With a new director at the helm, Rotterdam is in a transitional phase. More power to programmers has made the festival top-heavy with impenetrable sidebars and subdivisions. Thessa Mooij created her own itinerary through the maze and found out that the French really know their stuff.

A small theatre in Rotterdam. Outside, people are trying to catch the audience faves on the last day of the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Inside, the room is only half-filled with Dutch and French cinephiles. An older woman in a red Chinese coat is patient with people leaving during her Q&A and impatient with those asking her questions in French. Agnès Varda insists on speaking in English before this international crowd: "Cinema is not just photography plus words."

One of the Nouvelle Vague’s precursors and one of France’s most prominent female filmmakers, Varda has made a name for herself with features about women in search of a goal (Cleo de 5 à 7, Sans Toi ni Loi) and documentaries about just anything. Shown here in Rotterdam are three documentaries (Salut les Cubains from 1963, Ulysse from 1982 and Yessa, les ours et etc. from 2004) that deal with photography under the title Cinevardaphoto.

Having started out as a photographer in the mid-Fifties, Varda explains them as follows: "I put them together because they each question the value of the image. Films are another way of looking at photos. I switched from photography to films, because I needed words. Photography is too silent. But film is not just storytelling. I wanted to use cinematic tools like movement to portray the energy of the subject and my own energy, my own pleasure in making films."

The festival’s new director Sandra den Hamer must have had a hard time securing world premieres, since most films, even the smaller ones, were from last year. Rotterdam regular Tsai Ming-liang took his latest one to Berlin’s competition. Den Hamer has given her programmers more freedom and more visibility, which resulted in a programme weighed down by special sections and their numerous subdivisions. In their eagerness to score (Philippino avantgarde! Russian necrorealism!) the programmers dug up sub-par films that make for neatly packaged sidebars and vain catalogue essays ("Look what I found!"), but not for pleasant viewing. By the end of the festival I was gagging for quality fare, let’s say a well-made film with no sex, violence or any other sfx. Just a modest flick with subtle observations about daily life, the kind the French know how to do best.

Despite the many sections, titles and subdivisions, no-one seemed to have noticed that there were quite a few films about photography or with photographers as main characters. On account of the lack of buzz films and rubberneck-inducing premieres, I consoled myself with my own private sidebar.

I didn’t hit the jackpot straightaway. First I worked my way through 15 minutes of Oxide Pang’s Ab-Normal Beauty about a girl who gets her kicks photographing dead people. Soon she attracts a serial killer with similar sexual tastes. Hongkong-born Pang and his brother Danny previously made the Thai thriller Bangkok Dangerous and horror hit The Eye. Oxide’s quickie solo effort sadly pales in comparison for its easy symbolism getting in the way of pure entertainment.

The same can be said for Leaving Home, Coming Home, a tame portrait of Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank, and originally made for London Weekend TV. Unlike Varda, Frank is predominantly famous for his photography. His dark pictures of America’s less than sunny side, The Americans, provoked an outrage in the cheery Fifties.

Despite his cult classic Pull My Daisy, narrated by Jack Kerouac, and the Stones film for Cocksucker Blues, Frank never properly made the transition to film. There is cringe-inducing video footage of New Orleans partygoers, who insinuate that Frank must be at least as high or drunk or both as themselves. Many documentaries fall into the accessibility trap and Leaving Home, Coming Home is one of them. Just because you have access to someone doesn’t mean you should just switch on your camera and record everything they say. Frank is a cantankerous subject whose art emanates from visible pain. He is smart and vain, and sadly the filmmaker gives him way too much leeway, treating every snippet of Frank’s rambling rants as if they were precious mantras.

Photographers are not communicators or else they would be filmmakers, like Varda. Last month New York’s MOMA had the world premiere of Michael Almereyda’s documentary William Eggleston in the Real World about the photographer who rose to fame with hallucinatory colour photos of life in the South. Like Frank, he can be eloquent about life in general. There is a surplus of pain coming through the gallons of scotch he and his loved ones imbibe in the Real World. But neither photographers are willing to analyze their own work, either in technical terms or in the context of the bigger picture, although Eggleston will admit – drunk as a skunk in a Denny’s fast food restaurant – that with his photos he chases images he sees in his dreams.

Interestingly enough the film that best illustrated the concept of the photographer as an Einzelgänger was not a documentary but a feature film. L’œil de l’autre stars Julie Depardieu as a photographer who charts the Provence mountains for the regional government. This is John Lvoff’s fifth feature film after having worked as an assistant director for Alain Resnais, Claude Miller and Roman Polanski before striking out on his own with La salle de bain in 1989.

The actress is absolutely captivating as a shy young woman who feels insecure about herself and about her work. How many actresses could play an introvert with such restraint and yet give a glimpse of a tortured inner life? Her work is seemingly mechanical: her photos are exact copies of her predecessor’s – the mysteriously disappeared photographer Peter Holm (a cameo by Otar Iosseliani). But as she discovers his and subsequently her own artistic powers, she starts to unfold – aided by a cheerful hang glider she originally eschewed out of pure fear.

This film was screened in the same small theater as Cinevardaphoto to a similarly small crowd. Whereas elsewhere the festival fêted explicit sex, raging emotions, Asian gore and bleak nihilism in sold-out screenings, the French showed once again that they know how to celebrate cinema without any tricks or treats. Even though Catherine Breillat is French too and she practically jumpstarted the current hard/art porn movement, her compatriots clearly know what they’re doing. It must be in their blood, or else (Varda is part Belgian and Lvoff half American) it must be something in the water.