Peter van Hoof is the founder of Cinema De Balie, the independent cinema department of political cultural center De Balie in the heart of Amsterdam. He is one of the founders of Stichting De Filmbank, a small organisation for promoting Dutch experimental cinema that recently merged with the Eye Film Institute. As programmer for the International Film Festival Rotterdam, he is responsible for programming the short film section.
Sacha Bronwasser is an art historian and author. As an independent art critic she has been writing for the leading Dutch daily “De Volkskrant” since 1998, specialising in contemporary art. She contributes to several magazines, books and catalogues. She joined the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) shorts programming team in 2005.
DFI: This is the first time Rotterdam has had an Arab strand – why is it significant?
We wanted to look at the images of what went on behind the news cameras: the video footage filmmakers have been using to show the sentiments of Arab populations for quite some time. Because one thing becomes abundantly clear from the films and installations that are part of Power Cut Middle East: this is not a sudden, Facebook or Twitter-powered revolution. Revolutions don’t develop due to 140-character slogans. There was a much longer run-up to these revolutions, as there will be a longer aftermath.
DFI: Can you summarise this year’s Arab strand at Rotterdam?
“Power Cut Middle East” consisted of two parts: “Egyptian Timelines” and a nomadic edition of the Damascus Visual Arts Festival.
The Egyptian part had two feature films, 12 short films and lectures under the title “Reading The Arab Image”. The Syrian part had two feature films, 24 short films, a video performance by Lynn Kodeih and a closing debate under the title “The Road to Damascus”
DFI: How did you develop the themes in the strand?
The IFFR is taking place exactly a year after the spark of revolution jumped from Tunisia to Egypt, it felt urgent to put that into context. We decided not to cover the whole Arab region in process of change. The situation is too diverse per country to do so. Instead, we focused on two countries: Egypt and Syria. Egypt being in a very complicated post-revolution situation, and Syria being in the midst of a process of which the outcome is very uncertain. As a third theme, we chose the role of the moving image in these events. The moving image has been and still is crucial to these events and it is at the core of our festival as well.
DFI: How did you hear about the films?
For the Syrian part, we “adopted” the Damascus Visual Arts Festival which cannot take place in 2012 for obvious reasons. The two curators, Charlotte Bank and Delphine Leccas, adapted their programming to the Rotterdam festival.
For the Egyptian part we researched via the institutions and people we already were in contact with in the Middle East and also worked with an Egyptian artist (Hala Elkoussy) and a Dutch curator who has worked and lived in Cairo and Beirut (Nat Muller) as our advisors. Then we took it from there with the filmmakers that were invited and asked them to propose other films to us.
DFI: What feedback did you get from audiences who watched these films?
The audience was not extremely large but very interested and concentrated. The feedback was very diverse, from a sometimes very emotional response from visitors with Arab roots.
DFI: On the evidence of “Power Cut Middle East”, how do you see Arab film evolving over the next few years?
A very interesting aspect is the dichotomy in the filmmakers’ ambitions. Some of them are convinced that connecting to the revolutionary developments is now the only option. Others choose a deliberate artistic path and refuse to be politically involved. They see experimental and independent filmmaking as a form of liberation in itself.
DFI: What is lacking?
In most of the countries there is almost no chance for film- and video artists to show their work to a local audience. Also the number of festivals in the region that show more experimental short film or video art is very limited.
DFI: Who were the discoveries of “Power Cuts”?
There were lots of pleasant surprises throughout the program by young and very talented filmmakers from the different countries, like the activist works by Metwaly or Rizk or the more conventional but very well made documentary works by young filmmakers like Soudaade Kaadan or Dina Hamza. And pleasant surprises in genre like the project “Doors of Fear” by Ahmed Khaled.
DFI: How did you get into programming?
SB: Originally I am an art-historian. As an art-critic for a Dutch daily (“De Volkskrant”), I have been writing about video art and film. After having organised some exhibitions and two small festivals myself, the IFFR invited me to join their programming team for shorts in 2005.
PvH: I started by my career as a programmer for Squat Cinema in Amsterdam.
I then set up a cinema division at political cultural center De Balie. I initiated a small distribution organisation for Dutch short and experimental film called “De Filmbank”. I took over as head of the short film section of the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2005.
DFI: Will you be committing to an Arab strand at Rotterdam each year?
The IFFR decides every year upon its strands and themes, according to developments in the arts and in the world. But we are convinced that with the contacts we made, our input of Arab films will significantly increase.