The Netherlands has a great collection of film festivals to offer. From the well-established ‘International Film Festival Rotterdam’, to the rightful ‘Movies that Matter Film Festival’ in The Hague, to the multidisciplinary ‘Cinedans’, held annually in the Dutch gatekeeper of films, EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam. Whether you are a film glutton, coming from a devoted to curiosity breed, or just looking for networking, this is the place to be.
If all the above got your attention, then (like us) you suffer from cinephilia. The truth is, it is not so bad. Especially if you have access to the Dutch film festival landscape; among which, a fairly adventurous remedy—the Leiden International Film Festival.
Located in the South Holland, less than one hour away from Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, Leiden has been renowned for its intact 17th-century city centre and its university, for it is the oldest one in the country. You must agree that this is the ideal setting for a film festival. But it is not enough to make it great. The success of LIFF lies in it its program, side activities and the very enthusiastic audience. Think of pre-premieres and abnormal gems, unconventional settings and wine tasting, screenings under the escort of live music or perfume makers; all wrapped in this festive, energetic, charming city.
This year, LIFF took place from the 3rd to the 13th of November. Nick Hortensius, one of the programmers of the festivals, met with us during our first visit to the warm lobby of Kijhuis theatre, to give us some insights into the attitude and perspective of the team. Who knows, maybe next year you will also share with him a beer or two!
Many of the LIFF screenings were sold out. The audience is engaging, not only by attending the films, but also by sticking around later on for a conversation. The three of your main venues seem to be a catalyst in that respect. What is the story behind?
We try to make the cinemas as much as festival locations as possible. Different from what visitors are used to, especially people from Leiden. The festival is hosted in all the cinemas in Leiden: Kijkhuis, Lido Theater and Trianon. The Trianon theatre was designed by Jaap Gidding, the architect who designed the Tuschinski Theatre in Amsterdam. Jan Boer, the owner of the cinema, opened the doors to the four students who founded the festival in 2006. Back then, the festival was just for the weekend.
We are now in a transitional period. For example, Kijkhuis will be replaced in the coming years with a new cinema with 5 screens. There is a new cinema coming into the city, a more technologically advanced one, with IMAX experience. We like the nostalgic vibes of the current cinemas, but in terms of growth for the festival, we are looking forward to moving to a new home that is big enough for our audience.
Can you give us a small tour of the main sections of your program?
We have about 100 films at the festival this year. Recently, we reshaped our sections, and now they evolve around three main pillars: Independent, Emerging and Extraordinary.
Every film is in one of the three sections. Every section has a competition and a selection. The American Indie Competition is part of the Independent section. We have been making this program for a really long time—it is our earliest one. They are American films, independent of the Hollywood studio system. Usually, first or second-time filmmakers, with a lower budget. The stories are often more personal and written by the director. Then, we have the First Feature Competition, which is the one for the Emerging section. Lastly, we have the Bonkers! Competition. This one includes everything that goes outside the usual lines. It can be a genre film, like a horror film, but it can also be the absurdist comedy or an experimental animation musical. They can be eclectic films, which is why they also share the division of the audience. People either hate them or love them. Which means that they are definitely films that will spark a conversation afterwards. There are people who come to the festival and try to watch all the Bonkers! films. And there are people who intentionally avoid them. Of course, this also helps us to better guide the audience, since we have so many films. And I think we have films for everyone. From crossovers to arthouse ones. Films with a lower or bigger budget. We know that not everything is for everyone. We hope that these sections and the descriptions guide people towards the films that will enjoy the most.
Do you follow a specific line in the selection of the films?
We host fiction films from all around the world. There is no overarching theme. We have never really had that, we are quite free on that. Anyway, it is almost impossible with so many films. In general, it was always a bit hard for us to describe what kind of films the LIFF show. We do have pretty much everything, except from Dutch films and documentaries. This is because we want to have our own distinct area in the festival landscape. The Dutch Film Festival (NFF) is right before us. IDFA is also quite close to us; this year it even overlapped, because of the World Cup. We used to have different slogans each year, maybe a funny one like ‘Are we the best film festival in the world?’, and then a subtitle, ‘probably not.’ Of course, this is a theme for communication purposes and not for the programming team.
Nevertheless, our three sections represent us quite well. They are now a great signature for us. We are independent in what we do. This festival is not young any more, but we are still growing. We also have always been appreciating playfulness, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We do screenings with wine or beer tasting, live music or screenings in special locations, like in a pool. One of these nights, we screened at the National Museum of Antiquities. We had ‘The Mummy’ film in a room with an Egyptian temple.
Historically, the biggest tradition of the festival is the American Indie Competition. How did this become the main interest of a film festival in a small European city like Leiden?
I think we have been having this competition for over ten years now. Before that, we had a global competition. In the first two or three years, American Indies films won. This made us think that the programming team share an interest in these films with the audience.
When it comes to distribution, American Indies films sort of fall between the cracks. People immediately connect them to Hollywood, and so they don’t find them really interested in a film festival program. They think that they are part of the big studios that have global distribution, and so these films will be seen in cinemas anyway. Which is wrong, since the American Indies are not commercially interesting for distributors, at least not as much as the European art house films are. We want to provide a place for people to be able to see them. This is also why we made it to an exclusive competition. I feel that has been a great step. The American filmmakers usually come back to Leiden, and the audience has connected with this scene quite well. Ultimately, Leiden has developed an interesting connection to the US and the American film industry.
How do you perceive the international aspect of the festival? What are the needs that lead you to keep it open beyond the European borders?
Initially, we were called the Leids Film Festival, which had a practical issue. For the local community, this name is immediately associated with Leiden. But people outside the Netherlands cannot know, so they couldn’t find us on Google, for example. On the other hand, the Leiden Internation Film Festival made sense as a title, because we are mostly in contact with American filmmakers or filmmakers from around the world. And since we only screen international films, it sort of came naturally.
Regarding the European borders, there are some showcase film festivals, that have mostly pre-premieres. This means that people can see them afterwards in cinemas. But most of the films at our festival do not have distribution to the cinemas, and people cannot find them later on. We bring them here and to the audience with this festival. This of course contributes to the international feeling.
Your program has a variety of ‘special’ screenings and guest contributors, that gives the impression of a strong bond between the city, the local creative scene and the LIFF. What is the connection?
The cinemas of Leiden are the core of the festival. We consider them our home. Beyond that, we always try to use the city as a stage, and to have partners and creatives from the city to be involved. This year, for example, among other events, we entered the Hortus Botanicus, the botanical garden of Leiden, with a film. We try to find these collaborations. Recently, we started a program called ‘Limited Editions’, where we pair selected films with artists or creatives from different fields. Most of them are young artists from Leiden, like poets, illustrators, comedians, or chefs. We ask them to see the film, get inspired, and do something before, during or after the screening with creative freedom.
Yesterday, Cesar Majorana was making a scent, like a perfume, during the film ‘House Among the Cactuses’, and everyone from the audience got a sample. At the screening of ‘Everybody hates Johan’, everybody got a package from Johanna Breuch, of the ROEM collective, a Leiden-based group of young artists and creatives. This film is from Scandinavia, with an outcast, weird hero. The package encouraged the audience to embrace their weirdness, in a participatory experience during the film. I entered the theatre at the end of the screening, there was an intense smell of firecrackers, and half of the audience was wearing reflective glasses! These ‘Limited Editions’ are a way for us to incorporate other disciplines or other inspiring individuals who are not making films, but they are making cool stuff.
On another note, I mentioned that we don’t screen Dutch films. The exception to this are films from Leiden or stories about Leiden, even if it is a documentary. Leiden is important for us. We want to be a platform for everything in and around Leiden.
What is the position of the programming team towards new media and audiovisual works with unconventional cinematic values? How can a film festival keep up with the wider audiovisual trends while staying authentic to the traditions of the cinema?
Our core is films in cinemas, in the classic sense of it. Of course, we are open to opportunities to get creative with something that we think it’s worth sharing with the audience. We had VR films in the past, and we are not opposed to doing it again. Yet, it hasn’t been a priority for us so far, and we are not looking for it as well. That’s why it was not part of the program for this year.
The discussion on new media is ongoing. With the knowledge that we have now as a festival, we are questioning what are the boundaries with online platforms, for example, or even miniseries. It is tricky, and there is not one clear answer to what can be part of the scope of this festival and what cannot.
Leiden International Film Festival
Cover photo by Richtje Nijhof