Celebrating its fortieth anniversary, the Rotterdam International Film Festival opened last Wednesday to record crowds yet again. In recent years, the 11-day festival has become the Netherland’s largest cultural event, with attendance at last year’s event topping over 350,000. If the jumble of filmgoers crowding the box office each morning is any indication, this year’s festival promises to be an equal success (albeit one that could use a few more ticket booths).
Opening the festival was the world premiere of Greece’s “Wasted Youth,” one of fourteen films featured in the festival’s Tigers Competition section. Taking their inspiration from recent events that are still sensitive topics back home, directors Argyris Papadimitropoulos and Jan Vogel paint an portrait of uneasy Athens, following a teenaged skater and a middle-aged policeman, each unaware of the other, over the course of a blisteringly hot summer day. Following the in the wake of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s acclaimed “Attenberg” and Giorgos Lanthimos’ Academy Award-nominated “Dogtooth,” “Wasted Youth” is yet another example of the new direction Greek cinema seems to be heading. “There’s a sense of freedom and urgency,” explained Maria Drandaki, producer of the short “Casus belli,” over drinks a few days after the premiere of “Wasted Youth.” “You can’t wait for the old official channels to finance your film,” chimed in Papadimitropoulos. “Our film was 100 percent independent.”
Although the official crew on “Wasted Youth” consisted of only nine people, Konstantinos Kontovrakis, the film’s producer, feels an entire community of young filmmakers helped in making it. “The difference between our generation and the previous one is we all share with each other.” For example, Papadimitropoulos continued, “I called Maria fifty times during filming. How did you do this? How did you do that? We share information.” Sitting back in his chair, the director looked around. “Next year, if a filmmaker wants to know what Rotterdam is like, they should call me. I’ll tell them it’s great.”
Rotterdam audiences are always up for a challenge—the top ten of the ongoing audience poll currently includes a film essay about the history of experimental cinema—but even the most generous of viewers will have a hard time swallowing Tiger competitor Sergio Caballero’s “Finisterrae.” In a film that often feels more like a multimedia theater piece, two recently deceased souls, wearing white sheets with black eyeholes cut out of them in classic Charlie Brown style, wander the Earth, looking to rejoin the living. There are fleeting moments of surreal genius, such as when the bedsheet-clad ghosts encounter trees which bare music videos rather than fruit, but the playful visuals (shot by the always impressive Eduard Grau) are ultimately overwhelmed by ponderous dialogue and laborious pacing.
Far more successful, but in its own way equally as stylistic, is “Hoy como ayer,” Bernie IJdis’ portrait of 87-year-old tango singer Juan Carlos Godoy. With a directorial approach that favors observation over interaction, IJdis explores the dynamic between Godoy onstage, where he performs with the ease and offhanded charm of an Argentine Tony Bennett, and off, where the singer is perfectly content to dress, drive and eat largely in silence. (The first thing Godoy says in the film, after over ten minutes of quiet preparation for that evening’s performance, is, “Shooting quite a silent film, right?”) Appropriately, there is nothing hurried or forced in IJdis’ filmmaking. Capturing Godoy with a series of long takes and a refusal to move his camera once filming begun, even when the performer is singing just out of frame, IJdis seems as at ease with Godoy as the elderly musician is with his beloved songs. “Hoy como ayer” may be the quietest, most contemplative documentary about a musician ever made.
The passage of time is felt in an entirely different way in Lotte Stoops’ “Grande Hotel.” When it was first opened on the coast of Mozambique in 1952, complete with exclusive shops, five-star restaurants and an Olympic-sized swimming pool, the Grande Hotel catered to a lifestyle only within reach of a precious, privileged few. Today, the building is inhabited by families of squatters and refugees, who have made their home among the ruins of the once opulent structure. Moving between the memories of those who experienced the hotel at the height of its grandeur and the daily lives of those who live there now—including one man whose family currently lives under a stairwell who is proud to say that his father once stayed at the hotel as a paid guest—Stoops reveals the lingering legacy of African colonialism, past and present.
Rotterdam has a long tradition of exciting retrospective programs in its Signals section, and this year the festival has discovered pure cinephilic catnip with Red Westerns, a survey of films made behind the Iron Curtain inspired, at least in part, by the most American of genres. In films like the marvelously titled silent “The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks” or the Polish parody “Lemonade Joe,” the conventions usually associated with the likes of Tom Mix, John Ford and even Clint Eastwood are reconfigured to align with the Soviet ideology of the time. Cattle rustlers are replaced with anti-Communist partisans, and Monument Valley makes way for the steppes of Eastern Europe. While these rebranding efforts and lines like “What to see what a real Bolshevik looks like?” can produce a chuckle or two from contemporary viewers, the films themselves, when taken at face value, marvelously reinforce just how resilient certain Western themes—honor, justice, even revenge—can be. The sight of a man on horseback, coming over a ridge at a full gallop, is stirring whether he’s wearing a ten-gallon hat or a red-starred Red Army cap, and the inevitable gunfight at the end of “No One Wanted to Die” is no less heartbreaking for taking place in Lithuania instead of the O.K. Corral.
Doug Jones is Associate Director of Programming for Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival.