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Burning Bright

Photo courtesy International Film Festival, Rotterdam

If you’d happened to pick up a copy of local newspaper de Volkskrant during the recent International Film Festival Rotterdam (January 21 through February 1), you’d have noticed a curious absence of all things Hollywood. No matter that the 33rd IFFR happened to occur smack in the middle of this year’s 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 weren’t Oscars, but Tigers — the prizes given to the winners of the festival’s 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 festival’s 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 Voice’s 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 festival’s international profile while remaining fundamentally true to the local vision of the event’s late founder, Hubert Bals. It’s thanks to Field (whose reputation for vanguard film programming at London’s 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 Rotterdam’s 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 don’t exist or don’t matter to the masses. And all this in spite of Field’s inability to speak Dutch — one of several ludicrously bureaucratic concerns that are said to have portended the nonrenewal of Field’s contract by the festival’s 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 Angeles–based opera director Peter Sellars, to be unveiled in Vienna on the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth.)

 

Field’s forced exit is Rotterdam’s loss, but also an instructive reminder that one needn’t 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 we’re 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), Taiwan’s 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 Field’s imminent departure by producing original short films expressly for the occasion. Shown as part of a special end-of-festival ceremony called “Don’t 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.

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