Arts festivals are by their nature paradoxical. As the convergence of various cultures under one banner, they are a celebration of diversity. And yet, they cannot help but draw attention to the boundaries that exist between and often within the very cultures being celebrated. This year’s Rotterdam International Film Festival was no exception.

Robin Campillo’s Les Revenants (They Came Back) offers an unusual take on the issues surrounding immigration. An unsettling film that borrows elements from sci-fi and horror, but whose tone is more in keeping with the socially aware films of Laurent Cantet (on which Campillo worked), it focuses on a small town whose dead have inexplicably come back to life. The differences are initially slight, but significant. As a result of their body temperature being a few degrees lower, the recently dead show up as a different colour on the heat-seeking cameras suspended from balloons over the town, installed in order to trace their movements. They also display a slower synaptic response. This latter trait results in even the most qualified people being relegated to menial positions. With stark simplicity, Campillo observes the town’s elation at the visitors’ return gradually transforming into fear and prejudice. Stunningly shot, Les Revenants eventually buckles, failing to offer a satisfying conclusion to the audaciousness and originality of its first hour. Nevertheless, it remains an impressive debut.

Set on the Moroccan coast, Tarfaya follows a woman whose attempts to escape the continent for a better life are thwarted by petty thieves and gangs who rob people under the guise of offering them transport to Europe. Bleak in its view that the gulf separating Africa from Europe is much greater that the expanse of water the people are attempting to cross, Tarfaya offers no hope of change, ending on a depressing note that suggests some people, no matter what they do, will never escape the destiny of the place they came from.

Story Undone (Dastaneh nataman) features another group of migrants – a bus load of Iranians fleeing their country. A documentary team has been given access to the bus, but everyone on board refuses to talk to them. It is through this team that Hassan Yektapanah tells his story. The follow-up to his Camera D’Or winning debut, Djomeh, Story Undone fails to engage emotionally and compared with the complexity of Abbas Kiarostami and the various members of the Makmalbaf family in questioning the very nature of the film-making process, Yektapanah’s film is disappointingly slight.

Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Delamu takes a journey along the ancient 95km tea trail between Western China and Tibet. In some places barely wide enough to accommodate a single retinue of men and horses, it is still in use today. Featuring a collection of fascinating oral histories from the people who populate the trail (a lively 104 year-old woman, a postman whose deliveries are miles apart and the owner of the eponymous mule whose name means ‘Angel of Peace’), the film is marred by overly picturesque photography and a soporific electronic score, transforming what could have been a fascinating account of life in a remote region of the world into an irritating and mawkish documentary.

Buffalo Boy (Muoa Len Trau) and Season of the Horse (Ji Feng Zhang De Ma) present two contrasting accounts of the power of nature over life. Set in 1950s Vietnam, Buffalo Boy tells the story of a people’s battle against the floods that submerge their land, leaving no grazing space for the buffalo that sustain their livelihood. Fifteen year-old Kim is forced to take the buffalo to higher ground, encountering along the way bandits and groups of professional herders at war with each other. An intriguing take on the conventional American western, it was one of the most beautiful films in the festival. The problems encountered by the family in Season of the Horse are brought on by a lack of water. Living on the Mongolian plains, shepherd Wurgen’s inability to make money from the land he owns result in pressure from his wife to look for work in the nearby city. What begins as a rural drama in the vein of Yellow Earth unfolds into something more contemporary, as writer-director – and star – Ning Cai contrasts the timeless feel of the plains with a very modern metropolis, one in which Wurgen finds himself unable to adapt to.

Octogenarian director Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé (Protection) challenges a practice still carried out in 38 African countries: female circumcision. Opening with six girls who run away from their purification ritual, four of whom take refuge with the second wife of a villager, the film not only exposes the barbarism of the practice, but offers a more complex study of the intricate social structure in which tradition places a heavy burden on all its members and any transgression can threaten the entire fabric of life within it. A cinematic translation of the old African narrative tradition, it is a well crafted and emotionally overpowering piece of work from the elder statesman of African cinema.

Issues surrounding sexual taboos featured heavily throughout the festival, from Michael Winterbottom’s beguilingly sweet rom-cum, 9 Songs, to the impressive Green Hat (Lu Mao Zi – the slang name for a cuckold). Opening with a successful bank robbery whose aftermath goes fatally askew, Liu Fendou’s debut as director (he penned the popular Shower) turns its attention to a cop whose obsession with his wife’s infidelity drives him to enact a bizarre and hilarious revenge upon her lover.

Life is equally odd but far less interesting in I Am a Sex Addict. A semi-autobiographical account of director Caveh Zahedi’s obsession with paid sex, it has been unfairly compared with Woody Allen. Unfair for Allen that is, whose weakest work has more potency than Zahedi’s unfulfilling hand job of a film. More entertaining is Beautiful Boxer, the glamorised bio-pic of Thailand’s first trans-sexual kick boxer, Nong Toon. What it lacks in depth and insight, Ekachai Uekrongtham’s film makes up for in energy and spectacle, and should prove to be a crowd pleaser when it premieres in the UK at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

Other highlights included Claire Denis’ cryptic L’Intrus (The Intruder). Like Beau Travail, Denis’ film is inspired by various sources, ranging from Robert Louis Stevenson to Jean-Luc Nancy, although knowing this offers no help in attempting to unravel its dense narrative. However, this in no way mitigates the pleasure of witnessing the work of a supremely gifted film-maker. Equally rewarding is The Edukators (Die Fetten Jahre Sind Vorbei). Featuring rising star Julia Jentsch, Hans Weingartner’s Cannes winner is a sly take on capitalist greed and an effective political satire. Three anti-globalisation activists break into the homes of the wealthy, re-arranging their possessions and leaving vaguely threatening notes such as ‘Your days are numbered’. When they are caught by one of the owners, they have no choice but to kidnap him. Confused as to their next step, their discussions with the hostage soon bring both their motives and the businessman’s lifestyle into question.

Returning much closer to the festival’s home, one of the most controversial events was the screening of the final film by Theo van Gogh, who was assassinated last year, allegedly for the content of his short film, Submission. 06/05 traces the events following the assassination of another controversial figure, politician Pim Fortuyn. Suggesting that the murder implicated both politicians and the secret service, van Gogh’s film highlights the hypocrisy present in Dutch politics. Solid, if not inspired, its prominence at this year’s festival highlights Rotterdam’s place as an important platform for discussing aspects of our cultures that many would have us ignore or forget.