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Rotterdam: Women Directors and Women-Driven Narratives Are Front and Center

Rotterdam: Women Directors and Women-Driven Narratives Are Front and Center

A festival like Rotterdam is a great place for
women directors to gain exposure. Not
coincidentally, Rotterdam is also a great venue for films with female-driven
narratives. The five I saw, three
directed by women and two by men, shared an interest in how the past
haunts the present; in intense feelings
hidden beneath a constructed surface and the essential loneliness of women.

In “Happily Ever After,” Croatian-born documentarian
Tatjana Božić, in a troubled marriage to Dutch filmmaker Rogier, visits her former
lovers: two Russians, a German, an Englishman and a Croatian, hoping to learn why her
relationships always fail. It’s a rom-com
setup, but they don’t typically explore the subject with such obsessiveness. Fortyish,
with masses of curly, dyed-red hair and a warm, affectionate nature, Božić is genuinely
welcomed by her old loves. She’s
introduced to the wives, interrogates the men, gets advice from friends, and eventually,
the men all tell her the same thing: While attracted
to her strength, they lost interest when she took on the victim’s role in their
relationship — a situation that will be uncomfortably familiar to many women. 

She may be a doormat with her partners, but Božić
certainly has the healthy ego of an artist (She also relentlessly filmed their lives). Božić has a sense of humor, but under her
sociable exterior, there’s not much insight or empathy.  During a boozy dinner with one ex and his
wife, Božić comments morosely that they have managed to stay married for 20
years. “Oh?” says the
wife. “You try staying married to
him!” as her husband squirms in the background. 
More of that would have been welcome. (Trailer below.)

In Henrik Hellström’s “The Quiet Roar,” also investigating her own past (with the help of a psychedelic
drug) is dying, 60ish Marianne
(Evabritt Strandberg). Guided by her mentor (Hanna Schygulla), Marianne reflects on a pivotal moment 40 years earlier at a vacation house set against stunning, precipitous
Norwegian mountains. As Marianne’s grip
on reality loosens, glaciers melt into dramatically crashing
waterfalls, fires flare, and small children come perilously close to the mountain’s
edge. Marianne travels deeper into her
psyche, questioning her younger self (luminous Joni Francéen) and her young
husband (Jorgën Svensson). The camera
lingers on different objects, their impassiveness echoing the younger
Marianne’s as she nurses her unspoken and perhaps unrealized anger. The ending is hard to buy, but the film,
gorgeously art-directed by Josefin Åsberg and shot by Fredrik Wenzel is
engrossing throughout.

“Edén,” the first feature film by American Elise
DuRant, was partially funded through Kickstarter and draws on incidents from
DuRant’s own past. After the death of
her father, 25-year-old Alma (Diana Sedano) returns to Mexico, where she lived
with her American father (Will Oldham) for nine years until they left for
the U.S. without explanation. Like a
sleepwalker, Alma wanders through their old house, trying to track down people who knew her father. She ultimately has
a one-night stand. Conversations,
photographs and an old journal spark suppressed memories of her childhood when she spied on the adults without understanding what she saw
and heard (much like Henry James’ Maisie). There’s a murder, an
unpunished killer, complicit glances, sexual innuendo — all seen from the
child’s POV. DuRant effectively uses ambient
sound and a limited palette of browns, blues and pale yellows to create a
hallucinatory, menacing atmosphere. She
is not yet a strong director of actors (Sedano comes off the best): some of the
dialogue is weak and the audience will probably figure out the twist before it’s
evident to Alma. Nonetheless, thanks to Kickstarter, she got her first film out there. I look forward to what she does next.

Cynthia Beatt’s “A House in Berlin” is included in
the “Signals: The State of Europe” program, which in advance of the
E.U. elections of 2014, features films that in some way touch on European ideas
and identity. In this fictionalized
version of a true story, told largely in voice-over narration interspersed with documentary-like
scenes, Stella, a young Scottish teacher, inherits the house of the title from
an unknown Jewish great uncle. Stolen by
the Germans during World War II, the house was returned to her uncle after a
lengthy lawsuit, shortly before he died. At first content to sell, Stella visits
the house and slowly realizes that she cannot let it go so easily. Her investigations into the house’s history uncover
continuing deceptions, details of her uncle’s past and of her own. Beatt’s quasi-Brechtian style adds subtlety to a rather well-worn tale. Stella’s
changes, described by the narrator, are also understated. Once isolated and naive, she begins to make
connections with ideas, people and her future.

In the opening of “Reimón,” text lists the total cost of
the film ($34,000), a breakdown of the ways it was funded (by the Hubert Bals
Fund among others) and the time needed for production and post-production. Director Rodrigo Moreno, who subscribes to the
tenets of the Nuevo Ciné Argentino, which favors a pared down aesthetic and a
focus on small stories shot on location with non-professional actors, has made
the most socially conscious film of the five. 
Reimón (Marcela Dias) who works as a maid in Buenos Aires, is introduced
during a congenial family dinner with her out-of-town relatives. That’s the most Moreno shows of her past. Long, observational shots show her travelling
by bus for hours, dashing to work, cleaning, listening to Debussy, wandering
through her clients’ elegant rooms and walking her dog, totally alone. Occasionally, the focus shifts to some of her
clients reading to each other from “Capital” without any
consciousness that these words describe Reimón’s isolation and the spiritually
deadening effects of her job. A
dispassionate Moreno doesn’t patronize or sentimentalize Reimón, but her
loneliness is heartbreaking nonetheless.

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