21 January – 1 February 2009
Pouring out of Rotterdam’s late-night screenings into the chilly streets, it was hard to miss the giant screen projections on the sides of the city’s tallest skyscrapers. Near festival headquarters, Carlos Reygadas’ footballers deftly dribbled around and slide-tackled each other in Serenghetti, and with Nanouk Leopold and Daan Emmen’s Close-up, a watchful man stared out at bundled passersby during an all-night, six-hour portrait. Perhaps most memorable was the image of an increasingly frenzied and ecstatic Isabella Rossellini strapped to an electric chair in her collaboration with Guy Maddin, Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair. In between jittery cuts, other images erupted without warning, dreamlike and erotic shocks so large and demanding that they could happen only outside the space of the theatre. These large-scale projections were the biggest and most visible part of the entire festival – so prominent, in fact, that programmer Edwin Carels speculated that most people probably wouldn’t even realise that what they were seeing was a part of it. Rotterdam has always been known for being one of the most innovative of international festivals, and in addition to cutting-edge programming it consistently challenges its own assumptions regarding films and film-viewing. In recent years, the question of the festival’s place in the digital age has been of central concern, as has the material specificity of film viewing, from devoted celluloid purists to those experiments, like the giant screen projections, which take spectators out of the theatre and call into question the nature of the viewing experience itself.
Sometimes shifting the frame of viewing was enough to unsettle deep-seated viewing habits. In a stark, black theatre space at the Venster/Lantaren cinema, the audience gathered in makeshift rows to watch The Nickelodeon, an interactive performance by the Brussels-based group, C&H, offered a kind of playful structuralism by reducing famous film scenes to their soundtracks and replacing the action with performers holding steel frames of various sizes. The audience selected the clips, which ranged from the nested frames of a Eurovision ’08 broadcast and the diminutive, music-cued rectangles for Bambi, to the deft alternation of shot-reverse-shot in Manhattan and a sweeping wide shot in Star Wars. The result was surprisingly balletic and engaging: here the black-clad stagehands took centre stage and revealed the strenuous work of cameras, though in a broader sense the performance called into question who exactly was acting, whether it was the audience members choosing clips, the performers athletically balancing the frames, or the invisible actors on whom they fixated. The program of Morgan Fisher’s films, in addition to his work on display at the TENT gallery, posed similar questions. With his Aspect Ratio (2004) installation, Fisher mounted mirrors along the walls of a rectangular room, each shaped to standard film frames such as Panavision or Todd-AO. Viewing any individual mirror, however, produced an excess of pure form: not only could you see your own reflection in the mirror, but also the reflection of other mirrors, with views of other visitors in the room, and even some unexpected glimpses of yourself. Fisher’s film program, which took place in a more conventional theatre space, included the seemingly candid but structurally complex The Director and His Actor Look at Footage Showing Preparations for an Unmade Film (2) (1968) and the playful Projection Instructions (1970), both of which revealed spaces that normally remain hidden. The latter was particularly intriguing, as it forced the person in the booth into a rare kind of visibility by demanding that he adjust everything from focus and masking to the lighting of the beam. Fisher, who has resisted being called a filmmaker, has nevertheless been deeply engaged with the material components of the medium, perhaps nowhere more thoughtfully and lovingly than in the landmark Standard Gauge (1984), which concluded the program, a deeply personal rumination on film and filmmaking, with every aspect, even the slightest or most accidental scrap of film, lovingly brought out and remembered.
Ken Jacobs also revisited a strip of cherished footage, returning to the 1905 Biograph film that comprised the source footage in his groundbreaking structural film of the same name, Tom Tom the Piper’s Son (1969), through the digital manipulations of Return to the Scene of the Crime and the 3D effects, complete with 3D glasses, of Anaglyph Tom. Few experimental filmmakers, let alone veterans, have been as invested in the limits of the digital medium as Jacobs, and in these two new pieces he continues to pinch, overlay, stretch, and displace his figures in an optically dazzling and disorienting range of works. In the midst of both films’ visual calisthenics, and particularly with Anaglyph Tom’s 3D immersion, the story behind young Tom’s theft of the pig – the original crime – begins to take prominence, as Jacobs professed an increased admiration for each of the film’s characters, and even admitted to not having seen the pig until after many viewings. For the audience, too, the pig begins to come into focus, albeit through a purposefully distorted lens.
The alteration of standard cinematic devices proved equally disruptive of audience expectations. Liew Seng Tat, a winner of last year’s Tiger Award for his restrained debut feature, Flower in the Pocket, demonstrated a deft command of cinematic surprise, when, in his short film Chasing Cats and Cars, a simple pan evokes both expectation and its frustration. As a car arrives at a hospital turnabout, a groaning man is carried inside while, in the foreground, his friend makes the requisite calls to work and family. The camera swivels then rests a while on the side of the building, where we see the driver nervously place a call. We quickly learn that he also happens to be the one who hit the young man inside, and further rotation reveals that the man’s leg has somehow disappeared. In a surrealist leap, the missing leg inches through the grass until the camera is back in its original position, with the car pulling up to repeat the mystery all over again.
The scene of film viewing, which, in a way, is a ground zero for all films, comprised the entirety of Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin. Building on his segment, “Where Is My Romeo?” in the 2007 omnibus Chacun son cinéma, and teasing out the strain of formalist experimentation that resides in all of his films, Shirin fixes on the rapt faces of over a hundred Iranian actresses, and one notable French one, Juliette Binoche, as they watch the doomed plight of the titular 12th century heroine who struggles between duty and desire. While the offscreen story, improbably lush and aurally expressive, is far from the nuanced dynamics of Kiarostami’s usual output, the women and few men are mesmerising in their immersion. With Shirin, Kiarostami asserts that the transformations happen not only onscreen but in the theatre as well. Aleksei Balabanov has a much darker take on the cinematic experience in Morphia, a sharp and bleakly comic story of a revolution-era country doctor based on a story by Mikhail Bulgakov. In the film’s final scene, with the world falling apart around him, a young man steps into a cinema, laughs along with the crowd, then pulls a gun on himself. With the movie still going at full blast, a man standing next to him absentmindedly wipes at his blood-dampened face, unaware, or possibly unconcerned, at what has just happened. In Morphia, the cinema is equally a place of solace and horror, a darkened chamber where anything can occur.
Philip Widmann’s Destination Finale similarly complicates the relation between the viewer and what is being seen. The film recuts found home movie footage of a European holiday that features a Vietnamese man who poses, reluctantly it seems, in front of the Eiffel Tower, Piccadilly Circus and the Acropolis. The footage was found in 2005 in Saigon and Widmann added sound effects, including rain, the chiming of Big Ben and the sound of marching, but no voiceover to guide the footage that’s being seen. Presumably it’s just as perplexing for him: who is this man that we’re seeing and who is filming him? More importantly, whose film is this? Destination Finale raises some of the same questions that were treated rather dubiously in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005), but Widmann’s artifact is ever more elusive, even ghostly. At the end of the film, Widmann notes the coincidence of the dates between the footage, estimated between late 1964 and early 1965, and the deployment of US troops to Vietnam in March of 1965, a fact that further complicates the way in which these images might be read. Is this man, in his seeming discomfort, already aware of what’s to come? Or does this slight hint of a narrative only expose the fact that he is ultimately unknowable? Janie Geiser’s Magnetic Sleep (Episode #1) also presents an inscrutable figure on her way to a mysterious destination: in this first installment of ten, the heroine, Marceline, departs the town in which she has lived. Appearing as if from a silent film, she treads the border between dreams and reality, an effect heightened through animated collages and superimposed layers of distorted glass and fabric. Geiser’s materials and actors blend in a wondrous façade that exists only in cinema, a journey made possibly only through cinema.
Travel has always had a special relation to cinema, as it promises the transportation of audiences to different realms of experience, and three films visited the Mojave Desert for its revelatory refractions. With They Shine, Rosa Barba filmed a series of rows of slowly revolving solar panels over which a narrator’s gravelly voice utters a composite of multiple stories, brightening glints from a place seemingly made entirely of light. Philipp Lachenmann’s SHU, which stands for Security Housing Unit, fixes its gaze on a distant prison whose lights slowly appear along with the night sky stars, and then, magically, dart off like tiny aircraft. The points of light here are both precise and imprecise, the markers of ordinary life but also signals of supernatural possibility. Quiero Ver, by Adele Horn, was the most affecting of the trio, as it followed the sights of a devotional group who gathers regularly to seek visions of the Virgin Mary as she appeared in the sun. In the desert heat, they scrutinise photographic flares for signs of the divine, all the while joyfully singing “Quiero Ver”, or, “I want to see”. Eventually Horn’s camera, too, is caught up in the commotion and mesmerised by the spectacle of light itself, which is just as spiritual and transformative as the image everyone seeks.
One of this year’s winners of the Tiger Award for Short Film, A Necessary Music, by Beatrice Gibson, ostensibly travels to New York’s Roosevelt Island but maps onto it the diseased island of Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel, wherein all actors and actions have been recorded and are endlessly replayed. As Robert Ashley gravely quotes passages from the novel, Gibson composes austere portraits of the seemingly vacant island and its inhabitants, who stare into the camera and recite facts and anecdotes of a flimsy, piecemeal history. Casares’ novel has inspired many film adaptations before, most notably Alain Resnais’ L’Année Dernière à Marienbad (1961), but Gibson takes the work to another level by recreating, in a sense, the eternal repetition of the mysterious island. And though she locates Casares’ work in a real place, Roosevelt Island nevertheless seems strangely inaccessible and imaginary, a slender strip of land best known for being in between other places. The actors are almost uncannily still as they recite their lines, which, especially in the case of the children describing census data, seem not to be their own. As they blankly repeat the words, “we shall live in this image forever”, it’s as if they’re fully aware of the artifice surrounding them yet unable to do anything about it.
Like A Necessary Music, Agrarian Utopia conjures the image of a place as an image, but Uruphong Raksasad goes further by persisting with the land to see what it might yield. Over the course of a year, he followed two families as they worked in Thailand’s rice paddies. Part documentary and part fiction – Raksasad rented a piece of land and had the workers use hand equipment – the film manages to capture both the breathtaking, even timeless landscapes as well as the undeniably difficult circumstances of the farmers and, more broadly, the very contemporary political crises shaking their country. As the families labour to rise out of their debts, the utopia Raksasad presents may be in name only, but it’s impossible not to glimpse it either, as when a group of boys splash through a flooded rice paddy, water droplets cascading, or when a sudden storm rolls over a field of young green stalks. While Agrarian Utopia may seem unusually humble in its scope, the clarity and depth of its vision is tremendous, offering both the hardship and the unsentimentalised joys of daily life. During the Q&A, Raksasad announced his intention to screen the film in Bangkok following its Rotterdam premiere, for, as he explained, these rice farmers make up the backbone of the entire country and it was important to him that they be acknowledged. Agrarian Utopia is certainly more than just that; outside of Thailand or the Netherlands, it offers us a view onto something we’ve never seen before, and, like the best of what the festival had to offer, a chance to see differently altogether.
International Film Festival Rotterdam website: http://www.filmfestivalrotterdam.com