Bright Lights Film Journal

Cinemas of Poetry and Violence: The 40th International Film Festival Rotterdam (2010)

Rotterdam’s edge is intact despite increasing hints of commercialism

In honor of its fortieth anniversary, the ever-impressive IFFR expanded this year’s “XL” edition to include not only several new sections — Return of the Tiger, for example, featured new work by previous Tiger Award winners and competitors — but also forty ad hoc venues, transforming central Rotterdam into a veritable treasure map of experimental installations, work-in-progress exhibitions, interactive new media platforms, and, yes, even a movie-themed playground for tiny future cinephiles.

Yet, despite this ambitious and fun-filled expanded cinema program — which featured, to name just two examples, a selection of Jan Švankmajer’s preparatory collages for Surviving Life (2010), and Peggy Ahwesh’s Herzog-inspired video installation The Ape of Nature, both delving into the troubled dream life of our post-industrial culture — the festival’s strength remained its unflinching dedication to showcasing the most forward-thinking of independent productions, in a careful selection notable for its look-out to the farthest reaches of the globe. Which is precisely what has characterized the IFFR since its inception, and what allows it to remain the global arthouse-lover’s mecca of major European film festivals.

Rumor has it, of course, that Rotterdam is slowly losing its edge in a Sundance-like slide away from the sort of uncommercial fare that made it, and that needs it most. Some indicators do lend credibility to the allegation: the Spectrum program featured not only Oscar-favorites Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010), The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010), and 127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010), but also a host of widely released semi-independents that had already run a healthy festival round and garnered (or will garner) their due share of prizes, reviews, and box-office revenue, such as Biutiful (Alejandro Gonzales Iñarritu, 2010), Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, 2010), Post Mortem (Pablo Larrain, 2010), Shi (Lee Chang-Dong, 2010), and L’illusion comique (Mathieu Amalric, 2010), to name but a few. In this spectator’s opinion, however, the ploy to buffer the festival’s subsistence by offering a wider selection of high-profile productions does little to undermine its ongoing commitment to the freest, and most visionary, radicals.

It seems auspicious, therefore, to focus the present discussion on those productions whose perception-altering force may well have been Rotterdam’s most generous fortieth birthday present to itself and its attendees. Underscored by a kind of wavering melancholy, a handful of films — by newcomers and veterans alike — depict the dawn of the new decade as a strange coextension of poetry and violence.

In competition for the Tiger Award for first or second features, Sérgio Borges’s exceptional debut documentary, O céu sobre os ombros (The Sky Above, 2010), observes the pursuit of (markedly postmodern) identity of three young nonconformists living in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. A transsexual prostitute-cum-academic, a depressed would- be novelist with a mentally challenged son, and a Hare Krishna-soccer fan-graffiti artist-telemarketer form the trio whose lives Borges — and editor Ricardo Pretti — weave into a portrait whose professed indeterminacy of register (fact that feels and looks like fiction) is only its most obvious virtue. Aided by his subjects’ admitted desire for self-representation, Borges’s camera lingers over the minutiae of their lives, gradually settling into an almost shocking proximity to the emotional and physical core of each character’s proverbial, inconclusive soul-search.

To say that The Sky Above views like a Harmony Korine feature directed by Frederick Wiseman is perhaps as descriptive as it is belittling: far from derivative, Borges, whose directorial background appears to center around a series of highly suggestive film-haikus (see them on Vimeo[]), demonstrates a remarkable sensibility for the darkest and most lyrical moments of contemporary urban existence, and it is these moments (somehow reminiscent, at times, of certain pared-down but beautifully lit snapshots of teenage solitude and artistic growing pains in Alan Parker’s Fame, 1980), more than the subjects’ interest in self-performance, that lend the film its fictional aura. The Sky Above is almost claustrophobic in its firm focus on the three protagonists, but Borges’s impartial gaze — obsessive only in its attention to perceptual detail; to light, sound and surface texture — ultimately expands their story in depth, leaving the viewer both hypnotized and viscerally bound to its historical novelty and age-old resonance.

It is unfortunate, in fact, that chance conspired to bestow the Tiger Award on a fiction debut that tries, and falls short, exactly where Borges’s film succeeds. Sergio Caballero’s Finisterrae (2010), which the Daily Tiger praised as “haunting,” “funny” and “surreal,” traces little more than a meandering search for those very qualities. Either under-conceptualized or inadequately felt, depending on what the director’s intentions might be surmised to have been, Finisterrae follows two Russian ghosts (dressed in white sheets, presumably nodding at both Monty Python and Albert Serra), on a tongue-in-cheek pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Despite the stunning scenery — the film was felicitously shot on fog-enveloped, snow-blanketed location — the story floats far above the Buñuelian depths that clearly stand as one of its many aspiring derivations.

The Signals section, on the other hand, presented — in addition to a wide-ranging lineup of feature programs, including a selection of “Red Westerns” and retrospectives for F. J. Ossang and Augustì Villaronga — a much-anticipated and consistently sold-out overview of American avant-gardist Nathaniel Dorsky’s forty-seven year career. The most comprehensive European retrospective of Dorsky’s work to date, the program featured twenty films, from his 1964 debut, A Fall Trip Home (often evocative of William Eggleston’s photographs of the same period and made, quite remarkably, when Dorsky was only twenty years old) to his latest, Pastourelle (2010), a winning entry in the Tiger Awards competition for short films.

Although much of the films’ effectiveness derives from the unpretentious and unapologetic beauty of Dorsky’s cinematography — an immersion into the sensory environment whose silence enhances the images’ tactile resonance — it is the masterful editing that distinguishes this oeuvre. As close to lyrical poetry as cinema is ever likely to get, Dorsky’s films are rooted in an editing technique that he clarified, in Q&A, with a surprising mixture of rigor and anti-intellectualism. Never preconceptualizing his projects, Dorsky claims to trust, instead, in an “unconscious thread that I explore in the editing process.” More precisely, a successful montage demands that 1) there occur a “visual readjustment” from one image to the next; 2) that each cut draw out the “poetic implications” of this readjustment, rather than pointing to a hollow conceptual equivalence; 3) that the cut provide a viscerally affective experience, “opening the heart,” and finally; 4) that in a second moment, the direct emotionality of the associations thus created yield to an “aftershock of potential meaning.” These and other reflections on filmmaking are more fully elucidated in Dorsky’s book Devotional Cinema (Tuumba Press, 2005), likewise presented at the festival in its second revised edition.

Amongst the features screened in the Spectrum lineup, Andrei Ujica’s three-hour Autobigrafia lui Nicolae Ceausescu (The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, 2010) stands out as another remarkable feat in editing as well as in archival research, eschewing voice-over narration in favor of an implicit, wordless commentary on the public documentation of the rise and fall of the Romanian dictator. The sense of narrative and direct engagement — no less than the melancholy nostalgia for a defunct ideal — is all the more remarkable for Ujica’s exclusive reliance on Ceausescu’s official appearances and largely already televised material.

However, it is the Spectrum shorts section that featured the most exciting explorations of the potentialities inherent in cinematic montage. These ranged from predictably brilliant avant-garde mash-ups (Peter Tscherkassky’s Coming Attractions, 2010) and less obvious transformations of documentary footage into glittering fictions (Nicolas Provost’s Stardust, 2010), to always welcome variations on the essay film: for example, Thom Andersen’s sparsely narrated rumination on the life cycles of signs and music in Los Angeles (Get Out of the Car, 2010); Hito Steyerl’s fascinating blow-out of the biography of a Boeing 4X-JYI, from its acquisition by Howard Hughes, to its role in the Israeli Air Force, its explosive cameo in the action-thriller Speed, and finally its recycling into DVDs by a Chinese metal company (In Free Fall, 2010). Yet, despite the formal expertise and analytic prowess of these and other veterans, the section’s most momentous revelation has to have been Laure Prouvost’s It, Heat, Hit (2010). A quickly rising star in the contemporary art world but a new arrival in the domain of cinema, London-based Prouvost makes what might be described, for lack of a better or, indeed, existing label, as something like New French Extreme-inflected noise poems. Narrative only in the most humorously surreal sense of the term, her disconcerting collages of image, text, and spoken word literally command the audience to alert all of its known senses (and some it hardly realized it had) to the skids and jerks of an emotional car-chase through human viscera, wafts of rust and blood and cleaning detergent, reptilic identifications, vegetable carcasses, incestuous dreamscapes, and beguiling gasps of fresh country air — to mention but a few of the anti-hierarchical elements brought to fruition in It, Heat, Hit‘s assault on the spectator’s (delighted) imagination.

It is hardly surprising, instead, that the other flashes of ineffable and often highly comedic violence emerged largely from the Japanese entries in the Spectrum and Bright Futures sections, offering, as always, a view into a culture where death and loss appear, somehow, to be okay. Kitano Takeshi returned in his “Beat” guise with a fresh revisitation of the Yakuza genre that made him famous. While hardly groundbreaking, Autoreiji (Outrage, 2010) attested to Takeshi’s masterful ability to make films speak (and instigate laughter) through the elliptical moments that conceal their diegesis, as well as providing a telling counterpoint to the much younger work of Okuda Yosuke, whose low-budget aesthetics substitute the razor-sharp whimsy of Takeshi’s gangster landscape with a distinctly hallucinatory appeal (in Seishun hakaba/Hot as Hell: The Deadbeat March, 2010). The real gore-and-laughs fest, however, was Sono Sion’s Tsumetai nettaigyo (Cold Fish, 2010). Tracing the journey of a timid tropical fish store owner from humiliating subservience to sadistic self-expression (and destruction), Cold Fish manages a flawless transposition into the filmic realm of the sort of psychotic realism typical, for example, of Bret Easton Ellis’s writing — that is, imperceptibly moving from a plausible scenario to an acutely nightmarish displacement. It also, however, paints a surprisingly believable, and even cathartic, portrait of an everyman’s explosive rejection of every cultural and psychological obstacle that represses the very core of his humanity.

A similarly visceral rebellion — and refusal to suppress the dark but alive side of human existence — emerged in a number of other features from various corners of the globe. In a still more humorous vein, Takashi Miike’s Zebraman: Zebura City no gyakushuu (Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City, 2010), a masterpiece of inventive parody, resolves the experiential dilemma of its eponymous superhero — and his eponymous antagonist — by merging the humanitarian white and the Sadean black through a redemptive act of sexual self-assimilation. (In retrospect, this appears somewhat like an irreverent, and hysterical, inversion of the tragic self-annihilation of Aronofsky’s Black Swan.) Less upliftingly, Ireland’s Sensation (Tom Hall, 2010), the United States’ Aardvark (Kitao Sakurai, 2010), and Turkey’s Cogunluk (Majority, Seren Yüce, 2010) all peruse — to varying degrees of resolution — the personal and political dangers of failing to feel.

Essentially a dark comedy, Sensation investigates the troubling diffusion of apathy in a stunted twenty-something farmer grieving the loss of his only close relative (and only impediment to his coming-of-age). Nonetheless, this tale of apparently hopeful awakening never abandons the destructive undercurrents embedded in a lifetime of feeling, as the protagonist pronounces, “like you’re going to burst just from using so little of yourself.” A pronouncement that aptly elucidates the underlying structure of Sakurai’s Aardvaark, a disturbing amble through the nascent, then brutally truncated, friendship between a blind recovering alcoholic and an ambiguously optimistic jujitsu trainer whose daytime existence is haunted by his abusive, and criminal, nightlife. An unplaceable docu-fiction hybrid, Aarvaark skillfully formalizes the descent of its blind protagonist into a domain of feeling that is simultaneously more empathic, in its tangible proximity to others, and infinitely darker, as though accessing a depth of affective engagement whose forgotten layers harbor dangers that only the finale — restoring the protagonist to the luminous geometry of his prior existence — will unleash. This sort of descent, or ascent, is continuously hinted at, but never reached, in Majority. Formally as barren as the emotional life of its young protagonist, Majority, which garnered Seren Yüce the Orizzonti (Horizons) prize at the 2010 Venice Film Festival, explores instead the political implications of a culturally propagated disaffection. Most impressive, perhaps, in its capacity to instill in the spectator — through the claustrophobic repetition of desaturated, numbing non-views of Istanbul — a desire for engagement inversely proportionate to the ineradicable indifference of the film’s depressing anti-hero, Majority takes an unexpected detour, and offers a chilling social indictment, when the story’s denouement inscribes a turn to violence in place of the affective opening that the protagonist’s long-awaited tears had deceivingly presaged.

A number of other films — such as Wasted Youth (Argyris Papadimitropoulos, 2010) and Tilva Roš (Tilva Rosh, Nikola Lezaić, 2010) — engaged with varying degrees of effectiveness in a radical questioning of the avenues left open for thought and action by a perceived climate of escalating inter-passivity, particularly for global youth. Yet, despite their troubling answers, they also echoed the festival’s own stated belief that the new media have opened new “bright futures” for the cinema itself and its ability to provide a platform for the active reconfiguration of seemingly immovable social realities.