Video: Five finds at the Rotterdam International Film Festival

Five film watchers with two hats apiece go gold-panning at the mouth of the Rhine.

Kevin B. Lee
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This year’s Rotterdam International Film Festival left something to be desired, particularly in the largely underwhelming competition for the Hivos Tiger Award. But it remains one of my favourite festivals for its perennial promise of discovering breakthrough new talent, and for its opportunities to connect with respected critics and programmers from around the world. Both of these attributes are on display in this video, in which five attendees share their film highlight of this year’s festival.

By coincidence, all five are both film critics and festival programmers. Chris Fujiwara serves as Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and previously reviewed for the Boston Phoenix and wrote books on Jerry Lewis, Jacques Tourneur and Otto Preminger. Robert Koehler has written for Variety and many other publications, and now programmes for the New York Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Neil Young is co-director of the Bradford International Film Festival and reviews for the Hollywood Reporter as well as his own website, Jigsaw Lounge. Michał Oleszczyk programs for Off Plus Camera Independent Film Festival in Krakow, and was awarded a Film Critic of the Year distinction by the Polish Film Institute. And Aaron Cutler, a programming aide for the Sao Paulo International Film Festival, participated in Rotterdam’s Young Critics programme last year and has written prolifically for different publications.

Their multitasking feats have me wondering if, given the desolate state of film criticism as a paid profession, today’s critic must make a living by applying their insights in programming or other non-critic capacities – and how this crossover of functions might steer film culture going forward.

The five career cinephiles in this video fit their roles capably, judging by the ease and clarity in which they articulate their endorsements. The films all qualify as the off-the-beaten-path discoveries one hopes to find at Rotterdam. My Sister’s Quinceañera, Fair Wind – Notes of a Traveler and Fata Morgana are world premieres.

Three of the five hail from the Bright Future section for first- or second-time feature directors, which suggests it’s the true epicentre of the festival’s best offerings. It’s where I saw my own favourite film by a young director, Alex Pitstra’s Die Welt, a fascinating hybrid that spans both documentary and fiction as well as Europe and Africa in portraying a Tunisian-Dutch youth sorting out his life options in post-Arab Spring Tunisia.

The best film I caught, though, was from a more familiar name, though one that still hasn’t received his due as a world class auteur: Johnnie To, whose masterfully orchestrated Drug War may be the pinnacle of his long, prolific career.

The film had its premiere at Rome last fall, as did Chris Fujiwara’s recommended title Avanti Popolo – which suggests that Rome is emerging as a key site of discovery for exciting cinema, even if it takes Rotterdam for them to get fuller exposure. Those inter-festival dynamics may shift in time, but for this year, Rotterdam delivered the goods.

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