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Thursday, 24 August 2017

Rotterdam 2017 roundup: The pleasures of being lost in a film festival

A behind-the-scenes look at the 46th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, its programming, creative practice and organisational prowess

Adham Youssef, Saturday 25 Feb 2017
Rotterdam
Rotterdam by night (Photo: Courtesy of IFFR)
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On 25 January, two days before the Trump administration's ban on entry to the US of designated foreign nationals, which caused local and international uproar, the 46th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) kicked off with festival director Bero Beyer introducing to the audience the IFFR’s colourful, diverse, and welcoming planet.

Amid times of separation and polarisation, Beyer said, “all funders, politicians, sponsors, press, filmmakers, some might even say the cultural elite … [should] realise we too are part of something bigger.” Beyer called upon the audience to burst self-made bubbles, and to “have the free spirit and the open state of mind that respects the many different views that exist in the arts and of the human condition. Opposing views and different identities don’t automatically turn us into adversaries.”

“Why not start with the beauty of the many, many visions in cinema,” he added.

Arriving at Rotterdam on the first day of the festival, as a member of the young film critics programme, and having listened to the speech, understanding the dense IFFR catalogue became much easier. This year’s colourful agenda was very present in the programming of the films, exhibition, and performances.

The Young Film Critics Programme

The Young Film Critics Programme is a festival tradition that has been going on for more than 15 years and that choses younger critics from around the world and unleashes them to experience one of the world’s biggest film festivals.

This year’s programme was different in a way that left more room for the participants, all experienced local critics and journalists, to tailor their schedules, something that was both liberating and at times overwhelming due to the diverse selection.

Rotterdam
Inside the De Doelen building (Photo: Courtesy of IFFR)

Four main sections are present in the IFFR (Bright Future, Voices, Deep Focus, and Perspectives), with each including several sub-categories. The rich collection of films can easily get lost in the catalogue. However, my decision to be picky in choosing premieres to watch, and my bias towards shorts and documentaries, created room for watching a total of 35 films, in cinema and in the video library.

The strategy was that you can easily encounter big level movies through other festivals, or maybe cinema theaters. Shorts and documentaries, however, are much harder to find and explore, especially when they are screened in a retrospective or as a group.

One of the world premieres that was worth watching is Konstantin Bojanov’s Light Thereafter, a drama that follows a hypersensitive young painter Pavel (Barry Keoghan) in his trip to discover the world, and find a place for himself in it. The reverse method of storytelling takes the audience back through an emotional eight chapters, and gives viewers an understanding of space and characters through the perception of time.

Another feature, Pedro Aguilera’s Demonios tus ojos, gave an interesting insight into voyeurism and filmmaking, where Oliver, film director, invades the privacy of his sister with a camera, creating a cinematic experience for himself.

However, both titles fell short in the Hivos Tiger Competition. The winner was Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga, a gonzo-punk road thriller where a couple pass a night in a rather intolerant side of India.

Rotterdam
Performance of the black metal band Eternal Mortification after the screening of the film Blackhearts (Photo: Courtesy of IFFR)

One of my favourite sub-programmes was Scopitone, which connects music documentary films to social and political issues. Having watched most of them, my favorites were Atef Ben Bou Zeid’s Cairo Jazzman and Fredrik Horn Akselsen’s and Christian Falch’s Blackhearts.

The second documentary goes beyond the mundane narrative of Black Metal bands in countries other than its origin, Norway. The filmmakers show two opposite approaches to the music and its alternative lifestyle. The first group is Norwegian musicians, who are veterans of a scene that was notorious for crimes and church burnings. This group has arguably overgrown the radical lifestyle they embraced and involved themselves in society, after they were seen as outsiders.

The other group is Black Metal musicians from Colombia, Greece, and Iran; all are still living in the 1990s mode, looking for inspiration from the forests of Norway, worshiping Satan, or being chased by the police.

Scopitone followed its films with concerts of different genres, ranging from Black Metal to Rock and Jazz, something that really fit the informal nature of IFFR.

Rotterdam
Photo: Still from Self-criticism of a Bourgeois Dog

Being a jury member in the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) was one of highlights of the festival, getting a chance to debate different opinions about films with professional critics from different parts of the world. The award went to Caroline Leone’s film Pela Janela, a drama and “subtle portrait of a middle aged women’s turning point in her life,” according to the Jury report.

However, other two films, out of the interesting list of 19 works, were reviewed for the award, and which I was very excited about: Julian Radlmaier's Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog and Hala El-Koussy’s Cactus Flower take the award.

Retrospectives and highlights

Radlmaier plays himself, a communist filmmaker who is living on welfare and works in an apple plantation, but tries to impress a girl by convincing her that he is going there to research his next movie, resulting in a very intriguing political comedy. The portrayal of the proletariat here is not about showing miserable and frustrated workers in the plantation, but rather focuses on comic fantasies and criticisms.

My highlight of the festival was watching the epic and militant 3-hour documentary by Hong Kong-based filmmakers Wen Hai and Zeng Jinyan. The film, which was shot over six years from 2009 to 2015 in various parts of southern China, capture the resistance of workers and worker activists in southern China.

The long list of films also included two very interesting sub-programmes, which were equally important. Nevertheless, one was better organised than the other.

Rotterdam
Photo: Still from We the Workers

The first was Black Rebels, a splendid talk show that extended for than three hours hosting several artists and influencers in the Black cinema movement, such as Charles Burnett (member of the LA Rebellion film movement) and veteran director and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, who took to the stage and shared their experience.

The event also featured academics like June Givanni, a film historian, and professor of film at the University of Amsterdam Patricia Pisters. The event’s main thread of discussion was bridging the gap between members of the African diasporas worldwide.

The programme was accompanied by an amazing collection of 30 films of different genres. One was Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, which won the Warsteiner Audience Award.

The other programme I was very excited about is Picturing Palestine, which took the chance to commemorate the Balfour Declaration and show different images of Palestine and the Palestinian people across the intervening years. The films were not necessarily a good versus evil narrative, and included shorts, visual arts and documentary, and even films that are critical of some techniques of the Palestinian resistance.

This year’s edition also featured a retrospective for Czech filmmaker Jan Nemec with almost all of his films shown. The late director passed away in 2016. After years of watching pirated and copied versions of his masterpieces, it was really fulfilling to watch them on a big screen.

Rotterdam
The Black Rebels panel (Photo:Adham Youssef)

Speaking of masters, IFFR hosted two sold out master classes, featuring legendary director Bela Tarr and American filmmaker Barry Jenkins. A further part of the Young Critics Programme was meetings with film critics like Jay Weissberg and Clarence Tsui, where discussion varied from likes and dislikes, to challenges to film criticism, video essays, and the editorial policies of different publications.

Compare and contrast

As someone whose experience does not go beyond the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), comparing and contrasting was tempting.

IFFR stood as a textbook example of how a film festival can be used to support tourism (if not international, then local). Starting January, walking the streets of Rotterdam, one can know that a film festival is going to take place and will carry the name of the city, with many volunteers and staff originally from Rotterdam.

With CIFF, it is known that the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Youth participate in the festival and support it, in press releases and propaganda videos, and maybe on posters inside the Cairo Opera House.

Exiting the premises, this support seems to vanish, leaving the festival to be seen as just another artistic event within the walls Opera House, where a limited audience is invited. IFFR is present in touristic destination brochures, with modern culture seen as a trait that can be shared with others and celebrated.

Rotterdam
Rotterdam by day (Photo: Adham Youssef)

This takes us another point, which is the importance of the press office, its efficiency, flexible attitude, and most importantly, availability. In handling the press, guests and tickets, IFFR relies heavily on staff as the cornerstone of the festival, which extends throughout the city.

Through the years, the level of organisation of CIFF has been slightly improving, if we turn a blind eye to opening and closing ceremonies, with the press office (often hidden besides the backstage of the interview set) taking a lead in reaching out to journalists to set up interviews and manage accreditation.

Also what grabs attention at IFFR is that the same people you could have seen in the opening and closing ceremonies, including filmmakers, artists, festival personnel and famous critics, can also be seen in 10am screenings or having breakfast in the festival’s cafeteria.

On the contrary, at CIFF, the audience of everyday screenings is almost non-existent.

A good example that amazed me was festival director Bero Beyer, who you could have easily recognised in concerts, parties, random screenings, and panels, in hallways mingling with critics, filmmakers, and guests, something that is not very familiar in Cairo.

Till 2018!

Returning to the 47th IFFR will be an objective for next year.

It will be interesting to see how the IFFR will change, or not, as the Netherlands gears up for elections, with expectations of a right wing government.

Rotterdam, a city with the largest port in Europe, and a diverse ethnic make-up, as well as the festival, are up for a challenge indeed.

Rotterdam
IFFR opening ceremony. Festival director Bero Beyer (Photo: Courtesy of IFFR

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