Cinephile Signs from a Mythic Festival

in 44th International Film Festival Rotterdam

by Roger Koza

For an instant, I’ll use the first person in an almost confessional tone; for Argentinean film critics and film lovers Rotterdam is not just any destination, the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival, BAFICI, which since the end of the 20th century formed a whole generation of Argentinean and South American cinephiles, looked up to Rotterdam to find its own inspiration in terms of both spirit and form. To us, young film lovers in the early 21st century, Rotterdam was the land of freedom and experimentation, we thought the new 21st-century cinephilia had begun there: the new Asian filmmakers, the boom of digital cinema, the formation of a whole new community of critics from all over the world, all of these things formed a synergy that had Rotterdam as its capital city. So, actually getting to Rotterdam was like paying a visit to a myth.

Still now, Rotterdam is a festival that brings together films that question the conventions that bring together different poetics and their reception. To include films such as “Videophilia (and Other Viral Syndromes)” (Videofilia (y Otros Sindromes Virales) in the official competition (where the Hivos Tiger Awards are given) corroborates a radical tradition that aims to question what we understand as cinema today, in this new era for images. But Rotterdam also has its secret films, movies screened out the competitive section that are perhaps even more challenging.

This year, critics had once more an active participation in the festival’s schedule. Or that was what a section entitled “The Return of the Critic’s Choice” suggested. I’m not aware of the reasons why this section stopped, but its comeback was formidable. And although this is a somewhat peripheral event, it is also a section with the potential to evolve and become a key element constructing the festival’s identity and grooming future audiences.

With two exceptional colleagues as Dana Linssen and Jan Pieter Ekker heading the section, various critics from Australia, Germany, Spain, United States, and Argentina not only programmed a film but also presented it through an audiovisual essay. The idea was never to propose a switch from word-based criticism to a new audiovisual system that could go beyond the discursive scope of standard critique, the intention was simply to play with a resource that is part of our time and can be used to intervene images so they reveal things not always clear to see without the analytical manipulation of a critic’s glance. Kees Driessen, Hedwig van Driel, Bianca Stigter and I did this for the very first time and it turned out to be an uplifting and exciting experience for all (Rüdiger Suchsland used a fragment of his own film, “From Caligari to Hitler”, to present the film he chose, “The Lies of Victors”). Kevin B. Lee, who was ahead of the game in terms of this modality of film criticism, programmed “Life Itself”, Steve James’ documentary on the renowned American critic Roger Ebert. His brief 10-minute essay managed to capture what James unsuccessfully tried to achieve in two hours. However, the greatest moment of this section was Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López’s presentation; they chose a “forgotten” film by Walérian Borowczyk, “Docteur Jekyll et les femmes” (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne). Martin and Álvarez’ Lopez’s essay delves into women’s symbolic space and the disposition of objects in the filmic staging; it offers an alternative way for glances able to shift away from the imperatives of storytelling. And, by the way, this is a fascinating film because beyond the heterodox take on Stevenson’s story, we see a ludic appropriation of it in a psychoanalytic and philosophical tone that surpasses the bipolar and transformative dimension of the protagonist’s identity. Who’d ever imagine finding, in a film so closely related to B-movies, a sequence where Kantian categories of understanding are discussed while the characters dine?

Our winning film, Isabelle Tollenaere’s magnificent “Battles”, also opens with a philosophical quote: “When the combat ceases, that which is does not disappear, but the world turns away.” It won’t be revealed, until the final credits, that the quoted philosopher is Martin Heidegger; this quote never works as an argument of authority but rather as a synthesis of what will happen, with no discursive mediation to explain the way shots are used in Battles.

Dividing her film in four chapters, “A Bomb,” “A Soldier,” “A Tank” and “A Bunker,” this young Belgian director — as she suggested during a Q&A session — managed, using that conceptual structure, to raise an “army of ghosts” and her idea is to study their concrete anatomy. There is a pervading intuition that war never ends, even when it has finished: war as material ruins scattered throughout the landscape, war as a naturalized and globalized fuzzy culture.

Each chapter takes place in a specific territory: scattered bunkers in Albania that have become corrals for cows; in Latvia, a group of civilians who decide to enroll in a military training camp for a few days; and meanwhile, in Belgium, the national army is busy collecting and detonating bombs still scattered throughout their territory. The film finds its apotheosis in its final section, when Tollenaere is busy observing the activities on a small Russian farm where inflatable war tanks, airplanes, and trucks are made; these sequences are juxtaposed with images of a national celebration where we can catch glimpses of a country fascinated by military aesthetics, a true warlike culture that is perhaps a sign of identity that goes well beyond the duration and end of the Soviet era.

The truly extraordinary thing here is that Tollenaere is able to make this warlike imaginary visible without using talking heads or texts to explain the images. The elegance of each sequence and the evident precision with which each shot is placed and combined are signs of a laborious shooting and editing process. The airplanes flying through the sky might fly backwards; a wide shot of clouds moving and transforming can be interrupted by the sudden apparition of a troop of skydivers; in the middle of the forest, a tanked-shaped balloon can irrupt perversely to tarnish the serenity of that environment and a snail can rest, gently, on top of an almost-archeological bomb. Tollenaere has a gift for an unclassifiable modality of suspense not without its dose of comedy. How to film war? In this essay, Tollenaere offers a lucid way to do it without turning snipers into heroes, or showing commandos laying entire villages to waste in faraway countries.  

Roger Koza
(Edited by Tara Judah)