Last weekend, as ticket-holders walked into a show at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, they were greeted with a sign hastily taped to the theater doors. "Extremely Loud Performance!" A few blocks away, at another festival venue, another sign was taped up to the walls. This one said, "Please be as quiet as possible." But it wasn't just the volume that fluctuated at this year's festival. Sporting over 200 features, 400 shorts, and a few dozen art installations and live performances, Rotterdam had a little something for everyone, from the loud to the quiet, the popular to the obscure, high art to industry.
Rotterdam audiences are known for being adventurous — the avant-garde programs often play to sold-out houses — but even they were daunted by the latest offering from Chinese documentarian Wang Bing. "Crude Oil" is a film/installation that portrays the daily routine of an oil drilling operation in the Gobi Desert. It runs in almost real-time, is unsubtitled and takes two seven-hour days to see the entire film. (And some people thought "There Will Be Blood" was too long…) Despite this, the three chairs the festival placed in the makeshift screening room were almost always occupied, and after a few days of repeated visits, festival-goers began comparing notes and trading scene descriptions like they were bubblegum cards. "I saw a 15-minute scene of a lone man sitting in a break room, reading the paper." "Well, I saw an amazing shot of a giant drill plunging into the ground." In addition to this year's FIPRESCI Award, which he got for his film "The Sky, the Earth and the Rain," Chilean director Jose Luis Torres Leiva deserves a special award for his perseverance an commitment to Wang's work. "One day I spent three hours there," he explained. "It was my refuge."
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson both thrilled and chilled audiences with "Let the Right One In," a seamless blending of pre-teen alienation, first love, and vampirism. Oskar is a lonely and bullied 12-year-old, whose only friend is the mysterious girl who just moved in next door. She only comes out at night, she doesn't wear shoes in the middle of winter, and she has a strange odor, but she also seems to understand him like no one else does. Alfredson deserves praise for how he revitalizes classic vampire mythos without needlessly "re-imagining" the genre, and his two young leads are great. A worthy companion piece to Philip Ridley's criminally-underseen "The Reflecting Skin," "Let the Right One In" wonderfully portrays the heart that beats behind his characters' bloodletting.
Omar Shargawi's "Go with Peace Jamil" walked away with one of the festival's three Tiger Awards for best first or second feature. (The other two winners — Aditya Assarat's "Wonderful Town" and Liew Seng tat's "Flower in Pocket" — had previously both won the New Currents Award at the most recent Pusan Film Festival.) Set in Copenhagen's Arab community, with hardly a word of Danish spoken, the film follows a young Sunni man as he descends into an endless cycle of vengeance and violence. With its frenetic camera and claustrophobic framing, "Go with Peace Jamil" has the look and feel of an indie crime drama, like some long-lost Nick Gomez film.
While the expansive program kept Rotterdam audiences busy running from one theater to the next, film professionals were kept busy, working out of the public's eye. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Rotterdam's CineMart once again brought together filmmakers with possible producers, sales agents, distributors, and other prospective financiers. (According to the festival, over 7,500 meetings took place at last year's Cinemart). While there was a fair amount of self-congratulating going on — organizers kept touting the admitedly-impressive figure that 80% of CineMart projects are made within five years — there was also plenty of discussion about the future. Making its CineMart debut this year, D-Day was an open summit examining, according to the festival's daily paper, "where digital opportunities offer filmmakers new ways of getting their films made and seen."
The future is also on the minds of those involved with the Hubert Bals Fund. The fund, first established in 1988 with the ongoing mission to support filmmaking in developing countries, annually grants over a million euros to both unknown and established world filmmakers. At the end of last year's festival, changes in the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the fund's major funder, had many, including then-festival director Sandra den Hamer, worried. The current subsidy the HBF is operating on ends this year, and there is still no clear indication what the future holds. However, HBF Manager Biancia Taal is optimistic. "The new minister recently announced that it was very important for foundations such as the Hubert Bals Fund to continue," holding up the Ministry's newly minted support of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam as a good sign. "We're expecting a new commission," and assuming the funding remains in place, "we don't plan any big changes. Don't fix something that's not broken."
Doug Jones is Senior Programmer for Film Independent's Los Angeles Film Festival.