Rotterdam 2016. Portraits

A mother, a Ukrainian composer and a Taiwanese poetry collective inspire three of the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s best films.
Daniel Kasman


The International Short Film Festival Rotterdam is winding down and the atmosphere is changing, especially as the business-heavy, concurrent CineMart market has ended, and sales agents and young filmmakers and producers are being swapped out at the festival gathering points and at screenings in exchange for the local Dutch moviegoing population. These new audiences for the festival's last few days are the lucky ones, for three wonderful, delicate films have emerged as real discoveries and powerful highlights of the 11-day experience.

The best new work of fiction I saw here at the festival is a cornerstone of what makes an event like Rotterdam special: A dedication to films of soul-warm fragility whose fineness is so rare that such moves are unfairly assumed to be unfit for wider exposure. The Slovenian film Mother, by Vlado Škafar, is launched here and deserves to travel far afield: its tenderness, flushed with inquisitive compassion, should be recognizable anywhere. It is called “mother,” after all. We see her, we understand: Nataša Tic Ralijan’s middle-aged woman, closely shaved graying hair, athletic and holds herself with that certain kind of independence that suggests a desire to be alone. Yet she is not alone. She is bringing her daughter home and the two are silent, the relationship strained. The home is in the countryside, and the daughter is locked in her room. But this is not her story, it is the mother’s: we see her prepare breakfast, garden, do yoga, and pen letters by candlelight to her daughter. There is a problem here, certainly; the daughter has a problem, she seems to be recovering from something. But perhaps this older woman has a problem too?

Škafar’s film proceeds essentially without incident and barely without dialog. Instead, we watch this mother be—thinking, feeling, and remembering—in the film’s bathing light, tremulous by day and austere with night’s candles. The sense of memory is almost tangible: with little causal connection between most shots, Mother doesn’t present itself as a story but more as an evocation of a relationship, at a remove the lends a tenor of reflection to each small moment, to the order these moments. How lost is this mother in the past? Or are we lost with her not in the past but remembering the past? A few illusions push us further into this delicate tone of in-between, interior time: the mother’s face splashed with water dissolved into the reflection of her daughter, and later, laying in a meadow, the mother’s solitary repose becomes momentarily communal when an image of her daughter's slumbering body fades in. How much love is there in memory—and memory in love?

Yet this is not the mood piece of a lone soul. Mother complicates and enriches its emotional chamber piece—with its modest echoes of films by Bergman, Tarkovsky and Sokurov—with the imposition of a nearly documentary element which provides more concrete context for what the daughter, mostly a spiritual rather than physical presence until the film’s final act, is going through. Seeking advice, the mother goes to a monastery and speaks to a real-life priest, and also to a kind of therapy commune where we see and hear other troubled young adults speak of beginning to overcome difficulties in this productive group seclusion. The film’s style tones itself down for these unexpected, more casual observations, tempering its slender, effusive and glowing images with suggestions of a world exterior to the mother's meditation, wistfulness and pain. The possibility for recovery (of something, for both mother and daughter) is introduced at the same time the seriousness, the extent of possible damage, seems most strongly implied. From here, the film cedes some of its sensitivity to the girl (Vida Rucli), who has an interiority to match her mother’s but completely her own in tenor. We briefly feel the force of another sensibility, another spirit and soul, and the film completes its open-ended poem of that which is, on the surface, unspoken.

Spanish director Andrés Duque’s Russian documentary, Oleg y las raras artes exceeds by force of character. That character, completely one of a kind, is Ukrainian octogenarian composer and pianist Oleg Karavajchuk, who has scored plentiful film music including films by fellow Ukrainian Kira Muratova (including Brief Encounters and Long Farewells, both of which I coincidentally wrote on from Rotterdam in 2013 ). He steps up to Duque’s camera, placed smack in the middle of a golden hallway in the Hermitage, and exposits with lengthy, wandering but acute erudition about his habits, his piano playing, his trek to the museum, and the feeling that music and atmosphere impart to him. This first shot is a long one, giving Karavajchuk—his body petite, face crumpled, eyes squinted but pianist’s fingers forceful and hand movement lilting and lovely—a full allotment of space to move, adjust and be himself, and of time to get to a point, wander from it, introduce a new idea, and come back again. Simply everything he says is fascinating, whether it’s an interpretation of music, a wry historical anecdote, an aside to the sound recorder, and back to the grandest of philosophy. We hear him play (on the Tsar’s piano!), start, stop, play in entirety. We see him walk a bit, and talk some more—and that’s pretty much it. The history within him—as a body, certainly, but also in what can be gleaned by a fiery attitude and passing reference to a densely lived and considered experience through the Soviet and Russian epochs—is a dark current which is only hinted at, and perhaps heard in the music. Not much information exists about him online in English, but what does hints at an extremely unusual life personally, and an exaggerated one perceived publicly. Yet if I could think with such darting ingenuity, move with such halting elegance, and speak with such perceptive, immediate intelligence, I would count myself lucky. (If I could compose and play as such, an artist.) Alas—but luckily I have the portrait, equal parts charming and strange, of Oleg y las raras artes.

Regular festival-goers will recognize the maddening fatigue that sets in after a few days of back-to-back-to-back films, where the pace of the moving images threaten to overlap and overwhelm. It’s true indeed that films seen at a festival’s end must fight a much stronger battle for their audience’s attention and memory, if that audience has been immersed in the experience throughout. To end a festival on a powerful encounter, in this context, is a rare and special thing. It happened to me here, with Huang Ya-li’s absolutely essential Le Moulin.

What can I tell you about this unique documentary? It is hard to say, because I come from such a place of ignorance. It is an epic of history and poetry dedicated to the group of the title, a collective of Taiwanese poets that were a new wave in the culture in the early 1930s while the country was occupied by Japan. With stalwart focus Le Moulin follows them through late 30s (Japan’s war with China), the 1940s (Japan’s war with the Allies) and into the early 50s (the Kuomintang’s rule under martial law). I'm familiar with a decent amount of this national history but next to nothing of this cultural history, and as such found Huang’s film bountifully generous. Its form is varied, and includes poems in full and extract on screen (extensively translated: in Mandarin, Japanese and English), in voiceover taken from letters and diary entries by the writers, in archival material of the persons, of the history of the various time periods, and of concurrent art figures (Picasso, Cocteau, Chaplin) and art works. It also includes new footage, intimate, spare and beautiful, of actors, faces unseen, playing some of these writers, in their homes writing, moving objects, picking up periodicals, charting the passing of time through small signals and materials. Many of these objects are crucial: they are in fact the actual original editions of published novels, collections of poetry, newspaper clippings and magazine issues—all carefully identified.

This ambitious technique, remarkably orchestrated throughout the film's span, allows you to skim the surface of the saga’s replete tensions—indigenous identity and the complex relationship to Taiwan’s colonizer, exposure to European art trends, the change in culture during war—understand its import and feel its soul. It features little in the way of exposition, but rather bursts with explanation in bountiful references. Coming to the film from a place of ignorance, you come away with what feels a complete index on its subject. But such a dry word does Le Moulin a disservice. Its dedication to tracing artists and their creations over time, its delicate and suggestive use of excerpts and anecdotes, its engrossingly fastidious research, and its precarious but ultimately moving side-moments of re-creation: all these go towards making the film in detail and in the whole as much a resource as it is a tremendously sensitive and moving portrait of a group of artists supremely inspired and challenged by the era through which they lived.

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International Film Festival RotterdamInternational Film Festival Rotterdam 2016Vlado ŠkafarAndrés DuqueHuang Ya-liFestival Coverage
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