“I wanted to build a bridge, a link, between a forgotten fight for Marxist ideals born a few years after Morocco’s decolonization and new political horizons recently widened there,” filmmaker Safia Benhaim says. “But my evocation of this passageway had to be very fragmented, like a dream, in keeping with my particularly split link to my parents’ country. For my film A Spell of Fever, I invented a kind of political ghost story to evoke the tale of an exiled woman whose possessed mental state I entered and whose need to make words and thoughts appear I shared. Around her runs music as a feverish flow, making images appear little by little like visions extracted from oblivion.”
The France-born Benhaim’s 40-minute film—an evocative mood piece in which a young girl wanders through present-day Morocco surrounded by ghostly voices—was one of three works given the shorts competition’s top prize at this year’s edition of the Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFFR). It shared its honor with the British filmmaker Ben Rivers’s sweet and gentle chronicling of a home’s items, Things, and American Ben Russell’s propulsive movement and music-based record of religious rites practiced by a community living in between Swaziland and South Africa, Greetings to the Ancestors. All three films helped set the pace of an unusually dispersed and energetic festival.
IFFR’s 44th edition was my fourth in attendance, and its program has never felt so scattered, a sensation that I found delightful. Competitive shorts and features sections, retrospectives, and thematic programs devoted to feminism, surrealism, and propaganda tactics (among several topics explored with varying degrees of success) jostled up against each other freely. Close catalogue scrutiny was required to catch many of the great works layered into the chaos.
The current version of the festival (whose director, Rutger Wolfson, announced this edition as his last) often receives a bad rap for its perceived weak slate of feature-length world and international premieres, accentuated by the looming presence of the Berlinale’s opening night two weeks after its own. Such a perception would be fair if one were to focus only on the features included in the central Hivos Tiger Awards Competition, whose lineup I consistently find underwhelming. Yet strong new films appeared throughout IFFR’s other sections this year, and the opportunity to discover world premiering-works such as Isabelle Tollenaere’s Battles, Li Luo’s Li Wen at East Lake, Kevin Jerome Everson’s Park Lanes, Ju Anqi’s Poet on a Business Trip, and Peter van Houten’s La Vie de Jean-Marie was one for which I was grateful.
Dreams Rewired was a world premiere slotted into the “Regained” section, whose selected works treat on film history. This feature-length Austrian essay film (with voiceover narration spoken by Tilda Swinton) builds an argument about how cinema’s arrival changed human psychology through the opportunities it offered to observe oneself and one’s fellows. The film’s images consist largely of grainy archival footage culled from the periods under discussion, with shots of crowds in motion coming from early training and promotional films as well as from fiction films by silent era masters like Sergei Eisenstein, D.W. Griffith, Alice Guy-Blaché, Marcel L’Herbier, Hans Richter, and Dziga Vertov. These images jointly offer an appealing false promise.
“I wanted Dreams Rewired’s chief line of argument to recall the original televisual fantasy—that of collapsing distance between people and creating an ultimate connection,” says Manu Luksch, one of the work’s three co-directors (along with Martin Reinhart and Thomas Tode). “The film aims to enchant its viewers while changing their perceptions of our media-saturated present. I hope that through revisiting past dreams and anxieties, our audience members can reconsider the so-called exceptionalism of the Internet age. Today’s social convulsions were prefigured in the electric media boom of the late 19th century, when a fervent utopianism promised a new, egalitarian world, but delivered something very different. This discrepancy remains with us today, as seen through media monopolies and mass surveillance.”
A film like Dreams Rewired leaves a viewer hyper-aware of its own making. An even more apt case of art doing so could be found with Bruce McClure, a San Francisco-based film artist who performed multiple roles at the festival. By daytime McClure could be found occupying a floor of a contemporary art center with his installation Courting Daylight in Saving Darkness, consisting of myriad objects spread across multiple rooms to which he would add frequently add pieces along with framing devices like glass and graphing paper.
By nighttime for nine nights in a row, McClure gave live performances with 16mm projectors and celluloid strips as his instruments. He titled his performance series Opposition Brings Reunion, a phrase that he took from the novel Finnegans Wake to refer to the relationship between darkness and light. Its projected images sometimes came from scratched-up found footage and sometimes from blank filmstrips; they were always accompanied by a projector’s whirring, and at times seemed to explode with noise themselves.
“Get in your living room, block out as much light as you can, and flip the switches on and off,” McClure says to describe his work. “Sense the joy of feeling chemicals and sponges in your brain squish. It is important to me that my performances engage subjectivity. I always find it a pleasure when people approach me to express doubts or a discrepancy between what was present and what they individually saw and heard. They want to confirm their doubts over what was happening, which then confirm my uncertainties as a part of my project, the ambiguities that arise during performance, and the delight of being in a room with others to receive it all.”
McClure engages his audiences in ways both unique to him and traditional. The practice of animating film materials in person has been followed by several experimental filmmakers; the desire to stimulate spectators one at a time can also be found in many narrative filmmakers, even the most commercial. This overlap between categories could be glimpsed by juxtaposing McClure’s shows with the festival’s daily offerings of films from South Korean writer-director Jang Jin, a blockbuster-generating filmmaker in his home country who, after 20 years of working in cinema, is still little-known outside it.
Jang is additionally a celebrated playwright, and his films combine virtuosic camera movement and editing with a great theater artist’s attention to how people betray their inner conflicts and doubts. The films often contain large ensembles of ten or more well-drawn characters and move fluidly between multiple storylines, regardless of whether their genre is action film (such as last year’s unusual cop-in-crisis drama Man on High Heels) or relationship comedy (including last year’s odd coupling of two long-separated siblings with different religious trainings, We Are Brothers). Jang is an earnest Catholic who believes fundamentally in human goodness, even while applying strong elements of satire to his tales. He tweaks his nation’s media-driven obsessions with physical violence and material success in films like Murder, Take One (from 2005) and The Quiz Show Scandal (from 2010) while keeping an eye out for who actually suffers as a result of lust for success, and how these spiritually isolated people can be helped.
“My films have all been brushed with my style of comedy,” Jang says through the translator Seh Rho. “I add comedy to crises and dark times, so that you can smile on the outside or else look within to see painful, somber stories. Because I make commercial work, I have to think about what will be popular in today’s climate, but I don’t want to just provide audiences with things that they already know and like. When I first started making films, I thought that people simply wanted to be entertained, but now I see that they have different, more advanced needs—to experience things from films that they haven’t yet met in their lives, and to find solutions for their problems along with some joys.”
Like Jang, the filmmakers represented in IFFR’s “Made in Taiwan” program directed narrative films with a goal of stirring audience members to reflect on their own conditions. Their Rotterdam screenings, like McClure’s Opposition Brings Reunion performances, took place all in the same room and with presentation material as a point of focus. The premiere last year of the tribute documentary Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema—directed by IFFR programmer Chinlin Hsieh in celebration of a film movement’s 30th anniversary—gave occasion for the festival to screen rare 35mm prints of seven glorious Taiwanese films realized between 1983 and 1986.
Most ubiquitous among the filmmakers represented was Hou Hsiao-hsien, who’s commonly considered the greatest Taiwanese auteur (and whose latest feature, The Assassin, will likely premiere this year). The “Made in Taiwan” program included Hou’s tender neorealist works The Boys from Fengkuei, Dust in the Wind, Growing Up (which he produced and helped write for the director Chen Kun-hou), and The Sandwich Man (an omnibus film featuring his great short Son’s Big Doll). These films focus on rural people who are faced with epiphanies of their own shortcomings and who soldier on regardless with the hope of achieving happiness through self-betterment.
Such films might appear to be quite different from others included in the “Made in Taiwan” program, like Edward Yang’s The Terrorizers, a starkly modernist depiction of strangers in Taipei colliding violently with each other. Yet the Taiwan New Cinema filmmakers, despite their works’ superficial contrasts, shared an underlying desire to tell stories about people that their island’s films had previously seldom shown—seemingly anonymous lower- and middle-class characters whose struggles to understand themselves could easily belong to their viewers.
“I saw The Sandwich Man when I was 16, and I felt touched and shaken by it,” says Chinlin Hsieh, a Taiwanese native. “It was so different from anything else then available to us. Like many Taiwanese people at that time, I was attracted by Taiwan New Cinema’s freshness and proximity to reality. The filmmakers’ courage is still inspiring; I can sense their extraordinary energy and willpower to see their surroundings differently from what was offered in the establishment’s view.”
The International Film Festival Rotterdam ran from January 21—February 1.
Aaron Cutler keeps a film criticism website, The Moviegoer, at http://aaroncutler.tumblr.com.