Flipping through the Rotterdam catalog reveals an embarrassment of riches (some of the gleeful program mistranslations from Dutch to English are just plain embarrassments). There are some 250 features, more than 90 shorts, and numerous museum installations. Besides the 60-odd world premieres, the IFFR program features choice bits culled from festival premieres last year--including Jia Zhangke's tremendous post-Mao cultural epic Platform, which controversially debuts in a shorter, final cut of only 150 minutes--and also the best work that has turned up since, especially from Asia.
This lineup includes a smattering of new selections from that latest film hotbed, South Korea, and, in the wake of last year's retrospective of offbeat Japanese helmer Kinji Fukasaku, his wrestling-free Battle Royale. This cross of Lord of the Flies and Survivor takes place in a "near future" where the government has retaliated against school violence by choosing a random class to play a three-day "game" on an isolated island that must end with only one victor. Even worse for the poor kids, the game is run by lord overseer Takeshi Kitano. Both Battle Royale and a Dutch film called Forgive Me--an intentionally provocative, and unintentionally bad, docudrama with real-life junkies, invalids, and alcoholics that plays like a too-long episode of Jerry Springer--herald the bleeding of the reality-TV craze into feature films. More such tiresome fare can be expected in the very near future.
Many of these filmmakers owe the IFFR some serious thanks for a jump-start. Rather than submit to becoming a mere platform for deal-making American distributors, Rotterdam has established institutional means for actually improving the film world. The festival moderates the Hubert Bals Fund, which gives money to filmmakers from developing countries and helps them gain distribution in the Benelux countries. (Platform, in fact, is one such project.) Equally beneficial is the Tiger competition for first or second features: The three winners are actually awarded a Dutch distribution deal. Many past honorees have returned this year, including U.K.-born, Los Angeles denizen Christopher Nolan, winner two years ago for the bare-boned noir Following. His sophomore triumph, Memento, is a head game of twisted subjectivity on a par with Vertigo.
Memento inverts the detective story and subverts the revenge drama in telling, backward, the story of an obsessed insurance adjuster named Leonard (Guy Pearce) hunting down his wife's murderer. As if that weren't enough, he has lost his short-term memory. This is a true condition: You could look it up, or go to a film festival to feel what it's like. While Leonard could be any die-hard Rotterdammer, Nolan strives to be more than your ordinary director: He keeps you in Leonard's head, piecing the puzzle together. Nolan clearly has his own interpretation of events, but what's great about Memento is that you have to make up your own mind.
The idea of looking through the eyes of one's subject is precisely what's going on in a new, ambitious documentary by Canadian filmmaker Peter Lynch (Project Grizzly) called Cyberman. In his Roger & Me for the William Gibson generation, Lynch uses an array of technologies and formats to paint a portrait of cyborg and privacy advocate Steve Mann, a one-man Internet portal, who for the last 20 years has lived with cameras affixed to various parts of his body, relaying what he sees--letting us "be" him--on the Internet. Although ethically questionable, many of Mann's privacy-robbing inventions can be used to fight back against a world where we are no longer in control of our own images. Just as Mann worries about the panopticon-ing of the postmodern world, Lynch envisions a future where the credited director of the film is more of an enabler than an obsessed craftsman. I Am a Camera, indeed.
This year's IFFR promises to be extra special, as Rotterdam, along with Portugal, serves as Europe's co-cultural capital. To honor itself, the festival has commissioned ten digital-video diaries on harbor cities, which have been included in the "On the Waterfront" program. The best is a 20-minute short from last year's discovery Lou Ye (director of Suzhou River), who, with customary voiceover, reveals Shanghai to be a place of both attraction and danger. Rotterdam also is famous for its archival selections and this program also affords the opportunity to see Fassbinder's Querelle or, heavens, Gene Hackman in French Connection II at the greatest multiplex in the world, the Pathe.
Perhaps the best thing about the IFFR is that the programmers will show films that aren't the newest of the new--an approach that is anathema to most hype-obsessed festivals. (As one American festival director once told me, the compulsion to show only premieres is "like wanting to fuck only virgins.") Even though it played in Venice two years ago, an eternity in film-festival time, Claire Denis's magisterial Beau travail is here. Because it hasn't been distributed, this might be the only opportunity for the Dutch public to see it.
I'm here for another week, and with all of this action, I suspect I'll have even more of a problem cutting off cold turkey than Mr. Hackman-qua-Popeye. Worshiping at this mass of moving pictures might be a critic's communion with the godhead--but then God himself took a rest after six days.