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Rotterdam 2014. Europa Utopia

Here’s a thought: Too many films are being made, and too many festivals are showing them.

This is the first of two dispatches from Michael Pattison on International Film Festival Rotterdam 2014.

Here’s a thought. Too many films are being made, and too many festivals are showing them. The idea occurs to me while attending International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). You want to talk about the state of Europe (and by extension, its cinema), as one section of this year’s IFFR aims to do? Fine. But if you’re bemoaning budget cuts while throwing an odiously named ‘industry party’ with a complimentary tab of at least €2,000 (the tills were viewable from the drunken side of the bar), things start to look a little tricky.

Not to single one festival out. As the Beautiful South song goes, “This could be Rotterdam, or anywhere, Liverpool or Rome…” As social events, film festivals ineluctably express the contradictions of their time. Sponsorship deals often see cultural institutions climb into bed with big business, an acceptable (and possibly unavoidable) compromise that enables them to draw in the names upon which reputations regrettably rest. Prestige and integrity are the dual aspirations, but their interrelation is far from harmonious. At a certain point, we have to question the ways in which the film industry reinforces the economically hostile conditions that threaten it to begin with.

For too long now, the transglobal financial crisis has sharpened the gulf in wealth. The rich are richer and the poor are poorer. That truism translates to the cinema too. While the standout films to my mind get better each year, they also seem to increase in scarcity, appearing like disproportionately slim pickings amidst an otherwise expanding sea of mediocrity. The worry is that, at a film festival like IFFR—whose programme is so massive that taking in its schedule from one vantage point seems to be impossible, and navigating it from day to day is a game of chance—there’s a palpable lack of quality control.

Now in its 43rd edition, IFFR prides itself on being a go-to platform for non-commercial cinema, and is established enough to attract the preceding year’s bigger titles that one may wish (or still ‘need’) to catch up on. It should go without saying, though, that non-commercial cinema isn’t innately of interest—to say nothing of strength. Put a more specific way, all of the strongest works at IFFR this year have belonged to one of two camps: retrospective screenings (of Heinz Emigholz’s work, for instance), or the aforementioned productions that premiered previously elsewhere (Exhibition, Hard to Be a God, Blue Ruin, Starred Up).

While it’s easy to overstate and to generalise, it’s been a laborious trudge through a swamp of works ranging from the unremarkable to the better-avoided. No individual can comprehensively corroborate such observations, of course: even if one endured six films a day for the entirety of the festival, the tally would be an insignificant percentage of the gargantuan programme. But a nagging feeling persists regardless: that too many films here have resulted in walk-outs, unwanted guffaws and those ominous glances people share upon emerging from the theatre.

I suspect diversity is a word sponsors like. But catering to everyone is a meaningless aim. It should go without saying that quantity is no guarantee of quality; in fact, an oversaturated festival circuit has enabled too many films whose makers happen to be nice, approachable and some way shy of saying much of anything about the world we live in. For all the happy exceptions, ineffectual artistry is alarmingly rife today. I’m talking specifically about those solid and sincere works whose political engagement is deliberately but no less disastrously thin. As I noted in a panel discussion on the current plight of European Cinema at Seville European Film Festival a couple of months ago, too many filmmakers appear overwhelmed by the ongoing economic crisis.

And as I noted during dinner one evening this week (where I’m from, ‘dinner’ refers to what others call ‘lunch,’, but I’m employing it to conform to its more prevalent usage), the idea of national cinemas strikes me as rather jejune. Moreover, questions surrounding national identity always seem to emerge in times of economic crisis, alongside fascism. They speak of localism and of protectionism, neither of which are especially useful when confronting an international, systemic problem. For the sake of argument, though, I’ll suggest that the most politically engaged films made in Europe in recent years—that is, the most artistically striking—have tended to hail from countries whose proletarian activism is also comparatively strong.

Romania, Greece, and—now especially—Spain have produced works that suggest some kind of turning point might not be too far away. This is not to say that such nations don’t produce their own duds, of course; I’m speaking generally. But what are questions pertaining to cultural and national identity if not irritatingly vague in the first place? More particular concerns will be addressed in my second dispatch.

so are we simply equating quality filmmaking with political stridency tout court now? I agree that a good filmmaker should have a strongly expressed worldview, but this doesn’t necessarily have to boil down to having a political position on the current economic situation.
I heard this “too many films being made” argument in LA ten years ago. This is always going to be the case when the means of production/expression come within the grasp of the ‘working class’. It’s what happened with books and recorded music. Now it’s the case with cinema, and I would argue that it was not only forecast, but is welcomed. We get perspectives beyond ‘national’ cinema and curatorial bombasts.We actually get individual voices at festivals like IFFR. Some are rough for sure, but they are unique even if that means they will never be seen again. That’s how I took IFFR as a participant and a viewer. Going cold into a strange film from an as yet unlinked corner of the world was not unlike stumbling across a resting flock of rare scarlet macaws deep in a central american jungle. Festivals like IFFR allow for personal discoveries which are rarely forgotten, good or bad. And the audiences at Rotterdam are people who take chances, who want to be challenged. Its great for a filmmaker to show a work in that setting. And with so many films you sometimes discover real innovations of cinema. Handmade, pieced together, and without pretense. Even if it is not quite ‘perfect’. Which is a welcome change when other festivals try to sell you on mumblecore as an art form.
Good article. However, it is hard to make the “too many films” argument, or even “too many festivals”, at this point. I think we’re all drowning in a sea of available content 24/7. That’s the way it is and it’s not changing anytime soon.
Yes, dCdC, but festivals are a controlled/programmed environment.
They are. And the choices remain. I’m at Magnificent 7 Documentary Film Fest in Belgrade this week. That’s 7 films on 7 nights. Next week I’ll be at the Berlinale where there will probably be 7 films starting every hour on a daily basis. I prefer the smaller fest for a variety of reasons. Still, I can’t make the argument that the Berlinale shows too many films. That was the main story out of Toronto last year and it didn’t carry much weight with me.

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