Features & Opinion

Rotterdam 2010 Diary: Tiger Awards and Long Takes!

By Shekhar Deshpande • Published on February 7, 2010

Long takes seem to characterize a group of films in this year s Tiger Awards competition. Each one of these films ends of being distinct and memorable. This is the kind of fare that only programmers can identify, not those who market the films.

Nikolay and Yelena Renard s Mama (Russia) includes long takes where the camera is entirely stationary, does not move and maintains a distance from is (only) two central characters. An overtly (some say obscenely) obese son of an obsessive mother makes his way to the store window as he seems to have fallen in love with a mannequin. He then walks into a park, at a speed that he can manage, to eat. When he comes home, we notice his mother is angry, who then bathes him, clothes him and helps him pack his suitcase because he is taking a flight the next morning. He misses his flight because she does not wake him up. Their saga continues at a pace that is at once maddening, minimalistic and offers complex pleasure that goes well beyond Jeanne Dielman s celebrated dis-pleasures. The film invites a gaze onto a relationship that is difficult to understand but has the depth similar to Andrej Sokurov s portrait of a relationship between a mother and her son.

Yang Heng s Guang Ban (Sun Spots, China) contains 31 shots, each constructed with meticulous beauty of Chinese green countryside. The central character, an urban assassin much like Jarmusch s Ghost Dog, deftly wields his machete (all the violence is off-screen) in the service of the loan sharks he works for. And yes, if he has to, he does it for himself too. He falls in love with a pretty girl, who is still heartbroken over the failure of her earlier love/r. All characters are placed in the center of the frame as the camera does not move or the lens does not zoom. There are no close ups either. The long takes offer characters a distance and test your patience in minimalistic cinema, where pleasure of the viewer must be suspended for any kind of relationship with the image. The film is a visual beauty to behold, while Renards Mama uses natural lighting (yes, fluorescent too) with a Russian lower class interior whose colors have worn out for decades, Gung Ban relishes its frame with lights that are enchanting. There are scenes with something between a silvery daylight and a moody twilight fills the frame, without its golden tones. There are objects in the foreground of the characters, bear bottles, bags, etc. add to the surreal quality of the beautiful image.

While Guan Ban (Sun Spots) does offer beauty of the image, Ben Russell s contender for the Tiger Awards, Let Each One Go Where He May (God s blessing to helpless slaves), filmed in Suriname contains 13 shots with a steadicam, 10 minutes each. We see two brothers make their way through the woods, the village, the illegal goldmines, on a boat across the river to a village where they participate in a ritual that mocks their once-colonial Dutch rulers. The final shot of the film is equally breathtaking as we follow the brothers as they face the camera, rowing back to their village. It is an exercise in ethnographic film which again elevates the long takes to the level of art form, challenging our philosophical assumptions about being an observer and an intruder in a world that is never our own. The film will be long remembered for one of the astonishing transitions or blends between ethnographic cinema and its narrative counterpart. It is filled with valuable “teachable  moments where the gaze of the observer meets  that of the native, questions itself and then continues along the path.

Each of these three films does not have a conventional narrative. Each of them presents a uniquely justified use of the long takes and each film takes cinema into the realm of something else, a visual installation of sorts, except that they all assume the position of the cinematic viewer must be what it has always been, a stationary, contemplative subject whose primary disposition to the cinema is that of pleasure and expectation. Unlike installations in space, there is no mobility allowed, for we have to share the immobility of the camera.

In the company of these competitors, Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm s R (Denmark), Martijn Maria Smits s C est dj  l t (The Netherlands, Belgium), and Tsubota Yoshifumi s Miyoko Asagaya kibun (Japan), are portraits of difficult and complex characters. Their narratives have dramatic structures that are relatively familiar but the realism in each of these films acquires a completely different quality.

Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm s R is a tense, dramatic film of the prison genre. The rise and fall and then fall again of those who attempt to rebel against the disciplinary system seems to have a script written for them. If each of these works tends to be different, it is because the actors move the narrative with a force that is entirely his/her own. Such is the case here too. Omar Shargawi grows on you with his dexterity and grit but once you locate yourself in that genre, his fate seems pretty clear to you.

The festival catalog compares Martijn Maria Smits s C est dj  l t with the realism of Dardenne brothers. And the film is shot in Seraing, which Dardenne brothers have portrayed on screen. The gritty realism of the poverty of people who seem to be helpless in putting breaks on their misery grips you throughout the film. Smit is also pointing out to the inability of those who are poor to identify the signals and the gestures of those forces and people that can indeed help them fight it all. It is a tragedy of the underclass, a strenuous journey that only spirals downwards.  The film could be grouped with a similar fall of a family in Georgia s Street Days in the competition which I wrote about earlier.

Tsubota Yoshifumi s Miyoko Asagaya kibun also has a narrative with broad theatrical appeal. This is a biopic set in Japan where the work of the artist shapes the tableau in which the mise-en-scene is constructed. This is reminiscent of Paul Schrader s interpretive biopic Mishima. Miyoko is the name of the girlfriend, wife and the muse of the Manga comic artist Abe Shinichi. Their stifling tale, with sexual perversions, deceptions and suspicions, betrayals and loyalties are all portrayed in the film where the surrealism of the Manga comics shapes the image. There are moments in this film, when we begin to understand the scope of delusions and the reach of the Manga images just as the narrative must return to the progression of the life-events of the characters.

P¼ha Tµnu kiusamine (The Temptations of St. Tony) by Veiko unpuu (Estonia) was one of the first films to be grabbed for world distribution as the festival began (Alamar was next!). That says something about of popular appeal and the film does deliver on that count. Described as a “tale of wolf-capitalism  spreading in Eastern Europe, the film is shot in crisp Black and White where a quiet middle manager questions his morality after his father s demise. He fires a man and then attempts to bed his daughter, all the while keeping his conscience to himself. He continues to fall as the film consciously reminds us of Dante s Divine Comedy. The oddly “comic  elements here are slowly overtaken by darkness of the quiet gestures of Tony and his moneyed class. The narrative holds off its shocks as it progresses and delivers an indictment of the new capitalism with all its force.

From Thailand s new generation, which has been creating great works in recent years, the competitive entry came from Anocha Suwichakornpong, who also won the Prince Claus Fund grant/ Cine Mart award for her next film. Jao nok krajok (Mundane History) is her first full length feature. It is a story of relationship between a young man from a well-to-do family who has been paralyzed from waist down and his male nurse. It develops slowly as both of them are distant and cold to each other but their relationship morphs into a friendship of souls, meditating our place in cosmos, the meaning of life, the love of books and movies. A wonderful example of what could happen when little bit of warmth opens up a person. The movement of the narrative is suspended as the film itself takes on the protagonists conversation: could we live without history, without past or future? The answer turns out to be less political or philosophical but more spiritual. It isn t clear if the relationship between the two friends unlocks some of the answers or there is an authorial intervention in that direction. The film concludes on an optimistic spiritual note that could have emerged from any narrative, not necessarily related to this central relationship which is so artfully developed.
The Jury awarded Tiger Awards to Agua fr­a de mar (Cold Water of the Sea) by Paz F¡brega, Mundane History (Jao nok krajok) by Anocha Suwichakornpong and Alamar (To the Sea) by Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio.  Their choice speaks clearly on how the International Film Festival of Rotterdam regards emerging films in world cinema. These films are less narrative innovations as they are stylistic achievements. In fact, all contenders that were impressive were stylistic path breakers. The FIPRESCI (Fdration Internationale de la Presse Cinmatographique) award went to Ben Russell s Suriname film, Let Each One Go Where He May. That is a well deserved affirmation of a cinema that continues to be made, with digital technology at times, but still in cinematic idiom. And such films could be honored only where there is no glamour, no red carpet, just film makers and cinephiles together in one place for ten days.

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