Indie film world mourns Wouter Barendrecht

Global tributes for Fortissimo Films co-founder

COLOGNE, Germany -- Shock, disbelief and a deep sadness pervade the independent film world after the sudden death of Wouter Barendrecht, co-founder and chairman of Fortissimo Films, who died of a heart attack Sunday at 43.

It is hard to measure the impact Barendrecht's death has had on the industry he loved and on the people -- colleagues, business partners and many, many friends -- who mourn his passing.

"He was one of the human beings you always had fun with, a clever agent and a person truly committed to his filmmakers and the art of making movies," Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick said. "One of the most memorable collaborations was definitely the opening of the Berlinale in 2007 with Martin Scorsese's 'Shine a Light' and the Rolling Stones. A real Mensch is gone, it's so sad."

Several people contacted for this story were too distraught to comment, some even breaking into tears remembering Barendrecht.

An official condolence register set up on Fortissimo's Web site is perhaps the clearest measure of the esteem to which he was held. In entry after entry, from China to South Africa, Mexico to Holland, the words "warmth," "passion," "humor" and "kindness" are oft repeated.

"I first remember first meeting Wouter at Rotterdam, 20 years ago. He spoke every language; saw every film; knew everyone at every party," Focus Features head James Schamus wrote. "Anyone who came of age in those heady days of independent cinema -- and anyone who has since felt the force of his energy and optimism ... will see in each others' faces, the next time we meet, the sadness, and gratitude, his passing engenders."

Tony Ayres, writer-director of "Home Song Stories" and "Walking on Water," both of which Fortissimo distributed, told The Hollywood Reporter: "Fortissimo has a particular taste, and a sensibility and a way of working through the major festivals. That is part of its legacy. Wouter would never say that he was champion of filmmaking from any particular country but more a champion of filmmakers that he believed in. He wasn't so much about making films but more about making an international community through film. It's why he was so loved around the world."

Even those not close to Barendrecht noted his astounding contributions to the indie film industry.

"He was really a founder of our business, one of the first to really find a market internationally for art house films," TrustNordisk CEO Rikke Ennis told THR. "Particularly in Asia where he opened up the businesses. We could never compete with his skills in the Asian market. One of great pillars of art house cinema is gone."

It is in Asia where the loss of Barendrecht may be most keenly felt. Starting 19 years ago, when he founded Fortissimo in Hong Kong, the Dutch-born Barendrecht became a bridge between the art house worlds of Asia and the West.

"Wouter was greatly responsible for raising international awareness and recognition for Asian films, such as those from Thailand. He was also the first person to have brought Korean films to Hong Kong, with 'Christmas in August' (1998)," Winnie Tsang, founder and managing director of distribution outfit Golden Scene said.

"His contributions to Asian cinema were immense," added Edko Films executive director Bill Kong. "I've known him for 20 years and (all that time) he had worked ceaselessly in promoting Asian films to the world. Wouter's passing was an immeasurable and irreplaceable loss to Asian cinema. Words cannot describe it."

To honor his memory, Fortissimo has set up the Wouter Barendrecht Film Foundation, whose goal will be to discover and support new film making talent around the globe. Many in the industry are discussing holding a memorial for Barendrecht next month at the Festival de Cannes.

Karen Chu in Hong Kong and Pip Bulbeck in Sydney contributed to this report.