Interviews with Festival Programmers: Venice, Rotterdam

by Lesley Chow and Farah Azalea

While the Singapore International Film Festival appears to target its local audience very effectively, a clue to SIFF’s status as an international market for regional films might be the producer and distributor contacts listed in the back of the catalogue, and especially, the long list of foreign guests, including festival programmers from Venice, Pusan, Rotterdam, Jakarta, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. I asked two major international programmers, Gertjan Zuilhof, from the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and Paolo Bertolin, a member of the selecting committee for the Venice Film Festival, about their experiences at SIFF, and how they would feel about screening small, localised films for an international audience.

Q: What was your major purpose in coming to the Singapore International Film Festival?

Gertjan Zuilhof: I come to SIFF every year to pick up some titles and new contacts from Singapore and the region. They always have a nice mix of new films from the region and some good international films for the local audience.

Paolo Bertolin: I have been wanting to visit SIFF for a few years now. I always heard it was a key event in the panorama of international film festivals in Asia, and certainly the oldest and most well-established film event in Southeast Asia. I would say then that the major purpose of coming to SIFF this year was for me to experience and discover the festival itself. Added to this, obviously, attending a film festival is always very important for me, in my work as film festival programmer, as a way to discover new films and to establish contacts with local directors and producers, also in order to get to know about upcoming productions.

Q: How do you generally come across films for your festival? Do you use other festivals for research?

GZ: I visit other festivals, especially Pusan International Film Festival, and I just go around the world to meet filmmakers and see films.

PB: In the case of a major film festival like Venice a great deal of the films are directly submitted to our attention by film producers, sales companies and directors themselves (especially in the case of smaller, indie productions). However, it is sometimes possible (albeit rare) that films that premiered at other festivals could be included in our line up. But that only applies to films that screened at national festivals (i.e. a Singaporean film that premieres at SIFF). Other festivals still could prove a useful tool to discover films though; sometimes you get to know about upcoming local projects or local films that might be in the final stages of post-production and so did not make it to the festival itself because they were not ready.

Q: How would you compare the programming of your film festival to the Singapore festival?

PB: Venice and Singapore are very different. For one thing, Venice Film Festival, along with Cannes and Berlin, is one festival where all films invited have to be world and international premieres. This is a key discriminating factor. While a festival like Singapore Film Festival (as well as many others around the world) includes in its mission the aim of bringing important and acclaimed international films to local audiences (who might not get to see them otherwise), festivals like Venice, Cannes and Berlin cater to the whole international film community and have to secure themselves absolute premieres and discoveries, in order to fulfil their mission and maintain their pre-eminence in the international film festival circuit. For the rest, specifically in terms of programming, festivals like Venice, Cannes and Berlin work through a system of very selective programming (the number of films submitted is huge, around 2000) and don’t include thematic programs and focuses (although there might be retrospective sessions).

Q: Would you program a foreign film which required the audience to have a considerable amount of background knowledge?

GZ: If the film is difficult I show it anyway, but there are ways you can help the audience. Inviting the filmmaker to explain his film a bit is one way. I program a film when I think it is good, like Lav Diaz’s Melancholia, which is difficult for its length and the way it refers to local history. [Melancholia, screening at SIFF, was programmed by Zuilhof for Rotterdam in January; the film also won the Orizzonti Grand Prize at last year’s Venice Festival. It’s an 8-hour meditation on the sadness of three characters in the Philippines, who change their identities several times, becoming pimps, prostitutes and nuns in the process.]

PB: This is a thorny issue. But let me state something first off. In the case of festivals like Venice or Cannes, no one can really claim to “program” something because of his or her own choice, if they are not the Artistic Director himself. Technically speaking, I am not a “programmer”, but a “member of the selecting committee”. This means that I am one of the people who choose the films for Venice, but I alone cannot choose anything. The films I might see and find recommend for the festival have to be watched by my colleagues as well, and our Artistic Director has to validate each and every choice (he basically has the final say over any film).

Having said all of this, there have always been films in Venice, Cannes or Berlin where cultural, political, social or other elements of background knowledge could certainly play a key part in enhancing the understanding and appreciation of the films themselves. However, their inclusion in the festival line-up generally might have been dictated by aesthetic choices in the first place. Let me make myself more clear with some actual examples. If a film from some corner of the world proves to be an “important” film in its local context because of the political or social issues it tackles, perhaps even in a very brave manner – political and social issues with which audiences from the rest of the world might not be so familiar with – but its narrative and its visual style respond to very conventional and predictable concerns, it would be highly unlikely for this film to make it to a festival like Venice. On the other hand, films which make statements about a very local political or social situation, and which include cultural references that might be obscure to foreigners, still have a strong chance to make it to the major festivals (and perhaps might even have a higher chance to get into them) if they convey that political, social or cultural meaning through an engaging, inventive or even provocative cinematic presentation. Eventually, issues engendered by “background knowledge” are always overcome by the sheer artistic/narrative/visual quality of the film. If the “issues” or “content” count more than the cinematic presentation, well then, the film’s chances are reduced. But then again, one should draw a more distinct line between different kinds of “background knowledge” required by a film. This is obviously a general answer that cannot enter into too much detail, and as such cannot be taken as a statement written in stone.

Q: Any particular elements of programming you liked at SIFF, or standout films?

PB: I would mention as the real standouts of this year’s competition, Yang Ik-June’s Breathless and Yeo Joon Han’s Sell Out! They are indeed very different films, but in their own terms they both are great achievements, and really one-of-a-kind: Breathless is a very hard-hitting and deeply touching drama about the inescapable heritage of violence featuring unforgettable performances, Sell-Out! is an irresistibly clever and hilarious musical comedy plus anti-capitalist satire. I also very much liked the festival’s closing film, Semih Kaplanoglu’s enchantingly poetic Milk (which premiered last year in competition at Venice), and the marvellous and politically subtle Agrarian Utopia by Uruphong Raksasad from Thailand – indeed a good example of a film that might require some “background knowledge” to be fully appreciated, but that still, thanks to its artistic quality, would deserve to be programmed anywhere.

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8 Responses to “Interviews with Festival Programmers: Venice, Rotterdam”

  1. Matt Riviera Says:

    Fascinating interview! It’s not often that festival programmers get a chance to talk about their work, Zuilhof and Bertolin’s candid comments about their role provide great insights into their approach. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Dina Iordanova Says:

    This is a great interview which gives some excellent insights into the working of the festival cycle and into programming in particular. Thank you for this posting!

  3. Felicia Chan Says:

    Thanks for this interview, and congratulations on getting one! Festival insiders can be difficult to approach if one isn’t from the mainstream media.

  4. Dimitris Kerkinos Says:

    Very interesting interview indeed. Being a festival programmer myself, the part that discusses the “background knowledge” really caught my attention as it’s also a crucial part of my work. Although I agree that an artistically poor film with possible important subject matter doesn’t generally have many chances to be selected by a fesitval, I would like to point out that, sometimes, a great part of the artistic originality of a film from an “unknown” national group may elude a foreign programmer who may not understand how particular cultural codes have been translated in cinematic terms. On the other hand, there are films that appeal to foreigners because they are aesthetically spectacular, although culturally may be simply pretentious or insignificant. I think a programmer should always discuss films with locals in order to get an insight to a film’s special cultural codes and so to be able to reevaluate it in a wider context. I believe that our attention should also turn to cinema as a medium itself and to the rethoric of the cinematic language.

  5. Lesley Chow Says:

    Hi Dimitris, can you give an example of a film whose originality might not be immediately apparent, without background context? Or a director who attracts the attention of international programmers, but is generally considered irrelevant in his/her own country?

    Lesley Chow

  6. Dimitris Kerkinos Says:

    Lesly hi. I saw recently in Istanbul IFF, “Men on the Bridge” by Asli Ozge. It’s kind of a hybrid film, partly fiction and partly documentary. The story of the film is based on the lives of the main three characters (with one exception they were playing themselves) and although it was quite interesting I couldn’t really get into it and I had problems with its form. But afterwards, discussing the film with some Turks who were quite excited about its authenticity and its liveness, they helped me see some crucial points regarding the characters’ background, which by being a foreign I was not able to see. Their comment shaded new light in my perception of the film and its form…
    As for the second question, well, Turkish directors such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Zeki Demirkubuz, Reha Erdem although they do great abroad, in Turkey they are not that appreciated by the audience.

  7. apmartin Says:

    Dimitris – it would be interesting to find out what aspects of, say, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s work make it unappealing to local audiences. I think that language use often plays a part in this phenomenon. For instance, I think Hong Kong audiences may be put off by the stilted dialogue in Wong Kar-wai’s films. The strained vocal mannerisms in all his films – or the verbal ingenuity of Johnnie To’s comedies, for that matter – might not be apparent to foreign viewers.


  8. Dimitris Kerkinos Says:


    I know that Climates did much better in France with fewer prints and theatres than in Turkey which had three times that amount. Probably, due to the strength of local commercial films which has an audience that some years comprises almost the 50% of the total box office in Turkey. So, it seems that the local audience doesn’t care that much about local artistic films.

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