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Rotterdam Heads Talk Fest’s Christopher Nolan, Sandra Hüller Connections & Focus On New Talent

The International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) opens this evening with New Zealand director Jonathan Olgilvie’s coming-of-age tale Head South set against the late 1970s, post-punk music culture of his home city of Christchurch.

IFFR previously selected Olgilvie’s sci-fi thriller Lone Wolf for its Big Screen Competition in 2021.

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“It’s the first time we’re going to meet him in person because it was during Corona,” says IFFR Artistic Director Vanja Kaludjercic of the first selection.

“When you put the two films side by side, you ask how can one filmmaker make two such different films,” she adds. “We really admire his creativity and ingenuity.”

Over the course of the next 10 days, Rotterdam will screen some 440 works.

The Main Competition for this 53rd edition is characteristically diverse.

The 14 features in the running for the main Tiger Award include Brooklyn-based filmmaker Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich’s The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire, exploring the life of the titular, anti-colonialist Martinique-born French writer, and Justin Anderson’s Deborah Levy adaptation, Swimming Home.

Malayalam Cinema star Midhun Murali’s directorial feature political thriller debut Kiss Wagon is also in the mix, alongside Ukrainian director Dmytro Moiseiev’s meditation on war Grey Bees, and Brazilian drama Praia Formosa by Julia De Simone, about a woman trafficked from Africa in the 19th Century who wakes up to find herself in Rio de Janeiro’s present day port region known as “Little Africa”.

“Since its inception in 1972, Rotterdam has always had the desire and this sort of ethos to program films that otherwise wouldn’t get into cinemas in the Netherlands, or maybe not even Europe” says Kaludjercic.

“It’s a home to those cinematic adventures, but also nations and filmmakers, that often do not get that sort of stage,” she adds.

Highlights of the Big Screen Competition, bridging the gap between popular cinema and arthouse fare, include Cambodian thriller Tenement; Indian drama Seven Seas Seven Hills, which is described as a reflection on Tamil philosophy, and Danish sci-fi romance Eternal.

“There are always films that blow your mind… the festival wants to be there for directors that need that first push,” Kaludjercic.

With its focus on emerging talent and ambition to give filmmakers from under-represented regions a festival platform, IFFR is not necessarily on the radar of mainstream professionals in Europe and the U.S.

Incoming IFFR Managing Director Clare Stewart says this is a mistake.

“My second time at the festival was in 1999, when Christopher Nolan won the Tiger Award for Following,” she says, referring to the Oscar frontrunner’s first feature, which made its European premiere at IFFR after world premiering at Slamdance.

“This is a festival of discovery. If you’re committed as a professional to what it means to find new talent this festival has it in spades,” she says.

“There’s also something about the audience base here. It’s so welcoming. For all these filmmakers who are bringing their first or second film it can be an extremely nerve-wracking experience.”

“But here they’re premiering in a context where they can genuinely connect with audiences, which is not always the case in some of the bigger European festivals.”

Other Oscar connections this year include a Big Screen talk by Anatomy of a Fall star and Best Actress hopeful Sandra Hüller, who is accompanying a screening of The Zone Of Interest, which makes its Dutch premiere at the festival.

“The Dutch connection to Sandra Hüller has been going on for a quite long time and started with Rotterdam-based director Nanouk Leopold [who cast Hüller in her 2010 movie Brownian Motion]. Nanouk is also close to us, as a member of the supervisory board.

“We knew Rotterdam was the right place for the Dutch premiere and everything aligned with the distributor. Having Sandra here, was something that we started working on from early on, and it’s happened thanks to the personal connections. We’re really happy she is taking the time to join us in Rotterdam.”

Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania will also accompany her Oscar-nominated documentary Four Daughters for a Q&A after one of the screenings.

Other highlights of the Big Talk program include on-stage conversations with Debbie Harry and Amanda Kramer, around the latter’s sci-fi doc So Unreal, as well as directors Marco Bellocchio, Anne Fontaine and L.A. Rebellion pioneer Billy Woodberry.

Further highlights outside of the main competitions include a special focus on Chile marking the 50th anniversary of the military coup led by Augusto Pinochet and the impact this had on the country’s cinema as its filmmakers were scattered worldwide in exile.

“For a period of time in there was pretty much no cinema in Chile… we dive into what happened to these filmmakers, who went to Soviet Union, to France, Finland and many other places across this planet, and their careers and the kind of films they were making,” says Vanja Kaludjercic.

“It’s a topic that has resonance nowadays, when so many artists are being forced to flee their countries.”

Former BFI London Film Festival head Stewart, who took up the post of IFFR Managing Director last June, has already started working on a five-year plan for the festival.

“It has been very challenging, as it has been for many festivals coming back out of the pandemic period,” she says of her first edition alongside Kaludjercic.

“These six months have been extremely tactical but what’s been fantastic in terms of our collaboration is that as we were getting the 2024 edition underway, we were discussing our ideas for the future and where do we want to see things going.”

“In fact, we are running a sort of strategic roundtable session during the festival, to engage with different partners and stakeholders, from both the Dutch industry and Rotterdam to help inform this plan.”

Both Kaludjercic and Stewart note that making sure that the festival delivers for Rotterdam’s diverse 650,000-strong population is central to this plan.

“What’s interesting about Rotterdam as a city is that because it it has such a long port history, it’s very diverse in terms of its population. A big focus for us going forward, is how do we build an audience for the future.”

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