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ROTTERDAM 2001: Wrap It Up: Surveying the Gifts at Rotterdam's 30th

by Mark Peranson


(indieWIRE/ 02.07.01) -- It began with a surprise and ended with "The Gift." Over 345,000 Dutch filmgoers and 3,000 guests went gaga for the 30th International Film Festival Rotterdam, and 40 features later, I came pretty close to losing it at the movies myself. (First sign: hallucinating English speakers in Japanese films.) The barn door of the international festival circuit, Rotterdam swings both in and out. For those of us critics who have been to a number of festivals in the last 12 months -- Cannes and Toronto most commonly -- the greatest pleasures often come in those films we may have missed previously amid the interviewing and the harried press screening schedules. The lesser pleasures in Rotterdam are those unique films we haven't heard of before, and, really, may never hear of again.

There's an admirable quirkiness to the IFFR programming, a place where documentaries stand on the same level as features, features are equal to shorts, and transgressive Asian pop box-office smashes -- "Are you ready to rumble?" an elderly Fukasaku shouted to himself, and the response was a resounding, "Not really!" -- are overshadowed by cultural historical dramas. (If I only had 48 more minutes to give, I would hand it back to "Platform"; if I had 150 minutes to spare, I would actually have seen it again.) The filmic smorgasbord is overwhelming, but so is the socializing. If there was ever any doubt that people here just want to have fun, just look at a smiling (smiling?) Béla Tarr (the Hungarian director of "Werckmeister Harmonies") on the cover of the Daily Tiger, the festival's daily print publication.

This year at Rotterdam I managed to dip into each of the festival's collection of programs, from the Ex Voto personal visions (see review of "Otesánek") to the Spotlight directors of Roy Andersson, Kamel Hassan and Anne-Marie Mièville, whose erudite new film "After the Reconciliation" features a weeping (weeping?) Jean-Luc Godard managing to survive a torrent of nasty words and unseen events, and the Cinema Live performance of the restored version of Murnau's "Faust" accompanied by the haunting music of The Faust Group.

As always, it's the Tiger award competition that attracts the most attention, and yields the most tight-lipped reactions from bleary-eyed press and jurors. Each year's offerings provide the state-of-the-art of worldwide independent filmmaking; it also shows who's hot -- and who is being copied where. Winning a 2001 Tiger this year is kind of like being the victor of a beauty contest for homely children -- and this year's three orphans were all stories about growing up, but managed to be different enough from each other in style and temperament.

"The Days Between," a pretty good exercise in Asian-influenced alienation from Germany's Maria Speth, was the best of the Tiger subset dealing with women who don't know what they want. Spleth is too confused about how to handle her confused protagonist -- perhaps she can use her Euros to hire a screenwriter. The Dutch "Iles Flottantes" suffered from the desire to chart events recognizably similar to "life as we know it" -- e.g., "Hey, I can relate to those people's problems" -- which led to a predictability and complete ordinariness, reflected in a wholly uninteresting style. Professional enough, it needed a shot in the arm. Herve Le Roux's "On appelle a. (les printemps)," which features three women scurrying away from their husbands/lovers into a bumble of divertissement -- think "Celine and Julie Go Surfing" -- is a French comedy.

There's not much that I can say in negative terms about "Bad Company," a Japanese school days film that typically paints youth life as rigorously structured by the state, and frowns at socialization and peer pressure -- aside from its sub-par "Stand By Me"-ish last reel that comes perilously close to ruining the film. Unlike Ning Ying, who unbelievably edited a horrendous 20-minute party scene out of "I Love Beijing" DURING THE FESTIVAL -- an unprecedented deed in Rotterdam history, "Bad Company" director Furumaya Tomoyuki kept everything intact, and still won the Tiger. (Hell, even the accomplished Fruit Chan -- see the otherwise exemplary "Durian, Durian" -- still doesn't know how to end a film.) Like the other Japanese entry, "Hole in the Sky," "Bad Company" meanders, looks pretty, and doesn't really say all that much that hasn't been said before.

As for the other winner "25 Watts," a film already reviewed -- it is distinguished by being, like "Bad Company," a film about young boys rather than confused girls approaching-middle-age. Both films are the only ones in competition that I saw that could not be remade into an American film starring Sandra Bullock and Ben Affleck. Bullock was born to play Karen Mok's part in the unrewarding mainstream Hong Kong production "All the Way," the latest from HK's Imar team, a snoozer that had little reason to be in competition.

Even though they may be too old for the parts of teen lovers, I'd like to think Sandy and Ben's performances would have improved the British Tiger, "My Brother Tom," a textbook case of how to make a Lars Von Trier film without any mechanism for saying stop. This exercise in Catholic sadism is only for die-hard fans of incest, self-flagellation and Shakespeare. Note to Robby Müller: enough with the DV, man! Heavens forfend!

In the On the Waterfront section, the films seem to be connected by the sheer presence of water. Christian Petzold's quietly stunning personal and political mapping of Germany present and past "The State I Am In" (port city: of no particular consequence) stood next to Sharunas Bartas' typically enigmatic, prettily bankrupt National Geographic special "Freedom" (port city: who the hell knows?) and Eliane Latour's Locarno-winning, ethnographic "Bronx-Barbes" (port city: Abidjan). Bartas' intro was a particularly revealing highlight: "We took trucks, then drove. We shot for five months, then I added sound, then we brought it here for you."

As part of the diaries produced for Rotterdam's 30th anniversary and in honor of Europe's co-cultural capital, Lou Ye's "In Shanghai" was the stand-out. Marked by a familiar voiceover, a subjective camera and a focus on both the glamorous and seedy sides of Shanghai, it proved a worthy mini-follow up to the director's 2000 Tiger winner "Suzhou River." (Others of note: Garin Nugroho's "Jakarta," Jem Cohen's impressionistic "New York" and Mahmet Harouh Saleh's "Letters from New York." Voted most likely to clear a theater: Chris Petit's "The Carfax Fragment".)

Of the documentaries I managed to view, two world premieres were keepers. Peter Lynch's "Cyberman" is the latest in a line of quixotic portraits of men trying to make sense of their lives through off-beat quests. It's a visually intricate look into the head of the world's first cyborg: inventor, performance artist, privacy advocate, and University of Toronto professor Steve Mann. Shot on a melange of formats, including Mann's "Eyetap" Digital Betacam that's "constructed from laser light," "Cyberman" is portraiture as hacking, getting "under the hood" and trying to find out what makes a machine run. Here, humor and naiveté meet social agitprop activism: it's a "Roger and Me" for the William Gibson generation.

Also focusing on a particularly recalcitrant and egotistical male, "Perdido il filo" ("Who Lost the Thread?") is a self-effacing look at obsessive Italian artist Lorenzo Pezzatini -- who loves to paint threads in public spaces -- by obsessive American director Jonathan Nossiter ("Sunday," "Signs and Wonders"). Well aware of the impossibility of summarizing a man's art and life in an hour, Nossiter still tries, and pretty well succeeds in capturing unconscious cracks of personal doubt seeping through Pezzatini's secure mien and supposedly secure marriage.

Other observations from the main program: Highlight: Arturo Ripstein's "La perdicion de los hombres," a typically perverse and formally sparse (and exciting) digital-video work from the Mexican master, where Bunuel meets baseball; the insurance commercials of Roy Andersson, each one a mini-masterwork. Overrated: the audience favorite "Jalla Jalla," wherein we discover that Swedish Arabs can make humorously tender films about impotence and cultural divisions just as typically as everyone else. Previously seen, to name but a few greats: "Werckmeister Harmonies," "Yi Yi" (hopefully some Dutch TV viewers took up my recommendation), "Memento," "The Circle," "The Heart of the World."

On that last note, there's something especially gratifying for this Canadian critic in being at an international festival where there are more Canadian directors than Americans. If one wants to put a finger on the difference between Rotterdam and Berlin, maybe that's the place to start.

[Mark Peranson is the editor of Cinema Scope (insound.com/zinestand/cscope).]


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