By Paolo Bertolin
Critics, film journalists and cinephiles tend to describe the Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFFR) as a cutting-edge, adventurous festival, an event where the multiple shades of cinema, including those forgotten in the shadows by other major film events, shine in full colour. This habitual way of thinking about Rotterdam has almost reached a stage of comfortable stereotype, of assured trope, even this year, when the reins of festival direction fully passed to Sandra den Hamer, after she had been longtime co-director with Simon Field.
I sometimes wonder whether the IFFR is really such an adventurous or cutting-edge event, or instead if it is just eminently and laudably fulfilling the duties and attaining the goals an international film festival should. Even if it is operating at the latter level, this is an outstanding achievement. No other major film event – in Europe at least – devotes such commitment to following, documenting and updating year by year the state of things in the whole scope of worldwide filmmaking. Rotterdam's 360° programming view always encompasses a broad definition of cinema and continues to thematise and question the notion of “boundary”, as clearly stated in the aptly-titled ongoing series of annual panels, “What Is Cinema?”. Rotterdam enthusiastically casts its programming net wide to the broadest span of geographical provenances, each festival covering the six continents of filmmaking. Rarely could a major festival display such independence from criteria of national interest or political convenience to the point of totally omitting entries from the host country in its official competition, as Rotterdam did last year (not to mention the fact that American films are often missing from IFFR's competing arena).
But if it were just the simple matter of mapping the geography of film production, this would still not be a thorough endorsement of a notion of cinema without boundaries. What really makes Rotterdam a place with no limits is the festival's commitment to intersecting geography and culture with another dimension, that of cinematic language: of the experimentation with genre, format, length, and allowing for the “contamination” of the annexed spaces of other arts and media. Cinema at Rotterdam covers a wide spectrum and continually questions the solidity of the canonical definition of film as “feature length fiction”; an act that resounds of perhaps – or perhaps not at all – unconscious, political resistance, when one thinks that this narrowing, blinding notion is mass-inculcated by the only great absentee of Rotterdam, Hollywood.
It is therefore patent that, by any means, the grandest and most representative film of Rotterdam 2005 is Lav Diaz's 10 hour 30 minute Evolution of a Filipino Family (Ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang Pilipino) (2004). No other film could possibly stress to such extent the richness of cinematic language, while blatantly challenging the torpid insignificance of the so-called entertainment or spectacle general audiences are stuffed with in multiplexes. Firstly, because it is a film from the Philippines, it is fully representative of one of the key features of a festival that devotes one of its main sidebars to the surging new waves of South East Asian cinemas. Even more, as it hails from an overlooked national cinema as part of this region, one that nevertheless has produced the wholesome, imperishable talent of Lino Brocka, but that only recently seems to be re-surfacing from oblivion in international film events (only last year Mario O'Hara's Woman of Breakwater's selection at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs put an end to a 15 year absence of Filipino films in Cannes), this one-of-a-kind masterwork should reset our perception of film geography like a portentous seism. Secondly, by being well in excess of the allotted two hours that fits multiple daily theatrical screenings, TV schedules and most people's routines of viewing, Evolution of a Filipino Family frontally undermines our comfortable notions of cinema as leisure, demanding dedication and commitment, depriving us of a full day of multiple occupations – or, at a festival, of multiple viewings. This emphasis on experience and time has to be carefully highlighted because Diaz's film, as inherently asserted by its title, depicts, but at the same time stages, a process that takes place in and through time. The notion of time frame is therefore there on two planes: on the one hand, the diegetic 16 year span between the promulgation of martial law by Philippines President Fernando Marcos in 1972 and the 1987 Mendiola massacre of farmers that put to an abrupt end to the hopes for an epochal change in Corazon “Cory” Aquino; on the other hand, the 10 hour 30 minutes of film projection, of articulation of time through images and sound. These two temporal dimensions find a nexus in Diaz's brave attempt in bringing to cinematic consistency the perception and actual employment of time of his peasant protagonists. From its first sequences, Evolution of a Filipino Family requires a total immersion and abandonment to the slow-flowing, sometimes pleasant, sometimes dull, or even boring and painful, life in the rice paddies of South East Asia, absorbing the viewer into a space-time dimension that is no doubt other and demands adjustment and attunement. Once entered the rhythm of the film, one can easily go with its flow and comprehend the whole abstract architecture of Diaz's time employment strategy. The evolution and changes undergone by the protagonists thus appear as the flipside of the bigger historical canvas that, as in Hou Hsiao-hsien's City of Sadness (1989), are left on the margin of the actual cinematic illustration. As with Hou, Diaz chooses to tell the story of his country and of his people from below, as he resolutely indexes the peasant culture and the kinship system as the emblematic root of Filipino identity. His characters' struggles for a normal everyday life mirror the painful turmoil endured by an entire people, and cinematic length (of the whole film, but of the single sequences as well) becomes the abstraction of the long, never-ending and disillusioned journey of the Filipinos towards their self-assertion. Finally, the presence of Lino Brocka in the film's narration, through the re-enactment of actual interviews and the involvement of one of the main characters in a plot to murder him, represents not only a homage and tribute to the artist who raised his voice against Marcos and often put his feet into the dictator's dish, but also a virtual statement of affinity, if not in style, at least in the truthful commitment towards filmmaking made by and for the people of the Philippines.
Diaz's masterpiece left aside, one should dutifully turn towards a commentary on the official competition for the Tiger Awards. Rotterdam's competition is open only to filmmakers' first and second films; once, this was the main prerogative of Locarno, but as the Swiss festival moved towards a more ambitious and conformist emulation of Cannes, Venice and Berlin in the attempt to become the “fourth biggest festival”, Rotterdam aptly took its place in venturing into the active search for the “big names of tomorrow”. This constant projecting towards the future is perhaps the main consistency in Rotterdam's history, as shown by the multiple initiatives in sponsoring future projects through its own Hubert Bals Fund (for films from the Third, Fourth and former Second World…) and through the CineMart (a market for international co-production of arthouse films) (1). Nevertheless, one cannot escape the temptation to blame Rotterdam's official juries, as more and more elsewhere as well, for lacking perspicuity in some of their choices and being easy prey for short-lasting, inconsistent sensationalism. As for me, this was the case with this year's big sensation in Rotterdam and recipient of a Tiger Award: 4 by Ilya Khrzhanovsky (2004). As a deeply allegorical portrait of contemporary Russian societal malaise, 4 stops at nothing to provide audiences with images of moral decay and urban alienation, coupled with the sordid otherness and horror-like surrealist folklore of life in the countryside. In the end, the film is nothing more than a cunning exploitation of a “self-exoticised” image of Russia, conducted with calculated detachment, but not enough to avoid the pitfalls of overstatement and redundancy. Unfortunately, I cannot comment about the second of the three winners, Daniele Gaglianone's Changing Destiny (Nemmeno il Destino) (2004), because it was the only film in competition I didn't see, but as for the third, Spanish documentary The Sky Turns (El Cielo Gira) (2004) by newcomer Mercedes Alvarez, it seems to me a much wiser choice than 4.
Alvarez's film chronicles a year in the dying village where the director was born and through the passing of seasons composes a visually exquisite and sensitive poem on human impermanence. The film not only relies on the lyrical images and the conspicuous focus on the passing of time, but also benefits from the humorous esprit of the village dwellers, who don't refrain from political chitchat on topics spanning from war in Iraq to the years of the Civil War. The further presence of a painter who is going blind prompts comparison to Victor Erice's The Quince Tree Sun (1992), itself a deep reflection on art, the passing of time, and human transience, although The Sky Turns lacks the full-bodied conceptual containment of Erice's masterpiece (albeit the films are different in scope).
However, if the jury was to highlight what really was representative of landmark developments in recent filmmaking, then it should have not contented itself with just a special mention to the most outstanding film in competition, Ho Yuhang's Sanctuary (2004). A prominent exponent of the Malaysian digital new wave, which in most instances could be described as an emanation of the wider constellation of Chinese diasporic cinema, Ho has consistently improved in ambition and achievement since his already remarkable debut feature Min (2003). In Sanctuary Ho depicts the alienation and dissemination of Chinese Malaysians, focusing, through a neat and articulate formal scheme, on their marginalisation, by conveying a feeling of spatial compartmentalisation and a denial of verbal interaction. Ho refuses to let his three protagonists share with each other the spaces they inhabit, yet at the same time he delineates separate trajectories that refuse direct interplay. For these characters there's no escape from a sense of permanent floating and idleness, since possible redemption through a safe identitary anchor is denied by the loss, or rather hybridisation, of their Chineseness. Inevitably, the pillars of identity provided by family and house (which in Chinese culture, are equated) are here severely jeopardised. At the figurative level, Ho seals his protagonists outside a house that is impossible to share, (re)staging twice a sequence of denied access that is the ultimate key to enter the film; at the semantic level, by questioning the notion of jia (house=family) and the codification of human relationships, Ho ventures into territories close to those mapped by the most famous Malaysian Chinese, the Taiwan-adopted Tsai Ming-liang, however as he does not provide new possible combinations of bonding, and instead stresses the paralysing impasse, Ho's film is even bleaker and more discomforting than those of Tsai. A remarkable detail, nonetheless, asserts the “Chineseness” of this Malaysian film (2): the original title of the film is Wù, meaning fog or mist in Chinese; in the opening credit, the character, whose radical is “rain”, is just followed by an empty shot of falling rain.
Another remarkable competing title also came from South East Asia: Bride of Silence (Hat mua roi bao lau) (2005), made by Vietnamese sister and brother filmmakers Doan Minh Phuong and Doan Thanh Nghia. Described as the very first feminist film out of Vietnam, Bride of Silence is indeed a film that highlights the plight of the female subject, not so much through its apparent, obvious tale of a pre-colonial Vietnam peasant girl who chooses silence and refuses to reveal the name of the man who made her pregnant, and her consequent condemnation from the village community, but for its way of articulating its fabula with narrative devices that stress the notion of enunciation, in terms of subjectivity and gendering. As the whole story is put into images that rely upon concentric and imbricate narrations voiced by male characters, the Doan siblings emphasise the idealisations, manipulations and falsifications operated upon the story of a female character by male narrators. The search for his mother (the “bride” of the title), or rather the story of his mother, by the young male protagonist reveals itself to be a pretext, or better an interface, through which to illustrate and thematise the denial of voice to the woman character/s, who in the end linger/s as impenetrable, ineffable Sphinx/es. The Doans in fact clinch their portrait of feminine elusiveness through a second female character, doomed to premature, enigmatic volatilisation, a singer that fascinates the young protagonist searching for his mother, providing a meaningful décalage, intrinsically resounding of déjà vu, and localised at a different level of narration (and once again voiced or projected by the subjectivity of a male character). Ultimately, the film bravely questions the whole notion of (its) representation and illustration as stated through a haunting sequence in the first half of the film: when the young peasant tells the story of her illicit escape into wilderness (which might surreptitiously conceal the secret of her pregnancy), the camera moves away to the empty courtyard, refusing to apply to her tale the same canon of (male-originated) illustration that organises the structure of the whole film. Bride of Silence also received a special mention (to my personal recollection, it is the first time a Rotterdam jury has awarded special mentions other than the three usual, equal Tiger Awards).
Spying Cam (Frakchi) (2004), by independent Korean filmmaker Whang Cheol-mean (more conventionally transcribed as Hwang Cheol-min), was instead the deserved winner of the FIPRESCI prize. One could easily argue that Whang's film is the most enticing political pamphlet penned through cinema in years. Seemingly starting as an huis clos featuring two men barricaded in a sweltering motel room, playing puzzling games of defiance and domination that cannot fit the external world's attempt of tagging them as a gay couple, Spying Cam slowly descends into the hells of moral theorisation staging the rehearsals of a video-play of Crime and Punishment by the two men. The political scope is not yet revealed, but the different interactions with and fruition of the text and of its meaning provides an abstract, yet powerful factual allocation of the characters in the chessboard of human interaction, and also perceptively plays on a metonymical, though still undefined, level. When, eventually, light is fully shed on the historical and political context (which for Korean audiences is anticipated by the original title, referring to spies infiltrated by the military in youth organisations opposing the regime), the film reshapes itself as a tense thriller, doomed to an ill-fated ending. The intriguing narrative denouement of Whang's film, which seems to progressively track from the more undefined, general and universal to the more specific and circumscribed, zooming on basic details only at the very last minute, acts as a proficient tool to bewilder audiences but, at the same time, promptly allows them to interrogate themselves about the interplay between the macro level of contingent political situations and the micro level of human nature and individual behaviour. The questions Spying Cam raises are indeed gripping, and the way Whang rears them through the dual device of the video camera and Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment makes them resound as simultaneously timeless and inescapably contemporary.
In continuity with the best of Cannes last year, apart from Asian features, the picks of the Rotterdam competition were the Latin American entries. The Brazilian Dunor My Friend (O Amigo Dunor) (2005) by José Eduardo Alcazar is a magmatic concoction of disparate images and sounds coming from the editing process of a grotesque B-movie and tells the story of a blind man who wants to get rid of his pestiferous wheelchair-confined wife, and the aulic and exotic notes of travel of a French intellectual visiting Brazil, against the background of military dictatorship in the late '70s. Alcazar's film delves (not so) obliquely into the turmoil of Brazilian history, commenting sapidly on the cultural and social context of those days, but it also functionally fractures itself to question the idea of Brazil at large, in all its external and internal, political and historical and, of course, cinematic implications. From Argentina, Kept and Dreamless (Las Mantenidas sin sueños) (2005), the first feature directed by actress Vera Fogwill and Martin Desalvo was perhaps the most commercially viable and crowd-pleasing film competing for the Tiger Awards, and it is undeniably surprising that apparently it still has not attracted the interest it deserves from international buyers. Filled with witty and humorous lines that are never shallow, this bittersweet and often piercing story of a child who's much smarter than her ten years of age, of her drug-addicted mother, and the oddly eccentric characters that surround them gives an unexpected and insightful view of contemporary Argentina: not only does Kept and Dreamless play whimsically with the tropes of the devastating economical crisis, but it also understatedly examines the role of bourgeois conformism in shaping the country's past and present, thus presenting a memorable collective coming of age story that is telling in its socio-political frame and thoroughly mature in its approach to filmmaking. A real gem of a film.
As for the other titles in competition, as usual at IFFR, most presented reasons or aspects of thematic interest or aesthetic quality, nevertheless what made them pale in comparison with the aforementioned films was the lack of engagement into larger discourse enabling them to overcome the strict individuality or the feeling of “undistinguishedness”. Films like Thomas Durchschlag's Alone (Allein) (2004) – a sensitive portrait of a disturbed woman that features an impressive performance from actress Lavinia Wilson – or Waves (Onde) (2005) by Francesco Fei – a story of the strange love affair between a young woman with a big mark on her face and a blind musician that offers an interesting cogitation on vision and identity and makes good use of refined sound design and the unusual background of the city of Genoa – although they certainly achieved their specific goals, struggle with the palpable, incumbent risks of déjà vu, and seem to obliterate the common concerns about contemporary European (art) cinema as lost into conventional narratives of individual or relational solitude, incapable of mirroring wider socio-political context or engaging into radical formal or narrative challenges. The same syndrome somehow affects another film of the Chinese diaspora, the Dutch competition entry Paradise Girls (2004) by Fow Pyng Hu, whose three portraits of Asian women in different countries never quite escape the limits of a now-conventional conceptual scheme of articulation. The worst example of this lassitude was Norwegian Erik Poppe's Hawaii, Oslo (2004), an overly predictable and lenient urban fresco playing with the usual mechanics of intertwining destinies, or what Fredric Jameson suitably defined as “synchronous monadic simultaneity”, without any vigour or novelty. Russian independent cinema icon Renata Litvinova in her directorial debut Goddess (Boginya: kak ya polyubila) (2004) at least follows the unusual steps of her mentor Kira Muratova; unfortunately her film is ruined by a preposterous narcissism and an embarrassingly ridiculous ending that unabashedly overstates the ultimate “meaning” of the film.
Finally, The Soup, One Morning (2004) by Takahashi Izumi happened to be an interesting counterproof and refreshing answer to the redundancies of most European films in being another film dealing with alienation and relational impasse, mixed with a concern on the growing penetration of the sect phenomenon in Japanese society, but in giving this riskily hackneyed concept a visual treatment of uncompromised rigour that highlights the resourceful skills and invention of the filmmaker in using a limited set of resources (one apartment, two characters) to the maximum aesthetic and emotional profit.
1. Recently inaugurated, similar initiatives of Berlin (Berlinale Co-Production Market) and now Cannes (l'Atelier du Festival) easily demonstrate the groundbreaking contribution of Rotterdam in re-defining the role of a festival.
2. One has here to remind that since the late '70s filmmaking in languages other than Malay was officially banned in Malaysia (the so-called bumiputra-ism of cinema, bumiputra meaning “son of the earth”). All Chinese filmmakers of the new wave of Malaysian cinema have thus been actually operating in illegality.
Senses of Cinema issue no. 35, apr-jun 2005
This is another unofficial site for Lav Diaz, "...the great Filipino poet of cinema." (Cinema du reel, Paris).