Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Rotterdam Film Festival Diaries
A Report in Four Parts

by Henri Béhar

(Visit the official site for a complete list of awards)


According to one of The Netherlands' foremost journalists, the Dutch filmgoer averages ONE movie a year, which would rate it lowest among European countries in terms of attendance. All the more surprising, then, that Rotterdam's International Film Festival, which closed on the night of February 3d after eleven days of heavy movie-going (and partying), lasted 25 years.

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, Emile Fallaux, the Festival head, had the brilliant idea to reprogram, as a sidebar, its entire 1972 selection: 36 films chosen by Fest founder Hubert Bals, plus six that, for some reason or other, never made it in time for viewing. At the opposite end of the spectrum--from past to future--Fallaux pushed for the creation of another sidebar ("Exploding Cinema") dedicated to CD-ROMs, interactive cinema and the Internet. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time a "legitimate" Film festival gives such room to new technologies. The US package included Sidney Pollack's "Sabrina", Abel Ferrara's "The Addiction", Robert Benton's "Nobody's Fool" and Mike Figgis' "Leaving Las Vegas". With 300 films from 49 countries, shown in such sections as an official competition (for the Tiger Award), a tribute to Tatsumi Kumashiro, a "pink" (read "soft-porn") director from Japan, who died in 1995, and a special focus on "Mekong Cinema" (more about this later), one had a startling--and revealing--view of the evolution of cinema in the last quarter of a century.

The most striking feature of the 1972 selection was the abundance of openly political films, often made by such collectives as the Group Medvedkine or the US's Newsreel. Peter ("They All Laughed") Bogdanovitch still thought he was a socio-political director, even though his "Targets" paled in comparison with Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun". Mexico had dispatched Jorge Sanjines ("The Blood of the Condor") and Paul Leduc's pre-Warren Beatty film on John Reed ("Mexico Insurgente"). From the Third World came Iranian Darius Mehrjui ("Cow" and "The Postman") and Senegalese director Mahama Traore. With, respectively, "Women in Revolt", "I Love You, I Kill You" and "Garden of Delights", Paul Morrissey (USA), Uwe Brandner (Germany) and Carlos Saura (Spain) dynamited a few sexual taboos. Documentaries dealt with often-hidden realities head-on, be it Marcel Ophuls' "The Sorrow and The Pity" (on French collaborationists during the German occupation), Noriaki Tsushimoto's "Minamata" (on an entire population being slowly but fatally poisoned by chemical and indusstrial waste), Frederick Wiseman's "Essene" (on a monastery in Michigan) or "Winter Soldier," by the WinterFilm Collective, Vietnam Veterans Against The War.

Tracking down the prints of all the 1972 films was an almost impossible task: not only had the existing prints to be of screening quality, they simply had to *exist*! "Made by amateurs, some of those films have not made it into film history," says Fallaux, "but they were relevant at the time, they reflected the 'zeitgeist' of the era." Yet, in co-production with the Netherlands' Film Museum, all the films made it to Rotterdam.

There was another danger: "I didn't want this return to 1972 to be just a nostalgic throwback, a wallowing in 'good times past'. I wanted it to be the seed of a debate over whatever happened to films, filmmakers and filmgoers in the last twenty-five years."

"On the one hand, it's obvious that even low-budget filmmaking has now become more mainstream--at least to me," Fallaux continues. "Especially in the last few years, the proliferation of TV channels, therefore a growing demand for low-budget films, has turned 'independent filmmaking' into big business. Tales abound as to how often, after a first feature, independents are offered three-picture deals in Hollywood. That has really set a different tone than you had 25 years ago. So for real independence, you have to look even further into the fringe. That's where you may find the poets, the experimentalists, the new energy.

"Perhaps kids nowadays have little sense of film history, but their desire and ambition to work with images is no less strong. It was the case in the 1970s when music videos started. It is the case today with the new media. One should not look down on that energy, whose impact is far reaching, more than perhaps we might think. The democratizing effect of the Internet and the new media, and part of the excitement is not just games, it's also political."



"Exploding Cinema", the Rotterdam Festival's debuting sidebar focusing to the multi-media and the Internet, was headquartered at the Nighttown, near the railway station. A peek at the future, no doubt, but upon entering the cavernous basement where a battery of computers had been set up, the visitor could feel the same energy, the same passion one found at the Cannes Film Festival in the mid-70s when, as the sun barely rose on the still-sleepy Croisette, filmgoers coming out of a seven-hour long screening would literally break into fistfights over Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's "Parsifal". The computer has now replaced both the projection booth and the screening room. A hit weekly program on Canadian TV "Reboot EX" is entirely computer-generated, the same way as John Lasseter's "Toy Story", made at Pixar and distributed by Disney.

In one area, Douglas Gayeton was presenting his interactive version of "Johnny Mnemonic" made directly for the CD-ROM. Different actors (no Keanu Reeves--sorry!), substantially different story. Scriptwriting as we know it no longer really applies, nor does the traditional role of the filmgoer.

"Who says I want to interact with a movie?" asked an intrigued but wary visitor. "When I go to the movies, I just want them to tell me a story."

"That is indeed the key question," Gayeton replied. "We're just offering a different approach to a same basic material for those who want to experiment with it."

Gayeton predicts that in the near future, films will be shot simultaneously for the big screen AND for the CD-ROM.

It's also a great way to recycle old works. Based on Robert Montgomery's "Lady in The Lake" in which one barely caught a glimpse of Raymond Chandler's star detective, Philip Marlowe (the camera was HIS p.o.v.), in the "Raymond Chandler" interactive CD-ROM, YOU become Philip Marlowe, investigating in the Hollywood of the glamorous 1940s.

"I don't know where it's all going," a visitor muttered, "but I sure want to be part of it."

All right, I won't make you linger. The partying. The Rotterdam Festival focusing on directors, there were very few stars around to party with. Which was great--who needs 'em? The second-floor cafeteria was the Festival's gathering point and watering hole (strike water, make that gin, scotch, genever, tequila and coffee, coffee, coffee). Everybody met there around 7 p.m. to make plans for the evening and for the night. Then on to dinner, on to a film or two, then back to the Cafeteria. When that closed at 2 a.m. it was time to go out and paint the town all shades of red. Male, female, animal or mineral, the Dutch could redefine the notions of "loose" and "cool". Need I say more?



A gathering of the Mekong Filmmakers in the Rotterdam Festival's press conference room. Excluding China--which the likes of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have made a must on the Festival circuit--programmer Wouter Barendrecht focused on the other countries that line up the Mekong River: Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia. The Golden Lion that the 1995 Venice Film Festival gave to Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung's "Cyclo" "gave us an ideal opportunity to take a closer look at what was going on in that part of the world," Barendrecht said.

With tremendous elegance and diplomacy, Tran Anh Hung, whose "Scent of the Green Papaya" was a (relatively) major hit, called himself "an aberration": "I live in France, and when I went to Vietnam to shoot 'Cyclo', I had foreign financing and western equipment." In order not to "give a distorted view of Vietnamese cinema", Tran Anh Hung said that with two films in the Festival program--"The River" and "Nostalgia for a Countryland"--director Dang Nhat Minh was "far more representative" of what was going on in Vietnam in terms of cinema.

Dang Nhat Minh expressed a number of concerns that are common to all Mekong filmmakers. The key word here is "crisis": in financing, equipment (sometimes old beyond repair), production, technical expertise, distribution. Audiences are also defecting to video ("Everyone in Rangoon has a VCR," Barendrecht said). With (or without) the fall of dictatorships, most Mekong countries are now switching to a free-market economy. "The impact on our lives is undeniable (we live in much better conditions)," Minh said. "As far as culture is concerned, however, it's not as positive as one would wish."

In less than five years, per Thai director Chatri Chalerm Yukol (a prince, no less), film production in Thailand has plummeted from 150 to barely 25 films a year (though there are still about 400 direct-to-video films, mostly actionners, made every year). The recent reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the US and Vietnam; the release of Burmese dissident Aung Sa Suu Ryi after years of house arrest (one of the most remarkable scenes in John Boorman's "Beyond Rangoon"), which brought Burma back into the "concert of nations" (the "1996: Visit Myanmar" campaign is in full swing); the elimination of taxes on imported films and the eradication of laws forbidding foreigners to own real estate in Thailand; the local governments, who subsidize, most of the time, the concerted efforts by governments to attract foreign productions in their territories ( see Catherine Deneuve's "Indochine", Jean-Jacques Annaud's "The Lover" and Oliver Stone's "Heaven and Earth")--all of the above has brought about a proliferation of multiplexes and a tidal wave of films from Hong Kong and mostly Hollywood.

If the deliberate naivete of films written and/or directed by Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia, aim to counter the negative image "The Killing Fields" gave of his country, the more interesting Mekong films attest to the filmmakers's preoccupation with the fundamental question of cultural identity: How to keep one's cultural identity and talk of real life in your country when, for obvious economic reasons, the local governments are more inclined to subsidize films that have a box-office potential, i.e. films that conform to the Hong Kong / Hollywood model?



Two impressive films from the Mekong. Chalerm Yukol's "Daughters" focuses on four teenagers caught in the whirl of drugs and prostitution, and their mother--herself a prostitute who discovers she has AIDS (Asia can no longer ignore the epidemic). Believe it or not, "Daughters" was a box-office hit in Thailand.

Which cannot yet be the case of "Sons" by Chinese director Zhang Yuan, perhaps the revelation of this Festival. Unlike better known predecessors--Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine", Zhang Yimou's "Raise The Red Lantern", "Shanghai Triad" and other so-called "Gong Li Movies"--Zhang Yuan refuses to use the past as metaphor for the present. "Sons" focuses on a family destroyed by alcohol. Having beaten his wife one time too many, the father is locked up in a psychiatric ward, and the two sons seem to be gearing up for the same fate. The amazing thing to it all is that the real mother, father and sons play their own parts (did anyone say "psychotherapy"?). Indeed, it was the sons who approached the director (he lived in the same building) and suggested he do their story. The script was drawn from interviews held--separately--with each member of the family. The film is rough, tough, brutally honest. For the moment, it is banned in China. Although the two prizes "Sons" got on Awards night might change that.




The TIGER AWARD: to three films ex-aequo: "Like Grains of San", by Ryosuke Nashiguchi (Japan); "Small Faces," by Gillies MacKinnon (U.K.); "Sons," by Zhang Yuan (China)


Special Mention to "Safe" by Todd Haynes (USA)

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