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Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Neil Young
February 4, 2014 10:15 AM
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How Many Bad Movies Does It Take to Ruin a Film Festival? This Year's Rotterdam Has the Answer

"Hotel Nueva Isla," a selection from the recent edition of the Rotterdam film festival.

"Simply put, there are now far too many film-festivals, and most of them show far, far too many films. World cinema has been guilty of severe over-production for quite some time... outstanding movies are becoming increasingly hard to find within avalanches of mediocre fare."

It's exactly half a decade since I expressed these sentiments in a report on 38th International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), and spooling forward to 2014's edition — the 43rd — the avalanche is now what the Canadians call a Class 5 ("Could destroy a village or a forest of 40 hectares").

2014 was my tenth visit to IFFR. The first was in 2003 when, literally within minutes of picking up my press badge, and with luggage straining my sweaty palms, I managed to inadvertently (but comprehensively) freak out Paul Thomas Anderson. After catching the end of a panel discussion in which PTA was taking part, I then spotted his diminutive frame ambling towards the exit and boldly intercepted — introducing myself with some prize-jackass fanboy blurt about how "Punch-Drunk Love," which I'd seen at a UK press show the previous week, was "the best film I've ever seen." Further "Curb Your Enthusiasm"-esque awkwardnesses were to follow over the next few days.

So long as notable discoveries outweigh the abandonments, I can charitably call any festival a success.

This remains the most memorable episode of my IFFR experience, albeit one I'd be quite happy to consign to oblivion. In terms of the pictures themselves, my personal zenith was 31st January 2005 when five screenings included Kim's "3-Iron," Rebello & Stoll's "Whisky" and Denis' "The Intruder." That same renewal later yielded Benning's "13 Lakes," Sekiguchi Gen's "Survive Style 5+" (now apparently forgotten, but still Vinnie Jones' finest hour outside the 1988 FA Cup Final) plus Edgar Ulmer's "Detour" on 35mm. The next three IFFRs also threw up their share of choice delicacies — to name just one from each year, Ying Liang's "Taking Father Home" in 2006, Corneliu Porumboiu's "12:08 East of Bucharest" in 2007 and Chico Teixeira's "Alice's House in 2008" (come back, Chico! Brazilian cinema needs you!) 

The wheels started to come off the wagon, however, with Rutger Wolfson's confirmation as Director of the 2009 edition (he'd overseen the 2008 edition in an "interim" capacity following the abrupt departure of Sandra Den Hamer to the Amsterdam EYE Film Museum.) The first serious alarm-bell was the still-unfathomable, still-embarrassing inclusion of Simon Ellis's scrotum-tighteningly dire British erotic "comedy" "Dogging: A Love Story" among the 14 films competing for the three equal Tiger awards (relatively low-key gongs which the festival has bestowed on first- and second-time directors since 1995.) 

At the time, "Dogging" — known in the U.S. under the baldly informative, flaccidly unenticing moniker "Public Sex" — was the subject of spirited public advocacy by Wolfson himself, adding weight to snarky whispers that the widely-liked new Director (previously best known for running De Vleeshal, a contemporary art center in far-flung Middelburg) wasn't really "a film person" at all, but rather a genial front-man for a powerful team of (shadowy/omnipotent/feuding) programmers.

"After two full ‘Wolfson renewals," I wrote the following year, "there’s a sense that this is a vessel which is drifting along – perhaps towards dangerous waters." 2010 also saw the nadir to 2005's apogee, when on 4th February ("Black Thursday") I walked out of four films in a row. I do tend to associate Rotterdam with early skedaddlings, so haphazard is the programming and so numerous are the titles that are, in the words of a German colleague this year, "utterly devoid of merit" (he was referring to Danish entry "On the Edge," which exceeded very limited expectations). So long as notable discoveries outweigh the abandonments, however, I can charitably call any festival a success.

On that rule of thumb, though, IFFR XLIII deserves to be fingered. My seven walkouts included two Tiger contenders — Dominique Chila and Samer Najari's unforgivably drab Arwad and Tatjana Božić's hideously self-satisfied documentary "Happily Ever After." And my tally of "finds" — feature-length new films I'd unhesitatingly recommend to pals — stalled at five. 


  • james | February 6, 2014 2:36 PMReply

    they need to follow the Locarno model to be relevant again. Less "pretentious" stuff & more genre, and more discoveries.

    Locarno falls between Cannes and Toronto and they always have great low budget little gems.

    Just look at IFFR's lineup this year, they had a film about semen, a film inspired by shaving of pubic hair.... and really dram boring films/docs- I believe Ann Arbour is also guilty of taking itself too seriously, trying too hard to be "artsy" .

  • NKorzus | February 6, 2014 5:31 AMReply

    Placing a festival between Berlin and Sundance may be the real problem. The better material just goes there and all they are left is scraps.

  • Shane Danielsen | February 5, 2014 10:09 AMReply

    Their programmers are the problem. They run the place as a fiefdom, are apparently answerable to no one, and have about as much curatorial talent as Snooki and JWoww. The lot of them should be sacked—and at least one of them should be tried at The Hague.

    I forget who said it, but there was that line that 'to have good taste is to know, above all, what one should reject.' Rotterdam's programmers attest to the truth of that statement with almost their every selection.

  • Salty Bill | February 4, 2014 7:24 PMReply

    Too many film festivals? No, really?

  • Mike g | February 4, 2014 12:52 PMReply

    a midnight section is just the right prescription for this snooze fest -

  • Mike g | February 4, 2014 12:52 PMReply

    a midnight section is just the right prescription for this snooze fest -

  • Anders | February 4, 2014 12:15 PMReply

    They seem to have a penchant for "plotless" movies, and last years good movies.

    It's a bad sign when they are premiering movies we already have as screeners and on demand

  • Check | February 4, 2014 11:08 AMReply

    'The International Film Festival Rotterdam's official emblem, projected over a box office at the festival'. That logo hasn't been used since 2008.

  • Irena | February 4, 2014 10:52 AMReply

    Sitzfleisch in this context means patience (for instance when studying and having to 'sit it out' at the desk). Not really that untranslatable, just need to know idioms.

  • Dutchie | February 4, 2014 10:47 AMReply

    I'm Dutch and have (therefore) much love for the IFFR (I help out with it). But it's great to read an outsiders perspective on the decline of the festival. Which I also have been feeling is going on for the last few years.

  • David E | February 4, 2014 10:30 AMReply

    Hey wow, no one cares about your anecdote about PTA. Stick to the topic that the article is about.