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International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019: “The Spying Thing”

No Data Plan

In his introduction to “The Spying Thing,” a 20-title selection of espionage films that he curated with Gustavo Beck, long-time IFFR programmer Gerwin Tamsma goes back to the deep well of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and finds in it a timely new metaphor. Jimmy Stewart’s wheelchair-bound peeping tom is now a 21st-century government or multinational corporation, collecting data from his neighbors without their knowledge or consent, constrained only by the length of his lens (technology) and by the walls of his apartment (the pesky rule of law that governs democracies and capital). Grace Kelly’s wealthy socialite, then, is the everyday citizen who acts from a presumed position of moral authority, delighting in the pleasures of finger-pointing (imagine your most tiresome Facebook friend) before deflecting personal responsibility. “Tell me everything you saw and what you think it means,” she says to Stewart as Hitchcock’s camera dollies in to a close-up, her face a portrait of rapturous concern. 

Revisiting Rear Window at the 2019 International Film Festival Rotterdam, for the first time in more than a decade and on 35mm, I was convinced I was watching the best movie ever made. Hitchcock’s genius is inexhaustible, it seems, and this film, like Vertigo, is so fundamental, so psychologically primordial, it’s difficult to imagine cinema without it. Beck told me he envisioned “The Spying Thing” as the first part of a larger series. Indeed, like “A History of Shadows,” their 2018 program loosely organized around Walter Benjamin’s notion of progress, Beck and Tamsma have here taken on a topic so wide-ranging as to encompass Fritz Lang’s Spies (1928), John Huston’s The Mackintosh Man (1973), László Nemes’s Sunset (2019) and, potentially, hundreds of other films as well. Rear Window retains its effect more than 35 years after I first saw it in part because “the spying thing”—the camera as devious, perverse spectator—is a Rosetta Stone of cinematic pleasure and political power. Here’s a simple party game: Ask cinephile friends what films they would include in a program like this. Once you start pitching titles, it’s near impossible to stop.

Rotterdam’s long-established model of screening hundreds of new films alongside and within eclectic, playfully-curated repertory programs makes for an unwieldy catalog, but it also goes some way toward explaining why the latest edition of IFFR was the best all-around festival experience I’ve had in years. After three trips, I still marvel at the audiences who turn out day after day to take chances on unknown filmmakers and to engage with formally challenging work. There’s a curiosity and a catholicity of taste there that I’ve seldom found in the States. The size and quality of the public audience is testament to the work of the festival’s leadership and programmers, who have earned the ticket-buyers’ trust. As a sometime programmer myself, I was reminded of the burden of responsibility that accompanies that trust during a screening of Nietzsche Sils Maria Rochedo de Surlej, directed by Rosa Dias, Júlio Bressane and Rodrigo Lima. Assembled from cellphone footage gathered during a visit to Nietzsche’s summer getaway in the Swiss Alps, the 58-minute film is too ramshackle to qualify even as an auteurist curiosity. The best festival programming doesn’t shy away from provocations and is tuned to a variety of sensibilities, so walkouts are inevitable. But in this case, the decision to screen Nietzsche Sils Maria Rochedo de Surlej struck me not just as a mistake but as a breach of the contract between curators, the audience, and filmmakers. Had I not been sitting in the middle of a wide row, I would have walked out too.

I offer that criticism with some hesitation, both because I applaud IFFR’s long commitment to Bressane, whose work has been too often overlooked by other festivals, and because that one screening was my only real disappointment of the week. Freed by Filmmaker to navigate the massive program however I pleased, I saw sixty films that spanned nearly a century and ranged from a few minutes to eleven hours (parts two and three of Mariano Llinás’s La Flor). The worst films I saw were of genuine interest; the best were masterpieces. I also attended a masterclass with Claire Denis, enjoyed two magic lantern performances by featured artist Charlotte Pryce, visited an installation of outtakes from Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1969) and, inevitably, missed out on a few other must-see experiences simply because the festival is so vast. I’m especially sorry to have missed Accueil livre d’image, which presented The Image Book (2018) in a space modeled on Godard’s home studio, and “Blackout,” an installation of carousel slide projections curated by Julian Ross.

Rotterdam is cold and wet in January but seldom so miserable as to make the short walks between venues anything other than a welcome breath of fresh air. The majority of activities occur within a half-mile radius of De Doelen, a four-story concert hall and convention center that serves as a screening venue, press office, conference space, and general gathering spot during the festival. The weather and geography, in fact, make IFFR feel more intimate and collegial than its over-stuffed schedule would suggest. Thirty-six years after the inaugural CineMart, IFFR remains committed to facilitating productive interactions between professionals of all stripes. Most of their various initiatives are now coordinated under the Pro Hub brand, which along with the festival’s signature four-day international co-production market, also includes a one-day development workshop, one-on-one mentoring opportunities, pitching sessions and a private screening room for films that are not part of the official program. A similar attention is devoted to the press operation. Finding accommodations, selecting tickets, accessing fast wi-fi, arranging interviews, networking with other industry guests—all of the mundane logistics of covering a festival were considered and accounted for. That I was able to buy a world-class martini at the Kino Rotterdam bar between screenings is a nice touch too. (Holland is a paradise for gin and genever drinkers.)

Frankly, I also had such a good time at IFFR because I was able to divide my time equally between recent premieres and repertory programming, which isn’t so much a slight on the lineup of new films as an endorsement of the pleasures of cherry-picking at festivals. There’s no better cure for cynicism. Along with revisiting Rear Window, I made the most of “The Spying Thing” by seeing Dishonored (Josef von Sternberg, 1931), Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939) and British Agent (Michael Curtiz, 1934), all on 35mm. British Agent is an odd one. After securing the rights to R. H. Bruce Lockhart’s international best-seller, Memoirs of a British Agent, Warner Brothers handed the project and a large budget to Curtiz, who was then among the studio’s most efficient and reliable directors. Leslie Howard is as dashing as ever—the man knew how to wear a tailored suit—in his starring role as Stephen Locke, a young bureaucrat who is assigned the impossible task of secretly preventing Lenin’s new government from signing a separate peace treaty with Germany. Forced by British censors to tone down Lockhart’s harsh criticisms of England’s war-time policies, and needing a return on their investment, the studio turned the material into a patriotic, star-crossed lovers tale that ends just shy of Borzagean tragedy. British Agent doesn’t work, on the whole, but watching a leather-clad Kay Francis lead a band of Bolsheviks makes for a thrilling bit of psychic dissonance.

As fun as it was to indulge in classical Hollywood fare, the centerpieces of “The Spying Thing” were, for me, Chantal Akerman’s Là-bas (2006) and Chris Marker’s Stopover in Dubai (2011), both of which short-circuit the comforting distance of metaphor. Shot almost entirely within the small Tel Aviv apartment where Akerman lived during a month-long visit in 2005, Là-bas recalls Rear Window’s famous title sequence, in which three blinds are raised, gradually revealing our view of the courtyard. Like Stewart and Kelly, Akerman passes much of her time hiding in shadows and peering through blinds at strangers in nearby buildings. The subjects of her camera’s gaze, however, are impersonal and generic—they’re the people who live “down there” in Israel, the people who are simultaneously distinct from and essential to her own identity as a child of the Holocaust. The apartment gives Akerman a new vantage of mundane lives, of the Mediterranean Sea, of jets passing overhead, and of smoke from a nearby bomb blast, and that sudden proximity to the concrete reality of her idea of a homeland provokes in her both fascination and despair. Watching Là-bas in 2019 inevitably conjures thoughts of Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie (2015), which likewise cuts between intimate, domestic spaces and static exterior shots, accompanied always by Akerman’s plaintive, ferociously intelligent voice. If the films were screened back to back, No Home Movie’s opening image of a wind-whipped tree in an Israeli desert would bridge the two seamlessly, offering not an interpretable symbol but a secular, material object of contemplation.

IFFR screened Là-bas in a huge room at the Pathé Schouwburgplein, which accentuated, to lovely effect, the technological limitations of Akerman’s early-2000s, consumer-grade DV camera. The flattened, pixelated, high-contrast image skews our perception—Amy Taubin compares the pictorial quality to “a late Cézanne where depth and surface become one”—and subtly influences our interpretative strategies. Like the grainy, saturated 16mm images of News from Home (1977), Akerman’s early digital work signals to viewers a kind of hand-made authenticity. Là-bas is essentially the same age as YouTube and the iPhone, and in that sense it anticipates much of our current visual vocabulary. There’s a direct line, even, from Akerman to a couple of the more interesting premieres I saw in Rotterdam. After garnering acclaim for her static-camera, documentary portrait of a Chinese family, Another Year (2016), Zhu Shengze won the Tiger Award for Present.Perfect., an assemblage of footage gathered during China’s live-streaming boom. Zhu opens the film with a montage of unrelated streams, mimicking the user experience of browsing channels, before gradually focusing her attention on five or six particularly fascinating “anchors.” In doing so she foregrounds what is typically an unconscious, automatic behavior for consumers of web video—the moment-to-moment choosing of one face or one voice or one body over another (among the millions of possibilities) as an object of voyeuristic fascination. In No Data Plan, Miko Revereza documents a cross-country train ride and recounts, in voiceover, his troubled relationship with his mother and his status as an undocumented immigrant. There are countless precedents for No Data Plan, from Richard Linklater to James Benning, but I thought most often of Akerman’s News from Home and The Meetings of Anna (1978). Revereza’s patient observation of the cloistered world within and just outside a train car touches at times Akerman’s sense of political, geographic and historical liminality.

Taken to its logical extreme, Tamsma’s organizing idea of “The Spying Thing” as a mechanical, potentially weaponized collector of data leads, finally, to closed-circuit surveillance and the police state. CCTV has long been a convenient plot device and formal flourish for narrative filmmakers; it’s now also becoming an important source of found footage for video artists, most notably Xu Bing, whose recent, detestable provocation, Dragonfly Eyes (2017), constructs a fiction from thousands of hours of Chinese surveillance video, including clips of unidentified people who died by various means in public spaces. Marker’s Stopover in Dubai is a near masterpiece partly because it does just the opposite: reconstructing the assassination of a real man with a real name while eliding the murder itself. On January 19, 2010 a 26-person Mossad hit squad executed a prominent member of Hamas’s military wing, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in his Dubai hotel room before jetting off to a dozen different international locations. Every act of the meticulous plot—every arrival and departure, change of disguise, and ticket purchase—was captured by closed-circuit cameras. We know this because the footage was all collected by Dubai’s General Department of State Security, who edited it into sequence while building their case and then released the 27-minute “film” to Gulf News TV for distribution. (Various copies of the State’s version of the video have been viewed nearly a million times on YouTube.)

Marker’s film is a highly conceptual piece, in that his only direct intervention in the found footage was replacing the original soundtrack with excerpts from the opening movements of Henryk Górecki’s “String Quartet No. 3” as performed by Kronos Quartet. Released originally as a Flash file and currently available as a low-resolution mp4 on his website, Stopover in Dubai was Marker’s final video, and as far I’m aware he never commented publicly on it. Still, it’s easy to imagine his fascination with the technology and with so shattering an example of the political force of montage, just as it’s easy to imagine him enjoying the montage itself. The State’s video is blocked and cross-cut like a De Palma set piece, with broad-shouldered men in business suits and fake moustaches stepping out of taxis and walking conspicuously past their lookout men, who chat casually while disguised as vacationers on their way to the tennis court. Marker’s musical selections—the “Adagio” as the assassins and victim arrive at the hotel, the “Largo” during the murder, and the “Allegro” as they make their escape—underline the spectral, can’t-believe-this-is-real quality of what we’re seeing, as did seeing Stopover in Dubai projected in a theater that typically screens Hollywood blockbusters. The pleasures of watching this film are undeniable. It’s a riveting drama in a classical sense. But it forces viewers to adopt a Brechtian dual perspective that reveals the terrifying and awesome (in all senses of the words) genius of the system.

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