The Ghosts of Rotterdam

A festival is a labor of love, but the confusion of love and labor is complicated.
María Palacios Cruz

In a joint publication effort with Fantômas, the Belgian film quarterly, we are publishing the English version of an essay by Open City Documentary Festival director María Palacios Cruz. It was originally commissioned by Fantômas and initially intended to be published in their fifth print issue, but the publication had to change course due to an absence of funding. The Dutch version of the text is published on the Fantômas website.

Dimanche (1963).

The website of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen used to feature quotes by the many luminaries who had had formative experiences at the festival. One particular phrase by German filmmaker Wim Wenders sticks in my mind. He claimed to have smoked his first cigarette in Oberhausen. The metaphor was clear, and powerful. Wim Wenders had become an adult, he had become a filmmaker, in Oberhausen.

The page has since disappeared but thanks to the Internet Archive, I find the full quote, captured on May 1st 2008:

“I smoked my first cigarette here. For years, I saw every single film at the Westdeutsche Kurzfilmtage, looking forward to those days in Oberhausen every year. These events were important for me, for my decision to become a filmmaker.” (Wim Wenders)

What are festivals for if not to facilitate such formative experiences? If not to prompt encounters that will result in life-long friendships and collaborations?

I was reminded of Wenders’ words last year, when reports emerged that the entire programming team of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) had been let go.1 This included members of staff who had been at the festival since I first started attending, back in 2005, as a starry-eyed future programmer.

The news from Rotterdam sent chills through the film community, especially amongst those of us working at the intersection of art and cinema. As writer and scholar Erika Balsom eloquently put it in a review of the 44th edition in 2015, “Is there a major film festival that takes artists’ film and video as seriously as Rotterdam?” Rotterdam was our home—an unmissable event in the festival calendar. It was a festival that was serious about films and filmmakers, not stars on a red carpet. A festival that somehow managed the difficult balancing act of being both an industry and an avant-garde festival.

The center of gravity has since moved elsewhere—or perhaps there is no longer a center (which is not in itself/necessarily a bad thing). But just as Wenders credited Oberhausen with his decision to become a filmmaker, IFFR was where I came of age as a cinephile, where I first met those who would become long-term friends and allies. There were no degrees in film curation at the time; my education was attending IFFR between 2005 and 2012—in particular Edwin Carels’ visionary programming, which took cinema outside and beyond what was at the time the much-discussed dichotomy between the black box and white cube, first in the Exploding Cinema section and later in Cinema Regained.

I was lucky to live in neighboring Belgium at the time—I couldn’t have afforded to be in Rotterdam otherwise—and my first encounter with the festival was just a daytrip. Always interested in what was “not done” (to quote or possibly misquote one of his many program titles), Carels’ programs for IFFR included running a shop in 2010 (the Break Even Store) and a day-care center in 2011 (“Not Kidding”), long before initiatives such as Le Ballon Rouge were set up in Cannes to open up the conversation about the difficult conciliation of childcare and festival work. Looking back, I wonder if my commitment as a programmer to the cinema space is a reaction to the noughties’ obsession with leaving the cinema.

In 2008, Carels invited Belgian researcher and programmer Xavier García Bardón to put together a day-long celebration of EXPRMNTL at IFFR. EXPRMNTL was an extraordinary festival organized sporadically by Jacques Ledoux, chief curator at the Belgian Royal Film Archive, in a then-empty casino in Knokke-le-Zoute, a deserted coastal Belgian town, during the period between Christmas and New Year. Although it only consisted of five editions—1949, 1958 (which took place exceptionally in Brussels to coincide with the World Expo), 1963, 1967 and 1974—it was key in the development of experimental film as an international movement.  EXPRMNTL, the Ghosts of Knokke Le Zoute was a marathon event that overran its already generous allocated running time of 360 minutes and had to be moved into a different screen in the old LantarenVenster cinema (now Kino Rotterdam) for the last few films. In particular I remember Dimanche (1963) by Edmond Bernhard, which must have been screened after midnight. As García Bardón’s catalogue notes read, “EXPRMNTL is the most important event that has ever been organized for experimental cinema.” It seemed fitting that it would be celebrated at what was then the most important festival for the experimental film community.

If EXPRMNTL remains such a legendary and influential event, it is primarily because for several years it provided for a point of encounter between the European, North American and Japanese avant-gardes; for filmmakers who had until then been working in isolation, lacking an international network and opportunities to meet and discuss their work. Coming of age in the early 2000s – which were swept by a revival of interest in the film culture of the 1960s and 1970s—I romanticized events such as EXPRMNTL or the 1973 Festival of Independent Avant-Garde Cinema in London, organized by David Curtis and Simon Field—who’d go on to be the director of IFFR from 1996 to 2004.

Sitting in LantarenVenster in 2008, we all felt the gap between our festival experience and the festival experiences that the EXPRMNTL attendees were describing on stage. IFFR, with its delegate badges and networking drinks, seemed like such a sanitized re-imagining of a film festival. On stage, Italian filmmaker Tonino de Bernardi couldn’t help but commenting on the difference, ending his words with the lament “but EXPRMNTL was special.”

It was special in a way that those of us born decades later would never get to experience. But is that really true? Because when I think back to attending IFFR during the noughties, it also feels special—and not only because I was younger or because I treasure the times spent there with those who are no longer with us. Through the rose-tinted spectacles of memory, it appears as a different era in which a performance of Anthony McCall’s A Line Describing a Cone (1973) could involve people smoking in the room instead of a smoke machine. (Smoking indoors had already been banned.) 

Pierre Alechinsky's poster for the 1968 EXPRMNTL.


The layoffs at IFFR followed similar events at other major European film festivals, including Locarno, Sheffield DocFest and the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes—which have been detailed in journalistic pieces such as Eric Kohn’s for IndieWire. In those cases, a change of artistic director led to the letting go of the entire programming team. This was not the case at IFFR, where a new director had been appointed two years prior and where the job cuts impacted not only the programming team but also production, IT, and marketing staff—a kind of re-structuring that generally receives a lot less public outcry than that which concerns programming roles.

I say public outcry. But how public was the outcry, really? The ruthlessness of the layoffs in Rotterdam seemed more shocking to me than those at the aforementioned festivals because I had held IFFR to higher standards, because of my sentimental attachment to it. I know of many filmmakers who have not sent their films to IFFR this year, of colleagues who have rejected their invitations. I myself will not be attending the forthcoming edition. But these are all private forms of outcry.

The truth is that even though attempts were made, we failed to put together a collective statement, maybe because there were so many issues at stake that it was difficult to encompass them all in one simple statement.

For some, it was about the loss of a space for the avant-garde community: it was feared that the new team (which were then yet to be revealed) would take the program in a more commercial direction. And the avant-garde needs festivals like Rotterdam. In a report of EXPRMNTL 5 in 1975, Tony Rayns writes:

Festivals are even more important to the avant-garde than they are to the commercial industry. There are many factors that conspire to deter or prevent independent filmmakers from distributing work outside their own country: the onus is on festivals to do for the avant-garde what an entire system (commercial exhibition; the critical establishment; film society and television screenings) does for mainstream cinema. The best festivals of the avant-garde are also the most sheerly functional: they provide a sympathetic—which is not to say uncritical—ambience for filmmakers to screen and discuss their work, and establish the network of "grapevine" contacts that makes follow-up screenings possible.

For me, the main issue was and remains the precarious nature of festival programming jobs. This was revealed brutally by the Rotterdam layoffs. The majority of those who were let go were not “fired” since they did not have permanent contracts—just an intention to work together that was renewed yearly. Those who had been there for several decades, and thus were better protected by Dutch labor laws, will likely have been replaced by freelance programmers in much more precarious circumstances. Festival programmer jobs, just like film critics’ jobs, have become the stuff of fiction. It would seem that full employment in our field is something that ended with the 20th century.

Following the layoffs, freelance programmers started to have conversations we’d never had before: about how much we are paid versus how much is expected of us, about the difference between wages and fees, about a system that feeds privilege and feeds on privilege. Because who can afford to work for symbolic fees, for less than the hourly minimum wage? Who can afford to be a film curator in the midst of—at least, in the UK case—a cost of living crisis?

(For a discussion on the relationship between art and class in the United Kingdom, I recommend watching this conversation between Morgan Quaintance and Andrea Luke Zimmerman.)

Not many people spoke publicly after the Rotterdam layoffs. Allegiances were torn between relationships with those who had been let go and those who would take their place. The Belgian website Sabzian compiled some of the reactions in this article. At the time, it felt as if the layoffs at IFFR had “provoked a debate on the future of film festivals”; now, IFFR have announced a symposium on the future of film festivals titled “Reality Check.”

Perhaps the most incisive comments were those of Peter Taylor, the Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival director and a former IFFR programmer. He pointed to what was really at stake, beyond our sentimental attachment to a moment in our lives that we will never live again: an economic model of exploitation, of low paid programmers and unpaid filmmakers. “Why does IFFR's financial viability depend on poor working conditions for its staff? Why do IFFR and other multi-million $€£ film festivals show filmmakers' work without paying them?”

In her essay for World Records, “The Accidental Outside,” scholar and critic Genevieve Yue argues that “for certain types of films, festivals are an end in and of themselves”. Speaking about the experimental documentary form, she points to a “closed-circuitness”, in which films exist to be shown at festivals that exist in order to show those films. It is a closed circuit in which both filmmakers and film programmers are often not remunerated and are expected to offer their labor “for love and honor”—as Hollis Frampton put it in his much-cited letter to the MoMA curator Donald Richie.

Filmmakers and programmers are paid with “exposure”—but as someone once pointed out during a Podium discussion in Oberhausen, “people die from exposure.” Even though the IFFR layoffs have prompted honest conversations amongst freelance programmers, there are still no unions to protect their labour. As Eric Kohn writes, “programmers have no set of centralized standards to protect the work they do.”

Following Cíntia Gil’s departure as Sheffield DocFest director (due to irreconcilable “artistic differences” between her and the festival board) and the subsequent dismissal of her programming team, the outgoing programmers (Juliano Gomes, Qila Gill, Carlos Pereira, Christopher Small, Rabz Lansiquot, Soukaina Aboulaoula, Herb Shellenberger) put together a statement in which they poignantly ask the essential question: “What is a film festival even for?

These and other questions were in my head as we prepared for the 2022 edition of Open City Documentary Festival. I spoke with many colleagues, trying to figure out how, and if, we should organize a public event that would address what had just happened in the festival world. Some pointed to the self-indulgence, the “short-circuitedness,” in other words, of a festival organizing a discussion about festivals.  Who was the discussion for? Who indeed were we trying to talk to?

In the end, in my welcome note to the 2022 edition I wrote:

The last year has brutally revealed the full scale of the aftermath of Covid-19 for the moving image sector: unsustainable working practices in the film festival world, a shattered film culture, fractured communities. A now-irreversible move online that brings with it both opportunities—in terms of access—and losses—in terms of rapture. Does cinema still matter today? Does cinema still hold the power to bring us together? To transform us? To transform the world? We believe that it does—but it can’t exist in a vacuum.

It can’t exist in a vacuum. A festival is a labor of love, but the confusion of love and labor is complicated and can lead to exploitation. But things needn’t be that way, as Eli Horwatt points out in his essay “Who Are Film Festivals For?”: “Acknowledging this reality, many [...] called for a more collaborative solidarity between programmers and filmmakers, in order to shift policies toward fair remuneration.”

This essay was commissioned by the Belgian film publication Fantômas and was initially intended to be published in their fifth print issue. The publication had to change course due to an absence of funding. The Dutch version of the text is published on

1. I am being purposefully vague—NDAs have been signed and we are not to know what has really happened behind the scenes during the past year. Several programmers were re-appointed when the new team was announced in May.

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