The International Film Festival Rotterdam's Tiger Awards go to three feature debuts this year and the jury's issued statements for each of them.
Sergio Caballero's Finisterrae (trailer above): "The outsider in this competition. Searching for the boundaries in this festival, for the edgy, the off-beat. Best animal performances in a film. The ghost of this competition."
Sivaroj Kongsakul's Eternity: "With a great sense of cinematic duration, this film builds its own universe, finding its own pacing, so consistently, to tell its particular story. A film that seems on the surface to be about death but which is really about love, a beautiful and delicate love story."
Park Jung-Bum's The Journals of Musan: "A strongly constructed narrative. A survivor's story. Throughout the film the character, immersed in an ethical disorientation, keeps a constant demeanor. A mature debut film for a new director. This social drama provides us with another dimension or perspective on the Korean situation."
Sergio Caballero's Finisterrae is "berserk, challenging, experimental fare," writes Neil Young, "in which two perpetually-shrouded 'ghosts,' Russian-speaking and perhaps brothers, trek through damp, unpopulated stretches of rural Spain in search of spiritual/physical rebirth. Sounds like a recipe for pretentious, po-faced, sub-Tarkovskian misery — but this is surely the funniest film to have competed here in a long while, as writer/director Caballero melds the deadpan wit of his much more ballyhooed fellow Catalan, Albert Serra, to the freewheeling absurdity of Monty Python, to produce a picture that is consistently surprising and frequently hilarious. It also happens to be breathtakingly beautiful, thanks to the cinematography by Eduard Grau — the 29-year-old prodigy whose credits already include Tom Ford's A Single Man, Rodrigo Cortés's Buried and Serra's Honour of the Knights — and, while not everyone's cup of tea (there were many walkouts at the press show I attended, plus howls of derision from several who stayed), is the one new movie I've seen here that I've been full-heartedly recommending to those who ask."
For Fandor's Kevin B Lee, The Journals of Musan "uses a naïve North Korean refugee as a simple foil for writer-director Park Jung-Bum to slap the wrist of his countrymen with a laundry list of their moral hypocrisies." As for a couple of the other films he's caught at the festival, Headshots is "Berlin-based American Lawrence Tooley's rigorously unsentimental portrait of love at youth's end. Loretta Pflaum pulls off a tough, reserved performance as a pretty thirty-something photographer waking up to personal and professional crises, rendered in segments as fragmented as the shards of her life. Neither the film or its protagonist set off to be likeable, occupying themselves instead with ruthlessly peeling away the layers of a posh urban lifestyle down to a seemingly empty center. The sole documentary in Competition, Sergio Borges's The Sky Above, applies a similar thoroughness in detailing the lives of three thirty-something Brazilians, most notably a transsexual prostitute who lets the camera roll while servicing an anonymous john. The explicit scene attests to the incredible intimacy afforded to Borges camera, which he milks to the point of doting on his subjects, with close-ups of their bodies and personal effects. These visuals, vivid yet matched with a brooding quiet, hint at an unshakeable melancholy shared by all three, resulting in the most emotionally accomplished work of the Competition."
"On the occasion of IFFR's 40th jubilee edition, the one-off and shared Return of the Tiger Award went to Oki's Movie by Hong Sang-Soo (South Korea) and Club Zeus by David Verbeek (Netherlands/China)."
ROTTERDAM 2011 ROUNDUP
We'll be seeing more reviews from Daniel Kasman, but in the meantime, here's what amounts to a grab bag, more or less, of the coverage in English that's caught my eye since the festival opened on January 26. And the opening night film was Wasted Youth: "Taking their inspiration from recent events that are still sensitive topics back home," explains Doug Jones in indieWIRE, "directors Argyris Papadimitropoulos and Jan Vogel paint an portrait of uneasy Athens, following a teenaged skater and a middle-aged policeman, each unaware of the other, over the course of a blisteringly hot summer day. Following the in the wake of Athina Rachel Tsangari's acclaimed Attenberg and Giorgos Lanthimos's Academy Award-nominated Dogtooth, Wasted Youth is yet another example of the new direction Greek cinema seems to be heading."
"This lush and evocative film is impressively shot — often using hand-held cameras," writes Mark Adams in Screen, "and while towards the end it does rather resort to old-fashioned script structure of seemingly disconnected stories coming together in a dramatic climax, it does recreate a vibrant sense of city going through difficult times."
"Amateur actor Harry Markou's raw performance as the skater grants the film its sense of immediacy, as do his real-life friends Arthur Kivilioff and Jason Wastor, who also star alongside him," writes Joseph Proimakis at Cineuropa. "Long-time envelope-pusher Yannis Economides and Greek wave new entry Syllas Tzoumerkas (directors of festival favorites Soul Kicking and Homeland respectively) also appear in the film, adding a symbolic seal of approval to this latest addition to the recent surge of social and political commentary to be found in local indie titles. A seal well deserved indeed. By the time Wasted Youth is done with its painfully naturalistic, Gus van Sant-like documentation of the grimness of everyday life and adolescence's willful disregard of the struggles survival demands in such a suffocating environment, the film's final scene grips viewers by the throat and shows them, hard as fact, the ruthlessness they can expect to rip from it."
"Life has been sucked out of nearly every frame of New Jerusalem, a claustrophobic two-hander about an Irish immigrant in Virginia after a tour of duty in Afghanistan and the Bible-thumping redneck determined to put him on the path of righteousness," grumbles Jay Weissberg in Variety. "R Alverson's sophomore feature evinces an interest in patterns and still lifes that does little to counter the flat description of two men jousting for one soul — or is it the soul of the nation?" But Screen's Mark Adams finds it to be a "delicately observed" and "meditative movie, based on observation and gently constructed dialogue, as the two men [Colm O'Leary and Will Oldham], both of whom work in a tyre centre, mull over their lives." I look forward to catching it at SXSW.
"Veteran British filmmaker Barney Platts-Mills returns to the screen after a break of some 27 years with Zohra: A Moroccan Fairytale, an evocative and gentle love story-cum-magical fable, set against the backdrop of modern-day rural Morocco." Screen's Mark Adams finds it "lyrical and gently watchable."
Three takes from Jonathan Romney in Screen: "Less than a year after his On Tour, actor-director Mathieu Amalric returns with a briskly inventive take on classical French theatre in The Screen Illusion (L'Illusion Comique), a knowingly modern-day salute to seventeenth-century dramatist Pierre Corneille. Amalric was commissioned by a venerable pillar of French culture, La Comédie Française, and — given only 12 days to shoot — shakes up the theatre company's hidebound image by turning in a bracingly modern treatment of a canonic text." As for the video above, have patience: The interview itself is in English.
More from Jonathan Romney: "An underworld story with a bleak moral sting, A Stoker (Kochegar) is the latest violent drama from stalwart Alexei Balabanov, whose crime stories — from 1996's Brother on — have constituted a sort of secret history of the former Soviet Union. Cleanly, confidently executed narration, plus affectingly downbeat lead from Mikhail Skryabin, could give A Stoker a wider appeal than some of the director's more relentlessly grim provocations." And #3: :"The male mid-life malaise is seen from a boozy Belgian perspective in The Big Trip (Le Grand Tour), a leisurely road movie with mock-doc trimmings. Jérôme le Maire's affable, semi-improvised effort is as much an outward-bound experiment as a narrative proper."
Back to Doug Jones in indieWIRE: "Rotterdam has a long tradition of exciting retrospective programs in its Signals section, and this year the festival has discovered pure cinephilic catnip with Red Westerns, a survey of films made behind the Iron Curtain inspired, at least in part, by the most American of genres. In films like the marvelously titled silent The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks or the Polish parody Lemonade Joe, the conventions usually associated with the likes of Tom Mix, John Ford and even Clint Eastwood are reconfigured to align with the Soviet ideology of the time. Cattle rustlers are replaced with anti-Communist partisans, and Monument Valley makes way for the steppes of Eastern Europe. While these rebranding efforts and lines like 'What to see what a real Bolshevik looks like?' can produce a chuckle or two from contemporary viewers, the films themselves, when taken at face value, marvelously reinforce just how resilient certain Western themes — honor, justice, even revenge — can be."
Update, 2/5: "After returning from Rotterdam," writes Brandon Harris for Filmmaker, "I can say that the health of our non-commercial cinema, that from the children of our incredibly rich American Avant-Garde tradition and one that has long been supported by Rotterdam's challenging and heady programming, is as strong as it's been in some time, regardless of it's non-commodified status." One of his examples: "Kevin Jerome Everson, a model of the strictly non-commercial, institutionally-supported post-New American Cinema avant-gardist, was in Rotterdam with his new feature Quality Control, which meditates upon the souls of black folks in an industrial dry cleaning operation outside of Mobile, Alabama. The University of Virginia associate professor and 2006 Filmmaker Magazine 25 New Face in Independent Film pushes cinema's observational mode to a near breaking point, finding a hypnotic composition with his Bolex, usually one in which the charming and resilient men and women who work in the place are surrounded or dwarfed by the machines they both operate and fall victim to, and he gazes as far into it as he can. Everson invites the audience to look deep into his frames, to be an active participant in them or to simply be washed away by their undeniable force. Often in Everson's work, one reaches a point of sublime exhaustion. Only toward the end of his most recent picture does the style grow more reportorial, complete with close-ups and voiceover from a young woman who's smile carries more of a charge than any you'll witness in a cinema this year."
Update, 2/6: The festival's posted an overview of all the awards, and there are quite a few.
Updates, 2/7: "The Tiger Competition films this writer enjoyed most both hailed from South America." Boyd van Hoeij for indieWIRE: "Todos tus muertos (saddled with the ungainly, literally translated English title All Your Dead Ones) from Colombian director Diego Ramirez (Dog Eat Dog) and The Sky Above by Brazilian rookie director Sergio Borges… If Muertos is both a visceral and visual cinematic experience, then The Sky Above is almost its opposite. The portrait of three men, all around thirty, in Belo Horizonte is a minimalist documentary experiment. The strength of the film is that it never judges its protagonists and lets the people and their actions speak for themselves."
Kevin B Lee's decided he has a festival favorite, "José María de Orbe's Aitá, a film literally about a house. A historical estate in Basque country that dates back to the Middle Ages is thoroughly explored by Orbe's tranquil camera. By day, it's a frail, innocuous setting where a school group tours the premises and workers make note of signs of decay in its walls and stairs. At night, Orbe lets the phantoms loose, staging a phantasmagorical light show by projecting archival footage on the walls, as images of damaged celluloid meld with the peeling interiors. Beautifully filmed in every way by Jimmy Gimferrer, Aitá is a quietly stunning testimony to the immutable force and strange beauty of aging and decay."