The Netherlands Film Festival is one of those anomalies, an internationally-regarded film festival that is dedicated solely to films produced within its own borders. The Solothurn Film Festival does something similar for the Swiss industry but one is hard-pressed to find many more. A programme limited by geographical constraint does not, however, stop the Dutch public from turning out in their thousands to view the cinematic offerings of their countrymen. The 2009 event attracted an audience of 151,000 visitors, a 5% increase on 2008, while the online audience measured 1.9 million. “There are many films from abroad throughout the year in our cinemas,” stresses NFF programmer Herman de Wit, who has been with the festival since its launch in 1981, the last sixteen as programmer. “So the Netherlands Film Festival is the best opportunity for audiences to see all the Dutch films they have missed.”
The festival screens the cream of the previous year’s production crop within its main programme. Last year that represented a selection of 180 new films from over 400 submissions. “Anybody can submit,” de Wit points out, “which means we also receive a lot of home-movie type films, some even feature-length, made with friends and family, and the local butcher. It is therefore very necessary to apply very professional standards to what we will screen at the festival.” Some of the feature-length selections compete for the coveted grand prize of Dutch cinema, the Golden Calf. In addition, many first-time films compete in the Debut Competition for the Film Prize of the City of Utrecht. In the Panorama section, the festival surveys the best student films, the pick of Flemish films and a number striking foreign films in which Dutch talent made an important contribution.
“But the festival is more than an analysis of the previous year’s work,” de Wit stresses. “We have large retrospective programmes - on filmmakers, on genres, on documentary directors - and even silent film is an important part of the programme.” Each year an example of Holland's early film heritage is culled from the archives and given the full live-orchestra treatment. In 2010 a series of re-scored short films from the late 1920s and early 1930s will be screened. These include works by Mannus Franken and Andor von Bursy. This year’s festival will also present a retrospective of the nature films of Jan Musch and Tijs Tinbergen, who picked up the Golden Calf for Best Documentary in 2009 for OUTFOXED.
De Wit is also planning a retrospective of the films of Herman van der Horst, one of Holland’s most important and prolific filmmakers who chronicled the post-War reconstruction period. “He is almost forgotten by the young public,” de Wit laments. “So I am looking forward to screening his films again and to give the audience a good idea of how good documentary filmmaking could be in the 1950s and early 1960s.” De Wit refuses to be drawn on this year’s Guest of the Year, in which a retrospective of the work of a Dutch film luminary is selected and mused on by public and professionals alike. “We have already selected somebody very exciting but I cannot, of course, tell you who that is right now,” he says. “First we must assemble a programme. Then we’ll go public with their name in May.”
It is natural that the festival looks to programme as many world and Dutch premieres as possible, but in the context of year-round distribution strategies that is not always possible. Nor is it always advisable. “Of course I like it very much when producers and directors decide to premiere their films at our festival and of course we do our very best to get these films,” states de Wit. “It is good for the filmmakers too, especially documentary filmmakers who are generally used to seeing their films screened on television very late in the evening. But, on the other hand, programming premieres can be difficult as you have this reservoir of new films screening for the first time at the festival but which cannot be released until months later. The producers are free therefore to choose a later festival like Rotterdam. But we do our very best to accommodate them. Sometimes we can not only premiere a film but also programme a kind of retrospective or overview of films from the same author or filmmaker.”
In terms of what will open and close the festival, de Wit remains tight-lipped as he awaits the completion of a number of new and high-profile Dutch films. These include such works as Paula van der Oest’s study of the pan-global effects of the credit crisis, THE DOMINO EFFECT, and Rudolf van den Berg’s TIRZA, the tragic story of a father’s search for his daughter. De Wit is also hopeful of programming BROWNIAN MOVEMENT, Nanouk Leopold’s study of a marriage in crisis, set among the architectural constructs of Le Corbusier, both in Europe and in India. “We are looking very closely at these films,” he stresses. “If they have their premieres at Cannes or especially Venice, which is closer to our festival, then the opportunity to also offer a Dutch premiere is a very good thing.”
De Wit assesses the current state of Dutch filmmaking, and compares it to the industry that he entered in the 1980s. “At that time we had a lot of Dutch feature films based on novels. Now they are mainly based on original scripts,” he points out. “These days there is much easier access to equipment so it is not so difficult, nor so expensive, for a filmmaker to make his own film. He doesn’t need the money that he would have needed two decades ago. Look at GREAT KILLS ROAD (Tjebbo Penning) for example, which was screened at the festival last year, and is now in the cinema, and which was made without the assistance of the Dutch Film Fund. There are more and more of those types of film being made now.
“But the other day I was asking my colleagues - where is the Dutch Ken Loach? Where are the Dutch Brothers Dardennes?,” he ponders. “We have a lot of good filmmakers but they are making one film after the other, sometimes without consistency of subject.” De Wit does, however, note a renewed sense of resolve within his country’s filmmakers, an attitude that was underlined during the 2009 Netherlands Film Festival. “At Utrecht last year we had the Dutch Angle programme in which we claimed that a greater emphasis should be placed upon the new generation of Dutch filmmakers, both in terms of their approach and their authorial voice. There is a definite shift in terms of their outlook and approach. I don’t know if it will continue, but I hope that it does.”