By Howard Feinstein | Indiewire February 6, 2012 at 10:52AM
Exceptional "nevenprogrammas" distinguish the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and elevate it to the upper tiers of the festival circuit. These are the multiple sidebars, which span low and high culture, old and new films and beyond; they almost always have some political bent. Under the directorship of Rutger Wolfson, there is a stronger emphasis on modern art now than in the past, therefore a number of fusions.
Here we have "Hidden Histories: The Independent Chinese Documentary Makers and the Documentary Works of Ai Weiwei," a selection of non-fiction that includes films from the last decade by the embattled activist and art synthesizer. Simultaneously, restored low-budget, often raunchy fiction from the lower depths of Sao Paulo--in an undesirable section of the city by the rail station known for prostitution and robbery, circa late '60s through the '80s--unspool in the section "The Mouth of Garbage: The Lost Film Culture of the Boca de Lixo." Whether one is engaged by individual films in the strand matter less than learning the narrative behind their existence, which straddles both the better known, more highbrow Cinema Novo and an especially oppressive and censorial military junta.
As curators Gabe Klinger and Gerwin Tamasa write in their fastidious essay accompanying the series: “The working-class ethos of the neighborhood provided a production infrastructure: Construction materials for sets, props, food, costumes, etc., were all finished cheaply and locally.” The companies who situated themselves in this undesirable section of town were looking for cheap alternatives to the “high-end” but failed Sao Paulo-based studios modeled on their American counterparts. Profitable sex films, sometimes called pornochanchadas, became popular and tolerated by the junta, as long as politics were not the subject. Hardcore soon became dominant, but North American imports of same essentially demolished the industry by the late '80s.
One of the better known, relatively early products of the Boca de Lixo was Rogerio Sganzerla’s "The Red Light Bandit" (1968), in which a sexy bandit/rapist becomes a criminal superstar. A product of the slums, he has a chance at salvation with a beautiful woman, but, consistent with the film’s ethos, heads instead toward self-destruction. This is grit.
Many of the most provocative individual films in Rotterdam are treated with the gravitas of sidebars than as simply dangling presentations. The in-and-out-of-jail Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof introduced his Cannes prize winner "Goodbye," which was followed by a televised public interview (that I had the honor or moderating) outside the theater.
After such films as "Iron Island" and "White Meadows," "Goodbye" is his first work with a female protagonist, a disbarred lawyer-activist who desperately tries all avenues to gain permission to emigrate. The earlier films were well lit and open, but "Goodbye" is cold and claustrophobic. Rasoulof says he was filming “not about a woman battling the system, but more about a person’s final fall without any control of the situation.” Her sin is as much about her absent journalist husband, also an activist, not being around as it is about her human rights activities. (She has become pregnant in a misguided piece of advice from a "fixer.") In order to protect his cast and crew from arrest, Rasoulof went, like his heroine, to all sorts of agencies to get proper permissions, then worked with a very small crew and a small digital camera to call minimal attention to the shoot.
In my earlier coverage, I noted that a strand called "Bright Future" was the repository for the most impressive first and second features—for me, a necessary complement to the way overrated early films in the Tiger Awards competition, which, like competitions at most festivals, get the most buzz and attention, deserved or not. (This year’s winners are listed here.)
But back to the Bright Futures section: "Valley of Saints," which was shot in fragmented Kashmir by Musa Syeed and debuted at Sundance, is a poignant, almost ethereal story of two close friends, one a crack boatman, and the beautiful young woman who temporarily threatens their intense male bonding. The fighting and overall political context is way in the background, our experience with it only that impacting upon their personal lives and mobility. The two fellows had planned to take off to a more tranquil place and earn a decent living, but her affect on the boatman is too strong. The guys are playful, physically and emotionally, with each other, so much so that a westerner might mistake their relationship as homoerotic—-and, in fact, it may be.
Much more overt in its male attraction is Andrew Haigh’s British film "Weekend," which has been described by some as "British mumblecore," with a nod to the English classic "Brief Encounter." (the film opened in the U.S. last fall.) The morning after a bar pickup and a one night stand, the host finds a tape recorder in his face. His visitor asks him to recall in detail the events of the previous evening—-an art project, he claims. The film is well shot, the acting passable, but there seems to be a conscious dismissal of dramatic tension. There are a couple of surprises, but most of the scenes are redundant, monotonous, and the surprise gift passed at the end cannot make up for all the uninteresting time that has passed. Still, it is one of the better gay films to come out recently.