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THE ROTTERDAM FILM FESTIVAL VISITS BAM

The International Film Festival Rotterdam has always been an exciting oasis in the festival calendar, a place to see new directors, experimental programming, and to connect with new projects away from the din of more market-defined festivals and red-carpet affairs. (Full disclosure: I’m on the board of Rotterdam’s CineMart.) This year’s festival was a good one — you can read Michael Tully’s wrap-up here — and now New Yorkers have the opportunity to discover the filmmakers of the Tiger Competition. The Tigers consist of films by new filmmakers, and the gamut runs from edgy dramas to intriguing doc-fiction hybrids to experimental long-take work. In collaboration with the festival, the BAM Cinematek will screen from March 3 – 9 all the films in this year’s Competition. Stephen Holden in the New York Times wrote that the week is a “groundbreaking collaboration between a respected European festival and an American institution.”

In Rotterdam this year I caught several films in the Tiger Competition. My favorite was the oddest: Mama (pictured), by the Russian husband and wife directing team of Yelena and Nikolay Renard. The film details the relationship between a mother and her grotesquely obsese 40-year-old son.  She cooks and bathes him — he is seemingly her sole anchor in life. By day he visits the park and loiters by a shop window where he’s entranced with a mannequin on display.  Neither character speaks, and there are probably not more than a dozen shots in the whole film. Mama‘s narrative is austerely and obliquely parsed out; in fact, after viewing the film I was convinced that a reel must have been missing on account of what I read about it in the program book. Suffice to say that its narrative is barely visible but if one is able to pick up on it the film ends with what you might interpret as a Kieslowski-esque miracle.

I also liked Estonian filmmaker Veiko Ounpuu’s The Temptation of St. Tony, which also played at Sundance. The film is an oddly delirious, blackly comic reverie about an alienated mid-level businessman who becomes more and more untethered from reality. The film consists of a series of set pieces that evoke everything from religious parables to Beckett-like dramas to Hostel-ish horror. In one, set in a decadent Eastern European nightclub, Denis Lavant plays a typically outre performer; his presence alone explained the film to me, although I’m not sure I can explain it to you.

At Toronto Livia Bloom interviewed director Ben Russell, whose Let Each One Go Where He May was a Tiger title this year, for Filmmaker. Like Mama, it’s a film with only about a dozen shots (13, to be precise). Wrote Bloom:

“I paid them to participate, and I paid them not to talk,” Russell explained of his subjects, who are followed in Steadicam through an ever-changing, unnamed terrain. Blurring the lines of documentary and fiction, the film is aptly described as participatory ethnography or visual cartography. We follow one or both of two main characters (Benjen Pansa and Monie Pansa) as they travel along dirt roads; on a swaying, dancing motor coach; and on boats drenched in golden sunlight and piled high with luggage. We accompany them though a forest as they clear trees and brush by chainsaw and machete (the latter a lawn-care technique I also recently witnessed in Brooklyn). We see them in rubber Halloween masks like bank robbers or, as Russell sees it, gods — making their way through a local village ritual.

The film was appropriately born into a world of satellite maps, live street views, and nonlinear “sandbox” video games, where participants move without internal geographic boundaries. As one audience member observed, at times the characters moving in the middle of the screen seemed superfluous to the mapping of space that is taking place around them.

Also recommended is one of the Tiger winners, Alamar, which was produced by the producer of Carlos Reygados’s Silent Light. Mixing documentary and fiction techniques, the film explores the dynamics of a father-son relationship and is set in and around Mexico’s Chinchorro Reef. Wrote Holden:

Because the characters’ names are identical to those of the actors, Alamar occupies the shadowy area between documentary and feature film. In the opening scene, set in Italy, Natan’s parents, who remain friends, in separate voice-overs tell of their three-and-a-half-year relationship, which ended when Roberta could no longer continue leading her husband’s minimal way of life. In a farewell gesture Jorge takes his son by boat to his workplace, a rudimentary fisherman’s hut on the Chinchorro reef in the Mexican Caribbean. There he and an older worker catch lobster and barracuda, cook fish soup and teach Natan to fish and to snorkel. The underwater photography of Jorge wielding his spear is eerily transporting. But, most touchingly, the movie captures a primal father-son bond as Jorge, who suggests a hippie Tarzan, passes his knowledge and skills on to the next generation.

Alamar opens July 14 at the Film Forum, but for most of the rest, U.S. play is not guaranteed. So head over to the BAM site, check out the listings, and try to see a couple (and hopefully more) of Rotterdam’s adventurous movies.

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