in 45th International Film Festival Rotterdam

by Toni Junyent

At a certain moment, during my stay at Rotterdam, I realized that two of the movies that interested me (for very different reasons) involved cows: one of them was the second movie I saw at the festival, The Cow Farm, a Syrian documentary by Ali Sheikh Khudr, and the other was Tiao’s Animal Politico, a Brazilian surrealistic fable. There was also a film from Puerto Rico called Cows Wearing Glasses (Las vacas con gafas) by Alex Santiago Pérez. Pietro Marcello’s poetic Lost and Beautiful (Bella e perduta) replaced the cow with a buffalo, but I still found myself thinking, for a moment, that there was a path to be followed there. I considered writing about this cow issue on Twitter, but as I tend to do always when dealing with Twitter, I kept it for myself.

But before that, Jacques Rivette died and the sad news caught me by surprise while resting at my hotel room on the third afternoon after I landed in the Netherlands. I have only seen a few of his movies, but Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient, 1960) and Celine and Julie go Boating (Celine et Julie vont en bateau, 1974) are more than enough to make me feel like having lost someone meaningful to me. And a month ago, it was Bowie. And, also when I was at Rotterdam, reality managed to shock me again with its somewhat cruel randomness: I discovered that Eugenia, the mother of one of my best friends from my school days had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer. Somewhere in my memory there’s an old image of her, with a cigarette in her mouth and another one between her two fingers. But the thing is that she had quit smoking, she was going to the gym, she was feeling good (she explains all this in an interview for a local online newspaper) and suddenly, from one day to another, her life became a sort of a strange countdown. I ended my first Rotterdam International Film Festival listening to another ghost: Lou Reed’s mesmerizing voice singing Turning Time Around on the end credits of Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson’s audiovisual lament for the overlapping deaths of her life partner, the aforementioned Lou Reed, her mother and her loving dog, Lolabelle.

Going back to The Cow Farm – it starts out like a light-hearted tale: we get to know Hassan, a cousin of the director, who seems to have certain problems with people and lives exiled in a farm, taking care of some cows and drinking beer until the Syrian Civil War breaks in 2011, and he is pushed by his family to go to the army. He is killed in battle and his death turns what seemed to be a cheerful portrait of a misanthrope into something else. There is a shot, at the end of the movie, of Hassan, our cow farmer, telling his cousin to record him, to preserve this moment, because, he says, this soon will become the story of a deceased martyr.

So, the first movie I happened to enjoy at Rotterdam ended with someone dying. And the last one was a meditation on loss and its surroundings. My father died last November, after twenty years of battling with multiple sclerosis that made his everyday life a tough ride. He gave us all he could give, and much more, for the sake of love. Perhaps this is why I started to see death everywhere. Perhaps this is why I have become very conscious of people, and places, and things, disappearing constantly. Perhaps this is why the first movie that deeply moved me was Manoel de Oliveira’s Memories and Confessions (Visita ou memórias e confissoes, 1993), an utterly beautiful gift to the people who saw his movies, and the ones who might discover them in the future, but also a breathtaking effort to preserve a physical and emotional space, the house where he loved and was loved in return for many years; a house he had to abandon at the moment the movie was shot; a house that, while it was being explored by this mysterious couple, whose face we never see, made me think of another house, the one in Celine and Julie Go Boating.

Another Portuguese movie, Joao Salaviza’s Montanha, introduces us to David, a youngster who struggles to overcome his fear of losing his ill grandfather. There is something premonitory in the movie’s last shots, when we see in David’s expression that he already knows. He doesn’t have the evidence yet, but he knows that his grandfather has started his voyage to somewhere else, wherever people go when they die. Eugenia, my friend’s mother, seems almost sure, in the interview, that there’s nothing more after death. Laurie Anderson believes in the bardo, a place where the soul stays for forty-nine days before crossing the definitive gate. Then, who knows. The last line in the movie is: “A pilgrimage… towards what?” In José Luis Torres Leiva’s captivating El viento sabe que vuelvo a casa, we learn about a nine-day rite of passage that people celebrate in a village, in the Chilean island of Chiloé. They gather and they eat and they drink and they remember the departed ones, and there’s a shot where we see some coffee cups, they’re white and they carry a word written in golden letters: memory. Once I heard Pedro Costa saying that to film something is a way of keeping this something from being drowned and forgotten in the sands of time, adding what you’re filming to the image continuum, to the collective and constantly expanding history of cinema. In Claudio Caligari’s Toxic Love (Amore tossico, 1983), a fierce account of the stranded lives of a group of heroin junkies in 1980’s Rome, there’s a scene where they also gather, this time in a dilapidated room in an anonymous apartment, where they don’t seem to have fond memories to invoke. Instead, they spend the afternoons injecting themselves with heroin and discharging the blood that remains in the syringes on a white canvas attached to the wall. In a pretty disturbing way, we can see the abstract picture that emerges as their blood splattered signature. A legacy that is unlikely to make its way through the house (and their own) ruin.

When you seem to be so into death, into trying to grasp its meaning, into trying to keep what remains, it’s not strange to be amazed at every sign you encounter on your personal pilgrimage. I was on my way to Amsterdam’s Central Station when I saw the face of Chet Baker on a plaque commemorating his passing, in that same spot, on the 13th of May of 1988. Yes, death is everywhere, all the time. We can’t avoid it. We can’t keep our eyes closed. It is our duty to understand it. To find a way. To resist until the day when someone will hear Daniel Johnston’s prophecy and love will find us at the end. Love is the answer. I remember Oliveira saying that love is the only thing that actually makes sense, the only thing that’s real. I don’t remember his exact words. But I remember some other images I experienced at Rotterdam International Film Festival. There’s a shot in Paloma Aguilera’s Out of love – I remember it as the longest shot in the movie but perhaps I’m wrong – in which we see the faces of the two main characters while they’re making love, panting, entangled one into another, knowing that there’s probably nothing else out there for them, only the void and the fear of being defeated or disillusioned. It’s also powerful how Philippe Garrel does his trick in In the Shadow of Women (L’ombre des femmes) and we can’t escape it: we stare at the bodies of the actors in his latest ghost story without ghosts, a mental reverse angle, the urgent hope of finding the other person there. The anguish of discovering that they already left. As I’m afraid I can’t turn around actual time, I’ll avoid commenting on some of the films I saw, but before watching Heart of a Dog I stumbled upon a little gem of a movie called Drakkar directed by Maud Alpi. It is also a movie about remaining, about standing still, about touching other people and making it worth the time, and it has this shot where three people are also entangled in a hug that is also a political statement: there must be some way out of here, out of the already known and exhausted love schemes.

I couldn’t stop myself from activating my death sensor yet again when, at the closing party at De Doelen, The Smiths’ There is a Light that Never Goes Out started playing and we started to sing along to ourselves, one more time, that if a double decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die… and so on. What happened later, nevertheless, is that I logged in on Facebook and someone was recommending a movie called Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (Kip Andersen; Keegan Kuhn, 2014) and I was able to go back to my theory about cows. In any way, we are alive. That’s what counts, I guess.

Edited by Yael Shuv