On January 25, 2015, a new day dawned on Europe. For the last half-decade, the old continent has been immersed in a miasma of despair, as it has struggled with the effects of an economic crash that, under the obdurately regressive politics enforced by the fundamentalist dinosaurs of neo-liberalism, had transformed into a veritable humanitarian disaster. But on that cold winter’s day, a glint of hope peaked through the pall of gloom, one that came from Europe’s south-eastern corner, the cradle of its civilisation, and the country whose people have most viciously been ravaged by the wounded beast of EU capitalism. In electing the radical left-wing party Syriza to government, with its vocal commitment to ending the asphyxiating straitjacket of austerity, the Greek people jolted the entire continent out of a generation-long political slumber. Yes, the shout rang out from Athens, there is an alternative. The world listened.
Hearing this cry of resistance, however, may have been somewhat more difficult inside the Doelen, the hub of the Rotterdam film festival, from whose press centre I followed the election results on that historic day. As I checked on updates of the situation in between festival screenings, the split nature of my twin passions was rendered palpably evident. Film festivals are notorious for creating bubble-like conditions of isolation from broader political events, especially for those international guests who spend their days shuffling metronomically between their hotel room and the various screening venues. There is a profound irony here, of course. What self-respecting festival does not vaunt itself for offering viewers a window onto the world, for presenting an unparalleled opportunity to gain insight into the social realities of distant lands and alien peoples, for shaping and edifying the politically-engaged global citizens so crucial for addressing the many ills and injustices that plague our planet? For all the accommodations festivals have to make with corporate power and state bureaucracy – necessary, their organisers would no doubt argue, to realise these events in the first place – they nonetheless tend overwhelmingly to be bastions of the cultural left (albeit usually of the soft, middle-class variety), small islets of Gramsciesque counter-hegemony amidst the great oceans of late capitalist consumerism. The value of this is not to be denied, and festivals should be avidly defended against attacks from penny-pinching accountants and reactionary demagogues alike. But the act of attending a film festival, and the marathon of binge-watching it involves, inevitably cuts one off from the whorls of world politics, as evaluating the relative merits of the latest offering from a master auteur takes precedence over following the vicissitudes of a mass protest movement, a civil war, or a clash in the electoral arena, let alone actively engaging in such struggles.
Perhaps, then, it is the ascendancy of the role played by film festivals in the dissemination – and even production – of global arthouse cinema that has been a contributing factor in a certain loss of combativeness, and loss of friction, that can be detected in recent years. The last occasion I had to discuss such matters came in a dialogue with Joshua Sperling in the wake of last year’s New York Film Festival. Here we noted a distinct ebb in the fortunes of cinematic realism. With a few honourable exceptions – Two Days, One Night by the Dardenne brothers and Timbuktu by Abderrahmane Sissako – this tendency appeared to us to either be sinking into despairing miserabilism, on the one hand, or morphing into winking self-indulgence on the other hand. We even speculated that this aesthetic entropy was the result of a more deep-seated historical shift – namely, the demise of the public intellectual, capable not only of reaching a mass audience with challenging work, but of transforming the sentiments of a nation. If this indeed were the case, what options are there for the cinema? What directions might it take in response to such tendencies?
At Rotterdam this year, one potential answer to these questions came in the form of the pithily titled sidebar “Really? Really”, curated by Olaf Möller. Möller, a long-time fixture on the festival circuit and programmer-at-large for a number of European institutions, had devised the section after observing that the present crop of cinema contains a stream of works operating in the tradition of surrealism – that early 20th century art movement that, under the auspices of André Breton and Salvador Dalí, mixed rage at the post-World War I political situation with a visual aesthetic privileging oneiric symbolism and a taste for the illogical and the bizarre. The movement, of course, was to win such success in the public consciousness that its output was progressively banalised. The initial shock value quickly wore thin, ceding instead to a received idea of surrealism involving little more than a handful of visual clichés and the charismatic personalities of individual artists. In his program notes, Möller remarks that the movement had, since the end of the Cold War, “quietly vanished/[been] expunged from the public consciousness – so much so that by now we seem to be incapable of noticing it.” But surrealism, says Möller, “simply had to resurface: certain things haven’t changed these last hundred years or so – they have just mutated, and too often not in a benevolent way.”
Refreshingly, the program did without stalwarts of the “genre” of surrealist cinema such as Un chien andalou and Entr’acte. As Möller explained at an introductory address to one of the screenings (and here I’m paraphrasing somewhat): those of us in the audience are not babies, we’re not students (the reader should mentally add a tone of withering derision to the pronunciation this last word), so we don’t need to be curatorially mollycoddled by being shown films that we have surely had many an occasion to see in the past. Instead, we had the privilege of being presented with an eclectic, wide-ranging slate of works combining the new, the unjustly obscure and the flatly uncategorisable.
Indeed, the session at which Möller delivered this prolegomenon was characteristic of the mix of films on offer in “Really? Really”: proceedings began with the 8-minute short Shaving the Baroness (Lene Berg, 2010), which re-enacted an apocryphal Man Ray/Marcel Duchamp film in which the titular noblewoman has a servant take a razor blade to her mons veneris, continued via Czech filmmaker Jan Nemec’s feature Toyen (2006), a kaleidoscopic essay-film on the life of female surrealist artist Marie Cermínová as she negotiates the political pitfalls of mid-20th century Mitteleuropa, and finishes up with Shtei Nashim Ve’Gever (Two Women and a Man, 2005), Israeli conceptual artist Roee Rosen’s film-prank about the legacy of the (spurious) Jewish Belgian painter Justine Frank. Other vintage works shown in the program veered more towards the overtly shocking, if not indisputably abominable: notable here were the Mondo Cane-inspired film L’occhio selvaggio (The Wild Eye, 1967) by Paolo Cavare, the blasphemous Germano-German underground coproduction Jesus – Der Film (Jesus – The Film, Michael Brynntrup, 1986) and Vernon Chatman’s Final Flesh (2009), a gross-out film realised by low-rent Internet porn companies which was described by Möller, somewhat immoderately it must be said, as “the greatest work of art in cinema ever made.” But it was the freshly minted surrealist-inspired films that undeniably formed the inspiration for this series. Veteran Swedish absurdist Roy Andersson’s En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, only his fifth feature film in 45 years), basking in the glow of its Golden Lion award at last year’s Mostra, was undeniably the most eagerly anticipated of these films. It was from other quarters, however, that I was most enthralled. Two films which garnered fewer accolades form their Venice screenings – Realité (Reality) by Quentin Dupieux and Belluscone: una storia siciliana (Belluscone: A Sicilian Story) – were among the highlights of Rotterdam for me.
A former DJ working under the sobriquet of Mr. Oizo (his late ‘90s minimalist house track “Flat Beat” lingers in the memory), Quentin Dupieux’s reinvention as an eccentric arthouse-meets-B movie filmmaker has had mixed results. But I have no hesitation in hailing Realité a triumph. Set vaguely in the 1980s, and punctuated by samples from Philip Glass’s “Music with Changing Parts”, the film centres on Jason (Alain Chabat), a French filmmaker living in Los Angeles and day-jobbing as a cameraman on a cooking show whose rat suit-wearing host Dennis (Jon Heder) suffers from a psychosomatic skin rash. Jason proposes a movie about killer TV sets to an obsessive-compulsive film producer, who signs onto the project on the proviso that the aspiring director can come up with a truly bloodcurdling cry of pain. His efforts to do so infuriate Jason’s put-upon wife (Élodie Bouchez), a psychiatrist treating a client with cross-dressing fantasies (Eric Wareheim, of Tim & Eric fame) who is also the principal of a middle school attended by the titular character Reality (!), a young girl who finds a mysterious VHS tape in the discarded entrails of a dead boar shot by her father. If this interweaving of narrative strands were not confusing enough, the second half of Réalité sees the film’s diegetic world turn in on itself: Jason discovers, to his surprise, that his film has already been made… by himself, and in a moment indebted to Lost Highway (the Lynch influence is detectable throughout the film) proceeds to have a telephone conversation with his doppelgänger. Truly figuring out the intricacies of this Möbius strip of a plot, with its inextricable web of split identities, parallel universes and temporal loops, rapidly becomes a Sisyphean task for the viewer, but it is worth going along for the labyrinthine ride, as Dupieux injects his film with a dosage of absurdist humour that builds to a comedic peak just as the storyline sinks under the weight of its own logical paradoxes.
Like Dupieux, Franco Maresco is not a purebred cinéaste, but is mainly known in Italy for his satirical television work. Belluscone shows him travelling to Sicily to embark on an investigation into the ties between the country’s bombastic former president/TV mogul Silvio Berlusconi and the island’s all-powerful mafia syndicates. Prompted by the forceful personality of shady promoter Ciccio Mira, Maresco soon gets diverted into exploring the world of “neomelodic” music (a particularly cheesy form of popular entertainment), but it is this milieu that, in the end, seems to offer the best insight into the underlying reasons for the steadfast support for Berlusconi among Sicilians, who go into raptures at the hit panegyric to the president “Vorrei conoscere Berlusconi”. Here, however, Maresco mysteriously departs the scene, his work to be continued by the critic Tatti Sanguineti. Throughout the deconstructionist zigs and zags of the film, the boundaries between documentary and fiction are blurred beyond recognition, but it is precisely in doing so that Belluscone is able to achieve such an incisive probing of the modern Sicilian psyche and its key role in the rise of berlusconismo. Long the butt of mainland Italy’s derision for its people’s supposed brutishness and conservatism, Sicily may well have had the last laugh by forming an attack base for a political movement intent on transforming the entire country into a replica of the clichéd image of the island’s populace. Or so Belluscone would have us believe…
While not included in Möller’s program, Peter Strickland’s latest outing, The Duke of Burgundy, was laced with its own surrealist elements. Its familiar tale of a reversal in the old Hegelian master/slave dialectic is given a twist by the film’s setting in an all-female universe. The lesbian relationship between gruff aristocrat Cynthia (played by Borgen star Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her softly-spoken housekeeper Evelyn (Strickland favourite Chiara d’Anna) derives its piquancy from the sadomasochistic role-play games the two engage in. Evelyn is scolded for her slipshod efforts at cleaning her master’s boots, whipped, urinated on (in a scene that takes place tastefully off-screen) and kept locked in a chest by the domineering Cynthia until she lets out the safety-word “pinastri”. Quelle surprise, then, that it is actually Evelyn who is in command, by way of instruction cards that Cynthia must obey to the letter lest she provoke the ire of her paramour. To compound the pervasive sense of Unheimlichkeit in the film, Cynthia also has a keen interest in moths, and gives lectures on the subject to the local lepidopterist society, the audience for which is partly populated by mannequin dolls. In the end, however, the main couple’s kinky exploits can not mask the fact that, after many years together, the passion in their relationship has waned, and is now replaced with mutual frustration and dissatisfaction – a universal predicament with which all long-term couples, regardless of their gender or sexual proclivities, will no doubt sympathise. While the film’s setting is deliberately left geographically and chronologically indistinct, the richly-toned colour palette, mannered acting and baroque decors of The Duke of Burgundy unambiguously render it a loving homage to a certain highly stylised vein of 1970s European erotic art cinema.
By dint of a happy coincidence, or perhaps the keen wisdom of the festival programmers, Rotterdam also showcased one of the original “masterpieces” (if that is the right word) of this genre: Walérian Borowczyk’s gory Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, 1981), screening as part of its “Critical Choices” series. Borowczyk’s transition from experimental animation in the 1950s and 60s to sexploitation films in the 1970s was long deplored by critics, but the cinematic fruits of this turn have recently found a suitable resuscitation, rescuing works such as La Bête and Contes immoraux from film-historical oblivion. With its mix of brutal violence and unbridled desire, the Polish director’s free adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel is undeniably nonsensical and gleefully licentious – qualities aided by the appropriately ungainly English dubbing – but his authorial mark emphatically shines through in the film’s distinct mise en scène. With Docteur Jekyll taking place almost entirely within the confines of a creaky Victorian manor, Borowczyk artfully manipulates filmic space in ways that will prove progressively disorienting for the spectator, culminating in a final reel that unfurls in an almost entirely abstracted spatial realm, as the titular Fanny Osbourne (Borowczyk muse Marina Pierro), upon frolicking in a bathtub full of Jekyll’s malevolent elixir, joins the doctor in his murderous frenzy. Indeed, it was this element of Borowczyk’s tell-tale cinematic style that was highlighted by Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López’s accompanying video essay to the film, which also focussed on the idiosyncratic presence of Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter throughout the film. Only Borowczyk, it seems, could so consummately synthesise the refined and the debased in a single work of art.
Alexey Fedorchenko provided another instalment in a series of films that could perhaps be described as “folkloric surrealism”. After Ovsyanki (Silent Souls, 2009) and Nevesnie zheni lugovikh mari (Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari (2012), Angely revolyutsii (Angels of Revolution) continues Fedorchenko’s mischievous exploration of Russia’s far-flung corners. Here, the director turns his focus to the 1933 rebellion of the Khanty people against Stalinist agricultural collectivisation. Under the leadership of the doughty actress Polina, a troupe of six avant-garde artists trek out from Moscow to the city of Kazym (newly founded by the state as a magnet for modernising the traditional lifestyle of the Khanty) with the idealistic goal of bringing the latest in contemporary art to the masses. The contradictions of the project – the artists are caught between an increasingly authoritarian state and a local populace insensitive to their cultural program (which includes an exhibition on suprematist painting among other events) – soon come out into the open, but while Fedorchenko’s cine-fairytale is based on true events, he does not allow considerations of historical fidelity to prevent him from engaging in his typically audacious flights of fancy, and many of the more inventive sequences in the film draw direct inspiration from the work of 1920s Russian vanguard figures such as Meyerhold, Mayakovsky and Malevich. Indeed, when the final bloody confrontation comes, Fedorchenko resorts to depicting the violent scenes by using Punch-and-Judy style puppets.
Screening as part of a sidebar on “Everyday Propaganda”, Angels of Revolution perhaps forms a bridge between the heavy surrealist bent visible at Rotterdam and the festival’s other noticeable focus: the political tensions that continue to ravage the territories of the former Soviet Union. Making its festival bow at last year’s Semaine de la critique, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s feature debut Plemya (The Tribe) raised eyebrows for being entirely denuded of audible dialogue: communication in the film, set in a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf, takes place by means of unsubtitled sign language. The formal gambit allows the director to work the gestural acting of silent cinema and the rhythmic body movements of abstract dance into his film, but beyond its audacity as a formal exercise, Slaboshpytskiy also delivers a withering social critique in the vein of the Romanian New Wave, an affinity underscored by the preponderance of languidly shot long-takes and a glacial visual look in the film. Violence and criminality are so endemic to the contemporary Ukraine, the filmmaker suggests, that not even its deaf children are immune – a thesis that would only be confirmed, one would think, by the nation’s descent into civil war subsequent to the film’s production. A new boarder at the school, Sergei, quickly becomes integrated into the criminal racket running the school, who engage in petty theft and prostitution, but matters are complicated when he falls for one of the girls mercilessly pimped out to local truckers. An undeniably powerful work, The Tribe perhaps errs in attempting to do too much: rather than intermittently punctuating the narrative, the grisly scenes of bullying, abuse, rape and even a backyard abortion end up piling on top of one another, and a rate of diminishing returns in their capacity to jolt the spectator ensues. But then this process of normalisation is undoubtedly part of the aesthetic effect intended by Slaboshpytskiy.
Another corner of Russia’s “near abroad” is highlighted in film-essayist Éric Baudelaire’s epistolary work Letters to Max. The addressee of the title is Maxim Gvinjia, a friend of the filmmaker who is also the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the partially recognised statelet Abkhazia (a Russia-aligned enclave in the Republic of Georgia). The two correspond, if we are to believe the film’s conceit, by letter, a method that entails a substantial pitfall: the international postal system’s willingness to recognise an Abkhazian address can never be entirely guaranteed. While Baudelaire’s missives appear silently as on-screen title cards, Maxim’s replies are delivered in voice-over by the young diplomat himself, as he reminisces about the Soviet past, muses on the problems of politically representing a state seen by much of the world as illegitimate if not imaginary, and contemplates (with noticeable unease) the ethnic cleansing of Georgians that accompanied the 1992-93 war of secession. These ruminations are accompanied – to various degrees of contrapuntality – with images of daily life in Abkhazia shot by Baudelaire, and however humdrum the scenes of streets, beaches and shopping malls may be, it is this visual insight into one of the more enigmatic parts of the planet that forms the major source of the film’s fascination. Baudelaire is clearly interested in the interstices between reality and fiction, truth and falsehood, but these images of life amid ruined landscapes have an incontrovertible documentary power in their own right.
The post-Soviet theme at Rotterdam was bolstered by Sergei Loznitsa’s new short film The Old Jewish Cemetery – where tourists, street kids and alcoholics mingle amidst a Riga graveyard that houses the interred remains of victims of some of the 20th century’s worst atrocities – and a public appearance by two of the previously jailed members of Pussy Riot, who with their newfound superstar status jetted into Rotterdam to do a Q&A with the audience and introduce a night of Russian punk music. But one of the true USSR-related treasures at this year’s festival had a much older provenance: Esfir Shub’s Segodnya (Today) dates from 1929, a year that marked both the high point of the Soviet montage movement and the onset of the Five-Year-Plan and breakneck industrialisation. Coalescing archival footage by means of the kinds of montage techniques made famous by Eisenstein and Vertov, Today uses a tripartite structure to contrast the social and technological progress made in the USSR with the violent class struggle of Depression era America. The film’s visual dynamism reaches a zenith as a strike by New York dockworkers is brutally put down by the forces of order, and Shub crowns the sequence with a magisterially ironic touch: with bodies strewn across the pavement of lower Manhattan, the filmmaker cuts to an image of Lady Liberty, with the camera proudly panning up to the statue’s lofty torch (the shot was doubtless originally bestowed with a positive semantic meaning which Shub gleefully inverts). Today may not have gone down in film history in the way comparable works such as A Sixth of the World and The Old and the New have, but its neglect is a critical injustice, and the “Everyday Propaganda” curators should be applauded for including it in their programme.
If there is anyone who merits the status of Shub’s spiritual successor in the contemporary era, then the figure who perhaps has the best claim to this title comes from an unlikely quarter. British television journalist Adam Curtis has been constructing his idiosyncratic political arguments out of archival footage for the best part of three decades, and continues this long-term project with his most recent investigative work Bitter Lake. While Curtis’s voluminous œuvre has rarely been programmed at film festivals, Rotterdam not only showed his latest work, but tied the screening in with a 20-minute lecture by the journalist on the theme of “Modern Propaganda”. His latest outing, focussing on the role of Saudi oil money in embroiling the West in a never-ending conflict in Afghanistan, exhibits all the familiar trademarks of Curtis’s work: the impressive historical scope of his argument is backed up by a dazzling array of imagery, which here ranges from footage of the Afghanistan battlefields to clips from the Crufts dog show and the casually racist 1968 farce Carry On Up the Khyber. A sardonic highlight among this geopolitical phantasmagoria is the footage of a well-meaning British art teacher valiantly attempting to explain the importance of conceptual art to her rightly sceptical Afghani students – if cultural imperialism has a face, then this is it. But the sweeping grand narrative Curtis shapes from his material is also the film’s greatest weakness, as he manages to combine conspiracy theory paranoia with an astonishing degree of political naïveté. Curtis seems to locate the moral failing of Anglo-American foreign policy in a combination of the corrupting influence of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist ideology and a deep-seated urge to simplify historical tensions into goodie-vs-baddie tales. I can’t help but think, however, that the rapacity of global capitalism is much more endogenous to the liberal West than Curtis contemplates, and that a dose of rational thinking among the world’s current leaders might not be enough to extricate our planet from the disasters that are perennially inflicted on it.
Soviet and post-Soviet films may have been some of the highlights of thus year’s IFFR, but the USSR’s old Cold War enemy also provided a strong contingent of films. Low-budget indies by thirty-something directors shooting in 16mm or lo-fi video took pride of place here, with the pair of celestially themed titles Heaven Knows What by the Safdie brothers and Stinking Heaven by Nathan Silver standing out the most. The former centres on the memoirs of elfin heroin addict Arielle Holmes, “Mad Love in New York City” – a title which would, in my opinion, have made for a much better name for the film. Holmes plies the streets of a not-yet-entirely-gentrified Manhattan, searching for her next hit, hustling for a place to stay the night and squabbling with her junkie boyfriend Ilya. The intensity of the actress’s electrifying screen presence, exemplified early in the piece by a scene in which she impulsively slashes her wrists, is markedly amplified by the handheld camerawork of DOP du jour Sean Price Williams and a pulsating trance soundtrack borrowed from Japanese composer Isao Tomita. Under the Safdies’ direction, the film manages to avoid slipping into either a dour kitchen-sink naturalism or a heady glamourisation of the addict’s life, and instead retains a rare degree of authenticity in depicting a world in which one’s very survival is permanently under a question mark.
Coming after the divisive Soft in the Head (the film was largely reviled by the audience at a screening I attended in Melbourne), Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven bears some stylistic and thematic parallels with the Safdies’ work, but it further develops the Brooklyn-based filmmaker’s stridently sui generis sensibility. Set in a suburban New Jersey commune for recovering drug addicts in 1990, and correspondingly shot on a period video camera (an Ikegami HL-79E to be precise, which gives the film the look and texture of a local cable affiliate broadcast), Stinking Heaven shows a revolving door of characters dealing with their demons, often through re-enactments of the absolute low-points of their drug-dependent pasts, staged at the behest of the commune’s founder Jim, who uses the sessions as an unorthodox therapeutic method. These provide the opportunity for improvisational play from the actors – a performance strategy whose rawness and spontaneity is clearly appreciated by Silver – and form the core of a film that is both deeply unsettling and profoundly sympathetic to its myriad protagonists.
Debut features from the US came from Britni West, a collaborator of Silver’s who, in Tired Moonlight, crafts a lyrical paean to her remote hometown of Kalispell, Montana (featuring a cast of local townsfolk and, somewhat incongruously, Girls star Alex Karpovsky), as well as French-based American Benjamin Crotty, whose oddball Fort Buchanan, set on an isolated military base populated by army spouses, draws its off-kilter dialogue from a database of daytime soap opera scripts. Rotterdam stalwart James Benning, meanwhile, popped up this year with natural history, a commissioned piece from the Naturhistorisches Museum at Vienna. Carefully composed shots of animal displays, specimen jars, corridors, doors and utility piping are held for several minutes on end, the static frames filled with the off-screen noises of museum personnel. In other words, the film is an easily recognisable addition to Benning’s inimitable œuvre, and yet it seemed to lack the dynamic tension that his best films – no matter how minimal they may appear on the surface – are uncannily able to instil in the viewer, a deficiency that may perhaps be due to Benning’s decision to restrict filming to an interior domain that – ironically, given the film’s subject matter – leaves no space for the aleatory ripples of the natural world.
Whereas Benning exists at the extreme margins of American cinema, J.C. Chandor seems to be steadily making his way to the centre of the industrial behemoth. With A Most Violent Year – a very “un-Rotterdam-like” film (and refreshingly so) that was the festival’s closing night gala screening – he seems to be staking a claim as the heir to the neoclassical grandeur of a Scorsese or a Coppola, but Chandor’s film, set in New York during the peak of the city’s crime epidemic, is perhaps overly burdened by the force of its influences. Oscar Isaac, as Abel, an immigrant businessman trying to protect his heating oil supply company from the mobsters that control the industry, is rather overtly channelling Al Pacino throughout A Most Violent Year, while Jessica Chastain, as his hard-nailed wife Anna, who had originally inherited the firm from her father (a man whose ethical credentials, it is made clear, were far from immaculate), throws in a performance that has strains of Sharon Stone’s turn in Casino to it. Beyond its portrayal of a lone wolf striving to take on an entrenched power syndicate, and its potential as a commentary on the violence inherent to modern-day capitalism, the core of the film is undeniably to be found in the nature of the main couple’s relationship. A Most Violent Year’s standout scene throws their dynamic into light, albeit perhaps a little too schematically: when Abel hits a deer on a rural highway in the middle of the night, he dithers over the need to put the beast out of its misery; fed up with his prevarication, Anna whips a gun out of her handbag and unhesitatingly fires a bullet into its head.
Having commenced my festival report with an encomium to the brave fight of the Hellenic people against the attempts to economically strangle their nation, it would be remiss of me to conclude this text without a mention of Greek cinema’s presence at Rotterdam. This is all the more the case given that, three years ago, I extolled a nascent absurdist tendency in that nation’s filmmaking, as exemplified by the work of Yorgos Lanthimos, Athina Rachel Tsangari and Babis Makridis. Alas, this promise has since gone largely unfulfilled, and these filmmakers have either seen their careers stall, or moved on to friendlier climes (Lanthimos now lives in London, while Tsangari is presently lecturing at Harvard), in which case the individuality of their work has tended to be sucked into the homogenising void of the global culture industry. Greek cinema, meanwhile, miraculously continues to release a modest number of titles, but none have had the same trenchancy that could be found in the earlier crop of films. The two features on show at Rotterdam proved no different: Margarita Manda’s Gia panta (Forever), charting the incipient romance between a middle-aged metro driver and a woman who sells tickets for the ferry, is a lifeless exercise in visual and narrative minimalism (epitomised by its near black-and-white colour palette), while Kyros Papavassiliou’s Oi entyposeis enos pnigmenou (Impressions of a Drowned Man) could have shown promise, with a plot device – an early 20th century Greek poet comes back to life in the present day – whose surrealist bent might have warranted affinities not only with the work of Lanthimos and company, but also with the broader trend towards bizarrerie I discussed earlier. Alas, it, too, sedately wallows in bleak despondency, the aesthetic insipidity of which was ironically underscored by the exuberant political mood engulfing Greece at the very moment the film had its premiere. If, globally, this year’s Rotterdam film festival witnessed the triumph of the weird, then the political specificity of Greece might well call for something diametrically opposite: a contemporary neo-realism, perhaps; a “national-popular” film movement that could break free of the shackles of the arthouse ghetto and give a reborn country its Rome, Open City, its Terra trema, its Bicycle Thieves.
Of course, this is all wishful speculation. In the time that has elapsed since the festival ended, the new Syriza government has already hit its first obstacles to fulfilling its radical program – namely, the intransigent refusal of Europe’s shadowy fiscal bureaucracy to substantially renegotiate the country’s crippling debt repayments. The initial ebullience has ceded to level-headed pragmatism. There is no guarantee that Greece will genuinely see a sweeping transformation of its social structures, or that this will have any effect whatsoever on the cinema. But whichever way this unfolds, one of the best yearly vantage points from which to survey the situation will be the future iterations of the Rotterdam film festival – this is its strength, its speciality, its identity.
International Film Festival Rotterdam
21 January – 1 February 2015
Festival website: https://www.iffr.com