Odyssey, Fighter and Bees

in IFF Rotterdam 2024

by Darta Cerina

In the past years talking about festivals as a whole (or a holistic experience) has become much more difficult. There are several reasons for this ‘experiential intangibility’, but mostly the film production amount and pace, Covid-19 implications on film industry and viewing habits, as well as festival attempts to diversify the audience. International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), already at its 54th edition, which took place from January 25th till February 4th, fits into this complex ecosystem of film festival circuit, with this edition mirroring the larger issues in the line-up. 

Within the European festival landscape, the artistic team of the IFFR includes geographically, aesthetically, and conceptually diverse works, and aims to discover new cinematic topographies, limelight specific national cinemas, and introduce new talents and novelties in VR cinema, visual arts, and many other forms. The Tiger Competition, consisting of 14 films, embraces diversity and delivers a platform for up-and-coming filmmakers. It’s an admirable work of highlighting new media and novel areas where cinema, its traditions and conventions, meet with the visual arts and hybrid techniques. 

The section offered a variety of aesthetics and genres. It included the intertextual essay, The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire (2024), by Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, which tackles the forgotten role of Martinique-born theorist and poet Césaire through a decolonial lens; the experimental animation, Reise der Schatten (2024), by Swiss visual artist Yves Netzhammer, who is well-known for the IFFR audience; and the black-and-white docufiction feature, Flathead (2024), a directorial debut by Jaydon Martin that aims to contemplate the society of blue-collars in Queensland, Australia. Also, dramas – just to mention a few: the Tiger Competition Award recipient, Rei (2024), by Japanese director Tanaka Toshihiko, and the Greek Weird Wave inspired feature debut film, Swimming Home (2024), by Justin Anderson

An absolute stand out this year was Kiss Wagon (2024), by Indian filmmaker Midhun Murali – three-hour-long black-and-white animation with unreliable narrators. Murali is still a relative newcomer in the festival landscape, even though this is his third film. Kiss Wagon is a contemporary epic, created with 30 layers in a sequence, and with noirish and flickering visuality. It’s a true tour de force of a modern epic poem and a sharp DIY auteur’s attempt to reflect on how film can communicate its own ideas. The film follows many stories and collage-like characters, offering an astonishingly mirroring effect of contemporary medias and our fragmentation. 

Another highlight, though aesthetically uneven, at the Tiger Competition was the documentary essay, Under a Blue Sun (2024), by Daniel Mann, who returned to the IFFR for the fourth time. The film contemplates “truthfulness of the fakeness.” Namely, in the film, Mann revisits Israel and the deserted area where Rambo III (1988) was shot: what is happening now on the same land where Sylvester Stallone was fighting for Afghanistan and its people? This film is a landscape-based work, which tackles the societal conflicts in Israel from a unique, unseen angle, whilst writing numerous emails to Stallone and continuing imaginary conversation about the ethics of filmmaking. 

Meanwhile, the more common area in terms of fiction was introduced by Ukrainian filmmaker Dmytro Moiseiev in Grey Bees (2024), based on the titular novel (2018) by Andrey Kurkov. It’s a grounded, introspective, and ascetic portrayal of two elderly men – neighbours Sergiich and Pashka – during the war while living in the “gray zone,” which is near the Russian occupied territories (the film updates the circumstances according to full-scale invasion which took place on 24 February, 2022). Events are unfolding gradually, moral choices differ, and the character revelation is compellingly polysemious. The film puts spectator in a rather uneasy place – it engages us to decipher the values of two neighbours and how war changes their moral pyramid.

Cinema is not one thing; however, the problem of differentiation arises. It’s rather challenging to compare these works in terms of quality, scale, artistic ambitions, and overall execution. In the past years festivals with diverse profiles have encountered this paradigm, which seems to define the current term “festival cinema.” From one perspective, the Tiger Competition is a kaleidoscope of contemporary filmmaking and young voices, from another, the summary of the spectator’s fate.


Dārta Ceriņa
Edited by Ela Bittencourt