Sifting for Gold in the Shit Heap That Is Rotterdam Film Festival

There were some amazing films this year, including: Adam Curtis' <i>Bitter Lake</i>, Sono Sion's <i>Tokyo Tribe</i> and Kim Longinotto's <i>Dreamcatcher</i>.

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30 January 2015, 6:30pm

Still from Tokyo Tribe. Photo courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam.

The number of dog-shit films that screen at International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) every year could fill a book. A 348-page one, to be precise: that's the size of the festival catalogue sitting by me as I type this. But the unnavigable massiveness of IFFR – which grows fatter with each edition – means that there are indeed good films to be had, you just have to find them.

The old adage about throwing excrement at a wall holds true in this most futuristic of port cities: as much as I've enjoyed sending hashtagged plaints out into the ether here (none of which made their way to the promotional-Tweets-from-attendees screen that showed before each film started), only an idiot could spend ten nights at IFFR and not see some films worth writing home about. And I'm no idiot, for the tally of good films I saw in Rotterdam this year hit double digits! Here are five in particular to look out for...

TOKYO TRIBE

Still from Tokyo Tribe. Photo courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Japanese director Sono Sion is perhaps best known for Love Exposure, a four-hour film that enjoyed a long run on the film festival circuit in 2008-09 and which can sometimes be seen at three in the morning on Film 4. Tokyo Tribe is sure to strengthen Sono's appeal as a cult director while also allowing him to break into something resembling the mainstream.

In it, a number of gangs in some alternate and very violent Tokyo must put their antagonisms aside in order to defend their shared territory against Mera (Suzuki Ryôhei), a bleach-blonde thug with a fondness for swords and a desperate need to have the biggest dick in all the land, and his boss Buppa (Takeuchi Riki), a hideous warlord whose eyes roll to the back of his head nearly as frequently as he masturbates a dark green dildo.

Based on a serialised manga novel catered to late-teen males, Tokyo Tribe is as luminous as it is relentless: it's Battle Royale meets West Side Story edited like porn, and the whole thing unfolds like a foul-mouthed hip-hopera to a ceaselessly catchy beat. Part of the utter hilarity here is the feeling that Sono's at least having fun with his source material if not taking the piss out of it entirely. A UK theatrical release is set for later this year.

DREAMCATCHER

Still from Dreamcatcher, courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Brenda Myers-Powell is a former prostitute and drug addict who divides her time today between various activist and outreach roles, visiting secondary schools, correctional facilities and the rough corners of Chicago's South Side to meet with prostitutes and other vulnerable women. Hers is a selfless and tireless struggle against sex trafficking, domestic abuse, child molestation and the criminalisation of prostitution.

In Kim Longinotto's harrowing and revealing documentary, Brenda meets with a number of young women who all share a background characterised by violence, rape and neglect. Among these young subjects are 15-year-old Temeka, who started prostituting at the age of 12, and Marie, a pregnant prostitute who has been on the streets since she was 8.

These and many others in Dreamcatcher are broken, battered people braving a world that doesn't quite accept them as victims and subsequently fails to extend them the help they so evidently need. Due for release in early March, Dreamcatcher recalls another great documentary about social intervention tactics on the streets of Chicago, The Interrupters (2011).

That Brenda's efforts are required in the first place is a terrible indictment of institutional misogyny, rape culture and the race and class divides that have left these women in tatters, but the bottomless reserves of patience and understanding displayed here are heart-swelling.

BITTER LAKE

Still from Bitter Lake courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Adam Curtis made Bitter Lake as an exclusive for BBC iPlayer, but its big-screen premiere in Rotterdam seems to have gone down well enough to suggest that a cinema release might also be on the cards.

The British documentarian's latest haphazard foray through the power structures of modern society focuses on Afghanistan, and the media portrayals of and militarist escalations upon it by three imperialist nations: the USSR, the US and the UK. But that's not all: Curtis contextualises his thesis with a wider perspective, that of the western nations' post-war relations with the Middle East, as first concretised by a 1943 meeting between President Roosevelt and Saudi Arabia's King Abdulaziz.

Did we all sell our souls to the devil when we agreed to drill for Saudi oil in return for virtual immunity? According to Curtis's film, yep: by the 1940s, King Abdulaziz had already secured his throne by violently propagating the ideas of Wahhabism, the backward, ultraconservative form of Islam in which today's ISIS is rooted.

Bitter Lake is a fascinating and revealing argument about how culpable western governments are when it comes to the rise of people like Osama bin Laden and factions like Islamic State.


SECOND COMING

Still from Second Coming, courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam.

At first sight, award-winning British playwright Debbie Tucker Green's debut feature unfolds like any other middle-of-the-road, family-oriented and marketably issues-based drama. But there's a twist – one that rotates gradually as the film turns with style and confidence through its multiple ambiguities.

Somewhere in London, welfare worker Jackie (Nadine Marshall) lives with her railway repairman husband Mark (Idris Elba) and 11-year-old son Jerome (Kai Francis Lewis), after whose birth she was told she'd never conceive again. As it happens, though, Jackie is pregnant, and as it also happens, she hasn't slept with Mark in months.

Green reins in the potential melodrama here, making no other religious references beyond the film's title, to examine a close-knit domestic harmony unravelling in the wake of a pregnancy that may or may not be due to an adulterous fling.

Before anything else, Second Coming boasts some of the most nuanced and plausible interactions in a familial setting that I've seen in British cinema for some time: Marshall is excellent and enjoys a real chemistry with on-screen son Lewis, while Elba gives his finest performance since The Wire. In an age when too many British films are serving up dull-as-fuck miserablism, Second Coming is all the more refreshing for its depiction of people we might actually relate to. The film is currently set for an 8th of May release.

JADE MINERS

Still from Jade Miners, courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam.

As its functional title suggests, Burmese-Chinese director Midi Z's first feature-length documentary is an unfussy, ground-level account of the miners who dig for jade in the mountains of Kachin State, in north Burma. Their trade is a precarious one, not only because of the absence of on-site health and safety measures as well as medical insurance, but also due to the fact that jade mining is legally prohibited due to the political clusterfuck that is the ongoing Burmese Civil War, which dates back to 1948. Still, if rich Chinese billionaires love something as much as they love jade, then the potential outweighs the risk – always.

Not much really happens in Midi Z's film, and yet in one engrossing scene after another, we observe the minute details that define life for these men: hacking doggedly away at rocks in their Kappa tracksuit bottoms and Real Madrid socks, arguing about pubic hairs in their shared bowls of rice and fatty pork, listening to the radio and trying to get some sleep in their cramped, shared quarters.

The work's as gruelling as it is boring, so why bother? The answer lies in a scene in which one worker, U Nein, calls home to his family, only to be told they haven't been able to pay their rent or kids' tuition fees for months. Make ends meet or die trying.

@m_pattison

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