Hop on the Rotterdam-Berlin Express

In 2002 a new train set in motion. It was called the Rotterdam-Berlinale Express and was announced at the closing night of Cinemart, the co-production market attached to the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Six film projects, among which “Father and Son” by Aleksandr Sokurov, “Springtime in a Small Town” by Tian Zhuang-zhuang and “Paradise Girls” by Dutch helmer Fow Pyng Hu were to be presented at the European Film Market in order to find more funding.

This year the cooperation between the two festivals continued. Another five projects got a chance to introduce themselves at the new Berlinale co-production market, that this year took place for the first time during the Talent Campus at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. New films by Dagur Kari (who last year won the FIPRESCI Prize in Stockholm for “Noi albinoi”), and Pierre-Paul Renders (FIPRESCI Prize in Venice 2001 for “Thomas est amoureux”) got a chance to fill their budgets for their new projects.

The Rotterdam-Berlinale Express seems a fruitful collaboration betweens two festivals that have to compete on so many other levels. With the growth of the Rotterdam Film Festival, and its ‘best of the fests’ main programme, the Dutch festival slowly and probably unwillingly became to mark the end of the festival season, rather than the beginning, as its early dates would suggest. Whereas Berlin more logically seemed to give the starting signal.

More often than not films that premiered at Berlinale the year before are shown in Rotterdam, among many highlights from Cannes, Karlovy Vary, Venice, Toronto, Pusan and others. Which of course makes it somewhat bitter when Rotterdam ‘loses’ some world or international premieres to Berlin, as was the case with last year’s “The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl” by Jang Sun-woo and this year with the Dutch production “Shouf Shouf Habibi”, directed by Albert ter Heerdt and as a Dutch version of Fatih Akin’s “Head “On” shown in the Panorama section.

Dutch film distributors delay the release of the films they bought in Cannes or Venice. Not only with the result that Holland is always one year late compared to the other festival territories. This practice also creates some sort of congestion in the art house cinema’s in January and February as the films that did not get selected by Rotterdam quickly have to find their way into the theatres, just before the Rotterdam successes will get released.

Coming from Holland myself I also hop on some sort of a Rotterdam-Berlinale Express every year. I never visited the Berlinale as a professional in the old times (when the sun was always shining). My first time as a critic in Berlin coincided with the first year of screenings at the new festival venues around Potsdamer Platz. As impressed as I was by it’s professionalism the first time (sponsored water and a writing room, who would have thought of that in Rotterdam?!), the more I learned to see the similarities between the two fests and noticed how they grew together. The most striking part however was that my veteran colleagues both in Rotterdam and Berlin complained about how the festivals had grown to the extent that they were about to burst out of bounds. This growth must have started some ten years ago, but manifested itself with some urgency this year. In Rotterdam for instance a couple of hours after the presales of festival tickets started, most screenings in the first weekend were sold out, as if The Rolling Stones or Britney Spears were expected in Rotterdam, and not new films by Ulrike Koch or Lee Kang-sheng. The festival became an event.

In Berlin this year one could experience that is was necessary to take a seat in The Berlinale Palast some 30 minutes before the early press screenings (9.00 a.m.!) started, as if the new Lord of the Rings was showing. Not so inconvenient for early risers, but more of a nuisance during the day, when this extra half hour would mean missing an interesting screening in the Panorama or Forum-section. As a professional one could start to feel more and more alienated from the festival and the films.

The International Film Festival Rotterdam is always praised for its low profile festival culture. In Rotterdam you would have the chance to meet Takeshi Kitano in a restaurant, Brian de Palma in a screening room, chat with Raul Ruiz at the bar or smoke a cigarette with Paul Thomas Anderson. And this goes for the general festival audience too! Whereas in Berlin they would have to wait a the red carpet to get a glimpse of the filmmakers.

But as the Rotterdam Film Festival kept growing (it is now in the top three of best attended events with paying visitors in Holland, among the traditional flower shows and the ‘huishoudbeurs’ a trade show for good housekeeping) it is, just as the Berlinale falling apart into several different festivals, for separated audiences. Critics and professionals will attend the press and industry screenings. Reporters will either concentrate on the American previews, such as Lost in Translation and Elephant this year, films that were released just after the festival and therefore benefited from the extra publicity the festival got them. Or they will report on the Tiger Competition, that with it’s often more challenging and experimental first and second films needs a lot of critical backup in the press. Which of course most editors are not interested in as they believe that their readers will be more aroused by the next sex and violence outburst. It that perspective the festival did not help itself by inviting Catherine Breillat’s favourite lead, porn star Rocco Siffredi as he took the attention away from the film, “Anatomy of Hell” (Anatomie de l’enfer), itself. One should almost forget that it was one of those real world premieres the festival has been in need for so long!

It is all perfectly understandable off course. Festivals need stars to get media attention to get sponsors to get stars. And somewhere in this mantra the art film fits in, because even to show lowbudget experimental films by first time makers that will attract only a selected audience of connoisseurs, there has to be some sort of financial back-up. So I am not pointing any finger here. I am merely worried that the stars-media-audience-prestige-more stars-more media cycle will become some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

How many newspaper film critics and journalists will be allowed by their editors to write mainly about the discoveries they make in a Rotterdam sidebar or the Forum in Berlin? Somehow this huge misunderstanding took over that readers are only interested in what other newspapers headline, so the art sections become more and more interchangeable. Another tendency is that film criticism and art criticism in general had to become more journalistic. Which means that form prevails over content (and context!). Not the film or the work of art itself is at core, but circumstantial information. Like economics (what did the film cost, how was it financed), life style (who designed the dress the female lead wore at the premiere), gossip (did the male lead really kiss her) etcetera. And don’t get me wrong, I at times like this kind of reporting and reading, as one cannot close ones eyes for al the glamorous and financial aspects that belong to the film industry. But it cannot be so that this is or is going to be all that there is to say.

So I guess it is about time that festival directors and programmers and film critics became aware once more of their common bond and interest and engaged themselves in this little conspiracy to get new and challenging cinema (back?) into the very centre of attention. Maybe the alleged gap between general audiences and cinema buffs is not as wide and deep as is assumed. And maybe one should not try to fill it with waste and rubbish, but with fruitful soil on which flowers flourish.

A change in the reservation system in Rotterdam, where all the tickets became available in presales, showed that many visitors were willing to watch a relatively unknowns Eastern European, Asian or Latin-American film if the screening of their choice (those premieres of American independents or European best of the fests which already got picked up again) was sold out. So the next step can very well be to ask the question how important these well known names and titles really are to attract audiences? Is it not far more essential for festivals such as those of Rotterdam and Berlin that their guests, visitors and audiences can rely upon certain quality standards of its programmers? That it does not matter which screening you attend, as there is always something good, interesting, surprising, joyful, disturbing going on? That one does not necessarily need twenty something competition films and one sidebar here and another there plus some retrospectives, specials and something more, topped of by (almost) independent side-festivals such as Forum and Panorama in Berlin or three filmmakers in focus, three or four special programmes and a complete short film festival in Rotterdam? Is it not necessary that festival programmers select from the growing production volume in film instead of merely facilitate and make screening room for, without sometimes even have seen the films themselves, as scouts and assistant programmers could easily bring in some of their own hobby horses? And is it not a task of the film critic as such that he or she is enabled to provide context and information, associations, analyses, historical background and future prospects for films that were good and exciting, instead of having to write about slightly disappointing films just because they were in competition at one festival or another?

It is about time that film critics and festival programmers learn to cherish the principles of distinction, identity and difference over and over again instead of conforming themselves to the unwritten and rather ignorant systematic of the masses. They can not do it without the other I am afraid. If critics and festival programmers could share this little unspoken bond, there would indeed be more place for daring, contemporary and uncommon cinema at the festivals, where it for a start belongs. The festivals would become terra incognita once over again. And the critic an explorer by trade.