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Rotterdam: Women Directors and Women-Driven Narratives Are Front and Center

Thompson on Hollywood By Torene Svitil | Thompson on Hollywood January 29, 2014 at 3:05PM

A festival like Rotterdam is a great place for women directors to gain exposure. Not coincidentally, Rotterdam is also a great venue for films with female-driven narratives. The five I saw, three directed by women and two by men, shared an interest in how the past haunts the present; in intense feelings hidden beneath a constructed surface and the essential loneliness of women.

"Edén," the first feature film by American Elise DuRant, was partially funded through Kickstarter and draws on incidents from DuRant's own past. After the death of her father, 25-year-old Alma (Diana Sedano) returns to Mexico, where she lived with her American father (Will Oldham) for nine years until they left for the U.S. without explanation. Like a sleepwalker, Alma wanders through their old house, trying to track down people who knew her father. She ultimately has a one-night stand. Conversations, photographs and an old journal spark suppressed memories of her childhood when she spied on the adults without understanding what she saw and heard (much like Henry James' Maisie). There's a murder, an unpunished killer, complicit glances, sexual innuendo -- all seen from the child's POV. DuRant effectively uses ambient sound and a limited palette of browns, blues and pale yellows to create a hallucinatory, menacing atmosphere. She is not yet a strong director of actors (Sedano comes off the best): some of the dialogue is weak and the audience will probably figure out the twist before it's evident to Alma. Nonetheless, thanks to Kickstarter, she got her first film out there. I look forward to what she does next.

Cynthia Beatt's "A House in Berlin" is included in the "Signals: The State of Europe" program, which in advance of the E.U. elections of 2014, features films that in some way touch on European ideas and identity. In this fictionalized version of a true story, told largely in voice-over narration interspersed with documentary-like scenes, Stella, a young Scottish teacher, inherits the house of the title from an unknown Jewish great uncle. Stolen by the Germans during World War II, the house was returned to her uncle after a lengthy lawsuit, shortly before he died. At first content to sell, Stella visits the house and slowly realizes that she cannot let it go so easily. Her investigations into the house's history uncover continuing deceptions, details of her uncle's past and of her own. Beatt's quasi-Brechtian style adds subtlety to a rather well-worn tale. Stella's changes, described by the narrator, are also understated. Once isolated and naive, she begins to make connections with ideas, people and her future.

In the opening of "Reimón," text lists the total cost of the film ($34,000), a breakdown of the ways it was funded (by the Hubert Bals Fund among others) and the time needed for production and post-production. Director Rodrigo Moreno, who subscribes to the tenets of the Nuevo Ciné Argentino, which favors a pared down aesthetic and a focus on small stories shot on location with non-professional actors, has made the most socially conscious film of the five.  Reimón (Marcela Dias) who works as a maid in Buenos Aires, is introduced during a congenial family dinner with her out-of-town relatives. That's the most Moreno shows of her past. Long, observational shots show her travelling by bus for hours, dashing to work, cleaning, listening to Debussy, wandering through her clients' elegant rooms and walking her dog, totally alone. Occasionally, the focus shifts to some of her clients reading to each other from "Capital" without any consciousness that these words describe Reimón's isolation and the spiritually deadening effects of her job. A dispassionate Moreno doesn't patronize or sentimentalize Reimón, but her loneliness is heartbreaking nonetheless.

This article is related to: Festivals, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Women in Film

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.