Various filmmakers made welcome returns to Rotterdam, including last years Tiger Award winner Ben Rivers with his beautifully crafted new film Origin of the Species (UK, 2008). Less productive in recent years the festival saw the welcome return of Joost Rekveld with #37 (Netherlands, 2009) his first film in many years and a suitably grand return from this master of abstract cinema.
With three programmes of shorts to watch each day interspersed with discussions with my fellow jurors there was little time for seeing many other works at the festival but I managed to take advantage of my gaps to catch up with Polish maverick director Jerzy Skolimowski - in particular his brilliant British films Deep End, The Shout and Moonlighting, all brilliant works in their own right and essential although overlook pieces of British cinema. As with fellow visiting filmmakers Antonioni and Polanski, Skolimoski perceives British culture in a way few of our own filmmakers rarely do - from the sexual politics that permeate a 70s public bath in Deep End (West Germany/UK, 1970), the paralyzing hospitality that fails to refuse even the most unwanted guest, in this instance a brilliant Alan Bates in The Shout (UK, 1978) and the petty hypocrisies of Thatcherite Britain seen in Moonlighting (UK, 1982), through the prism of polish workers in London in the early 80s, a remarkable picture of the experience of emigrant labour. His most recent film Four Nights With Anna (Poland, 2008), his first made in Poland in many years, is a remarkable near silent chamber piece about longing and reconciliation in a small village.
Other features I managed to catch included Austrian experimentalist Gustav Deutsch’s FILM IST. a girl & a gun (Austria, 2009) the third instalment of his FILM IST series reconceptualising archival footage, previously examining the use of film for science, fun fair and narrative. Here he looks at the role of violence and sex in the origins of cinema and collates amazing footage from around the world into powerful and ambiguous sequences. Unfortunately the flow is broken by intertitles largely drawn from ancient Greek poets and philosophers which at times gets in the way of the films own associative lyricism. The other feature that stood out for me was Lucrecia Martel’s La mujer sin cabeza / The Headless Woman (Argentina/Spain/France/Italy, 2008), an intense study of a woman suffering some sort of breakdown which goes totally unnoticed by those around here, reminiscing of work by Ingmar Bergman and Chantal Akerman. Highly ambiguous, the central performance by María Onetto is the blank centre of the film, propped up and kept in motion by those around her.
The festival also presented two exhibitions and a series of films specially commission for large outdoor screens dotted around the city. There was marked reduction in the number and scale of the exhibitions this year. The two main exhibitions were Haunted House presenting work from South East Asian artists and filmmakers in relation to ghosts, spirits and haunting by artists such as Lav Diaz (Philippines), Garin Nugroho (Indonesia) and Wisit Sasanatieng (Thailand) was curated by Gertjan Zuilhof and presented in the old photographic museum of Rotterdam, now relocated to the South of the city; and Aspect Ratio in the TENT. exhibition space, curated by Edwin Carrels, presented a range of work around the focal point of Ray and Charles Eames classic short film Powers of Ten (USA, 1977) which zooms out from a picnicking couple in a park into the cosmos and then reverses to zoom into a micro scale in the mans hand. A brilliant film and ideal focal point for a collection of work exploring scale, order and chaos by artists and filmmakers including Morgan Fisher, Simon Starling and Roman Ondák.
The reduction of the exhibition programme and dropping of the Artists in Focus section of the festival - all key distinguishing facets of the festival in the past - seems to be a strange development, particularly given the new directors background in the art world, as curator at Rotterdam‘s Witte de With gallery and director of Stichting Beeldende Kunst Middelburg (De Vleeshal). Anyway it is still to be seen what direction the festival takes and some trimming and refining of its direction is defiantly to be welcomed as the festival has been slightly adrift in recent years and has not always appeared to be on top of its own programme. The festivals great enthusiasm for cinema in all shapes and sizes lends the festival a slightly chaotic air which in turn is one of its many charms - so I’m looking forward to a new direction but hopefully not too much tidying up!
Amidst this vortex of films, people and events, the jury represented an island of calm. It was great getting to know the other jurors and trying to find common ground among the many films we all watched together. With three totally different perspectives both in terms of our interests but also culture, deciding on the final three films to award took us almost a whole day. After long discussions and re-watched various films we finally came to amicable decision of the three prize winners which we were all very happy with. The winners were:
- Duncan Campbell for his extraordinary portrait/anti-portrait of Bernadette Devlin, Bernadette (UK, 2008)
- Beatrice Gibson for her complex melding of music, recorded voice and social document in A Necessary Music (UK, 2008) and
- Galina Myznikova and Sergey Provorov’s for their deadpan absurdist landscape film Despair (Russia, 2009).