Interview with festival director Bero Beyer

Bero Beyer has been at the helm of IFFR in the role of new festival director for a month now. But Beyer is not really a new kid on the Rotterdam block at all: he has close ties to IFFR going way back. As a festival volunteer, he chauffeured a young Kate Winslet to the festival; his career as a producer started at CineMart; and his films Qissa and Atlantic. have graced IFFR’s big screens. "Daring to dream is an essential element of film," he says. But at least as essential is that the festival is able to put these dreams in context. 

You are the new director of IFFR. But ‘new’ is a pretty relative term in your case, isn’t it?
"My involvement with IFFR started when I was a student at what is now the Willem de Kooning Academy – back then it was simply the Art Academy. I was a volunteer at the festival and got to drive the shuttle bus, and later for the car service. It must have been 1995, because I remember picking up a very young Kate Winslet from Schiphol airport. She was in Rotterdam with her debut feature, Heavenly Creatures. The festival atmosphere really got its hooks into me. I found being surrounded by all these free spirits and all this creativity really inspirational. I was fascinated by the medium of film from an early age, but it was something of a revelation that film was also associated with all these incredible people."

You studied art, but became a producer instead of an artist. What went wrong?
"No, no, the question should be, what went right! (Laughs.) I studied audio-visual design and came to the conclusion that whatever you make, you need to have a good pitch to go with it. In fact, whatever you say about a work of art or product is at least as important as the thing itself. Another insight I had was that, as an artist, however great your ideas or crazy your plans, someone has to make sure they can actually be carried out. To stick with the film terminology: a producer. Someone who organises everything, chases up the people, finds the money and the locations. So after I finished my studies, that’s what I did; I worked as a producer on films and for festivals. In Rotterdam, I got the chance to produce the very first Exploding Cinema programme. This was in the early days of the internet and 'new media', and it was the first time the festival had explicitly said that film is so much more than a projector and a white screen. I then went on to work as a producer at other festivals. Oerol, for example, where I met my wife – another top festival!"

Visitors to the festival should still leave Rotterdam hungry. Hungry because it just wasn’t possible to see everything; hungry for more.

But in the end the sea and the rolling dunes of Terschelling couldn’t keep you out of an attic in Amsterdam?
"It kept gnawing away at me. I wanted to be more directly involved with film. Making films. It’s great to be able to create the right conditions, but I missed being involved with the content. Mutual friends introduced me and Hany Abu-Assad. He was looking for a producer partner having made his directorial debut Het veertiende kippetje. It clicked between us. We started making plans and writing – in an attic in Amsterdam. One of the first plans we came up with was Paradise Now, which follows two Palestinian suicide terrorists during the last 24 hours of their lives. We wrote the screenplay together and presented it at CineMart. That was an initial, exploratory phase, as at that stage the project wasn’t yet as good as it had to be – but we did find our first partners.

The major lesson we learned from Paradise Now was that if you have a good story, others will recognise this and be prepared to stick their necks out for it. A film like Paradise Now would never – and I mean never – have been realised if all the different parties – co-producers, agents and all the people around us – hadn’t recognised it as a special idea for a film.

Another important thing Paradise Now taught me was that sometimes it is better not to know certain things beforehand. You need a positive attitude and hope for a good outcome when you start out on an adventure like that. If we had known in advance what the consequences of filming in a war zone are – with all the power politics you and your international crew have to deal with, as well as the danger and paranoia – with hindsight, of course it was a crazy idea. But that is all part of making film, and art. Makers have to dare to dream. Dreaming is an essential part of what makes film film."

As a consultant to the Netherlands Film Fund, you have helped quite a few dreamers to make their dreams reality over the past two and a half years.
"Suddenly, there I was, on the other side of the table. I went from a small producer with at most five or ten projects at various stages of development to a consultant looking after fifty to a hundred projects. I supported, advised and helped the makers. And sometimes this means saying: now it’s time to pull the plug. It is fascinating to suddenly find yourself involved with the same thing – film – but from a completely different perspective.

Becoming the artistic director of IFFR is another shift in role for me, into the screening and distribution area. The good thing is that all these different roles ultimately are all about the same thing: what are the great films that are worth dedicating ninety minutes of your life to. Or, in the case of the makers: several years of your life."

What is the common ground between producing a film and producing a festival?
"You never make film by yourself, and a festival also needs hundreds of people to make it work. In both cases, you spend a very long time planning, sharpening up your ideas, looking for money and people and working out all the possible scenarios. You want to plan for all eventualities, but the chaos of the festival itself creates its own dynamic – exactly the same as on a film set. A film only comes to life when someone watches it. And a festival only comes to life when there are audiences with whom you can enter into dialogue: dialogues with the films, with the makers, with one another.

Often, you can be working on a film for five years before you even start shooting; and then there’s another five years of conversation with that film and showing it to people. I’d really like it if IFFR could follow a similar cycle. That the questions we ask at the festival at the start of the year – the issues we place on the agenda and the films we show – that these could carry on throughout the year. The festival has an enormous impact, simply by the overwhelming number of films we can show and the guests we bring to Rotterdam. No one could possibly process all that in the twelve days of the festival.

Visitors to the festival should still leave Rotterdam hungry. Hungry because it just wasn’t possible to see everything; hungry for more. There is a great challenge for IFFR to hold on to and nourish this level of attention throughout the year."

  • Cast and crew attending the screening of Atlantic. From left; Bero Beyer (producer), Jan-Willem van Ewijk (director), cast Thekla Reuten, Fettah Lamara. Photo: / (c) 2015

What concrete signs will visitors see that there is a new captain at the helm?
"Well, this is not so much down to just one man, but is more about how we all go about realising our ambitions. My ideal would be if in the upcoming editions are able to succeed even better in placing the films we screen in the right context. I believe it is crucial that IFFR provides more context to the curated programme elements.

A film doesn’t necessarily need to be a masterpiece, as long as we can explain why we believe it is an exceptional film. This may be because it contains innovative elements, or reflects a world culture unfamiliar to us. We have the honour of explaining this to audiences in a good, clear way. The decision to make changes to the tiger competition should be seen in this light. There will no longer be thirteen, fourteen or fifteen competitors, but eight. Eight films about which we can say with full conviction: these are real Rotterdam films: because they are innovative, or enrich cinema, or because they run counter to our expectations. Each of these eight films will get their own day, on which they will be put in the spotlight and when we will explain why they are so good. Whether it is their form, their content, their innovation or a maker who is one to watch.

And the same applies to the rest of the programme. Traditionally, first and second films have always been grouped together, as have third and fourth films. What interests me is bringing together films of the same ‘blood group’ and spirit. I think this gives greater clarity. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want IFFR to become a navel-gazing festival. It should above all be a party, a celebration of cinema. The message must come across with pride and pleasure: 'These are the beautiful films. You will leave the cinema happy, or shocked, but however you come out, these films will not leave you unmoved.' Whether our visitors then go dancing or sit down and cry remains to be seen, but we will tell them why this was such a good film.

This provision of context also demands a particular approach from our programmers. The programme department will take on a more editorial character. The individual programmers will no longer each have their own quotas or regions, but will rather have to convince one another – and me – why particular films should be selected. This new approach will also mean that, after the upcoming festival, we will say goodbye to our extremely valued colleague Gertjan Zuilhof. But for this festival, he has one more spectacular programme for us, from Burma.

Anothernew aspect will be attention to the intersections between the worlds of film and TV. And I mean TV across the whole spectrum, including web series and the like. It is clear that a considerable part of the innovative and creative energy of film is moving into another medium. One that has a different nature; but it is important that we show how cinema and the festival relate to high-end TV. And that we do this concretely, as you would expect from the Rotterdam tradition. Therefore we welcome a new colleague in this area, a real expert: Léo Soesanto."

Surrounded by all these interesting directors and with CineMart just along the corridor, isn’t there a chance you might succumb to the temptation to get back into producing films?
"No, no, no – that’s completely out of the question! Whatever ideas I have in terms of producing will be applied directly to the organisation of the festival. I consider IFFR’s role in the filmmaking process to be incredibly important. Our own Hubert Bals Fund partners with interesting productions from all corners of the world at a very early stage, CineMart gets involved with projects at ground level, and through the training it provides the Rotterdam Lab plays a role in the professionalization of the film industry. To accompany these, we should be looking at how we can capture and export the festival experience.

In concrete terms, this means further developing initiatives such as IFFR Live. Last year, I was honoured that a film produced by me – Atlantic. – was chosen for the very first IFFR Live. It was an overwhelming sensation, to know that thousands of people are watching your film, all at the same time, throughout the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. Pure magic. Also thanks to the interactive aspect of the set-up. We had the musician who provided the soundtrack flown over at the last minute. To me, it seemed like the whole of Europe was listening in silence to this virtually blind Moroccan musician playing his instrument. That’s an indescribable feeling – but one it turns out you can distribute.

IFFR has so much to offer filmmakers, producers, sales agents, press and critics.... using and maintaining this strong network, you could also call that producing. It feels to me like I am producing five hundred films a year!"

What if, during the upcoming festival, a driver was urgently needed and the festival director had to jump behind the wheel: who would you want to get into the car?
"Someone who shares my passion for filmmaking. Who tells a story during the ride that opens a window onto a world I haven’t seen before. It doesn’t have to be a hero or a great master, they don’t have to be called Martin Scorsese or Hou Hsiao-hsien – although I wouldn’t mind that – but it’s not necessary.

To be honest, I am more interested in the new, in what I don’t know yet. It is no coincidence that I have made films in Palestine and India. Film allows you to go to places where you wouldn’t go otherwise. So whether it’s a Filipino or a Dane in the back seat – as long as they like talking and have something to say, it’ll be an enjoyable ride."