International Film Festival Rotterdam 2014

The Distance
The Distance

International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR)

22 Jan – 2 Feb 2014

Rotterdam, Netherlands

IFFR website

Every year, the new cinematic calendar kicks in with International Film Festival Rotterdam, and its mix of the new and unseen, and the only-just-recently-seen at some of the previous year’s festivals. Which highlights an increasingly difficult area for programmers: snagging that elusive international premiere in a festival marketplace that is saturated. But Rotterdam’s commitment as a showcase for authorial and independent films that might slip through the commercial net of larger festivals is to be admired.

Overall, it was a solid, if a little lacklustre, collection of films, and if there were any themes to be discerned from the selection that I viewed, it was the disenchantment in various national cinemas with the flagging EU project, the sorrows, tragedies and problems of migration and the consequent human exploitation.

So, to business. Herewith, a brief overview of some of the films showcased in Rotterdam during January. The Thailand/Hong Kong/China co-production – involving the prominent names of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Anocha Suwichakornpong – of Lee Chatametikool’s Concrete Clouds (Pavang rak) was an entry in the Tiger Awards section, which focuses on emerging talent in world cinema. With such powerhouse producers on board as collaborators, I had high expectations for this film. Absorbing some of the unusual narrative and visual strategies of his colleagues, but without their firm grasp, Lee’s film is one of those that ‘has its moments’ but no momentum. Promising scenes are established that often don’t completely gel or sustain development. This is the story of two brothers – one of whom returns home from living in the United States – who are re-united after their father commits suicide after the Asian markets crash, and must deal with the aftermath. The older and younger brother’s love lives are contrasted by the parallel telling of each one’s affairs and though interesting, neither one’s difficulties add up to much individually or add much to the overall feeling of this underdeveloped and unconvincing film.

Much more interesting, unusual and satisfying is Sergio Caballero’s The Distance (La Distancia). It is one of those films that is difficult to describe. And I won’t even try, as to enter cold into this film’s world would be the best advice I could give. The director of Finisterrae has concocted a terrific mulligan stew of a film, which plays slyly and enjoyably with genre, and various narrative and spatial codes of cinema. The characters don’t speak but telepathise, and they telepathise in a lingua franca made up of Russian, Chinese and the German of the bizarre Joseph Beuys-like artist. The distance referred to in the title is, as has been suggested, the ultimate MacGuffin – that obscure object of desire that the characters seem to be pursuing but that the audience is in ignorance of. What is lost (not) in speech is more than compensated for by the superlative soundtrack, which figures in the very form and structure of the film, not surprisingly as Cabellero is deeply involved with the Sónar music festival and co-wrote the mesmerising score. Weird, surreal, unique, rewarding, it’s a film that stays in the mind even after days of watching dozens of other films. The catalogue called it ‘inimitable and intriguing’, to which I say, ‘Hear hear’. Cross your fingers that it gets a release.

Watch the trailer for The Distance:

Of less concern for a release was the world premiere of the USA/Mexico/France (such are the economic times) co-production L for Leisure, a film about a bunch of students in the 1990s chillin’ in the sun and hangin’ out talkin’ trash, arguing, making love and waterskiing. Co-directed by Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn, it is an exercise in inertia and indulgence, which has been likened to Baywatch and Melrose Place – say no more.

The Kenyan film Ni Sisi (It’s Us), directed by Nick Reding, had its European premiere in the Bright Futures strand of the festival. This biting satire and comedy (essentially the film of a touring play of the same name, by theatre company S.A.F.E.) is designed to play in villages and towns, with the aim of raising consciousness about the futility of tribal violence and the need to work together to resist political manipulation. It’s a hard-hitting – but not without humour – story-within–a-story about individual responsibility and tolerance, and looking at the bigger picture rather than fixating on the local. Warm, human, timely and featuring an arresting cast, Ni Sisi manages to be – in spite of its tragic historical narrative – delightful and affirming.

Watch the trailer for Ni Sisi>:

Also in this strand was Three D, a film shot on a shoestring and on the fly during the three days of the Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente de Cosquín in Argentina. Rosendo Ruiz has directed a small film about two cinephiles attending the festival who, while doing interviews with participants, find themselves falling for each other. Set amid the rhythms and cycles of that liminal space, the film festival, Ruiz has assembled a small, intimate, character-driven film where not a lot happens – which is the perfect tone for this small and charming set-piece.

Finally in this strand was the world premiere of the far less rewarding Japanese film The Pinkie, directed by former advertising and video game writer Lisa Takeba. Like a manga come to life, the opening sequences – the best in the film – focus upon the male lead Ryosuke, who has been stalked by the love-obsessed Momoko since they were five years old. So committed to him is she that she has had her face surgically changed to suit his taste – to no avail: he only has eyes for a gangster’s moll. But when the big boss discovers this affair, he has Ryosuke’s baby finger chopped off, which flies slo-mo in the air and magically falls into Momoko’s hands, enabling her to have it cloned into an alter-ego Ryosuke, whom she can finally have for herself. And this is only the start of the absurd, sometimes violent, insubstantial (in terms of content) and superficial visual spectacle that is The Pinkie. A frippery with not a hint of soul, which genre-hops for the sake of genre-hopping… sorry, but been there, done that.

Watch the trailer for The Pinkie:

In this year’s downbeat State of Europe section were two films that focused on the anxieties, from both sides, around issues of migration. Sexy Money is an interesting and unusual genre piece, a musical documentary about Nigerian women who find themselves fleeing poverty in their homeland only to end up in prostitution in Europe. Some of them return to Nigeria, but find that they have just as difficult a time there, as they are cheated and given false promises, while their former professions beckon in order to survive and feed their children. This description, which could apply to a hundred similar films, does not do justice to the optimism, zest for life and sheer resilience that these women show. It is not a feel-good movie, but it does make one feel good. Directed by Dutch filmmaker Karin Junger, it’s a story of injustice and the struggle endured by these strong women, who are not made out to be angels or victims, but somewhere in-between. Iva Radivojevic’s Evaporating Borders also focuses on the problems inherent with migration as it affects the island of Cyprus, a favourite of people smugglers for its ease of access to Europe. Five stories are told here, of Kurds, Palestinians and Iraqis all caught in a no-man’s (or woman’s) land of promised residence permits and catch-22 rules and regulations, while in the background, nationalist right-wing goons survey the migrant districts.

Watch the trailer for Sexy Money:

That’s Rotterdam in a nutshell. If film reflects the culture, then comedy and humour are in short supply, and the overwhelming issues of financial crisis, migrant movements, human exploitation and national anxieties are at the fore: a downbeat opening to 2014.

Read our previous Rotterdam coverage here.

James B. Evans