On the virtues and pitfalls of an art cinema utopia.
24 hours into my maiden stint at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and I was quick proclaim the event—now into its 42nd year—as a veritable art cinema utopia. 20-something films later and my first impression remained, for the most part, unchanged. Tempered by the realisation that no matter where in the world you travel, there’s no escaping the pervasiveness of cell phone use in cinemas or the regular sight of walkouts—a real mood killer when it’s with the subtly of an elephant—there’s little evidence to suggest that Rotterdam’s significant public support is any less or more sophisticated than anywhere else in the world. Which is to say, the prevailing image of the cultured European is a porous one. Having spent time in Amsterdam, Paris, and London post-festival, it’s clear to see that Europeans are spoilt for choice when it comes to all forms of art, and though undeniably passionate about culture, are perhaps susceptible to the trap of taking it for granted. IFFR director Rutger Wolfson says as much in his programme introduction, in which he argues for the cultural and intrinsic value of a festival facing impending funding cuts by the Dutch government, whose mandate to meet EU targets will see the €800 million culture budget curtailed by 25% from 2013.
While the IFFR’s current €7.3 million budget sounds luxurious—indeed, our own New Zealand International Film Festival could fund itself on that bank balance several times over—it’s important to remember that for a festival of Rotterdam’s size (one of the five biggest in the world), every Euro counts. IFFR can only be described as a behemoth: 255 features presented over 12 days, an even larger short film lineup screened simultaneously, an extensive international guest list and hectic co-production market in tow, dance parties every night, and a plethora of live music, panel discussions, and performance art to supplement the round-the-clock filmgoing. If its proportions are similar to the European heavyweights on the circuit—Venice, Cannes, and Berlin, which Rotterdam receives stiffest competition from due to its close proximity—what’s unique about IFFR is how unencumbered it feels as a major film event. Whereas Toronto has its arteries clogged by red carpet premieres and obsequious entertainment reporters, Rotterdam is mercilessly free of hype and shit-eating grins. Furthermore, the festival’s open-plan atmosphere—where everyone is approachable and all venues (excluding the relocated LantaremVenster) are within a few blocks of each other—neatly corresponds with its focus on original talent. In overturning the usual hierarchical structure of programming, the playing field is leveled for all.
So, although this year’s IFFR opened and closed with two populist choices—The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s most mature film to date, and Stoker, Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut—its longstanding commitment to first and second-time filmmakers means that established auteurs are generally the exception rather than the rule. Certainly, any visitor looking to get the most out of their Rotterdam experience will sample as many new features as they can from the ‘Hivos Tiger Awards Competition’ and ‘Bright Future’ sections, and forgo such distribution certainties as Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa, or Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (which, it must be said, did screen with a live foley artist!). And while the festival’s wide-ranging ‘Spectrum’ programme boasts its own cache of gems—my favourite being Manoel de Oliveira’s latest offering, Gebo and the Shadow, an impeccable chamber piece from the durable 104-year-old Portugese master—the potential for discovery is what makes the IFFR such an exciting proposition, and is what enticed me to fly half way around the world. But in showcasing novice filmmakers, Rotterdam’s bold modus operandi also has its pitfalls.
For one, the festival’s vast offering of cinema coupled with a sense of the unknown makes navigating the programme a game of chance. None of the Hivos Tiger Awards contenders I viewed ended up as competition winners—the prizes (a cool €15,000 each) eventually went to Austrian Daniel Hoesl’s debut film Soldier Jane, Slovakian Mira Fornay’s sophomore effort My Dog Killer, and Iranian Mohammad Shirvani’s Fat Shaker, also his second film (and one of 25 films at IFFR ‘harvested’ by the Hubert Bals Fund). Moreover, amongst the competition features I did manage to see, a frustrating trend emerged. If the Tiger stamp of approval means inheriting, rather than expanding upon, art cinema’s default aesthetic mode, can one really view the competition as exemplifying the ‘next wave’? Wanting to have something more to say than the usual praise handed out to the patient, elliptical, naturalistic works of the modern cineaste, hoping to find signs that cinema is still evolving, I was left mostly flailing in the dark. An artistically sound yet deeply familiar film like Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love, for instance, is indicative of this void insofar as its poetic subjectivity passes vaguely for both form and content. There are no distinguishing features in its exploration of a 14-year-old’s coming-of-age and sexual longing; simply, a blurred, ethereal quality that, while getting up close to its characters’ frankness and naivety, is covered with the sheen of an Instagram post.
As much of a non-event, I hate to say it, was Eduardo Villanueva’s Penumbra, an otherwise beautiful study of nature and light rendered secondhand by the peer group of Latin American filmmakers it strives to emulate (or at least, plays catch-up to). Centred on the rural existence of an elderly hunter and his loyal wife in a remote corner of Mexico, Villanueva’s film is highly articulate in the language of slow cinema and non-narrative documentary-fiction, but also heavily reliant on borrowed virtues handed down by the likes of Carlos Reygadas and Lisandro Alonso. Had Penumbra screened a mere two years ago—the same year Rotterdam hosted a genuine masterpiece of the form in José María de Orbe’s Aita—its attention to the provincial minutiae of the characters, their positioning in an interstitial space between make-believe and reality, and the spiritual echoes within the environment they inhabit, would surely have made more of a splash. While the non-cynical will argue that it did by receiving the IFFR’s Lions Film Award (granted to a promising filmmaker whose feature has been supported by the Hubert Bals Fund), the discrepancy between Penumbra’s currency as a recognisable product of contemporary art cinema and its actual value as a work of art—one that, for all its control of the medium, does not attempt to open up the form—highlights how this once radical minimalism is now diminishing in returns, and even when executed to the highest degree, struggles to impress.
Although I made some fine discoveries at Rotterdam (which I promise to elaborate on in my next festival report), I wasn’t lucky enough to stumble upon any true revelations. And tucked away inside the ‘Signals’ section was a great irony: the undervalued cinema of Kira Muratova, whose body of work has undergone several phases of rediscovery over the past 50 years. Regrettably, I only had time to dip my toes into the festival’s superb retrospective, which gathered every Muratova feature together (bar the 1972 documentary Russia, of which little is known about), as well as a number of rare shorts. (Other ‘Signals’ sidebars included a retrospective of major German auteur Dominik Graf, and a programme of new fiction films from Iran—neither of which I had the opportunity to attend.) Brannavan Gnanalingam, who was on Muratova duty during the festival, has already written at length about the Soviet filmmaker’s genius in the first of our Rotterdam Dispatches. However, even from the lone Muratova I saw, the sheer weight of her questions, provocations, and agitations practically outnumbered the ideas of every other film I encountered at IFFR combined.
Preceding her two most recent films, Eternal Homecoming and Melody for a Street Organ (which Steve Garden reviewed with great insight in 2010), Two in One (2007) is an extraordinarily apt title for Muratova’s oeuvre. Reinforced with double images, sly repetitions, and an absurd duality that toys with genre, illusion, and artificiality, this interminably strange film transforms from backstage drama to on-stage pantomime at its mid-point—a classic Muratova gambit—and only gets weirder as it lurches into a sexual, belly-aching farce. Hers is the opposite of contemplative cinema: the posture aggressive, not passive; the themes jolting as opposed to slow revealing; the logic always playful and never rigid. Towards the end of the film, a character becomes infected with a hysterical, never-ending laughter, the grating sound of which clearly drove some viewers batty. This deliberate fracture of the form is a direct challenge to the spectator to stay put within the dimensions of cinematic convention; convention that Muratova relentlessly attacks on multiple levels. The festival describes her as “a master of artistic irritation,” and sure enough, there is no reclining position when watching her films; their unpredictability and plurality demand that you sit up and take notice. In fact, it wouldn’t be a Muratova film if part of the audience didn’t feel the need to walk out, or as the programme notes nicely summarise: “She has not only… ruptured the boundaries of the language of film, she has ruptured the boundaries of cinematographic awareness and thought. Even if she has thereby unwittingly hindered the reception of her own films.”
Back at the Tiger Awards, and the most arresting film in competition, Sebastian Hofman’s Halley, also tested its audience, possibly to the detriment of its success. No matter: this contemporary gothic death march is a work of real conviction, and one of the few Tiger selections to leave an imprint. Erroneously dubbed a ‘zombie movie’ on account of its lifeless, corpse-like protagonist, the film follows the last days of Alberto (Alberto Trujillo), a terminally ill security guard whose health is so poor that at one point he’s incorrectly pronounced dead (and ends up in a morgue before the coroner realises a grave mistake has been made). If comparisons to Michael Haneke’s Amour are inevitable, Hofman’s hyper-real aesthetic—shot through harsh artificial light and an acute but unstable focus which seems to lose clarity in tandem with Alberto’s bouts of excruciating pain—goes straight for the gut, supplanting the moral and ethical voice (i.e., the heart and the head) of Haneke’s film with the raw physical impact of approaching death. His stagey but unflinching attention to the deterioration of the body—ugly bedsores, open wounds infested with maggots, peeling fingernails—offers Alberto no dignity in the end, only a slow, corporeal horror akin to David Cronenberg’s The Fly. But Hofman’s film also has a humanist bone, affording Alberto rare glimpses of humour and compassion, despite his lonely crawl towards the light.
One of the strangest sights in Rotterdam was spotting the actor who played Alberto casually wandering the CBD soon after the seeing Halley—pale and thin like his deathly on-screen persona, but otherwise alive and well. This, along with getting to meet one of my cinematic heroes, and coming within two degrees of separation of my favourite filmmaker of all-time (more on those encounters later), made for a festival experience where anything could happen. To be sure, the programme is a lottery, but its unpredictability can also be thrilling. There’s something to be said for film appreciation without the burden of traditional expectation, as there’s nothing worse than losing sight of a film’s inherent merits/faults when the anticipation (or lack thereof) gets in the way. There’s also nothing worse than a critic mistaking his or her expectation of a film, relative to the actual experience of it, for criticism, just as the grim reality of Amour has been turned into an enormous asterisk since its mainstream success. (Neither have anything to do with an appraisal of the film concerned.) While Hofman’s film can count on similarly reductive reviews that apologise for its confronting subject matter, here in Rotterdam, together with nearly a hundred other features by new directors, it gets to set out on an equal footing and be judged on its own terms. Topped off with a cinematic sprinkling of snow, the conditions for both filmmakers and filmgoers are so perfectly balanced in Rotterdam that there really is no equivocating: this film festival is indeed a cinema utopia, and one I hope to revisit before too long.