The last round of awards to be presented during this year's just-wrapped International Film Festival Rotterdam were announced Saturday night. The IFFR 2010 Audience Award goes to Álvaro Pastor and Antonio Naharro's Yo, también, the Dioraphte Award "for the Hubert Bals Fund film held in highest regard" to Hawa Essuman's Soul Boy, produced by Tom Tykwer.
2010's three winners of the VPRO Tiger Awards, given to debut or second features by new directors, are Paz Fábrega's Agua fría de mar, Pedro González-Rubio's Alamar and Anocha Suwichakornpong's Mundane History (I posted first impressions of those last two here; meantime, indieWIRE reports that Film Movement has picked up Alamar for distribution in the US). The International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) has presented its Rotterdam award to Ben Russell's Let Each One Go Where He May and the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) has selected Whang Cheol-Mean's Moscow. There are other awards, too, of course, and if you're a completist, you'll find all the announcements here.
All in all, 242 features and 380 short and medium length films were screened over 12 days. Little wonder, then, that there isn't much overlap in the coverage, making those reports, diaries and reviews all the more rewarding reads: Geoffrey Andrew and Dave Calhoun for Time Out London; Gabe Klinger for Independencia (Days 1 and 2); James Mansfield for Little White Lies (Parts I, II, III, IV and V); Screen's collection of reviews; and Howard Feinstein's two reports for indieWIRE - the first and second, in which he writes, "Unplanned, not even labeled as a section in the catalog - refreshing, given the airtight, constipated organization of most film festivals - Georgian cinema ended up making quite a splash here. For me it was a revelation to see that the country is about more than strafing, ethnic conflict, and a right-wing president in bed with American neo-cons like Dick Cheney."
Even so, it's unlikely that Georgia's Department of Tourism will be getting behind Levan Koguashvili's Street Days. The junkies we're used to seeing on screen are usually in their teens or 20s, maybe their 30s, tops, so the sight of dozens of men in their 40s and on up, a fair-sized chunk of one small unnamed Georgian city's population, it seems, is rattling. Their desperation, their willingness to do anything, betray anyone for a hit that'll carry them over for just a few hours is, of course, practically a given in the subgenre of junkie movies.
What makes Street Days one of the better films of that subgenre, though, is Checkie, the fellow we follow for a few dark days, played by Guga Kotetishvili, whose very face elicits immediate sympathy as it bears hints of, say, Cassavetes or Belmondo in their later years, with its coarse, world-weary charm of a man who surely cut an irresistible figure back in the day. Sure, moments after we meet him, he's barfing on the street and infuriating neighbors, but if there were ever a likable junkie, it's Checkie. The chase for the next score leads to an After Hours-like tumble of one damn thing after another, only this one's heading down, down, down. There are comedic turns along the way, but they can't derail the inevitable. Despite the film's conventionality, I'm a little surprised that it's left Rotterdam empty-handed.
Marília Rocha "can be counted among the best documentary makers in Brazil," according to the festival. I wouldn't know, not having seen her previous work, but while I wasn't deeply disappointed with Like Water Through Stone, I wasn't overly impressed, either. A group portrait of four young women who live in a village and work the fields in the Espinhaço Mountains in eastern Brazil, Like Water Through Stone has its moments, such as when the filmmaker, offscreen but audible, quizzes one of the girlfriends about her falling out and then making up with another (who evidently makes a habit of stealing boyfriends) or when another of the women, already a mother and derided in town for being a little too easy, insists that she will have her fun, damn it all, let them talk. Once the night of the big dance arrives, though - "big" being a relative term, it should be noted, as there can't be more than ten couples in the bare bulb-lit room with no more than three or four actually dancing - the camera finds her all done up but slouched in corner over her phone, texting. The women may scratch the names of their current beaus into their skin, creating tattoo-like traces of affairs past and present, but we actually see very little of these men that mean so much to them. The portrait, then, is engaging to a limited extent but also frustratingly incomplete.
Woo Ming Jin's Woman on Fire Looks for Water is "a particularly beautiful and sensitive film, one of the finds of the festival," Daniel Kasman wrote the other day and, as I'm in full agreement, there isn't much I'd want to add to his review - other than to note that Darcy Paquet, writing for Screen, points out that it was shot on HD and then transferred to 35mm. Quite a surprise (to me, anyway) and, given the resulting texture Danny describes, while presumably keeping the costs of the shoot down, a rewarding choice.
Danny's also been all over the series Yoshida Kiju, Master of the Modern Art Film, and I know he also saw the two films I was able to catch, A Story Written on Water (1965) and Eros + Massacre (1969), so I'll cede the floor to him on those as well. I will add, though, that at the Break Even Store more or less adjacent to the festival's HQ, I paged through a thin but handsome, large format book on Yoshida Kiju and found myself wondering if I didn't actually prefer admiring his energetic asymmetric compositions as stills to the experience of watching the films themselves. Heresy, I'm sure, to many. But as you look at these, for example, I do believe an argument could be made that you're looking at nearly all of Yoshida's strengths as a filmmaker right there.
A Story Written on Water opens with a series of absolutely enthralling black and white shots of a bustling, floor-wide office that rival Billy Wilder and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle's in The Apartment (1960), but the obstinate refusal of the pouting protagonist to come to terms with his attraction to his mother when it's not only terribly obvious to us but also to everyone up there on screen around him grows tedious after the first hour or so. As for Eros + Massacre, yes, it is, without a doubt, a fascinating document of its time, swooping back and forth as it does between a group of anarchists in the 1910s and a couple of student radicals in the 1960s. The film is a startling reminder, too, of how difficult it is for us here on the other side of the great late 20th century outbreak of irony and the infinite loop of self-referentiality to appreciate how very, very seriously art could be taken just a couple of generations ago. At times, the sincerity is almost too painful to bear.
At one point in Eros, the 60s-era young couple approaches strips of film hanging in an undefined black space, possibly a studio. The guy peers earnestly into the camera and says something to the effect of: The man who shot this film is behind the times. The terror is palpable (as it is in another scene that follows in which hands tie one film strip into a noose, film cans are stacked, feet climb atop them, kick away the cans and then dangle lifelessly) and it sent artists and filmmakers scrambling throughout that decade to figure out just what the hell was going on and how to stay ahead of it.
Which leads us rather conveniently to Two in the Wave, Emmanuel Laurent's documentary on the French New Wave, centering on the friendship, collaboration and eventual falling out between Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Right off the top, you should know that if you've read biographies of either or both filmmakers, you'll probably not learn much in these 93 minutes. Little, if anything, was news to me but I'm nevertheless glad to have seen all the clips and heard all the anecdotes in one swiftly moving refresher course, reminding us that, while the final break between Godard and Truffaut occurred as a result of an exchange of letters regarding Truffaut's Day for Night, their paths began to diverge in 1968. One misstep: Isild Le Besco is terrific and all, but having her silently turn pages in old film journals or sitting alone in a movie theater pretending to watch the classics of her national cinema (and then falling asleep?!) as if this bright young thing were standing in for the next wave, eager to learn from the old, came off as a more than a little silly. Otherwise, Two in the Wave is a competently packaged bit of history.
One chapter in French history, concurrent with the birth of the New Wave, as it happens, was not officially recognized by the French government for decades: The Algerian War. Introducing Florent Emilio Siri's L'ennemi intime (Intimate Enemies), Olaf Möller, programmer of the After Victory series, called it a nearly perfect war film. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but now that I've caught up with it, I do think the film was underrated when it saw a limited release stateside last fall. As Möller emphasized, it was all but ignored by the French when it was first released in 2007 and even in other European countries it went straight to DVD.
On the one hand, Mike Hale has a point when he writes in the New York Times that it's "a movie you've seen before, when it was set on the Apache reservation or in the Vietnamese jungle." But if you can accept that some of the clichés ("the naïve lieutenant, the jaded sergeant, the suicidal mission with no purpose") are part and parcel of the war movie genre, particularly for those films made after WWII, the overt references to the French experience in Indochina, a war soon to be handed off to the Americans, and the covert echoes of the insurgency in Iraq, still going strong at the time of the film's making, do resonate. The crowd I was with certainly received it enthusiastically.
Speaking of Vietnam. Along with the Yoshida mini-retrospective, there was another in Rotterdam this year for Sai Yoichi, who served as assistant director for Nagisa Oshima on In the Realm of the Senses and performed in Oshima's Taboo alongside Takeshi Kitano. In its catalogue and in a profile in the Daily Tiger, the festival emphasized over and again that Sai Yoichi's own oeuvre as a director is all over the map, genre- and otherwise. So it'd be more than unfair of me to even begin to form an opinion of the man's chops based on a viewing of a single film, Via Okinawa (1989), also known as A Sign Days - bars and nightclubs on Okinawa approved for GIs by the US Army during the 60s and early 70s, i.e., during the Vietnam War, displayed an "A-Sign." The Bastards, Japanese rock 'n' rollers who perform standards ("Wild Thing," "Suzie Q") for a volatile mix of GIs and locals, run through the usual rivalries and romances, breakups and bar brawls of the band movie but the novelty of the historical setting and the out-and-out melodrama eventually become just engaging enough to allow yourself, if you will, to overlook the clunky performances and the merely serviceable camerawork.
I came to Rotterdam intending to see only those films I'd likely never be able to catch anywhere else, but that rule got bent after the first day or two and, on Thursday morning, flew out the window when I realized I wasn't about to let slip a shot at seeing - on the big screen, freshly restored by the World Cinema Foundation - Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day. The highlight of the festival, naturally, and for full reviews, I'll refer you to Acquarello and Ed Gonzalez, but I couldn't help noticing a little thematic overlapping with other films - the far reach of American pop culture, particularly early rock; the clash of ideologies that turned the Cold War hot on various fronts, from Vietnam to the streets of Paris; dislocation in the aftermath of those conflicts, be it in Taiwan or on the streets of a desolate town in Georgia.
Updates, 2/9: The Tigers are coming to New York. Rotterdam @ BAM runs March 4 through 9.
"The festival has offered ideas, experiments and proofs of how the digital cinema world might look, from pre-production to shooting to exhibition, as well as some playful reminders of past times when the movie industry has faced challenge and change," writes Ben Walters for the Guardian.
Sight & Sound editor Nick James on James Benning's Ruhr, shot by shot.
Coverage from Twitch.