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Scratching Below the Surface for Some Rotterdam Fest Gems

Scratching Below the Surface for Some Rotterdam Fest Gems

Among the necessarily hit-and-miss movies here (242 features), one arrived like a Wagnerian bolt, a Rotterdammerung, if you’ll pardon the indulgence. Fresh from its world premiere at Sundance, Estonian director Veiko Ounpuu’s almost painfully seductive “The Temptation of St. Tony” brought to this purest of large film festivals an aesthetic and moral gravitas that many of us felt had died out with the Bergmans, the Dreyers, the Fellinis. The movie may nod to these veterans and other cultural icons (Blake, Bosch), but be clear: This has Ounpuu’s stamp throughout.

Shot in delicious black and white, a decision Ounpuu told a phone interviewer that he owes to the influence of Bela Tarr, and with an otherworldly soundscape and soundtrack (I can’t get the lyrics and reverberating melody of Nina Simone’s rendition of “Motherless Child” out of my head), this film is more of an event than merely a single work. It tracks the dissolution of the body and soul of an Everyman–a bourgeois mid-level manager who searches for “good” – scrunched in between the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the profane. I don’t mean to sound uncool, but metaphysics can rock.

Ounpuu was scheduled to come to the festival this morning, at the very last moment. He is struggling with rehearsals for a stage play he is directing, “The Garbage, the City and Death,” an early work by one of his heroes, the late German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He was a no-show. He was told he didn’t win a prize. I don’t blame him for staying in Talinn.

Although overlooked by the jury, “The Temptation of St. Tony” is one of 15 candidates for the Tiger Awards. Holland being less stratified than, say, the U.S., three separate but equal winners each receive a O15,000 prize. Another film passed over by the jurors is the excellent “Street Days,” a hard-edged look at contemporary Georgia (as in Tblisi, not Savannah) in economic crisis by the gifted Levan Koguashvili, an alumnus of NYU Grad Film. (His doc “Women From Georgia,” about mostly middle-aged women who come to New York to take care of infirm religious Jews mostly discarded by their families, is one of the most extraordinary non-fiction films of the past year.)

“Street Days” is 180 degrees away from “The Temptation,” striking in another fashion. At the center is a 45-year-old junkie named Checkie, an unemployed father and member of what Koguashvili refers to as “the Lost Generation,” the human residue of Soviet society who lost the social advantages of Communism yet were unable to adapt to the new capitalism. The East Germans had West Germany to assist their integration into the West: the Georgians have had no help, and have been plagued by armed conflicts with Russia and separatist movements in certain provinces, further diminishing their ability to overcome considerable obstacles. “‘Street Days’ is not a political film,” the affable Koguashvili maintains. He is concerned with financial collapse and its effect on the individual. Checkie’s world does not offer the luxury of the quasi-religious quest so well drawn in “The Temptation,” unless you equate scoring junk with attaining divinity.

A scene from Levan Koguashvili’s “Street Days.” Image courtesy of IFFR.

Unplanned, not even labeled as a section in the catalog – refreshing, given the airtight, constipated organization of most film festivals – Georgian cinema ended up making quite a splash here. For me it was a revelation to see that the country is about more than strafing, ethnic conflict, and a right-wing president in bed with American neo-cons like Dick Cheney.

A young woman named Rusudan Pirveli brought to the “Bright Future” section Susa, another story of hard financial times. “The Lost Generation” is represented here by the absent father of an adolescent boy, who, working for his mother, sells bootleg vodka in bottles. Sadly, he lives under the delusion that dad’s return would ease his and his mom’s hardship. Like Koguashvili, Pirveli eschews unnecessary authorial intervention: Both directors understand all too well that they are living amidst powerful, if sad, narratives, which can carry their own weight without a lot of artsy fuss.

Occupying a space between Koguashvili and Pirveli’s neo-neorealism and Ounpuu’s plunge into the surreal (the analogy is fair: Estonia was also a Soviet state and suffers some of the same problems as Georgia) is the Cinemart project “A Fold of My Blanket,” by Zaza Rusadze, an extremely worldly young Georgian. His script follows the tangled drama of Dmitrij, a privileged young man who has completed his studies abroad and returned to the seaside town where his father is a judge. Dmitrij becomes an intern in the court system, in other words, part of the old-style power elite.

To reinforce the idea that Soviet-era policies are still embedded in the mass consciousness, Rusadze sets his story in, as he terms it, “the very near future.” Dmitrij is a member of the generation in between Checkie and the child Susa — exposed to the world outside, a misfit at home. He ultimately befriends and falls in love with a man called Andrej, even dreams about penetration with him in a cave. In his frustration, Dmitrij begins to confuse reality and fantasy. At the same time Andrej disappears and is accused of murder, and Dmitrij is forced to testify. “I wanted to write a story using ‘realness’ as a backbone in order to crash it later,” Rusadze elaborates. “It is a mixed genre film, somewhere between an epic thriller and a love story.”

He is pleased with his experience at the seminal Cinemart. “You sit there in meetings every half hour. On a human level, you ask yourself, ‘Is this someone I can work with?’ Some of the interested producers I felt wouldn’t work in a three-year marriage. Cinemart is not about finding a concrete deal anyway. AFTER Cinemart you begin the concrete. I do not give out my script there. But after sending the script later to those with whom you have a reciprocal interest, it moves fast.”

An admirer of the intense, articulate Rusadze is Susan Weeks Coulter, the San Francisco-based board chair of the Global Film Initiative. Coulter is a Cinemart participant coming from the other side, i.e., the world of financial and distribution support, whose group’s mandate is to serve those she terms “the underrepresented.” (Her non-profit is currently commencing programs of non- mainstream films in troubled American cities like New Orleans and Detroit.) She regards Cinemart in much the same way as Rusadze. “We learn about projects, we introduce ourselves to people, we spread the word about what we do,” she explains.

My impression, based on a panel on Georgian cinema I moderated with Rusadze as a participant and Coulter in the audience, was that theirs will turn out to be a workable partnership. (The panel went well, even if the Georgian ambassador to the Netherlands introduced it with a push toward discussing ethnic cleansing, a topic the directors thankfully did not address: This encounter was about their films.)

Coulter wants to be on board with “A Fold in My Blanket,” and Rusadze appeared to take to her. She came up to us during the reception following and with a twinkle blurted out, “I don’t care if the characters ARE dancing naked men, I want to be involved!” I’m sure the betrothal will be announced quite soon. I can’t wait for the bachelor party.

[Read Howard Feinstein’s first dispatch “Rotterdam Goes ‘Red White & Blue’ with No Pretense” at indiewire.com]

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