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Intimate festival Film by the Sea celebrates 20th edition and now needs to rejuvenate, says outgoing director

On the train to Flushing, the festival is already presenting itself. Diagonally opposite me, two ladies are conversing about films and books. They leaf through a programme and wonder whether they will manage to see Sophia Loren. Indeed, my suspicion is correct. They are going for a weekend to Film by the Sea. "It's our first time. We go to a lot of festivals together and this was on our list for a long time." They are looking forward to the 'Love of stories' lecture series they will be attending. They know this programme organiser Harry Peters from lectures at the Alkmaar film house.

The beautiful, bold-sensual poster image for Film by the Sea that visual artist Aat Veldhoen designed this year graces the entrance to the CineCity cinema in Vlissingen. Yesterday, the 20th edition of the festival opened here with a gala screening of Becoming Astrid. The Swedish biopic about the young Astrid Lindgren, later famous as the creator of immortal children's literature. Think Pippi Longstocking and Ronja the Robber's Daughter. Today, in all eight theatres, the event really bursts into life.

Book adaptations

Film and literature are easily mentioned in the same breath here in Vlissingen. Ever since its second edition, Film by the Sea has profiled itself with a main competition of book adaptations. Artistic director Leo Hannewijk, who founded the festival in 1999 together with Ad Weststrate of CineCity, saw an opportunity there at the time. "I discovered that in the whole world there was no festival dedicated to book adaptations. Even though a quarter of the film supply consists of book adaptations. It was a way to make Film by the Sea stand out among all the festival violence. Incidentally, the cinematic qualities are paramount in judging. It is not necessary that the jury, this year for the fifth time chaired by Adriaan van Dis, has also read all those filmed books."

Leo Hannewijk (photo Lex de Meester)

Hannewijk agrees that Film by the Sea is not a festival that necessarily focuses on making new discoveries. "There is no need to imitate Rotterdam. Although of course it sometimes happens that, because we are at the beginning of the new film season, we snatch a title from Rotterdam." When choosing, the emphasis is on arthouse films and fine cinema titles from Europe and America. "The Far East we are not so specialised in," he says.

It lives

Compared to the tendency towards excess we do see elsewhere, the relatively small Film by the Sea is pleasantly compact and uncluttered. Sitting at a table on the Cinecafé terrace, Hannewijk says: "It's intimate and not so formal."

This is also what visitors I speak to like. "Everything in one cinema together. It lives," say loyal festival-goers Ivette (57) and Marth (23). "It is well organised and the people are nice." The cosy atmosphere is also something that appeals to Annie (63). She is there now with a friend from Middelburg and has been coming here since the beginning. She also volunteers as a scout for the festival and watches a lot of films for that. Children of the Snowland and Breathing Into Marble for example, are two titles she can recommend.

CineCity is the venue, with a small part of the programme in the new Vlissingen Film Theatre. 125 titles in total, including 25 school screenings. A good part of the offer consists of films that already have a distributor and will be released later in the year. And frankly, I even see a few titles already running in cinemas, such as BlacKkKlansman. But also, as Hannewijk points out, "25% of the selection does not yet have a distributor. For that, we provide a stage."

Sophia Loren in Una giornata particolare

Much of this year's Film by the Sea is attracting attention with chief guest Sophia Loren, who will tomorrow be presented with the Grand Acting Award for actors with an exceptional track record. One of the last true divas of European cinema, she has been called. In 1977, Loren played the moving and poignant lead role alongside Marcello Mastroianni in Una Giornata Particolare by Ettore Scola. "A film that," Hannewijk says, "also meant a lot to my development."

In the process, Scola was the first filmmaker to be presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at Film by the Sea in 2003.


A highlight of the 20th edition is the Bergman retrospective. This is the tribute organised by the Swedish Film Institute to Ingmar Bergman, the famous Swedish filmmaker who would have turned 100 this year. Flushing is quick to attend. Only next year will this fine programme be shown at Eye and other locations in the Netherlands.

So soon after my arrival, I see few fellow film journalists walking around here, but Hannewijk does feel that awareness has steadily increased. "Still, it is crazy that a journalist from the VPRO when reporting from Venice The Sisters Brothers as one of the highlights, but then fails to mention briefly that it is also the closing film of Film by the Sea."


According to Hannewijk, a good proportion of visitors now come from outside the region. From the looks of it, this is true. Of the festival-goers I occasionally talk to, over a third are from outside Zeeland. After the roll-out of the film adaptation of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach I meet, for instance, Amsterdammers Bart (45) and Roos (43) with two friends. Educated at the Film Academy, they have been immersing themselves in a film frenzy here every year since 2008. What they just saw they don't think is great, but that doesn't dampen their enthusiasm for the festival. As a charm of Film by the Sea, Bart mentions the small scale, plus the alternation of arthouse with bigger titles. They will stay here for several days.

While Film by the Sea counted only 5,000 visits in 1999, today it has risen to around 46,000. By comparison, Vlissingen has a population of 45,000. According to Hannewijk, the festival has a good name and there is much to be proud of. Hence the key question: so why is Leo Hannewijk (1955) stopping it now?


"After 20 years, I think it's time to hand over the baton. I would still like to do other things, such as a big cultural project around the Oostkerk in my hometown of Middelburg. The festival also needs rejuvenation. A large part of the audience is now over-50s. And for organising that rejuvenation, I am not the right person. I don't tweet, for instance. Here lies a fine task for my successor."

The first film I see here myself is I Am Not a Witch. An intriguing African drama that is now the British Oscar entry and will be released in Dutch cinemas next Thursday. Looking around the auditorium, I wonder if those 46,000 visits will be achieved this year. But the meagre 20 visitors to this film are an exception. Subsequent screenings are well attended, and as the day progresses, the CineCity foyer, the adjoining Cinecafé and the Spiegeltent set up as a party venue get busier and busier. Especially the Film Book Ball that kicks off late in the evening with music and a touch of burlesque (not quite my taste) attracts a large crowd. Looking around me here, this ageing population is not too bad either. The first day of my Film by the Sea weekend is over.

The need for stories

Sunday. I step inside the Vlissings Filmtheater to catch one of the film lectures. By chance I bump into Harry Peters, the film & literature expert who has been organising this programme section for quite a few years, partly together with Gerlinda Heywegen. Yesterday, he himself kicked things off with a talk on the theme of 'the unreliable narrator'. Followed by a performance of the all story conventions defying Tiere. According to description on the festival website, a "great mindfuck". And, according to Peters, inspired by the impossible realities of illustrator Escher.

"Storytelling is a necessity for people. A way to make chaos manageable," Peters said. This applies to both books and films, only in both cases it works slightly differently. "Literature tells first, and in doing so shows something. A film shows something first, after which we can give meaning to it." Which touches on the thrust of his introduction yesterday: who actually makes the story? Aren't we as viewers ourselves?"

Care home

Meanwhile, the lecture attendees - a lot of grey coifs here though - streamed out of the room where they were Being John Malkovich have seen. Another rather unusual story in which it proves possible to step into someone else's head. An & Dré (140 together) from Vlissingen have been visiting the festival for four years and come especially for the lectures. They know Harry and Gerlinda and find the series very interesting. It provides depth and also makes you look at things differently. At least that's what An tries to do.

Two middle-aged ladies ("Call us college friends.") also come to see many films at the festival and are college-goers for the third year. They love the series, but are not happy with the new location. This is because the Vlissings Filmtheater is under one roof with the Scheldehof residential care centre. We also find the exhibition of work by Aat Veldhoen opening today here. But however beautifully the old shipyard where everything is housed has been converted, the friends miss the festival atmosphere here. Besides, they don't like the combination with the care centre. According to them, there are more who feel this way.

House philosopher

After the break, Stine Jensen, the house philosopher of Film by the Sea, will take the stage. Her talk will focus on the intriguing phenomenon of 'monkey and woman', a combination that has existed since King Kong appears with some regularity in films. The student friends think it is a great speech, but Dré lets me know afterwards that he would have preferred a more psychological angle. "There was more to this subject," he says.

Back at CineCity, I am just in time to see that From loss you cannot pay, about an elderly Vlissingen greengrocer, is in the process of becoming a real festival hit. The documentary is part of the block of Zeeland films - regular festival feature. Already premiered yesterday in front of 700 visitors in the XL hall. Now again crowded and highly rated, judging at least by the reaction of Linda (28) and David (37). "I came especially for this film. I know the maker and came to that vegetable shop as a boy. A very nice documentary, really a story about life. Highly recommended." Wallie Pollé of Windmill Film is also there and lets me know they are going to release the documentary, along with the short film The letterer.

Sophia Loren

Then to round off the day, a quick trip to the CineCity-XL hall for Sophia Loren's inauguration. Everything as it should be, with beautiful words from former festival chair Hedy d'Ancona on women's liberation, the award ceremony by minister Ingrid van Engelshoven, a standing ovation and moved thanks from Loren. Lovely to have her here.

Earlier this afternoon, the lady at the stand of the Vlissingen bookstore 't Spui had asked me if I had been to the promenade yet. "The pride of Vlissingen." It turns out to be nearby. So now I grab that on my way to the station for the train back. A beautiful evening walk along old and new quays, little beaches and views of the Westerschelde, where large container ships sail stately by.

Jan Doense new director

And who will now take over Leo Hannewijk's baton, you naturally ask. The board of Film by the Sea has chosen Jan Doense as its successor: seasoned film lover, business manager of De Filmkrant, film producer and experienced organiser of film festivals. He will lead the content of the festival. The CineCity team will continue to handle the execution.

Jan Doense (photo: Joao Carlos Rodrigues)

Before he takes office in November, Doense does not want to say much about possible plans. To reassure current fans of Film by the Sea, he at least lets them know that he has no major change of direction in mind.

"It is a unique festival that is firmly established and has a loyal audience. I am definitely going to brood on new ideas without compromising the current formula."

As an example, he cites new CCXL hall, which he feels could be even better utilised with performances for large audiences. On the suggestion made here and there that the festival should rejuvenate, he is rather laconic.

"I am four years younger than Leo Hannewijk, so that difference is not that big. But I do tweet. Furthermore, I don't want to be too fussy about that rejuvenation. It doesn't necessarily have to be all young and hip. It is also nice that there is a loyal and somewhat older audience that finds Rotterdam too turbulent."

"Film by the Sea is a relaxed festival without too much industry where both film lovers and people from the film industry like to come. I see it as a kind of small Cannes on the Scheldt, a pleasant place to be, near a nice promenade to take a break and eat oysters."

"When I was asked if I wanted to take over artistic direction, it came at a good time. When I was director of the Imagine Film Festival [He took leave there in 2008, LB] I was nicknamed Mr Horror, but I have more to offer. Not a genre festival for once. It actually attracts me that Film by the Sea has a broad offering."

Doense does have Vlissingen roots on his father's side, but will stay in Amsterdam for now. "I look forward to reading books on long train journeys. I won't live there yet, but will obviously be there often. For a start, I will come and introduce a film every week on Tuesday evening as part of 'Film by the Sea through the Year'. That's a great way to get to know the audience."

Good to know Good to know

The '20th international film festival Film by the Sea' as it is called in full, will take place from 7 to 16 September in Vlissingen.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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