Photo courtesy International Film Festival, Rotterdam
If youd happened to pick up a copy of local newspaper de Volkskrant during the recent International Film Festival Rotterdam (January 21 through February 1), youd have noticed a curious absence of all things Hollywood. No matter that the 33rd IFFR happened to occur smack in the middle of this years extra-early awards season, sandwiched between the Golden Globe presentations and the Oscar nominations announcement. In Rotterdam, the only movie-related honors on the minds of most werent Oscars, but Tigers the prizes given to the winners of the festivals annual competition for first-time filmmakers. Knee-jerk anti-American discrimination, you suggest? Then consider that American films and filmmakers were so alive and so well in Rotterdam in 2004 that an entire section of the festivals extensive program was entitled Homefront USA. Only, instead of the rousing patriotism of Seabiscuit, Johnny Depp in dreadlocks and other popular exports of our domestic film industry, Rotterdam audiences were treated to the likes of an in-person retrospective of works by Ken Jacobs, that impish forefather of the American avant-garde cinema, whose decades-in-the-making Star Spangled to Death turns out to be a writhing, caterwauling, untamed and utterly spectacular found-footage epic about the selling and selling out of America. (Also on tap was an illustrated lecture on the subject of the George W. Bush presidency, delivered by The Village Voices estimable film and social critic J. Hoberman.)
Not that the presence of such riches at Rotterdam comes as a surprise. Not when you acknowledge that the British-born Simon Field has been running things there for eight years now and, in that time, has managed to significantly increase the festivals international profile while remaining fundamentally true to the local vision of the events late founder, Hubert Bals. Its thanks to Field (whose reputation for vanguard film programming at Londons Institute of Contemporary Arts preceded him) that Rotterdam has grown to include a dense program of experimental films and multimedia installations such as no other film festival around can match, or even approach. More importantly, in asking the ostensibly rhetorical question What is Cinema? (the title of one of Rotterdams regular sidebars), Field has proven that there exists a sizable audience eager to take up that very debate. Attendance figures for 2004 surpassed 355,000 (or more than eight times the most recent figures for Sundance) hard numbers that beg to be reckoned with by those (including a distressing number of critics) who pretend that film festivals either dont exist or dont matter to the masses. And all this in spite of Fields inability to speak Dutch one of several ludicrously bureaucratic concerns that are said to have portended the nonrenewal of Fields contract by the festivals board of directors, making 2004 his final year with the event. (Not one to skip a beat, Field is already at work on his next project: overseeing a series of films, in collaboration with British producer Keith Griffiths and Los Angelesbased opera director Peter Sellars, to be unveiled in Vienna on the 250th anniversary of Mozarts birth.)
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Fields forced exit is Rotterdams loss, but also an instructive reminder that one neednt necessarily dwell in Hollywood to be indifferent to exciting currents in world cinema the ones that suggest we are moving ever more toward a truly international art form free from barriers of language and nationality. In recent years, the festival has had (and, one hopes, will continue to have) its ear particularly close to the ground of such developments, largely accounting for why those of us who journey there feel as though were part of a single extended family, regardless of what corner of the Earth we call home. That family includes critics, programmers, a huge contingent of ordinary film buffs and, of course, filmmakers, six of whom including Czech animator Jan Svankmajer (Little Otik), Taiwans Tsai Ming-Liang (What Time Is It There?) and the American Ernie Gehr (an evening of whose work will soon appear on a bill at REDCAT ) responded to news of Fields imminent departure by producing original short films expressly for the occasion. Shown as part of a special end-of-festival ceremony called Dont Tell Simon, these remarkable shorts each in its own way a haiku-like expression of melancholy tied to gentle optimism cumulatively represented such a touching show of adoration by a group of filmmakers for their honorary-Dutch patron that Oscar, had he been there to witness it, might well have tarnished with envy.