A sensible person doesn't go to Rotterdam in January for the weather; even so, when I was there last week for its film festival, the meteorological situation seemed almost Biblical in its variety of winter miseries. Still, despite the daily visitations of snow, hail, sleet, and freezing rain, the festival managed to offer dozens of feature and short films every day, many of them European or world premieres. Part of my own strategy in negotiating that multitude was to try to see new works by directors the Wexner film/video program has hosted in the past or whose work we've shown in depth, which included the latest from Claire Denis (White Material, continuing her project of examining the legacy of French colonialism in Africa), Milos Forman (A Walk Worthwhile, a seamless multi-camera documentation of a Czech musical comedy he'd staged live in Prague's National Theatre), Pedro Costa (Ne change rien, a riveting documentary on actress-singer Jeanne Balibar recording an album), Alexandre Sokurov (Reading Book of Blockade, a series of recording sessions in which Russian actors and non-actors read first-person accounts of the Nazi siege of Leningrad), and Phil Collins (soy mi madre, a lavish short in telenovela style). The festival also usually includes several works by artists we've supported through the Art and Tech. program and/or through residency award funding, and this year's roster included Ben Russell (Let Each One Go Where He May) and Lewis Klahr, whose animation, Wednesday Morning Two A.M., won one of the festival's three top prizes for shorts (Klahr will be here on May 1 to introduce this and other works).
The remaining films I saw didn't adhere to a coherent agenda on my part; the contingencies of screening venue and start (and running) time become factors, particularly given the festival's multiple locations dispersed across the center of the city. Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch, and Jessica Hausner's Lourdes have both been making the festival circuit, each centered on a young woman touched and tormented by the mysteries of spiritual faith; a different species of grace is visualized in Pere Portabella's short, Mudanza (Removal), a stunning silent tour of Federico Garcia Lorca's family home. From Israel, Samuel Maoz's Lebanon is confined almost entirely to a tank invading southern Lebanon on the first day of the 1982 war; in making the brutish techno-violence of modern warfare experientially immediate, it struck me as being the film that The Hurt Locker is claimed by its many partisans to be (though the films are notably similar in their evasion of any tough-minded â€œpoliticalâ€ claims). Hana Makhmalbaf's Green Days vividly captures the look and feel of the streets of Teheran in the build-up to (and subsequent let-down from) last year's Iranian presidential election, while veteran director Zelimir Zilnik's The Old School of Capitalism used docudrama conventions, often comically, to report on Serbian workers â€œfreedâ€ from communism but now exploited anew by their profit-crazed bosses. The latest from Nicolas Winding Refn, Bronson's writer-director, Valhalla Rising rehashes the geopolitics of the Dark Ages as its ultra-violent clan of Viking-like Scottish warlords sets out to Christianize Jerusalem but end up in what seems to be Canada, where genocidal hijinks ensue – stratospherically brutal, in a palette the color of mud, but at 90 minutes, the perfect length. It also seemed perfectly in keeping with the schizoid nature of film festival-going that I went straight from Valhalla Rising into Adieu Philippine, Jacques Rozier's enchantingly lyrical â€˜forgotten' masterpiece of the French New Wave, praised in its day by no less than Godard, Rohmer and Rivette but still largely unknown, at least outside France.
Rotterdam's signature programming strategy of partnering with local cultural institutions to extend the festival's reach beyond the confines of conventionally presented cinema was distinctly muted this year, reportedly an effect of economic realities. The single remarkable survivor of this cutback was embodied in Belgian curator Edwin Carels's Break Even Store, an extremely modest enterprise multi-functioning as a meeting place, a gallery, a wine bar (free!), an informal screening and discussion space, and a real retail emporium, stocked with single copies of artists' videos, catalogues and monographs, and various diy ephemera. Officially sanctioned by the festival but feeling like a separatist gesture, the Break Even Store advanced cinema by its own means: social exchange, the exchange of goods, and the co-habitation of a small shared space by people drawn there only secondarily to get out of the cold.