On The Ground At Rotterdam 2014: Part 1

By sheer good luck, I ended up in the Netherlands for the 43rd International Film Festival Rotterdam on 22nd January. I was part of the festival’s Trainee Project for Young Critics, and would be here for all 11 days of the festival. The festival’s slate is too vast and populous to be covered with an iota of comprehensiveness (more on that in a later piece), so the only thing I can do is offer up a humble record of my experiences.

DAY 1: January 22

The first day of the festival comprised just the opening film, which in this case was the Indian drama "Qissa." Set in the aftermath of the country’s acrimonious Partition with Pakistan, the film depicts the obsession of a Punjabi man with obtaining a male heir. This obsession reaches such an extent that he raises his newborn daughter as a boy, a decision that does not pan out as neatly as expected. The film attempts to tackle the weighty topics of suffocating patriarchy in Indian society and the loss of one’s homeland, but the only topic it addressed for me was...jet lag. In the interests of honesty, I have to mention that my body clock was just not ready or capable of starting a film at 2AM and staying up throughout. I shall try and catch it again at a more opportune moment.

DAY 2: January 23

Saw two films during the day, and both of them exist as different definitions of “bad.”

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s "Seventh Code" is a “mid-length feature film” by the festival catalogue’s metric...and a terrible and unsubtle audition by any other. Starring J-Pop superstar Atsuko Maeda, "Seventh Code" is a sizzle reel for the singer’s supposedly diverse artistic talents made for a target audience containing just Debra Zane. At one point in the film, when the plot has dovetailed beyond any humane notions of believability or common sense, Maeda starts singing and the film intercuts it with a music video. This is almost like the Alpa Chino character in "Tropic Thunder," except only unintentionally funny. Oh, and "Seventh Code" features the worst professional actor I have seen on screen in a decade, a performer so catastrophically bad the entire audience burst out laughing the first time she uttered a dialogue.

Iva Radivojevic’s "Evaporating Borders" is not a good film either. Moreover, it’s not even hilariously bad (like "Code"), but just overly earnest and forgettably bad. Dealing with the immigration problem in Cyprus (the easiest port of entry into the European Union), the documentary contains a few strong scenes, but they are overpowered by the staleness of its analysis. At this point, any work delving into immigration’s effects cannot limit its ambit to the irritation of citizens at welfare benefits for aliens. If anything, that has to be the starting point of the debate. "Evaporating Borders" never recognizes this.

DAY 3: January 24

This was a good day, in terms of the number of films I saw. As for their quality…

Paulo Sacramento’s "Riocorrente" ("Riverrun"), a Brazilian film in competition, began the day and probably set an ominous precedent. This extremely self-serious drama was decent-bordering-on-good when it restricted itself to the modest scale of its protagonists’ lives and struggles. Lovers’ tiffs are fair game, but it is when the film tries to become an “urgent, poetic reflection on a society in which everything is set to change” (source) that it evokes laughs when I’m sure it didn’t mean to. A few months from now, the only things I will remember from this film are (a) fire, and (b) the frequency with which the lead actress bared her breasts.

Austrian filmmaker Peter Brunner made "Mein Blindes Herz" ("My Blind Heart") about a man named Kurt, who suffers from Marfan Syndrome just like his lead Christos Haas, who has it in real life. The film certainly starts in an out-there manner, with opening credits that are Gaspar Noe-lite. However, at around the 30-minute mark enters an adorable street girl who could have walked in straight from "Léon: The Professional" (without being good). As the film devolved into mediocre Hollywood fluff, I walked out.

Russian filmmaker Natalia Meschaninov’s "Hope Factory" is, like "Riverrun", in competition, and, like "Riverrun", not a good film. A classic (read: cliched) story of youth in a small town who are frustrated by the confines and inactivity of their surroundings, "Hope Factory" is shot in a disappointingly stale cinéma vérité style. The purpose may have been to add realism and unaffectedness to proceedings, but it just ends up inducing nausea when characters walk around. A devilishly enjoyable catfight might have been a slightly redeeming place to end the movie, but it goes on for 15 minutes beyond that for a pseudo-uplifting ending (there’s upbeat music to match!) and squanders that momentary high too.

For "Where Are You, Bucharest?", Romanian Vlad Petri followed the protesters on the streets of Bucharest two years ago as they rose up once again after the uprising in 1989. The resulting documentary is a compilation of raw footage as he ponders over the country’s identity crisis and how the protesters’ lack of direction led to a farcical outcome. However, in eerie alignment with its themes, the documentary itself suffers from an identity crisis. It lacks context and background details too damagingly for Romania-unaware viewers like me. On the other hand, people who do know about the current affairs of the troubled country inform me that the documentary offers little new. In addition, the whole suffers from a jarring clash of tones and outlook towards the conflict, which nullifies the impact of the serious, straight-faced portions and the bizarrely comic sections.

That ended the day for me, and three days into the festival I still hadn’t seen anything I liked. Huh.

Maybe it wasn’t such “sheer good luck” to be here anyway.