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Rotterdam 2017: This Is How the Reconstruction Continues

Sexy Durga (Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, 2017)

Sexy Durga (Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, 2017)

By Martin Kudláč.

International Film Festival Rotterdam that built its brand on investigating, gathering and curating the future of the world cinema through a long-term focus on emerging auteurs and discoveries possessing an innovative style and/or bold artistic vision started a new chapter in its fifth decade last year. The festival committee appointed Dutch independent film producer Bero Beyer as the successor to departing director Rutger Wolfson. Beyer did not hide the ambition to usher the festival into the new era by furnishing the festival that would eventually bring it closer to reflect the actual state of cinema and film industry.

Last year, the festival held a special section called This Where Reconstruction Starts, an anthology sidebar grouping short films commissioned to celebrate 75th anniversary of the city´s reconstruction. Having suffered a Dresden fate, over 30 000 buildings were turned into rubble and ashes after a blitz by German Luftwaffe in 1940. And similarly to Warsaw, the Dutch town rose up as the proverbial phoenix. There would be hardly a more apt denomination for the dawn of Beyer´s leadership. Opting to implement changes on the go in order not to interrupt the festival´s tradition, there were only so many tweaks that could be realized and majority of them pertained to programme (e.g., reorganization of sections). Marit van den Elshout, the head of CineMart, revealed in 2016: “The biggest changes will come into effect after the 45th edition of the IFFR, as we are currently preparing a plan from 2018 onwards, so the most important alterations will come into play in 2017.” Thus, the reconstruction continues.

One of the tweaks under the Beyer´s helm was downsizing the traditional trinity of winners in the main competition Hivos Tiger Competition to just one sole winner and in effect increasing the prize money to 40 000 €. The Tiger competition (stacked under the Bright Future flag) profiles as a launching pad for upcoming talents rounding up a batch of promising auteurs on the brink of their careers. This year, the signature tiger head statuette went into the hands of Sanal Kumar Sasidharan for his third feature Sexy Durga, the first Indian film to receive the honor. The filmmaker made his debut An Off-Day Game without a script, an approach he challenged by improvising his latest feature outing.

In the previous edition, the IFFR´s programmers tapped into convergent shifts producing audio-visual hybrids of art forms and formalistic experiments, more specifically manifesting in iterations of docu-fiction or docu-drama. Docu-fiction dominated last year´s line-up from FIPRESCI winner Bodkin Ras assimilating authentic citizens of a small Scottish town and their personal stories into the fictive refugee story through Miguel Gomes´ triptych Arabian Nights weaving fable realism and docu-fiction altogether along stranger-than-fiction anecdotes into a tapestry meandering between genres and styles from musical, comedy, sketch, slapstick to fairy tale, surrealistic, absurd, grotesque and caustic imagery, Pietro Marcello´s Beautiful and Lost blending fable, essay, biography and political commentary into a monolithic oeuvre composed of figurative and non-figurative images along authentic footage lifted from evening news molding a metatextual docu-fictional Frankenstein of a film to Gabriel Mascaro´s lyrical observation in Neon Bull. 47th edition line-up saw encore whether In Alessandro Comodin´s realist fable Happy Times Will Come Soon, Dane Komljen contemplation All the Cities of the North or Fiona Tan´s storytelling experimental art film Ascent combining solely authentic stills (the artist calls it a photo-film) and a voiceover.

Sasidharan´s feature operates along these lines not being the only one of the kind in the line-up. Sexy Durga is split into two parts, authentic footage of a Hindu festival revolving around rather masochistic rituals performed by men and a story of two lovers trying to flee under the veil of night. The presence of a young woman in the nocturnal hour brings unwanted attention to the couple whether from corrupted authorities or inquiring strangers. They keep bumping into the very same group with whom they shared ride. Not so accidental encounters might as well be considered stalking. Sasidharan shoots a road thriller uncovering a paternalistic and oppressive power structure in Indian society. For an improvised stunt, the cinematographer Prathap Joseph manages to choreograph hypnotizing long shots in slow pace dramatically augmenting the sense of a menace and perpetual tension.

Rey (Niles Atallah, 2017)

Rey (Niles Atallah, 2017)

The jury honoured Niles Atallah with the special jury award for artistic achievement on his sophomore feature Rey. Atallah took relatively obscure episode from history books about a certain French lawyer named Orélie-Antoine de Tounens who in 1860 proclaimed himself and maybe was chosen to become a king of Araucania and Patagonia. The writer-director narrates the story in retrospect using a court hearing of Orélie-Antoine de Tounens as a framing device. As the protagonist recalls the events from his memory, testimony incrementally gains bolder features of a self-delusion. Atallah returns partly to celluloid, a variety of 35 mm, 16 mm, Super-8, and actual archival found footage, mixing seamlessly analogue and digital images. To imply the deteriorating impact of time on memory, he even buried the shot material in his back garden in 2011. The filmmaker renders respective flashbacks in styles reminiscent of early cinema and avant-garde attempts forming a psychedelic kaleidoscope doubling as an excursion into the history of cinema. Besides the striking formalistic experimentation, Atallah employed a papier-maché masks and puppets that contrary to Brechtian alienating effect provided rather a sense of magic realism instead reminiscent of Alejandro Jodorowsky´s approach and in a story based on actual events that by the selective nature of memory don´t have to be necessary true implying another trait of Jodorowsky poetics, mystification, in Atallah´s case unconscious stemming from mercurial nature of memory. The transmutation of cinema provides an exemplary demonstration of transmutations of memory.

Arábia (Affonso Uchoa and Joao Dumans, 2017)

Arábia (Affonso Uchoa and Joao Dumans, 2017)

The competition line-up further introduced Brazilian co-directed effort, Arábia, by Affonso Uchoa and Joao Dumans opening on social realism note while soon transforming into a journey down the memory lane of a factory worker who kept journaling his wanderings and personal sentiments in a diary. Arábia is neither elegy nor paean of Brazilian working class but firmly founded in serene approach to a simple life at peace with the circumstances. The soft-spoken voiceover further deepens the acceptation of events. Feature debut by a Korean born U.S. filmmaker kogonada, Columbus, surprises with subtle and thoughtfully composed and paced images. Despite the melodramatic and sentimental ammo burgeoning from a premise of a platonic generational encounter of two individuals finding themselves in a stalemate life situation for a rather Freudian reason, parents. The theme of re-examining life while weighting future options works in case of both protagonists, recent graduate and almost 40-year old translator. kogonada elevates the titular city from being a set piece to being another protagonist and an object of fascination as the camera navigates the space of the modernist city spotlighting memorable architectural works though not as purposeless field trip but carefully employed to serve the narrative. Pedro Aguilera dusts off the theme of sibling incestual desire in his third feature Sister of Mine. The forbidden carnal affection serves as a pretext for somewhat auto-thematic exploration of the relation between images and those in front as well as behind the camera. The Bulgarian filmmaker Konstantin Bojanov´s sophomore feature Light Thereafter (formerly known as I Want to Be Like You) was co-penned by Ida scribe Rebecca Lenckiewicz. Partly inspired by the director´s attempt to become an artist, the protagonist a second-generation immigrant Pawel and a budding painter hits the road to meet his idol he almost religiously worships. Bojanov reverses the flow of narration in this coming-of-age road movie, starting with the protagonist´s disenchanted encounter with his idol while retracing his journey in chapters to the start back to his home and to the reason he so desperately seeks approval from a fatherly figure. The Tiger competition hosted also a film from debuting domestic filmmaker Daan Bakker. Quality Time consists of five short films creating a portmanteau satire slightly absurdly examining the male crisis. Idiosyncratic and heterogeneous oeuvre as Bakker uses different forms for each story ranging from a family anecdote staged as infographic of talking dots, a time traveling Monty-Pythonesque episode about insecurity to a plight of a a bit disturbed man finding solace in taking photos while the director uses odd angles (bird or isometric perspective) and replaces dialogue track with lines appearing on screen while the intonation and further subtext stem from font size and the manner the lines are appearing on screen.

The Last Family (Jan P. Matuszynski, 2017)

The Last Family (Jan P. Matuszynski, 2017)

Equally impressing debut brought Polish filmmaker Jan P. Matuszynski The Last Family, premiered at Locarno. A biography of little known artist outside the Poland Zdzislaw Beksinski painting rather apocalyptic images and obsessed with a camera and his family. The film spectacularly recreates life in the Eastern bloc to spectacular and vivid details courtesy of art direction by Jagna Janicka. The Last Family is a basically chronicle doubling as obituary of Beksinski´s clan as death becomes fairly naturalized and normalized in their apartment while not doubling solely as memento mori but touching upon almost metaphysical topic with the calm, unsentimental and un-melodramatic gaze on a series of demises. Sophomore feature of Sanjeewa Pushpakumara, Burning Birds, taps into the “poverty porn” fare that was represented in the IFFR line-up also by Turkish films. Inspired by his life, he follows a mother of eight kids making the first and last to make ends meet. Uncoiling as Breaking the Waves slowly escalating through patriarchal oppression until the protagonist´s loss of a last bit of dignity. Despite more harsh reality following the previous one, Pushpakumara does not attack viewer as von Trier neither does resort to emotional extortion, instead he opts for detached observation not comprising the severity of the film´s testimony thus intensifying the story´s experience and fallout.

Despite being an exhibition of auteur cinema, the IFFR does not relegate itself the role of showcase and a middleman introducing producers and filmmaker to distributors and sales agents. The essential interest in budding filmmakers steers naturally from the festival´s ambition in helping and shaping emerging talents through its branched structure of support designed for every stage whether it is a project development or securing a production funding. Besides the carefully curated co-production market CineMart, the festival offers several tutoring programs and workshops such as the platform for emerging producers called Rotterdam Lab. Equal importance bear distribution activities, one of them manifesting in the form of distribution initiative IFFR Live! launched in 2015.

The distribution landscape has changed, not only in Europe, but throughout the industry and IFFR Live! is one option how to demonstrate what role can festivals play according to the festival director. “It [IFFR Live!] underscores the importance of film festivals in the distribution landscape in Europe, as they are launching platforms or sometimes even an alternative to traditional distribution. We are exporting a festival experience, rather than it being film by film. The feel should be almost as good as being in Rotterdam, so we wanted to expand the level of interactivity, and we want to have a two-way form of communication going on. We will collaborate closely with like-minded festivals to stress the fact that we are celebrating films in a festival setting,” revealed Bero Beyer describing the initiative as a compact version of IFFR for export. The scope of involved cinemas for its 3rd edition broaden to the total number of 45 cinemas around Europe and beyond. The selection of six features chosen for export represent a sample corresponding to Rotterdam´s programming policy: two formally different distinct docufictions The Giant by Johannes Nyholm and Mister Universo directed by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, auteur genre filmmaking such as Prevenge written, directed by Alice Lowe who also stars in the lead role and the inclination to engage or reflect prevailing social topics Belgian feature Home revolving around young generation and their fragile future while Stephan Streker´s film A Wedding brings up the controversial theme of arrange marriage and honor killing.

Another attempt to directly and practically reflect the shifting landscape of distribution is apparent as the festival replaced its own DVD label Tiger Releases by new on-demand service Unleashed to ensure post-festival life to films from its line-up while also attempting to reach new audiences. The new platform promises full control over the release to rights holders while helping them to navigate the complex environment of digital distribution.

The IFFR relatively flexibly reacts to new trends. It was among the first festivals to incorporate episodic storytelling into its programme, first as a part of now defunct Signals sidebar and nowadays firmly assimilated along features. The more surprising is the IFFR reluctance towards Virtual Reality. Last year, there was only one project experimenting with the new technology and this year, there was no progress especially when Sundance starting a few days before IFFR had rather extensive showcase of VR. “We are only just at the beginning what VR can do in the cinematic setting or how that would actually work on the level of being a cinematic experience to audience,” Beyer explains why VR was not to this point accommodated within the festival stating that the “carnival phase” is over, the work on VR as a cinematic medium can begin. Thus the festival established a partnership with VR Days and opened a call for “full VR projects that could honestly be called cinematic somehow” as Beyer explains. Four projects were chosen as part of the call for CineMart to be developed and to find answers on questions regarding VR potential, audience, a form and financing models. IFFR did not distance itself from VR but expanded its industry scope to board the emerging medium modestly and to see where it could lead.

Last year, the tweaks related to the festival side of showcasing films (e.g., regroupment of sections and subsections, thematic programme) whiel this year, more attention was paid to the industry side not only bringing VR to serious discussion but also introducing Propellor Film Tech Hub with the main goal of developing new business models for production and distribution. Apart from IFFR, European Film Market and CPH:DOX along Cinemathon initiative have boarded the new tech hub according to Beyer “accelerator- and incubator-like structures to come up with new ideas for cinema” to “innovate the film business”.

The IFFR became notorious for not only following selected filmmakers throughout their careers but also supporting them and helping them move on with their projects maintain symbolical yet firm umbilical cord with them. In addition to funding schemes in several stages of project´s completion Hubert Ball Fund (HBF), the co-production market CineMart traditionally introduces upcoming promising projects in meticulously curated line-up.

Pietro Marcello

Pietro Marcello

34th edition of CineMart saw comebacks of familiar faces. The director Pietro Marcello (of Lost and Beautiful) scooped the ARTE International Prize for his upcoming project, Italian-France co-production Martin Eden based on Jack London´s novel of the same name. The Eurimages Co-Production Development Award ended up in the hands of rising talent Ivan I.Tverdovsky who won last year Karlovy Vary jury prize for Zoology. His third feature Jumpman, a Russia-France co-production revolving around a protagonist resistant to pain running scams until he falls in love. After being supported via Hubert Bals Fund, Gabriel Mascaro returned to Rotterdam with his latest feature project Centre of Earth already selected for HBF script and project development support in 2014. Ben Rivers, the director behind Oliver Laxe´s Mimosas meta-film The Sky Trembles And The Earth Is Afraid And The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers participated with new project, narrative feature After London produced by Ben Wheatley´s outfit Rook Film and loosely based on Richard Jeffries novel of the same name. According to the project´s synopsis, the film should examine England in the future when “Knowledge of the past glories of human civilization is based on word-of-mouth stories passed down through the ages, which have become extremely warped. These stories form myths and legends about the technological heights achieved and the downfall of humanity – though these stories are just one part of the bigger picture, it’s important to note that this isn’t meant to be simply a cautionary tale of human folly. The impetus of the tale is something closer to an idea of dark optimism – the resilience of both nature and humans.” Eva Husson of libertarian coming-of-age Bang Gang: Modern Love Story introduced her follow-up project Girls of the Sun (Les Filles Du Soleil) based on actual events when a group of captives of extremists and stood up to them to defend themselves in a self-preserving instinct and demonstrative gesture of refusing to be oppressed. The principal photography is expected to begin in September.

The IFFR line-up tends to be idiosyncratic or someone might say challenging. By virtue of the programming policy based on discovering emerging auteurs, give prominence to formally and stylistically mercurial cinema and by combing under-developed or developing film industry regions to help finish film projects and spotlight them on international forum IFFR represents. Several titles in the middle category were lifted from Locarno´s last year line-up and stop-overed at Viennale before landing in Rotterdam. The section Bright Future and Voices are usually homes to the first and last category though not exclusive to it. A bit of political aftertaste could be caused by this year´s Tiger winner and jury´s spotlighting of Niles Atallah effort is about right, however circumvention of kogonada´s Columbus, a not so typical U.S. indie and a very mature and immersive first directorial feature outing disposing of clear artistic vision and style and its masterful accomplishment.

As a curator and even incubator of the future cinema, IFFR further venture into VR and film tech remain in line with Beyer´s ambition for the festival to enter the new era. Only upcoming editions will prove whether IFFR´s aspiration (and its partners) to propel film industry and innovate film business will bear fruits capable of being transferable throughout the industry. Beyer´s intention to “explore other strategies, to look at what other industries are using – the start-up industry, the gaming industry, the design industry, the music industry, the telecom industry – and maybe we can rediscover a way of establishing healthy networks and infrastructure“ makes sense and independent cinema does need new strategies and models.

Martin Kudláč is a PhD candidate in Aesthetics and a freelance film journalist based in Slovakia.

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