Dissent was brewing in De Doelen this year. For reasons unbeknownst to the vast majority of attendees at this 44th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the powers that be decided to make all the bars in the fest’s headquarters cashless. Instead of creating some pseudo Marxist utopia, however, this "innovation" resulted in frustration, as night after night, critics, filmmakers and producers waved their fest passes preloaded with Euros at bartenders in hopes of getting a poorly poured beer.
What does this have to do with IFFR as a whole? Well, it all felt suggestive of things to come. According to the ever-reliable internet, there are now more tickets sold during Rotterdam than at Cannes or Venice. (Indeed, there were several screenings during the festival that sold out faster than I expected, leaving me scrambling to re-jig my schedule and sprinting from the Pathé theatre to the Cinerama.) Which is to say: Rotterdam, once thought of as a festival for emerging talents or the avant-garde, is becoming increasingly popular (even populist, based on the opening night film, Tom Harper’s War Book). To cope with this growth, change most certainly lies ahead for the fest (especially with director Rutger Wolfson leaving), and it most likely won’t only apply to how booze is bought.
But what of the films, you ask? Unlike the last time I attended the festival, I wasn’t forced to spend most of my hours in the Bright Futures section. Featuring new talents, this program can be less than luminous, though this year did feature Joel Potrykus’s Buzzardand Amanda Rose Wilder’s Approaching the Elephant. These films have already done well on the North American film fest circuits, and their inclusion at Rotterdam suggests both directors will live up to the program’s promising name.
Sticking with the Yanks, there were two premieres in the Spectrum program (a section for filmmakers who make "an essential contribution to international film culture") of note, one by an established avant-garde favourite and the other by a new talent. James Benning’s natural history made its international premiere to a small but excited crowd, including a canoodling couple who single-handedly reaffirmed my belief that love is real. Though described in the program notes as “not an action film,” natural history is filled with comedy and life in its static shots. Filmed (digitally) at the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien, Benning focuses on the surprisingly active underbelly of the museum—the humming of generators and pipes in the basement—and turns offices into specimens of study themselves. But, our own Daniel Kasman has already written about said film at length, so let’s turn to a world premiere: that of Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven.
Silver’s fifth film, Stinking Heaven is marked by the inspired low-budget aesthetic of the director’s past works. (Stinking Heaven was financed through Kickstarter, which in the interest of transparency, I contributed a whole $25 to and as compensation received a poem written by Silver.) Set in the 1990s, Silver filmed on an Ikegami HL-79E video camera from the era, which made the trendy time period less faux-grunge and more a case study in realism with its grainy texture.
As in his other works, Silver gets amazing performances from his actors, both professional and non, and turns a seemingly benign reality quickly and quietly into an unsettling one. Opening with a marriage ceremony, Stinking Heaven soon unleashes its stench when the much younger bride, Betty (Eleonore Hendricks), is seen consummating her union with the too-tanned and wrinkly Kevin (Henri Douvry) in a communal room. The pair, it turns out, belong to a sober living commune in New Jersey where Kevin is the undisputed king. But when Betty’s old drug buddy joins the household, the already unstable group devolves into pure chaos, succumbing to the base impulses they've been trying to curtail.
Though a brisk 70 minutes, Silver never forces the narrative, choosing perfectly timed beats to reveal details of each character’s background, while still leaving room for ambiguity. But the one undisputed fact is that if heaven is a place on earth, it certainly is vile.
Elsewhere, Takashi Miike’sAs the Gods Will hit all the desired notes of exuberant excess. Opening with a sequence that makes Scanners’ head explosions look like mere child’s play, it seemed impossible that Miike could sustain that level of gore and glee. Of course, he does, enlisting the help of a massive snowboarding polar bear and malevolent talking matryoshka dolls. Lacking any kind of subtly—the film is a take on millennial boredom and violence in the media—it is above all a pulpy, enjoyable ride.
Chinese-Canadian director and Rotterdam favourite Luo Li had one of the most intriguing films this year, Li Wen at East Lake. In Wuhan, China, East Lake is being threatened by real-estate developments. As the lake is slowly filled in, activist-artists and students have rallied to try and save the body of water. Shot as a straightforward doc, the style of the film feels like a departure for Luo, until after 35 minutes this non-fiction preamble comes to a close and a fictional story begins featuring the titular Li Wen. (Li Lou fans will recognize the actor from the director’s excellent previous film, The Emperor Visits the Hell.) As a police officer looking into reports of a crazed man, Li Wen’s investigation takes him around East Lake, which captures modern China’s generational conflicts and complex relationship to the past.
The surrealist program, “Really? Really.”, which highlighted contemporary surrealist films, featured no less than two pussies being shaved. The first was found in Ivan Cardoso’s Orgy of the Deviland Other Forbidden Tapes of Ivan Cardoso, which is an ecstatic and hedonistic collection of shorts by the Brazilian maestro of smut. It’s a mix bag, but the overall effect offers insights into Cardoso’s oeuvre, and more than one laugh (a woman’s anus flexing in close-up to the tunes of John Cage, to name one). The other clean-shaven cunt was found in Shaving the Baroness by Lene Berg, a reenactment of an apocryphal Man Ray film where the Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven grooms herself. The short’s playfulness is thanks to Dunja Eckert-Jakobi as the Baroness, as throughout the actress stands silent, nude and confident under the razor’s edge, almost winking at the camera with coy delight.
To wrap this report up, because lord knows it has to be done, Shaving the Baroness played before Jan Nemec’s Toyen, which brought me to tears several times. To call this a biopic of the surrealist artist Marie Cermínová (who worked under the name Toyen) would be a disservice, as the film blends found footage, reenactments and superimposition to create an expressive portrait of the lesser-known painter. Using her work “Myth of Light” as a starting point, Nemec traces Cermínová’s tragic life around the painting of this piece. The end result is something of a dual-layered ghost story, as Nemec makes it clear that Cermínová lives on in her work, while the film haunts the audience in its own right.
And now, it’s back to De Doelen, where hopefully I still have some Euro on this badge.