Like most other major film festivals, Rotterdam has a prize. And just as Berlin has its Golden Bear and Locarno its Golden Leopard, Rotterdam’s most prestigious annual honour is named after the event’s animal symbol. But the Tiger Award is different. Not one but three equal Tigers are given each year – in 2007 a quartet was issued – and this from a field that seldom exceeds 15 candidates, restricted to directors making their first or second (fictional) features.
So while at Europe’s “big three” of Cannes, Berlin and Venice competitors have around a one in twenty chance of glory, at Rotterdam the odds are much more “generous”: roughly one in five. This is partly because Rotterdam (officially International Film Festival Rotterdam, or IFFR) has always seen itself as something of a maverick event. More than 20 years elapsed after the first festival (in 1972) before the Tiger Award was instituted – festival founder Hubert Bals having opposed the idea of publicly measuring one film’s merits against another, right up to his premature death aged 51 in 1988.
Seven years later the first Tiger Awards were bestowed – in the present triumvirate form as a concession to Bals’s purist preferences. British productions proved notably popular in the early days, with Tigers going to Gillies MacKinnon’s Small Faces in 1996, Patrick Keiller’s masterpiece Robinson In Space in 1997, and Christopher Nolan’s Following in 1999. The latter was among the very first of many accolades for a director who’s since moved far away from the typically low-budget, idiosyncratic auteur fare which Rotterdam has long sought to champion – with a particular emphasis on productions from “developing” nations with limited cinematographic traditions.
This commitment to encouraging a fully globalised film culture saw IFFR set up the Hubert Bals Fund (HBF) the year after the founder’s death, and the festival annually includes numerous films part-subsidised by Bals Fund grants. In February’s renewal (the 40th festival, branded ‘XL’ to denote both the anniversary and the concept of an “expanded” festival operating in 40 venues across the city) this included a trio of competition candidates: Flying Fish (Igillena maluwo) by Sanjeewa Pushpakumara (Sri Lanka), The Image Threads (Chitra sutram) by Vipin Vijay (India) and Eternity (Tee-rak) by Sivaroj Kongsakul (Thailand) – the latter taking home one of the three Tiger prizes.
Eternity‘s success was predictable enough, as it’s exactly the kind of contemplative, slow-paced, narratively oblique, rural-set affair associated with IFFR and HBF. Writer-director Kongsakul presents long, dialogue-light scenes from a chaste, old-fashioned courtship between a city girl and a country boy around the latter’s home village – a remote, serenely riverine, lake-dotted landscape.
Ruminant and calm, the quietly romantic Eternity adheres to the established modes of Thai art-cinema – it was produced by Aditya Assarat, Tiger winner for 2007′s Wonderful Town – but establishes a distinctive mood and pace: Kongsakul used editor Nuttorn Kungwanklai rather than the country’s most most prominent cutter Lee Chatametikool – frequent collaborator with both Assarat and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, credited here as an advisor.
If Eternity‘s Tiger raised few eyebrows (the presence of Dongsakul’s compatriot Wisit Sasanatieng on the judging-panel can’t have done him much harm) the prize to Park Jung-Bum’s debut The Journals of Musan (Musan il-gy) was seen as an even safer bet. This 128-minute chronicle of a North Korean defector (played by Park) and his mishaps in the buzzing South Korean metropolis of Seoul quickly cemented itself as the critical favourite of IFFR XL. The international critics’ FIPRESCI jury agreed with their colleagues in Pusan, who’d given Park their prize at the South Korea’s most famous film-festival (where Musan world-premiered) last autumn.
A grim parable about the ‘South-Koreanisation’ of its meek-and-mild protagonist – who gradually adapts to the dog-eat-dog capitalist excesses of his new home with help from an appealing white puppy – this is an edgily immediate affair shot on hand-held digital-video, and while breaking no new ground stylistically it does offer fresh perspectives on the troubled relations between the different cultures either side of the 38th parallel.
Arguably even more deserving of Tiger recognition was another South Korean competitor, Yoon Sung-Hyun’s absorbingly intense examination of teenage bullying and suicide, Bleak Night (Pasuggun) – another Pusan premieree, writer-director Yoon having shared the event’s New Currents Award with Musan‘s Park. Those who follow IFFR in search of young auteurs-in-embryo would have taken note of Yoon’s name, as the 29-year-old – in what was, remarkably, his film-school graduation project – displays a sure directorial hand from first high-def DV image to last. He marshals excellent, convincing performances from his young cast – as the high-school alpha-male who ends up taking his own life (interesting that for once it’s the bully rather than the bullied who commits suicide), Lee Je-Hoon would have been front-runner for an IFFR acting award, were such a thing to exist.
As juries tend to “spread the love” between competing countries, a Tiger for Bleak Night as well as Musan was always unlikely, leaving the third and final award was very much up for grabs. Given Iranian cinema’s current spell in the international spotlight thanks to the incarceration of Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof (their plight was publicised via some imaginative initiatives during IFFR), observers wondered if the jury – which included Argentinian writer-director Lucrecia Martel and Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo – might “send a message” by opting for Majid Barzegar’s Rainy Seasons (Fasl-e baran-haye moosemi). A downbeat character-study of a Tehran 20-year-old dealing with emotional and financial problems, it’s chiefly of interest for making the Iranian capital look and feel pretty much like any major ‘western’ city – evidence of theocratic repression being limited to non-existent.
The surprising, regrettable fact that Elisa Miller was the only female director among the 15 in competition (Greek opening-film Wasted Youth has two co-directors) boosted the attention paid to her Alicia, Go Yonder (Vete más lejos, Alicia), a first “longer” work (67 minutes) from this winner of a Cannes Palme d’Or in the short-film section (for 2006′s Watching It Rain [Ver llover.] And there’s much to like about this impressionistic attempt to capture the observant, artistic sensibilities of a 19-year-old Mexican girl/woman who studies in Buenos Aires then travels to Argentina’s sparsely-populated southern extremes on a journey of self-discovery. A rough-edged miniature with an accessibly experimental feel, Alicia perhaps is more of a transitional piece for Miller than the finished article, but augurs well for future projects.
Of the remaining Tiger contenders, urban docu-fiction The Sky Above (O céu sobre os ombros, Sérgio Borges, Brazil), dark political satire All Your Dead Ones (Todos sus muertos, Carlos Moreno, Colombia) and Athens slice-of-lifer Wasted Youth (Jan Vogel and Argyris Papadimitropoulos) found admirers, but were essentially unremarkable. The somewhat mainstream Russian bittersweet comedy Gromozeka (Vladimir Kott) scored highly in the Audience Award voting but underwhelmed critics, while the general consensus was that Flying Fish, Love Addiction (Fuyu no kemono, Uchida Nobuteru, Japan) and Headshots (Lawrence Tooley, Germany/Austria) were very lucky to find berths in such a high-profile competition.
And the less said about The Image Threads - a pseudo-intellectual farrago of highbrow cultural references, psycho-sexual musings and internet philosophising that repelled nearly all those who endured it – the better. Suffice to note that Eternity definitely saved the day for the Hubert Bals Fund, as misfires like Flying Fish and The Image Threads provide ample ammunition to the organisation’s vocal critics at a time when an arts-hostile new Dutch government is announcing cuts across the cultural board.
Of the many things that can be said about Sergio Caballero’s Finisterrae - which was, by some measure, the most talked-about, controversial and polarisingly divisive Tiger contender of 2011 – is that it’s about as far from a Hubert Bals Fund project as it’s possible to get. Spain is nobody’s idea of a “developing” cinematic country, and Catalonia is a major powerhouse in the field – a couple of years ago Variety magazine calculated there had been more films made in Catalonia during the previous 12 months than in the whole of the United Kingdom.
And in a competition brimming with films examining social, political and economic issues – usually in the slow-paced, long-take, contemplative style w/hich has (for some reason) now become the world’s default art-cinema mode – how wonderfully refreshing to stumble across such a witty, loopy jeu d’esprit, a conceptual comedy which nods to Buñuel, Beckett, Tarkovsky, Philippe Garrel and Caballero’s fellow Catalan, Albert Serra but which is ultimately much more than the sum of its references and parts (and which one suspects Buñuel, in particular, would have enjoyed and championed.)
Near-impossible to synopsise or pigeonhole, Finisterrae (which may have its Slovenian premiere at the Ljubljana International Film Festival in November) tracks two perpetually-shrouded ‘ghosts’ – Russian brothers, perhaps – as they follow the well-trodden pilgrim-path through northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, and then onward to Cape Finisterre in search of spiritual (and perhaps even physical) rebirth. Studded with surreal absurdities and lo-fi old-school “special” effects, the results were rejected by some – and by several high-profile critics – as little more than a daft, misguided joke.
But those who completed the journey were rewarded with a climax and coda of striking, transcendent beauty and mystery, involving a grand chateau and a wandering reindeer (or is it an elk?) – the last in a long series of non-human “participants” we encounter along the way. And even the film’s harshest detractors had to admit the limpid, painterly clarity of its digital-video imagery, crafted by cinematographic prodigy Eduard Grau – still only 29 but previously responsible for Tom Ford’s A Single Man, Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried and Serra’s Honour of the Knights.
In his mid-forties, writer/director Caballero came to cinema late – he helps organise Barcelona’s renowned experimental music-festival Sónar (the eclectic soundtrack is one of the movie’s consistent pleasures), and is reportedly no mean wine-grower. And his unorthodox, decidedly non-film-school background is evident in his genuinely risk-taking “mysterious object” of a movie, one whose sui generis merits were – somewhat unexpectedly, but entirely correctly – recognised by the Tiger jury, allowing Caballero to share the glory alongside Eternity‘s Kongsakul and The Journals of Musan‘s Park. Whatever the faults of IFFR in general and the competition section in particular, it surely reflects very favourably on both that room was found for Finisterrae - for this writer, it’s the sole new film in the entire festival which might conceivably claim masterpiece status.
2nd February, 2011
written for the February edition of Ekran magazine, Ljubljana (Slovenia)