If there is anything to be learned from film history, it might be how fragile history really is, how easily it is changed, erased and can be constructed to disempower. Fragility in relation to history, memory, and time is one of the main reoccurring themes within the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s program “The Tyger Burns.” By curating a program that only featured new work of filmmakers who were already active by the time the Rotterdam festival started in the 1970s, IFFR programmer Gerwin Tamsma and guest programmer Olaf Möller brought an exceptional ode to the figure and the gaze of the old director this year.
The importance of a program such as “The Tyger Burns” cannot be easily overestimated within our current festival climate and it makes quite a radical and necessary statement. Our contemporary film and festival industry is predominantly preoccupied with discovering and cherishing youth. Festivals are constantly on the look-out for young talent, simultaneously creating a necessary platform for new work, while at the same time unrightfully diminishing older directors who seem to have disappeared in the depths of our collective minds—yet are still making cinema like never before. By showing recent work by old masters, Tamsma and Möller proved the value of concentrating on living history and the necessity of acknowledging these directors, who with decades of experience offer a unique perspective on the workings of cinema, both in its controversial and its fragile aspects.
Before the screening of The Long Road (2016), Danish feminist director Mette Knudsen (born 1943), who first showed her debut fiction film Take It Like a Man, Ma'am! at IFFR in 1975, explained that her documentary should be seen as a way to set history straight: ”History should not disappear as water in sand, this film is meant to stay.” Her film is an allegory and above all a recognition of women’s struggle for equality and depicts the everlasting fight to change the collective consciousness. What becomes evident through the particular structure of the film—characterized by a contradictory relation between the non-linear representation of history, historical footage, and the memories of those involved in the Danish feminist movement the Redstockings—is that the relation between history and truth is never easy to define, always complicated and disputable. The film addresses the backlash that most feminist movements around the world received during the 1980s, which created a distorted conception of these groups in modern society, and shows there is never one version of history. By critically examining this period, Knudsen comes to a convincing reappraisal that does justice to an until now often misrepresented period in Danish feminist history.
Two other films that seem to play with the idea of truth and its relation to cinema are Russian animator Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s (b. 1939) newest work, The Nose and the Conspiracy of Mavericks (2020), and Communism and the Net or the End of Representative Democracy (2019), by the grandmaster of film essays, Karel Vachek (b. 1940). Both works are characterized by the abrasive confrontation between the image of the past as it is created by official historiography in the collective memory and the way in which the memory of the individual deals with the past.
The Nose… might be the most personal work so far of the eighty-year-old Khrzhanovsky: “this film is my own act of repentance—we were all responsible for what happened during the Stalin period.” The film is based on Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s absurdist tale The Nose (written in 1836) that the then twenty-two-year-old Russian composer finished in 1928. The structure of the film, a combination of animation, real life action, and archive material, is divided into three dream sequences. Like Shostakovich’s revolutionary different music, the absurd content of Gogol’s satire about bureaucracy in a state ruled by the autocratic Tsar Nicolas I is now mirrored in the fantastical animations of Khrzhanovsky. The film, much like Gogol’s story and Shostakovich’s opera, tries to encompass the absurdity and tragedy of Russia’s history, with a focus on the period of terror under Josef Stalin, which results in a rather bizarre, disturbing and beautiful concoction.
Communism and the Net or the End of Representative Democracy is a similarly deeply personal film about the desire to understand and to talk about history, in this case the history of a former communist country. The main theme of the film returns to Vachek’s concept of truth as always being incomplete, as he believes that truth is a slippery term that can only be grasped by inner laughter. The film carries the same sentiment of history gone wrong, predominantly making references to both historical Czech politics, such as the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, and the construction of the Czech Republic as an independent country. Simultaneously, Vachek makes a clear connection to the present and to contemporary political repression and corruption in the world, signaling the possible end of representative democracy. The five-hour long film finds it unity in its separateness, its constant and never-ending stream of (overlapping) images and conversations. The presentation of history is distorted, but memory is preserved through images.
It is no surprise that during their careers Khrzhanovsky, Vachek and Andrei Smirnov, whose new film A Frenchman is also part of “Tyger Burns,” all had to deal with state censorship and that as a consequence their films try to lay bare the ideological structures that enabled authorities to systematically abuse their power to control the hearts and minds of their nationals. This way, their cinema discovers and reveals recurring and changing patterns within history through images. Cinema becomes a way to constitute a bridge over the abyss presented by the passing of time. Their films, like the program of “The Tyger Burns,” become a statement for the free man’s continuous fight against conformity.
"Enough, enough, enough. I don’t want to remember anymore"
When talking about non-conformity, it is impossible not to mention the work of the legendary Italian writer, photographer, and filmmaker Cécilia Mangini (b. 1927). Magini, present at IFFR for a Tyger Burns Talk with four of the six female directors included in the program, and ever so lively and sharp at the age of 92, started out as a photographer before turning to making documentaries together with her late husband Lino Del Fra. In her latest film, Two Forgotten Boxes, (2020), the camera follows her around her house while she looks at old notes, film, and pictures of a war-riddled Vietnam that she took with her husband in 1965 and had forgotten about over the years. The film shows us the painful, selective, and inevitable process of the decay of memory; some memories stay, others disappear, some merge together with advancing age. It is something that cannot be escaped. Through Cécilia, memory becomes a discourse through which history is told and cinema becomes a way to capture the reality of the past to make sure that key historical events do not slowly disappear from our collective memory so that traumatic historical events, such as the Vietnam War, can be processed. Two Forgotten Boxes becomes a mixture between documentary footage and archival material, with the ultimate aim to preserve memory, while wondering about our strange ability to forget and remember.
Mangini’s film was shown together with a little gem called Fragments, a new short documentary about British pop artist Derek Boshier, shot on an iPhone by the versatile British director and artist James Scott (b. 1941). Scott, predominantly known for his unconventional art documentaries that he made in the 1960s and as a founder of the Berwick Street Film Collective, is a director who does not often enough receive the recognition that he deserves, as he stopped making cinema after 1990, before returning to the medium in 2002 and 2019, with this short art documentary.
The mother of Israeli avant-garde cinema and poet Raquel Chalfi (b. 1939) is back with her film The Hidden Fountain, a reference to the mysterious inner life of her mother, the incredibly talented poet and sculptor Miriam Chalfi. The film not only reveals Miriam’s thoughts but simultaneously becomes a poetic document concerned with revealing the different layers of time, as the film took over thirty years to be finished. Miriam, in all her shyness and modesty, needed much convincing to appear in front of the camera and her slight unease and restraint are visible in every image. The film keeps returning to the sea—a place that becomes a metaphor for Raquel’s mother Miriam as the sea is traditionally identified with the sublime, the unknown, (re)birth, creativity and femininity, due to its majestic and mysterious vastness. Mariam Chalfi believed that it was the passing of time that breathed soul into her sculptures, and the same can be said for her daughter’s film that exposes something fundamental that we all struggle with, namely decay and loss. With her mesmerizing film, Chalfi shows us that after all, everything is fragile and everything erodes with the passing of time.
This sense of decay that is brought forth by the passing of time, is also the main theme of 82-year-old Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s newest film Labyrinth of Cinema (2019). What can only be described as a continuous cinematic whirlwind of images and vibrant colors, Obayashi’s film situates us in a decaying cinema where the last screening has started before it closes down for good. The room fills itself with spectators as outside a storm starts raging. It is first and foremost a film about films that questions the very being and future of cinema in a period in which most independent cinemas are slowly disappearing as it is getting harder and harder for these venues to survive. Obayashi delves into the very relation that cinema constitutes with its spectator, a relation that is ultimately forced and based on a desire—to see. He proves that cinema is not static, and that its very specificity lies in its ability to capture movement and to exceed the boundaries of time. In the film, the spectators inner scopophilic desire to see everything, becomes literal, as the four main characters disappear into the image projected onto the screen. The spectators in the screening room are literally witnesses of the passing of time as the characters are transported from one historical happening in Japan’s history to the other—both mentally and physically. It is above all a film that celebrates cinema’s ability to disrupt space and time.
Obayashi’s six-year-older countryman, Yoji Yamada, brought an exceptional ode to the actor Atsumi Kiyoshi—who had died in 1996—with his composition Tora-san, Wish You Were Here (2019). In 1968, Atsumi became the embodiment of the happy-go-lucky Torajiro Kuruma (also known as Tora-san) in the TV-series Otoko wa tsurai yo (“It’s Tough Being a Man,” directed by Shin'ichi Kobayashi). It was a character that would become one of the most famous and loved of Japanese popular cinema. Ironically, Tora-san had been killed off at the end of the TV-series, before Yamada resurrected him in his first feature film that was similarly called Otoko wa tsurai yo, in 1969. It was a film that marked the beginning of what would eventually grow into 50 Tora-san films, of which Yamada directed 48 if we include the 1997 special editon film as a 25 year anniversary celebration and this new film from 2019. A composition of nostalgia, Tora-san, Wish You Were Here consists out of the material of all these 49 earlier films, interwoven with new material shot with the same, albeit now considerably older, actors. Its symbolism, which lies in its very depiction of a society that has now disappeared together with its norms and values, is reflected in the emotional search for recognition. This way, the combination of old footage and new images constructs a history that allows the contemporary spectator to perceive a process of transformation of over fifty years. The film becomes a true marvel of cinema, endowed with artistic merit and a skillfully expressed notion of longing.
When talking about the cinematographic process itself and its relation to the spectator, one has to mention Michael Pilz (b. 1943), who has been visiting the festival since the very beginnings and is now back with his highly personal work With Love – Volume One 1987 - 1996 (2020). With Love, which consists out of Pilz’s own archival material, is characterized by a fascination with the unconscious working of cinema on the individual spectator. The IFFR-veteran Austrian director approaches his films as compositions, which allows him to create a specific cinematic language through which he subjects and aligns the spectator with his own world and his own history. This way he explores the spectator’s interaction with cinema, a relation that is ultimately based on a visual illusion, to which the spectator knowingly and willfully submits—a game based on our desire to see.
The idea that cinema offers us the possibility of living out our fantasies of desire through a lens is explored by a "Passing Fancies," a compilation of four shorts that Möller and Tamsma included in their program. When shown together, the shorts show that desire is inherent to the human psyche, which is visible in the history of art, photography, and consequently cinema, and becomes evident in legendary animators Yamamoto Eiichi’s and Sugii Gisaburo’s One Arm (2018), Sergei Solovyov’s Uti-Uti-Uti (2020), Pope of “Terrir” Ivan Cardoso’s Corman’s Eyedrops Got Me Too Crazy (2020), and Friedl vom Gröller’s Sacrificio per la Sirena (2020).
At one point, all the films included in “The Tyger Burns” coincide, as they are all consequences of a burning desire to create. Throughout the decades that have passed since these directors first started making cinema, they not only proved that their creativity and artistic vision stood the test of time, they also managed to stay absolutely relevant. Making use of cinema either as a way to draw parallels between the past and present, as commentary on subsequent social situations blighted by intolerance, extremism or hate, or to bridge the abyss between the passage of time, memory and history. In the act of remembering and looking back, these films reveal something else of the present as they play with a certain self-awareness of history and do not shy away from controversy. “The Tyger Burns” stands as a necessary reminder of both cinema’s rich history and its undenyingly contemporary value. Old directors deserve more praise from the industry that they actively shaped and are still an important part of. The fire still burns brightly within them—if not with more vigor and determination than ever before. A thought that seems to be captured beautifully in an extract from a poem by Raquel Chalfi:
hanging with one hand onto a patched vine that will soon be uprooted while above us a tiger waits and beneath us at the bottom of the abyss another tiger waits we hold tight