Social films, whose main experience turns out to be drift, the political outside of politics, loneliness as a form of personal riot – this is how the main plots of this year’s Rotterdam film festival looked like.
Authors with various cultural backgrounds, ways of thinking and geography paradoxically coincided in one thing. This world is easier experienced as a fantasy, its purposes are impossible to anticipate, it is difficult to fight (as borders are astonishingly unclear, and the zone of your action is, on the contrary, strictly limited). It’s not surprising that the most unrealistic scenario of all can seem the most possible one, and the most possible scenario may on the contrary look fantastic. Thus, Ray by Nace Attala, which won the special price of Rotterdam jury with its plot from the before the last century, fits ideally into contemporaneity. The story of a French traveler, who decided to found a state inside existing states and who gave freedom to Chilean aboriginals, seems neither archaic nor mad. And the idea of moving life into Facebook and buying territories on the net doesn’t look unrealistic.
I guess one could talk only about solitary experiences. Or, if you like, about a revolution made alone: Inside a certain family, a rock band or a twitter account. There is something liberating in this story of loneliness: Something that robs of illusions, avoids old forms of collective experience, various moral clichés and habitudes to measure reality with laws that don’t work anymore for quite some time.
If the world becomes indecently global, than it’s possible to get into jail for a retweet in trouble- free South Korea, and, on the contrary, to stay alive against common sense and genre (of social thriller) in one of the most criminal quarters of a modern Indian city. Revolutionaries are at the same time the bourgeoisie, and the bourgeois happen to be revolutionaries from time to time. A story of personal choice itself, resistance to standards and political conjuncture become a more and more sophisticated gesture: you accept one language to shift immediately to another, or, like the characters of a rock band in the South-Korean Bomseom Pirates Seoul Inferno by Jung Joonsuk, you protest against cuts of finances spent on education, but you refuse to acknowledge that you are at least partly leftist, you play social black metal, but you pretend to be bourgeoisie or hipster. Funny, this retention of differences is supported on an aesthetical level. Say, if a film tells us about social conflict, it doesn’t follow the route of Dardennes and K. Louch, and if it is about a catharsis at the bottom of a waterfall, it will strictly evade Rossellini’s pathetics.
Thus, the characters of the Croatian Brief Excursion (by Igor Bejinovich), who were going to see frescos in a monastery, can suddenly disappear during a long walk (follow cows, fade away in long grass, fall asleep on their way). But this disappearance, detected by the off-screen monologue of the narrator, doesn’t take after the one in Weir’s (Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1976), which the author bears in mind. The characters go away from the frame but not from the world, that’s why the director puts them all together in twinkling neon of a cave (which is reminiscent of a disco at the beginning of the film). In the Brazilian-Argentinian Through the Window (A Window to Rosalia/Pela Janela) by Caroline Leone, the heroine, fired from a plant, travels to a famous waterfall, where she experiences a sort of insight, and which reminds us of the miracle in Stromboli. In this small and ultimately quiet story, performed with utter aspiration in each detail, the political and the personal are united. Or rather, they hold each other together, being solved neither into religious ecstasy nor to social performance (in Dardennes’ style). Leone’s waterfall is not more than a short break, a contemplation pause, which interrupted a sequence of daily events. In the finale, standing at the railway station the heroine is looking at its photo – a cheap picture, stolen from the hotel, which naively exaggerates the beauty of the national park.
It is interesting that even road-movies, which are formally far from the genre, are in the grip of the movement. Poetics of endless wanderings, constant change of registers, and the combination of different poetics, are common for the most part of the competition films. The refusal of finals is also symptomatic. Thus, in the Brazilian Electric Bodies (Corpo Electrico) by Marcelo Kaetano) routine unnecessary talks during tea, in the manager’s office, in a fashion workshop, are continued by the mundane drift from one sexual partner to another. The film doesn’t end, rather it “dies away” without any resolutions – the social ones or the ones of love. Finally, in the film which won the main prize, Sexy Durga (by Sanal Kumar Sasidharan), a social thriller about the life of the most criminal quarters of an Indian city, the action distinctively moves towards Haneke’s cinema (a boy and a girl hitchhike and fall across two infernal guys). However, a deadening thriller turns into a not less deadening religious performance (we are shown documentary footage, in which contemporary believers take part in bloody initiation ceremonies worshipping the goddess Durga). Genre violence is rhymed with the religious one. And when in the end the lovers are suddenly set free without explanations, you are hardly surprised. Stories start the same way as they end: accidentally, in an unevidently natural way. Like in life!
Today this “like in life” seems to be the tactics of young directors. Closeness to reality (whatever it means): “modesty”, avoiding “eccentricity” and “style”. As if the word “authorship” itself was something indecently old-fashioned.
I might be wrong though. Maybe it’s professional prejudice, selectors’ tastes and notorious Zeitgeist, which reflects the mood of a certain year. Anyway, it seems that the films in Rotterdam competition 2017 carefully keep the border between reality and illusion. As if you’ve been constantly whispered: “Be careful, there might be art here”.
© FIPRESCI 2017
Edited by Steven Yates