Films With and Without Patina

in 52nd International Film Festival Rotterdam

by Dunja Bialas

The main Tiger Competition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) once again lived up to its name. It brought together as world premieres sixteen fierce and powerful first and second films by international filmmakers from almost every continent. The European countries represented were Albania, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain and Ukraine; Asia was represented by films from China, Iran, Lebanon and Sri Lanka. Africa presented films from Tunisia, Morocco and Cameroon, and the United States had two films in the program. Unfortunately, South and Latin America were represented only as a co-production country (Mexico), which denies the cinematographic importance of the South American continent and revealed a significant gap in the program, especially since festival director Vanja Kaludjercic is very interested in the broad and diverse representation of film countries. Surprisingly, she saw the inclusion of underrepresented cinemas in the Tiger Competition fulfilled with the German entry, as she said in an interview with Screen Daily: “while Germany produces a lot of films, it’s nice to have a German competition entry as it doesn’t happen so often. The goal and the direction is to bring in new voices from territories who don’t so frequently get a spot.”

With a profound change in personnel due to the replacement of the entire programming team in summer 2022 by festival director Kaludjercic (who succeeded Bero Beyer in 2019), the structure of the program remains the same. In addition to the six regular programs with numerous world, European and international premieres (Bright Future, Cinema Regained, Harbour, Limelight, RTM and Short and Mid-length), three competition programs will exclusively show world premieres. In the Tiger Competition, films by up-and-coming directors are screened, while the Big Screen Competition bridges the gap between popular, classical and arthouse cinema. Here, an audience jury decides the prize, while in the other sections,  there are two juries of professionals and film critics. The FIPRESCI Award by the international association of film critics has been presented at the IFFR since 1990, and since the Tiger Competition was founded in 1995, it has been awarded to a feature-length film played in competition.

As a newcomer section, the Tiger Competition showcases previously unknown filmmakers. A great attraction of the FIPRESCI jury activity was therefore also to discover new talents and to get to know new names. It should be noted that the program was very heterogeneous and presented a wide range of narrative forms. Rather classical, with a childlike voice-over and fairy-tale-like narration was the image-rich Indivision by Moroccan Leïla Kilani, her second feature film after a break of twelve years. Children played the central but not parabolic role in Amir Toodehroosta‘s Numb (Asab keshi), which for decades was one of the great Iranian traditions established by Abbas Kiarostami and others. The winner of the Tiger Main Award was Cyrielle Raingou‘s documentary Le spectre de Boko Haram from Cameroon. The film stages situations in which it addresses educational poverty, hunger and being cut off from civilization. While this may be a little too ‘on the nose’ for film critics, the international jury considered the film to be an important voice from the African continent. They also gave out two Special Jury Awards. The first went to Visakesa Chandrasekaram‘s Munnel from Sri Lanka, which fused mythical, imaginary and political levels in a successful amalgam. The second went to New Strains by U.S. artists Artemis Shaw and Prashanth Kamalakanthan, an autofiction shot on video at the time of the lockdown in New York, which we discuss in more detail below.

Among the sixteen films in the competition, the curators’ interest in reflecting on mediality was apparent. The nostalgic 16mm film Three Sparks by Mexican-Canadian-American experimental film artist Naomi Uman uses her Bolex to fantasize about an ethnography in the Albanian hinterland, based on the “Kanun,” the medieval set of rules for living together in society. It prevailed as a patriarchal customary law, with astonishing loopholes for unmarried women, who were granted rights similar to those of men. The grain of the film’s narrative and the staging of supposedly historic situations, interspersed with Kanun quotations, are a major attraction of the film. In the second, excessively long half, however, a digitally shot making-off dominates, which destroys the nostalgic media illusion.

100 Seasons (100 årstider) by the Swedish choreographer Giovanni Bucchieri turned to the newer medium of video as a recording system. The film is an autofiction that Bucchieri combines from his private archive of video recordings from his early adulthood, including the search for his first love and his exploration of his current depression. In many scenes, Bucchieri overlaps time, projecting Hi8 recordings with his girlfriend onto a hung bed sheet in his living room. When he finally imagines his death and funeral, he leaves the pages of the diary and opens himself to fiction. Further on, the daring to transform therapy into art becomes apparent.

Nummer achtien: The Breath of Life was an echo of 100 Seasons: Dutch artist Guido van der Werve reconstructs and accompanies his reconstruction after a serious bicycle accident, with a humorous lucidity and decorative attention to detail that one often encounters in Dutch cinema.

The above-mentioned New Strains, which can also be read as an autofiction, begins directly in fiction territory. New York filmmakers Artemis Shaw and Prashanth Kamalakanthan are also a couple in real life; in their joint feature film debut, they fictionalize themselves in a film plot at pandemic lockdown time. Kamalakanthan is shown as a bad-tempered, jealous and dull partner of Shaw, who herself is always drawn out for walks and ambiguous encounters with strangers. Filmed with a video camera, the film reveals in home-video aesthetics the gradual disorientation between being closed in, disinfectant and the search for a mouth guard. The independent film is mumblecore, with the delusional touch of not taking oneself seriously at all.

There is also an echo to this film: Lukas Nathrath‘s false friends film One Last Evening (Letzter Abend), which has just been awarded for Best Director at the Saarbrücken Film Festival Max Ophüls Prize. The pseudo-mumblecore aesthetic shows the disaster of a botched Last Supper a little too deliberately and a little too shamelessly, with overdrawn characters and a basic helpfulness for the cinematic depiction of depression.

VHS also plays a major role in the FIPRESCI Award-winning La Palisiada. The Ukrainian director Philip Sotnychenko puts together two disparate events. The film begins with a bang, the shooting of a young man by his mother. He had talked himself into a rage about the stuffed animals and decorative pillows that have taken over a subtle dictatorship in his parents’ apartment; it is a sophisticated political torrent of speech that spreads out in the light of the bedroom lamp and pours over the mother, who was just about to prepare the bed for bedtime like an accurate Jeanne Dielman. With the shot, the film makes a leap from the present back to 1996. This point marked five years of Ukraine’s independence, five years of the dissolution of the former Soviet power into national states, and the last year of the first Chechnya War (1994-96), an early war between Russia and the post-Soviet states, which was preceded by a war with Transnistria (1992), followed by a second Chechnya war (1999-2009) and a war with Georgia (2008) – and all this before the Ukrainian war (2014 / 2022).

Sotnychenko zooms in on the past, at times quite literally. Filmed with a VHS aesthetic, he establishes a vintage style of investigation through zooms onto sometimes incomprehensible situations, accentuating the patina of brownish-gray, post-Soviet living and meeting rooms, topped by a video-in-film documenting the brutal arrest of a number of men. They are later put on trial, with a second, final shooting. “La palisiada”, it is said at one point in this deliberately opaque, allusive, despite the aesthetics little nostalgic and at the same time angry and playful film, is a rhetorical figure of repetition. Here, the post-Soviet era rises again, as an incomprehensible grimace of history, which is only a herald of uneasy things to come.

With Gagaland by the young Chinese Yuhan Teng, the Tiger Competition finally followed up on the meaningless cultural practices of Generation Z, which for all its redundant annoyance was quite interesting on a meta-level. In TikTok videos the popular dance style called “gaga” is danced until one’s senses go crazy – it is all about the liberation of bodies and minds. Taken as a perfidious liberation strike of a politically and physically immobilized generation, the film is as powerful as a striking hammer, certainly with the potential to invite imitators.

Dunja Bialas
Edited by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas