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Cheer & Loathing: Gerben Schermer vs. the Holland Animation Film Festival

“You are shitting in my mouth and calling it a Sundae.” -- Ronnie Dobbs (‘Mr. Show’)

HAFF logo designed by Joost Swarte.

Without warning, news emerged on January 15th that the 2018 Holland Animation Film Festival would be cancelled and that its co-founder and director for more than 30 years, Gerben Schermer, was leaving the festival. What was even more baffling was how little was said in the statement from the HAFF Board of Directors and their interim director, Peter Lindhout:

The board of the Holland Animation Film Festival (HAFF) Foundation has decided to chart a new course for HAFF by means of substantive, financial and organizational reforms. This means the 2018 edition of the festival this March will not take place. Gerben Schermer has decided to take a step back and give room to a new management. Schermer will remain involved in the festival until 1 June 2018. The reason for this decision is a difference of views between him and the HAFF Foundation board on the festival’s goals and policies. Gerben led and developed HAFF for more than 30 years into a prominent festival with an excellent international reputation.

And when I wrote Lindhout for more specifics, his response offered very little insight:

The festival has great respect for Gerben and for his decision and we will not discuss any details about the difference of views on the festival’s goals and policies. At this moment we cannot give any details about the shape of future editions or the differences between new HAFF editions and the festival as it has been in the past. We understand the concerns of the animation community with the future of the HAFF without Gerben and we hope that we will be able to win back its confidence in March 2019 with a festival edition that is both respectful to the past and opens new perspectives for the future.

To add to the mystery, Schermer himself has made no statements about his departure.

It’s a strange and beguiling situation, especially for the approximately 1,500 international animators who had already submitted their film for consideration at this year’s HAFF. To pull the plug so close to the event’s date -- and to not even offer up an apology or explanation to the entrants -- is disrespectful and not a good omen for the future of a festival that, under Schermer’s charge, was always first and foremost about the artists and their art. The new HAFF will hopefully realize the international animators, the ones who helped make this event respected and successful, have invested just as much in the festival as any of their precious funders, board members, politicians and other tight suited fashionable money thinkers (who only show up at the festival’s opening for free cocktails).

First, I should say that I’m not all that objective about this particular issue. Schermer is one of my oldest and closest friends and colleagues. Since we first met in the mid-1990s, he was guiding influence on my own curatorial philosophy: he taught me that I didn’t have the follow the ASIFA-influenced course and that I could instead push and provoke the boundaries of animation. HAFF has been the only animation festival I’ve consistently attended because I know I will find an assortment animation gems there that I won’t see anywhere else.

While I’ve been aware of some brewing tensions between Schermer and his board for a while, I’m not privy to any details or specifics. Like most of you, I can only speculate.

So I will.

One Dutch animator recalled a conversation with someone at a HAFF reception. He’s not sure whether she was a funder, board member or politician, but she observed that the festival seemed little more than a party for animators. She, it seems, preferred something with a broader appeal.

That’s reasonable, albeit a tad naïve -- if it’s even true, which I doubt as I suspect the HAFF board is more interested in catering to money baggers, bureaucrats and socialites than to those “nasty, boorish” animators. Annecy, the world’s largest animation event, is pretty much just a big shindig for the animation community. It’s not really a festival that attracts a wider, public audience. In Ottawa (where I work), we do get a decent sized public showing, but at the end of the day, our audience is dominated by animation professionals and students. It’s the same at virtually every festival around the world. We all pretty much speak to the converted.

As it is, HAFF, from my perspective, was doing a decent job of luring locals out via some mainstream feature screenings, a youth jury and assorted other public friendly events. The reality is that animation, well, it’s a bit of a niche art form with a large but still cultish following. It is difficult to draw a consistent public audience, even if you show Pixar films each day.

Schermer has always steered clear of trying to appeal to a mass audience, yet he’s done more than many festival directors to open up the often-hermetic doors of animation. Through his interest in art, his use of graphic novel artists to do posters (e.g. Joost Swarte, Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, etc...) mixed media events, and a recent expansion in art installations, he’s managed to create a bridge between the art, music and animation worlds.

Schermer was always one step ahead of other festivals, spotting -- hell, making -- trends (e.g. Russian, Estonian, Chinese animation). And despite his reputation, Schermer was never anti-commercial. In fact, until 2010, HAFF only had a competition for commissioned films. HAFF was the festival to go to find cool ads, IDs, PSAs, music videos, TV work. Schermer always respected and celebrated the artistic element of commissioned works.

When both the quantity and quality of that work drastically decreased he switched over to a more traditional competition (but even then, there were only two categories: narrative, non-narrative). That same year, Schermer also introduced a feature animation category which included a good chunk of more accessible and family friendly films.

Is the issue one of industry? There might be an argument that HAFF didn’t offer enough for industry minded folks, but given the relative small size of the Dutch animation industry, you’d think that that would be something easily remedied through a smattering of panels, talks and industry related activities that could be presented alongside the more non-industrial generated events.

We can speculate ‘till my tosti arrives (which could take hours), but the bottom line is we don’t know exactly what caused this split between Schermer and the HAFF Board. All I know is that while HAFF (like Schermer) will go on, like Abbott without Costello or Seinfeld with David, it’ll never be the same.

Schermer’s influence spreads well beyond me. Numerous animators, artists and festival directors have all been inspired by Schermer’s programming and organizational approaches. I invited numerous folks to express just what Schermer’s HAFF meant to them as artists and programmers. Not everyone wanted to participate. But of those who did, we’ve collected their thoughtful and heartfelt comments here:

This is a very sad and bad news. HAFF was a very singular animation festival that played an essential role (thanks to Gerben’s tireless work and principled outlook) in the international animation landscape. There was no other festival like this one and it will be missed severely.

I have been associated with this Festival since its very beginning and always kept contact with it, and Gerben became a friend, a friendship based on common artistic conviction. This is certainly a big blow for independent animation and more precisely for non-narrative animation and for all types of animation that were close to the field of visual arts. For me, in that regard, it remained the main reference.

-- Pierre Hebert (Canada) animator/mixed-media artist/author

In 2002, two years before i started the Animateka International Animated Film Festival in Ljubljana, Slovenia, i visited two crucial festivals and meet two crucial persons directly responsible for the start of my professional path. The first one was Otto Alder and his Fantoche festival and the other one was Gerben Schermer and his HAFF. Presenting animated films in all their shapes and forms is the guidance that i took from both of them and the love for this art form in the first place. Both festivals at that time also had a special graphic appeal, that specially Gerben’s HAFF with the always new featured avant-garde poster artwork, brought to the edge.

Gerben was also one of the first thinking and programming expanded animation. He is always ahead of all of us, lately with discovering and presenting new and new edgy Chinese artists.

In 2003, when i presented the Best of HAFF programme at the Slovenian Cinematheque in the frame of the monthly series Animateka, he directly told me that i am ready to start my own festival and there it all started for Animateka. At that time we were dealing with 35mm film prints and beta tapes. I remember how sad Gerben was the day that his country got rid of almost all 35mm film projectors and changed almost completely to digital. But he was ready for the change.... It seems Gerben was not ready for the last change... and we are all waiting to see what this change will be about....

-- Igor Prassel (Slovenia), Director of Animateka

HAFF had been really brave. maybe too brave. It opened the possibilities of animation to the direction where other festivals never imagine. I say it for Gerben’s unique view. He put animation in graphic/visual art while usually it is put among movie industry (as even my festival is.) Being brave and innovative sometimes becomes risky. Maybe this time this is the reason. If the organization would support his vision, I would admire them as brave. If they wouldn’t, I would rebel them as a coward. Sadly, this time it is the latter. Actually, they don’t understand the value of having a really unique event. To look objectively, HAFF was a really unique event. nothing like that exists. Why did the organization throw out their strong point?? They should have promoted it more, but they chose the opposite direction. It’s the shame.

Yes, Gerben has been supporting me a lot to make my festival happen. He is supporting someone who has a strong and unique vision even if he or she has a different view. That is really nice. He encourages me to go to my own direction. In my case, there are two missions from the airport: making a unique festival everybody talks about it and having a good attendance. Because of that (the latter), my festival becomes a strange mixture of anime and artistic/independent animation and it becomes a unique color of my festival. But I always imagine what Gerben says. Is it enough unique and innovative? are there no compromises? supporting unique voices??

-- Nobuaki Doi (Japan), animation historian, director of the New Chitose Airport Animation Festival

As an independent animator as well as an animation teacher at Rhode Island School of Design, I wanted to let you know that this is a very sad day for the world of independent animation. Gerben has consistently championed animation as a vital and important art form for decades. The Holland Festival has come to stand for artistic vision and honesty in a field in desperate need of serious consideration. Independents in animation have a hard time getting noticed to begin with, so it’s especially disappointing when someone like Gerben gets silenced. It’s also completely ridiculous, since the festival has been going from strength to strength. This news makes me aware of how fragile good things can be.

-- Steven Subotnick (USA), HAFF17 Grand Prize winner (Strange Fish)

HAFF has been a quality standard for animation festivals and Gerben the undeniable heart of it. The combination of animation and great art has been a great experience for me and everyone else I suppose I’m deeply puzzled that Gerben as one of the most innovative and passionate animation curators is leaving HAFF. Animation community is very special and I personally don’t imagine who could replace him.

-- Priit Tender (Estonia), animator, HAFF 2015 Grand Prize winner, animation programmer for the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

He has been generous with HAFF to everybody also to the people who hated his contemporary art shows. A very generous film festival and not looking to please the audience. Something that make lots of animation festival stupid & boring. Someone with a vision who knows a lot and want to share it all.

-- Serge Onnen, Dutch artist

Gerben and I met just has he was about to establish HAFF with Gerrit van dijk. Since then, we collaborated for almost 30 years.
Gerben developed, designed and put HAFF on a very high artistic level. Animation as an independent art form was always Gerben’s main concern from the first day on! He managed to develop HAFF into a unique event that became one the first league of animation festivals.

In person, he is a very unique man with own style. but more importantly, with his innovative, and sometimes anarchic, vision about animation art, he offered artists a very important platform for artistic exchange and dialogue on a global level. For example, he was the one of the first, who put a strong focus and interest in young Chinese animation art and helped a lot to put China on the map of contemporary animation.

That Gerben is leaving HAFF is a great loss for animation art.

I not sure what damage his leaving will cause. It will not be easy to replace his achievements for the Netherlands and international animation world.

But sure, he will stay with us in animation.

-- Otto Alder (Switzerland/Germany), animator, curator, teacher, co-founder of Fantoche Animation Festival

The animation community seems in shock about the forced “departure” of our dearest friend Gerben Schermer. About destroying such a great festival as HAFF. I’ll skip all the mentioning of Gerben avant-garde discoverings and contributions to the community. I feel the same feeling of a big loss -- for the art of animation, that almost desperately few passionate curators are trying to defend and promote. For us, who still try to maintain the fight against the bad taste, empty entertainment and the forced ambitions of festival commanditaires toward more “public oriented” venues.

HAFF and Gerben were the avant-garde. Discovering new fields, forms, frontières. I remember the excitement from the new installation and immersive animation section -- local people were walking with a map in their hands and discovering the new works of art, never seen before. Yes, he was challenging the Dutch animators to get better, to create more substantial works. He was rising the barriers. I’m afraid, HAFF is over for me. Personally, i won’t go there anymore and i won’t send my films there.
It is sad when something beautiful gets killed.

-- Theodore Ushev (Canada), animator (Blind Vaysha)

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.