One of the festival highlights was a new print of Edward Yang's tale of teenage life in 1960s Taiwan, A Brighter Summer Day
A certain number of accredited guests at the thirty-ninth edition of the Rotterdam Film Festival were faced with a choice that will doubtlessly seem completely banal several years from now: they could either take the conventional route and attend screenings at the usual theatrical venues or, if they were staying at a hotel adjacent to the press center, merely turn on their laptops and download nearly all of the selections with the help of wireless technology. For these fortunate few, it was possible to enjoy the festival without getting out of one’s pajamas—a slacker’s utopia that made it easy to imagine the day when it won’t be necessary to be present at Rotterdam in the flesh and we can simply hunker down to experience a film festival on our mobile phones.
Even if the prospect of thoroughly “virtual” film festivals in our living rooms seems dreary indeed, it was reassuring to realize that filmgoers could still relish such visceral delights as James Benning’s avant-garde epic, Ruhr, projected on an enormous screen at the Pathé Cinema, and a gorgeous new print of A Brighter Summer Day, the late Edward Yang’s little-seen masterpiece. While the enduring cliché that Rotterdam is the “most experimental” of the major festival retains more than a few grains of truth, the pragmatic agenda of Rutger Wolfson, who took over as festival director in 2008, emulates the savvy imperatives of former IFFR director Simon Field, who endorsed what he termed “the sandwich process”—“using bigger films to get audiences to support your festival and the smaller films.” In 2010, this strategy frequently translated into front-loading crowd-pleasing titles such as Fantastic Mr. Fox and A Prophet towards the beginning of the festival while attendance remained sparse for some of the more ambitious and underpublicized sidebars. To a certain extent, the pervasive desire of large festivals to offer “something for everyone” often means that all constituencies are slightly frustrated. Wolfson’s 2009 decision to streamline the festival’s unwieldy sidebars into three broad categories—“Bright Future,” “Signals,” and “Spectrum”—turned out to be little more than a cosmetic overhaul. Specialized sidebars, perhaps inevitably and necessarily, continue to proliferate. This year, a hugely ambitious retrospective of African films, tributes to the Japanese directors Sai Yoichi and Yoshida Kiju, as well as “After Victory,” an intriguing grab bag of war films from various epochs, were all shoved into a supremely arbitrary category labeled “Signals.”
The films showcased in the Tiger competition, an adjunct of the “Bright Future” section devoted to work by “novice” filmmakers, constitute a somewhat nebulous, if still identifiable, subgenre. At their best, the Tiger entries are more innovative and truly “independent” than the “indies” touted by Sundance and, at their worst, annoyingly precious. One of the three prizewinning features, Mexican director Pedro González-Rubio’s Alamar (To the Sea) is, in many respects, the paradigmatic Tiger film—well-observed, insightful without being pretentious, and, not coincidentally, a fine example of the currently fashionable propensity to synthesize fiction and documentary. Alamar was also noteworthy for avoiding the saccharine temptations that often arise when focusing on a child protagonist, particularly one whose life has been disrupted by divorce. (Alamar was the opening night film of “Rotterdam@BAM,” in early March, a tribute to the festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that featured almost all of the Tiger contenders; the film will also screen from July 14-20 at New York’s Film Forum.) Less felicitously, Sophie Letourneur’s La vie au Ranch represented a drearier variant of the coming-of-age film, a supposed comedy in which the intricately choreographed jabbering of gossipy, endlessly flirtatious twenty-somethings failed to disguise its fundamentally conventional nature.
As at most festivals, when narrative films proved dicey, documentaries saved the day. John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark) was the unassailable highlight of programmer Olaf Möller’s provocative “After Victory” sidebar. Ostensibly a chronicle of the environmental devastation left behind after the United States closed Clark Air Base in the Philippines during the early Nineties, Gianvito’s indictment of American imperial arrogance and official Filipino complicity is a textured historical epic that interweaves explanatory titles, archival photos, and interviews with environmental activists and victims of Clark’s toxic legacy. An opening quotation from the late Howard Zinn exhorting us to examine the economic roots of history paves the way for a vertiginous chronicle of repression followed by sporadic bursts of political resistance. Zinn’s endorsement of materialist history is coupled with a nod to Mark Twain’s essay, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” a remarkably prescient document that includes a sardonic denunciation of America’s efforts to bestow the “blessings of civilization” upon supposedly benighted “natives” during the Philippine-American war. And Gianvito’s capsule tributes to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century icons of resistance such as Emile Aguinaldo and José Rizal attempt to rectify the American historical amnesia that engendered imperial folly in the Philippines and subsequently inspired a similarly lethal adventurism in Vietnam and Iraq.
John Gianvito’s documentary, Vapor Trail (Clark), confronts the lasting effects of the closure of a US military base in the Philippines
Considerably more upbeat than Gianvito’s dirge for American arrogance, Zelimir Zilnik’s The Old School of Capitalism, ensconced in the festival’s amorphous “Spectrum” section, gave voice to a distinctively Eastern European strain of political humor that provided an instructive contrast to Vapor Trail (Clark)’s earnestness. One of innumerable recent films that blur the boundaries between documentary and fiction, Old School tackles the aftershocks of post-communist neoliberalism among disgruntled Serbian workers. The result is less another tedious analysis of globalization than a comic imbroglio based on genuine political tensions. Enraged by the policies of postcommunist plutocrats, leftist workers attempt to fight back with varying degrees of success; an effort, for example, to confront one of the most disreputable bosses degenerates into bleak farce. Initially nostalgic for authoritarian state socialism, the “comrades” are finally swayed by the rhetoric of a feisty anarchist after he burns the American flag during Vice President Biden’s state visit to Belgrade. With many of the “actors” playing roles that reflect their own convictions, Zilnik’s meld of satire and reportage is one of the most entertaining and illuminating political films to surface in the former Yugoslavia since Dusan Makavejev’s heyday.
Of course, this sort of self-conscious oscillation between fiction and nonfiction does not always yield satisfying results. Hana Makhmalbaf’s Green Days, a response to the electoral debacle that returned, through what most believe is voter fraud, President Ahmadinejad to power and the attendant political ferment, is a well-intentioned, but rather anemic, docudrama. Makhmalbaf’s decision to address the protests through a character named Ava, a chronically depressed young woman who hopes to rejuvenate herself through immersion in activism, is a thin ruse indeed—inadvertently suggesting that the mass movement to oust Ahmadinejad was more therapeutic than truly political.
Quite incongruously, Simon Rumley’s Red White & Blue, an unabashedly gory horror film, formulated a tenuously political argument with more subtlety. Shot on location in Austin by a British director, this revenge fantasy, daringly ellipitical by Hollywood standards, starts out with the mystery of a young woman compelled to have sex with just about any stranger she encounters and ends with a bloody coda involving a former U.S. Army interrogator in Iraq. Although littered with frequently ludicrous plot contrivances, Rumley’s tautly made low-budget shock-fest offers a cogent gloss on, among other subjects, posttraumatic stress, mindless misogyny, and vengeance gone awry. Like precursors such as Bob Clark’s Deathdream and Joe Dante’s Homecoming (a one-hour episode of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series), Red White & Blue proves that the horror genre can be a suitable vehicle for scathing political commentary.
Remaining true to its avant-gardist origins, Rotterdam allowed a space for a de facto “festival within a festival” in the form of curator Edwin Carels’s “Break Even Store,” an alternative space that combined cinephilic consumerism (DVDs from small labels on sale to festivalgoers at bargain prices), installations, musical performances, and regular video screenings. Encouraging spectators to stop in to savor the wares and view films followed by informal discussions—everything from Alexander Kluge’s gargantuan (570 min.) Nachrichten aus der ideologischenAntike-Marx-Eisenstein-Das Kapital (an essayistic meditation on Eisenstein’s failed efforts to film Marx’s Capital that almost no one had time to see in its entirety)to Juan Daniel Fernández’s Molero’s confessional Reminiscences—the Break Even Store attempted to reintroduce the countercultural, community-based traditions of the 1960s: the coffee house and altruistic ventures such as Ed Sanders’s Lower East Side Peace Eye Bookstore. Even though some of the antidotes to traditional modes of commerce and exhibition seemed rather puerile—an installation paying tribute to Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book that encouraged visitors to pilfer copies of that legendary handbook cum manifesto was the personification of lame pseudosubversion—there was still something endearing about the enterprise’s noble aspirations.
Rotterdam also demonstrated that the traditional framework of the retrospective could prove as fulfilling as any newfangled approach to programming. A sampling of Japanese director Sai Yoichi’s films, curated by Tony Rayns, provided a welcome opportunity to catch up with this unjustly neglected figure. Specializing in pulpy melodramas and crime films peppered with social commentary, Sai is also one of the few Japanese directors to deal with the experience of Korean immigrants and their descendants. As Rayns observes in his catalog essay, “Sai, however, is not a bleeding-heart liberal. He’s not interested in characters who wallow in self-pity or who secretly enjoy victimhood. He’s into characters who fight back, whether they’re Korean-Japanese, Okinawans, blind men, or renegade Ninja.” This hardboiled approach is on spectacular display in Blood and Bones (2004), a suspenseful saga charting a Korean immigrant’s journey from a desperately poor childhood to life as an imperious crime boss that features a sensational performance by Kitano Takeshi.
Kitano Takeshi in Sai Yoichi's Blood and Bones
“Where is Africa” (the absence of a question mark was perhaps some sort of oblique provocation) was by far the most groundbreaking sidebar, albeit also one with an unusually low profile. Divided into two interrelated components—an archival tributary curated by Alice Smits and Lee Ellickson eschewed well-known names such as Sembene and Mambety in order to focus on important, but little-known, directors such as Samba Félix N’diaye and Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, while another offshoot highlighted films on Africa by non-African directors commissioned by programmer Gertjan Zuilhof— the series interlaced indigenous perspectives with the honest befuddlement of foreigners. Kimi Takesue’s Where are You Taking Me? was a stellar example of the latter tendency. Billed as a “contemplative” documentary, Takesue’s documentary took the explosive subject of former Ugandan child soldiers in an unexpected direction; instead of choosing the usual routes of investigative journalism or bombastic commentary, the film keeps its distance from the traumatized youngsters and observes them with detached empathy as they readjust to “normalcy.” One of the highlights of Smits and Ellickson’s program was a series of silent films accompanied by some of the best African musicians. As they observe in the catalog, the musicians’ accompaniment comprised a form of “live storytelling” that achieved a “dynamic” relationship to the films themselves.
Like many festivals, Rotterdam combines the tried and true—worthy titles like Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes and Rigoberto Perezcano’s Norteado that travel from venue to venue on what amounts to a celluloid conveyor belt—and distinctive programming that allows audiences to discover cinema in an authentically new context. As long as Rotterdam refuses to play it safe and opt for the complacent trajectory of more timid megafestivals, its reputation for audacious experimentation will remain unchallenged.