State of the Festival: Rotterdam 2020's Shorts

Found within the IFFR's immense program are standout short films by artists like Bruno Delgado Ramo, Ismaïl Bahri, and Jodie Mack.
Jordan Cronk

Above: Una película en color

Alongside the anticipated premieres in the Tiger Competition and the wide selection of new and recent features by an array of international filmmakers of varying renown, the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) boasts perhaps the most robust shorts lineup of any of the major film festivals. As with many of the best films at IFFR, however, finding the hidden gems amidst the festival’s enormous program can be a challenge—though judging by the receptive audiences at most of the shorts programs I’ve attended over the years, it’s one people are willing to accept. With little hierarchy within or across the individual programs—good films are slotted in right alongside bad ones; shorts competing for prizes are no more apt to be interesting than those presented in noncompetitive categories—the Rotterdam shorts cast a wide net by design; often all one’s left with when deciding which program to attend is one’s familiarity with this or that name listed in the festival catalog. As its best, this dynamic rewards the ever-present possibility of discovery, while offering just enough known quantities to satisfying the impatient among us.

The unequivocal discovery of this year’s shorts was Una película en color (A Film in Color), by Spanish filmmaker Bruno Delgado Ramo. As its title suggests, this is a work highly attuned to the tone and tint of its visual palette. Shooting on Super 8 within the confines of a single room, Ramo depicts this otherwise anonymous domestic space through a kind of spatial inventory of its objects and architecture: a fruit basket, a photo album, a skylight, a space heater, and, in a meta-textual nod to its own conception, a copy of Xavier de Maistre’s 1974 novel Voyage autour de ma chambre (Voyage Around My Room). Pages from de Maistre’s book are glimpsed throughout the film, in precisely framed images of its text and margins. Edited entirely in-camera (and projected at 18 frames per second), the film shifts between these interior images, often captured through surface reflections or brightly tinted filters, and fleeting shots of the surrounding environment. Birds, beams, blue skies, and clotheslines are glimpsed from the room’s windows, with flares of light cascading off the glass and through the lens, creating organic double exposures that open up a tangible sense of depth and dimension within the slowly unfolding montage. Gradually, Ramo himself becomes an object of inquiry, as the perspective widens to reveal the filmmaker operating the camera, subtly disrupting the film’s subjectivity. Akin to the late work of Robert Beavers, Una película en color finds a seemingly infinite number of ways to visually articulate the coordinates of an enclosed space.

Above: En la Era

In terms of discoveries, Una película en color brought to mind another filmmaker featured in the same program, Manuela De Laborde, whose 2016 debut AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN counts as one of recent experimental cinema’s true breakthroughs. Four years on, De Laborde has returned with En la era (In the Era), a modest ethnographic documentary shot in the famed Las Pozas sculpture park in Xilitla, Mexico, whose array of surrealist concrete structures (designed by the British poet Edward James) stand among the region’s dense subtropical foliage like the ruins of some vanquished premodern civilization. A purposeful pivot away from AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN’s studio-bound structuralism, En la Era adopts a loose formal framework in its juxtaposition of Xilitla locals and a group of foreigners participating in an experimental concrete workshop. Shooting on 16mm, De Laborde mingles images of the sculptures with footage of the workshop and a variety of local labor and food preparation practices. Across the film’s two parts (one shot in color and one in black-and-white), she skillfully marries this highly textured imagery with an intricate soundtrack of field recordings and microtonal synth frequencies, fashioning from just a few elements a uniquely immersive experience that, like AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN before it, prizes the sensorial over the purely observational. United in spirit, if not style, the two films speak to De Laborde’s preternatural sense of rhythm and scale, and the way the two, when creatively applied, can reformulate the way one sees the world.

Above: Look Then Below

Notions of perspective fueled many of this year’s most intriguing shorts. Winner of the competition’s top prize, Ismaïl Bahri’s Apparition continues the Tunisian filmmaker’s interest in the occluded and unseen. As in the earlier Foyer (2016), in which a sheet of paper covering the camera lens acts as a unlikely conduit for speculative drama, Bahri’s latest turns a simple conceit—in this case a photograph whose contents are slowly revealed through incremental changes in light and shadow—into a deceptively complex consideration of hidden realities. In Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Once Removed, what’s concealed is the physical identity of its subjects; standing in silhouette in front of projected photographs of the Lebanese civil war, historian Bassel Abi Chahine speaks to Hamdan about the violence and suppressed traumas wrought by the war, their shrouded frames embodying the essence of those whose identities have been lost to time. Less outwardly political but just as inventive, British filmmaker Ben Rivers’ latest collaboration with American sci-fi author Mark von Schlegell, Look Then Below, depicts a futuristic environment in which humanity has been wiped out and the world has frozen over. Accompanied by voice recordings of von Schlegell’s text and a subliminally droning soundtrack, the eerily serene images of fluorescent tundra and prismatic oceans drift by like scenes in a hand-crafted diorama. And finally, in Jodie Mack’s Wasteland No. 2: Hardy, Hearty, the second in the American animator’s series of films focused on the discarded and destroyed, an icy cauldron of leaves, roots, and flower petals swirl across a procession of rapidly flickering 16mm frames. As the ice cubes melt, Mack’s montage creates a kind of time lapse effect in which the elements churn through a variety of organic configurations, producing a tangle of colorful patterns that appear to breathe in synchronicity with each edit.

Above: Z = |Z/Z•Z-1 mod 2|-1: Lavender Town Syndrome

While each of these works might be said to represent a refinement of their makers’ skill set, the latest from Andrew Norman Wilson is a genuine step forward for the 36-year-old artist and filmmaker. From its absurdly idiosyncratic title on down, Z = |Z/Z•Z-1 mod 2|-1: Lavender Town Syndrome finds Wilson tapping a vein of creativity that, while certainly present in his wide variety of film and gallery work, has rarely found such breathless expression. And quite literally at that: for thirteen high-wire minutes, Wilson (through the voice of an off-screen narrator) tells the story of three friends—himself and the young couple Alan and Andrea—attempting to navigate their lives in Chicago during the 2009 economic crises. With nary a pause, Wilson dives headfirst into the group’s formation (“A labor activist, a former Google engineer, and an experimental ethnographer walk into an art school course,” he begins) and their unique living situation in Chicago’s iconic Marina Towers, with Wilson acting as a live-in babysitter for Alan and Andrea’s twin babies—just two scene-setting plot points in a narrative that twists and turns through a dizzying succession of details and diversions. As the story unfolds—touching on everything from art world anxieties and Chicago geography to the existential quandaries of the Pokémon universe—the images accumulate in a series of identically matched aerial zooms that tunnel downward from an undisclosed perch to one of the apartment block’s beehive-shaped balconies, where each shot eventually settles on an item (a pinecone, a barbecue grill, a flat screen TV, a plaster Pikachu doll) related to the tail-chasing spiel unfolding on the soundtrack. With its hyper loquacious and referential construction, the film bears more than a passing resemblance to the work of Wilson’s former collaborator James N. Kienitz Wilkins (This Action Lies, Indefinite Pitch), something that in another context could be considered a drawback—that is, if there was anyone currently making films with a fraction of these artists' ingenuity. More than any other film at this year’s Rotterdam, Lavender Town Syndrome opened up a rabbit hole of realities worth getting lost in. 

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Festival CoverageState of the FestivalInternational Film Festival RotterdamInternational Film Festival Rotterdam 2020Bruno Delgado RamoManuela De LabordeIsmaïl BahriLawrence Abu HamdanBen RiversJodie MackAndrew Norman Wilson
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