There's something for everyone at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) although as one festival-goer put it, the fest does tend towards the "dark side." In fact, it took me until almost a week in before I found a film that had me feeling uplifted at the finish. That's not to say dark films are bad. On the contrary, well made dark films form much of the great work throughout the history of cinema. Whether or not that's because classic comedy is harder to make than classic drama is a discussion for another time.
The fact is, Rotterdam has one of the most cinema-hungry audiences I have ever seen and 358,000 tickets to films, exhibitions and other festival events were sold this year, the same number as last year, according to festival organizers. 2,814 guests attended the event, including 1,788 from outside the Netherlands and 450 filmmakers. IFFR director Sandra den Hamer told indieWIRE in an email that the audience is exactly what makes the festival so special, pointing out that Filmmaker in Focus Nagasaki Shunichi was very nervous when he arrived, "He expected small audiences. But instead he met packed cinemas and had very lively Q&A sessions with the audience. He left Rotterdam very excited."
After 2004, which was co-director Simon Field's last year at the IFFR, den Hamer changed the program structure to create three new sections "that really characterize the festival," including: Cinema of the Future: Sturm und Drang, new talent and innovative filmmaking; Cinema of the World: Time and Tide, films containing social and critical commitment that reflect on the world we live in or films from lesser known cultures and Maestro's: Kings and Aces, the masters of auteur cinema.
Den Hamer is also very active in programming and is responsible for the selection of the films in the VPRO Tiger Award competition and based on what I saw and the opinions of several of my fellow journalists and some festival programmers, the section might be improved with some additional input. That said, one cannot dispute the diversity and this year was the first in four that the competition contained an American film, Kelly Reichart's "Old Joy" which eventually won one of the three Tigers.
However, considering we're talking about a film festival here, great works of cinema are not exactly de rigueur. Sure, they come along once in a while, but when we hit it right at a festival, we're usually looking at smaller "gems." Not to say a few don't last in our minds or even go on to be seen by wider audiences, but rarely are they of "classic" stature. Often they are much, much worse. The IFFR programmed approximately 700 shorts and features so I knew that if I wasn't careful (and sometimes even if I was) I was going to get some real stinkers.
Whether or not this was the year that the IFFR "jumped the shark," as one film festival programmer put it, is up for debate. Personally, I think it's almost impossible for a 35 year-old event to really do that but the general consensus, among the industry at any rate, was that this year's event was a hiccup, at the very least. However, I'll do my best to accentuate the positives, as it were, while still hopefully giving the festival organizers some food for thought.
My first festival screening was one that I was both looking forward to and dreading at the same time. The world premiere of Michael Tully's "Cocaine Angel". Tully is a good friend and a great guy, and I count myself lucky to have been his roomie in a little shit hole in Brooklyn for a couple of months a couple of years ago. Therein lies the dread. What to do if it really sucked. No such problem! The film is one of those exceedingly rare quantities: an ultra-low budget, debut film using a non-professional cast that's actually well done! Very few first-time films pull off what they attempt and Tully's Angel succeeds admirably.
Angel inhabits the world of Jacksonville, Florida junkies and this is not just another junkie kills/redeems himself story. Not exactly. The film's lead actor, Damian Lahey (who also produced the film with Tully and wrote the screenplay) is a relatively high-functioning alcoholic and drug addict. He has a job, a rented house, an ex-wife who still lets him take his daughter out and a girlfriend. Ok, so he loses the job when he turns up to work wearing a shoe on one foot and a bloody rag on the other, his house has no phone (which later has dire consequences) and his girlfriend is a pill-popping junkie who gives blow jobs for drugs, but hey, nobody's perfect, right? The thing is, the story and characters come off as real, not forced. Lahey's performance is fantastic and the script is genuinely moving.
Unfortunately, my cinema high was to be short lived, as I slogged through some films that ranged from the merely tedious (Sophie Fiennes' "The Pervert's guide to Cinema, Parts 1 & 2") to the truly dreadful (Goda Kenji's "Analife"). Fiennes' film is basically a class taught by the suddenly film-worthy philosopher Slavoj Zizek, the subject of Astra Taylor's "Zizek!" which screened at last year's Toronto fest. The film, or rather the half I managed to sit through, consisted of the philosopher applying Freudian analysis to films. While there are some clever bits, putting Zizek in recreations of films from Hitchcock's "The Birds" to "The Matrix", for example, all they serve to do is make one wish to rush out of the theater and watch a DVD of one of the many classics referenced in the film. Honestly, I don't care which Marx Brother is the Id or the Superego. I just want to know "why a duck? Why-a-no-chicken?"
"Analife", on the other hand was one of the more bizarre, unpleasant and badly made films I have seen in recent years. I don't normally trash little indies, but this one needs to be beaten around the head and face with a large polo mallet. Starting with the title, it really should be read as "anal-life," regardless of how the filmmaker wants it pronounced (which is still in question). This is a film so obsessed with assholes as to make Freud jump out of his grave to write a new book.
The triptych (with an ending no one will believe) involves three people (called 1, 2 and 3) whose only real thing in common is that they all end up at the same proctologist's office at the same time. All three also experience a strange numbness to the world that one might just call an extreme personality disorder. 1 deals with it by becoming a serial anal rapist (the walkouts started when he described his methodology in painstaking detail). 2 takes photographs of murdered and decomposing bodies (after having sex with the killer) and 3 gets off by going through people's trash. I won't nauseate you by explaining how 2 and 3 come to be in the proctologist's office, but I must mention that the film ends with the three leads on their knees in a forest, singing a song about a bear (a running theme) while their two kidnappers turn into big, metal bears and fly off into space. No, I am not kidding. The only reason I gave it this much space is that I am trying to convince myself I really saw what I saw.
A far superior piece of Japanese cinema was Hiroki Ryuichi's "It's Only Talk", a sensitive and ultimately uplifting story about a woman and her struggles with manic depression. At times over medicated and clearly not on a "cocktail" that is effectively treating her illness, Yuko (the sublime Terajima Shinobu) is moving through life doing only what she wants, living life on her own terms. She has four men in her life and is a different person with each of these men, but only her cousin, who witnesses a true depressive episode, begins to understand that her problems are greater than theirs. The film could easily stand to lose 15 minutes off it's 126 minute running time, but is definitely worth a look see.
The first of two absolute gems I saw in the Time & Tide program is "Every Other Week" from Swedish writer/directors Felix Herngren, Mans Herngren (both of whom also star as brothers), Hannes Holm and Hans Ingemansson, a delightful Swedish romantic comic drama about divorce in modern Stockholm. While not quite as polished or politically involved a film as Lukas Moodysson's "Together", it still possesses a feeling and atmosphere reminiscent of that film from 2000. A thoroughly modern (and I suspect, very Scandinavian) look at relationships and family, Every Other Week should attract US and European distributors and, unfortunately, the Hollywood remake hacks.
The other crowd pleaser, Michael Hoffman's "Eden" in fact won the audience award (and 7,500 euros, "Every Other Week" finished 20th). A world premiere from Germany, Eden tells the story of Gregor (Josef Ostendorf) an extremely overweight and extremely deft chef, whose magical creations in the kitchen bewitch any and all who taste them. Gregor meets Leonie, the young daughter of Eden, a waitress at a cafe at which Gregor spends time. Leonie has Down Syndrome and one day, while her mother is asleep in the park, Leonie almost falls into a fountain. Gregor returns her to her mother, and a friendship is born. Both Leonie and Eden are enchanted by the pralines Gregor makes for Leonie's birthday and Gregor begins a serious crush on Eden. The two form a close, platonic friendship that nonetheless infuriates Eden's husband, Xaver. Tensions rise and the Hofmann's screenplay contains a dramatic misstep just prior to the end of the film but does his best to make up for it with a gentle and heartwarming coda.
"Rotterdam has always been a festival that is open for changes and trying new things," said den Hamer, pointing out such festival initiatives as Cinemart, the Hubert Bals Fund (which offers script development- or post production-grants to independent filmmakers in southern or developing countries), Exploding Cinema, Exposing Cinema, and the Rotterdam Lab. "Many of our initiatives have been copied by other festivals," she ads, continuing "almost every festival now has a co-production market!".
Ok, so more of the films I saw were lousy than weren't and the grumbling from colleagues was audible. A 35 year-old festival is allowed to have an off year and don't get me wrong, there are very many good things about the IFFR and it remains one of my favorites. The most attractive thing about the fest is its willingness to push the boundaries of cinema. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't, but I'd argue that no festival in the world does more for young and emerging filmmakers from around the world that the IFFR.
[ABOUT THE WRITER: Mark Rabinowitz is a co-founder of indieWIRE.com and currently a freelance journalist and producer. He is currently "resting" in Amsterdam before heading to Berlin. More pix and coverage from the 35th IFFR and coverage from the upcoming Berlin International Film Festival can be found over the coming days at The Rabbi Report.]