A healthy distaste for the norm | Rotterdam Film Festival

Aidan Celeste visits the The 44th International Film Festival of Rotterdam, and plunges into its quest for the ever-elusive cinematic ‘white diamond’. 

90s nostalgia: Beyond Clueless
90s nostalgia: Beyond Clueless
Joaquin Phoenix and Reece Witherspoon in Inherent Vice
Joaquin Phoenix and Reece Witherspoon in Inherent Vice
Showbergplein: Where it all begins for the Rotterdam Film Festival
Showbergplein: Where it all begins for the Rotterdam Film Festival
Homeland, revisited: Brittini West's Tired Moonlight
Homeland, revisited: Brittini West's Tired Moonlight
Surefire: The Duke of Burgundy
Surefire: The Duke of Burgundy
LGBT camp: Fort Buchanan
LGBT camp: Fort Buchanan
Turkish tricks: Remake Remix Rip-Off by Cem Kaya
Turkish tricks: Remake Remix Rip-Off by Cem Kaya

by Aidan Celeste

No doubt, this film festival knows its special place in the circuit. Rotterdam opened the first matchmaker market for world cinema, the Cinemart, and also adopts runaway filmmakers with the Hubert Bals Fund (HBF). Its pet projects are all sought for in both Venice and Cannes. As of late, celebrated names include Apichatpong ‘Joe’ Weerasethakul, and titles like Court by Chaitanya Tamhane, or The Tribe by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy.

True, each name is somewhat obscure, but they all found success on the sunnier side of Europe with the help of HBF. So why doesn’t the IFFR have the press buzzing around for 2015? Is it just just bad timing? Or simply a reluctance to sell-out and go full-on ‘corporate’? In contrast to its strange bedfellow, the Berlinale, it does not have any bright lights, big cars, or an ego, with a red and barricaded carpet, to stroke. Instead, the Dutch city feels like a new media fair with sky-high buildings, projectile street lights, and screens buzzing back ‘live’ via Twitter before every movie. The critics blame the city and the director for having an astute dedication to art and art-cinema. With this being his last year as festival director, Rutger Wolfson still does not necessarily refer to himself as a cinephile but after Hubert Bals, no one really can, or even should.

Hubert Bals founded the festival in the heyday of cinephilia, 1972. He is known for bringing home Latin American film and running amuck with the so called idea of a “sustainable choice”, in the form of a Hollywood production or otherwise. What Bals looked for was the other side of cinema, and as such, the festival followed suit. Worldly tributes for 2015 include Flowers of Taipei by Chinlin Hsieh, a host of Turkish bootleg in Remake Remix Rip-Off by Cem Kaya, and a Jing-Jang (pronounce the ‘J’ as in ‘Jenga’ the game, now say it again: Jing Jang) retrospective. All in all, it is a healthy distaste of the norm, including a film essay about every highschool movie from the 1990s, aptly titled, Beyond Clueless by Charlie Lyne.

Evidently, Rutger Wolfson pushes for a cinema with heart as much as an intoxication for art and technology. Alongside programmers like Peter Taylor (recently made director of Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival), the IFFR has become known for its selection of shorts and experimental nights in downtown Rotterdam at Witte de With. Every night, Bruce McClure stood next to a fleet of 16mm projectors curled up and ready to ricochet through an audience. In fact, each projector was placed in the middle of a room, so you can easily flip between looking at its bright light, the translucent projection on a screen or simply let your own afterimage take over.

Listed in a solo program that varies from 10 or 12, to 240 mins, McClure promised that he doesn’t really know when the show will end. Anything can just break down at this rate; the film, the frame, the glass plate, but first things first, it was the audience that actually did. By the end, at least half of us skipped out, or were left somewhat mesmerised for the night. Think of it as an essential palate cleanser to set your priorities straight for a week’s worth of cinema to come. Nonetheless, his performance definitely has a place next to projection, so why not as part of a film festival as well?

Yet the IFFR has always been about one thing really, finding that white diamond, and its precious Tiger. For this year, the Hivos Tiger Awards went to a younger breed: La obra del siglo by Carlos M. Quintela; Videophilia (and Other Viral Syndromes) by Juan Daniel F. Molero, and “Vanishing Point” by Jakrawal Nilthamrong. All of them have a personal history with the festival, and as a ‘Nisimasa’ network alumni, Juan Daniel F. Molero, thanks Rotterdam for his initiation as a fan who came back as a filmmaker. Devoted to anything viral, Molero’s film developed from years of obsessive blogging. It has a makeshift frame with dead pixels that only adds to the sex, drugs, and no holds barred performance by Muki Sabogal. It’s definitely digital, it’s got spunk (literally, the Lars Von Trier type), and nothing comes close to it in the safe haven of consensus that our democracy reigns by.

As such, a ‘softer’ title like Britni West’s portrait of her hometown in Tired Moonlight, still feels good but falls rather flat by the end. Despite that Britni received a warm welcome in Sundance, how many barebacked poets in an ephemeral long-shot of a mountain range, and then a lake, does a cinephile need? Haven’t we had enough titles that blur the line between fact and fiction at the IFFR?

Apparently, no we have not. The director, Benjamin Crotty, puts a camp twist on an old theme and adapts reality TV for his debut film, Fort Buchanan. The story takes place at an LGBT military station that is run by a group of army spouses, former wives, lovers, and a pale-faced G.I. played by the foremost luscious women since the French New Wave. The director clearly toys around with ‘genre’ and that old saying about having a girl, a guy, and a gun. More politically savvy is a title from The (return of the) Critics’ Choice program: Bianco Sai, Preto Fica by Adirley Queirós. This Brazilian picture takes place during a coup d’état by time-travelling B-Boys. Complete fiction, complete madness, and without a hint of nostalgia, it is with such risky business that people come back to Rotterdam year in year out.

Slightly ajar would be something more conservative and safe. Thus, the pan-European premiere of Erbarme Dich – St Matthews Passion by Ramón Gieling, felt ideal for a broader audience. It also played simultaneously in more than 40 cities as part of IFFR Live. IFFR Live is a new program that broadcasts festival titles to a host of cinemas across

Europe, and for Gieling, turned them into a satellite opera house. In Gieling’s own ode to orchestral manoeuvres in the dark, he develops a subtle narrative that is part documentary, part performance. Peter Sellars, the stage director, also gave Gieling a personal interview and opened up about his desire to weep for St Matthew’s Passion, in response, you can then hear the reply of Émile Cioran. The deadly shriek of a philosopher who whispers in a pitch-black scene saying, “If there is anyone who owes everything to Bach, it is God.”

This pan-European initiative between distributors, the audience, and the festival is part of Wolfson’s legendary motion. His tactic is to innovate, engage, and broaden the celebration of film in any form. Despite the critics, Wolfson’s last year has become one of the most heavily attended box-office line-ups until recently. This also marks an interesting relationship between the industry, the Dutch audience, and the role of the festival as a game-changer. Surefire titles like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, and Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy also had their international premiere in Rotterdam with one or two screenings.

However, the program was biased towards smaller titles (and their industry) which garnered three to five screenings per week. With their own star-cast live on stage, Pussy Riot and Japanese singer songwriter, Shibutani Subaru, threw a late night tantrum for their own premiere. It was Much Crazy. Much Fun. Very Kawai (cute). Very Kowai (scary). In that magical hour, no one really knows the difference, then so be it. It’s as good a day as any when Russia and Japan come close to a band fight.

And to conclude, a general observation about the Dutch from a ‘neigh-high’ Malteser. For a nation that still speaks of itself as a small country, their festival is pretty well in check. It is at the IFFR that you can tap into the world’s heartbeat, and this kingdom, certainly knows where to find it.

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