By Aldo Padilla
“Strange” seems to be the only definition that could apply to this Rotterdam 2018, since despite the outstanding organization of the festival itself, its programming left a few bumps, in some cases too big to ignore. Possibly, the weight of the years and their effect, the amount of films and tendencies took their toll with the Dutch festival, although this didn’t diminished the quality of the great new films seen for the first time.
One of the most evident issues was the presence of really deficient films, which in some cases came from visual artists now trying cinema. The motive seems to be the attempt of these new filmmakers to apply without much flexibility the formulas they used in their original arts. Obviously, we can’t generalize, but this year showcase was somehow worrying.
The idea of Rotterdam seems to consolidate in the search of being the most important space for new filmmakers, and two of its more outstanding sections are focused in that. This allows covering different streams, since in one side, there’s a strongly experimental tendency that can be seen in its short films and in sections like History of shadows, while there’s also a different, more eclectic stream like Bright future, where a more independent cinema coexist with other extremes of pseudo-commercial cinema. It’s in this search where the festival met this type of dubious quality cinema with a tendency of an exaltation of human decadence, although this also has been happening in other streams of current cinema. Rotterdam has the opportunity of keep consolidating an idea of a unique festival, which searches for a balance in respect of the other four big festivals that usually carry big names in their programming.
International Competition: The most affected section regarding quality was the main competition, Hivos Tiger, which this year was based in a very clear line, marked by characters searching for an identity that isn’t very clear, where despite the selection of a very good film like The widowed witch and two salvageable films (The reports of Sarah and Saleem, Djon Africa), didn’t had a masterpiece like in 2017, with Arabia, or great revelations like the Chilean Rey or the American Columbus, although its lowest point came with a film called Possessed, a shapeless collage that defines the few errors of programming. One can’t deny the risk that come with the idea of betting everything towards new directors, and Rotterdam should keep that course, but with a more rigorous filter.
The great news came with the victory of the after mentioned The widowed witch, by Cai Chengjie, an absurdist comedy with a touch of humor that tells the story of an accidental black widow, whose husbands always end up dying, a woman accused of witchcraft, not being a witch herself but perceived as such. Little miracles under the context of a sexist society and a direction that contrast the rural areas of China with the cold that surrounds is lead character all the time.
The honorable mention was given to the Palestinian film The reports of Sarah and Saleem, by Muayad Alayan, possibly one of the most conventional films of the competition, but filmed with a lot of solvency, a film which moves in the terrain of the fahardian thriller: an avalanche which slowly builds up due to the relationship of an Israeli woman and a Palestine man, a relationship that will uncover the social differences in Israel, with a system of castes that seems impossible to break.
Latin American Cinema: Latin American cinema wasn’t extent of the mini debacle of the festival, and in some way, all countries were hit in different levels. Chile didn’t bring any world premieres, but did had the presentation of the co-production Los versos del olvido by Iranian filmmaker Alireza Khatami which was filmed on Chile but resembles more of an oriental fable.
Argentina, on the other side, had a partial presence, since the Campusano retrospective was a great input, but had a lesser presence in other sections. Headed by Los Vagos, in its international premiere, a film far away from usual narratives, and focused in small episodes of adolescents without much of a path in an alien environment. Other highlights were the great reception of Rodrigo Moreno’s Una ciudad de provincia, and the excellent short films Between relating and use and Nosotros solos. Without a doubt one of the surprises was the presence of Ecuador with the documentary La muerte del maestro by José María Avilés, one of the many successful graduates of FUC (Argentina). The film plays a parallel of an old man and the punished zones of 2016 earthquake, and transforms this parallel in a naturalist travel that shows the strong relationship of the Maestro with his flock and the surroundings.
The presentation of Colombia left many doubts, with the world premiere of La Torre, a film with a strong tendency towards cryptic messages and metaphors, which portrays the consequences of the 2004 attack in Medellin against a library; although in some moments its experimental approach veers towards parody. A different luck had the great Cartucho, documentary that will have its run in festivals like FIDMarseille.
A different case is the one of Mexican cinema, which presented and indecipherable cinema in this edition, without a clear path and turning to excesses, misanthropy and ideas akin to the tendency of human hate, which was seen in its main premieres Tiempo compartido and in the medium-length film Piérdete entre los muertos.
American Cinema: The Oscars set the presence of American cinema in Rotterdam this year, with many nominees. This group was headed by the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread, which gives a look for a new gaze on the concept of muse and the artistic creation as a process of violent tenderness of a troubled dressmaker. The Anderson film seems to have been created in a key of symphony, which was confirmed with the live orchestration of the film by the Symphonic Orchestra of Rotterdam. This helped to reinforce the idea that the different layers of the film did not only lie in the presence of Daniel-Day Lewis and Vickie Krieps, but also in the cadence and elegance of the score composed by Jonny Greenwood, the creations of this fictitious dressmakers and a Paul Thomas Anderson full on board with his creation.
If Anderson came preceded by un uncontainable passion of masses which grows day by day as it premieres all-round the globe, the case of Chloe Zhao with The Rider came characterized by a complete oblivion since its departure from Cannes, since the press haven’t give it its deserved spot in the award zone of 2017. The Rider portraits a passion which is suddenly truncated; a passion for Texan rodeo (which can be morally questioned). Despite all this, Zhao manages to reflect all the work and dedication behind a discipline with many details and nuances, and also treats its characters with a lot of love, from the lead character whose love to rodeo is felt in the footage, and the construction of two disabled characters, built with honesty and strength, away from any condescendence.
Retrospective: despite the lack of presence by Argentina in the main competition, this year retrospective compensated in a sort of tribute to a singular filmmaker in South America: José Celestino Campusano. The almost-complete retrospective of the filmmaker covers the years 2008 to the present, showing the evolution from a precarious way of filmmaking to a gradual technical proficiency. The work of Campusano is well known, as well for it aesthetics as is for its picturesque characters. There’s also certain behavior codes that connect his cinema with an earlier kind of filmmaking, although the most important feature is his great cinema universe, which is concentrated in the city peripheries, where the great Buenos Aires is the lead characters, away from the European gaze of the federal capital.
If all the after mentioned exists as a topic, and there’s a lot of critic development in this features of Campusano, one must also highlight a strong male gaze in part of his cinema, derived from the absence of lead female roles, or the tendency of having woman as the problematic axis, which means that they break the balance and later have to be rescued due to the problems generated, although that’s only part of his cinema, since in other part, his view is wider, with a female empowerment and a great treatment of sexual minorities.
The selection of films starts with his consecrated films like Vil Romance and Fango, and ends in his most solid stage with El Sacrificio de Nehuen Puyelli y El azote, the last one premiered in Mar del Plata, a film which consolidates the Campusano gaze outside of Buenos Aires, in this case Bariloche, away from the winter glamour and focused in the complexity of reinsertion of troubled adolescents in the middle of a crushing gentrification. Also present was El arrullo de la araña, which seems a little disconnected from Campusano’s creative universe, and tends to be a more theatrical experience, linked to the filmmaker from its social vindication.
Audiovisual experiences: There’s a tendency in Rotterdam which doesn’t limit itself to cinema as such, and proposes different audiovisual experiences, and this year had one of the most recurrent names of the festival, Apichatpong Weerasathakul. Very much in line with his films, the filmmaker presented the installation SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL, in which the participants could experience sleep under the influence of images and sounds prepared by the filmmaker, based in the nature of its different oneiric stages, with an array of beds that allowed a collective experience, all of this under the universe built in his filmography.
The Campusano installation is one of the strangest twists in a director filmography, since Brooklyn Experience is an audiovisual tour in 360° of a Brooklyn characterized by the variety of migrants which inhabit that zone. If the exploration of the place is very present, there’s also a background narration related with the identity problems and racism present in a New York far away from the clichés. The sound experience tries to make the spectator follow the dialogues and narration, led by a racist father and a couple of siblings with interracial couples. If Campusano moves around his recurrent themes, it is remarkable the risk he takes in experimenting with the technique of 360°, as did Tsai Ming-Liang last year. The debate whether a film in 360° responds to the basic principles of cinema is wide, but filmmakers venturing in this format help to generate some tools for a serious debate.
The best ones: Despite the complaints, the best films of the competition were of a high level, and unsurprisingly, the documentaries gave the best sensations in a cinema that constantly tries to reinvent itself.
La película infinita, Lisandro Listorti
Good Evening to the People Living in the Camp, Joost Conijn
La estrella errante, Alberto Gracia/ Santos # 2, Work in Progress, Anton Corbal
Azougue Nazaré, Tiago Melo
The widowed witch, Cai Chengjie
Not world premieres
Homogeneous, empty time, Thunska Pansittivorakul and Harit Srikhao
Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson
The Rider, Chloe Zhao
Jusqu’a la garde, Xavier Legrand
El Azote/ El sacrificio de Nehuen Puyelli, José Campusano