The Rotterdam Film Festival
by Richard Porton
Even though the 2006 edition of International Film Festival Rotterdam began with the Dutch premiere of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Shunichi Nagasaki’s avant-garde feature, Heart, Beating in the Dark, was given privileged status as the “official” opening night film. Most festivals would have opened with Lee’s film and gladly considered the choice a publicity coup. Rotterdam, a festival traditionally devoted to experimentation and the negation of Hollywood commercialism, seemed slightly sheepish about Brokeback’s relatively mainstream pedigree.
Rotterdam is one of the rare film festivals that remain devoted to an enthusiastic and cinephilic public—and relatively oblivious to commercial glitz and pressures. Of course, as at any huge event (more than 250 films are listed in the catalog), the better films can be located only through a combination of luck and resourceful foraging.
Rotterdam 2006’s best entries tended to straddle narrative and documentary with either flair or uneasy aplomb. Undeniable flair—not to mention manic flamboyance and restrained campiness—distinguished My Dad is 100 Years Old, the inimitable Guy Maddin’s wacky tribute to Roberto Rossellini. Packing more ideas into sixteen minutes than can be found in most features, Maddin convinces us that his characteristically antirealist style is in fact the appropriate launching pad for explicating the work of a notably sober neorealist pioneer. Maddin of course benefits from the exuberance and talent of his star—Rossellini’s daughter Isabella. Gamely impersonating her mother Ingrid Bergman as well as a number of male luminaries—Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, David O. Selznick, and Federico Fellini— Ms. Rossellini demonstrates that homage and irreverence are not mutually exclusive.
Despite the frivolous veneer (drawing on childhood memories, Isabella reduces her father’s image to a loquacious belly), Maddin’s film is nonetheless a serious esthetic inquiry masquerading as scattershot parody. My Dad implicitly challenges the audience to come up with a reason why the resourceful Rossellini, obsessed for years with the notion of film as edification rather than mere entertainment, is still a relatively neglected and scorned figure despite his auteurist imprimatur. After all, most filmgoers still agree with the cavalier dismissal of Rossellini’s work as amateurish and boring that Maddin and his daughter impishly ascribe to Hitchcock.
Chris Petit’s equally compelling Unrequited Love, however different in tone, might also be considered an “essay” film with little use for traditional generic boundaries. Loosely based on Gregory Dart’s book of the same name—which has been variously classified as a novel, a memoir, and a work of literary criticism—Petit’s unclassifiable hybrid (Chris Marker-like is the pigeonhole agreed upon by most critics) deals with the ethics and esthetics of contemporary stalking. Dart’s book originally explored a young academic’s anxiety at being mercilessly pursued by a young woman; but the true perversity of the premise lies in the gradual blurring of the identities of “stalker” and the “stalked” as well as with the affinities Dart proposes between what seems like an entirely modern phenomenon and a literary tradition that extends from Stendhal, Poe, and Pushkin to Carson McCullers. Petit embellishes, and enriches, Dart’s analysis by linking stalking to motifs in Hitchcock, Antonioni, and London’s massive program of CCTV surveillance.
Avi Mograbi’s Avenge But One of My Two Eyes was another film suffused with pseudoautobiographical—or perhaps more precisely mock-autobiographical—concerns. Mograbi is well known in Israel for documentary essays that challenge both conservative and liberal (i.e. Labour) Zionist shibboleths and Avenge, imbuing the overall despondency of recent events with mordant humor, slyly demystifies some of his homeland’s most cherished national myths. Avenge intersperses footage of students being ushered around the ruins of Masada under the aegis of the Labour Zionist group “Birthright,” classroom scenes (filmed at the A.D. Gordon School for Labour values) featuring a lesson on the significance of the biblical story of Samson, an extended telephone conversation between Mograbi and an actor impersonating an anguished Palestinian friend, and sequences focusing on ordinary Palestinian citizens being harassed by the Israeli military. Both Masada, the first century siege in a settlement near the Dead Sea, which resulted in the mass suicides of Jewish Zealots, and Samson’s calculated act of self-destruction (in which he took his own life along with scores of Philistine enemies) function as ironic counterpoint to the ongoing conception of Palestinian suicide bombers as crazed zealots. The ideological stranglehold that envelops most Israelis prevents them from making connections between the ancient Jewish Zealots and their equally intransigent, latter-day Palestinian counterparts.
More traditional documentaries were also screened at Rotterdam and Sabina Guzzanti’s Viva Zapatero! was certainly the most rousing and satisfying. Guzzanti’s alternately sad and hilarious film recounts how satire became an endangered species in Berlusconi’s Italy. Guzzanti, a gifted mimic able to pull off a wicked impersonation of the former Prime Minister, hosted a scathing satirical program called Raito that was cancelled by RAI after only one episode—a programming decision spurred on by the intervention of Berlusconi himself. Guzzanti’s personal outrage becomes the impetus for a wide-ranging exploration of the state of satire in England, Holland, and Spain. Instructive, as well as entertaining, comic highlights include Guzzanti’s incisive lampooning of Berlusconi, as well as her cohort Rory Bremner’s on-target skewering of Tony Blair.
Rotterdam’s most eye-opening sidebar was curated by Filipino critic Noel Vera, author of the invaluable Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema (Big O Books, 2005) Filipino films are almost impossible to see in Europe and North America and Vera’s selection of a handful of trailblazing films from one of the world’s most scandalously neglected national cinemas was a genuine treat. Mario O’Hara’s Demons (2000), termed by Vera a “bizarre mixture of grim reality and highflown lyricism, of terrorist violence and supernatural horror, akin to the fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez set in the Philippines and adapted for the big screen,” constituted a major discovery. O’Hara’s ultra-low-budget tale of a hyperkinetic romance between a radical heiress and a poor, poetic revolutionary is gloriously excessive. Moments of pulpy melodrama and unintentional hilarity notwithstanding, Demons is an uncompromising indictment of former President Marcos’s repressive regime and a bravura example of indefatigable cinematic ingenuity.
As more and more festivals do little more than recycle each other’s programming, Rotterdam’s consistently innovative, and frequently daring, agenda makes it one of the few vital cinematic events on the international calendar.