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Rotterdam Dispatch 1: Distant Wonders

Rotterdam Dispatch 1: Distant Wonders

[Editors Note: This is the first in a series of dispatches from the 37th Rotterdam International Film Festival, written by Reverse Shot contributor Genevieve Yue. Click here to read Yue’s 2007 Reverse Shot interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul.]

An irony of film festivals is that you travel to some place, often distant, only to travel once again through the films presented there. Much of the delight that comes from attending an international film festival such as Rotterdam, of course, lies in the determined range of films presented. Once again the festival presents a diversity of geography and style, established and particularly emerging talent. Yet Rutger Wolfson, Rotterdam’s new director, takes the question posed by last year’s edition—what is the relevance of a film festival in a digital age? —and responds with an emphasis on live programming and events, from the Pop Cinema sidebar, which promises ear-shattering noise accompaniment to the work of Cameron Jamie, to New Dragon Inns, an exhibition inspired by Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn that explores the intersections between film, art, and the movie theater.

For all the pleasures of being at a festival, lost in a flurry of distribution deals and serious cinephilia, once the house lights come down, everything changes. Before the glowing screen, it becomes vividly apparent that one of cinema’s enduring powers is to import a sense of there, not here. On my first day at the festival, I had traveled nearly halfway around the world, then in the theater was transported again. Two visions of rural life, Uruphong Raksasad’s short film The Rocket (2007) and Sandra Kogut’s Mutum (2007) presented distant places as intimate experiences, timeless wonders with sly hints of the present.

The Rocket (Uruphong Raksasad, Thailand)

One of two shorts presented by Uruphong Raksasad in a program of Thai artist films, The Rocket is ostensibly about the celebratory rocket launching festival put on by several villages outside of Chaing Rai, Thailand, yet the film, which is in competition for the VPRO Tiger Awards for Short Film, manages to do quite a bit more. After the makeshift rocket tower is erected, villagers send their rockets, with names like “waiting for your love,” “pity for faraway man,” and “tsunami” up into the sky. Nearly all of them have terrific trajectories (one explodes in the tower, though it’s all safely contained in a garbage barrel) and it’s almost like a form of prayer, with people’s wishes and desires being shot up into the air, and everyone wishing them a long voyage. For all the film’s gentle mirth, Raksasad’s skill is seamless to the point of being almost imperceptible. From close-ups on a young monk’s face to distant shots of white contrails streaming through the sky, or from the rapidly edited arrival scene, one flatbed truck carrying an entire band, to stark time lapse sequences before and after the event, Raksasad creates a sense of a community always full of surprises. And throughout, the tinny loudspeaker voice of the announcer is always heard, his enthusiasm unwavering and infectious. Afterward, when the villagers tackle each other gleefully in the rice paddies, you know that the soggy ride home was well worth it.

Mutum (Sandra Kogut, France/Brazil)

Of Mutum’s central figure, 10-year-old Thiago, one character remarks that “he knows many stories but doesn’t realize it yet.” And looking into the thoughtful green eyes of Thiego, described by his mother as a dreamer and to most, a quiet observer to the life around him, it’s apparent that those stories are rapidly forming all the time. Cinematographer Mauro Pinheiro Jr.’s camerawork is lush and responsive, always knowing when to stand back from the characters or to push in to their slightest expressions, and through the camera we see what Thiago sees: a soft netting of spiderwebs in the trees, a tattered paper note worn with sweat and secrecy, and his own forefinger lightly stroking the back of an ant.

With Kogut’s background in documentary, there is a strong sense that the action is being followed rather than directed. Mutum, supported in part by Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund, began with a long preparatory process in which the actors, nearly all nonprofessionals, moved into a farm well before shooting, establishing a strong connection to the place and with each other. When the crew arrived, Kogut remembers that they felt like asking if they could come in, so strongly had it become home for the (fictional) family. Even as shooting took place, the actors that were not in the scene were still in the house, staying in character, which is to say, remaining themselves. Kogut notes that the actors, who had never seen a film before, recognized themselves in the characters. Determinedly playing on the border between documentary and fiction, they “became the characters,” improvising dialogue instead of learning lines. Kogut rewrote the script every day on set, responding to everything that happened along the way: “I had the impression we were dealing with something that was alive.”

The story, adapted from João Guimarães Rosa’s well-known novel, Campo Geral, centers on Thiago as he, along with his brother Felipe, attempt to make sense of the world around them, particularly the lives of their parents. Mutum, the name for a mountain region in Brazil’s remote hinterland, the sertão, originally began as a workshop study in rural life, with Kogut traveling to different parts of the country and visited with local schoolchildren. She describes the film as being more a dialogue with Rosa’s novel than a faithful adaptation; instead of the descriptive elements of the text, Mutum is focused on the “inner landscapes” of the characters, one whose visual textures and emotional range is richer than most fictions can imagine. For it’s only when he must leave his home that Thiago sees his surroundings clearly for the first time. The short-sightedness he discovers late in the film is present throughout, not only in the way Thiago can or can’t see certain things, but in the myopic perspective of childhood itself. It’s “a manner of situating oneself in the world,” limited in some ways, perhaps, but utterly magical in others.
—Genevieve Yue

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