If you click on the 2015 Rotterdam Film Festival’s home page website, you are greeted with the news of New Zealand feature The Dark Horse by James Napier Robertson earning the top 10 IFFR audience award. Indeed, in exchanging suggestions with other fellow spectators and professionals eager to maximize their time and not to miss this year’s gems, the word quickly spread about this successful sequel to the likes of fellow independent kiwi films Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors, both of which remain key referents for selected audiences abroad who prefer to avoid the Peter Jackson brand.
Less visible but arguably as remarkable in achieving a measure of exposure for the work of New Zealand moving image makers internationally, was the presence of CIRCUIT.
I was invited by CIRCUIT to travel from London to represent the agency at the festival, introducing screenings and participating in industry meetings. The event offered an opportunity to see works by Phil Dadson, Andrew de Freitas, Sorawit Songsataya and Gavin Hipkins in an international context, and also to gauge how successfully a contemporary film festival might present these artists’ work outside of the white cube.
CIRCUIT had unsuccessfully entered films in IFFR for the past four years (even before it was formally founded in 2012). This time it was invited to IFFR through DINAMO, an international distribution network of artists' moving image organizations from North America and Europe, formed to share their expertise in the areas of advocacy, exhibition, preservation and education. DINAMO is made of varied members, from the most established veterans such as Electronic Arts Intermix and Video Data Bank in the USA, Vtape in Canada, the Dutch LIMA (former NIMk) and LUX in Britain —with a long run dating back to the 1970s and international in their scope— to smaller, mainly nationally focused counterparts such as AV-arkki (Finland), Argos (Belgium), Filmform (Sweden), Arsenal (Germany), and Gartenberg Media Enterprises, which focuses on educational distribution to universities and libraries across the USA. Some share a lineage in video art like EAI, others strictly in experimental film like the French filmmakers' cooperative founded Collectif Jeune Cinéma. The scale of their holdings and activities widely ranges too, from solely distribution, programming and curating, to conservation, archiving and even commissioning new works.
DINAMO invited CIRCUIT to join their annual meeting held at the Goethe Institut, conveniently located across De Doelen, the main festival’s venue. These meetings serve to discuss and share information about prescient issues concerning distribution —this year’s centered on the topic View On Demand. That CIRCUIT was asked to join this group is a testament of its ambition and serious dedication to build representation for New Zealand moving image work internationally, more remarkably, when CIRCUIT was the only representative outside the North American/European region.
It also entailed to collectively feature a selection of the distributors’ recently acquired moving image works in a series of IFFR private (Press & Industry) and public screenings. Andrew de Freitas’ Standing Wave, Tahi Moore’s Unconscious and Sorawit Songsataya’s Bruce's Version, all produced in 2014, were shown in the first of three DINAMO P&I screenings, alongside titles by Vtape and the Vienna-based sixpackfilm. In addition, DINAMO titles could be leisurely seen at the IFFR library during the festival if you happened to miss the screening.
Two more CIRCUIT short films, Gavin Hipkins’ The Port and Phil Dadson’s Arid Edge, were selected for public screenings, with very different settings and modes of audience engagement. The Port premiered internationally in the festival’s thematic section Signals: 24/7, centred around films exploring broadly "the changing world and economy" and hosted in hotel rooms around the city. Shown in a flat screen, looped to two other films (Metahaven’s City Raising and Maria Luz Olivares Capelle’s Apariciones), in one of the Central Hotel rooms, a short walking distance from De Doelen, this setting offered greater visibility because of its long 24/7-week run and free admission. Although in my view, it seriously compromised the quality of its presentation, especially in this particular case, where Hipkins’ scrupulous editing and the encompassing sound track of this work deserved, and would have been heightened by a cinematic setting.
Dadson’s Arid Edge prominently featured to a full house at the beautiful multiplex venue LantarenVenster, as part of the combined DINAMO public screening entitled Me, Myself and I —showing alongside 13 other films and with time for short introductions about each film and its participating distributing organization by their representatives. The full attendance was indicative of how short films are not regarded as a minor genre by this festival, quite the contrary; they seem to attract an arty audience following.
The modern arthouse LantarenVenster, with great views to the south bank of the river Maas, has been the hub for short films and hosts the popular, sold-out Tiger Award Competition for Short Films sessions, presenting a total of twenty nominated short films. This award, offered to upcoming as well as established talents, went this year to three films: Things by Ben Rivers, La fièvre by Safia Benhaim, and Greetings to the Ancestors by Ben Russell —selected by a jury comprised of British artist (and two-time winner of this award) Beatrice Gibson, Dutch curator Xander Karskens, and the artistic director of Image Forum Festival Koyo Yamashita. The at-all-time-full cafés of the LantarenVenster and De Doelen offered plenty of fuel to keep up with the marathon film activity and the scenarios of frantic networking among filmmakers, producers, curators, programmers and the like —this milestone festival attracts anyone and everyone from the independent film industry and major art museum and galleries in Europe and North America, and, to less extent, of further afield.
I was pleasingly surprised by the prominence of short films at the festival, and then learned that IFFR actually hosts one of the largest programmes of shorts in Europe —which amounted this year to 157 short films from over 40 countries! They strategically spread out everywhere and are presented in all formats — as video installations, preceding feature films or in combined screenings— again, with varied degrees of successes and visibilities, as exemplified above, but overall making the IFFR an ideal film venue for artists’ film and video.
Indeed, the festival programmers’ efforts extend to welcoming not only shorts, but mid-length (40-65 minutes) and extraordinary mammoth length formats —appropriately under the programme entitled As Long as it Takes— so often disregarded by film festivals as difficult, yet deserving full attention. It included one of my favorites of this year’s festival, Park Lanes (2015), directed by the American artist Kevin Jerome Everson, an extraordinary eight-hour observational film, shot in real-time, long takes and without commentary, of factory workers while performing their working tasks in the production of bowling alley supplies. Noteworthy is the inclusion of such an impossibly lengthy film but also the fact that it was given four full day (9 to 5) screenings at the festival, to assist its viewing and for those unable to cope with it in a single sitting, allowing for return visits to see it in parts. To my regret, I only managed a couple of hours of this mesmerizing, almost classic structural film, rushed between other screenings. Its insistent real time pace, made of sequences of interminable—some over twenty minute long—takes of a fixed camera capturing a worker’s task finally subverted my restless impatience for a much rewarding conscious viewing.
Another memorable film experience—which actually could had been programmed under the As Long as it Takes section for the scope of its 38-hour archive—was of Anne Charlotte Robertson’s Five Year Diaries. Between 1981 and 1997, Robertson who suffered of schizophrenia obsessively used her Super-8 camera to chronicle herself in her domestic environment creating these amazingly intimate, raw and harrowing film diaries. Robertson, who died in 2012, was known in the Boston avant-garde film scene and supported by a critical coterie of filmmakers such as Jonas Mekas. Her work has now been restored by the Harvard Film Archive and IFFR screened three of her reels.
Two artists under the Shorts Special section were also profiled this year: the Egyptian, Basel-based Basim Magdy and the Romanian, Chicago-based Irina Botea, both with promising up and coming profiles but substantial recognition from major biennial and art museum circles. These screenings offered a single artist focus presenting a selection of their works. Magdy’s The Many Colors of the Sky Radiate Forgetfulness (2014), nominated for the Tiger Award short films competition, also featured in the award section. It is revealing that a film festival has chosen two artists with fine art degrees (rather than in filmmaking) proving the strength of art’s ‘intrusion’ in the current field of film production. Botea uses digital video, film, video installation, performance, photography and Magdy’s training in painting heavily informs the texture of his multimedia practice made of 16mm films, digital video, slides and photography.
And if you did not have enough, the late night Mind the Gap series held in Rotterdam’s WORM venue (from 22:00 to wee hours) presented events and collaborations between musicians, video artists and filmmakers, and music by Gonzo DJ in the café. It welcomed any experimental, expanded, projected, multimedia, analogue/non analogue, live improvisation and performative audio-visual formats that would defy a traditional theater setting. In its third edition, this year kicked off with an evening of sight and sound performances by Bruce McClure, his associate Alex Mendizabal’s banging noise performances and Flemish improvisation duo Stray Dogs. Bruce McClure, whose experimental film work has been labeled as para-cinema, proto-cinema or expanded-cinema, earning him a reputation among a long lineage of avant-garde structuralist filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s such as Sharits, Frampton and Conrad, was also another of the festival’s artist in focus. In addition, IFFR in collaboration with the art gallery Witte de With presented an excellent fluxus evolving solo exhibition entitled Signals: Bruce McClure as well as held eight different live performances by the artist in LantarenVenster.