A Weekend Among Tigers – International Film Festival Rotterdam 2012

Although comparable in size, the International Film Festival Rotterdam lacks the prestige of its more famous European brothers in Cannes, Venice, or Berlin. No red carpet galas, no celebrities, no world-renowned auteurs. The main reason for this is because Rotterdam focuses on alternative and diverse films of lesser known directors, more often than not from developing countries. Its idiosyncrasy can also be seen in the Tiger Awards, the festival's main competition for directors making their first or second film, three of whom will win this prestigious award. Directors as diverse as Christopher Nolan, Lou Ye, and Kelly Reichardt won here before they became known to a wider audience. And that is the goal of the festival: it wants its audience to discover new filmmakers, and it encourages the filmmakers to connect and converse with their audience.

Due to work, I only had the opportunity to visit the festival for one weekend. The fun of visiting IFFR is that picking films to see is a bit of a crapshoot: most of the filmmakers are largely unknown, so you never know what you are going to get. This can lead to disappointment, but also to discovering exciting new films.

A Fish (Park Hong-Min)

To start the Saturday early with a 3D film (a first for the Tiger Awards competition) was a bit of a struggle for the eyes already, and the fact that Park Hong-Min's debut film is quite confusing made for a tough beginning to my festival experience. Nevertheless, Park served up an interesting tale of a college professor leaving his classes when his wife disappears. A private detective has found her on an island, where she is trying to become a shaman. The professor and the private detective's trip to the island is accentuated with scenes of two men on a boat, fishing and having philosophical discussions on the mental state of the fish they are trying to catch. Their arrival on the island coincides with one of them catching a very peculiar fish. After that, the film suddenly takes a left turn into the mysterious (not that it was all that straightforward anyway), and just when you think you are getting a grasp on the proceedings, Park Hong-Min snatches everything away to leave the viewer befuddled. Is it a rumination on life, death, and rebirth? Is it a coming-of-age story? Is it too mysterious for its own good? Unfortunately, due to language barriers, the Q&A with the director afterward didn't shed much light on these questions. The 3D offers a nice visual metaphor for the overlapping layers of the story, and it provides for some interesting shot compositions (one involving a mirror is particularly stunning), but it doesn't help us understand what we just saw. Still, it was an interesting start to the day.

Duch, le maître des forges d'enfer (Rithy Panh)

A documentary that I sadly missed in Cannes last year (it played at an ungodly hour), this was one of two non-competition films on my menu. At its core, it's a 100-minute monologue by Kaing Guek Eav (nicknamed 'Duch'), the man who oversaw the S21 (or Tuol Sleng) prison in Phnom Penh during the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Here the regime interrogated, tortured, and killed an estimated 17,000 people during its 4-year reign from 1975 to 1979. Duch was largely responsible for devising the barbaric interrogation methods employed by his staff. Having visited the prison (now converted to a museum) in 2007, it was very interesting, but at the same time infuriating to hear this man talk without seemingly much remorse about the atrocities he committed. At one point he does say he is sorry for what he did, but his cold demeanour makes the admission ring false. He tries to lessen his role, hiding behind the old befehl ist befehl excuse, but director Rithy Panh contrasts Duch's statements with archive footage and eyewitness accounts by some of his own former staff to paint a picture of a man who knew very well what kind of hell he was creating. And the way he still remembers events as he goes over the meticulously recorded interrogations (what is with repressive regimes and efficient documenting?) gives a silent indication that the man knew exactly what he was doing. As we leave him in his cell, to which he has been condemned for 35 years, seeming not at all unhappy, one is glad this monster is getting his due. As a stand-alone documentary without background, this has perhaps not as much impact as it should, but I found Duch's tale a harrowing one.

Clip (Maja Miloš)

Certainly one of the most controversial films of the festival, this coming-of-age story set in post-war Serbia is a raw and explicit look at the generation gap in a country in social turmoil. The leading character is Jasna, a teenager living with her disillusioned mother and her terminally ill father. Like the others in her social group, she rebels, experimenting with sex, alcohol, and drugs. Desperately trying to find her identity, she films just about everything with her phone (hence the title). She falls in love with a boy in school, Djole, and gradually wins him over through sex, as she does not shy away from letting herself be humiliated just to get his attention. The sex scenes are very explicit and uncomfortable to watch, moreso because they are teens. Leading actress Isidora Simijonovic was 14 years old at the time of filming (a disclaimer at the end tells us that the hardcore shots were actually done using body doubles). We are watching a generation that has Internet porn as a frame of reference for sex, and Jasna and Djole are 'acting out' their sexual encounters more than they are actually enjoying them, and on that level, their relationship is rather unhealthy. In many other ways, however, theirs is a teenage romance like many others, as both are trying to find their place in the relationship and in life. The way debuting director Maja Miloš presents this story is unconventional, but honest, set against a background of social problems in Serbia after the war, with a conservative older generation and a desperate younger one. She almost lets the film fly off the handle at times, and the subplot with Jasna's father goes nowhere, but her frank and non-judgemental approach is exhilarating. The true star of the show is Simijonovic though. Displaying a fearlessness that puts many older actresses to shame, her Jasna is a volcano of emotions, and she is able to control all of them and put them on screen convincingly. An incredible performance for such a young actress playing such a difficult role.

Malaventura (Michael Lipkes)

This debut film of Mexican director Michael Lipkes, one of the key figures in the New Mexican Cinema movement, was an entry in the Bright Future sidebar. With hardly any dialogue, it follows a nameless old man in Mexico City on his last day among the living. More a series of long, often statically shot scenes than something approaching a narrative, the film lets us see this man going through both mundane and absurdist situations, as he slowly shuffles to his death. While I suppose it has some worthwhile observations about the position of the elderly in society, as well as some striking cinematography, the film leaves the viewer cold because it barely gives you a chance to build up a relationship with this old man. He wakes, he walks around, he dies. There's not much more to it, and all I can say is, "So what?" It should be said though, that on the technical side Malaventura is a joy to watch, and especially to hear. The music (more ambient noise than anything) and the sound design really get under your skin in all their ominousness, and the grimy and grisly cinematography is truly excellent. The film's opening scene, as the old man awakes on his (unknown to the viewer at that point) last morning, takes minutes to go from pitch dark to morning light, while the music slowly builds like background noise that you can't turn off, and it is very effective in drawing you in. A shame the rest of the film is less able to hold the viewer's attention.

Tokyo Playboy Club (Okuda Yosuke)

For his sophomore effort, Okuda Yosuke sticks to the gangster comedy genre that brought him to the festival with his first film (Hot As Hell) too. It is a tried and tested formula in Japanese cinema (just ask Takashi Miike), and to be honest, it feels a little stale. Unfortunately, the film never lives up to the promising and darkly comic opening scene, in which we see Katsutoshi get into a nasty mess that causes him to flee to Tokyo and find refuge with his old friend Seikichi, the owner of the titular nightclub in decline. Before long, Katsutoshi gets himself and his friend in hot water again, and soon we are witnessing a rapid escalation of trouble for the two men, the club's bouncer Takahiro, and his girlfriend Eriko. As is common in these films, mayhem ensues and a lot of blood is spilled. The problem is, it takes too long for the film to kick into gear, and only on a few occasions is it genuinely funny. Yosuke shows comedic flair, but he is let down by his own script, which lacks sharpness in the dialogue and relies too much on genre staples to make this film stand out from the pack. His actors try to make the best of what they are given, with Nao Ohmori as the brooding hero-against-his-will and Yasushi Fushikami as the bouncer who piles one mishap onto the next emerging as best in show. The director does have a keen eye for mise-en-scene, and one hopes that he will have a go at some more serious stuff (he is writing a film about a couple getting a divorce, apparently, so who knows), but his storytelling needs to become more proficient.

Egg And Stone (Huang Ji)

Slow-paced, sparse in dialogue, devoid of any frills, Huang Ji's debut film is a precisely crafted piece of criticism on the Chinese birth restriction. This has led to many parents primarily wanting boys, in turn often resulting in girls being left with relatives. Honggui is such a girl. Living with her uncle and aunt since her parents left to find better work in the city, the young teenager is trying to deal with situations where she clearly needs a mother's help. But her mother is too busy to come to the phone when she calls, as conveyed by her younger brother (a wry reminder of the girl not being wanted in favour of the boy). Her aunt is not the female figure she can lean on, showing no love and care for her niece when she could really use some. Her preoccupation with her period intrigues, and the gorgeously shot but overwhelmingly sombre Chinese countryside depresses. With a slow but very sure hand, Huang connects the dots of the story, revealing the life of a young girl who is a victim simply because she is a woman, a position not to be envied in Chinese society, where men still dominate and women often are still second-rate. Egg And Stone is not a very uplifting film, and a certain patience is required, but for those who stick with it, it is a humbling experience. Knowing that this story is in large part based on the director's own childhood situation (as she was left with family at a young age), and that some of the actors are not only non-professionals, but also her family members (the aunt and uncle are in fact played by her real aunt and uncle, amazing considering developments in the story), makes this a very personal film and somewhat uncomfortable to watch, but one that leaves an impression that will linger. Highly recommended.

Tiger Award winners 2012

Just before this article went to press, the winners of the prestigious Tiger Awards were announced, and I'm pleased to see that both Clip and Egg And Stone were awarded. The third winner was De Jueves A Domingo by Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor, of which I have read mostly good things.

The FIPRESCI Award went to Neighbouring Sounds by Kleber Mendonça Filho from Brazil.

Dutch film journalist organization KNF also awarded Clip by Maja Miloš.

And the youngsters showed good taste as well, as the youth jury gave their MovieSquad Award to Andrew Haigh's Weekend (a multiple ICS nominee this year).

More winners can be found on the festival's website.