Tigers Come in Twos

in 45th International Film Festival Rotterdam

by Joost Broeren

Mere days before the Award Ceremony at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, it was rumoured that jury chairman Miguel Gomez (director of the Arabian Nights trilogy, which screened at IFFR ahead of its Dutch release) still had to see many of the films in the Hivos Tiger Awards Competition. Still, that won’t have posed too big of a problem since the festival, under incoming director Bero Beyer, decided to scale back its competition from the fifteen titles it has counted since its inception in 1995 to an even more select number of eight. This way, the festival argued, the eight selected films could get more attention during the festival – as far as this is possible within such a broad program, drawing from as many nooks and crannies of the cinematic medium as possible.

The decision was welcomed by the festival regulars, as there have been complaints about the uneven competition selections for years. Looking at this year’s eight films, the selection as a whole was stronger than it has been in years, and most of the nominees indeed deserved the spotlight the festival has given them.

The sole exception to that rule, for me, was A Woman, a Part by American filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin. It’s difficult to understand what the programmers may have seen in this rather slight tale of a famous Hollywood actress returning to her roots in New York and ending up in an identity crisis when confronted with her old independent theatre buddies. Similar themes of a confrontation with the past and what it means for the future are dealt with in a much more interesting and cinematic way in Where I Grow Old (A cidade onde envelheço) by Brasilian director Marília Rocha. This story of two old friends from Lisbon meeting again after both have moved to the Brasilian city of Bela Horizonte hints at the “backwards” migration from a Europe in crisis to it’s economically booming former colonies, giving the story a sense of urgency sorely lacking from its American counterpart.

Elsewhere, too, it’s tempting to pair up the Tiger nominees. For instance, there is more than just their Low Countries provenance linking The Land of the Enlightened by Belgian director Pieter-Jan De Pue and History’s Future by visual artist-turned-filmmaker Fiona Tan, the sole Dutch entry in competition (although three other films have Dutch finance involved). Both film use a tantalizing mix of documentary elements and poetic fiction to tell stories measuring the temperature of our modern era. Tan’s existential road movie reflects on the aimlessness that seems to have Europe in its grips, while De Pue spent seven years travelling through Afghanistan to create his mesmerizing “state of the nation”, ranging from violent gangs led by teenage boys to the rowdy attitudes of American soldiers who know they’re about to go home.

Two other films, while also carrying strong political undertones, deal with them by highlighting the absurdity of it all. Motel Mist by Thai director Prabda Yoon was the only Asian title in competition, a surprise considering how much Rotterdam has come to be associated with new Asian cinema over the years. The fact that Yoon’s background is in writing (both novels and screenplays) is noticable in his debut film which, while loaded with strong compositions and striking images, fails to rely on them to tell its story, instead spelling out plot points and themes too heavily. Radio Dreams by Iran-born, London-based director Babak Jalali fares much better in that regard, and ended up winning the Hivos Tiger Award. In the studio and offices of an Iranian radio station in San Francisco, the crew are hotly anticipating the arrival of Metallica, who have agreed to jam with the “first rock band from Afghanistan”, Kabul Dreams. As the day goes along, the crew, led by eccentric writer Hamid, air their dirty laundry. Almost in passing Jalali loads his story with a clear sense of the rootlessness these characters live with, as darkly comic as it is melancoly.

But for me, the strongest entries where two films from South America. Both Dark Animal (Oscuro animal) by Columbian director Felipe Guerrero and The Last Land (La última tierra) by Pablo Lamar from Paraguay are virtually without dialogue, and make extensive use of long takes, taking their time in telling us what’s going on. Both films prove that there are still new roads to be discovered within the hotly contested, festival-favorite genre of slow cinema. The Last Land, which deservedly received a Special Mention for its intricate sound design, takes slow cinema’s minimalist tendencies to their furthest point, uncovering one man’s process of grief by zooming in on the simple, practical activities he cycles through in the wake of the death of his wife of many years. And Dark Animal mines a rich vein of explicit socio-political context in its tense mosaic story of three women fleeing the war-torn inlands of Columbia. It’s exactly this combination of extreme stylistic choices and and socially relevant subject matter that characterizes the best films in this year’s leaner and meaner Tiger Competition.

Edited by Yael Shuv