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Rotterdam: Sex, politics and family secrets

Forty-one years and perpetually young at heart, the Rotterdam International Film Festival is a distinguished venue for cinematic discovery. It debuts more first and second films by emerging filmmakers than just about any festival in the world, with its prestigious Tiger Award bestowed upon three up-and-coming talents. With a special emphasis on films from Latin America, Africa and Asia, there's a clear mission to foster a truly global film culture. This year, new ground was broken along gender lines: for the first time all three Tiger Awards went to women directors. More noteworthy is how different the winning films are, each with their own way of telling their respective young heroine's story on screen.

The most controversial winner by far is "Clip," by Serbian filmmaker Maja Miloš, in which a 14-year old girl spirals down a teen vortex of drinking, drugs and sex. The last activity is almost always captured on camera phones, suggesting that today's teens can't enjoy sex without a video mediator. What's more, hardly any shots are filmed from the girl's point of view, especially the sex scenes, which are seen from the male partner's perspective through the camera phones. Is Milos suggesting that girls today can't help but see themselves as sex objects, influenced by their exposure to online porn clips and slutty pop songs? Provocative stuff, but Milos' treatment of the subject feels more exploitive than exploratory, rubbing the audience's noses in teen debauchery to cheap effect. While many critics deemed it a realistic portrayal of juvenile delinquency in the digital age, to me it seemed like an update of the hypocritical sordidness found in movies like Larry Clark's "Kids."

The other winners didn't resort to sensationalism to achieve their effects. "Thursday through Sunday," from Chile's Dominga Sotomayor, is about a girl's fateful road trip with her family, told with a vague, episodic storyline and gorgeous sun-baked cinematography. Anyone who remembers their childhood family excursions will recognize the sensation of watching the world fly past the backseat window while overhearing vague snatches of adult conversation between mom and dad; Sotomayor weaves these elements into a dramatic mystery. Even better is Huang Ji's "Egg and Stone," a deeply personal story of a girl in the Chinese countryside who carries a family secret that she is only beginning to understand. As in "Clip," there is salacious sexual content, but instead of throwing it in the viewer's face, it withholds details, forcing one to tease out its mystery from one meticulously crafted scene to the next.

But the best in show was Brazil's "Neighboring Sounds," which won the critics' prize; in fact it was made by a former film critic turned filmmaker, Kleber Mendonca Filho. Set in a well-to-do apartment complex that's like a small town to itself, the film vigorously explores the relationships between over a dozen inhabitants, from the building's aging owner calling the shots from his penthouse, to the comfortable middle class residents lounging in their apartments, to the security guards patrolling the streets. The characters intermingle in any number of impeccably crafted scenes; issues of class, race and power bubble beneath their interactions, revealing societal holes in Brazil's current economic boom. With over a dozen featured characters, the outstanding ensemble deserves comparison with the best of Altman, and is topped only by Filho's tremendous precision with camerawork and dialogue.

The only other film I saw that achieved a similar mastery was "small roads" by James Benning, which exemplified the festival's longstanding support of visionary experimental work. "small roads" features a series of seemingly simple shots of back roads winding out into various horizons across the United States. At first they look like little more than rural postcards; captured in state-of-the-art high def video, they're certainly gorgeous to look at. But these shots have been digitally manipulated (Benning will combine elements of different shots, or even painstakingly remove a leaf or rock from the composition), adding layers of mystery and beauty to the American landscape.

The festival's sense of discovery isn't bound to new films; Rotterdam routinely features some of the most adventurous retrospectives of any festival, bringing hard-to-find or nearly forgotten works front and center. This year's eye-opener was "The Mouth of Garbage," a series of low-budget films made in the Boca de Lixo slums of Brazil. Combining genre exploitation with new wave innovation, these resourceful movies challenged Brazil's political and sexual conventions throughout the 60s and 70s. Titles like "Orgy" and "You Sit on Mine and I'll Enter Yours" (about a man whose penis grows on his head) may sound crass, but one so-called "garbage" film, Rogério Sganzerla's "The Red Light Bandit," was recently voted the greatest Brazilian film of all time.

Even recent films are in need of discovery, especially when they can't be shown in their home country. The "Hidden Histories" series showcased independently produced documentaries that reveal a side of China that censors prefer to keep well from view, with stories of political injustice and social struggle. One standout, "When the Bough Breaks," follows children who fight against their own migrant worker parents to stay in school instead of joining China's ranks of hapless day laborers. The film captures their arguments with such intimacy that you wonder if director Ji Dan had worn an invisible cloak while filming.

But the spotlight belonged to an artist conspicuously absent from Rotterdam, as he's not allowed to leave his country. China's most famous artist as well as its most inspired troublemaker, Ai Weiwei went from being a national hero (he designed Beijing's iconic 2008 Olympic Stadium) to spending three months in jail following his outspoken criticism of government corruption through various channels, including his blog, Twitter feed and documentary films. The films, such as "Disturbing the Peace," which show Ai confronting officials after being beaten up by police, are breathtaking chronicles of just how far one can stand up to the system in China. It's another example of how the films at Rotterdam do battle with the stagnancy of the status quo.

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