Like most big festivals, Rotterdam rarely manages to land a really first-rate opening night film, but Tom Harper’s War Book, which kicked off the festival this year, was an impressive exception that also perfectly represented a festival that falls all over itself to emphasize social concern and political engagement.
Folded into a programming strand called “Everyday Propaganda,” War Book—a kammerspiel if you liked it, and a filmed play if you didn’t—locks us in a conference room with a group of British government officials and ministerial aides convened for a three-session rehearsal of an imaginary scenario for World War III as it unfolds day by day. In this case it’s triggered by a nuclear strike on India by Islamic militants affiliated with Pakistan. These eight men and women are there to arrive at a set of decision-making protocols, debating questions of international diplomacy, domestic security measures, and, inevitably, the morality of a British nuclear deterrent that represents a puny four percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal—a hot-button issue in U.K. politics since the Sixties. The result is a fascinating, clear-eyed depiction of groupthink in which the stakes couldn’t be higher, while the tensions and conflicts that surface are effectively portrayed by a strong cast that includes Antony Sher, Kerry Fox, Ben Chaplin, and Sophie Okonedo. It’s sobering stuff, and that’s Rotterdam’s idea of a fun opening night.
With a lineup of 13 first- or second-time directors, the Tiger Awards Competition is typically dominated by the worthy but dull, with no real knockouts. This year it served a typical buffet of the mediocre and under-cooked (e.g., Carlos Quintela’s The Project of the Century from Cuba and Jakrawal Nilthamrong’s Vanishing Point from Thailand, €15,000 prizewinners both) and the strainingly portentous (Kyros Papavassiliou’s Impressions of a Drowned Man from Greece). But happily, as ever, there were one or two bona fide discoveries.
The two Tiger Awards finds were Dog Lady by Laura Citarella and Verónica Llinás, and Lukas Valenta Rinner’s Parabellum. Both hail from Argentina (although Rinner is Austrian and it shows) and embrace the current vogue for an almost complete absence of dialogue: a laconic, minimalist-inclined new generation would seem to be emerging down there. Bone dry, Parabellum monitors a dozen nondescript individuals attending a jungle boot-camp for preppers where they receive instruction in such things as hand-to-hand combat, firearms, homemade explosives, and, oh yes, botany. Rinner’s carefully composed frames maintain the de rigueur cool distance à la Ulrich Seidl, and the action is punctuated by title cards featuring choice quotes from something called The Book of Disasters, clearly a must-read for anyone warming up for the collapse of civilization. Rinner’s meticulous debut plays like a black comedy—until it doesn’t—and the only false move comes with the closing shot, which unnecessarily makes good on the intimations of social breakdown in the film’s opening scenes.
By contrast, provided you stay to the very end of it, the prolonged closing shot in the remarkable, haunting Dog Lady provides a satisfying gotcha conclusion to its engrossing four-seasons study of its nameless, silent protagonist who lives in self-imposed exile in a makeshift shack in the pampas on the edge of Buenos Aires with only a pack of stray dogs as companions. This enigmatic figure, indelibly played by co-director Verónica Llinás, remains stoic through thick and thin, making only the most fleeting of contacts with human society as she roves the landscape foraging for food, a faraway look in her eyes. (She’s a distant cousin to Sandrine Bonnaire’s equally affectless drifter in Agnès Varda’s Vagabond.) The highlight of the festival, Dog Lady is filmed with an attentive and undemonstrative eye while neither idealizing or explaining its subject.
Final mention should be made of the other Rotterdam standout, Adam Curtis’s gripping Bitter Lake, which also appeared in the “Everyday Propaganda” section. The latest of Curtis’s BBC-sponsored counter-history essays, it dovetails neatly with The Power of Nightmares in examining the place of Afghanistan in the postwar era as a geopolitical crossroads from the Cold War to the post-9/11 era, buffeted by the power games of the U.S., the USSR, and Saudi Arabia—the true villain of the piece and surely long overdue for the Curtis treatment.