The 45th International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) took place under the new artistic directorship of Bero Beyer. As all new artistic directors so often do, Beyer put in place some changes to the program structure. In endeavouring to make the festival more accessible and defined, he outlined a clearer context for the curated programs, having them sit more logically within four larger, brightly colour-coded, main sections – Bright Future (emerging filmmakers), Voices (distinctive established filmmakers), Deep Focus (retrospectives and treats for the cinephiles) and Perspectives (a rather miscellaneous section involving different media and cinematic forms). This revitalisation also saw the foregrounding of two main competitions, one recognising innovative new cinema, the other geared to the big audience films, with (respectively) the HIVOS Tiger Award for Features (part of Bright Future) going to Babak Jalali’s Radio Dreams, and the VPRO Big Screen Award (part of Voices) going to Léa Fehner’s Les ogres.

“I don’t remember my future”, claims the protagonist of Fiona Tan’s History’s Future in this Tiger competition feature’s first scenes. His words, coincidently or not, align perfectly to the fundamental ethos behind the IFFR, a festival that, unlike most other European festivals, doesn’t try to predict (suggest?) the future of international cinema. Of course, Rotterdam has always respected the past, through its carefully chosen (and highly celebrated) retrospectives. This year was no different. Both Japanese revolutionary artist Adachi Masao and unclassifiable Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella have made films not only once daring but still impressively fresh today (there was also a retrospective devoted to Claudio Caligari, who passed away in 2015 after three unique features made within 35 years; and, linked to Portabella, the Escuela de Barcelona). In considering the uniqueness of their cinema, it is clear that newness is not always necessarily born out of youthful cinematic rebellion against the old guard. It can be also a natural continuation, as stressed by the Portabella/Escuela and Adachi curators, Olaf Möller, and Julian Ross and Go Hirasawa, respectively through their assiduous selection. But as for contemporary cinema, it seemed those screened at Rotterdam (compared to those screened at the Berlinale a week later) preferred not to inquire into the past, instead focusing on innovative ways to deal with the here and now.

To do this, special tools were needed. And the filmmakers, as is often the case at the IFFR, came from various backgrounds of visual arts, photography or film criticism, and put their different weapons on the table. The IFFR is known for programming films that feature innovative storytelling and that translate abstract concepts to the screen. Films that blend styles and genres to make cinema in a less banal way. Nevertheless, in the Tiger competition this year, there didn’t appear too much of an attempt to provoke or rebel, on the filmmakers’ part. Reduced to eight films by Beyer, each premiering each day of the festival (Beyer himself pointed out the similar program size and strategy in Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique, also for emerging filmmakers), the more focused Tiger Competition (which the bulk of this report will cover) allowed each film more space for discussion, reflection and filmmaker attention.

Other films in the program didn’t have such luxury. The usual jostling for attention in still one of the biggest festivals in the world (477 films) meant for the most part the films were diverse yet always bold. Take duration as an example: the shortest films were one minute long (Weapons Conference by Mike Heynes and Falling Frames by Johannes Langkamp); the longest unfolded into an impressive spectacle of thirteen hours (Simulacrum Tremendum directed by Khavn, who played piano live to the screening!). TV series, gathered in the Episodic/Epidemic section, were occasionally shown without episode continuity (e.g. Diego Lerman’s La casa, which was screened as episodes 4, 6, 10 and 13) to make the viewing somewhat disjointed. There were extremely long documentaries about directors who make extremely long documentaries (Jung Sung-il’s Night and Fog in Zona on the cinema of Wang Bing). Arabian Nights (As Mil e uma Noites) by Miguel Gomes delivered a baroque chronicle of Portugal’s past and present that lasted more than six hours. Ryusuke Hamagochi’s slyly titled film Happy Hour was actually a 5+-hour work. Extraordinarily long films, instead of representing a fascinating anomaly, turned out to be a regular challenge for festival-goers.

Rotterdam film festival

La última tierra

Filmmakers who didn’t carouse with duration readily put the concept of time as a central plot subject, a form of sculpting with time as opposed to offering a provocatively prolonged viewing experience. Federico Fellini once said that time passes differently in three life moments: travel, love and death. Pablo Lamar’s La última tierra (Last Land) (Special Jury Award) takes on that last moment, or, to be precise, the last two. A poignant study of a husband’s mourning after his wife’s death unfolds alongside a parallel story about their deep love and endless devotion. Since Lamar builds the film out of small gestures observed with great attention, each of the detail carries great weight. The way the husband cleans his wife’s body, takes care of her corpse, farewells her, mourns for her loss, experiences emptiness; every single interaction between them expresses love in the purest way. Attentive compositions reveal the beauty in sadness, undisturbed by a single spoken word. For him, mourning is an inner process. Lamar gets close enough to it, almost touching the great pain and grief hidden deep down in the husband’s heart. Instead of directly showing despair, La última tierra seeks the sensation of death, the unique stillness of this moment, when everything around one suddenly stops. And indeed, the very contemplative nature of Lamar’s film gives the impression of beholding one of the most intimate moments in the life of a couple.

Rotterdam film festival

Oscuro animal

La última tierra, speechless yet sculpting the sound of nature and grief, surprisingly wasn’t the only dialogue-free effort this year. A similar approach was to be found in Felipe Guerrero’s Oscuro animal, albeit following a different plotline. This time there are three women who have managed to escape a dangerous war, but still feel the breath of cruelty down their necks. Rocio’s home is surrounded by paramilitary troops. La Mona stabs her brutal boyfriend to save herself. Nelsa used to work for the army, but has run away after being forced to bury the bodies of executed farmers. Now they are all pursued by the past. A hide-out in a forest seems not safe enough. Its overwhelming silence brings only a veneer of calm, easily destroyed by a discreet rustle of leaves on the ground. Home is not a shelter, man is not a protector. Everything is in fact the opposite. Male-butchers, terrorists, hunters show up, always without warning, to damage and abuse. Will they come today or not? Will they demand flesh or not? Out of these anxieties Guerrero has made a study of unbearable silence that yields even more fear and suffering than the wounds themselves. An atmosphere created by this mute waiting of some sort of entrapment with no exit. And indeed, Guerrero makes it known that some demons follow women everywhere they go.

Rotterdam film festival

The Land of the Enlightened

Each country has its own entrapment. In Oscuro animal Colombia’s emerges out of violence and assault, silently fought by women. As portrayed in Pieter-Jan de Pue’s The Land of the Enlightened, Afghanistan has trapped itself in astonishing contradictions. As a foreigner, De Pue endeavours to understand the country’s specific situation, framing the film with a legend about the land waiting for its king. Ages pass and the king has never arrived since the mythical forefather Nasrullah (who received the country from God’s own hands) fled when Ghengis Khan attacked. This tale has always left a certain beauty and poetry in heart of the nation until the present era, one ruled by war, chaos and anarchy. The present situation is shown through the eyes of children, who defer to deceitfulness and cunning, as they rob, take bribes and blackmail in order to survive. Although the children are portrayed with a certain innocent charm, the subtext doesn’t leave any doubts that the tormented past has catastrophically impacted the country’s present condition. And into its future. In assembling staged scenes (though entirely based on real events) with documentary footage, The Land of the Enlightened blends fairytale magic with the harsh rules of engagement in a surprisingly coherent vision. Unsentimental depictions of child gangs portray a surrealistic yet cruel country in the middle of nowhere. Even for De Pue, who spent several years there as a photographer before making the film, Afghanistan just “doesn’t fit” with the rest of the world, claiming “You won’t find anything similar to it, it’s a country impossible to understand. What would rather be the right place for it is Mars, because it’s so abstract, isolated and extraordinary.”

Rotterdam film festival

Motel Mist

One might also mention Mars in discussing Rong ram tang dao (Motel Mist) by Thai newcomer Prabda Yoon. Having previously written scripts for (and with) Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Yoon marks his directorial debut with a film conceived around the national taboo topic of love motels. Luminous Hotel Mistress becomes a mysterious meeting point for a bunch of eccentrics who share a common belief that the hotel is the safely hidden-from-society site where their desires may come true. The film focuses on a lecherous sex maniac who brings teenage Laila to the hotel room and involves her in a horrible game without expecting the several peculiar events that eventuate. The girl’s brave friend Vicky is probably the least eccentric among the lot (which includes a voyeuristic hotel worker and a boy who can contact aliens). With such a deranged group enclosed in one space, Yoon twists the plot so much that at a certain point there is no doubt: only aliens can save this world from madness.

Rotterdam film festival

Radio Dreams

Hotel Mist, as undoubtedly the most outré film in the competition, was really an outlier of bizarreness and was separated by a considerable gulf to the rest of the selections in this strand, even with the wryly comic Radio Dreams by Babak Jalali which gathered a similarly peculiar assortment of people in one place. This place is a Persian-language radio station run by Mister Royani in San Francisco. Royani himself speaks hardly any English and doesn’t feel confident in a new country that has welcomed him coldly. Every day he reads poetry, interviews people, passionately discusses more or less interesting subjects and airs commercials that he doesn’t like. Everything he does is affected by bitterness and sorrow. A big day is coming, as the famous rock band Metallica is about to visit his studio, only making Royani’s frustrations multiply. Jalali treats this situation with a sense of ironic humour and melancholic lightness, but in doing so only intensifies the mood of disappointment and loneliness of an immigrant. The film’s bleakness finally rises to the surface in its last scene, when Mister Royani misses the famous visitors, in what could have been a moment to finally make him smile.

Rotterdam film festival

A Woman, a Part

Another face of crisis was featured in Elisabeth Subrin’s A Woman, a Part, in the character of Anne Baskin, an ex-Brooklynite actress working in Los Angeles, who on her birthday takes the opportunity to question past achievements, both professional and personal. Suddenly nothing fits, or she feels she doesn’t fit anywhere, neither in the role of a famous actress playing in a popular TV show nor in the life she leads. Everything makes her feel uncomfortable, disturbing her with a recurring dilemma. “Wait, am I still me?” she asks herself constantly while wandering from one wall to another, casting doubt on every choice she has ever made. Unhappy and unsatisfied, Anne finally decides to return to New York, seeking out once-close friends she acted with in an independent theatre troupe. But New York holds little relief either, Subrin considering the city a confrontation instead of a rescue, as Anne’s encounters with old friends only exacerbate her frustration and unfulfillment. With a simultaneous dose of compassion and bluntness, Subrin delivers a less cheerful story about mid-life crisis than we are used to in recent films. Instead of showing how great life can be after putting the past aside, she points out that a person changes as relations with those dear to them are redefined.

Rotterdam film festival

Where I Grow Old

Despite the age gap between Anne and the young protagonists in Marilia Rocha’s A cidade onde envelheço (Where I Grow Old), this dilemma is common to both films. In the latter film, Francisca and Teresa are trying to put down roots in a new country thinking, similarly to Anne, that a new environment will bring new energy and a sense of purpose to their life. Francisca has moved from Portugal to Brazil a year before Teresa, but just after her arrival she realises how peaceful yet monotonous her existence has become. Monotony is actually a keyword to this slow, heartbeat-lacking film that tentatively wanders between everyday contemplation and simple conversations, trying to get closer to something essential. But shot with too much onus on a simple observational manner, Rocha’s film was probably the most trite title in competition.

Rotterdam film festival

History’s Future

Despite its simplicity, even Where I Grow Old exemplified the common reflection of this year’s competition films that emphasise how much identity is defined by a place of birth and upbringing. Where Radio Dreams and A Woman, a Part, approach this theme using a movement argument, one film dared to reject this theme of immigration or life-crisis. Fiona Tan’s History’s Future focuses instead more on time and its ability to either build or destroy identity. A man, later in the film called a MP (Missing Person), loses his memory. A desperate search for any point of reference in order to rebuild it, hopeful meetings that bring no direction and deceptive pathways, ultimately leads him nowhere. So what is he to do? MP is stuck between his unknown past and an even more unknown future and Tan (who co-wrote the script with film critic Jonathan Romney) won’t give him a helping hand. Instead, a labyrinth of re-enactments, images and premonitions soon transform into a convoluted narrative, jumping between MP’s new identities and his past, present and future. Setting the clock to tick in an unconventional manner, Tan shows the importance of time in constructing identity, and how harmful it is to ignore it. MP can only fulfill roles given to him by others; he can be a father, a husband, a lover, a friend, but none of these bring concrete sensations to his mind. Contrary to La última tierra, where the film’s emotions express not only the present state of the main character but also give an impression about his past, History’s Future shows that in putting its character into roles without his feeling any emotional investment in them makes this depiction of identity an empty project.

Two years ago, in the State of Europe program section, the IFFR inquired about the condition of European identity in tumultuous times. “Is it still a coherent term, possible to describe? Easy to define? Built on common fundaments?”. This year, the festival returned to those issues, predominantly in its ID Check section, but also in the Tiger competition films where those questions were asked loudly once again, in more philosophical way. Observing the characters construct identity while being suspended between nationality and new environments, past and future, life and death, dream and reality, proved how such abstract ideas are meaningful when it comes to defining oneself. All these films, ostensibly so different stylistically and narratively, spoke to boundaries from which liberation is probably impossible. These films, in seeking a new aesthetic, prove inevitably the necessity of presenting life’s local rhythms, the victories and the failures, the dark and the light.

International Film Festival Rotterdam
27 January – 7 February 2016
Festival website: https://iffr.com/en