2011 Rotterdam Film Festival report

The Rotterdam Film Festival is an annual celebration of independent film from around the world. Our critics Geoff Andrew and David Jenkins pick six highlights from the 2011 event

‘Genpin’, Naomi Kawase (Japan)
You may recall Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s name from the 2007 Cannes competition, as she (somewhat surprisingly) nabbed the Best Director gong for her bucolic drama, ‘The Mourning Forest’. Here, she returns to documentaries for this stunning portrait of the Yoshimura Antenatal Clinic in a wooded suburb of Okazaki in Japan. It’s an institution which invites its patrons to give birth in the manner of the women of Japan’s Edo period, that is without any drugs or stimulants and on a Tatami mat. Kawase’s technique is simple and pure: she interviews the women about why they’ve opted to ditch the meds, and she converses with doctors about the advantages of these methods. About half way in, as Kawase gets closer and closer to her subjects, the motif of birth – the idea of storing something inside you which leads to a cathartic release – takes on a more ingeniously conceptual form, as the women – and even the Zen-like elder, Dr Yoshimura – begin to offload their secrets, fears and professional woes to the camera. It’s very moving indeed. DJ


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‘La Vida Útil (A Useful Life)’, Federico Veiroj (Uruguay)
Deliciously dry and deadpan, this Uruguayan comedy centres on the programmer of Montevideo’s Cinemateca, an institution facing cuts in financial support. Tiny audiences for ‘Greed’, De Oliveira retros and recent domestic fare alike, coupled with the cost of replacing ancient projectors, mean the place may close, notwithstanding the protagonist’s forlorn attempts to attract new members with a weekly radio programme. Surely dear to the heart of any cinephile who ever felt out of step with more mainstream tastes, Federico Veiroj’s film rings beautifully true (he himself, like his cast, is closely connected to the venue in question) and scores bonus points for admitting to how boring and socially inept film obsessives can be. A near-gratuitous scene involving a lecture on lies to law students provides the icing on the cake. GA


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‘Finisterrae’, Sergio Caballero (Spain)
Winner of one of two Tiger awards at this year’s Rotterdam, this ambient, dryly comic debut from Sergio Caballero (one of the organisers of the Sónar music festival in Barcelona) split audiences down the middle. It’s easy to see why. Billed as an homage to Philippe Garrel’s 1972 film ‘The Inner Scar’, this eccentric road movie traces the surreal pilgrimage of two Russian-speaking ghosts (replete with white bed sheets with oversized black holes for the eyes) as they drag a mule and a wind sock from Sónar, across various smoke-strewn rural vistas, to the cape of Finisterre in Galicia. Rhyme and reason play second fiddle to jolly experimental asides, a deadpan shooting and performing style and lots of novelty props. It's easily dismissible as being too arty and glib, but that’s only if you haven’t been sucked in by its ironic tone and gorgeous visuals. DJ


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‘Curling’, Denis Côté (Canada)
Quebecois Denis Côté’s deeply unsettling but often disarmingly amusing film boasts terrific performances from Emmanuel Bilodeau and his daughter Philomène as, respectively, a taciturn maintenance man working at a motel and a bowling alley, and the 12-year-old daughter he’s so determined to protect from the evils of the world that he keeps her at their remote country home most of the time rather than allow her friends and schooling. But then a change in his work, death and the much-loved local sport of curling begin to threaten the precarious father-daughter relationship... Engrossing from start to finish, pleasingly ambiguous and psychologically insightful, Côté’s film, notwithstanding its slightly detached tone, is finally surprisingly moving. GA


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‘A Stoker’, Alexei Balabanov (Russia)
It’s a real shame that the brilliant films of Russia’s Alexei Balabanov rarely receive distribution in the UK. ‘A Stoker’ makes for his third grimy gem in a row after 2008’s ‘Cargo 200’ and 2009’s ‘Morphia’. Here, we’re given a contemporary gangster yarn whose bleak and brutal mechanics are made enjoyable with the aid of a bizarre and omnipresent techno/calypso/Latin score. The stoker of the title is an elderly Yakut who was a major in the Soviet army and whose furnace is used to dispose of the corpses amassed by local gangsters. Beneath lashings of hardcore sex and violence, the film offers a sad lament for the lot of the disenfranchised and elderly, but it also says that sometimes, all it takes to improve that lot is a carefully thrusted ski pole. DJ

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‘Zephyr’, Belma Bas (Turkey)
While it bears a faint resemblance to ‘Honey’, last year’s winner of Berlin’s Golden Bear’, in that it centres on a child living in the Turkish mountains and affected by the absence of a parent, Belma Bas’s film is nevertheless mercifully free of the cuteness and studied ‘beauty’ of its predecessor. Indeed, for all the strikingly bold images of the natural world (snails, insects, dead badgers, horses) with which the titular 12-year-old heroine seems to be most at ease, the account of her daily existence – awaiting her mother’s return, helping her grandparents collect mushrooms – feels absolutely authentic. Even the final scenes, which might so easily have lapsed into implausible melodrama, are handled with sensitivity and intelligence. GA

Author: Geoff Andrew & David Jenkins





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