Eye of the Tiger

Dennis Lim at the 41st International Film Festival Rotterdam

Kleber Mendonça Filho, Neighboring Sounds, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 124 minutes.

ONE YEAR after marking its fortieth anniversary with an expanded edition (tagged “XL”), the 2012 International Film Festival Rotterdam flaunted a slimmed-down profile. This accelerated cycle of binge and purge surely had much to do with the deep funding cuts that have hit Dutch arts organizations in recent months, but organizers put a positive spin on it, calling it a user-friendly downsizing for a famously sprawling event. While there were indeed fewer sidebars (and somewhat quieter bars), festival director Rutger Wolfson’s claim that Rotterdam could now be “summed up in four sentences” is not exactly true, and would not have been a good thing anyway. The hit-and-miss overprogramming typically pays dividends for those willing to do a little snooping around: This year’s retrospectives encompassed “The Mouth of Garbage,” an ambitious historical survey of São Paulo’s down-and-dirty Boca do Lixo scene, a cine povera crossroads of social realism and genre exploitation; among the other programs were topical roundups of Arab Spring dispatches and underground Chinese docs with an obligatory focus on Ai Weiwei. (The activist artist’s loops of Beijing traffic were installed in an “Ai Weiwei Café,” which served free instant noodles and was meant to echo the informal screening spaces where Chinese audiences typically encounter banned work.)

The wide range of offerings, along with a smartly programmed array of short and experimental work, help divert attention from the grumblings (which seem to grow louder each year) that Rotterdam’s central event, its Tiger competition for first or second films, is not what it used to be. There was at least a newsworthy outcome this time. All three prizes went to women directors, and all of these, as it happens, were first-timers with substantially different variations on the coming-of-age tale. Huang Ji’s Egg and Stone, a moving autobiographical account of youthful trauma, parcels out the grim backstory of an unwanted teenage girl in rural China through an art-film lingua franca of fixed, precise compositions and an oblique, withholding narrative. Equally accomplished and also more than a bit familiar, Dominga Sotomayor’s Thursday Through Sunday chronicles a disintegrating family’s road trip via off-kilter details and circumscribed perspectives reminiscent of Lucrecia Martel’s films. But if Martel’s singular style, at once sensual and abstract, promotes disorientation, Thursday Through Sunday means to evoke something known, even universal: sense memories of childhood, with adult realities just coming into view. The least deserving prize, Maja Miloš’s Clip, was also the festival’s designated controversy thanks to the surefire combination of titillation and moralism. This Kids retread for the digital age, about sexually hyperactive Serbian adolescents and their cell phone cameras, comes complete with hard-core scenes and a closing-credits assurance that no actual teens had any actual sex.

Left: Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli, Anna, 1975, still from a black-and-white video, 225 minutes. Right: Maja Miloš, Clip, 2011, still from a color film, 100 minutes.

Two out of three isn’t bad, but it was still mystifying that the jury, headed by Singaporean director Eric Khoo, failed to recognize Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighbouring Sounds, a supremely poised and ambitious first feature from Brazil that towered over a largely subpar competition. A former critic-programmer with a series of inventive shorts to his name, Filho has made a thoroughly modern, film-savvy opus (at times it suggests Cache as directed by Paul Thomas Anderson), steeped equally in dread and humor. Neighbouring Sounds concerns urban tumult, class hierarchies, the threat of violence, a culture of fear—common themes in recent Brazilian cinema—but, as someone puts it during a charged confrontation in the film, “This is no favela.” Instead we’re in a well-off beachfront neighborhood of Recife where the residents are ensconced in bourgeois comfort but also trapped behind barred windows, high fences, and all manner of human and mechanical security systems. The Altmanesque tapestry, which includes members of a rich family that owns much of the area and of the working class that variously serves, protects, and threatens them, appears to promise the puzzle-piece convergences of the Iñárritu-style ensemble movie, but Filho, using fluid camerawork and an intricate sound design to sensational effect, has something more original in mind: a horror movie in which the horror is nameless and pervasive, both embedded in the domestic everyday and a convulsive emanation of the collective unconscious.

As is often the case at Rotterdam, the discoveries were not confined to new films. Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli’s Anna (shot in 1972, first shown in 1975, and newly restored by the Cineteca di Bologna) is an astonishing nearly four-hour documentary about a sixteen-year-old homeless junkie, eight months pregnant, whom the filmmakers discovered in Rome’s Piazza Navona. Mainly shot on then-newfangled video (which at times gives the black-and-white images a ghostly translucence), it documents the interactions between the beautiful, clearly damaged, often dazed teenager and the directors, who take her in partly out of compassion and partly because she’s a fascinating subject for a film. Far from straightforward vérité, this self-implicating chronicle includes reenactments of the first meeting, explicit attempts to direct its subject, and frequent intrusions from behind the camera (not least the emergence of the film’s electrician as a love interest). Anna cuts between long, often discomfiting domestic scenes (including an interminable delousing in the shower) and equally protracted café discussions back in the square, where the unruly cross talk among hippies, bums, bourgeoisie, and angry young men touches on the movie’s key themes of obligation and intervention: between filmmakers and their subjects, the state and its citizens, fellow members of society. An end-of-the-1960s document with the scale and intimacy of Robert Kramer’s Milestones, Anna also marks the birth of our media age, not just demonstrating the obsessive immersions of a new technology that, as Grifi put it, “makes life filmable,” but also embodying the uneasy dawning awareness of what that means. It’s a film born on a cusp, as an urgency to change the world yielded to an urge to record it.

The International Film Festival Rotterdam ran January 25–February 5, 2012.