Festivals: Rotterdam and Beyond
This Land Is Ours
Perhaps it’s a temporary state of shock, but this year’s Rotterdam International Film Festival seemed to portend the way that all film festivals might be for the next few years—in that last week it seemed barely possible to think about the work on display, so agitated was everyone about the opening gambits of the Trump administration.
Still, the current horrors of a changing world will provide the cultural sphere cues to rethink its rationale and sense of purpose, and IFFR (International Film Festival Rotterdam) was very aware of that from the start. The opening speech by artistic director Bero Beyer, presiding over his second year, was perhaps the oddest festival address I’ve heard—part TED talk, part statement of faith in cinema’s political and cultural possibilities, narrated to a virtual flyover of “Planet IFFR” (a CGI globe carrying the festival’s overly cute Dick Bruna-ish tiger face).
I didn’t see enough this year that persuaded me of the festival’s overall renewal as a European discovery hub, but two titles stood out. One was a so-so film but a vital political statement: Lucas Belvaux’s This Land Is Ours (Chez Nous), a pre-emptive critical strike—before the forthcoming French elections—on France’s far-right Front National, with Emilie Dequenne as a sympathetic, left-leaning nurse who finds herself, almost against her own nature, persuaded to stand as a right-wing mayoral candidate in a Northern French town. The party she’s seduced by is a thinly disguised version of Marine Le Pen’s FN, and the film unpicks the new rhetoric of extremism, in which certain populist parties claim to be neither on the left nor the right, but simply shaking up the system and giving voices to a majority excluded by the reigning elite; sound familiar? Belvaux’s film is a touch stolid and rather schematic in a Loachian way, but it’s intelligent, cleverly pinpointing the way that ordinary, compassionate people can get suckered into supporting an ideology that has learned to downplay, or even conceal outright, its more sinister agendas. The casting of Dardennes and Joachim Lafosse star Dequenne, alongside that affable Rohmer and Resnais mainstay André Dussollier (as a manipulatively charming politico) is an astute move.
My one outright Rotterdam discovery, fresh from Sundance, was Columbus, a debut drama from Korean-American writer-director koganada [sic], best known for his online “supercuts” analyzing the stylistic signatures of Kubrick, Wes Anderson, De Sica et al. Far from the movie-nerd indulgence you might expect, Columbus is a tenderly poetic and intensely thought-provoking meditation on buildings and how they affect the people who inhabit or just look at them. Set in the Indiana town famous for an unusual concentration of innovative modernist buildings, the film evokes the possibility of a genuinely utopian urban space—as opposed to the chilly Antonioni/De Chirico modernist ghost towns we usually see on screen. It stars a radiant performance from Haley Lu Richardson (currently one of the three kidnappees in Split) as a young woman who simply loves architecture, and a somber John Cho as the son of a visiting Korean professor who has been taken ill. Superbly shot by Elisha Christian, Columbus is a true aesthete’s film with a rare regard for both the sensuousness of everyday life and for the pleasures of intellectual response. It’s about as niche a production as a festival film can be, but it deserves to find a discerning, admiring audience in the real world too.
My big IFFR challenge this year was to moderate a masterclass with Hungarian maestro Bela Tarr, and this promised to be difficult. Now retired from filmmaking, and planning his next move following the closure of his Sarajevo-based school film.factory, Tarr had insisted that he didn’t want to discuss the past, only the future. In the event, he was in friendly, voluble form, discussing in depth his work with collaborators including novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai, and revealing some of the influences behind the belated emergence of what we think of as the “Bela Tarr style.” His Damascus moment, it seems, was a visit to Japan where, first, he discovered Noh theater and where secondly, he found himself discussing an abstract painting consisting of black dots on white. “In the West,” a Japanese interlocutor told him, “you think the narrative is the dots. For us, it’s the white.” As for Tarr’s future, besides teaching, it may contain theater work and opera. And as for his advice to young filmmakers, it couldn’t be pithier: “Fuck off—be brave.”
Further insight into the vision of one of contemporary cinema’s true individuals can be found nearby at the EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam, where Tarr’s exhibition Till the End of the World runs until May 7 (assuming the end of the world isn’t scheduled before that). Part of the show, curated by Tarr and Jaap Guldemond, comprises installations: you enter through a passage marked “State Border,” flanked with protective fencing, barbed wire and photos of migrants caught up in the current desperate search for European havens; the next room contains a tree and several large wind machines, placing you in the weather-wracked landscape of films like The Turin Horse (that film’s table, with its Spartan potato supper, has its own room).
Till the End of the World (photo by Hans Wilschut)
Most of the rooms feature individual sequences from Tarr films, arranged thematically—it hadn’t occurred to me, but Tarr considers the openings of his films as self-contained “Overtures,” each one helping viewers decide whether they’re ready to stay the course for an entire film. Showing them as single-screen projections gives these sequences, some familiar, others less so—from Tarr’s shorts as well as his features—a new autonomous, highly imposing presence. But the star attraction is a brand new work, photographed by Tarr’s regular DP Fred Kelemen, entitled Muhamed. In this 10-minute one-take film, a young boy plays the accordion while looking directly at the camera, which slowly pulls back from an extreme close-up to show him isolated and unseen on the floor of a shopping mall, tracking back in as an extract of Bach floods the soundtrack. It’s a beautiful, quietly confrontational piece, and a humanistic portrait of a single one of Europe’s multitude of rejected outsiders. On the way out, a wall displays a text written by Tarr and read out last September in front of the Hungarian Parliament, insisting on the moral imperative to shelter the dispossessed. “Look the needy in the eye,” the piece urges us. In Muhamed, they look right back at us.
Jonathan Romney is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Film of the Week column. He is a member of the London Film Critics Circle.