Outside of specialized film circles (and Holland), most people probably haven’t heard of the Rotterdam Film Festival. But its low-key status doesn’t take away from its prestige. Rather than focusing on the big names, red-carpet premieres and beautiful people that characterize some of its peer festivals, Rotterdam chooses to keep its focus on the cutting edge. Think of it as Cannes’ hip, younger brother who reads Nietzsche and smokes Nat Shermans at underground coffee houses.
Whether or not that metaphor actually helped, Rotterdam is also known for being a perennial champion of Latin American cinema, providing no-strings-attached funding through its Hubert Bals Fund, and year after year premiering some of the most groundbreaking films coming out of the region. This year’s festival just wrapped – with Peru and Cuba winning big – and we took a look at some of the eye-catching Latin America films featured in this edition.
First up is Peruvian helmer Joanna Lombardi and her second feature, Solos. Coming off of a successful debut in the form of Casadentro, Lombardi has sloughed off the shackles of script and budget to shoot a provocative docu-fiction hybrid using little more than a rough outline and a lot of improvisation. Following a group of four friends–actors who happen to go by their real names and play out actual conflicts in their lives–as they drive across the Peruvian Amazon with an inflatable screen bringing film to remote villages, Solos is essentially a filmmaker’s reflection on film praxis.
The trailer itself is structured around a late night conversation in which the four characters pass around a camping lantern and debate whether it’s worthwhile to make a film if no one sees it. During the day, we catch the team road-tripping through the jungle, braving the elements as they go from town to town announcing film screenings. The lush vegetation of rainforest is clearly a primary thematic element as nearly every shot frames its characters at a distance, favoring the region’s dense green fauna that constantly upstages any human drama. Along the way, it seems our heroes discover that local residents care very little about “cinema”, preferring to watch their Jackie Chan movies on the small-screen. All of this is pushed along by a driving electro-cumbia soundtrack that makes the whole ordeal seam that much more adventurous.
Overall it’s an interesting conceit, but this is unmistakably a movie by filmmakers, for filmmakers. For some reason, I don’t see small town jungle-dwellers flocking to theaters for this one.
The end of the world seems closer than it’s ever been. But then again, I’m only 28 years old and have no actual idea what I’m talking about. Still, with zombie apocalypses dominating prime-time programming and disaster-preparedness movements popping up all over the world, there’s definitely something in the air. Apparently it’s something that Austrian-born, Buenos Aires-based first-time filmmaker, Lukas Valenta Rinner, picked up on himself when he co-wrote the script for his debut feature Parabellum.
With a sparse, elliptical screenplay, Parabellum follows a barely-identified middle-aged office worker named Hernan as he leaves behind his worldly possessions and heads into an isolated marshland to train for the end of the world between relaxing spa-sessions. Together with about a dozen other middle class, middle-aged joe schmoe’s, Hernan is apparently seeking refuge from some vague social crisis that has befallen Argentina while training for survival in a comfortable, resort-like atmosphere. Along the way, Hernan and a mentally unstable friend from the training facility inexplicably murder a family and occupy their house, all while mysterious meteors fall from the sky. It’s an absurd conceit, and indeed, Parabellum is billed as a comedy; though admittedly it’s probably not the type of comedy average filmgoers are accustomed to seeing. Starting with the fact that nobody seems to speak.
But if you’re not going to take my word for it, the trailer gives a pretty good sense of the droll, dead-pan just-barely-comedy that seems to be an Austrian specialty these days. It’s certainly kind of funny to see painfully average-looking folks with mustaches and office-worker bodies practicing goofy self defense techniques. But the trailer does do a commendable job of transmitting a sense of impending doom. A disquieting electronic swell gives way to a simple, droning synthesizer line that steadily plunges into ominous lower frequencies as we see beautiful but unsettling shots of training and R&R shaken up by the sudden introduction of weapons and meteors falling in the distance. A little more than halfway through, the pacing picks up and otherwise still shots take on a sense of urgency before the tension finally explodes with a meteor crash and a chorus of thundering drums.
This certainly doesn’t seem like laugh-out-loud comedic fare, but for someone with a little patience and an open mind, it looks like the payoff might just be worth the price of admission.
NN (Non Nomine) is the term used by forensic scientists when a body can’t be identified. It is a concept that has a chilling resonance for Latin Americans from across the continent who suffered political violence under brutal dictatorships for a substantial chunk of the 20th century. In Peru, massive disappearances and extrajudicial killings are an all-too-recent memory from a protracted civil war that pitted the corrupt and abusive government of president Alberto Fujimori against a brutal Maoist insurgency known as the Shining Path. Now, 20 years on, Peruvian society continues sifting through the chaos of their recent past in order to make sense of those traumatic years.
This complex process of remembrance and recovery is the point of departure for the Peruvian feature NN. Directed by second-time helmer Hector Gálvez, NN follows a team of forensic scientists who, upon exhuming eight bodies for identification, unexpectedly stumble upon the remains of a ninth individual. Identification is complicated by the fact that the remains are accompanied by little more than a blue sweater and a mysterious passport photo. As a member of the team named Fidel takes interest in the case, an older woman approaches him suspecting that the body belongs to her husband. Emotion soon begins to cloud the clinical judgment of Fidel as he wrestles with complex questions of memory and justice.
With dark, moody lighting worthy of the Master of Shadows himself, David Fincher, and shots of stunning Andean landscapes dimmed by oppressive grey clouds, its clear that NN is a film about atmosphere and slow-burning emotions. The subtly disquieting piano score that accompanies the trailer establishes a slow but unfaltering pace, while creating an air of mystery and expectation. The deliberately aesthetic shot composition seems strikingly well achieved from this brief collection of images, as we watch the actors move about in a silence that borders on solitude.
Since Claudia Llosa was nominated for an Oscar back in 2009, Peruvian cinema has been flirting with break-out status for some time. With two features that competed at Rotterdam–this one of unquestionably refined cinematic quality–it might finally be time to start talking about about Peru.
Prometo um dia deixar essa cidade
They say there’s no such thing as an original story. Every plot’s been told a thousand times over since the days of classical antiquity. In the end, it’s not about the story you tell, it’s how you tell it. Case in point: Prometo um dia deixar essa cidade (I Swear I’ll Leave This Town), the latest feature from Brazilian director Daniel Aragão that had it’s international premiere last week at the Rotterdam Film Festival.
In simple, rational terms, Prometo tells the story of Joli Dornells: a crack addict who returns home after a forced stint at rehab to find that she is merely a pawn in her father’s political ambitions. To boot, her doctor doesn’t think she’s truly recovered, her sister-in-law still uses, and things get increasingly complicated for young Joli. Billed as a “Pyschological Thriller”, and liberally tossing around words like “retro-cool” in its promotional materials, we can imagine that this is a story we’ve seen before in one form or another. Right?
Then there’s the trailer. How do I put this into words? To start, I wasn’t sure if I had accidentally ingested a Jerry Garcia-worthy dose of acid or slipped into a feverish nightmare at my desk. The chaotic, ultra-aggressive keyboard score by Parliament piano man Bernie Worrell tenderizes your brain like a sonic mallet as a barrage of psychedelic images overwhelms the senses. There is a naked woman running frantically through the halls of what appears to be an insane asylum, a rooftop at dusk, a surreal garden party, happy children jumping for joy, a young girl doing her business on a toilet and more Clockwork Orange references per second than an international skinhead convention.
Colors shift from warm to cool with shots of varying expositions and extreme wide angle lenses distorting the frame. Yes, this is what it feels like to overdose on hallucinogens. And for anyone who says you can’t overdose on hallucinogens, watch this trailer. Then watch it again.
Some film festivals give off the sense that they’re somehow above petty human concerns. As opposed to the ignoble scourge of commercial cinema, they exalt artistic values of sublime transcendence and personal expression. In truth, just like at the megaplex, a lot of these movies actually look the same. As with any artistic institution, festivals are not immune from falling into fashions and established conventions, and what is an innovation one year soon becomes formulaic “festival fare”. Hollywood has Marvel, European festivals have Juancamina.
You read that right. Juancamina is quite literally a film where a guy or girl (“Juan”) walks through a static shot in painful realtime with absolutely nothing else going on in the frame. Finding particularly fertile ground in Latin America, international festival darlings like Lisandro Alonso have made a career out of Juancamina films–which is not to say that they don’t present interesting ideas or an original point of view. But if you throw a dart at an international film festival catalogue, 2 out 3 times you’ll hit a film with a 5-plus minute, dialogue-free shot of someone walking, and walking and walking.
Of course, you’re dying to see what this might actually look like, and as perfect case-in-point behold the trailer for the Argentine film La mujer de los perros (Dog Lady), which recently had its world premiere in the official competition at the Rotterdam Film Festival. Co-directed by principal actress Veronica Llinas (the Dog Lady herself) and Laura Citarella, La mujer de los perros is a non-traditional narrative (read: very little actually happens), that follows a few lightly sketched episodes in the life of a hermit living in a shack on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. And, as the title implies, the Dog Lady lives with a pack of dogs.
The trailer starts with an empty shot of a painterly landscape dominated by a meadow of yellowish-green grass. About 25 seconds in, the Dog Lady enters frame hauling a cart of her belongings, accompanied by about half-a-dozen dogs. She walks, and walks and walks, struggling all the way with her cart as the dogs run up ahead, then back, and circle around her. Admittedly these two small touches–the woman’s struggle with the cart and the dogs unscripted play–give an unexpected life to an otherwise soporific shot, with the age old dramatic equation of goal + obstacles = conflict subtly embodied in the fight between small rubber wheels and a rugged, dirt trail.
Then there’s the highly orchestrated soundtrack. Listen to this one with headphones to appreciate the lush, three-dimensional depth of the sonic environment. A Cumbia blasts from distant speakers at 7 o’clock, flocks of birds fly to and fro, growing louder and softer along their way, and if you make it to the very end, we are treated to a lone fly that seems to be buzzing incessantly around our head. It’s not easy to make a Juancamina shot even remotely interesting, and although this one might bore you to tears, there’s definitely something to it.
Much like with Hollywood’s unflagging Marvel-fever, some of the films are pretty good, some are really bad, and they all kind of look the same. This might be a Juancamina worth watching.