Has Rotterdam gotten too big? In its 40th year, and under an “XL” banner that included forty new locations to augment the festival’s eight already sizable venues, the answer, at least geographically, might be yes. While keeping its core programs intact – the features and shorts in competition for the Tiger Award, the Bright Future selections, which screened the work of first or second-time filmmakers, and the Signals sidebars, which kept up the tradition of showing near-complete retrospectives of three veteran filmmakers – the festival’s offerings expanded across the city to include sections on Soviet westerns, fashion and film collaborations, gallery installations, live music performances, and even a cinema-themed fitness centre. The XL bicycle outfitters helped considerably in getting around, particularly for those travelling to the Lantaren/Venster theatre, revamped and relocated across the windy Erasmus Bridge, and home to the majority of the festival’s short films. The extra distance it took to get there was well worth the occasional grumbling, however, and with two bars in its spacious lobby, it made for a lively, impromptu meeting-place after late-night screenings. Overall, despite the supersized catalogue, the festival maintained a stable of innovative, daring, and sometimes downright raunchy films that would have made the late founder, Hubert Bals, himself larger than life, exceedingly proud.

Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s A History of Mutual Respect fit that Rotterdam bill precisely. Playing two Western men that descend into a Latin American jungle and enact a bizarre neocolonialist love triangle, the pair speaks in sincere, stoner-inflected tones as they rehearse the hideous clichés of western imperialism. “He must be so poor,” one reflects of the man driving their ramshackle cart, and in another moment, the other sighs, “I just want to sleep with a native woman without getting some ungodly disease.” Pursuing the same woman dressed in skimpy tribal-wear – only after determining her “clean” upon manual inspection – their backpacker friendship falls apart, though like the troubled histories that came before them, it might have been doomed from the start. Speech, in the way it’s used here, is more than an opportunity for comedic discomfort, but the site of profound misunderstanding and abuse. The “clean” woman, taken back to Europe, rarely ever speaks, and as her captor dreamily explains, “Language just, I don’t know, confuses things.” It, Hit, Heat, by Laure Prouvost, explores another kind of verbal assault, though its target is the viewer who is cajoled into attention: the text onscreen implores us to watch carefully as a relentless stream of associative images flies by, loosely narrated by a whispered voiceover. At nearly every turn, the film threatens to spill into violence, and though the images of shattered glass or knives might only suggest it visually, it is more the combination of the film’s multiple modes of address that push the viewer into perceptual overwhelm.

Roee Rosen’s Tse also connects speech to violence, in this case the BSDM ritual exorcism of Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, from the body of a young Israeli woman. As Yoana whips the chained and submissive Ela, quotations from Lieberman’s extreme right-wing hate-speech emerge from Ela’s mouth, though the more intriguing sections of the film are what precede and follow this central scene. Before, both women give lengthy interviews about their sexual and political identities. The moderately conservative Ela admits that she’s not too comfortable with the idea of letting Lieberman go, while Yoana, a militant feminist, seeks to empathise with the politician, sharing his Yiddish-speaking roots and acknowledging the place his racist rhetoric promoting Palestinian “transfer” has within Israeli political life. Following the exorcism, the camera pans around a bedroom where two men play a folk song as Ela lies exhausted next to a white dog and Yoana holds her hands up to a small fire, sitting next to her laptop, on a desk. “Please do not go so often,” sings one of the men. It’s a mournful line that shadows Lieberman’s expulsionary vitriol and puts it in deeper historical relief as the camera pans around a room that, with its many voices, the old confronting the new, might stand in for the nation at large. Communication problems in Li Xia’s Salon, meanwhile, give way to cross-cultural curiosity when Omelga Mthiyane, part of Rotterdam’s Raiding Africa program (a continuation of last year’s Forget Africa initiative) that sent seven African filmmakers to China, steps into a Songzhuang salon. The Chinese hairdressers are confounded by the filmmaker’s kinky curls, but she cheerfully pushes on, eventually meeting Li Xia, who pins extensions made of her own hair onto Mthiyane’s head. The documentary meanders through a de rigeur set of cultural misunderstandings including broad hand gestures and a quick chopsticks tutorial, but it soon enters new terrain when Mthiyane discovers that Li Xia is a watercolour painter and accompanies her new friend on a gallery tour of Songzhuang’s art district, a quest in many ways analogous to her own artistic journey.

Gianfranco Rosi’s El Sicario Room 164, one of the festival’s most harrowing documentaries, sets off the starkness of speech in a nondescript motel room, the site of a brutal kidnapping by El Sicario, the anonymous hitman who for 20 years worked for a Mexican drug lord in Juárez. Donning a black scarf over his head and with notebook in hand, he draws diagrams and stick figures with a black Sharpie as he describes his rise up through the cartel ranks in the world’s most violent city. From his training in the police academy, a prime recruiting spot for the narcos, to the unspeakable and chillingly efficient acts of torture he committed, and finally his escape into a community of evangelical Christians, El Sicario’s speech is as plain as it is gruesome. Aside from a few and probably unnecessary cinematic flourishes, mostly lingering shots of the derelict streets along this unnamed border town, Rosi wisely keeps his camera tightly trained on his masked storyteller. Toward the end, El Sicario stands up abruptly and flips through the book. “All of this filth,” he exclaims, and the dramatic impact of his accumulated words and drawings is made all the more powerful for not showing what actually happened. Instead the film offers up the huge, suffering body of this condemned man – the cartels have placed a $250,000 bounty on his head – as its sole evidentiary force.

Ben Rivers’s Slow Action takes a radically different approach to the act of narration, filling each of its four segments with texts seemingly culled from the science fiction of Jules Verne, Victorian ethnography, and lofty, if hollow, philosophical treatises on utopia. Shot on four remote islands in the Pacific Ocean, the film is Rivers’s longest and most ambitious yet, and in each section, using the alternating voices of male and female narrators, he deftly weaves together stories of paradise and revolt, wreckage and regeneration. Slow Action’s otherworldly accounts are met and in many ways undone by the haunting 16-millimetre CinemaScope images that accompany them, particularly the Pacific island of Tuvalu swathed in a tropical haze and heaps of garbage. In a place without any means of trash removal, Rivers films rusted automobile graveyards, a hubcap strung up from a palm tree like a Christmas ornament, and, in a shot both tragic and idyllic, a group of children floating on the ocean in a giant Styrofoam box. The central edifice of Lotte Stoops’s Grande Hotel, by contrast, speaks mainly for itself, a gargantuan, dilapidated monument to Portugal’s colonial legacy in Mozambique. The Beira seaside resort is now home to over 2500 residents who have, since the hotel’s closing 60 years ago, taken over every inch of the gutted concrete building, including hallways and stairwells. The film is strongest when left in observational silence, as with the mesmerising opening shot where a couple tries to sleep amid the morning commotion around them: an infant bath, the sound of someone sweeping, and finally chatty neighbours strolling right before their heads. Stoops goes too far, perhaps, in asserting the past grandeur of the hotel, which without archival footage or the girlhood reminiscences of an aged Portuguese woman, is already freighted by a ghostly past, one that speaks through absence like the pockmarked walls where stones have been removed for resale.

The spirit of reconstructed habitats could be found in David Blair’s Movietalkers of the Manchurian Telepathic Cinema, an XL exhibition at the Alliance Française Rotterdam. There, handmade fragments constructed an exhaustive fictional history of a mythical cinema: model train pieces described as mechanical parts for “the blood projector”, paintings that recreated stamps, advertisements, and photographic views of the “Inner Ear Theater”, rear-projected images of ghostly actors, and wall placards singed with an iron and painted in black letters. On opposite sides of the exhibition, a film recounted the history of the telepathic cinema, and there Blair observes in voiceover, “once in a while we saw other worlds through the walls.” However mystical or fabricated the place he describes, it is also familiar to anyone who’s ever been to a movie theatre, where every time we encounter a world teeming with uncanny, illuminated life. Watching the 1929 wuxia rarity Red Heroine (d. Wen Yimin), one of the festival’s revival screenings, it was easy to imagine what one of these other worlds might have looked like, with its gravity-defying acrobatics, girls with long braids, a monkey fighter, and a rollicking score performed live by Boston’s Devil Music Ensemble.

A number of the festival’s programs celebrated celluloid for its unique presence. In addition to a program devoted to Kodachrome, which stopped being manufactured earlier this year, there was Domashnyee Kino (Home Movie) by John Price, in many ways the ultimate home movie as it was gathered from assorted stocks of discarded 35-millimetre film, hand-processed, and edited (some of it left as camera original, making the film a singular, virtually unreproducible object) by Price himself. Alternately black and white and colour, and doused in a variety of chemical baths, we see Price’s children at play and at rest, time-lapsed seasons drifting through the window, and the occasional stream of sprocket holes charging the frame. The soundtrack keeps things from getting too austere, however – beside the gentle chatter of toddlers, we hear at varying times loud snoring, a fart, and a whistled tune that breaks off into a Star Wars riff. Nathaniel Dorsky, one of the featured filmmakers, showed six programs of his 16-millimetre films made over the course of nearly fifty years, and his most recent, Pastourelle, deservedly took one of the three Tiger Awards for short films. The film builds on the observational idiom of light and movement Dorsky developed in the ‘90s and here, in the key of a verdant San Francisco spring, the camera energetically traces the veins of a succulent or soaks in the layers of street life caught in a shop window. Projected at silent speed and with no soundtrack, Dorsky’s 16-millimetre films – unavailable on DVD – were rare and graceful encounters with celluloid, and moreover they were opportunities for hushed contemplation and a return to the simple, pleasurable and numinous act of seeing for its own sake.

Though it divided audiences, Sergio Caballero’s Finisterrae was, for me, another experience of cinematic magic. The story is certainly unusual – two ghost-pilgrims seeking material form journey to Finisterre, or the end of the world—though if you can accept the wisdom of the “oracle of Garrel” that guides their quest (and the Nico song from La Cicatrice interieur that provides their soundtrack), the film’s surreality begins to work out its own, unexpectedly sublime logic. The ghosts, dressed in white sheets with dark drooping eye-holes, pass through deep woods and snow-covered valleys, sometimes from atop a horse, rolling along in a wheelchair, or carrying a red and white windsock. Finisterrae, which took one of the Tiger Awards for best feature, unfolds like an exquisite corpse. From an opera-belting hippie to a tree trunk that reveals a clip of ‘80s Catalanian video art, it’s impossible to predict what will come next. Yet the ghosts’ drive forward, coloured by their ongoing conversation in alternately sombre and mundane Russian, keeps things moving at a steady, melodic pace, and Caballero leaves ample time to savour the magnificent curiosities along their path. The omnibus Kaidan – Horror Classics provided another take on the ghost story, eschewing the atmospheric terror of J-horror for tales of longing and loss adapted from Japanese literary classics. Little wonder that The Days After, the section by Kore-eda Hirokazu, was the most delicately observed; the director has long been concerned with the experience of mourning (Distance, After Life, Still Walking) and often hints to the supernatural (Mabarosi, Air Doll), and here a grieving young couple welcome the apparition of their deceased son’s ghost. Their belief in his return, however, is clouded by the fear that he might be something else, a presence as tenuous as the silhouetted figure wavering in and out against the bright light from across a bridge.

Lee Anne Schmitt’s The Last Buffalo Hunt also tracks a vanished presence, the American West evacuated of its once-plentiful bison, the cowboys and ranchers who roamed its plains, and the grandiose mythology of the frontier. Much of this essay film follows Terry, a buffalo-hunting guide operating out of remote Hanksville, Utah. Aged far beyond his years, and finding it increasingly difficult to sustain his family’s way of life, Terry swears each year that this will be his last, though as Schmitt and collaborator Lee Lynch observe over their six years of shooting, he is as trapped as the wild buffalo herd caught in the rugged Henry Mountains. The film gradually moves away from Terry’s horseback hunts to the minor intrusion of fast food signs in the landscape, the taxidermied buffalo frozen in Smithsonian dioramas and the grotesque animatronic displays of an American Indian wearing a zombie mask and a trigger-happy cowboy who bears an uncanny resemblance to George W. Bush. This is a contested land, lashed by strife – it’s apparent not only in poor resource management, a faltering economy, and the commodification of the West, but also, as Schmitt’s voiceover and intertitles explain, in the very ideas that shaped its history, for better or for worse. This is a promise land broken; its destiny manifest on Terry’s weary, weathered face. In her Q&A, Schmitt offered no answers to the difficult questions her film posed, but put her faith in cinema’s capability to “summon paradox,” and to bring into relief those irresolvable things we can’t, or can’t yet, make sense of.

International Film Festival Rotterdam

26 January -6 February 2011

Festival website: http://www.filmfestivalrotterdam.com/en/

About The Author

Genevieve Yue is a writer and a Ph.D. student in Critical Studies at the University of Southern California. She lives in Los Angeles.