Vanja Kaludjercic Clare Stewart

The Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFFR) opens on January 25 with the world premiere of New Zealand director Jonathan Ogilvie’s coming of age drama Head South.

The Competition jury includes former IFFR director Marco Mueller with films in the running for a €40,000 prize, and two special jury awards, worth €10,000 each.

The festival will close with La Luna by M. Raihan Halim, the European premiere of the Malaysian comedy about a lingerie store that opens in a small village.

It is the fourth festival with Vanja Kaludjercic at the helm, but only her second steering a fully live event following two challenging pandemic editions. 

Kaludjercic is joined for the first time by Clare Stewart as the IFFR’s managing director. Stewart, who took over from Marjan van der Haar in June 2023, brings her experience earned from top roles at the Sydney, London and Sheffield DocFest festivals.

Together they talk to Screen about the programming highlights of this year’s IFFR, meeting the challenges of a slightly reduced budget and the role film festivals have always play in times of conflict.

Vanja, of what are you particularly proud in this year’s programme?
One of the biggest pleasures of doing IFFR is the breadth and the width of the programming, working with a team of programmers and creating each edition. But one theme I’m really proud of this year is the Focus programme Chile And The Heart, commemorating 50 years since the military coup that led to the exile of numerous filmmakers, including the notable filmmakers we all know, Miguel Littin, Patricio Gusman, Raul Ruiz.

We are looking at this unique phenomenon where the filmmakers are scattered across three continents but are united to create a collective voice against the fascist regime at home. We’re looking at a time in history when there was no cinema in Chile, it was happening elsewhere in the world.

It was one of the hardest Focus programmes to pull off because there was not one archive to work with. We had to work with archives on three continents.

You have films from Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Indonesia in the main competitions. How did you find those films? Are they filmmakers you have been following? Or do they come through an open submissions process?
VK: It’s both, of course. That we can put our competitions together [the way we do] is testament to what IFFR has been cultivating through the decades. From the very moment the festival started, we have said, ‘we are going to be looking for those films that often do not get such big international stage and exposure and to show how brilliant cinema can reside in all these remote places in the world’.

In Big Screen, we have a Dominican Republic sci-fi [Aire: Just Breathe] by a female filmmaker [Leticia Tonos Paniagua]. We also have a Cambodian horror [Inrasothythep Neth and Sokyou Chea’s Tenement] and a Tamil Nadu film [Viduthalai I & II – The Film] in our Big Screen competition which is from a filmmaker [Vetri Maaran] who is a returning filmmaker to IFFR with his fifth film. [Maaran’s 2018 film Ruthless Man played at IFFR in 2018.)

Clare, what brought you to Rotterdam?
CS: This festival has been dear to my heart for a very, very long time and is a return to an emphasis on discovery for me. After 25 years of working in the film festival space, it’s absolutely the space that I love the most.

Many film festivals and cultural institutions around the world are facing funding pressures. Is your budget at IFFR the same as last year?
CS: No, not at all. That’s the one of the big challenges for this year. We’re facing very similar challenges [to other festivals] in the sense that the soft money that is Covid recovery money has now been ceased in most contexts. The rise in costs is a real challenge.

And also, what has really happened with the impact of the pandemic, which is not necessarily spoken about so much, is that the the last four editions of the festival have been completely different. What this means is, how do you forecast for your self-generated revenue? Your box office, and accreditations and the money you make from merchandise etc? You can’t forecast with a sense of, ‘we know this behaves this way each year, so we know that this is where we’re going to end up’.

For this year, full kudos to the amazing team at IFFR, we’ve met that challenge through a combination of reducing costs to close the gap and also additional investment from the municipality and one of the festival’s great partners, Rotterdam-based cultural foundation Droom en Daad.

What is the budget this year and where have you made the savings?
CS: We’re looking at between €9.5m – €10m. Last year’s was €10.5m. [The festival confirmed last year’s annual turnover of the organisation was €10.5m.] This year the festival is starting a day later so we’ve reduced the total number of days, and we’ve worked with some of our cinema venues where we would usually do a full takeover to have a more mixed ecology. They will be running some of their screens for some of the days while we’re in-venue.

I think a lot of those measures have been done in such a way that they don’t actually change the audience experience, they don’t change the industry experience. But they just help us in terms of keeping the costs reduced.

Have you kept the number of total number of features the same?
There is a tiny drop. This year we have 211 feature films and last year there were 246.

Against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing Israel-Hamas war that have ignited protests at other festivals, how are you planning to make IFFR a safe space for dialogue and protest?
VK: The festival is really inclusive. It is there to offer a multitude of perspectives on geopolitical conflicts and many other themes and topics that we are representing through our programme. We have two raging wars in our minds and heads as we are coming into this edition. I want the festival to be the harbour it always has been.

CS: Film festivals as cultural entity more or less evolved out of the post-Second World War moment as a response to [the questions] how do we create cultural understanding? How do we promote spaces where freedom of speech is welcome? And how do we open the door for really, all perspectives to coexist?

What that clearly means is that we need to be a safe harbour as Vanja says and in the Rotterdam context, very literally.

Festivals have always had to respond to moments of conflict, of war, of protest. The only strategy to really take is to say, ‘we are that open space’. And to ensure that you’re prepared and that you understand those things may happen. But I think it becomes quite dangerous if you try to control that space.

Finally which films would you pick for international distributors and sales agents to look out?
VK:  I warmly invite our international audience to discover Steffen Haars and Flip van der Kuil, a very popular Dutch filmmaking duo, and their film Krazy House [playing in Limelight]. This is the first film they have made in English and it made its world premiere in Sundance. Its European premiere will be right now at IFFR.

Popular cinema, genre cinema, has always been part of IFFR. Jackie Chan visited us over 20 years ago. But it was [as much ] a look at Far East and Southeast Asian cinema. Krazy House is a comedy but with an avant garde streak. They really toy with cinema but it’s accessible to everybody. This perfectly illustrates the kind of cinema we are interested in.

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