The Rotterdam Film Festival presents an ambitious programme, spread over several venues in the city (just a short train ride from Amsterdam), each showing films on several screens. There were new features, shorts, focus points and competitions. Being used to seeing experimental work in one screen at the London Film Festival, or attending the Oberhausen Film Festival, which neatly packages all the work in one venue, I found it quite overwhelming. What should I see? Where should I go?
I pretty much decamped to the LantarenVenster venue where the majority of experimental and short film work was presented in a special showcase during the weekend I was there. It gave a degree of focus to my time, but I was struck that the venue was the furthest from the main festival sites and cinemas. Art and experimentation was out in the margins, in more ways than one. Still, it did mean that the same like-minded cineastes and avant-garde professionals all tended to congregate in one space.
There was an intriguing mix of films that seemed to lie on the very borders of narrative and the more experimental, such as Benjamin Crotty’s camp and theatrical Fort Buchanan, a film about a gay couple, one of whom has to look after their adopted daughter when the other heads off for military service. The London Short Film Festival and the Flatpack Festival in Birmingham might show this and other similar works, but I’m not sure quite where else it’d end up in the UK.
I was very glad indeed to see Stephen Connolly’s new, multi-layered film Zabriskie Point Redacted in a decent cinema auditorium, where its cinemascope images and intricate sound design could really deliver. In keeping with his previous work, it seemed to reflect on how we see landscapes and their history, but Connolly’s new film also explored how literal and metaphysical spaces for escape and protest have changed since Michelangelo Antonioni made the original Zabriskie Point back in 1970.
Michael Snow, the seminal Canadian artist and experimental filmmaker, presented works in person and used the cinema to engage viewers in the dislocations between the real event and the re-enactment. Side Seat Paintings Slides Sound Film (1970) questions how we negotiate the translation of works of art across different media, while A Casing Shelved (1970) explores similar relationships between sound and image.
Being an archivist, I revelled in these older works, and those by Tony Conrad, Stom Sogo and Avery Willard. The best speaker and presenter for my money was Robert Todd, who talked about the weight and particularities of the 16mm film camera and his almost balletic use of it while shooting Habitat, his poetic, exploratory film about place and architecture. Just as intriguing were the playful, semi-hallucinogenic patterns of Jodie Mack’s Persian Pickles and Simon Payne’s Twice Over, plus Filme para poeta cego (Film for Blind Poet), a portrait of the blind sadomasochistic Brazilian Glauco Mattoso by Gustavo Vinagre.
The Rotterdam Film Festival was founded in 1972, a particularly exciting time for independent cinema. 16mm technology had stepped up a gear and whole new ways of making and engaging with cinema were unfolding. The festival has had a long history of engaging with debates around independent filmmaking since then – it has at the last two editions, for example, organised discussions about how feature-length artist films might be produced and distributed today. The 2013 festival was very busy with screenings and discussions and made for a distinctly hectic, lively time.