The 41st Rotterdam International Film Festival
By Richard Porton

Raul Ruiz's Ballet aquatique

Raul Ruiz's Ballet aquatique

Like every European festival that relies partially on state subsidies, the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) has had to tighten its belt in recent years. Seasoned festival visitors noticed that the catalog was slightly leaner and, with the exception of an extensive retrospective of the work of Chinese filmmaker and performance artist Ai Weiwei, the gallery sidebars devoted to highlighting the ever-loosening boundaries between the art world and art cinema had almost vanished.

Postrecession cutbacks notwithstanding (cuts in government funding to the Dutch film industry, as well as the festival, were openly discussed in IFFR’s official organ, The Daily Tiger), Rotterdam’s devotion to truly independent cinema —which includes the avant-garde, as well as narrative features and documentary—still outshines anything comparable at a North American festival. While ambitious art films and experimental works are usually relegated to second-class status at events such as Sundance and Toronto, at Rotterdam they tend to constitute the main attraction; the presence this year of a few mainstream crowd pleasers like Hugo and Damsels in Distress was little more than perfunctory window dressing.

Given Rotterdam’s traditionally adventurous orientation, it was appropriate that a tribute to the late Raul Ruiz was one of the 2012 edition’s highlights. For the first part of the evening, an early Ruiz film, the intriguingly inscrutable La maleta, was screened and LOLA editor and Cineaste Associate Adrian Martin chaired a panel that included former Ruiz colleagues: Melvil Poupaud, star of major works such as City of Pirates, Three Lives and Only One Death, and Mysteries of Lisbon, the producer François Margolin, and IFFR’s former codirector Simon Field.

Ruiz’s appealing blend of erudition and playfulness, as well as his complete lack of pretension, came across clearly during the panel discussion. Adrian Martin told an anecdote recounting Ruiz’s excitement on spotting a man in a Rotterdam cinema who appeared to be a colleague or long lost friend. The gentleman turned out to be a projectionist he befriended during an earlier visit. A screening of one of Ruiz’s final projects, Ballet aquatique, reaffirmed both the late Chilean director’s fondness for esoterica and his disdain for pedantry. Ballet aquatique is a veritable primer in mock-erudition. Taking its cue from Dada precursor Alfred Jarry’s Pataphysics—the “science of imaginary solutions”—the film ponders the impossibility of accurately counting the number of fish in an aquarium by making lightly acerbic allusions to sociological discourse and arcane philosophical tributaries. Ruiz’s sly nonsense is supplemented by an affectionate homage to Jean Painlevé’s underwater documentaries, particularly The Octopus (1927).

Of course, most of the hype, such as it is, at low-key Rotterdam is generated by the Tiger Competition, a prominent slate of films comprised of first or second features made by frequently young directors. There is at least the implication that the Tiger films are chosen as much for their ability to pinpoint certain cinematic trends as their intrinsic value and, in this respect, 2012’s selection proved slightly disconcerting. Many of the entries were either wanly minimalist or case studies in ham-fisted naturalism.

The latter tendency was ably represented by Serbian filmmaker Maja Milos’s Clip (which was awarded one of the three Tiger awards). Although the catalog terms Clip a twist on the “classical ‘coming of age’ film,” it more precisely conforms to the contours of the “teen angst” movie, a subgenre pioneered by American independent cinema and refined in pseudosociological exercises such as Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (2003). In Milos’s version of this cautionary tale, suffused with the usual contradictory combination of prurience and puritanism, high school student Jasna is drawn to passionless, drug-addled sex as a means of escaping her dreary home life. Coping with a hostile mother and a father dying of cancer, she adopts a characteristically adolescent form of nihilism. Clip is perhaps most annoying because of its inability, despite half-hearted attempts, to convincingly align Jasna’s hedonism to broader Serbian political and social realities.

Babis Makridis’s L

Babis Makridis’s L

From the other end of the stylistic spectrum, Babis Makridis’s L made many festivalgoers wonder if the strain of Greek absurdism initiated with films on the order of Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth and Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg had finally run out of steam. Even though it’s arguable that the latter two films have been overrated, Dogtooth at least boasted a premise worthy of Ionesco and Attenberg was noteworthy for Ariane Labeda’s poignant performance as a sheltered young woman blessed with the talent to mimic animals featured on David Attenborough’s televised nature specials. The anemic L could only offer a threadbare allegory concerning a chauffeur assigned to deliver a mysteriously potent brand of honey to his narcoleptic boss. The tedium induced by a film whose apparent critique of the hardships endured by Greeks during the Great Recession eluded most viewers provided fairly solid evidence that the more fashionable Greek directors should stop pussyfooting around and confront the country’s economic crisis more directly—and less whimsically.

Documentaries are often the antidotes to lackluster Tiger entries at Rotterdam and 2012 was no exception. While Rotterdam often specializes in lyrical and/or experimental nonfiction (e.g., last year’s festival favorite, It’s the Earth, Not the Moon), this year’s edition featured both an entirely conventional documentary on the ongoing crisis in Egypt, Petr Lom’s Back to the Square, as well as L’anabase: The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and the 27 Years Without Images, Eric Baudelaire’s poetic meditation on the legacy of the Japanese Red Army.

Lom’s film adheres to a time-honored formula beloved by documentarians—a complex historical crisis is explored with the help of emblematic “characters” interviewed by the director whose tribulations form a “narrative arc.” Setting aside the dubiousness of a largely biographical approach to current events, Lom unquestionably zeros in on Egypt’s postrevolutionary malaise. After triumphantly ousting President Mubarak, the democratic movement feels besieged by the equally repressive tactics of the army and secret police.Back to the Square’s five protagonists attest to the fact that the current regime might be termed Mubarakism without Mubarak. Perhaps the two most moving testimonies are given by Salwa Hosseiny, a young woman from the rural Nile Delta who was tortured by the army and secret police and coerced into submitting to a virginity test, and Mark Nabil, the teenaged brother of a blogger imprisoned for writing supposedly subversive posts. Despite the jubilation of the Arab Spring, Lom’s melancholy update on the events of Tahrir Square verifies reports that torture, misogyny, and rigid press censorship continue unabated in Egypt.

L’anabase tackles another national trauma in a considerably less straightforward manner. The central figure is Masao Adachi, a sometime collaborator of Koji Wakamatsu, a celebrated Japanese auteur whose idiosyncratic fusion of soft-core porn and left-wing militancy made him a cult figure to devotees of films with titles like Go, Go Second Time Virgin and The Embryo Hunts in Secret. Adachi, however, withdrew from filmmaking in the 1970s, joining forces with the Japanese Red Army, famously responsible for an attack on Lod airport, and eventually joining the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Lebanon. Adachi’s peculiar trajectory is juxtaposed with the childhood memories of May Shigenobu, the daughter of the onetime leader of the JRA and a less willing participant in the activities of this hermetic and authoritarian political cult.

The most puzzling aspect of Baudelaire’s documentary resides in its discreetly ambivalent view of Adachi and the JRA. As is true of another recent documentary, Philippe Grandrieux’s It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, Adachi, with his penchant for somewhat gnomic aphorisms, is depicted as a cultural hero, more of an aging surrealist than an elderly man who once joined forces with a hyper-Leninist sect that made numerous tactical blunders. Baudelaire’s view of Adachi is slightly less rapturous than Grandrieux’s—and the elderly warrior’s reminiscences are tempered by May Shingenobu’s account of what can only be labeled posttraumatic stress syndrome. But both Grandrieux and Baudelaire tend to sidestep the intricacies of the JRA’s actual legacy in an effort to anoint Adachi a sage whose importance is more tied to aesthetics than politics.

Peter von Bagh's Man in the Shadows

Peter von Bagh's Man in the Shadows

Rotterdam’s most rewarding films are often found in annual sidebars and retrospectives and the 2012 tribute to the Finnish filmmaker Peter von Bagh unearthed a body of work that, with the exception of a few seminal essay films such as Helsinki, Forever, remains little known outside of Finland. Perhaps the great revelation of the von Bagh retrospective was its extraordinary range; during a career that has included years as a curator and archivist, heading up several film festivals, and publishing a number of books, he has found time to make a number of sober historical documentaries as well as a delightfully eccentric fiction film (The Count, 1971) on the escapades of an extroverted con artist who becomes engaged to—while fleecing—seventy-six women.

Yet, at least for this viewer, von Bagh’s extraordinary documentary, Man in the Shadows (1994), turned out to be the highlight of the retrospective. The film, made for Finnish television, explores the checkered career of Otto Wille Kuusinen, a figure who continually surfaced, in an almost Zelig-like manner, during the history of Finnish socialism and Soviet Communism. Starting out as a Finnish social democrat who proves too radical for his compatriots, Kuusinen eventually finds a niche within the Soviet Union and becomes one of the few allies of Stalin who avoids the dictator’s paranoid wrath. Surviving numerous purges and power shifts, this diehard survivor lived long enough to become a member of the politburo and was rewarded with the position of Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party during Khrushchev’s regime. While slavishly adhering to the party line, Kuusinen also maintained a seemingly dispassionate scholarly interest in the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic. According to Olaf Möller’s program notes, Kuusinen “is as much of an enigma as an archetype of twentieth-century man.” It was fortunate for Rotterdam attendees that Möller helped to salvage Man in the Shadows and other van Bagh gems from undeserved obscurity.

Richard Porton is a Cineaste Editor as well as an occasional contributor to Cinema ScopeThe Daily Beast, and Moving Image Source.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.