The International Film Festival Rotterdam
by Richard Porton
The typically soporific festival communiqué genre, a staple of this magazine and most other film journals, was recently enlivened by Neil Young’s impishly entitled Indiewire tirade—“How Many Bad Movies Does It Take to Ruin a Film Festival? This Year’s Rotterdam has the Answer.” As he was the first to admit, his rant recycles much of the exasperation evident in his previous communiqués on the Netherland’s most prestigious film event. After reiterating accusations that Rutger Wolfson, the Rotterdam Film Festival’s director (who was missing in action due to illness during the festival and temporarily replaced by Matt Dominicus) was responsible for the event’s aesthetic downturn in recent years, Young dutifully listed the Tiger Entries—first and second features eligible for the festival’s only notable prizes—he found unendurable.
Vituperation can be rather facile, however. Even though Young’s invective might be justifiable, he neglects to factor in the specific elements that explain why once-vital Rotterdam is suffering from a malaise that is as much the result of a bureaucratic quagmire as the ineptitude of a single person. First, an obsession with “world premieres,” even in the context of the relatively modest aims of the Tiger Competitiion, is the bane of festivals ranging from Tribeca and Fort Lauderdale to seemingly more altruistic European gatherings. Second, it’s difficult for a foreigner to calculate the possible impact of incremental government budget cuts on a festival such as Rotterdam that has traditionally relied on state subsidies. While addressing some of Young’s qualms in De Filmkrant, the Dutch critic Dana Linssen lays out many of the challenges faced by Rotterdam at a time when old timers tend to look back nostalgically at the festival’s “golden age”—an era dominated by legendary former directors such as the late Huub Bals and perhaps his most illustrious successor, Simon Field: http://www.filmkrant.nl/nieuws_2014/10471
Linssen partially blames the festival’s skewed vision on the current Dutch government’s “neoliberal” orientation and a “populist” arts agenda that fetishizes admissions statistics instead of a coherent vision. Yet, Linssen also concedes that, at a time when “there are more films being made than anyone can watch,” the festival has abandoned its role of “curatorship,” failing to provide any sort of tangible context for a public that can easily feel lost amidst a jumble of titles that include work by some old auteurist standbys (e.g., Philippe Garrel, Jim Jarmusch) and a plethora of obscure films. For Linssen, at a juncture when the festival experience has become “commodified,” there’s a need for IFFR to “reflect on what the festival represents…What is its ambition? Its mission?”
Despite the lamentable fuzziness of Rotterdam’s ongoing “mission,” at least one IFFR sidebar made a stab at aligning cinephilic preoccupations with the world at large—a section curated by Evgeny Gusyatinskiy entitled “My Own Private Europe: Remote Places, Singular Visions.” Avoiding the festival’s tendency to bombard filmgoers with an undifferentiated “grab bag” of new films, Gusyatinskiy’s selection of decidedly nonprovincial “regional films,” most of which could be categorized as hybrid documentaries, explored the increasingly diffuse nature of European identity in a post-Cold War milieu—a topic uncannily congruent with the turn towards neoliberalism and homogenization assailed by Linssen in her De Filmkrant piece. For Gusyatinskiy, actual European experience, as opposed to the tourist variant, is virtually “terra incognita.”
Vlad Petri’s Where Are You Bucharest?, one of the less confessional offerings on “My Own Private Europe”’s roster, underlined many of the tensions that continue to plague postcommunist Eastern Europe. Petri chronicles the political ferment leading up to the failed attempt to impeach Romanian President Traian Basescu in 2012. The film is disquieting, primarily because of its portrait of disgruntled demonstrators motivated more by inchoate personal gripes than by revolutionary zeal. Instead, the ragtag protestors are completely clueless about their goals; some merely support the opposition party while others mouth vapid slogans. There is even a perverse nostalgia for the era of the hated dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, whose uncomplicated villainy at least provided a rallying point for the populace to vent its long-suppressed rage during the Romanian Revolution of 1989.
The bulk of Rotterdam’s more alluring entries were, for better or worse, films that had already been acclaimed at San Sebastian, Venice, or Rome. Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men, which has been wending its way along the festival circuit, is a prime example of a crowd-pleasing movie that manages to charm audiences in an honest, ungimmicky fashion. The prospect of a film dealing with the relationship of horses and people in rural Iceland is slightly off-putting since the potential for generating whimsical anthropomorphic scenarios seems limitless. Yet, Erlingsson avoids these pitfalls by employing horses as catalysts for understanding often opaque or misbegotten encounters between humans. Focusing on a small Icelandic village where the pastoral landscapes serve as an idyllic backdrop for mininarratives rife with sexual tensions and professional rivalries, the animals often prove refreshingly direct while the humans are coy or dissembling. In perhaps the most memorable sequence, a woman enamored of the hamlet’s most accomplished and nattily dressed horseman is stupefied when her stallion mounts his mare—an image as hilarious as it is scatological.
Many of the other notable “retreads” from other festivals were idiosyncratic works by major directors. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s The Seventh Code, while a decidedly minor film, is notable for being a playful departure from the characteristically somber tenor of J-horror landmarks such as Pulse or epic melodramas like Tokyo Sonata. The Seventh Code’s premise is in fact so offhand that it’s tempting to dismiss it as a perfunctory exercise designed to confound both Kurosawa’s admirers and his critics. Little more than a string of narrative detours, the film is a showcase for the popular Japanese singer Atsuko Maeda. Akiko (Maeda), a demure but slightly unhinged woman, arrives in Vladivostok lugging a heavy suitcase. Something of a stalker, she corners a Japanese businessman who she once met briefly at a Tokyo restaurant. Departing from this unpromising premise, the film spirals loopily—and quite pleasantly—out of control. Instead of being a tale of a lovesick ingénue, it metamorphoses into a mock thriller in which Japanese cuisine and the machinations of the criminal underworld become crucial to the razor-thin plot.
Documentaries also remain part of Rotterdam’s mix. A small but enthusiastic audience turned out for Double Play (winner of Best Documentary in the “classics” section of the Venice Film Festival), Gabe Klinger’s dual portrait of Austin-based director Richard Linklater and James Benning, one of the most prominent living American avant-garde filmmakers. As laid back as its subjects, Klinger’s documentary traces the affinities between the directors, who share a fondness for baseball and a pronounced skepticism towards the cinematic mainstream. The genial filmmakers first met when Linklater was running the Austin Film Society and Klinger intersperses a liberal sampling of clips from their films that suggest some surprising parallels between their sensibilities—particularly a concern with the passage of time that achieves an apotheosis in Linklater’s forthcoming feature, Boyhood.
Estimable films such as Of Horses and Men and Double Play were certainly not in short supply at IFFR 2014. The problem is that, at its peak, Rotterdam was much more than a cinematic potluck supper. The late-lamented “What is Cinema?” panel discussions helped cement a cinephilic community within the chilly Dutch city and installations and exhibitions were a vital supplement to the myriad film screenings. In 2014, an exhibition called POSTSCRIPT, curated by the redoubtable Edwin Carels, was housed at a location that most in attendance had probably had forgotten—the site of the old Lantaren/Venster Cinema, which has since been rebuilt several miles away across the Erasmus Bridge. Unfortunately, this intriguing show devoted to works that “revisit,” re-edit,” or “recycle” older, classic films was on very few festivalgoers’ radar. Similarly, Dana Linssen’s piece refers to an exhibition entitled “House of European History in Exile” that remained a well-kept secret but might well have offered a welcome respite from the mediocre Tiger entries. For Rotterdam to become more than a sitting duck for Neil Young’s invective, it should avoid emulating megafestivals like Berlin and Cannes and regain the communal ethos that differentiated it from those behemoths in the first place.
Richard Porton is a Cineaste editor, a freelance contributor to various film magazines, and a freelance instructor of cinema studies at New York University.
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Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.