Ugly city, beautiful cinema.

It strikes me that the world’s major film festivals are opposed in nature to the cities that host them. Take Berlin. The city is an epicentre of alternative subcultures, artistic avant-gardes and political contestation, and yet its festival is, for the most part, a tame and tepid affair, seemingly focused more on the glitz of red carpet gala nights than on providing a challenging selection of films for its audience. Or Venice. A venerable city, steeped in history, wealth and artistic tradition, a sublimely picturesque tourist magnet, and yet under Marco Müller its festival had developed a reputation for a distinctly radical, even scruffy taste in programming. Cannes the city is a byword for ostentatious Euro-trash and hedonistic excess, and yet Cannes the festival awards its main prize to directors of the ilk of Weerasethakul and Malick. New York is the biggest metropolis in the Western world, indiscriminately drawing its population from across the globe, while the New York Film Festival is notable for an incomparably small program, so selective in its tastes as to be rarefied. The Toronto film festival, meanwhile, seems to belie everything about the Canadian national character: whereas the city’s denizens are reasonable and measured, and labour under the shadow of a vast neighbour, its festival is big and brash, and does not hesitate to throw its muscle around.

And so it follows that Rotterdam, a place at first glance devoid of charm, a workaday port city, having been flattened by bombing in World War II and reconstructed quickly, cheaply, and without much thought given to aesthetic prowess, is the unlikely location for a festival which does more, perhaps, than any of its European equivalents (only the Viennale can rival it) to provide a vast, multifarious platform for the cinema to exhibit its myriad artistic merits. In comparison to its festival, the city of Rotterdam is akin to a nondescript railway platform, whose formal properties bear no relation to the fact that it can be the site for the earth-shattering encounter of two lovers.

Compact city, colossal festival.

I walk out of Rotterdam Centraal station, which seems to be permanently undergoing refurbishment, and the festival’s main hub, a convention centre dubbed De Doelen, looms in front of me, mere blocks away. Abutting it on the Schouwburgplein are two of the IFFR’s main screening venues, a Pathé multiplex and De Schouwburg itself, a prominent picture palace. A five-minute walk will take me to the Westblaak, where the Cinerama provides several more screens for the festival’s offerings. With its diminutive, walkable city centre, Rotterdam is the perfect site for what a teacher of mine has called the “perambulatory mode” of spectatorship prevailing among those, like me, who attempt to squeeze an improbable number of screenings into their time at film festivals. Or at least it was, until a year ago, when the Lantaren Venster, the fifth arm of the IFFR’s pentad, was moved from its earlier central location to a newly de-industrialised site on the city’s harbour, separated from its sister-venues by a 10-minute metro journey, or a semi-chimerical shuttle-bus service provided by the festival organisers. The festival has thus had its previous, quasi-Aristotelian spatial unity sundered, but compared to other sprawling beasts Rotterdam is still an intimate, close-knit affair, where industry figures, journalists, filmmakers, and even (lo!) the general public can mingle freely, unencumbered by the inhibitions which seem to dominate at many other festivals.

Where the festival is a behemoth, however, is in its program. What can I say, reader, but that I was only able to dip my toe into the vast ocean of cinema that presented itself before me. Even the most earnest cinephile would be incapable of taking in more than a mere smattering of the festival’s however many hundred films, presented over however many thousand sessions (it would be too tedious to be more precise with these figures), and even with the aid of Senses’ resident guerrilla organisation, Celluloid Liberation Front, who will be focusing their report on the Tiger Awards competition, large swathes of the festival escaped my attentions.

Nonetheless, when, returning home after closing night, I was pressed for the festival’s highlights, the names of two countries – Greece and Brazil – irrepressibly sallied forth from my lips. Indeed, the quality of their respective cinemas might be the only thing uniting these countries at present, given their diametrically opposed fates: while Brazilian social-democracy is confidently presiding over an unprecedented economic boom, Greece’s kleptocrats steer the country from one fiscal calamity to the next, the abyss of default yawning before it, while its people suffers hardship and humiliation unknown for a generation. These, then, seem to be the divergent conditions under which the cinema can flourish: either the heady boom-times of untroubled economic prosperity (Hollywood in the 1920s, France in the 1960s), or situations of despairing penury and volatile uncertainty (Weimar cinema, Italian neo-realism).

In the case of Greece, Rotterdam confirmed the vitality of a budding cinematic movement sprouting amidst the ruins of Hellenic neo-liberalism. If Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and Tsangari’s ATTENBERG in the last two years had not already alerted us, then the presentation of the former director’s second film  (which has already navigated through a number of festivals), and Makridis’ debut L, should leave us in no doubt that something fascinating is happening in Greek film. I can well envision that festival scribes are already scrambling to dub this phenomenon a “Greek New Wave”. Oh, poverty of the imagination! We have already had so many new waves swash past us that the term has come to seem decidedly superannuated. It is a critical shorthand, and a lazy one at that, bandied about whenever two or three filmmakers from any particular country burst on the scene at roughly the same time, even when they share nothing in common bar their provenance.

In contrast, the Greek filmmakers showcased at Rotterdam are working in close collaboration – Athina produces a film for Yorgos, whose screenplay is by Efthimis, who also writes for Babis, to paraphrase Truffaut’s description of the original new wave – and, while not seeing the need to issue manifestos, they are working to the same program. The thematic concerns common to their films are easily apparent: the analysis of power relations, the tension inherent to the breakdown of family structures, the pervasive threat of outbursts of random violence. But deeper than this, there is an underlying illogicality suffusing these films. Not a single major character in any of the four films mentioned acts in accordance with the expectations of a rationally-minded individual. All are traumatised, shell-shocked, psychologically damaged – and nothing could be more apt for a nation mired in the irrationality of capitalism in crisis mode. But beyond this, what marks out this batch of Greek films most incisively is their approach to performance. The figures present in these films persistently skirt the uneasy threshold between the conventions of naturalistic acting and something far more radical – something which at times seems to be recitation, as if the characters were rehearsing lines to themselves for the performance they are to give, which at times seems to be the incantation of a mantra, endlessly repeated to provide a reassurance which is to be found nowhere else, and which at other times seems to amount to nothing more than the spouting of meaningless jibberish. In the best tradition of Ionesco or Arrabal, the very bounds of linguistic signification itself are being tested by these filmmakers. Thus, although I automatically recoil from the aggressive jostling to be the first to coin names for cinematic tendencies, if I were really pushed to come up with a label for this nascent movement, I would humbly proffer the term “Greek Absurdism”. Nothing else seems to encapsulate its essence so well.

I must maintain, however, that this movement has not yet fully ripened, and that as promising as it is (which is more promising than almost anything else in the cinema at present), the great film of the collapse of capitalism in Greece has yet to be made. And indeed, conditions are not propitious for it to ever arise. The films which have already surfaced in festivals were made under the old funding structures, and the austerity measures henceforth decimating the country will hardly grant largesse to the pet projects of arthouse filmmakers. There are already signs that Lanthimos et cie will end up joining a neo-Hellenic diaspora, scattering to more accommodating lands. We can only hope, then, that their inevitable turn to international co-productions does not end up stifling the radical potential of these filmmakers, reducing them to churning out the Europuddings which dominate the rest of the continent. Only their talent and their resolve can forestall such a fate.

Brazil seemed to be more present at Rotterdam than any other country – the Netherlands included. In contrast to Greece, conditions in the country are particularly propitious for film production to flourish: steady economic growth accompanied by a hegemonic ruling party intent on the construction of a mature national identity. And in an even greater contrast to their Greek counterparts, none of the numerous Brazilian films present at Rotterdam could be said to coalesce around any particular movement. Cinematic chasms separated the coming-of-age story in Roberta Marquez’s Rânia from Julio Bressane’s retrospective look at his career in Rua Aperana 52, the depiction of feisty octogenarians in Helvécio Marins Jr and Clarissa Campolina’s Girimunho (Swirl) from that of an alcoholic anarchist street-poet in Cláudio Assis’s Rat Fever, or Carlos Fausto et al’s The Hyperwomen – a documentary on the ritual dances of Amazon Indians – from Eduardo Nunes’ Sudoeste – a stylised, chiaroscuro meander through the realms of the fantastic. Symptomatic, then, is the fact that the strongest film representing Brazil, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighbouring Sounds, barely felt Brazilian at all. Its cool portrayal of the attempts of a cocooned bourgeois neighbourhood in Recife to stave off the lurking menace surrounding it, in fact, seemed positively Teutonic in temperament – no wonder that one of the film’s main characters had just come back from a seven-year stay in Germany.

That Brazil’s filmmakers have a vast national cinematic tradition behind them, which stretches far beyond the world renowned Cinema Novo, was amply shown by one of the major retrospectives of the festival, focusing on the films made between 1967 and 1987 in the Boca do Lixo (literally, “The Mouth of Garbage”), a seedy district in downtown São Paulo which became a hub of independent film production at a time of stifling military dictatorship. None of the 16 films selected by curators Gabe Klinger and Gerwin Tamsma, a mere sprinkling of the huge output emitted by the Boca do Lixo, will go down as a masterpiece in the history of world cinema – and rightly so. At its trashiest, the movement disgorged “pornochanchada” exploitation films with titles like Fuk Fuk à Brasileira and Sit on Mine, and I’ll Enter Yours, but at its best, and especially in its early period, it yielded dizzyingly carnivalesque satires by startlingly precocious directors, such as Rogério Sganzerla’s O bandido da luz vermelha (The Red Light Bandit, 1967) and João Silvério Trevisan’s Orgia (ou: o homem que dia cria) (Orgy (or: The Man Who Gave Birth), 1970). How refreshing it was to take a break from Rotterdam’s deluge of contemporary cinema and spend a couple of hours taking in these films, which, made to be shown in fleapit movie-houses in the surrounding neighbourhoods of São Paulo, could not have been more remote from the received aesthetics of film festivals!

Meanwhile, Thailand’s most prominent offering this year, Wichanon Somumjarn’s In April the Following Year, There Was a Fire, could not have been more self-conscious of its status as film which will live and die on the festival circuit. Since Boonmee nabbed the Palme d’or in 2010, Thai cinema is flavour of the month in festival-land, and Somumjarn plays with this all-too knowingly. The self-referential jokes – about Weerasethakul, film festivals, and the film’s own financing by the Hubert Bals fund – the moments of autobiographical reflexivity (it’s a film-within-a-film, get it?) and the heavy doses of meditative slowness and enigmatic mysticism, which come off as all-too calculated, all scream a single message. “We are no longer innocent,” the Thai cinema is telling us.

If other nations can be critiqued for releasing films purely intended for festival circulation, the opposite charge must be levelled against my own country. Australia’s film bureaucracy seems actively engaged in stymying the ability of any film to excite festival audiences. Having utterly failed to foster an auteur cinema, they have changed tack, and are now intent on failing to foster a genre cinema instead. Yes, every year, a couple of films will make their way into Cannes, Berlin, Toronto – geographical distribution requirements oblige – and everyone will give themselves a big pat on the back for the achievement. But name me one Australian filmmaker from the last 20 years who has become a commodity in global festival circles, whose films people flock to in the same way that they do for the latest Abbas Kiarostami or Pedro Costa, or, more humbly, the latest Yorgos Lanthimos or Albert Serra. With Hail, however, Amiel Courtin-Wilson shows, more than any of his compatriots, promise of catapulting himself into this hallowed company. In contrast to the aseptic vapidity of the films most vaunted by our film production bodies, Hail is raw, unvarnished; melodic yet jarring. But this is the stuff of art, and Courtin-Wilson’s poetry of the image achieves genuinely ecstatic moments of truth, in the best vein of Werner Herzog or Philippe Grandrieux. Indeed, I would willingly trade the few seconds of footage showing a horse carcass tumbling through the sky, with drops of its blood speckled on the camera lens, for everything made by every other Australian filmmaker working today.

And why shouldn’t Australia be capable of producing successful auteurs, if a country like Catalonia – which isn’t even a country – can do it. Wearing an imposing fur coat, oversized sunglasses and bedecked with jewellery, Albert Serra made one of the most striking appearances in the festival, to present Els noms de Crist (The Names of Christ). After Honor de cavalleria and Birdsong, two of the stand-out films of the 2000s, his latest is not a film per se, but rather a 3-hour long, 14-episode video series, commissioned by the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art and filmed on its grounds over the course of two days. While an interesting work, containing some sublime moments – both those filmed by Serra himself and those he plundered from the archives (with films by Vidor, De Mille and others making an appearance) – it does not reach the heights scaled by Serra’s previous efforts, as he himself admitted in a Q&A to the eight or so people who had stuck it out in the Cinerama, while a cold snap-induced snowstorm battered Rotterdam. Confessing that his main interest in making Els Noms was monetary in nature, and thus comparing gallery installations to the commercial films made by auteurs of old to fund their more ambitious projects, the charmingly cantankerous Serra bemoaned the fact that even those who commissioned the work could not be bothered to sit through the whole thing. Oh, curse of the filmmaker tempted by the gallery’s allures! What benefits will you draw from this Faustian pact?

While a very different director, Whit Stillman was as totemic for the 1990s as Serra has been for the 2000s. But no sooner were his films successful than they were almost universally reviled for their supposedly unapologetic WASP-elitism. We can only hope that history will judge Stillman more kindly, but the backlash was severe enough for him to skip the 2000s altogether – Damsels in Distress being his first offering since 1998’s Last Days of Disco. The film throws together a bizarre mixture of elements: Greta Gerwig plays the alpha-female of a group of co-eds from a fictitious Ivy League university, but the storyline is a glorious mess, and a peculiar tonality pervades the work, with a hint of Greek illogicality and a dollop of lowbrow physical humour. As sad as it is to say, it is unlikely that this strangely endearing film will resurrect Stillman’s career: too idiosyncratic for mainstream audiences, yet too broad for arthouse tastes, it seems fated to sink into oblivion.

More unambiguously praiseworthy is Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, whose merits will come as a surprise to virtually nobody. Indeed, I had almost been put off watching it in the first place by the hype that had preceded the film from an easily excitable, and rarely justified, British press. But the error would have been mine, for Haigh’s dissection of a weekend spent together by two young gay men from Sheffield is an assured, masterful work. Though minimally shot, with most of the film taking place in the protagonists’ bedrooms, Weekend does not feel in any way limited: the characterisation is deep and nuanced, and issues of sexuality, identity and the nature of human relationships are deftly handled.

There are many other films I could mention, if my goal were to tire you with an exhaustive account of my time in Rotterdam. There are even more films which I avoided altogether, either because I had already encountered them at earlier events, or because I occasionally had to eat or sleep. Indeed, whole sections of the festival inevitably slipped under my radar: the Olaf Möller-curated Peter von Bagh retrospective, the Ai Weiwei tribute, the mandatory Arab Spring documentary sidebar, virtually all the shorts, and even most of the competition films. Fully aware of my assignment, I battled against the program’s pitiless immensity (though somewhat reduced from the size of previous programs). As the festival’s end neared I felt as if I had seen all too much, and nowhere near enough. The films I had viewed, so many of which conform to a certain stylisto-thematic prerogative, inexorably merged into a single, dappled patchwork of visual impressions, like a week-long Brakhage film, from which I could salvage only random word associations: The Invader – preposterous, I Wish – cute, Un amour de jeunesse – muddled, 38 Witnesses – pedestrian, A Simple Life – wry.

How to describe the electrifying jolt to my wearying system, then, when, as the festival drew to a close, I was assaulted by the verve of Davide Manuli’s La leggenda di Kaspar Hauser (The Legend of Kaspar Hauser)? Filmed in the most splendid black and white photography since the Lumières, and pulsatingly scored by Vitalic, Manuli transposes the Kaspar Hauser story to an atemporal spaghetti western setting, populated by supermodels (including the androgynous Silvia Calderoni as Kaspar), an Italian peasant with elephantiasis, and Vincent Gallo in two equally outlandish roles, as a Sheriff who teaches Kaspar how to become a DJ, and a Pusher who hunts him down at the command of the Duchess of this post-apocalyptic realm. The shots bookending the film, showing Gallo beckoning a trio of flying saucers soaring through the sky, are far and away the most indelible images of this year’s festival.

James Benning’s films similarly offer respite from an exacting festival schedule. After mentally juggling an avalanche of plotlines, characters and narrative devices, it comes as a relief to sit in front of small roads for an hour and a half and content oneself with watching a procession of 47 shots of roads, taken from all parts of the United States, bar the north-east (it strikes me, adoptive Connecticut Yankee that I am, that Benning has persistently snubbed this particular corner of the continent). There are those who consider Benning’s films to be masterpieces, but for me it is enough that they are just pieces. And so the wise festival organiser will follow Rotterdam’s lead in scheduling Benning films near the end of the program, when the festival-goer can treat the session as a cinematic siesta, languorously decompressing, putting his feet up, sinking deep into his seat, and playing with his girlfriend’s fingers, while placidly taking in the landscapes presented to him.

It must be said, however, that the newly digital Benning is half the filmmaker his pellicular predecessor was. With a Benning film on celluloid, a great deal of the interest was seeing the interaction between the pro-filmic reality and the filming process itself, the grain, flare, scoria and miasma of his favoured 16mm format. On digital, this is all lost, and his work is duly diminished. Indeed, bereft of any other soapbox, I shall take this opportunity to lament the impoverishment of the film-going experience that the spread of digital projection has engendered, with Rotterdam, too, now tipping towards DCP for its screenings. Oh yes, the powers that be may vaunt their pristine, phantomically operated 4K projectors, which, they say, can perfectly replicate the look and feel of the best 35mm screening facilities. But that is precisely the point. I readily admit that the resolution of DCP is now so high that it can render even the finest of celluloid granularity with unsurpassable fidelity. But it remains at the level of simulation. It is imitative, parasitic, illegitimate. Perhaps most flagrantly, digital projection robs us of the colour of 35, in all its primary rawness. The crystalline, metallic sheen of DCP can not hide the fact that the colours it presents us with are dull, de-saturated, lifeless. Its blues are reduced to a military grey, its reds to a tawny brown. Its greens are putrescent, its yellows sickly. The digital image is, literally, the jaundiced bastard child of the cinema.

And yet it has inherited the kingdom.

The last 35mm camera has rolled off the assembly line. Kodak is bankrupt. Photo labs are refusing to process film. There remains but a few cinemaquisards left, for whom film is essential to their art. And one of the greatest of them all is Ben Rivers. After a long apprenticeship experimenting with shorter formats, Rivers has made the long overdue shift to feature-length production with his black and white, 16mm Cinemascope work Two Years at Sea, charting the day-to-day life of Jake Williams, who leads an entirely self-sufficient existence in a remote part of Scotland. In choosing this subject matter, is Rivers – who admits that he is actively hoarding film stock for the coming end of days – not giving us an allegory for the filmmaker himself, who will somehow have to autarkically subsist, single-handedly rigging together his own equipment, fabricating and developing his own celluloid, once the edifice of industrial film manufacturing has crumbled around him?

If the cinema has any future, then, it seems to lie in the past of the cinema. Certainly there was bountiful evidence of a robust interest in the history of film at Rotterdam, with a striking number of documentaries focused on directors who, even when they are still alive, seem to hail from a bygone era. But I persist in my belief that it is impossible to make a great film about a great filmmaker. One is caught in a bind between either trying to make a conventional film, which immediately appears outmoded in comparison to the subject matter, or trying to make something in the vein of the filmmaker in question, which, done without their characteristic flair and talent, can only be a pale imitation. Moreover, when the filmmaker is still alive, and agrees to participate in the project, his personality can be a detrimentally overwhelming force on the production. Such was the case with Martina Kudlacek’s Fragments of Kubelka – a four-hour documentary on a figure whose œuvre amounts to a mere 62 minutes. Kubelka talks in the film, and talks, and talks. At times it is mesmerising, at other times one could not help but feel that, with the aid of a judicious editor, a good 90-minute documentary could be found somewhere in this monster.

In stark contrast, Pietro Marcello, in his Il silenzio di Pelesjan (The Silence of Pelechian), manages to track down the reclusive Armenian filmmaker, but is met with nothing but silence – as Pelechian agrees to be on camera on the strict condition that he will not open his mouth. Marcello’s aim in making the filmmaker’s remarkable work more widely known can only be commended, but he was unable to really pierce what makes Pelechian such a unique filmmaker, and his mash-ups of Pelechian films often did a disservice to the originals. Astonishing, however, was the archival footage Marcello was able to unearth, including some silent shots of Pelechian hobnobbing with Brezhnev in a Soviet space centre, for the filming of Our Century (1983). How did a recondite Armenian experimental filmmaker manage to have a film commissioned by the Soviet space agency, with the official imprimatur of the General Secretary himself? There is a story here, but unfortunately it is one that Marcello does not dig deeper into.

Perhaps the film which came closest to refuting my stance towards films-on-filmmakers was James June Schneider’s Jean Epstein: Young Oceans of Cinema. Schneider set himself a humble goal: to return to the shores of Britanny, the site for most of Epstein’s later work, and juxtapose images from the original films with footage taken in the present day. At certain moments in the film, indeed, he dissolves from an Epstein scene to the same location viewed today, with such an astonishingly precise matching of camera angles, that audible gasps of delight could be heard from the audience. And just as beautiful as the extracts from Epstein’s films were the extracts from his writings – nobody has written on the cinema with more emotive force.

Enough from me, then. I will never find the way to say how much I love film festivals. Point blank. The film festival seems to me like two Siamese twins joined together at the stomach, but sundered at the heart. The first of these brothers is the art of cinema, the second is the film industry. So you have to love it and hate it at the same time – and love it as much as you hate it. Viewed from Etna, there is indeed an intelligence to this machine. I do not want to do it the disservice of overestimating it. But what can I say that would be adequate? A week and a half ago, I said Bonjour, cinéma. And now I must bid it goodbye. But I will no doubt return to Rotterdam. After all, the cinema leads me there.

International Film Festival Rotterdam
25 January – 5 February 2012
website: http://www.filmfestivalrotterdam.com/en