Understanding how people can be manipulated through emotions, for example, is as useful for those who wish to avoid this as it is for those who wish to practice it.
– Sun Tzu in The Art of War

The tyranny of financial abstraction is having very concrete repercussions on our cultural landscape, austerity enforcers reach for their scissors when they hear the word culture. Not yet for their revolvers…


Cuts in funding. Cinema too as a matter of course exists in a vacuum of institutional uncertainty, minor festivals close down, major ones struggle on. The creative industry cannot seem to create an alternative to the coercion of capital, while the latter on the contrary is specialising in the co-optation of creativity. This year’s edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam somehow felt like a strategic compromise, while capitalising on profitable brands (i.e. Ai Weiwei), the artistic direction hinted at lesser-known and uncharted possibilities in the world (of moving images).

The partial survey of the Arab Spring (Power Cut: Middle East) and the hypocritical patronage of Syrian art (why not Bahraini art?) on one side, the subversive archaeologies of film history (The Mouth of Garbage) on the other; this year the IFFR served as a reminder of “invisible realities”. While our ethical awareness is force-fed by geopolitical fiction wherefore injustices are magically committed only in those countries that defy our economic hegemony (China, Iran, Burma, etc.), something out there falls outside the pre-packaged categories of “anti-” or “pro-democracy”. George Orwell would say “some dissidents are more equal than others”; the clergy of world cinema having decided that Ai Weiwei is more equal than Masao Adachi, for the benefit of universal values such as freedom of speech.

Someone might say: “never mind these boring political disputes, the magic of cinema unites us all and ecumenically takes us beyond the trivial and sectarian instances of life”, indeed…

This year’s Tiger Award Competition, focusing on 1st and 2nd features, if anything, exposed the abyss separating young filmmakers from the tumultuous times they are supposedly living through, with one remarkable exception: Neighbouring Sounds by Kleber Mendonça Filho.

After a couple of short features, this film critic turned director debuted with an attentive and subtle film whose universal breadth and relevance indicate this newcomer as a talent to watch. Unlike most of the other films in competition, Neighbouring Sounds convincingly asserts, albeit in unassuming fashion, its own raison d’être, its meaningful bearing is palpable even if dealing with the most unfathomable of all entities: paranoia. Exploring a middle-class neighbourhood in the Brazilian town of Recife with a circumspect and transversal outlook, the director captures a neurotic society in which danger is more of an inner projection than an actuality. Security is just an anxiety enhancer, social status alone granting safety; in fact only the wealthy landlord can swim in the shark-infested sea at midnight in perfect peace. When the new security guards offer their services to the feudal owner, he sternly reminds them of their subordination to the universal order of money, only to later find out the (historical) reason of their presence

Life unfolds uneasily in the neighbourhood, the sinister signs of suspicion underpin a public life where any contact is a potential confrontation, and even a love affair raises a fastidious sense of scepticism. Pleasure and relief for a quietly desperate housewife come, quite literally, from domestic appliances; the household becomes a stronghold to be defended from an outside aggression that is as tangible as it is inexistent. Fear is the ultimate social enforcer and its pervasiveness transcends any real threat (of which the story is utterly devoid), an exception made for a harmless kid that runs away terrified when caught and punched by the guards.

On this impeccably textured tableau of mistrust and calm panic, the director weaves the contradictions and conflicts of a fractured society divided by class, dubious bounds and an unresolved past. Mendonça Filho proves with his film that our complex and inscrutable actualities, as opposed to the daily prescriptions of reassuring mendacity, remain a cogent source for reflection and artistic elaboration.

The remaining films in competition unanimously showed a propensity for expressive autism, a painful inability to relate, let alone interact, with their diegetic material. The narrative subject, whatever its nature, is passively “accepted” instead of being actively moulded, the poetic object ending up feeling algid and inexpressive. The difference between so-called observational cinema and CCTV footage blurs away, at its best hyper-realistic cinema persuasively captures the tedium of life without ever looking into its causes or effects.

No wonder then that sexual prurience (though we had hoped that that Tango in Paris really was the Last…) still captivates audiences, who, overwhelmed by boredom, always welcome a bit of repressed and sinful sexual content. Clip by Maja Miloš (the awarded film) is all this and much less. Blankly staring at youths who can only authenticate themselves through their mobile phones, the Serbian director inactively endorses the existential void she complacently captures.

Demonstrating a trite theorem, It Looks Pretty From a Distance by Wilhelm and Anka Sasnal has world audiences unaware of the grim conditions of globalised rural life and diligently corroborates the titular assumption by showing how shit it looks from close. Aesthetically accomplished, it is a purposeless film surrendering to reality instead of facing it, realised, revealingly enough, by two “contemporary artists”.

Voice of My Father by Orhan Eskiköy and Zeynel Dogan has the merit of devising an oral cinema to rescue from obliteration the memory of a Kurdish family, and with it that of a persecuted minority. The film struggles though in outlining a robust narrative, words at time overwhelm the image, suffocating the story and consigning it to a cramped intimacy.  Both the Greek film L by Babis Makridis and the Chilean Thursday Till Sunday by Dominga Sotomayor felt highly derivative of their respective national trendsetters, leaving the consequential stale aftertaste on our eyelids.

Colossal testimony of a restless and shattering psychodrama, Anna (1972-75) by Alberto Grifi was screened in Rotterdam (part of the Signals: Regained section) for the first time outside of Italy. Reminiscent of Cassavetes’ most intense life streams, Grifi’s film digs into the impurity of life while being traversed by the pain of it, its contradictions and miseries. After finding a pregnant French girl (Anna) on the streets of Rome and having brought her home, the director and some friends decided to make a film (on video) about her. The first part of the film is an improvised reconstruction of that encounter and the following events, after a while though, disgusted by its staged cruelty, the film stops to believe in its own fiction and opens up. What comes out is a sort of antagonistic philanthropic opera, a sociological experiment wrestling with its own ontological limits, moral coordinates and intentions. It started as a film about Anna, only to finish as a film with Anna. Instead of being a film about the questioning of established roles within cinema, the film actually registers an unscripted “disloyalty” within its making. Vincenzo, the set electrician, falls in love with Anna, abandons his role, contravening the screenplay, to break into the frame with his desire, becoming part of the drama. The audience is caught off guard by Anna’s need for love instead of the spectators’ piety. What makes this film indeterminable and seducing is the emotive amalgam between the “strong” timing of cinema and the “weak” timing of life, the privilege of editing and the unedited burden of life. A significant “special moment” vs the banality of everyday life. Anna captures this timely struggle between the commoditisation of time (and the human relations occurring within that time) that cinema implies and the self-determination of a life experience refusing this spectacular blackmail. It is the ultimate struggle that cinema conveniently downplays: that between the representation of life and life itself.

Against the ineffectual realism of too much cinema, came to its rescue a splinter glance uncovering the unsubstantial essence of reality, The Legend of Kaspar Hauser by Davide Manuli (included in the Spectrum section). Today the illiterate Kaspar Hauser lands in a society where meaning is communicated to a multitude of solitudes by a sum of separations. Mentoring is just another way to pass on a cultural void (western) civilisation avidly preserves, so the mysterious outsider is taught nothing, for nothing is there to teach. Roaming the beatless drifts of a lunar landscape the androgynous foundling brings the epic pulse of techno music to a deaf humanity. A post-mortem western whose frontier is not that of conquest but of loss, the founding myth of civilisation is reduced to its ghostly remnants: the self-delusional puppets of a collapsed order. The Duchess, the Sheriff, the Priest, the Servant are nothing but organs of a social body that has rotted away, who nonetheless still cannot domesticate Kaspar.

Moving passages of operatic magnitude, where dissonance sublimates into harmony grace the film, absurdity turns into prescience; sexual beauty becomes an erratic presence and a devastating absence. After Beket (2008) Manuli confirms with this film the power of his vision and its irreducible energy, a scorching sight in the glacial wasteland of (independent) cinema.

A wasteland, it must be said, that the IFFR keeps exploring with courage to deliver a cultural event where the focus is on films, not the red carpet.

International Film Festival Rotterdam
25 January – 5 February 2012
website: http://www.filmfestivalrotterdam.com/en