly the way it does today.

Bigger? Smaller? Larger screens? Smaller screens?

We shouldn’t strive to become much bigger than we are now. That would endanger the quality.

Will the future Rotterdam be showing films that have come out on pirate DVD for six months prior?

Around Asia you can find countless pirate DVDs of films we’re showing here. This isn’t a problem for us, because we’re not based in Asia. It will become a problem if the same tendencies start to happen here and people start downloading large numbers of new films. But this is pure speculation. Don’t forget that people enjoy the festival as an event. Sure, you could say: “It’s all about the film, so who cares where and how you watch it?” But the setting definitely matters. Have you noticed how there are more and more small film festivals in Holland and fewer and fewer regular releases?

In terms of the Tiger competition, does Rotterdam feel any pressure from new and above all rich festivals like Rome and Dubai? A lot of the Tiger nominees have been shown and awarded at other festivals.

Our priority is to support filmmakers. Asian filmmakers who received a grant from the Hubert Bals Fund or took their project to the Cinemart are still bound to the Asian market for their careers. Of course they want their film to be shown in Pusan! We would be sabotaging them by telling them they can’t go to Pusan. In fact, we encourage them to take their films to other festivals. We’re not an A-list festival like Berlin or Cannes, which set very strict conditions of exclusiveness. You can see the result in their competition line-ups.

How important is it for Rotterdam to have premieres?

Well, important!

But all these film festivals fish in the same pond.

But film production has increased too.

The production of great films hasn’t.

No…, but…., you’re right. But not every festival is a competitor. We fight with Berlin over a couple of titles every year, but at the same time we also benefit from each other. Sales agents know that a film that got a good response in Rotterdam is going to get sold at the Berlin market. Or take the deals that are made in Rotterdam and are announced in Berlin because it has a more powerful publicity machine.

Wouldn’t Rotterdam prefer to have that publicity all to itself?

Of course we would, but I can’t ask sales agents to…, it’s up to them to…, but people in the business know very well what originates in Rotterdam. And don’t forget that Berlin is much more in the scope of critics and is criticized much more harshly. If you fail there…

Smaller festivals like Ghent or Vienna had Todd Haynes over to present I’m Not There in person.

I don’t agree with that stuff about status. People say: “In the old days, so-and-so was a guest in Rotterdam”, but back then nobody noticed because that director was still unknown. It’s all a matter of perception. Sokurov refused to go to Cannes last year, but he did come to Rotterdam. There are other factors as well. A lot of American directors spend January having lunches to ensure their Oscar bids.

How do you compare Rotterdam to the other festivals you’ve visited over the past year?

We want to increase the importance of the Tiger Competition, but this is a long and complex process.

How? By handing out bigger cash prizes?

That’s one option, but also by giving the films a longer shelf life after the festival is over.

How do you look back on your first year as festival director?

It’s been a tough year financially. We’ve had to cut back a lot.

Any skeletons in the closet?

The festival overspent during a number of years. It had reserves and spent them all.

Any noticeable differences with your natural habitat, the art world?

Aside from the anthropological observation that people in the film world dress differently? The industry plays a much larger role in film than in the art world. In art there are more people who make more things before seeing any money. When you stroll around Documenta, you see a lot of gallery holders, but no market.

What about Rotterdam’s ambition to become a sort of museum, with a festival spin-off in summer, a digital TV channel, and Tiger Tours all year round?

I’m not in favor of this tendency. We should focus on the festival itself and its international position. Everything else is secondary at best. So I have no new comments, aside from the fact that it’s under evaluation.

When you were still a member of the board, you stated that the festival director should keep tight control over programmers who had the tendency to run their own boutiques. Have you succeeded?

That was a concerned outsider’s little theory, which kind of makes me giggle today. There are moments when I believe I have it easier than if some hardcore cinephile had gotten the post. Someone with clear likes and dislikes would find himself tested constantly. Whereas I have a general interest and I’m very open. But don’t think this means I’m easily duped. I didn’t come crawling out of a cave. I’m good at overseeing a group of specialists, at bringing social developments into the festival. That’s kind of my background.

A festival director who operates like a film director?

Well…, err…

Would make for a nice headline.

That’s why I didn’t say it.

You said you didn’t crawl out of a cave. What are your hang-ups? What annoys you in films? What gets you excited?

Those kinds of questions aren’t very relevant. What matters to me is whether something interests me. A beautiful misfire is interesting. As for hang-ups, everything we discussed earlier is a hang-up of mine.

The average viewer, distributor or exhibitor will find that answer a bit abstract. They want facts.

I want to refrain from making lists. We could of course spend hours talking about my hobbies, but let’s at least open a few beers first.