Last year at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, a Tiger Award for Short Films was won by Sebastian Buerkner, alumnus of the Chelsea College of Art and Design. In 2013, all three Tiger Awards in this category went to artists: Beatrice Gibson, Erik van Lieshout and Zachary Formwalt. And it could happen again this year. Twelve out of the sixteen eligible films carry the “art” label.
When the IFFR shorts program started some ten years ago, the organization deliberately choose to focus on productions made in the margins of the traditional film industry. Most international festivals for short film—Oberhausen, Ghent, and Clermont-Ferrand come to mind, as well as Go Short! in The Netherlands—show cinematic narratives created by certified filmmakers. But the hunting grounds of IFFR-programmers include biennials, galleries, museums, and artists’ spaces. They also do a lot of studio visits and personally stay in contact with artists throughout the year. It’s the artists themselves—and not a producer or distributor, as is usually the case in the world of cinema—who submit their films for festival selection. Every year the IFFR-programmers assess no fewer than 3,500 shorts, ultimately selecting 150–200 of them for one of the festival’s six special programs.
James Richards, Raking Light, 2014
Nina Yuen, Raymond, 2014
Melanie Bonajo, Night Soil: Fake Paradise, 2015
The most important of these programs is, of course, the Tiger Awards Competition. This year’s entry list yields quite a few regulars from the international art circuit. Only a couple of months ago James Richards won the prestigious Hamlyn Award and was nominated for the Turner Prize. His Raking Light, a sizzling poetic meditation on the medium of film, is a good candidate for a Tiger Award. Raymond by Nina Yuen debuted at De Appel only a year ago. And Melanie Bonajo—in competition with a hallucinatory visual essay on feminism and eco-consciousness—stepped into the limelight when she won the first edition of the MK Award in 2013. But there are also some lesser-known names, such as the cross-disciplinary collective The Propeller Group based in Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles.
Rainer Kohlberger, Moonblink, 2015
Karl Lemieux and David Bryant, Quiet Zone, 2015
Only a quarter of the competitors consider themselves filmmakers and not artists. Without exception these are “experimental filmmakers,” however, descendants of Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, and others who stretched the idea of film way beyond the realms of mass entertainment. Rainer Kohlberger’s Moon Blink was created using no camera but only software, resulting in a digital artwork that refers to the classic abstract films of the 1920s. Quiet Zone by Karl Lemieux and David Bryant was shot on chemically corroded celluloid, which lends the tale about electromagnetic hypersensitivity a scary touch of surrealism.
Tommy Hartung, THE BIBLE, 2014
Jon Rafman, Mainsqueeze, 2014
A number of works in competition have previously been screened at art venues: Tommy Hartung’s THE BIBLE, for example, featured in December at On Stellar Rays in London. And Jon Rafman’s Mainsqueeze was part of a group show at the Future Gallery in Berlin. In order to be included in the IFFR program works have sometimes been converted from installations to single screen versions, which can be a pretty radical adaptation. But artists are eager to crossover into the realm of cinema and willing do so. During the shorts program (January 21–26) the Lantaren/Venster theater is packed with 138 short filmmakers from all over the world, looking for new contacts and collaborators. Cinema is the new frontier for artists, the film theater an alternative stage for their work.
But only a few artists get the opportunity to step into the world of commercial filmmaking. In an attempt to help them the IFFR started the Art:Film program two years ago. As part of the co-production platform Cinemart a few selected projects—this year it’s Cactus Flower by Hala Elkoussy, Hurrah, wir leben noch! by Agnieszka Polska, and Mr. Sing Sing by Phil Collins—are presented to producers, potential investors, and sales agents. Moreover, artists are coached about how to deal with the dynamics of film production, which are very different from making art. Film production is aimed at reaching the largest possible audience while art often dels in exclusivity. Most films are co-produced and draw their working capital from a wide array of sources. In order to make a film a financial success producers have to invest in marketing and wooing international sales agents. These phenomena are largely unknown in the art world.
But even with the most intensive counseling and matchmaking not every artist crossing over into cinema succeeds at becoming the next Steve McQueen, or even equaling the modest success of Sam Taylor Wood’s Nowhere Boy or Gillian Wearing’s Self Made. For Nicolas Provost things started off pretty good when in 2012 his film The Invader was selected for the Venice Film Festival. The thriller about an African illegal immigrant searching for a better life in Brussels subsequently traveled to Rotterdam, where it was picked up by a distributor with high hopes of scoring an arthouse hit. Only a few weeks after its release, however, the film made a quiet exit. Repeatedly, the regular film theater circuit has proven itself not to be the most conducive environment for experimental, artistically inclined films. Artists with big screen ambitions are mostly limited to festivals. But even so, an average festival venue will easily accommodate more viewers than any gallery.
The International Film Festival Rotterdam 2015 runs from January 21–February 1, 2015, at several locations in Rotterdam. More information about the program and schedule here.
(Image at top: The Propeller Group, The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, 2014, Film still)