Rotterdam International Film Festival
by Richard Porton
The fortieth anniversary of the International Film Festival Rotterdam was marked by some natural growing pains. The Lantaren/Venster Cinema, the cynosure of the festival since its inception, moved to new headquarters across the River Meuse—a more salubrious space, to be sure, but also one somewhat out of the way for filmgoers accustomed to having all of Rotterdam’s venues within walking distance. In order to reinvigorate itself after forty years, the festival sponsored an ambitious city-wide event entitled “IFFR XL” Films— video installations, even a temporary cinema book shop were among the attractions scattered at various sites, most of them not far from the primary festival cinemas. To cite a prototypical example, a short stroll to Schouwburgplein in downtown Rotterdam brought the visitor to an unusually impish piece of video art by Koen Theys—a skillfully assembled agglutination of hundreds of YouTube renditions of the Swedish rock band Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” a ditty performed in a dizzying, not to mention frequently ludicrous, panoply of styles on everything from brass band to harmonica. What many had assumed to be a rather silly anthem sung at sporting events becomes transformed into something of a litmus test for the prowess of amateur performers with their eyes on the prize of stardom.
In the light of Rotterdam’s well-earned reputation for experimentation, it’s difficult to fathom how the decision was made to open this year’s edition with Argyris Papadimitropoulos and Jan Vogel’s Wasted Youth, an exceedingly banal narrative concerned the intertwined destinies of two strangers during a hot summer day in Athens. What immediately strikes those accustomed with the film festival circuit is how this humdrum example of “art cinema” recycles various clichés. The central character is a prototypical example of “alienated youth,” a devil-may-care teenaged skateboarder with girlfriend problems—already reminiscent of characters from films as disparate as Larry Clark’s Ken Park and a more recent festival hit, Serbian director NIkola Lezaic’s Tivla Ros. Wasted Youth’s derivativeness is also reinforced by the fatal collision at the film’s conclusion between the hedonistic teenager and a frazzled cop with a tragically short fuse. This creaky narrative machinery is dismayingly reminiscent of facile plot twists in larger-budget clinkers such as Babel and Crash.
Wasted Youth was part of the Tiger Award Competition, Rotterdam’s high profile section devoted to films by first and second-time directors. South Korean director Park Jung-bum’s The Journals of Musan (one of the three Tiger prizewinners), a film much less infatuated with shallow cinematic pyrotechnics, was far more rewarding. Park’s leisurely exploration of a North Korean defector adrift in Seoul is noteworthy for evoking this slice of social reality with admirable subtlety. Journals’ lonely protagonist, the socially maladroit Jeon Seung-Chul (in a Cristi Puiu-like maneuver, played by the director himself) is far from a simple, virtuous victim of circumstance. Alienating employers, potential girlfriends, and even his fellow defectors, this sullen refugee from repression is an infuriatingly passive-aggressive dissident. Yet the film also manages to emphasize how South Korean acquisitiveness offers an inadequate antidote to the North’s totalitarian horrors.
Although noteworthy documentaries were not plentiful at this year’s IFFR (one of the most noteworthy, Gianfranco Rosi’s El Sicario Room 164 is discussed in the current issue ofCineaste), several of the nonfiction entries incisively exemplified current trends. Lee Anne Schmitt’s low-key The Last Buffalo Hunt, for example, skillfully synthesized two documentary genres—the ethnographic film and the nonfiction essay. Schmitt integrates footage of participants in a state-sanctioned buffalo hunt in Hanksville, Utah with reflections on the extermination of the Indian population in the nineteenth century and snippets from Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous essay on the crucial importance of the American frontier. Interspersed throughout are slyly ironic shots of the modern western landscape—plastic statues of Indians, gas stations, and bustling casinos. The buffalo becomes a catalyst for sifting through entrenched American myths, particularly the exaltation of individualism as mediated through hunting rituals.
For several reasons, Jesse Lerner’s The Atomic Sublime, while certainly ambitious, is a less successful documentary essay. Lerner assembles some fascinating archival footage (“educational” documentaries, as well as newsreels) to drive home his point that the heyday of American abstract painting in the Fifties, personified by painters like Pollock and Rothko, encouraged the American government to use modern art as a propaganda tool in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, this thesis, besides being terribly reductive, is far from original. The thrust of Lerner’s essay is more or less indistinguishable from the argument put forward in Serge Guibault’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. Like Guibault, Lerner has a tendency to blur distinctions between the art works themselves and their usefulness for certain cultural bureaucrats. Perhaps unwittingly, a handful of distinguished artists become collateral damage within an indictment against state meddling in cultural policy.
Less weighed down by tendentious assertions, Valerie Gudenus and Heloisa Sartorato’s I Am Jesus focuses on three eccentrics, all of whom are convinced that they are the incarnation of the Messiah. Messianic madmen are obviously not in short supply. But Gudenus and Sartorato are admirable in refraining from sneering at or lampooning these deluded men. Instead, the filmmakers’ treatment of the Siberian Vissarion, whose rural commune has an near-Tolstoyan ambiance, the Brazilian INRI Cristo, who appears to have as many groupies as a Sixties rock star, and David Shayler, a former MI5 agent whose political rants are delivered with a decidedly neurotic demeanor, is consistently compassionate. Even though these men might be dismissed as pathetic lunatics, one at least (Shayler) is impressively lucid and all, however misguided, nurture a vision of community opposed to the hucksterism of politicians and business magnates.
Unlike other festivals that tend to give short shrift to film history, retrospectives are often the high points at Rotterdam. 2011 was no exception—a series highlighting the films of Spanish director Agustí Villaronga was a major revelation.
Villaronga’s Tras el cristal (In a Glass Cage, 1987) is surely one of the most remarkable first features in the history of cinema. According to Quim Cassas’ essay in the IFFR catalog, this highly disturbing film about a former Nazi’s torture of a hapless young boy already sums up “the main tenets of his cinematographic world with unusual maturity…. the desecration of the innocence of youth; a certain poetics of cruelty; an apparent moral ambiguity; the blending of good and evil without a clear demarcation of where one begins and the other ends…” In a Glass Cage remains a shocking film because of Villaronga’s refusal to depict political authoritarianism from a respectful, platitudinous distance. And since the villain of the piece is a gay Nazi encased in an iron lung, Villaronga also displays his unwillingness, or perhaps his inability, to observe politically correct scruples.
A similarly “incorrect” political pose is also evident in Villaronga’s latest film, Pa negre (Black Bread). In the tradition of Spanish Civil War films such as The Spirit of the Beehive, the struggle between fascism and democracy is viewed from the perspective of a (seemingly “innocent”) child. Despite being clearly an “anti-fascist” film, the young protagonist’s father, an ostensible mouthpiece for anti-Franco sentiment, is far from an exemplary radical. Like the most hardheaded political filmmakers, Villaronga is reluctant to pigeonhole his characters as either thoroughgoing saints or despicable sinners.
Spending a large chunk of time in the company of Villaronga’s doomed characters could unnerve most any filmgoer. Fortunately, Finnish filmmaker and film historian Peter von Bagh’s Sodankyla Forever provided an affirmative coda to my visit to Rotterdam. Von Bagh, the director of Sodankyla’s Midnight Sun Film Festival (intriguingly located in Finland north of the Arctic Circle) for the last twenty-five years, is a relentlessly upbeat cinephile. His captivating documentary includes choice footage of some of the most distinguished guests to visit his festival. Many of the most entertaining luminaries are also compelling storytellers. Even the garrulous Sam Fuller is outdone by another old timer: Vincent Sherman, whose indiscreet, but entertaining, anecdotes about the sexual peccadilloes of Hollywood stars must have charmed the Finns. Both an ode to old-style cinephilia and a wistful look back at a bygone era, there couldn’t have been a more appropriate film to savor at Rotterdam, another festival that continues to reevaluate the cinematic past.
Richard Porton is a Cineaste Editor as well as an occasional contributor to Cinema Scope, The Daily Beast, and Moving Image Source.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.