Rotterdam throws a Hard Eight | International Film Festival Rotterdam

AIDAN CELESTE looks back at this year’s edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) and extrapolates some hard truths about the current state of global cinema from its scintillating but often overwhelming selection of the good, bad and ugly films on display

15 March 2016, 7:46am
The Land of the Enlightened
The Land of the Enlightened
by Aidan Celeste

The film industry is overproduced, and it is hard to see, let alone find, a gem at any film festival. Bero Beyer, a producer by trade, and new director of the IFFR is aware of this issue. He intends to shed light on talent development, and reshuffled the program to fit a daily screening of a young cineaste from the Hivos Tiger.

This competition includes eight filmmakers, all on their first or second feature. Among them, I place my bet on The Land Of The Enlightened by Pieter­ Jan De Pue.

Filmed on 16mm, Afghanistan has long been sought for by the empires of our lifetime and what he documents is a country in ruin. It quickly turns horrific, and we’re pulled into the dream of a bandit on horseback. With the great patience, De Pue’s hand-held ­shots turn peril into a sharp document, a reportage of beauty and kinship in warfare.

Next to a showcase of Hyper­Genres, Nippon Noir, Structural Film, and a compilation of Tiger Shorts like Homeland Syria, The Land of the Enlightened indulges in the IFFR’s history of a cinema that travels far out in style.

Nonetheless, the Hivos Tiger Award went Radio Dreams, a production that steps away from the experiment and instead, grounds itself with a solid narrative about an Iranian in California. Babak Jalali takes this chance to explore his nostalgia of music from the old country, against the sound of Kabul Dreams, the one and only rock band from Afghanistan.

Anxious and clad in black, the band leads a comic drama about Pars Radio, the expat station who invites the trio for a live­ jam with Metallica. It is a story that finds inspiration in the cinematic odd ball of Aki Kaurismaki. However, Jalali fails to trust the charm and honesty of caricature, let alone Kaurismaki’s confidence with slapstick. What saves the story from becoming another poster for the politics of migration – or a Charlie Hebdo cartoon – is the frank portrayal of Mister Royani. Played by the Iranian Icon Mohsen Namjoo, he is not out to save the world from a crises, but rather, simply trying to get airtime for short stories, even if it means doing a radio­ spot for another Persian pizza place, or a carpet salesman.

Ticket holders for the IFFR can also create their own award by voting from their seat after each movie. By means of hear­say, this short­list becomes a program in itself. It is a rather arbitrary ballot, but one that speaks about the typical visitor who, striving to keep their sanity intact, can only watch about three or four from about five hundred or so titles.

The final votes for the Warsteiner Audience Award fluctuated between The Idol (by Hany Abu­ Assad), and Land of Mine (by Martin Zandvliet) – two stories that depend on a traditional ‘hero’s journey’ with universal values and its young romantic at the helm.

More often than not, this award goes to a heartfelt narrative, and comes at a stark contrast with the FIPRESCI Choice and the Special Jury Award. FIPRESCI is a network of critics devout to find a great young turk, a phrase that reaches back to the origins of Cahiers du Cinema and the daring auteur.

The IFFR exhibits a similar taste for radical cinema and extended the Hivos Tiger with a Special Jury Award for a bold debut by Pablo Lamar, La última Tierra.

His direction is a piece of pure moving image. The scenario takes us back to the jungle, and in its silence, the life of an elderly couple is shot to the last moment. Left to breathe on its own, the jungle also conjures a certain depth, one that verges between a portrait and a still life.

La última tierra is his first feature, but Lamar is already a familiar face in Rotterdam. Over the past few years, The Tiger Shorts competition allowed Lamar to gain exposure next to long-time favourites like Ben Russel.

Having won the confidence of its market, Lamar applied for the Hubert Bals Fonds, and found support for this feature with the application of a single line: ‘A man buries his wife’, followed by a blank page. Alongside The Hivos Tiger, the Audience Award and the Bright Future section are clearly pointing to the politics of identity and its crises. This is reminiscent of Bero Beyer’s own breakthrough with Paradise Now in 2005.

Barring the full weight of the director’s legacy at the IFFR is Manu Riche with Problemski Hotel, a Christmas story about an asylum centre in Brussels. The plot centres around a young man known as Bipul, and his role as a trilingual messenger for the bureaucrats of migration.

At best, it is a series of sketches where an array of national stereotypes meet, clash, and that minor cultural indifference, intricate as it may be, bares a cheap laugh. Pushing the political backdrop aside, Problemski Hotel veers around the same plot hole as History’s Future, a film by Amsterdam based artist, Fiona Tan.

Riche presents Mr Bipul as a poet, who, once conveniently struck with amnesia, cannot but direct a plot to a cyclical end. In contrast to the indifference of Mr Bipul, Fiona Tan’s lead character, Mr MP (short for Missing Person), starts to relish this idea, and goes on to celebrate language and the bastards of European culture. It has a good hook, an intriguing character, and indulges in politics with a personal sentiment.

This is the perfect pitch, one that you can discuss over lunch without too much nausea. Best of all, it is part of what has become a genre in its own right. The story of a lost migrant is now easy enough to identify at any festival, as much as on the street in the next day on this little circuit.

Let’s face it, festivals are ridiculous. We are plagued with an abundance of standard stories and a few gems. Of course, Bero Beyer takes pride in this risk. In an oversaturated program, he selects eight contenders for the Tiger. Each of which has what it takes to be a finalist, and in practice, the competition turns into a Semaine de la Critique for start­ups.

Along with a solid platform for the long tail, the festival includes live streaming, online distribution, and fresh meat for old producers. Make no mistake: the IFFR is a small festival, and like all small festivals with a niche ­market, it’s a filmmakers haven for ideas but it also has to try hard and compete with the business of Cannes, Venice, and the shining star of Berlin.

Of course, this is only an observation for the privileged, a list that includes the press, the industry, and about 900 volunteers on deck in the city of Rotterdam. If all else fails after the first quarter of the next 90 minutes, like any other Tiger­ Friend (the loyalty card holder), it’s best to follow the legacy of the founder, Hubert Bals.

That is: trust your intuition, and make a necessary walk out to the next hall.