Rotterdam Film Festival has been losing premieres to other festivals at a steady rate for the last couple of years. The sizzling Latin-American titles, financed by Rotterdam’s own Hubert Bals Fund for developing countries, premiered in Locarno. Others succumbed to the lure of Berlin’s marketing power. Although Rotterdam has never been much of a red carpet fest, its Tiger Awards for three best new filmmakers have been lukewarm to say the least.
Not all of this is the festival’s fault, of course. Like everyone in the film business, they rely on the creativity of the filmmakers. What has become really apparent this year – if you look at the Tiger Award winners – is that there is a young crop of filmmakers who are imitating the slow pace and roomy aesthetics of their idols – many of whom where nurtured by Rotterdam in their early careers, such as the Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang. But whereas he can shoot a crying actress for minutes and create a classic film moment, this deliberate slowness becomes a lethal weapon in the hands of the young guns. It’s very hard to pass off the mundane as art. More often than not, the mundane stays mundane and the viewer simply gets bored.
One Tiger Award winner was Ming-liang’s regular actor Lee Kang-sheng, whose film The Missing is a spin-off from Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn. A boy and his grandfather go missing. Grandma’s desperate search for them leads through Ming-liang’s alienated Taipei. "My shots are more powerful," bristled Kang-sheng, when compared to his mentor, who was executive producer on the film. Unsurprising, really, since he borrowed Wong Kar-wai’s cinematographer Chris Doyle’s bold compositions. Still, the film shows promise and hopefully Kang-sheng will go on to do his own thing.
The second Tiger Award went to German filmmaker Jan Krüger, whose short Whizz Kids had shown remarkable promise. His first feature Unterwegs is a film about a camping trip. He creates an ominous sense of doom in the dark Baltic woodlands, but at the end of the day, it’s still a film about a camping trip.
Maybe cinema’s sense of urgency does not solely come from creative inspiration. As a rule, the national cinema ‘waves’ reflect geo-political hot spots, where life is cheap and hard – both economically and intellectually. Iran’s censors drove their filmmakers to make beautifully oblique stories. Economic meltdowns in Brazil and Argentina created a punk rock, do-or-die, black and white urgency – sometimes journalistic, and sometimes surreal.
With the Balkans slowly returning to something resembling normality – and thanks to the Hubert Bals Fund – the region seems to be producing new talent keen to let the world know what’s going on in their countries. Maybe there is simply less to scream about in Western Europe. Even slow-cinema-master Bruno Dumont (29 Palms) is resorting to a recent mainstay of European filmmakers: interpersonal sex and violence. Yawn.
Compare that to two Bosnian teenage losers who are unwillingly drawn into the Sarajevo underworld, where they survive thanks to their Beevis-and-Butthead demeanor and one last-minute brainwave. The third Tiger winner, The Summer of the Golden Valley by Srdjan Vuletic, starts out with a pony-tailed, ski-jacketed Muslim teen with a hip hop fascination. He meets a girl on the rooftop, where he raps for her: "My name is Fikret – I wanna know your freak-ass secret." Before he knows it, poor Fikret finds himself in one freak-ass kidnap situation, with the pretty victim firmly in control.
Although Vuletic’ combination of ghetto cool and Balkan black humor is definitely a winner, I found the Macedonian Tiger competitor How I Killed a Saint by Teona Mitevska more deserving of an award. Mitevska is a graduate from NYU’s prestigious film school, and it shows. With great confidence she tells the story of young Viola, who returns from the U.S., only to find her country on the brink of civil war. The anti-American, anti-NATO sentiments on the streets are heating up by the minute. Why did she leave the States in such a hurry and why does she have a permanent thundercloud hovering over her head? Her brother is a hotheaded would-be partisan who gets Viola into trouble in no time. But eventually, the only ray of hope in this story will come from his brooding sister.
Other festival goodies, not in competition, included the world premiere of Arseny Tarkovsky Eternal Presence, a gorgeous poetic tribute to the charismatic father of filmmaker Andrei. Produced by Sharunas Bartas, this visually impressive documentary was made by Vyacheslav Armikhanian, who was lucky enough to capture a lot of footage before Tarkovsky senior died in 1989. He not only tells the story of the Soviet machinations that almost nipped his career in the bud, but also shows a way of life that may already have disappeared in Russia. The people in the 80s footage look like refugees from the previous decade, but they share tears, jokes and poetry in a way that Westerners can only envy.
Freakmasters 3000 is a hilarious spoof on Star Search and reality shows. German provocateur Christopher Schlingensief recruits the inhabitants of a Berlin home for the mentally retarded for his talent drive. Obviously carefully cast, some of them are actually smart enough to go with Schlingensief’s tongue-in-cheek tone, which results in hilarious fake political debates. The filmmaker attacks the tackiness of reality shows and commercial TV, but never exploits his charges. He gives them so much attention and respect that for the participants, the film is one big party – ending with them on stage, cheered on by hundreds of Berlin hipsters.
Although I usually have very little sympathy for the film critic’s favourite gripe ("this is a very disappointing year") which can be heard at almost every festival in the world, I found this year in Rotterdam quite lukewarm, just like last year. But it’s to the credit of its adventurous programmers and hundreds of selected films from all over the world, that there is always something worthwhile in Rotterdam – you just have to dig deep. New festival director Sandra den Hamer wants to make the curating process more transparent, so the audience has a clearer grip on the programme. She plans to act as a sort of ‘editor-in-chief’. Not only is this is a great idea artistically, but it will make Rotterdam also dependent on premieres and the whims of sales agents.