(14/02/08) – Founded in 1971 by Hubert Bals, the International Film Festival Rotterdam, The Rotterdam was a place where the likes of Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch puttered about. Some of them brought unfinished films in the hope of finding post-production money, but more importantly, the festival provided a chance to hang out – which in the freewheeling Seventies was a major priority.

Even when the festival formalised this hanging out with the Cinemart twelve years later in 1983, film had not yet become a global, fully professionalized business. The first of its kind, Cinemart offered a selection of approximately 40 projects the chance to have one-on-one meetings with industry players from all over the world.

Now that film festivals are mushrooming all over the world, driven by local authorities and deep-pocketed sponsors looking to profile themselves with the help of some red carpet glamour, they all want a market too. Industry gatherings bring local expenditures and prestige.

The days of discovering new talent in Kazakhstan and Chile by simply poking around far-flung screening rooms are long gone. Nowadays, a finished film is likely to have sold already. Sales agents and distributors prefer to jump into projects on the basis of a screenplay.

Likewise, festivals hope to create loyalty from the filmmakers by providing a potential start-off point for their films through programmes like Cinemart or the Hubert Bals Fund, which finances projects from developing countries. Festivals compete fiercely for the latest hot titles whether from hot spots like Argentina or more currently like Romania. Film has become a fully-fledged, highly competitive business that doesn’t leave much to chance, let alone hanging out.

Free radicals

What does that mean for Rotterdam in 2008? From the business side of things, Cinemart is still a highly fine-tuned machine, bringing potential business partners together with the help of well-connected matchmakers. From the programming side of things, the festival seems to be opting for a far-left turn towards the ‘art’ in arthouse.

This year the programme embraced ‘free radicals’ like Robert Breer (USA), Kobayashi Masahiro (Japan) and Svetlana Proskurina (Russia), live performances and art installations by Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. With renowned art galleries, modern art, photography and architecture museums, Rotterdam has the infrastructure to facilitate them.

However there isn’t much cross-over potential between the free radicals and the 355,000 festival visitors from Holland and beyond who flock to the city’s Pathé multiplex and nearby festival locations to indulge in a ten-day watch-fest. Invariably the audience favourites include fairly mainstream films with Dutch release dates planned right after the festival.

On a Sunday afternoon, 20 minutes after the start of the screening, a few front row seats were released for Mio fratello è figlio unico (My Brother Is An Only Child) by Daniele Luchetti. The packed theatre warmed itself to the Italian drama unfolding between two diametrically opposed brothers. The film has a general release in Holland, but the audience prefers to see it in Rotterdam first, where it ended up fifth in the audience award.

One of the brothers, played by Italian heartthrob Riccardo Scamarcio, catapults himself into the very far left. The other one, played by Elio Germano, starts out as a fascist. No matter how much they fight, verbally and physically, the familial bond proves stronger, until it turns out that the communist free radical is in too deep. Germano is currently one of nine actors selected for Berlin’s Shooting Star programme. Aided by Luchetti, DP Claudio Collepiccolo and his not inconsiderable talent, Germano manages to turn himself from a loathsome thug to the more mature, more loving brother of the two. By the time the gorgeous Scamarcio is lying in a pool of blood, the viewer cares more about his pimply everyman brother.

Swedish ping-pong

Likewise, the opening night film Cordero de Dios (Lamb of God) shows the heartbreaking consequences of political choices in one family. This feature debut by Lucia Cedrón depicts an Argentinean family torn apart by the disappearance of a young girl’s activist father and the kidnapping of her grandfather years later. Cedrón’s filmmaker father Jorge disappeared under similar circumstances.

The film starts with the recent kidnapping of the grandfather for ransom money for which his granddaughter Guillermina has to sell the family house. Her mother arrives from Paris, but she is of no great help, frozen by painful memories. The family history and dynamics are exposed at the leisurely pace that has become characteristic for recent Argentinean films, providing ample time to get acquainted with each character. Eventually the plots kicks in, flashbacks and flash-forwards create suspense, first hinting and then confirming betrayal. Ultimately Cedrón doesn’t judge any of the characters and instead shows that the oppressive regime forced people to make impossible choices.

Cordero de Dios competed for the Tiger Awards, for which fifteen debut or second features compete in Rotterdam. For a while, the Swedish drama Ping-Pong Kingen (The King of Ping Pong) by Jens Jonsson caught the attention of the grapevine, leading to packed press and industry screenings. Shot in the same cold, anaemic whiteness as in Roy Andersson’s works, the film shows how the fat 16-year old Rille escapes the anarchy of his white trash household in the local tennis-table club. The film is too Nordic to tap into black humour, but there is some subtle irony at work during this essentially tender, melancholic feature debut.

Thai tsunami

Ultimately, the three Tiger Awards went to two Asian and one Danish film. Flower in the Pocket by the Malaysian director Liew Seng Tat is about two mischievous young Chinese boys who roam the streets with very little parental oversight. The filmmaker is blessed with similar child-like playfulness as he stuck out his tongue during the award ceremony and joked: "I need a bodyguard now. I came with a flower in the pocket, I leave with a tiger in the pocket!"

The third Tiger Award, Wonderful Town (pictured) by Thai filmmaker Aditya Assarat, probably best personifies what a ‘Rotterdam’ film is about. Financed with help from the Hubert Bals Fund, the film premiered at Asia’s most vibrant festival, Pusan in Korea, where it had picked up an award, along with Flower in the Pocket.

Danish filmmaker Omar Shargawi picked up a Tiger Award for his honour killing drama Go With Peace Jamil about the Arab community in Denmark. It’s a portrait of another family torn apart by violent fanaticism.

In contrast to the Dutch Tiger Award contender Shanghai Trance by David Verbeek, Assarat manages to keep the influence of Hou Hsiao Hsien and Tsai Ming-liang in check. The US-educated filmmaker portrays the village of Takua Pa in Southern Thailand, where a young hip architect from Bangkok comes to oversee the construction of a hotel on the tsunami-ravaged coast. Ton builds up a nice relationship with Na, a local woman who runs the small hotel her parents have left her.

Very cautiously and very gently, they fall in love. In a scene on the roof where Ton helps her remove the laundry from the clothesline, the sweet tension becomes palpable, almost tactile. Unfortunately, the tsunami has destroyed much more than just the houses on the beach. Their budding romance unleashes a sense of violent foreboding that becomes equally palpable. Maybe Ton ran into the arms of something much more dramatic when he fled from a broken heart in Bangkok. The film’s abrupt ending is unapologetic, refusing to satisfy more mainstream tastes. Poised between art installations and Italian melodrama, Wonderful Town is truly what Rotterdam is all about.