Its 40th edition was celebrated at 40 locations throughout the city – too much to cover really. A brief four-day visit results in seeing a wide array of films in the festival’s Spectrum section, which focuses on more well known and recurring directors as well as taking the pulse of world cinema. As it happens, one is taken from Lebanon to Western views on Iran, to Iran itself and around the globe. We selected five films for comment.
In Grandma, A Thousand Times Lebanonborn Mahmoud Kaabour portraits his paternal grandmother and through her rediscovers his grandfather, a Lebanese musician. It’s a remarkably fresh film that challenges clichés about documentary filmmaking in a creative and humorous way. Grandma reminisces about the past, when her house was still filled with life, music and love, and ponders her present life, which mainly consists of smoking the arguileh. Kaabour present a warm and loving portrait of this woman.
Through their interaction, their small talk, and with the help of photos, Kaabour’s grandfather comes to life. Kaabour continuously reflects on the process of filmmaking. The film begins with a ‘summary’, which consists of drawings representing various shots of grandma in the film. Kaabour includes directing cues; there are reverse shots in a dialogue with a neighbour, complaints about the microphone, and questions about the quality of Grandma’s performance. He shows how she peels an orange against backgrounds, the camera ‘dances’ over pictures, and he ‘projects’ images on the wall behind the couch he and his grandma are sitting and reminiscing on.
Kaabour uses parallel montage to combine the courtesies when welcoming Kaabour’s partner Eva into the house with behind-the-scenes face shots of her, and to combine Grandma’s phone call to the butcher’s and the preparation of the order (with some comments on Grandma). Kaabour himself plays his deceased uncle, also a musician. And at the end, Grandma pre-enacts her death. Scenes he apparently shot for the film are also used in a performance in which he shares his thoughts with an audience, while the images are projected on the wall. Maybe he managed to express himself so well on that occasion that he did not want to ‘repeat’ it for the film. How is that for ‘realism’? Using all these different ingredients could result in a fragmented film that goes all over the place. But most of it is filmed in and around Grandma and her house, and the unity of place helps to keep the film coherent. Other than that it is the deeply humane nature of the film that surfaces as well as the central character of Grandma herself.
Where Grandma centres on one location, 1001 Irans does the opposite. In this film, we hear the vox popoli, the voice of the people (Western people that is) filmed in cities like Paris, Madrid, Chicago, San Diego, and Rome. Short statements illustrate what they know about Iran, the birthplace of filmmaker, Firouzeh Khosrovani, who now lives in Italy. The people talk about an array of subjects, including Iran’s people, government, religion, history, and culture. Khosrovani presents a wide array of knowledge and opinions. Of course, what people say, says as much about them as it does about Iran, and probably more. It will not be surprising that many opinions are based on traditional media such as TV, radio and magazine and thus they are far from complete or realistic – something some are ready to admit. The many statements are edited along a line going smoothly from one theme to the next, stressing the still dominant information medium TV. Archive and local images are interspersed and not only illustrate what people are talking about but also provide some (historical) insight. The montage of feature film fragments during the ‘discussion’ on culture feels like a little ode to Iranian cinema. All in all, 1001 Irans is pleasant enough to watch for 42 minutes, but it does not give us much to contemplate on. I think we are beyond surprise that a ‘simple fisherman’ can actually make a very intelligent remark while politicians are stuck in rhetoric. The film also feeds on clichés about Americans, too ignorant to know that what was once called Persia is now Iran and not interested in travelling abroad.
Michael Pilz treats us to a completely different story about Iran, one that is contra the generalities that make up 1001 Irans. His film, Rose and Jasmine, is based on his trips to Iran in May 2006 and October 2007. He takes us along on his trip and shows us his filmed photo album.
Without commentary, with little music and long takes we see the places he visited, the sites, mosques and cities, the streets and people. He shows what it means to see these images without being told where they are from, what he was doing there and why it was so special. There is no sense of time, chronology, or geography. The long instances of black that divide the various scenes contribute to the sense of length and serenity in the film. There are only diegetic sounds and there is music to accompany the viewer/traveller. The viewer has to take a deep breath and have some endurance, which apparently for some was difficult in a festival environment, but if you stay and surrender yourself, you can go on your own journey and take the time to watch, really watch.
Pilz’s journey – or at least his account of it – also contrasts sharply with another ‘travelogue’, Jan Willem van Dam’s Je vis dans le rêve de ma mere. Here, the I is split between Van Dam, a voice-over of an older man speaking in the first person and the image of a young boy as the main character. Van Dam/I/boy travels on the instigation of Van Dam’s mother, to Istanbul, Naples, and Berlin, further and further east, until he ends up on the Asian island of ‘honest actors’. Van Dam’s film is highly autonomous filmmaking, mixing genres, times and places, identities and films. It starts with what seems to be the end of his previous film, letting one overflow into the other. The film comments on current affairs but also addresses photographic work by the filmmaker’s mother, displaying images of Africa and a yearning to be away from home. The film appears to be a combination of dreams, thoughts, imagination, reflections and wishful thinking. Where does reality end and fiction begin? It’s an example of how film is the medium of the imaginary. And anyone willing to open their mind to it can travel along.
Another though very different highlight was Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, a compilation film with archive material from Romanian television on the notorious Romanian dictator. The film covers Ceausescu’s career as leader of Romania, starting in 1965 and ending in 1989. In what seems to be chronological order Ujica presents archive material of political meetings, rallies, celebrations and party meetings. No context is offered except for the occasional mention of what year we are in within the material itself. This screening in Rotterdam coincided with the publication of a first history of Romanian television by media scholar Dana Mustata.1 Contrary to popular thought, that all Romanian TV was propaganda, Mustata distinguishes 1 Mustata, D. The Power of Television: Including the Historicizing of the Live Romanian Revolution. Universiteit Utrecht.
Three eras in the history of Romanian television between when it started in the sixties and the revolution in 1989. The sixties can be characterized as an era of discovery and creativity; much like the first years of television anywhere, television makers were exploring the possibilities of the new medium and creativity abounded. The seventies can be characterized as the era of consolidation and the expansion of TV audiences. In the eighties television audiences were reduced to two individuals: Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena.
TV programmes were made to please them, other audience members were disregarded. Asked to comment on the film, Mustata first of all not only recognizes a history of Ceausescu, but also a history of Romanian communism: “The documentary does an excellent job at telling the story of the rise and the fall of a dictator and the story of Romanian communism as a process, rather than a compilation of events. An example is the rise of Elena Ceausescu on the political scene.
Their personality cult wasn’t just there, it developed over more than a decade.” Mustata also noticed how the aesthetics of propaganda are used in this film: “It actually shows the progress of Ceausescu’s personality cult.” The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu is another long-haul sit, but worthwhile again for the fascinating material, the critical approach to filmmaking and the freedom to make of them what you will. This typifies many of the films in Rotterdam, which makes it a valuable addition to more traditional doc fests.