DISPATCH FROM ROTTERDAM: Social Unease Amid an International Agenda, From Theo Van Gogh and Falluja to Giuliani and Schwarzenegger
by Stephen Garrett
One of the stranger juxtapositions this year at the Rotterdam Film Festival has been walking through metal detectors before being offered a glass of champagne at the premiere of Theo Van Gogh's final film, "06/05." Paranoia and jubilation: in this case, following last November's murder of the Dutch filmmaker at the hands of a Muslim fanatic, the extra security was prudent. But the movie, a fairly conventional conspiracy thriller based around the assassination of their country's charismatic but controversial conservative political leader Pim Fortuyn, injected a local dose of social unease into the festival's international agenda.
The timing couldn't be better, considering how the event falls during Iraq's first democratic election in fifty years and President Bush's first state of the union address in his second term as president.
Rotterdam always has a dense potpourri of filmmaker retrospectives and spotlights on national cinemas (this edition features works by Benoit Jacquot and Uchida Tomu as well as a look at South East Asian films), but it has broken with protocol by holding over a sidebar from 2004 in order to capitalize on the sustained urgency of current events. Last year's "Homefront U.S.A." has become "P.S. Homefront U.S.A." not only to take an extended look at America's campaign to win Muslim hearts and minds, but also to turn a keen eye on some of the country's most controversial political leaders.
Making its world premiere is Garrett Scott and Ian Olds' "Occupation: Dreamland," a sobering look at six weeks in the lives of American soldiers stationed in Falluja. The revealing glimpse into army routine lays bare a system of recruitment that taps into lower-income, less educated, aimless young men and creates feelings of inadequacy towards the civilian world that encourages re-enlistment as the only rational option. The result: troops with little cultural sensitivity who are frustrated by Iraqi resentment and perplexed by a government's nuanced political agenda. Scott and Olds' access as filmmakers doesn't suffer from the same gee-whiz naivete or rah-rah enthusiasm of most embedded television journalists, which makes their documentary all the more jarring in its fresh perspective.
Two other films in the series also give worthy insight into a pair of national leaders who by force of personality have become international figures. Kevin Keating's documentary "Giuliani Time" is a meticulous blow-by-blow of the New York mayor's career, from his work in the U.S. attorney's office to his role as symbol of post-9/11 resilience, and is an invaluable reminder of the mayor's contentious two-term mayoral service -- including the police brutality of Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo, the zero tolerance policies on petty crimes, the exploitative policies of workfare and the relentless assault on first amendment rights (most famously during the Brooklyn Museum's exhibition of contemporary British art).
Alex Cooke's "How Arnold Won the West" captures the appallingly undemocratic California recall election that ousted an unpopular Democratic governor three months after his re-election in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The British documentarian's look at the carnival atmosphere that surrounded the event has already played in the U.S. (and is old news to jaded natives), but Rotterdam audiences were audibly aghast at such all-American mockery of the electoral process -- especially after Iraq's own life-imperiling march to the polls.