After missing the film festival in Rotterdam last year, I was looking forward to attending again in 2009 any way I could. In the midst of figuring out how I was going to get there and where to stay I got an email inviting me to be on the jury for the Tiger Awards for Short Film. Surprised and flattered I quickly accepted before realising that I was committing myself to. The entire short film competition consists of 29 films each running anything up to 60 minutes long spread over nine individual programmes. As the first time I’d been invited to be on a jury and at Rotterdam, a festival I have attending since 2000, I was happy to watch whatever they had selected.
Competition programmes at festivals - which usually consist of a selection of titles from everything a festival shows - can often suffer from striving to be representative of all types of work produced, representing bad works at times seems to be part of this politically correct strategy! One of the most interesting things about festivals is their ability to champion and find a space for their own take on film culture, to create for a week or two a cinematic utopia where the wealth of moving image culture is not governed by the normal logistical and financial pressures of running a cinema. Often the specific character of a festival is best expressed through their special thematic strands or focuses on certain filmmakers or regions. In this regard Rotterdam is one of the most interesting festivals in the world, willing to change its format to reflect what its many programmes believe is important about moving image culture each year. Festival competition, as the most general part of a festival, can often be a stumbling block where the identity and direction of the festival is lost in a too broad selection of work, with films shoehorned into uncomfortable collections in order to fill out the required 90 minute.
Thankfully IFFR’s strong individualism and independent character permeated the nine competition programmes at this years festival - each was filled with striking, challenging works form a wide range of filmmakers. The festival presented each work individually often stopping between to talk to attending filmmakers which broke up the programmes and allowed each film to stand as an individual work. The competition consisted of works nominated by Rotterdam’s various programmers from all areas of the festival, presenting work from young to established filmmakers, from gallery artists to experimental filmmakers. On the jury with me was Tan Chui Mui, a celebrated Malaysian filmmaker whose first feature Love Conquers All (Malaysia, 2006) won a Tiger Award when it showed at Rotterdam in previous years and Maria Pallier who produces the amazing Spanish television programme Metropolis - which was recently celebrated with an exhibition at the Cornerhouse in Manchester.
In recent years with changes of director the festival has seemed to be unsure what direction to take. This edition marked the first under the confirmed leadership of Dutch director Rutger Wolfson who co-directed the festival last year on what was then a temporary basis. With time to prepare Rutger has shaped the festival with a new simplified structure of three sections which include features, shorts and performances and exhibitions under the banners Spectrum, Bright Future and Signals. Since 2005 the short film section has been lead by Peter van Hoof who has focused the short film screenings into the first half of the festival, successfully creating an intimate atmosphere within the broader festival - the Lantern and Venster venue acting as unofficial hub making it easy to bump into filmmakers, artists, curators, distributors and festival programmes for a beer or for a quick hello in the mad dash between screenings. The festival liberally defines short films as any work under 60 minutes in length - partly in response to the fact that the Tiger for feature films can be given to anything over 60 minutes - a clear sighted way to define ‘short’, a arbitrary category at the best of times and give room to filmmakers work rather than dictate what form it should take.
There were too many interesting films to go into in detail here but my particular favourites from the short competition included Deborah Stratman's O’er the land (USA, 2008) a brilliant study of American notions of freedom, the land and man’s relationship with machines. Constructed with brilliantly composed often static shots and intermittently narrated, the film builds an idiosyncratic portrait of America. At the other end of the spectrum was Jim Trainor’s virtuoso animation The Presentation Theme (USA, 2008) which builds a perverse narrative inspired by artefacts the ancient pre-Inca Peruvian culture, called the Moche. Beautifully drawn and made with sublime roughness, from the lazy animation to the over emphatic organ soundtrack and condescending but hypnotic narration. Block B by Chris Chong Chan Fui (Malaysia/Canada, 2008) consists of just two long takes of the same housing block in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, one in day time and one at night, the inhabitants visible as dots on the various walkways. The films power comes from its effortless orchestration of activity on the various floors of the tower block which our attention is subtly drawn to my the excellent sound design by Yasuhiro Morinaga. What at first appears to be a purely observed shot emerges as an intricately timed series of actions realised with an incredible attention to detail and more than a stop of good luck - especially in a magical moment when a shawl is dropped from one walkway only to land on a banister eight floors down.
To be continued...