International Film Festival Rotterdam is getting older; perhaps ripening is a better term. Always regarded for edgy and newish movies that may or may not be validated elsewhere, Rotterdam now has eight venues and, last year, 340,000 admissions. Still, it retains the magic of surprise.
Take one world premiere, "Room 514," by Israeli director Sharon Bar-Ziv—a man, in case the name confuses non-Hebrew speakers—who, by chance, happens to be 44, ripened, and decided to make this first film after a career in acting and art direction. “It took me 20 years to do it overnight,” he says.
"Room 514" takes place mostly in the tiny room of the title, in a military headquarters. A beautiful young woman of Russian origin, Anna (Asia Naifeld, brilliant), investigates an incident of what she considers unnecessary violent behavior toward a Palestinian family in the Occupied Territories by one or more soldier pals (like cops, who would lie for one another) in the same tight-knit battalion. Anna is, by Israeli standards, a second-class citizen, but she willingly takes on the guys, whom Bar-Ziv calls the “salt of the earth.”
He explains, “In Israel, the Russian is ‘the other,’ but I reversed it.” The battalion head “becomes the ‘other.’ “Anna, between her position and her blurred aggression/flirtation with two of the men, has her moments of control. Of course, in a patriarchal military structure, that is a tenuous place to be at best.
She sits in a chair, often way too close to those she’s questioning (with her commanding officer, who is engaged, she has a much more intimate relationship in between interrogations within that miniscule space). She transgresses conventional proxemics. The low man she coaxes to snitch, the top one she nearly blackmails to extract a confession—which will have grave repercussions on her, him and the whole chain of command.
Bar-Ziv, who did his military service as an aid in a combat unit during the first Lebanese war, keeps his camera fairly tight on the actors, following them with a rare lens he found in London made for HD; only five exist. “I was looking for a special lens that would give a wide picture, but also close,” he says. “But I did want the film to be ‘in your face.’ I’m looking inside our society, inside its DNA. The investigation is a microcosm of Israel today.”
This masterful project cost only $100,000 (one-tenth of the cost of the average Israeli production), and shooting lasted all of five days after months of rehearsal. Like many of the best films in the festival, it unspools in a section aptly called Bright Future, where I usually find what I consider the finest of all.
In another Bright Future opera prima, Mexican filmmaker Michel Lipkes engages in a different, perhaps more familiar strand of minimalism, in his hauntingly poignant "Malaventura," an international premiere. The premise will not beckon families to run to the local art house: It follows, with Tarr-like long takes, a marginalized old man in seedy downtown Mexico City during the last days of his life, from his waking up (in a nine-minute take) through a variety of fairly banal pursuits (not for him, necessarily) until his death at film’s end.
His inspiration? “I stood downtown and observed," Lipkes said. "Once I saw this old man passing with his plastic bag (in the film it contains a bottle of booze), and he was saying, ‘I want to die.’ He was crazy with loneliness, and inducing himself to die.” There are hints in the film that the old man had been a sexual abuser; he goes to church to absolve himself. Said Lipkes, “He’s trying to ask for forgiveness, but can’t.”
I ask the articulate, affable director why this variety of minimalism is all the rage in Mexico and some other parts of Latin America. “We are educated in a baroque culture full of melodramas,” he said. “For me, this was a way to control reality and possess it. I think if I had written a baroque screenplay and made a baroque movie, I would not have escaped it.”
The film is frequently symmetrical, and Lipkes adeptly captures the frequently run-down architectural feel of downtown Mexico City. The old fellow, who doesn’t even have a name (non-pro Isaac Lopez embodies the part fully, without hurry), observes a deranged man shrieking bits of the national anthem, buys (comically) a taco made from every possible part of the cow, passes through a porn cinema, engages in an odd version of Bingo/Scrabble in a rundown bar (the caller recites William Blake; this is hardly verite), makes an awkward pass at a young woman on the subway, sits in an empty park holding balloons he’ll never sell. He’s desperate for structure.
This is hardly melodrama: It is anti-drama. “I was interested in making a contrast between daily life, and how the tension of the quotidian starts to shape this man’s tragedy and guide him toward his death. I didn’t want to make a general portrait of loneliness and old age and marginalization.”
The old man may be nameless, but Lipkes graces him with singularity. Alejandro de Icaza and Jose Miguel Enriquez’s chilling sound design, Galo Duran’s funereal music and Gerardo Barroso Alcala’s stylized cinematography contribute strongly toward enabling Lipkes to realize his vision, based on a script he wrote with Fernando del Razo.
Loneliness can, of course, be the function of any number of variables. Dutch filmmaker Francisca Toetenel is a former industrial graphic designer and a Rotterdam native; she made her first short, "Katya," while on an exchange program in the Czech Republic. At 15 minutes, this is one of the most impressive Dutch films I have seen in years. It is part of a perhaps token “Made in Rotterdam” program, but her talent is huge.
The eponymous Czech character is a teenage girl who can not stay anymore with her alcoholic mother, so goes in search of a father she hasn't seen in years. When she finds him she discovers that he's started a second family and refuses to get involved with her, much less let her live with him. Much of the film involves her train journey between her rejecting parents.
What Toetenel does with sound—often far from the source we would expect, like in memory rather than in the “real” time in which it occurred, and deploying headsets in ways I’ve never seen—and images so lyrical and original that viewing "Katya" is a cathartic experience that expunges the residue of less accomplished movies.
Okay, so Toetenel is no kid either, mid-thirties maybe, but as she clarifies, “I’m finally doing what I really want to do and embracing it.” Rotterdam is a lively but relatively provincial city, so I only hope that she gets out more or curious producers seek her out.