Going Dutch at the Rotterdam Film Festival

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The Independent Culture
FOR THOSE who bemoan the commercialisation of Sundance and the Americanisation of Berlin, Rotterdam is much more than a convenient stopover on the film-festival circuit. A 12-day event attended by an estimated quarter of a million people, the Rotterdam Film Festival - which wraps up its 27th instalment today - has a well-earned reputation as a sanctuary for film lovers. The prevailing mood is unabashedly cinephilic, the glitz quotient agreeably low (Matthew Modine, on hand to promote Tom DiCillo's The Real Blonde, was the closest thing to a Hollywood presence this year). Under British director Simon Field (formerly of London's ICA), Rotterdam has consolidated its position as Europe's most adventurous festival. Audiences are spoilt for choice, and even the most casual grazing is guaranteed to turn up some worthwhile discoveries.

Rotterdam's commitment to independent world cinema goes beyond mere exhibition, though. The festival also plays a role in the actual gestation of films, managing the Hubert Bals Fund (which supports directors from developing countries) and hosting the five-day CineMart, a popular co-producing market for works-in-progress. It's a cliche to praise a festival for its diversity, but Rotterdam's omnivorous programming is unrivalled for a showcase of its stature. An entire section called "Exploding Cinema" is devoted to testing the spatial and theoretical boundaries of the medium - an exercise carried out most playfully this year by Indigestion, a noir-derived, interactive installation by the artist-architects Diller + Scofidio. The programme also stretches to include music events, mostly projection-enhanced performances by suitably avant-garde electronic types (neo-Krautrockers Mouse on Mars, the drum-and-bass minimalist Photek). The composer David Shea showed up to perform his score for Johan Grimonprez's extraordinary video, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y. Doubling as a pictorial history of terrorism and an open-ended experiment in lateral thinking, the film is essentially an Eisenstein-worthy montage of archival footage, reinforced by Shea's inventive collage of sounds and aptly chosen passages from Don Delillo novels in voice-over.

Competition isn't really in Rotterdam's nature, and is thus mainly confined to the three Tiger Prizes, awarded annually to first or second features. The films in competition included at least a couple of startlingly mature debuts: Petr Zelenka's Buttoners, a Czech comedy in six intricately structured acts, and, more surprisingly, the US indie First Love, Last Rites, whose sheer skill left me somewhat dazed for the simple reasons that (1) there has never been an even remotely decent film adaptation of an Ian McEwan story, and (2) the film's young director, Jesse Peretz, used to be the bass player in The Lemonheads. Peretz started out directing music videos, but his movie couldn't be further from the MTV universe of quick cuts and surface energy. Transposing one of McEwan's best-known short stories from an English seaside town to Louisiana bayou country, Peretz has made what is perhaps the freshest and most confident American feature debut since Todd Haynes's Poison. It's one of the rare contemporary films that treasures the power of emotional ambiguity, and is brave enough to locate its narrative drive almost exclusively in mood and image. The film played at Sundance last month, but, what with Nick Broomfield and Harvey Weinstein hogging the spotlight, didn't end up among the major buzz-generators. Which is just as well, since Rotterdam seemed like the perfect place to discover it.