Low-key festival focuses on filmmakers

ROTTERDAM — One is unlikely to cross paths with movie stars at the Rotterdam Film Festival, Europe’s first major film rendezvous of the year.

Those who feel Berlin or even Cannes can at times be too intellectual ought to try this resolutely glitz-free event (Jan. 24-Feb. 4), where arthouse rules.

“We don’t try to be like the other festivals. Filmmakers are the stars here,” says fest artistic topper Sandra den Hamer, who’s behind an uncompromisingly edgy and eclectic lineup of 15 first and second films competing for the fest’s Tiger Awards.

In this sprawling European port that was bombed to smithereens during WWII, ugly post-war architecture and depressingly gray skies mean there’s little to tempt attendees out of movie theaters.

But because of its reputation for discovering new talent, Rotterdam is a must for industryites and cinephiles who want to stay ahead of the curve.

The majors’ specialty divisions all had their footsoldiers in attendance, scouring the festival for potentially bankable talent.

Recent Rotterdam discoveries include Lou Ye, whose “Summer Palace,” banned in his native China, caused a stir at last year’s Cannes Film Fest; Dagur Kari, whose “Noi Albinoi” began life as a project in the festival’s Cinemart international co-production market in 2001; and Mexican Carlos Reygadas, helmer of the explicit “Battle in Heaven,” whose debut “Japon” screened here in 2002.

Ticket sales to the public for the 36th edition were expected to reach 350,000, on a par with Berlin or Toronto.

The Tiger Awards were so named when the festival was created more than 30 years ago as a dig at the MGM lion, explains den Hamer, “when American films were all that you could see in cinemas.”

Judging from the films unspooling this year, Rotterdam’s rebel attitude hasn’t changed.

The festival opened with Argentine offering “La Antena,” made in the style of a silent film.

Other competition titles included the Flemish shocker “Ex Drummer,” which follows a gang of lowlifes in a Dutch rock band; “AFR,” a much-talked-about Danish mockumentary based on the staged assassination of Denmark’s prime minister; “La Marea,” about a woman grieving on a beach after her husband and child die in a car crash; and the ironically titled “Love Conquers All,” a Malaysian film made for E10,000 ($13,000).

Low as the Malaysian pic’s budget was, it didn’t not break Rotterdam’s record, held by last year’s Chinese film “Taking Father Home,” made for just $2,600. (With the proceeds from various prizes, pic’s director Ying Liang funded his new film, “The Other Half,” which screened in this edition.)

Causing particular excitement were a clutch of ultra-low-budget Malaysian and Filipino digitally shot pics, including the nine-hour “Heremias,” James Lee’s “Before We Fall in Love Again” and Woo Ming Jin’s “The Elephant and the Sea.”

“I’m here to catch up on films I missed at other festivals,” said Wild Bunch topper Vincent Maraval. “Rotterdam is one of my favorite festivals, because it’s full of people who are truly passionate about film.”

Film Four’s “The Mark of Cain,” about British soldiers accused of torture in Iraq, picked up one of the first prizes to be handed out, the festival’s Movies That Matter Award.

Teuton international sales and marketing topper Thorsten Schaumann, of Bavaria Film, said he and other industryites depend increasingly on Rotterdam to pre-select the films they are likely to be interested in.

“New technology has made filmmaking a lot cheaper, and there are many more films being made, so it’s getting harder to know about all of them,” Schaumann said. “The festival acts like a filter — it lightens the workload.”

Rotterdam’s Cinemart production market fills a similar role. In its 24th year, it presented 48 new projects seeking finance, cherry-picked from more than 500 candidates.

To qualify, movies have to be budgeted at under $7.8 million.

Well-known arthouse names included Korean helmer Kim Ki-duk with “Breath”; France’s Arnaud Desplechin with “Tromperie,” based on the novel by Phillip Roth; and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” helmer Stephan Elliott, with his new project “Black Oasis,” based on the true story of B-movie actress Susan Cabot.

By the end of the five-day market, projects close to being financed included the Belgian “Lost Persons Area,” the U.K.-Chinese “La Chinoise” and “The Light,” a co-production from Kyrgyzstan/France/Germany.

On average, an impressive 75% of the projects proposed at the market do get made, so the Cinemart’s catalog is a good guide to arthouse movies expected to hit fests and cinemas in the next few years. Its success rate shows there is financing available for resolutely independent films, although it’s not always easy to find.

Jacques Mandelbaum, film critic of Le Monde, called the Rotterdam Film Festival “a big, very diverse laboratory.”

“Despite the difficulties of independent cinema, there are people creating interesting films. The paradox is that most of them won’t be seen by the public.”

(Jay Weissberg contributed to this report.)

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