Here I am at the Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFFR), staying in the Hotel Manhattan. Chicest boutique lodgings: Hotel New York. This working-class city, mostly rebuilt after severe strafing by the German Air Force nearly 70 years ago, was home to the Holland American Line, which transported thousands from Europe to a new life in the U.S. The monikers are neither mannerism nor pretense. So it feels perfectly appropriate that the best new work I’ve seen here, British director Simon Rumley’s revisionist horror film “Red White & Blue,” is not a Euro or Asian production, but a joint, low-budget UK/US project shot in Austin, Texas. It is rumored that it will have its American premiere at South by Southwest (SXSW) next month.
Any other festival would have pigeonholed “Red White & Blue” into a midnight section geared toward late-carousing young’uns, but here, in an arguably more egalitarian society than most, it is treated just like any other fine film, part of the Spectrum strand that includes arthouse fare, docs, and other genre movies. Harmony Korine’s intentionally transgressive “Trash Humpers,” Bruno Dumont’s “Bressonian Hadewijch,” and Guo Xiaolu’s non-fiction “Once Upon a Time Proletarian” sleep under the same broad umbrella in this carefully curated (by longtime programmer Gertjan Zuilhof), and to my mind most thought out, section of this huge festival.
Rotterdam’s reputation, however, rests on its comprehensive sidebars. This year’s most ambitious undertaking is a two-part exhibition, “Where Is Africa?” and “Forget Africa.” Zuilhof went to 10 sub-Saharan countries with international directors in tow. The visitors made films about their experiences but also collaborated with local filmmakers, most of whom have not had access to decent equipment and the luxury of subtitling to export their achievements. My first impression of this endeavor was that a neo-colonialist tinge tarnished it slightly, but in fact, the opposite is true. The contributions are reciprocal. Less thought out is a section entitled “After Victory,” a facile spin on films about war that feels uninspired and gratuitious, though such titles as the “Serbian Ordinary People” and Samuel Maoz’s Israeli film “Lebanon” add heft to its roster. Other sidebars include retrospectives of Japanese directors Sai Yoichi and Yoshida Kiju – as usual for Rotterdam, unusual.
Rotterdam is also respected for its year-round commitment to filmmaker support through financing (the seminal Hubert Bals Fund) and matchmaking (they even train young film critics). Cinema Reloaded is a new initiative championed by fest director Rutger Wolfson, a veteran of the experimental art scene (and it shows in this year’s selections), the purpose of which is to finance and distribute alternative, and inexpensive, cinema online. Now in its 27th edition at this 39-year-old festival, the much more traditional Cinemart is a forum where funders and fundees meet one another in a carefully controlled setting, so that no one wastes time. Even if it’s mostly to forge connections that might lead to some deal later on, it opens doors.
Meanwhile, “Red White & Blue” continues to haunt me with its staggering combo of psychological insight, visceral brutality, and sophisticated shifts in temporal structure. His British film “The Living and the Dead” was impressive enough, throwing off any illusions of stability in a fading artistocrat’s stately home, but the new film is much ballsier. “The Living and the Dead” was chaste; in “Red White & Blue” sex is, according to the affable Rumley, a “weapon of destruction, used intentionally” by the young promiscuous Erica, played by Amanda Fuller. “Agents had said you won’t find a girl willing to take off her clothes for little money and who can act,” he says.
Aussie Noah Taylor (with an impeccable Texas accent) portrays Nate, an older protector figure whose baggage tracks back to his role as a special interrogator for American forces in Iraq. “He tortured people there, then got an honorable discharge and was offered a job by the CIA,” Rumley explains. “He is a sociopath, able to live on the edge of society and control himself, but there is a point at which he flips.” You do not want to be there when he does.
Without meaning to beat a dead horse, Rumley, 41, with five features under his belt, is a talent that needs to get away from an 18-day shoot like this one and be supported. He may have studied jurisprudence back in Hull, but his rich imagination defies normal streams of consciousness. His next project is a portmanteau called “Little Deaths.” In his segment, the London-set “Bitch,” a young woman involved in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend pushes him too far in sex games. I know that she has a bad phobia of dogs, but I’m not sure that plays a part in her scheme. And I’m not sure I want to know.