International Film Festival Rotterdam 2013
by Richard Porton

Filipino photographer Shireen Seno’s debut feature, Big Boy

Filipino photographer Shireen Seno’s debut feature, Big Boy

Film festivals are inherently paradoxical entities—they obviously derive their prestige from showcasing the new but are, in fact, often in the business of recycling and recontextualizing the old. The International Film Festival Rotterdam provides something of a case study in how festivals must establish a delicate equilibrium between critical demands for audacious programming and the need to serve a fickle public that frequently resists the experimental fare for which Rotterdam is known. The fact remains that, as numerous visiting avant-garde filmmakers attest, the audiences for nonnarrative films at Rotterdam end up—despite the relatively voluminous offerings in the program—being not much larger than those that turn out on, say, a slow night at Anthology Film Archives in New York. In addition, as the academics involved in “film festival studies” frequently remind us, festivals function as “alternative distribution systems.” From this perspective, jaunts to various international festivals in the last six months demonstrate that the same art-house titles pop up constantly since festival appearances are paving the way for eventual niche distribution in key markets. For example, IFFR 2013 showcased Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves, Olivier Assayas’s Aprés Mai, and Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers— titles that have been on a virtual festival conveyor belt for months and are presumably destined for commercial runs in Dutch cinemas.

Genuinely “new” films usually surface in several Rotterdam sidebars—especially the Tiger Competition devoted to first or second features and a grab bag category entitled “Bright Future.” But, paradoxically enough, some of the most satisfying discoveries at Rotterdam and other festivals emerge from retrospectives of major filmmakers, whose work has often been either underestimated or inadequately distributed. This year’s Kira Muratova retrospective was a prototypical, and exemplary, Rotterdam event. Labeled one of the world’s most underappreciated filmmakers by Mark Cousins in The Story of Film: An Odyssey, Muratova is best known in the United States—to those who know her at all—for The Asthenic Syndrome (1989), a late Soviet masterpiece that foregrounds many of the idiosyncratic director’s trademark tics: manic reflexivity and narrative trompe l’oeil, anti-Stalinist fervor, and feverish monologues by female protagonists. More often than not, however, the vicissitudes of arriving in the middle of a festival translates into a filmgoing schedule that might be described as aleatory. Consequently, I ended up missing Change of Fortune (1987)an adaptation of Maugham’sThe Letter, that is generally acknowledged to be one of Muratova’s best films and found myself at a screening of Passions (1994), which even her must devout fans will probably admit is one of her worst. Two in One (2007), while perhaps not one of Muratova’s masterpieces, proved both a satisfying head-scratcher as well as characteristic of her late style. Two In One is a bifurcated narrative in which the two components are not as much reducible to separate elements but tend to blend into one another with surreal finesse. Muratova’s penchant for theatricality is on display in the film’s first half, as somewhat nebulous references to Shakespeare, particularly Hamlet, suffuse a seriously overwrought production featuring amateur actors. The second half focuses on the escapades of a randy man whose opulent house is the setting for a bizarre triangle involving his daughter, apparently a prisoner in her own house, and the daughter’s less than compliant friend. Yet, it would be much too glib to claim that this opaque narrative is either an allegory of post-Soviet authoritarianism or a jab at Russian patriarchal attitudes. If the emphasis on theatricality recalls late Resnais, Muratova’s taste for controlled excess is reminiscent of Fellini.

An even more bewildering example of cultural dissidence could be found in Rotterdam’s Tiger Competition. Even though Mohammad Shirvani’s Fat Shaker is not an overtly political film, the style and subject matter were transgressive enough to inspire fundamentalists to denounce it as “anti-Iranian.” An overweight con man and his deaf-mute son shake down a number of women and manage to run away with the loot. Before long, the movie transforms itself into what is known, in arcane critical parlance, as the “mind fuck” subgenre. Narrative certitude is undermined as their larcenous campaign falls to extract any cash from a resourceful young woman; dreams and fantasies, as well as a frenetic hand held camera that make the Dardenne brothers’ cinematography seem static in comparison, subsume the already tenuous sense of verisimilitude. Fat Shaker is perhaps best appreciated as an eighty-five minute wail of pain, albeit a much more hermetic expression of anguish than we are accustomed to receiving from even such modernist masters as Kiarostami and Panahi.

2013 was a weak year for documentaries at Rotterdam. Penny Lane’s Our Nixon was the most notable nonfiction film I caught, a found-footage documentary comprised of home movies shot by three of Richard Nixon’s key aides (and unwitting auteurs)—John Ehrlichman, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, and Dwight Chapin. A less immersive exercise in historical montage than Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Lane leavens this deadpan collage with explanatory titles and excerpts from the notorious Watergate tapes. At times, the film is more bound up with snarkiness than bona fide historical analysis. An excerpt from a Nixon rant denouncing All in the Family for promoting homosexuality is undeniably funny. Yet this sort of perverse sound byte does little to amplify the crimes and misdemeanors of the Nixon Administration. It’s instructive to compare Our Nixon with Emile de Antonio’s MillhouseA White Comedy (1971), a documentary made during the Nixon Administration, which used a combination of superbly chosen archival footage and selective interviews to craft an impassioned indictment of Nixon and his shady past. While de Antonio also employed barbed humor to assail Nixon, he drew real political blood. By contrast, Our Nixon, which is quite edifying in conveying Ehrlichman and company’s pleasure in filming epochal events such as Nixon’s visit to China, as well as the gratuitously banal (e.g., footage of hummingbirds), is a bit more like the found-footage equivalent of a fair to middling Saturday Night Live sketch.

If Third World Cinema once meant militant films produced by movements such as Brazil’s Cinema Novo, several entries in Rotterdam’s “Bright Future” section made it clear that contemporary films from what was once known as the “Third World,” especially the Middle East, frequently function as humanist primers for Westerners. Exhibit A in this tendency was The Patience Stone, Atiq Rahimi’s heavy-handed allegory of female oppression in a country that resembles Afghanistan. Based on Rahimi’s novel, (the script was cowritten with Jean-Claude Carrière), the film recounts a beautiful woman’s sudden liberation from the dictates of her authoritarian husband after a bullet to his neck renders him comatose. The brutal patriarch is transformed into the mythic Persian “patience stone,” a confessional conduit to alleviate the ineradicable pain of the woman (played by the beautiful Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani). There’s nothing, of course, inherently wrong with Rahimi’s parabolic strategies. The problem with the film is that it becomes weighed down with bite-sized didactic lessons served up for the audience’s consumption, a particularly egregious example of “telling” instead of “showing.”

While equally didactic, Jeremy Teicher’s Tall as the Baobab Tree offers, remarkably enough, a more than creditable account of clashes between modernity and tradition in a Senegalese village. The cautionary phrase, “remarkably enough,” is added because Teicher is an American Dartmouth graduate who assembled local talent, and a foreign crew, to tell a profoundly African story. Coumba, a high-school student who hopes to attend university, is appalled when her family makes plans to marry off her eleven-year-old sister Debo to pay for medical expenses incurred by her brother’s fall from the eponymous baobab tree. This scenario allows Teicher to offer a nuanced look at Coumba and Debo’s quandary. Quite wisely, he refuses to engage in cultural condescension and portray the tradition-bound parents as villainous. Still, the somewhat schematic narrative is pallid indeed when compared to classic African films that tackle similar themes.

Directed by American filmmaker Jeremy Teicher, Tall as the Baobab Tree is a perceptively rendered tale of life in a Senegalese village

Directed by American filmmaker Jeremy Teicher, Tall as the Baobab Tree is a perceptively rendered tale of life in a Senegalese village

A considerably more daring cinematic approach distinguished Big Boy, Filipino photographer Shireen Seno’s debut feature. While documenting a specific moment in the history of the Philippines—a period after World War II where American economic hegemony became solidified despite the country no longer being an official American colony—Seno’s film veers away from the macrocosmic generalities beloved by commercial filmmakers and filters history through the microcosmic prism of a family struggling to survive in the tumultuous postwar era.

For Seno, history is literally written on bodies—in particular the body of Julio, a young boy living on the island of Mindoro in the wake of what the press book sardonically labels the Americans’ decision to “liberate” the Philippines. Julio’s parents, as clueless as they are inadvertently cruel, stretch his body mercilessly and ply him with a locally made growth serum. They apparently associate a tall, strapping boy with healthy, American-style virility. It seems that a “big boy,” even if his growth is the product of blithe sadism, is more likely to compete with, and surpass, his peers. The IFFR catalogue labels this perverse optimism an investment in the “American Dream.” That’s a perfectly valid assumption; it’s also possible to claim that this familial obsession with Julio’s size is Seno’s way of encapsulating the identity of a nation at a crucial juncture in its history—or, to put it another way, to meditate on what Benedict Anderson, a historian with a longstanding interest in Filipino nationalism, terms an “imagined community.” Bombarded with American products parachuted into Mindoro, this family, desperate and foraging for food, become flesh-and-blood embodiments of the wages of imperialism.

Seno’s film is the sort of modest independent feature in which Rotterdam specializes—a perfect antidote to the more pretentious, “prestige” filmmaking exemplified by The Patience Stone. As the smallest of the megafestivals, Rotterdam has never capitulated to red-carpet vulgarity. With luck, the ambitious programming, summed up by the Muratova retrospective and Seno’s microbudget feature, will continue to make IFFR the most altruistic large festival in Europe.

Richard Porton is a member of the Cineaste editorial board.

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