Fellow Bondi resident and film director Paul Middleditch could easily talk the leg off
an iron pot. Sitting opposite me at a table in the decidedly cosy upstairs foyer of the
Rotterdam Hilton, he's explaining the genesis for the plot of his feature debut, Terra
Nova - a task he'll be equally comfortable performing in front of hundreds of inquisitive
European festival goers at multiple Q&A sessions.
"spotted the news item on Urban Cinefile"
It's Day 7 of the 1999 Rotterdam Film Festival (end of Jan to early Feb), and by now
I'm comfortable with the city's public transport system, I'm practically a pro when it
comes to ensuring I get tickets to screenings, I've seen at least few dozen films (some of
them great), and chatting to directors like Middleditch has become par for the course. But
I just can't stop marvelling at the fact that I'm actually here...
Two days before Christmas (having spotted the news item on Urban Cinefile) I paid $27
to send my application to the Rotterdam Film Festival in the vain hope of being chosen for
their Young Film Critics' Trainee Program. I'd been review writing in various incarnations
for a few years, and producing the movies category for the ninemsn websites Sydney and
Melbourne Sidewalk for a while, and whilst the phrase "golden opportunity" tends
to get a tad worn out, there isn't a better way to describe the prospect of a fortnight of
fully funded filmwatching. Miraculously (considering that over half the applications came
from Australia), a two-sentence e-mail arrived early January informing me that I had been
selected, and a couple of weeks later I was checking into the Wilgenhof Hotel, Rotterdam.
"my first experience of a festival outside
My first few days are dizzily disorienting. I meet with Christian de Schutter, editor
of the daily newspaper published during the festival and work out a trainee report
schedule with the webmaster in the impressively vast, brand spanking new offices of the
festival. This being my first experience of a festival outside Australia, I'm somewhat
overawed by the number of staff - several hundred at the height of proceedings - and the
scale of diversity of the films being shown. At any given time there will be four or five
simultaneous screenings, most of them taking place in the Pathe complex, a towering
modernist shed in the middle of town that features seven state-of-the-art theatres (one of
which seats 1000).
Over the course of two weeks a total of 1,999 guests (journalists, filmmakers,
producers and actors) will visit the festival, among them Larry Clark (Kids, Another Day
In Paradise), Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine), Whit Stillman (Last Days of Disco), the
legendary Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flowers of Shanghai), Catherine Breillard (Romance). And given
the intimacy of the setting (candidly, there aren't that many places to go for a beer in
Rotterdam), there's a good chance that we'll run into each other more than a few times.
So what of the films?
So what of the films? One well-known U.S. reviewer wearily informs me that the
selection this year is weak (but after about 10 days I realise it's almost mandatory for
film journalists to decry some aspect of a film festival). My feeling is that there are
some very exciting offerings - namely Olivier Assayas' Fin Aout, Debut Septembre, Flowers
of Shanghai by Hou Hsiao-hsien, and at a late night screening Todd Solondz's Happiness
(the vastly superior follow-up to Welcome To The Dollhouse) has the audience† rolling
in the aisles.
The excellent Disney feature Rushmore is an unofficial favourite with the Fipresci jury
- I'm lucky enough to dine with them on a few occasions - and not surprisingly the
audience favourite is Festen (directed by Thomas Vinterberg), a film produced according to
the Dogma '95 rules. Suffice to say it is with a great deal of regret that I pack my bags,
because there are many films I simply have no time to see, but it's great to see that some
of the films I missed (namely Black Cat White Cat, La Vie Revee Des Anges (Erick Zonca)
and Paul Auster's Lulu On the Bridge) will all be releasing in Australia.
"It's a festival for filmmakers, not stars"
If Rotterdam isn't as well known as Cannes, Sundance or even Berlin, it's because of
its unassuming stature. It's a festival for filmmakers, not stars (although the local
press does get rather excited when Bridget Fonda drops in to promote A Simple Plan). And
even though deals are being done as part of the Cinemart (a four-day long opportunity for
producers/filmmakers to find investors and distributors for their projects) commercial
concerns don't necessarily come first.
And young and emerging Australian filmmakers take note: if you're looking for European
exposure, Rotterdam is the very best place to start. But perhaps the greatest endorsement
I can give the festival is a more personally motivated one - I'll be moving heaven and
earth (via British Airways) to get back there next year.