The problem with film festivals today isn’t that there are too many films (though there are) or that the perennial festival favorites are frequently off their game (ditto). There’s the growing realization that something is wrong with the leadership. Visitors to Locarno this past year—the first for former Directors Fortnight artistic director Olivier Père—were able to experience what happens when you get a leader with a fresh pair of eyes. However, in Rotterdam, once a destination that could be reliably expected to provide inspiring radical alternatives to larger festivals that are consumed with appeasing big interest groups such as sales companies and co-production entities, the complaints are rising. And that’s largely due to artistic director Rutger Wolfson—who has built an impressive reputation in the Dutch art world, including serving as curator of Rotterdam’s Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, but whose track record in film is awfully thin. Three years into the Wolfson reign—he was appointed for the 2008 edition, and then fully in charge starting in 2009—it can politely be noted that Rotterdam has seen better days.
The conscious and artful shaping of the Tiger competition by former artistic director Simon Field, over his decade in charge—a project that dramatically raised the festival to the status of a must-see event—is now essentially absent. In its place is haphazard programming that lacks singular vision, suggesting a lineup approved by committee. This year’s competition had only three films worth thinking about: Park Jung-bum’s powerful debut, The Journals of Musan, about the brutal travails of a recent North Korean defector; Sergio Borges’s fluid and intelligent multi-portrait The Sky Above, concerning a trio of 30-year-old men living in Brazil’s sprawling Belo Horizonte; and Sivaroj Kongsakul’s Eternity, a contemplative, gentle love story that brings a dead man’s past to life through its powerful narrative.
Two of these—Park’s and Kongsakul’s—deservedly won Tiger awards, while the third winner, Sergio Caballero’s one-joke exercise, Finisterrae, which follows a pair of Russian-speaking dudes in white cloaks wandering through landscapes who are supposed to be ghosts—points to the current problems. Perhaps the jury, which included Lucrecia Martel, former Rotterdam director Sandra Den Hamer, and Andrei Ujica, was making a mockery of the competition by picking Caballero (who, like Wolfson, comes from the art world, and clearly knows nothing about cinema). Word got out that some of the jury thought the film was trash. But previous Tiger competitions maintained a standard that allowed for no such trash, and even if a visitor might take exception to some past picks, there has never been such a plethora of bad films, including an underdeveloped shockorama (Carlos Moreno’s All Your Dead Ones), an incompetently shot and written fiasco (Uchida Nobuteru’s Love Addiction), and a muddled visual trip that flummoxed everybody (Vipin Vijay’s utterly opaque The Image Threads).
To get that real Rotterdam mojo, visitors had to go to the Bright Future section, which surveys mostly second-feature filmmakers. Here were films that justified the festival’s reputation as a safe harbor for cinema made exactly as the filmmakers intended and utterly resistant to mainstream taste and conformity. Case in point: José Maria de Orbe’s astonishing Aitá, a hypnotic document (with some possibly scripted dialogue) concerning the caretaker of an ancient Basque estate facing his own mortality. It’s a flat-out masterpiece of cinematography—a poem of light on the screen. (Another fine aging-caretaker film, Theo Court’s Chilean Ocaso, was accurately described by one colleague as “La libertad for the septuagenarian set.”) Lee Anne Schmitt (with collaborator Lee Lynch) continued her explorations of the emotional/social/political vagaries of the American West with her brilliant The Last Buffalo Hunt, linking the nation’s violent history with the buffalo to larger cultural forces, including Mormonism. El Sicario, Room 164, based on journalist Charles Bowden’s investigation of Mexican drug-cartel enforcers, allows a retired thug to describe his astounding life both vocally (speaking behind a veiled cloak) and on paper (habitually drawing everything he’s talking about in a sketchbook). It’s cinema-as-confession at its most harrowing.
Rotterdam’s safe-harbor reputation (suitable for such a key global port of call) includes its traditionally extensive surveys of filmmakers and trends. The former included the Catalan outlier Agustí Villaronga, American experimentalist Nathaniel Dorsky, and F.J. Ossang, a wild French cineaste too little known in North America. Some of his work (such as his new Dharma Guns) will quickly be forgotten. But a recklessly ambitious wonder like his 1990 Treasure of the Bitch Islands is a special stir-fry of adventure plot, surrealist fantasy, enviro-apocalyptic half-Portuguese-half-French super-art film that’s the very reason why midnight movies exist. The controlled madness of Ossang’s best films happened to find a resounding echo (due to a wonderful accident of scheduling and screening) with the EYE Film Institute Netherlands’ “reconstructed” edition of the late Werner Schroeter’s 1969 first feature, Eika Katappa, which inexplicably showed only once, to a thin audience, mainly composed of locals. All of Schroeter’s obsessions are visible in an embryonic state—doomed love, opera, the mix of amateur and professional, theater and documentary, tableaux vivant, cabaret, German classical music, the splendors of gay culture—and assembled in a manner far closer to the work of such immediate mentors as Godard and Straub-Huillet than his later, more highly polished films. There’s nothing else quite like Eika Katappa. The sheer delirium and pleasure of making a film with one’s friends, with its immediacy of a broadside and historical sense of a radical outsider culture—now that’s back to the Rotterdam we know and love.
© 2011 by Robert Koehler