Columns | Festivals | The Sundance-Rotterdam-Berlin Express

By Robert Koehler

A tour of Sundance to Rotterdam to Berlin makes one thing clear: The big film festivals share much in common with political parties and their conventions. Each has their agendas, interest groups, constituencies, factions, behind-the-scenes power players, changing leaderships, avant-gardes, and rear guards. And parties. (Or, as we used to call them in the halcyon days of the Greens, “the post-party parties.”) Politics has dogged festivals since the Italian Fascists founded the Venice film festival in 1932, but what with a set of conditions in which festivals are sometimes desperately (and sometimes not) trying to theoretically “redefine” themselves in a digital age that coincides with the era of the permanent political campaign (at least in the US), and what with the spectacle that was served up on the first day to visitors at the Sundance festival, the comparable realities appear starker than ever.

So, like a good old party gathering in which the former regime members are rendered as non-persons, Sundance founder Robert Redford complained to the press what anyone who honestly assesses the festival had long known: that it had not been going anywhere. He was saying this now that longtime festival director Geoffrey Gilmore had parted after two decades running the festival for supposedly greener pastures at Tribeca. Everyone who witnessed this spectacle automatically read it as Redford throwing Gilmore under the bus, a lovely way to start your festival. But then, of course, there was the rather uncomfortable matter of new festival director John Cooper, sitting next to Redford, having worked alongside Gilmore for years. Cooper, to his credit, acknowledged the paradox that the Sundance new order was, after all, part of the old order when things were “stuck.” But now, it seems, things were un-stuck, because—with the party’s vanguard marketing operation working overtime—it was time for a “rebellion.”

I will directly quote the new Sundance manifesto, right there on the catalogue’s frontispiece to say nothing of the Orwellian motion graphics displays visible before every projection, so that nobody, absolutely nobody, could miss them: “This is the renewed rebellion. This is the recharged fight against the establishment of the expected. This is the rebirth of the battle for brave new ideas. This is sundance (sic), reminded. And this is your call to join us.” This, surely, must be somebody’s idea of a put-on. Guess not, not when Cooper even tried to explain the bizarrely worded “this is sundance, reminded” phrase, but to no avail, just like it was to no avail to explain quite how the old regime was any different from the new one.

Which is why Sundance is no rebellion, certainly no revolutionary party, but much more like classic Democratic Party material: Liberal, heart in the right place, well-embedded in Corporate America while giving lip service to a “new America,” a program that falls short of the mark. Are the Obama Dems any different from the old Clintonian Dems? Is the Cooper-run Sundance any different from the Gilmore-run Sundance? That question was quickly answered: No. And it was answered at Park City’s Jewish Temple—the festival finds venues in the ski town where they can manage them—home of the premiere screenings of the US documentary competition, the section attendees always like to say is where Sundance is at its best. But, as is true of all festivals, it all depends on who is saying it, and where they’re coming from.

Thus, the Sundance party agenda, documentary sub-committee: Films should be instructional, didactic, informational, or profile martyrs. If this is your idea of where non-fiction cinema should be situated, then you’re in business. Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money endlessly, exhaustively explains all the dirty dealings of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, more a lecture than a film, drowning in its accumulated data. 12th & Delaware informs us that anti-choice activists are crazy. A Small Act simplifies Africa’s complex problems through the prism of a single village and schoolroom. The Tillman Story explains the tragedy of former Arizona Cardinals great and friendly-fire victim Army Rangers vet Pat Tillman—a case of a decent Sundance instructional film. The martyrs include assassinated Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto (in Bhutto), Basquiat (Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child) and, in a rare stroke of film poetry in Park City, Ira Sachs’ fine short, Last Address, observing the homes of New York artists killed by HIV/AIDS.

Too many of the non-fiction works that pass through the giant Sundance filter—and the filter itself—have their sources in the way that American school kids have long been first exposed to these films: As audio-visual lectures on important topics, as teaching aids for overworked teachers seeking a break during the day, and let’s not forget, as propaganda. (What is the Sundance call for rebellion if not propaganda?) This is then upgraded to the kind of PBS true-life evening fare, and slightly more sophisticated HBO topical fare, that can regularly be viewed on TV. When something emerges like Josh Fox’s Gasland, a work of art which also happens to educate quite effectively on the extraordinary dangers that everyday people experience living next to natural gas drilling sites, this is why festivals, even the big ones, are capable of surprises, because wonderful things do seep through the cracks. Precisely because it was purely personal (Fox had no intention of making a film until he received a letter from a natural gas company inquiring about a land lease on his rural Pennsylvania property, and fired up his video camera as a tool for a running diary) and that it was as concerned with aesthetic matters as issues, Gasland may also be some ideal of that cherished sub-genre in many festival circles, the environmental film, which tends to leave art behind for the topic it’s addressing. Given Redford’s oft-repeated preference for independent and environmentalist films, Gasland would seem to be the ideal Sundance film. Yet, Fox’s unapologetically rough and handmade piece is quite out of step with most of the slickly made program, mostly funded and supported by entities like HBO, PBS, and the Sundance Institute, an unholy trinity that makes much of the non-fiction lineup possible.

Perhaps the propaganda of rebellion was inspired by Banksy’s remarkable Exit Through the Gift Shop, which for some reason wasn’t in the competition, but over in the vague catch-all Spotlight category. One of several films shared by Sundance and the Berlinale (where it seemed to mean so much more, not least because it was placed alongside, but out of, competition), graffiti/street artist Banksy has made a first film that rips several scabs off the phoniness of the art world, including the cherished notion that anybody can call himself an artist (as Banksy acolyte and the film’s self-absorbed subject, Thierry Guetta, does, to a spectacularly absurd degree). But by burying Banksy in a section that prevented any context, what might have been an anthemic film for a stubbornly inchoate festival went under-discussed. In Berlin, Banksy was on the lips of many.

Rotterdam 2010 actually did feel rebellious, even if some of the rebellion was of the sort quietly brewing behind the scenes, but more on that in a moment. This has been the case for some time: If you want real cinephilic independence, you go to Rotterdam. It’s as simple as that. More good news: The Tigers were a bit better as a group this year than in some previous editions, with two of the three winners, Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s Alamar and Paz Fabrega’s Agua fria del mar standing as fully realized works (the third, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Mundane History, feels like two different films vying for attention) by young artists committed to cinema—in other words, films Rotterdam was designed to showcase. Ben Russell’s beautiful, dance-like tone poem Let Each One Go Where He May, was beloved by critics (the FIPRESCI jury gave it the prize) and despised by many on the official jury, but the fact that the Tiger section had room for both this and more traditional yet skillful semi-genre work like Levan Koguashvili’s surprising Street Days debunks the cliché that Rotterdam is for snobs only.

Given its continuing idealism, Rotterdam sometimes resembles a movement more than a party, and sometimes like a well-oiled political machine with its plethora of banners, branding, Hubert Bals Fund propaganda, and aggressive presence on seemingly every corner of the compact, perpetually wet Dutch port city. Hang around Rotterdam vets, and you’ll hear muttered laments that it’s not like the old days, before the festival blew up to over 300 titles, but that’s true of a lot of festivals. Besides, it’s a far greater likelihood to run into colleagues and filmmakers at a relatively chummy event like Rotterdam than Sundance or Berlin, where things are structured to prevent collegiality and are fostered to generate something closer to blood sport with the media’s intense concentration on films bought and sold. Despite Rotterdam’s well-established Cinemart, the trade aspect is less of a concern.

Still, it’s impossible to get one’s arms around IFFR. One’s entire time may have been spent watching only the sprawling “Where is Africa” program spearheaded by Gertjan Zuilhof (a disappointing few did). Or exploring the tributaries of the multivarious Signals section, including Gerwin Tamsma’s superb overview of recent films from graduates and teachers of the Master en Documental de Creacio in Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University and delicious offerings from guest programmers Olaf Möller (rare films centered on four wars—1982 Lebanon, the Second Sino-Japanese war, the Algerian liberation war and the Spanish-American/US’s first imperialist war in the Philippines) and Tony Rayns (a survey of the under-appreciated Sai Yoichi, maker of the brain-tingling masterpiece, 1995’s MARKS). Some wandered off to get lost in Edwin Carels’ fresh Signals project called “Break-Even Store,” literally a street-accessible store situated in a corner of de Doelen, the festival hub, where one could buy new DVDs from independent art cinema labels, old copies of Cahiers or take a look at new Pat O’Neill films, such as the hypnotic I Open the Window. The general feeling is one of nearly being overwhelmed by sheer fecundity, an excess of wares—not really a bad thing, and sufficient proof that no human can possibly grasp the entirety of contemporary cinema.

The best approach in Rotterdam may be sampling. A sample of the Tigers, such as Charlotte Lim’s My Daughter and Inoue Tsuki’s Autumn Adagio, indicated something echoed in Berlin: Either the good new Asian films aren’t available, aren’t getting made, or aren’t being found by programmers. Somehow, perhaps off the heat of Autumn Ball (2007), Estonian director Veiko Ounpuu’s obnoxious slice of acrid absurdism and Tiger contender The Temptation of St. Tony was the film that blanketed the winter festival season. Bright Future, concentrating on younger filmmakers, remains admirably broad and as international as possible with a festival-of-festivals vibe, allowing for everything from Ayar Blasco’s apocalyptic, foul-mouthed, ready-for-Adult-Swim animated film, El sol, to Bui Thac Chuyen’s engrossing newlywed drama, Adrift, to triumphs like Police, Adjective and Rigoberto Perezcano’s Norteado.

On the other hand, the Spectrum section of more veteran filmmakers was, according to my sample, more adventurous. This was where you’d find James Benning’s latest masterpiece, Ruhr (and viewed on the massive upstairs Pathe screen, the closest one might get to Benning in IMAX); Kevin Jerome Everson’s likeable collage film, Erie; Angelos Frantzis’ feverish, rough-hewn In the Woods; Nicolas Pereda’s gorgeous making-of All Things Were Now Overtaken by Silence; and John Torres’ Refrains Happen Like Revolutions in a Song, which deliberately splits what’s filmed from what’s heard. Someone else’s sample may have produced different results.

Such is the nature of a big festival, though Zuilhof in his “Spectrum” introduction coyly wonders if Rotterdam wants “to be the smallest of the major festivals…or to be the largest of the small festivals?” It’s small enough for visitors to hear rumbling about discontent with director Rutger Wolfson, whose experience as a museum director may or may not be translating well, after a few years as head of IFFR, into film festival leadership. The dogged worry is that Wolfson lacks the conceptual insight to know where to take Rotterdam forward, and is effectively leaving much of the decisions about content in the hands of programmers. Hardly what one wants from a festival still stamped by the decade-long leadership of Simon Field; but since Rotterdam is fortunate to have world-class programmers like Tamsma, whose Pompeu Fabra program alone is one of the most revelatory surveys I’ve ever seen in a festival, the more control they have, the better.

IFFR 2010 wasn’t big enough for any attentive visitor to miss the impact and discussion generated by Vapor Trail (Clark), John Gianvito’s intimate epic study (soon to be accompanied by his Vapor Trail (Subic)) of the environmental and health impacts created by American military bases in the Philippines. A stark departure from both The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001) or Profit motive and the whispering wind (2008) (though the latter’s concern for tombstones returns, with Gianvito’s camera periodically trained on the tombstones of babies killed by the bases’ toxic chemicals), Gianvito’s film overlaps a chain of sympathetic conversations with victims of US base pollution and relatives of those killed with an unusually detailed review of the sources of the Spanish-American war and its subsequent war between US occupiers and the forces of Filipino independence, which Raya Martin dramatizes as a movie memory in Independencia, on view alongside Vapor Trail (Clark) in Möller’s “After Victory” program. Gianvito, a supremely political artist, shares with Gasland the intention of framing an environmentalist clarion call as a work of art, but—as reinforced by the opening narration by the late historian Howard Zinn—with the greater context of history, and an understanding of pollution as another act of war, and the direct consequence of the imperialist impulse, universal throughout history, to reduce the conquered “other” to less than human.

There was no film of such import in the Berlinale, still a festival in search of itself. Like Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union party, no matter what goes wrong for Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick—and much was off this year, marking the 60th anniversary—nothing seems to be enough to compel a change of leadership, and since nobody can actually pinpoint the agenda, nobody can say what kind of change is meaningful. Given the spate of medium-grade, not-so-good, and forgettable entries in the competition (with a crowd-pleasing melodrama like Pernille Fischer Christensen’s A Family one of the few competition titles certain to travel), it seemed almost freakish that the Banksy film and Wakamatsu Koji’s characteristically intense postwar chamber piece, Caterpillar, ended up on the red carpet. By far the most important film found anywhere in the Berlinale galaxy was the theatrical screening of the restored, newly subtitled print of Fassbinder’s 1973 TV production, World on a Wire, previously available only in German. Anticipating The Matrix (1999) and Blade Runner (1982) in its depiction of a corporatized near-future world in which the technological ability to create simulated people and parallel worlds is upon us, World on a Wire is also a rigorously Fassbinderian drama defined by a different kind of matrix: the geometries of power, both capitalist and sexual. Science fiction doesn’t intrude on Fassbinder’s regular concerns and obsessions so much as it heightens them, much like the introduction of a four-voice chorus in the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (and make no mistake that World is a work of similar enormity in the Fassbinder canon) heightens the nature of the instrumental symphonic work. And like the Ninth, World stands alone: Think of another Fassbinder (or for that matter, any other German film of the period) that begins as a science fiction thriller, turns into a sex/office comedy, then a debate of ideas, then an action movie.

But for new stuff? The assumption in Berlin is to go to Forum, where the good films play. The assumption didn’t play out this time, which was too bad considering that this is Forum’s 40th anniversary. But as he had warned ahead of time, Forum director Christoph Terhechte noted that it would be celebrated quietly (an intelligently selected 15-film survey went fairly unnoticed). Which is permissible, since Forum—like Rotterdam, like the Quinzaine, its brother festival-inside-a-festival-in-arms—is about the present and the future, not the past. But the selection appeared to be a grab bag, at best an attempt to represent a myriad of contemporary trends. The 2009 edition had some of this quality, but happened to pull together more good films. Thus, there was no equivalent of Sweetgrass, although it was marvelous that Double Tide, Sharon Lockhart’s magnificent paean to a working woman (digging for clams in the muddy Maine coastline) and to the nature around her, was slotted in Forum and not in Forum Expanded (where Lockhart’s Lunch Break was programmed last year), making a statement that the five-year-old Expanded sidebar must not become a ghetto of experiments deemed too radical for Forum, but should have its own character and texture.

For every case of a sublime entry like The Mouth of the Wolf, Pietro Marcello’s sophisticated elegy to the life and death of Genoa as a port city (with a bonus gay love story for good measure, making it the deserving winner of Berlin’s Teddy doc award), there were barely viewable items like Hajdu Szabolcs’s bilious exercise in Fellini worship, Bibliotheque Pascal; Sharunas Bartas’ dismaying attempt to do a gangland thriller, Eastern Drift (starring, fatally, Sharunas Bartas); Tatjana Turanskyj’s deadly post-feminist Berlin comedy, The Drifter; Caroline Kamya’s flat Imani; Tayfun Pirselimoglu’s dull and dreary Haze; Ines de Oliveira Cezar’s obtuse Oedipal drama The Counting of the Damages; Debra Granik’s ludicrous Winter’s Bone (an inexplicable hit and Grand Jury prize winner in Sundance); and, a real bottoming out with Igor Voloshin’s the-world-as-an-insane-asylum indulgence, I Am and Luis Sampieri’s empty exercise in suicidal existentialism, End. It was equally difficult to explain, under any circumstances, why impenetrable trifles like Aljoscha Weskott’s and Marietta Kesting’s Sun City “study,” Sunny Land or adolescent piffle (made prestigious by Hou Hsiao-Hsien executive producing) like Hou Chi-Jan’s One Day or road movie trash like Omori Tatsushi’s A Crowd of Three were doing in Forum.

The essence of the best work historically honored by Forum and Forum Expanded is always that of artists executing their ideas in exciting and inventive terms, regardless of form. Which is why the Forum standard was upheld this year by Oscar Ruiz Navia with Crab Trap and Thomas Arslan with In the Shadows, a nearly perfectly made procedural film about a highly skilled, lethal and quietly intelligent career crook continuing his life of crime after a stint in the slammer. “No Melville,” said one colleague, but Melville is exactly who one thinks of, and also the possibilities that appear open for filmmakers around the Berlin School to explore genres. Arslan can certainly lay claim now to being one of Germany’s finest filmmakers.

But the hero in Berlin, and everywhere else it seemed, is James Benning. To see, back to back, the transfixing industrial art of Ruhr, the gloriously beautiful three-screen installation, Tulare Road (as part of Forum Expanded’s complex and varied show “Traces the Sand Left in the Machine”) and, in the humblest and most human display seen anywhere on the winter festival circuit, the live performance of Reforming the Past, was to see Benning literally alter the possibilities of cinema. His influence is now far-ranging and more international than ever; it can be seen in independent Chinese film as well as a small masterpiece in Forum Expanded’s “Intermission Green” shorts program, Clarissa Thieme’s haunting contemplation of the effects of the Bosnian War, Was bleibt. But Benning’s hat trick isn’t a confirmation of his influence, but of his commitments, which his films implicitly argue should be more universally embraced, or at least, considered: To revisit what is essential to the eye and the ear for both the viewer and the maker of cinema; to consider the shape and size and nature of the world whether it comes in the form of airplanes cutting through the trees in Ruhr or the way a ribbon of asphalt cuts through California’s Central Valley in Tulare Road; and to ponder the mystery and identity of the human face as in Reforming the Past, which, in a mere 80-some minutes of montage followed by text spoken aloud by Benning, provides a story of America as epic and moving as any by Whitman. The past, reformed and re-formed, for our present consideration and future work: A fine way to sweep away all of the other nonsense that clutters a festival, and leave what’s essential.

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