“Like all forms of art and culture, film has an intrinsic value that goes further than what the market is prepared to pay for it.” – International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) catalogue
Dark times are afoot in Holland. Over the past two years the cultural landscape has faced a swathe of funding cuts that have seen a country with some of the most progressive and cutting edge cultural institutions – particularly at the intersection of film, art and technology – either close their doors or have to change drastically. While austerity, and/or its rhetoric, may be biting everywhere, the political motivations and sheer velocity of this cull have been frightening to behold.
It is into this context that Festival Director Rutger Wolfson and Managing Director Janneke Staarink open their festival catalogue essay, considering the way that we make arguments for culture and stand up for it’s value, in the face of forces that use the arts as an easy target. These arguments are not new to people who work in the cultural sector, but as is clearly demonstrated in the current cuts in the UK, with Newcastle setting a worrying precedent, they need to be refreshed and made with vigour, and the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) embodies these politics with their programme.
One way of defining value they suggest, in the case of film, is the urgency of a form that is quick to reflect the world back at us, enabling us to understand society and our place in it, as it happens. Another that is pertinent to IFFR is the innovation in evidence by presenting filmmakers (both new and in retrospective strands) who push the form forward, recognising the strides that the avant garde makes in film culture, which also creatively fuels the mainstream.
IFFR certainly does not exist outside the market, but alongside the Hubert Bals Fund it is integral to the economics of a certain kind of independent cinema that does not compete on a purely commercial basis. This filmmaking needs very practical funding support, followed through with a fierce championing and a platform to meet its audience.
Excitingly, this focus on work from developing countries, and in presenting trail-blazing work that often errs to the extreme – be that erotic, violent or poetic – it also makes for more lively screenings for audiences. Alongside a non-stuffy friendly environment, it’s what makes this festival my favourite. And so it is with a spirit of the adventure I jump off the train into my first film of the festival –
Epitomising the middle class strata of a booming Chinese economy, Fang Lei is a housewife with a successful businessman husband and an adorable toddler. Days are spent shopping with her friend, and in scenes shot with a remarkable humour and tenderness, looking after her ailing mother-in-law.
Then the dreams start. A man is in her bed, making love to her in a way she has never experienced, while her husband lays sleeping beside her. These sensations, so vivid, that she can feel but cannot see, are soon slipping into daytime consciousness, and Fang Lei is left both turned-on and frightened.
Filmed with a low-budget digital photography that stays close to our heroine’s face throughout, we witness how this sexual awakening sparks various stages of happiness, hunger and punishment, with things getting really weird when she seeks advice from various religious leaders.
Alongside Liu Shu, whose film Lotus was a highlight at the recent Bratislava International Film Festival, Yang Lina is definitely an interesting filmmaker to keep an eye on, with both women offering a refreshing frankness and complexity to their lead female characters, and a sharp social commentary on urban Chinese life. Where Longing For The Rain delights is the ambiguity that underlies the proceedings (does Fang Lei really reincarnate her dream lover by giving birth to a huge dream baby? Does redemption lie in seducing a hot Buddhist monk?) offering audiences multiple readings and plenty of post-film bar-room talking points.
And then to the bar, where critics, programmers and the itinerant community of international guests greet each other, reunite and offer tips on the must-sees. Rotterdam is not a ‘red carpet’ festival, but I promised Jon I would include any celebrity spots in this blog, so it doesn’t get much better than Bernardo Bertolucci (in town to screen his Me and You) holding court at the bar. I spend the evening bending the ear of Mark Adams and Helen DeWitt on my manifesto for the future of indie film before they are rescued by Gabrielle Jenks, Abandon Normal Devices festival manager, and my regular Rotterdam roommate, to check in to the hotel and prepare for the cinephile onslaught of the next few days.