February 1, 2004: A delegation of members of the Steamship Rotterdam Foundation visited the ex-SS ROTTERDAM in Freeport, Grand Bahama. They reported that the ship’s overall condition to be reasonable, both the hull and the superstructure appear to be sound. However, the condition of many exterior details (rails and stairs for example) showed that maintenance was needed soon.

– Martin Cox, Maritime Matters.

To paraphrase Morrissey, there’s more to Rotterdam than its film festival – but not much more. Actually, that’s a little unfair. While lacking the obvious picturesque charms of Amsterdam, or the bygone-era cosiness of its nearby neighbour Delft, the Netherlands’ second city (and Europe’s busiest port) isn’t without appeal – especially for visitors interested in modern architecture, post-war reconstruction (the centre of Rotterdam was devastated by a notorious Luftwaffe carpet-bombing assault on May 14th, 1940), the life of overachieving local lad Erasmus (1469-1536) or the rapidly-evolving demographics of 21st century Europe (some predictions reckon this may eventually become western Europe’s first majority-Muslim conurbation.)

But as I discovered when lingering in the city – admittedly, due to circumstantial mishap rather than design – for several days after my first encounter with International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) back in 2003, the lively festival atmosphere buzzes to a sudden halt pretty much as soon as the last public screening is concluded on the final Saturday (the next day is restricted to readers of a prominent, somewhat staid Dutch national newspaper, and thus has a totally different vibe.)

Things are, however, finally looking up for Rotterdam as a tourist destination. This year’s IFFR, the 39th, officially ended on Sunday 7th February. And one week and one day later the SS Rotterdam – originally one of the world’s great ocean-liners, then a celebrated globe-spanning cruise-ship – officially opened for business on the Maas River both as a floating-hotel and as an attraction in its own right: a carefully-restored marvel of maritime engineering.

Launched in 1958 and embarking on its maiden voyage in 1959, the Grande Dame was hailed as radically innovative in its day, plying the waves for over four decades before being retired from service in the year 2000. Four decades isn’t unusual for a cruise-liner, but it is a considerable landmark for a film festival, especially one like Rotterdam which has, since its inception in 1972 under Hubert Bals, showcased what the current Director, Rutger Wolfson, terms “experiment and innovation”.

The history of IFFR has been well chronicled – including on these very pages – and I have no intention of chronicling its gradual evolution from the single-venue Film International to the behemoth of today. Suffice to note that Wolfson is the seventh “Captain” of this particular ship, the others being Bals (1972-88), Anne Head (interim chief, 1989 only), Marco Müller (1990-92), Emile Fallaux (1992-96), Simon Field (1996-2004) and Sandra Den Hamer (2004-08). When he took over in 2008, there was a sense that IFFR had lost its direction in the time since Field’s still-controversial exit in 2004: the festival had become too large, too unwieldy, with too many sections and sub-sections, and too many attendees no longer felt that they were quite on the cutting-edge of cinematic discovery.

Two-and-a-bit years and three festivals later (Wolfson was appointed, amid somewhat chaotic circumstances, in the run-up to the 2008 event), has anything really changed? Those who have met and worked with Wolfson all comment what a genial, pleasant, nice chap he is – a “good bloke,” as we’d say in Britain. But Wolfson, whose background was in art curation, has never pretended to be any kind of expert cinephile. Indeed, I still shudder to remember his spirited personal defence of Simon Ellis’s utterly dire British sex comedy Dogging – A Love Story, which somehow made it into the Competition section of IFFR (in which three equal Tiger prizes are awarded) last year.

Needless to say, this doesn’t in any way disqualify him from running a major film festival. But after two full ‘Wolfson’ renewals, there’s even more of a sense that this is a vessel which is drifting along – perhaps towards dangerous waters. And rather than shedding ballast, SS Rotterdam Film Festival appears to be taking more on. This year’s catalogue, as in the last few years, runs well beyond 400 pages, listing 200+ features arranged into 11 categories. Even if one was to attend every day and cram seven features into each day, that would still mean one would be able to catch less than a third of the full total. The only way forward is to prioritise, to seek out the “good stuff”. And that is where the problems kick in with IFFR.

Arriving during the second week, I quickly sought recommendations from friends who’d been around during the first half of the festival – and was dismayed to find that most of the advice I received was negative rather than positive. I quickly compiled a list of stuff to avoid, alongside a considerably shorter list of titles about which my pals were enthusiastic.

By the time I departed Rotterdam on the Sunday, I had seen all or part of 23 features, plus a handful of shorts in the videotheque (available for press and industry delegates). Of the former, the most outstanding was – perhaps unsurprisingly – David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1982), shown from a lovely Dutch-subtitled 16mm print.

There were only two other feature-length works which I considered particularly worthwhile. The Danish prison drama R, written and directed by Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm was a Tiger Competition contender, and I know I’m not alone in considering it at the very least the equal of Jacques Audiard’s longer, much more ballyhooed French equivalent Un prophète (A Prophet). Uncompromising and startlingly brutal, it features a genuinely shocking narrative development in its final third, which caught me completely on the hop.

Secondly, tucked away in an under-advertised sidebar dedicated to works from the Pompeu Fabra school at Barcelona, the 71-minute ethnographic documentary La terra habitada (The Land Inhabited), by the 28-year-old Anna Sanmartí: an enigmatic, occasionally sublime voyage into the wilds of Mongolia. The Pompeu Fabra section was one of the few aspects of IFFR 2010 to attract particular approval from those I spoke to – more’s the pity that so many managed to overlook it altogether.

Otherwise the pickings were fairly meagre. There was nothing massively wrong with Tiger contenders C’est déjà l’été (It’s Already Summer) by Martijn Maria Smits, a Dutch-Belgian tale of damaged lives in Seraing, the Liege suburb where the Dardenne brothers shoot their tales of damaged lives (what next for Smits? A jauntily sordid kitsch-camp comedy set in Baltimore? A delirious giallo set in Turin?). Nor with Quchis dgeebi (Street Days) by Levan Koguashvili an agreeably gritty chronicle of a doomed middle-aged drug-dealer/user in Tblisi.

But neither did I detect any particular signs of outstanding promise from these feature debutants. Similarly competent but unspectacular, out of competition: Win/Win by Jaap Van Heusden, a topical Dutch comedy-drama set in the world of banking; Avenida Brasilia Formosa (Defiant Brasilia) by Gabriel Mascaro, an engaging little documentary about a resilient working-class community in the coastal Brazilian city of Recife; Hiroshima, the first solo effort from Uruguay’s Pablo Stoll (who collaborated with the late Juan Pablo Rebella on 2004’s terrific Whisky), and a typically deadpan/surreal quasi-comedy about a thirty-something slacker, which peaks very early – an extended Dardennes/Alonso shot of the protagonist walking home at dawn after working the night-shift at a bakery, listening to a hypnotic track on his Walkman – and only intermittently shows similar aplomb.

That said, at least I managed to get to the end of all these movies. I fared considerably worse on 4th February – ‘Black Thursday’, as I think of it in retrospect – when I managed the unprecedented feat of walking out of four consecutive pictures. The troubles began with a press showing of the Dutch film that closed the festival, De vliegenierster van Kazbek (The Aviatrix of Kazbek) by Ineke Smits, a wartime romantic fable about Georgian POWs on the island of Texel, that sums up all that’s wrong with current and recent Netherland cinema (too much money, not enough ideas/originality/flair).

I didn’t fare much better with a much more promising-looking title from a retrospective sidebar devoted to Japanese provocateur Yoshida Kiju –this was 1973’s Coup d’Etat, which managed the tricky feat of making such a coup seem like very dull business indeed. Next up: All Things Were Now Overtaken By Silence (Todo, en fin, el silencio lo ocupaba) from Canada-based Mexican Nicolás Pereda – whose disarmingly droll Perpetuum Mobile was one of my highlights from last September’s San Sebastian film-festival. All Things, however, is cine-experimentalism of the most unbearable kind, a rough sketch for a concept (it’s a filmed monologue involving the recital of an old religious poem) that may yield creative benefits for Pereda himself in the long run, but which simply shouldn’t have been shown to paying audiences. Finally there was Flooding in the Time of Drought (Banjir Kemaru) by Singapore’s Sherman Ong. Ong is being quietly touted in certain quarters as some kind of “next big thing”, but there was precious little in the first half hour of his drama/documentary hybrid on modern urban life that made me want to linger for the remaining 150 minutes.

In addition to these four walkouts, Thursday also yielded a decidedly so-so documentary in Uroki Russkogo (Russian Lessons) by Andrei Nekrasov and (his wife, the late) Olga Konskaya, in which the recent Russian/Georgian conflict is the cause of much guilty hand-wringing by the St Petersburg-based filmmakers. How one could make a 100-minute, exposition-heavy film on this particular historical moment without mentioning, showing or referring to Georgian president Mikhail Sakaashvili in any way would seem impossible. But that’s exactly what Nekrasov and Konskaya, for reasons of their own, manage to pull off.

My day of misery ended on what was perhaps an inevitably foul note with a screening of Jörg Buttgereit’s notorious underground “classic” Nekromantik (1987) – a late-night showing from a suitably scratchy 35mm print. I’ve been keen to see this legendary film maudit for years, and so was desperately disappointed by what turned out to be a kind of “amateur hour at the morgue” affair, slapdash and silly with only the very occasional redeeming moment of ultra-gross humour.

Nekromantik wasn’t quite my biggest let-down of IFFR 2010, however. That honour probably goes to James Benning’s Ruhr, the first time this living legend of the American avant-garde has worked (a) on digital rather than 16mm, (b) outside the United States and (c) to a formal commission. I must disclose an interest: I attended the shooting of Ruhr in December 2009 and helped carry Benning’s tripod up a hill at one point. But this wasn’t the only reason why I was so very keen to see the completed film: Benning’s casting a glance (2007) is among my personal all-time top half-dozen, and I regard his Ten Skies, 13 Lakes, El Valley Centro and Los as among the genuine masterpieces of the last decade.

Ruhr does boast a great opening shot – ‘Matenastraße Tunnel‘, in which the camera watches and listens as various forms of transport pass through the eponymous underground passage: cars, a truck, a bicycle, a lorry. Benning’s point – about the environmental impact of various modest of transportation – is evident, and is made with concision and great elegance.

I was much less taken with the rest of Ruhr, which reminded me of how Andrei Tarkovsky worked his way through various modes of filmmaking on Andrei Rublev (1966): I got the sense of Benning learning “on the job”, and while – as with Pereda above – the results will most likely be very beneficial for the director himself, they proved a tough slog for the viewer. In particular, the final shot – an hour-long scrutiny of a coke-works cooling tower – seemed like an invitation to cine-masochism. Benning has explained the technical trickery which he employed on this shot – like nearly all of his work, what appears to be a “neutral” record of phenomena is actually a carefully-controlled and manipulated gestalt – but for once such background adds little to our understanding of what he was trying to achieve.

Nevertheless, ‘Matenastraße Tunnel alone proves that Benning, as he approaches his eighth decade, certainly hasn’t “lost it” – ditto his 18-minute three-screen installation Tulare Road, which was one of the highlights at the Berlinale’s Forum Expanded section later in February. He is, however, being increasingly lionised around the globe – and it will be fascinating to see how this level of attention, belated and massively overdue, impacts upon his output.

One veteran who still hasn’t been getting the recognition he so eminently deserves is Austria’s Peter Schreiner, whose Totò – in which a ruminative middle-aged Calabrian returns for a visit to his home village from his residence in Vienna – popped up at IFFR a couple of months after world-premiering at the Viennale, a festival which successfully sorts wheat from chaff in a manner which continues to elude Rotterdam. I suppose if I’d caught Totò in Rotterdam rather than Vienna I’d be much more upbeat about the festival.

Ditto Shinboru (Symbol), a truly daft masterpiece from Hitoshi Matsumoto (which I saw in Tromsø a couple of weeks before); Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten (The Woman with the 5 Elephants) by Vadim Jendreyko, a documentary about guilt, history and literary translation which came within an ace of snatching the IFFR audience prize; Wei wen (Condolences), a short by Ying Liang (Taking Father Home; The Other Half; Good Cats) which may well be the best thing China’s digital-video prodigy has yet done, and which rightly won one of the three Tiger prizes for shorts (along with Atlantiques, a marvellous debut from Mati Diop, 27 year-old star of Claire Denis’s 35 Rhums).

But the fact is that I didn’t discover any of these at Rotterdam 2010. In four and a half days of avid searching, the best I had to show for it was R, The Land Inhabited, Videodrome, Matenastraße Tunnel’, and a couple of “cine-bombardment” shorts in the videotheque – Lumphini 2552 by Tomonari Nishikawa, and Zwölf Boxkämpfer jagen Viktor quer über den großen Sylter Deich 140 9 (The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog) by Johann Lurf.

Slim pickings, then, from Captain Rutger’s table. It’s a vast feast, to be sure, but one where it’s all too easy to end up with a plate full of unpalatable or inedible fare. The ship sails on, of course – but, as the SS Rotterdam reminds us, even the mightiest and most radically-designed of liners can end their days as floating museums. No disgrace in that, but something of a shame nonetheless.

… suddenly I rejoiced in the great security of the sea as compared with the unrest of the land, in my choice of that untempted life presenting no disquieting problems, invested with an elementary moral beauty by the absolute straightforwardness of its appeal and by the singleness of its purpose.

– Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer (1910)

International Film Festival Rotterdam

27 January-7 February 2010
Festival website: http://www.filmfestivalrotterdam.com