A conversation with Rutger Wolfson on The State of Europe

The International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) is one of the most important events in the international film industry. Every year, it welcomes thousands of professionals and film lovers for a week-long programme of film. As a prelude to the European elections in May 2014, IFFR decided to put Europe at the heart of its 43rd edition, which took place between 22 January and 2 February 2014.

It was only natural for IFFR and ECF to join forces to explore the many voices we need to hear on The State of Europe. Most importantly, we also wanted to come together to reflect on how we can take the debate further. We talk to IFFR Director Rutger Wolfson to gather his post-festival views.

In a recent interview with the Volkskrant you highlight that people working in the arts and culture have a key role to play in taking the European debate further. ECF strongly believes that too, and the main purpose of the State of Europe programme has been to explore whether film and debate can generate new ideas. Now that you’ve tried, what do you think? Did it bring new ideas or insights?

We will publish De Groene Rotterdammer, a special edition of the Dutch weekly magazine De Groene Amsterdammer in a week or so. A very strong selection of writers will present their ideas and insights on the programme. So that is definitely something to look forward to. One personal insight I had was offered by the Chinese filmmaker and writer Xiaolu Guo. According to her, superpowers like China and the US are essentially striving to maintain their own monoculture. Europe, however, is now learning how to deal with cultural diversity and the conflicts that flow from it. Xiaolu Guo sees this as an essential advantage that will lead to lead to a second Renaissance in Europe. This, I think, is a very stimulating idea.

This exploration and willingness to try and take risks, to get deeper into the state of Europe requires a lot of enthusiasm and belief, which you definitely have. What possibilities can culture offer to explore certain questions related to the European debate?

It is clear that politicians are not succeeding in formulating inspiring future perspectives for Europe. I think culture can open up new perspectives and directions in the European debate; it can ask new questions and try and find alternative answers.

In our experience (and we’ve been doing this for 60 years now), one of the major issues in Europe is the growing gap between citizens and institutions. We believe that culture offers many ways to reduce that gap. Is this something you have also noticed as Director of IFFR? And how would you describe the particular power of the film medium?

Since the Second World War, mass audiences across Europe have been, and still are, moved by films from European countries and cultures that are very different from their own. This makes film a very powerful medium. Where there is a gap between citizens and institutions, film (and culture in general) often succeeds in making a connection. On a different level and in a different way, of course. But still, this is a very important quality with a large and underused potential. 

At ECF, many of our efforts focus on linking policy and practice. Do you think the discussions and ideas that have now been generated in Rotterdam could help policy-makers to take the debate further and act on it to make changes? What do we need to do to create more collaboration between policy-making and culture? Could we dream of a space (physical and intellectual) where artists or cultural organisations such as ours don’t only try to push culture into the policy agenda but actually make it? 

These are very tough questions. To really have an impact policy-making, I think the cultural field first has to engage more with the European debate. If it does, cultural institutions can act as a form of public space where this debate can take place. An alternative to the media and the political arena where the debate takes place now, but feels very distant and closed off to most people. The ambition should be to make this alternative cultural public space really work. And to get the debate to such a high level that politicians and policy-makers will be drawn to it and join in. This would completely change the dynamics between politics and culture and give the latter significantly more impact. This is very ambitious, I know. But the European debate clearly could do with some ambition.

Interview by ECF’s Canan Marasligi