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Sustainability and History: The 2018 International Film Festival Rotterdam

McCaul Lombardi in Sollers Point

The 47th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam presented 531 films of various lengths, 140 of which were world premieres, and welcomed more than 2,400 industry professionals. To tick off each special event, master class, conference, installation, curated program, party, award winner and grand announcement would consume this entire report. (The IFFR wrap-up press release clocks in at 1,400 words.) Needless to say, IFFR benefits from and suffers for its size, in mostly predictable ways. There are few places other than Rotterdam in January where one might watch Phantom Thread scored live by an orchestra, spend a night in a hotel-like installation by Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, catch up with Best Picture Oscar nominees, experience multi-projector performances, debate the future of distribution, listen to Paul Schrader tell stories about Nicolas Cage and take a chance on new work by hundreds of filmmakers, the majority of whom scrape together small budgets through independent means. IFFR presents a whirlwind of options, held in a variety of quality venues, all within reasonable walking distance, and my experience of it was free of avoidable glitches, which is no small feat.

In its schizophrenic ambition, IFFR is symptomatic of an industry still (perpetually?) in transition. Rotterdam has long supported new filmmakers, both by devoting a significant portion of its lineup to the Bright Futures program (some 180 films this year) and through its funding and development initiatives, including CineMart, the Hubert Bals Fund, BoostNL and Rotterdam Lab. At this year’s fest, they also unveiled IFFR Unleashed, adding one more digital distribution platform to an increasingly crowded marketplace. Whether IFFR Unleashed pays off for the festival or for the artists and distributors with whom they share the proceeds remains to be seen, but the experiment makes more sense in Rotterdam than it would at most fests, both because it serves, in theory, their mission of amplifying new cinematic voices and because the IFFR brand is of some value in certain regional markets.

Still, the question of sustainability remains. The consequences of the much-discussed, decade-long shift of film financing from a diverse portfolio of projects to a handful of billion dollar properties, and the parallel proliferation around the world of small- and micro-budget productions, are never more apparent than at a festival like IFFR. For attendees, the thrill of discovery can be a sustaining pleasure, but, inevitably, the hit-to-miss ratio is a drag. To be clear, the uneven quality of films at Rotterdam is baked into its business model, which privileges premieres and undiscovered filmmakers and requires a lot of seats be filled over twelve days. Given IFFR’s place on the festival calendar, sandwiched between Sundance and Berlin, the model makes a certain sense.

However, the core problem is also baked into the industry and into the production technology itself: affordable tools, combined with free labor, has resulted in a surfeit of competent content. (How’s that for a demoralizing turn of phrase?) I appreciate IFFR’s championing of emerging talents, but question whether quantity of exposure is a useful long-term metric. Until a model exists that allows those same filmmakers to mature their craft and be paid a reasonable wage while doing so — to make not just a second feature but a fifth and sixth — then a premiere screening at an oversized fest risks becoming a kind of participation trophy. “Congratulations! You made a film! I hope you pay it off someday.” (As an aside, the same problems are now baked into film criticism. At 45, I’m often the old man in the press room, surrounded by hard-hustling freelancers. Not coincidentally, I earn my living through other means, as do many of the filmmakers I cover.)

An interesting case in point is Baltimore filmmaker Matt Porterfield, who was in Rotterdam to present his fourth feature, Sollers Point, and to pitch his fifth, Check Me in Another Place, a selection in this year’s CineMart. Porterfield’s work has been supported by programmers at Berlin, South by Southwest, Sundance, Buenos Aires and Vienna, and his career seems to be traveling along a more traditional indie path, toward gradually larger budgets and larger ambitions. (That progress has been supplemented by Porterfield’s side gig as a lecturer in the Film and Media Studies department at Johns Hopkins.) Sollers Point stars McCaul Lombardi (American Honey, Patti Cake$) as Keith, a young man with few prospects who’s put under house arrest and forced to move back in with his father (Jim Belushi). The film doesn’t always work. Keith’s journey is predictably episodic, which undercuts the dramatic tension, and Porterfield rushes too quickly from scene to scene and character to character, seldom allowing the performances to breathe. However, Sollers Point has all the pleasures and messiness of a classic “transition” film — the kind of movie good directors need to make and learn from.

In that sense, IFFR should be commended for supporting the development of Sollers Point in CineMart 2013 and for inviting Porterfield back a second time. CineMart reduced its selections from 26 films in 2017 to only sixteen this year, deliberately privileging in this case quality over quantity. “The projects now start preparations a month in advance with a specially appointed mentor,” announced head of IFFR PRO Marit van den Elshout. “We’ve also implemented a new structure for the one-to-one meetings, which will be tailored more to the needs of each project.” It’s a step in the right direction, I think. While Porterfield’s next film, which is to be shot in France, wasn’t awarded funding by CineMart, the gathering of industry professionals in Rotterdam makes it a useful place for wrangling European co-productions. Interestingly, Porterfield co-produced and co-wrote Kékszakállú, the recent, much-lauded feature by Gastón Solnicki, who took home this year’s Filmmore Post-Production Award. Porterfield’s and Solnicki’s continuing development as filmmakers certainly supports the notion that a festival’s targeted investments can have ripple effects.

A distinct advantage of IFFR’s schizophrenic ambition is the leeway it affords curators, particularly in the idiosyncratic and occasionally excellent side programs. The 2018 festival featured, among other special sections, a retrospective of Argentinian filmmaker José Celestino Campusano; House on Fire, a survey of contemporary work from Tamil Nadu; Curtain Call, which collected experimental films that address technology and the notion of progress; and Pan-African Cinema Today (PACT), a remarkable program of more than 50 films made over several decades that, together, trace various links between Africa and the diaspora. Given a chance to take a second trip through IFFR 2018, I would happily indulge completely in PACT. Instead, I spent much of my time with the other large program, A History of Shadows.

“It is no simple task to change the past, and to correct its injustices,” write curators Gerwin Tamsma and Gustavo Beck. “But if there is progress, it lies in this effort.” The allusion to Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History” is by design: Benjamin appears as a character in Fabrizio Ferraro’s Les Unwanted de Europa and haunts the other 28 films that constituted Tamsma and Beck’s far-ranging and fascinating program. Organized around an interest in “the diverse ways in which cinema deals with the past and history’s losers,” A History of Shadows spanned nine decades and included films from fifteen countries. If the connections between individual films were often tenuous — “history and cinema” is a boundless organizing principle — the program was tuned appropriately for the moment. A hallmark of smart curation, A History of Shadows had a compounding effect (I saw fifteen of the films immediately before or during the fest) that charged each film with an explicitly political resonance for this era of refugee crises, fading democracies, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and fake news.

Tasma and Beck’s open-ended approach to curation allowed for a number of inspired choices and rediscoveries. A Digital Betacam copy of Jean-Luc Godard’s In the Time of Darkness (Dans le noir du temps, 2001) was paired with the new restoration of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s History Lessons (Geschichtsunterricht, 1972), the latter of which screened in the second edition of the festival in 1973. Dominik Graf, who was the subject of a large retrospective at IFFR in 2013, returned with The Red Shadow (Der rote Schatten), a theatrical cut of a 2017 episode of the long-running German TV show, Tatort. The screening was most memorable for the audience, who delighted in seeing Richy Müller’s gruff Detective Thorsten Lannert on the big screen. The single best film I saw in Rotterdam was a 35mm print of John M. Stahl’s Only Yesterday (1933). Margaret Sullavan’s debut performance is, by turns, charming, agonizing, bewildering, and impossibly sexy. A scene late in the film in which her character chooses to have a second one night stand with the man who betrayed her years earlier — unbeknownst to him! — is as complex and (forgive the term) timely a study of gendered power dynamics as one is likely to find. Note: every large film festival would benefit from the inclusion of a Pre-Code classic.

El desencanto (Jaime Chávarri, 1976) opens like a standard-issue documentary ode to a great artist, in this case Spanish poet Leopoldo Panero. We see family photos and news footage of mourners gathering in his home village to express their grief and to celebrate poetry. Chávarri then cuts to Juan Luis and Michi, the oldest and youngest of Panero’s three sons, who sit outside and smoke while recounting family stories, their voices and gestures becoming increasingly animated and combative to the point of absurdity. Spoiled and debilitated by their father’s acclaim and cruelty, the sons and their mother find themselves, barely a decade after Panero’s death, selling off family heirlooms in order to survive. It’s impossible to watch El desencanto without recalling the decadent dysfunction and charisma of Edith and Edie Beale in Grey Gardens (Albert and David Maysles, 1975). The Paneros are likewise pathetic, in all senses of the word — clamoring anachronisms in the dying days of the Franco regime. El desencanto is worthy of the comparison and deserving of more critical attention.

Wolfgang Staudte’s The Fair (Kirmes, 1960) is set in a small, remote village, where a construction project has unearthed a mystery from the final days of World War II. Nearly the entire film is told in flashback, as we see “good Germans” going about their days and suffering the petty indignities and psychic dissonances of life under the Nazis. When a young soldier flees his regiment, his family and friends must acknowledge their allegiances, confront the current state of the war and choose to act or to not act. The Fair is no lost masterpiece, but it’s an intriguing curiosity nonetheless. Shot in wide angles and with a limited lighting package, it has the cinematographic qualities of a television production, but Staudte coaxes interesting performances from his cast. Juliette Mayniel won the Silver Bear at Berlin for the role of Annette, a French woman who is distinct from every other character in that her determination to survive has forced her to throw off all pretensions of civility and moral posturing. Staudte is described in the program note as a renowned “critic of post-war German complacency,” and in that sense Annette is a kind of destabilizing, anarchic hero. We need more Annettes in 2018.

Finally, a word about Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? Originally a performance piece, Wilkerson reconfigured his material into a theatrical feature by replacing his presence on stage with a voice-over narration. The film documents his years-long investigation into the murder of a black man named Bill Spann by Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, S.E. Branch. Much of it was shot in and around Dothan, Alabama, where the murder was committed, and it includes interviews with his family, who share increasingly disturbing tales about Branch. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? benefited from the context of A History of Shadows, in that Wilkerson self-consciously confronts the lopsided power dynamics in historical representations of racism in the American South. “This isn’t a white savior story. This is a white nightmare story,” he says, implicating himself and every other white person who has presumed to write the tale of a black person’s life. Wilkerson even takes a shot at the most sacred of Southern sacred cows, To Kill a Mockingbird, set 40 miles west of Dothan in the fictional town of Macomb, and finds in Atticus Finch — and in Gregory Peck’s iconic performance — a convenient lie. He “isn’t a human being,” Wilkerson says of Harper Lee’s paragon of mushy, humanistic virtue.

By all accounts, Wilkerson’s riveting live performances last year at Sundance and True/False were emotionally exhausting, both for himself and the audiences. Something has been lost in the translation, however. Having spent a good part of my adult life in and around Monroeville, Alabama, the inspiration for Macomb, I was hyper-aware of Wilkerson’s particular formal choices — pointing his camera, for example, at deserted, ramshackle houses rather than at Wal-mart and the strip malls and fast food restaurants that define so much of contemporary, rural life in the South. That Wilkerson acknowledges the absurdity of his privileged position as the great-grandson of a murderer being paid to take photos of the crime scene doesn’t magically imbue those photos with any particular wisdom. His black-and-white images of cotton fields and pine-lined roads are beautiful — the South is beautiful — but too often they function in the film like slides in a PowerPoint presentation, like visual accompaniments for Wilkerson’s readings. I hope someday to see a performance of Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, where that precise function would have merit. As it stands, the feature version of the film left me, for the first time in a theater, wishing a story had been told not as cinema but as a podcast.

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