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LIFF director Ratna Lachmansingh: ‘Writing my thesis was so much fun!’

As a student, Ratna Lachmansingh wrote her thesis on horror films. Now she is the director of Leiden International Film Festival.

It was only three weeks before the start of the festival that Lachmansingh returned from maternity leave. ‘It’s not the ideal time, when everyone’s already so busy,’ she concludes. ‘But at the same time, having been on leave allows me to look at the festival with a bit more distance, and to think: gosh, what a cool programme we have!’

Exploring the world through film

And Lachmansingh should know, because her love for film runs deep. As a student, she wrote all her papers and theses on films – even though her degree was actually in Literary Studies. ‘During my gap year after high school, I went with a friend to a lecture by Frans Willem Korsten. He asked us to write down who we were. Then he said, “You probably wrote down your name, your age and your study programme, but those things aren’t what you are.” I thought that was wonderful, but also crazy. This was Literary Studies, wasn’t it? So why was it about identity? Then I started looking more closely at the curriculum.’

Through books, films and paintings, you have the chance to look at biology, philosophy, economics.

The Literary Studies programme turned out to be broader than she expected. ‘Through books, films and paintings, you have the chance to look at biology, philosophy, economics. I thought it was fantastic to be able to study society in this way and not have to choose just one subject. This was even encouraged. Lecturers would say, “Just take anything you like as your subject, as long as you apply the theory.”’ In Lachmansingh’s case, that meant a thesis on horror films, like Night of the Living Dead, The Fly and Alien Resurrection. ‘It was so much fun! I wrote about the social significance of zombies, but also about gender and the human body.’

Making sure that everything works out fine

Alongside her studies, she was also involved in film. She had a part-time job at the Kijkhuis and soon started volunteering at what was then called the Leids Filmfestival. ‘It was a kind of exploration of what I was good at and what I enjoyed. It turned out that I really liked production: making sure that everything works out fine.’ But after a couple of years, she started to have some doubts. ‘I was doing production as well as my regular Leiden University job and my hobbies. At a certain point, I realised it was too much to combine it all. Just when I was thinking of quitting, the position of business manager of the film festival became vacant.’

Lachmansingh was appointed, with a salary, and this year she advanced to the position of general director. ‘It’s interesting to think more broadly about the festival. Who are we? Where do we want to go? And what do we need to achieve it? Based on this, we wrote a multiyear plan this summer.’

An eclectic film festival

One of the aspects that visitors will notice is the way films are now divided into three categories: Extraordinary, Independent and Emerging. ‘We were always eclectic and we still are, but these three categories form our new festival identity. Within them, you’ll find everything from previews to films by talented makers and films that half the audience loves, while the other half thinks “what’s going on here?”’

Horror films still make my heart beat faster.

And what is the festival director herself most looking forward to? ‘I can highly recommend Nude Tuesday, which is a New Zealand film in a made-up language. It’s done so brilliantly. The text really comes across as a language and it’s super funny. Apart from that, I’m always happy when we have Leiden film projects to screen. As a festival, we basically focus on feature films, but films from Leiden are an exception. This year, for instance, we have the premiere of Hideous Henk, an animated series created by Leiden director and animator Junaid Chundriga, and the documentary Competente Rebellen, made by the Jan Stap and René Lamers about potential high school dropouts. And personally I also really like Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, a film with thriller and horror elements. That one might not be for everybody, but it still makes my heart beat faster.’

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