On the opening day of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (iffr) pro-European demonstrators fell foul with riot police on Independence Square in Kiev, which was renamed European Square. The president refused to sign the association treaty with the EU, which for the Ukrainians in the western part of the country is their only hope. The skirmishes formed an apt background for the film festival’s theme of choice: ‘The State of Europe’.

Because he was temporarily out of circulation through ill health, iffr director Rutger Wolfson (1969) has not seen much of the festival. He nevertheless likes to talk about the theme he came up with, which has been running through his mind ever since the outbreak of the economic crisis, when Europe started to dominate the news. ‘Europe, pretty important was the slogan under Prime Minister Balkenende and that is something that has stuck to me since childhood: Europe is a relevant project. But why was that?’ Economic prosperity and no more wars is the traditional answer, but for Wolfson that was not enough. He took a seat on the Board of Advice of the European Movement in The Netherlands, next to professors and former secretaries of state.

What does a film festival director do in a pro-European lobby group?

‘I am indeed the odd one out, but it offers me a way to go deeply into the subject. I encounter people from older generations, who have really helped to build Europe. They are extremely inspired and come up with very valid arguments, but I do notice that I am from a different generation.’

Verhofstadt once said in NRC Handelsblad: ‘If you do not know war, you cannot know peace.’

‘I am very interested in the ideological vacuum of our time. There is no coherent ideology that people can believe in, not even with the political movements that by nature should have ideas about it. This becomes especially clear when it concerns a subject like Europe. The penny dropped much later, when I realised that film is the pre-eminent European artistic medium. After the war many people went to the cinema: films offered them a way to see how other Europeans lived.

When you look at European cinema, you automatically get a taste of European culture’s special qualities. That identity becomes even clearer when you compare European films with their American or Asian counterparts. American cinema ultimately offers boring uniformity: only one language is spoken and the narrative structures are one-dimensional, especially in Hollywood. American mainstream films often have a very distinct moral, while European films aim to do without. Judgment is left to the viewer. Asian films, certainly the genre films, revel in excessive violence, but sexuality is a taboo. I think that it is even dangerous to make certain films in Hongkong.

I mean, if it were up to you, where would you rather belong? To the European film tradition, the Asian, or to Hollywood?’

During the iffr’s 43rd edition, ‘The State of Europe’ took shape in various components of the programme. ‘Grand Tour’ became a trip through European cinema, from Belgium and Spain to Poland and France, ‘My Own Private Europe’ showed personal stories from all over Europe and ‘EU-29’ focused on immigration.

After watching films about industrial North-England, poor and icy Hungary, hopelessly old-fashioned Walloon and romantic Paris, one is prone to think that we are all extremely different.

‘I did not set out blindly to make a pro-European programme; that would be completely naïve. It is clear that there are major problems in Europe and I can understand that people are disillusioned. What concerns me is that we should start talking to each other again, for better or for worse, because we seem to have given up: “Europe, yeah, yeah… that project is just one big global globalisation.” Hello, is there still some engagement left? With our own lives and with our own futures?’

Did ‘The State of Europe’ yield any new visions?

‘Chinese filmmaker Xiaolu Gui, who made Late at Night: Voices of Ordinary Madness, firmly stated in a debate: “Of course Europe is the future.” In her own country total monoculture rules: diversity is dangerous and no solutions to current questions are formulated. At least not the kind of solutions that make us happy. In Europe everyone disagrees with each other and no one is the same, but that is exactly why the answer that is found in Europe is of great importance for the future of the rest of the world. I found that very enlightening.’

‘I think that politicians like it when the complexity of their task is being recognised’

Shouldn’t we be aware of romanticising Europe’s diversity?

‘Well, of course. Being part of this melting pot as an African immigrant isn’t all fun. The big problem though is that currently we have no future at all. However by making plans together changes become easier to bear for people who experience the adverse sides of Europe. In Rotterdam for example we are afraid of immigrant workers from Rumania and Bulgaria. The borders are open and that will produce friction in some districts and people may get quite angry. But the moment you know more about each other, know that you share a belief in something, the fact that so many things change in your direct surroundings, becomes easier to accept.’

Before becoming director of iffr Wolfson was director of the Middelburg non-profit Foundation for Visual Arts. He does not miss the art world. People may dress better than in the film world, but in the art world everything revolves around reputation and symbolic capital, which makes for the mutual relations to be based on insecurity and envy. Film is much more of an industry, a complex product that is very often realised with the maker’s own money. In the film world quality and success can be measured: it is all about the box office. In 2003 Wolfson compiled the anthology Kunst in crisis (Art in Crisis), a collection of essays about the crisis that he is still preoccupied with. ‘Art has very much become a lifestyle. More than you would want it to be, I am afraid. You would still wish for art to make the world a little better.’

That is something you really wish for, isn’t it?

‘What would you like, then? For art just to be pretty or something?’ Wolfson laughs, somewhat aggrieved. ‘For some time now I have been searching for art’s social position. I do not know whether I am romanticising an image, but I have always had the idea that in the twenties and sixties art had a great influence on society. That the ideas of an artistic intellectual elite were taken over by the political field. An exhibition like Op losse schroeven (1969) in the Stedelijk Museum for example turned The Netherlands upside down. In a middle-class society a bunch of weird artists declared a new form of freedom. They offered an alternative for the then prevailing worldview. It was a kind of oppressive existence of reconstruction, virtuousness, frugality and conformism. This exhibition suddenly showed individualism and creativity.’

The film Another Hungary is a portrait of the celebrated artist Imre Bukta in his studio in the Hungarian countryside. Fellow-villagers call him ‘the Artist’, but he hides his works from them. For many Europeans art evokes resistance.

‘That is true. And it doesn’t help that the art world becomes ever more commercialized just to please the collectors. It might stop people thinking of art as something dangerous, but what you end up with is harmless art. And what good does that do?’

Many films at the festival have a documentary character. Does a social theme incite this specific form?

‘We knew beforehand that this would happen. For our selection we did go in search of a “typical” English film and “typical” Italian productions. Gare du Nord by Claire Simon for example is a fictional film about a sociological study of the railway station in Paris, but it is also a portrait of a love affair. Very French, indeed.’

The protagonist in Gare du Nord calls his research ‘Gare du Nord: A Global Village Square’. His supervising professor however prefers the title: ‘Local Mobilities and Global Migrations: New Practices and Representations of Transport in the Gare du Nord’. Does this conflict in perspective show the gist of Europe’s problem?

‘It indeed does. The European correspondent does not visit a film festival and a film critic does not like to write about Europe in a substantive way. I think it is the perfect place to engage with this subject. The iffr really wants to function as a public space where people can meet and discuss. Where else would that happen? In the media? No. In politics? Not really. And the sciences are not accessible for everyone. We do not aim to present the umpteenth social issue as a theme next year though, that is not what the festival is about.’

Have you been able to reach any politicians?

‘We had the ambition to inform and inspire politics through culture. Otherwise one stays stuck in the cultural field, whereas we want to broaden the discussion. The State of Europe has created quite a stir. A cda member of the European Parliament sent us an e-mail and there were messages on Twitter; enough proof that one can use culture to put a subject like this on the agenda. Politicians may not be quick to admit that they do not have any answers to the European issue either. On the other hand they may be curious for the answers culture can yield.’ Wolfson falls silent for a moment and looks pensive. ‘Let me formulate this in a positive way: I think that politicians like it when the complexity of their task is being recognised. And of course these are soft criteria and it is hard to measure the ultimate reach. But we are not talking about the box office here, and I am happy.’

Image: Rutger Wolfson: ‘We had the ambition to inform and inspire politics through culture’ (Daniël Baggerman).