Rotterdam When is a film festival not a film festival? When it's a soccer tournament, that's when. As part of a programme about the future of film festivals, the Netherlands' Rotterdam International Film Festival hosted a futsal (five-a-side soccer) tournament featuring filmmakers, producers, and festival crew. The idea was to look forward to a time when screenings at film festivals will be redundant, because everyone will already have seen the new films either at home on DVD or on the Web. 'It's meant to be fun and a bit provocative,' says film programmer Gertjan Zuilhof, who organised the event. 'In the future, screenings at film festivals may not be that important. Festivals will simply have become a place for people to get together. 'If they're not going to watch movies at them, why not have a football match there instead?' This radical approach is typical of the Rotterdam festival, which turned 36 this year. One of the world's biggest film festivals, Rotterdam has carved out a niche for itself as a place where independently minded cineastes, experimental filmmakers, and those working in visual arts such as electronic media, can meet, discuss, and argue about their work. Rotterdam's mandate has always been to show interesting films irrespective of whether they are hip or fashionable - the programmers are not that interested in movie stars or current fashions. 'You can see a lot of films here that don't make it to other film festivals,' says New York-based Richard Porton, co-editor of the academic journal Cineaste. 'They work hard to discover new films themselves - they don't just take them from other film festivals, or because they're the latest thing.' There is a film competition at Rotterdam, which is limited to first- and second-time directors. This year Love Conquers All, a Malaysian film about a disturbing love affair, was one of the four winners. Yet the festival's not really about winning. The 'big idea' here is to show that cinema is part of the centuries-long history of visual art. Rotterdam's programme always emphasises that cinema is not an art form which sprang out of nowhere at the end of the 19th century. It shows how films relate to paintings, theatre, and all the arts that existed before it. The festival always screens some films in art galleries and museums, and usually features exhibitions of computer games and interactive installations. It even has an artist in residence, who is sometimes a painter who has nothing to do with movies. This year it was Norwegian multi-media artist Knut Asdam, who installed a small park in a museum and put a cinema screen at the end of it, so it looked like audiences were watching films outdoors. Rotterdam has always been a good place to catch up on Asian films. This year, it had a retrospective of films dedicated to Hong Kong's Johnnie To Kei-fung. The director, who had just come from two days of intense interviews in France, was swamped by adoring film critics - one was even assigned to follow his every step for an in-depth article on his daily life. The avuncular, cigar-chomping To looked surprised by all the attention. 'Is there any way you can get me out of here?' he joked over coffee in the festival cafe. Later, he confided that he thought the festival was very interesting as it showed a wide range of films, and mentioned that he was looking forward to seeing a bit more of Northern Europe - provided he could escape undetected from the festival building. Fanatical critics and filmic auteurs such as To are two-a-penny at Rotterdam. But, unlike at most big film festivals, you won't find any American movie stars in the smoke-filled cafes and discussion halls. There's an old, probably apocryphal, story that a Hollywood movie star once tried to attend the Rotterdam film festival. On hearing the news, the festival administration swiftly dispatched some undercover security guards to the airport. These operatives intercepted the errant Hollywood star at airport immigration. They made sure he was denied a visa and immediately put him back on his plane. Thus the honour of the film festival was saved. This story may not be true. But it sums up a philosophy that has been gradually evaporating from other A-list film festivals: at Rotterdam, the directors, not the actors, are the stars. When the late experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage arrived at the festival a few years ago, he was met with the kind of enthusiasm that's usually reserved for stars such as Nicole Kidman and Leonardo DiCaprio, for instance. 'We concentrate on directors, because we believe that approach leads to a good film programme,' says an IFFR programmer. 'There's a lot of pressure from corporate sponsors these days to invite some Hollywood stars, as it maximises the publicity for their company. If you get a star, you get a lot of press coverage. But we have always managed to negotiate with our sponsors - we make sure that they clearly understand what our festival is about.' It's a philosophy that has served the festival well for the past 36 years. Should a change of direction ever become necessary, there's always those five-a-side football matches.