Strategically timed to take place just before the Berlinale, the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), whose 43rd edition ran from January 22 to February 2, is viewed as a platform for cinematic discoveries by many other film festivals' directors and international programmers.
More than a simple showcase, the Rotterdam festival also supports - through its co-production market Cinemart and the Hubert Bals Fund (HBF) - independent filmmaking around the globe.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fund that has helped various directors make their first films, the festival screened 14 HBF-supported projects, including mainland auteur Chen Kaige's Life on a String (1991), Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), and Sri Lankan filmmaker Vimukthi Jayasundara's The Forsaken Land (2005).
Feeling an urgent need for a debate on the state of Europe, IFFR director Rutger Wolfson had planned 2014's special programme around this theme, and - although absent for much of the festival due to health reasons - showed up towards the end of the event to lead a panel on it. Against the backdrop of the financial and economic crisis, immigration and integration issues, and the upcoming European elections, he suggested: "Maybe we can look at film as an antidote to the tiredness and weariness that is felt in Europe, and see it as a place to generate new ideas."
Wolfson's temporary absence and other human resource setbacks had seriously jeopardised the success of the 43rd edition of the IFFR. Mart Dominicus, the interim director since November 2013, bravely battled to save this festival, which offered 220 feature-length and 320 short films.
Among this year's offerings were My Blind Heart, the debut feature of Austria's Peter Brunner, who studied under Michael Haneke at the Vienna Film Academy. A breathtaking meditation on the human body and how to cope both with illness and diversity in a society which does not really accept either, this stylishly crafted film looks at the life of a young man affected by a genetic illness known as Marfan's syndrome. Shot in black and white, the fictional film has a strong documentary feel, no doubt aided by its lead actor, Christos Haas, being afflicted by Marfan's syndrome in real life.
Mainland director Yang Heng's third film, Lake August, is another remarkable piece of work. Utilising a minimalistic style with long shots and captivating framing, the deliberately paced film follows a lonesome young man who, after losing his father in an accident and being abandoned by his girlfriend, drifts from the big city to the edge of a peaceful Hunan province lake and then back. In the process he comes to terms with his fate.
Catalan filmmaker Luis Miñarro's witty, profound, and alternately melancholic and joyfully colourful feature debut, Falling Star, ostensibly looks at the brief rule of Amadeo von Savoy, a Turin prince who was king of Spain for two years in the late 19th century. But through his telling of the story of the ruler who unsuccessfully tried to open up, modernise and change the political structure of a country plagued then and now by administrative and financial crises, Miñarro also asked some penetrating questions about today's Europe.
After 10 intense days, while Rotterdam's Chinese community celebrated the Lunar New Year with a parade on West Kruiskade near the IFFR's main venue De Doelen, the film community gathered to applaud this year's award winners.
Three films shared the Hivos Tiger award for first or second films this year. Honoured by the festival jury chaired by Palestinian director Elia Suleiman were: Han Gong-ju, South Korean director Lee Su-jin's melodramatic depiction of the dreadful aftermath of gang rape for a 17-year-old girl; Anatomy of a Paper Clip, Japanese filmmaker Akira Ikeda's minimalistic, fairytale-like tragi-comedy about the daily life struggle of a submissive paperclip bender; and Something Must Break, a personal, romantic-dreamlike transgender love story by Sweden's Ester Martin Bergsmark.
Another Asian film, The Songs of Rice, Thai director Uruphong Raksasad's homage to the essential staple food of many people, won the Fipresci international critics prize while the UPC Audience Award went to Alexander Payne's Nebraska, a drama about a booze-addled father who travels from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.