A History Of Cold Shoulders For Dutch Cinema

in 33rd International Film Festival Rotterdam

by Pieter van Lierop

The news was spread swifter through the corridors of the Rotterdam Film festival than the news agency’s could have it: The Dutch feature film Twin Sisters is nominated for an Academy Award in the foreign language category. The question that immediatly arose was: Can this film be seen in the Rotterdam program? The answer was: no. Last year it was possible. Not in the official sections however, but only in the round up presented under the aegis of Holland Film, the promotional bureau. Incidentally, Twin Sisters was rejected by the Berlin festival for which it seemed tailor made. This drama directed by Ben Sombogaart was based on a Dutch novel that also sold quite well in Germany, tackling the subject of Dutch-German relationships via the tragedy of two little German girls getting split after the death of their parents in the early thirties of the last century. One of them is raised by rich relatives in the Netherlands, where she falls in love with a Jewish boy that gets arrested by the Nazis and murdered in a concentration camp. Her twin sister meanwhile is exploited at a farm, obliged to take care of the pigs. Deprived of much education she has no defense against the Nazi propaganda and gets married to a ‘decent SS soldier’ who doesn’t survive the war either.

Shortly before the outbreak of war the girls managed to meet and soon experiences appeared to have created a mental gap between them which could not be bridged. Their alienation seemed to be complete. Only 40 years later do they meet again by accident and slowly manage to become reconciled. It happens when the old ‘German’ woman laments to her ‘Dutch’ sister: “Why are my sufferings worth less than yours?” Twin Sisters may not be made in an innovating way, but its subject is delivered with a strong hand and the film is superbly acted.

What has this film to do with the Rotterdam Film festival when it is not even showing there? I’ll tell you. The point is that if you’re one of the 2700 foreign guests or so at the Rotterdam festival, the impression you get of Dutch cinema is a rather poor one, very different from what you could conclude when living in Los Angeles. Hubert Bals the founder of the Rotterdam event was in many ways a brilliant and charismatic man who created the formula of a festival like one big adventure. But he had one flaw — he was allergic to films from his own country. Only a few experimentalists like Frans Zwartjes, Frans van der Staak or Johan van der Keuken were sure that any film they made would get a place in the Rotterdam program. All the others were doomed. I remember the year 1987, when Holland Film organized their own screenings for the first time and invited some of the regular foreign Rotterdam guests, handpicked by Hubert Bals, to join in a jury to pick the best Dutch film. They came out with a verdict stating that none of the Dutch films they had seen was worthy of a prize. During their press conference I asked those jury members how this was possible, as one day earlier one of the films on their program had won the Golden Globe — The Assault, directed by Fons Rademakers. The Rotterdam jury members were not able to explain that. Some weeks later The Assault won the Oscar as well.

In 1996 again a Dutch director won the Academy Award for best foreign language picture — Antonia’s Line by Marleen Gorris. And in 1998 the act was repeated by Mike van Deam with his film Character. Last year Paula van der Oest didn’t win with Zus & Zo but got nominated at least, which was already quite an honor. In between, four Oscars were given to Dutch animation films. Strange as it may sound but the figures prove it — very few non-English speaking countries can match a track record like that at the Oscars. But not a single one of those films ever made it to Rotterdam nor did any other film made by those directors before or after they were hailed in L.A.

At the same time one could ask how it is possible in this context that since 1975 not a single Dutch feature film was selected for the Cannes competition. But Rotterdam is a different story. It is unthinkable that the Cannes competition each year shows less than four French film and in the same way Berlin and Venice do their very best to support German and Italian cinema showing their products in the main venues. Not so Rotterdam. I like the idea of selection on a best quality base only, but one can also be more Catholic than the pope himself.

Since Hubert Bals died his festival was helmed by Anne Head, Marco Mueller, Emile Fallaux and now in his last year Simon Field, all certainly well qualified but only one did not come from abroad. Such would be unthinkable in Cannes or Berlin. It happend once in Venice, with Moritz de Hadeln and we all know how that ended. Simon Field is a great festival director but I was sorry to notice that after seven years in Rotterdam he still didn’t speak a word of Dutch. Last week he was asked which Dutch film he liked the most during his reign in The Netherlands. He admitted he seldom sees Dutch films. He had advisors for that. I was shocked to hear that. Even if he is advised, in his position he should have stayed au courant. I hope in this respect things will change a bit with Sandra den Hamer taking over. But I don’t know. In a way Rotterdam politics are typically Dutch. We are so eager to be international that we neglect our own culture for fear of being parochial. What to think about the following figures. The International Film Festival of Rotterdam has a budget of 5.8 million Euro and is sponsored by Dutch government with 3.8 millon. It manages to sell tickets to some 350.000 Dutch visitors. But this year it was decided to cut down the costs for the catalogue by having all the texts in English only.

Now, in a publication of 432 pages these 350.000 Dutchmen can not find a single word in their own language. I don’t think that is fair. It’s my opinion that this festival should be a bit more generous towards the many Dutch hands that feed it.