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The Potential of the Mobile Film Festival: Rotterdam@BAM

Above: Guga Kotetishvili in the Georgian film Street Days.

A week ago I worried about the implications of the International Film Festival Rotterdam's increasing propensity to rely on digital technology to show their films—in theaters, on your computer, possibly anywhere.  One of the more practical upsides to this development for the majority of film lovers  is the eventual elimination of any reason to actually travel to Rotterdam for the festival.  This week in Brooklyn, New York, comes one of the best arguments for the newfound portability of festival cinema: Rotterdam@BAM (running 3 March - 9 March) takes the entire Tiger Competition feature films lineup of the 2010 festival, along with many of its filmmakers, and brings the whole kit and caboodle to our lovely borough.

Similar things have been done in the past—and indeed the recently out-of-business B-Side deserves praise for bringing Sundance films on tour as well—and it sure is a powerful idea.  If retrospectives can travel from venue to venue around the world, why can't film festival programs?  The sad, easy answer is the scramble for local premieres by local film festivals; if you carted the 2009 Cannes competition to New York you'd eliminate half of the program for the 2009 New York Film Festival.  This might actually be a good thing; while it would certainly heighten an already prevelant atmosphere of festivals scrambling to "acquire" juicy premieres, it would also force festivals out of reliant-redundant programming, hopefully opening the way for smaller, more idiosyncratic, more challenging films.  Genuine discoveries over industry hype, something that makes Rotterdam such a rewarding festival to attend.

The 2010 Tiger competition exemplifies this approach.  The program, like New York's New Directors/New Films, is admirable in its restriction to unestablished filmmakers who have made few films.  Yet like ND/NF, the quality of the IFFR lineup, at least in 2010, swings to a default of what many call "festival films," which used to be a pejorative title denoting films that could only survive on the festival circuit but has evolved to mean (equally negatively, but in a different way) films that seems crafted for festival programmers and festival audiences, a closet industry of not-unlikable-middlebrowness.

Certainly films stand out.  The first film that should be mentioned and the only absolute must see in the lineup is Ben Russell's FIPRESCI award winner Let Each One Go Where He May, a unique hybrid documentary and enthographic surrealist fiction tracking (literally, in 13 ten-minute long takes) nearly without context two men's travels in modern day Surname, following a path of the past (an escape route for runaway slaves) through the Suriname of today.  Russell's film has shown up in experimental sidebars before Rotterdam, and that this film was included among a major festival's competition lineup is a shining example of the risks still being taken by international programmers.  One hopes for a day when Cannes or Berlin has such guts.

Closer to the "festival film" of old is Yang Heng's Sun Spots, a digital monument of mundaneness, playing out small, hackneyed youth-in-China dramas on a stage in front of truly awesome digi-pictoral backdrops.  Whether the startlingly banal script is an intentional humorless satire of the subjects of far too many contemporary Chinese independent films is a question I can't answer, but in a videocentric festival Yang's stoic, meditative combination of theater and cinema was a rare, adventurous aesthetic.

Two more digital works stand out from the rest: the plaintive Mexican Flaherty homage Alamar, and the Georgian realistic genre picture Street Days.  Both approach their subjects—a father and son fishing trip before the boy leaves to live far away with his mother in Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio's simple, sweet film; and a middle-aged drug addict scrambling to keep his life going in Levan Koguashvili's feature—with a keener interest in location than in story.  Alamar benefits most from this, focusing on ocean-side activities, blending the recording of a fictional activity with a document of the actors doing that activity.  The characters and story of Street Days rely too much on its generic trappings to achieve a significant expression, but Koguashvili shoots his wandering story with a continually surprising use of dynamic space, not just integrating foreground and background activity in the frame but also pivoting the story away from a setting or characters through the extension or development of his shabby Tblisi spaces.  The digital film is helped immeasurably by lead actor Guga Kotetishvili, who somehow let's us get over the fact he seems too composed and canny to be a junkie, his perfomance instead cutting immediately to the shambling, sadsack intelligence, full of potential and soul, that seems to be the national allegory Street Days is going after.

We've written on several films in the lineup before, Michael Sicinski's short piece from Toronto and Johnny Lavant's short take on Ben Russell's film, my report on Alamar, also from Toronto, more thoughts on Sun Spots, and David Hudson on several films in the lineup, including Yelena and Nikolay Renard's Mama, offering "71 minutes of oddly pleasurable discomfort," Sophie Deraspe's Vital Signs, with a winning performance by Marie-Helène Bellavance, and Tiger Award winner Anocha Suwichakornpong's Mundane History.

Ultimately, the unity of the program is the a-unity of most festival competition lineups, with all the erratic quality that inevitably implies.  It is indubitably exciting to see these films, many of them good, most of them very interesting, brought overseas for an audience that would not likely have access to them otherwise.  But what would be more exciting, and actually more logical, if less feasible, would be to take a kind of Rotterdam 2010 Selects on tour, with a grabbag of highlights across the spectrum of the year's festival: say, Russell, Yang, and Gonzalez-Rubio's films from the Tiger competition, James Benning's Ruhr, a couple from the Kiju Yoshida retrospective, a Chinese wartime doc from Olaf Möller's After Victory program, Spanish films from the look at Pompeau Fabra University and African films from the past and present from Where is Africa, all bookended by the excellent experimental shorts that peppered IFFR this year.  This would give the person unable to travel to Rotterdam a slice of the entire program "experience," the breadth of the festival, not just doing justice to the various programs and the finds therein but honestly admitting that no competition lineup at any festival is uniformly strong.  What better advertisement is there for a festival and for actually going to that festival than the highlights of its entire program?  Here's hoping that Rotterdam@BAM is only the first, evolving step of a great idea.

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