Normally, I’d be writing this dispatch from a hotel room, bar, cafe, movie theatre lobby, in a few minutes ripped out of time, hunched over my computer awkwardly quarter-opened in my lap, before another press screening began. Alas, such a physical, not to mention public, presence at a film festival is still depressingly impossible. Much of the festival world is still held captive by the pandemic that thwarted Cannes, limited Venice, and hobbled Toronto last year. I had hoped our coverage of a predominantly virtual New York Film Festival in October would be our last remote dispatch, yet 2021 looks much the same until vaccinations become ubiquitous. But things are not as they were in March last year. The film world is adapting with greater nimbleness than its creaky 125-year history suggests, and festivals have embraced temporary streaming solutions with remarkable agility and impressive audience engagement. Certainly a virtual festival is not a proper festival, just as a virtual cinema experience is not like going to the movies: Both are stripped of the shared public and communal experience with which moving images alchemize into the fullest expression of cinema. But we take what we can get, and while in my home in Yonkers, thousands of miles away from where I would normally have to be in order to tell you about some movies I feel are important, I encountered the International Film Festival Rotterdam—and in a manner that was not far from past predictions.
If the festival has proceeded as originally planned, I would be writing this dispatch talking about a new Rotterdam, one under the leadership of a new festival director, Vanja Kaludjercic (who, in full disclosure, has previously worked at MUBI), whom many hope will hone the great curation and urgent discoveries existent but frequently buried within a sprawling and ungainly event pulled in numerous directions over the years. Perched at the year’s beginning, this Dutch festival has the opportunity to be a cutting-edge cinematic declaration of what’s to come. Understandably, what was laid out by the new programming team’s original announcement has been reigned-in. Like the fall 2020 festivals before it, a pandemic-era Rotterdam is one of radically curtailed presentations and one that is almost certainly compromised by filmmakers and sellers still reluctant to premiere their films at such a time, nervously holding them for some ambiguous and uncertain future premiere when in-person audiences and a clear path to distribution may appear certain. Thus, despite an expanded main competition—the Tiger competition, the features of which are dedicated to debuts—only it, the audience-driven Big Screen competition, and highlights from the last year are included in what is normally an event showcasing literally hundreds of movies. This is no doubt not ideal for the new team, nor the festival, which in the past found much of its best work in site-specific events that cannot be translated to a streaming environment, like rare retrospectives, celluloid-based shorts programs, installations, and live performances. (Current plans are for a public event, including two additional sections, to be held in June.) But in its culling, one can hope the compromise has forced questions of the institution about just what scale event is necessary, and of what can be gained by sticking to core values within leaner, more efficient confines.
From the selection itself, I’ve seen many strong films, several of which I will report on in more detail below. Overall, the Tiger competition appeared bold and engaged, though still was missing the kind of breakaway debuts that seem to prefer premiering at other festivals. Beyond what I will expand upon, other notable films from the competition are well-worth seeking. Ainhoa Rodríguez’s excellent Destello bravío (Mighty Flash) is a supremely confident and beautifully photographed portrait of a waning Spanish town—and particularly its aging female community—that looks like an Ulrich Seidl documentary, but is generally fictive and approaches the world variously with compassion, sly humor, doses of magical realism, and plenty of unexpected details. Two more provocative blendings of fact and fiction are Feast, Tim Leyendekker’s forceful, multi-format and essayistic dramatization of a mid-2000s Dutch scandal over gay men at sex parties being drugged and injected with HIV-infected blood; and Lebanese director Selim Mourad’s Agate mousse (Moss Agate), a playfully tender and inventive mix of internal confession, frustrated desire, and artistic and personal mythmaking. Finally, a more direct documentary in the competition, Marta Popivoda’s Landscapes of Resistance, about the director’s grandmother, a Serbian communist who became a fierce partisan in the Second World War and survived Auschwitz, not only opens up a history of female freedom fighters but prompts questions about fascist resistance in the 21st century.
Watching all these films at home and not at the host location itself calls to mind that festivals are only one of an endless list of public events, and their attendant cultures and economies, that have been grievously impacted by the unabating coronavirus pandemic. The Tokyo Olympics, originally set for summer 2020 but postponed last March, continue to be held in limbo. But for those longing for tales of underdog victories, extreme athletic achievement, national allegories told through sports at the global stage, and for an appearance of the Tokyo Olympics (1964 version, that is), look no further than Julien Faraut’s Les sorcières de l’Orient (The Witches of the Orient).
The French director’s 2018 essayistic take on the sports documentary, In the Realm of Perfection, used restored 16mm footage shot at the French Open’s Roland Garros court to craft an ode to the physical grace and prowess of 1980s tennis and a remarkable kind of star study of the power and rage of John McEnroe’s public persona. Faraut’s latest film travels to Japan in the 1950s and ‘60s, where a textile factory’s female volleyball team ascended to tremendous fame, besting the USSR at the world championships and taking home the gold medal at 1964’s Olympics. The director once again turns to using beautifully restored footage to tremendous effect, intermixing stunning color training sequences shot for Nobuko Shibuya’s Cannes Grand Prix-winning short, The Price of Victory (1964), which underscores a training regimen stretching from extreme rigor to apparent brutality, and the 1969 anime Attack No. 1, which was based on the Nichibo Kaizuka team and highlights their phenomenal popularity.
Cutting between these as the narrative follows their success (an astounding, record-setting 258 consecutive wins), the film breezily but no less effectively tells the story of a team of working-class women embodying some of the nature of Japan’s postwar recovery, wherein extreme discipline intertwines with a new generation and their attendant opportunities, actualized in an era of pop culture and globalization. Les sorcières de l’Orient makes sure to bring its story into the present, catching up with some of the remaining team members, now mostly in their 70s and playfully introduced in collector-card graphics with their nicknames and specialties, who reflect on their training, the pressure, and their notoriously tough coach (who nonetheless was an object of many team members' fancy). Shot digitally, the modern sections feel epochs away from the toil and triumphs set to celluloid elsewhere in the film. These contemporary scenes lack some of the philosophical panache of Faraut’s tennis film, which was boldly supported by film critic Serge Daney’s writings on the sport, but gain from the personal reflections on the past (McEnroe did not provide the same). By escaping the confines of the archives, these scenes of the players in their retirement are movingly tinged with the melancholy that is attached to those stars whose vocation feeds on their youth and leaves them with the burden of unimaginable accomplishments forever retreating in the rearview mirror.
Stories of sports teams are often haunted by possibilities of failure or scandal. The same could be said for stories of popular leaders, during which one is typically waiting for the other shoe to drop: When will there be an abuse of power, a revelation of hypocrisy and megalomania? There’s nothing of the sort, thankfully, in Nino Martínez Sosa’s strong feature debut, Liborio. In fact, the story is aligned with its eponymous leader only in the first of seven vignettes, in which the Dominican Republic farmer gets lost in a storm in 1908—and seems to ascend to heaven. Each chapter tells his subsequent story from the perspective of another in his community. They quickly take his experience as a miracle and him as their new leader, and word of both begins to travel around the island. An actual historical figure in the Dominican Republic, Liborio is at once a religious leader, the civic leader of a provincial commune, and, in his intersection with local unrest and the 1916 American occupation of his nation, somewhat of a resistance leader—or so those in power thought, eventually killing him in 1922, two years before the occupation ended.
Martínez Sosa, who as an editor cut a number of Jaime Rosales’s pictures, disperses this history and its portrait of a leader of great positivity and communal unity through various people. Rather than inflate this potent tale with grandeur, the narrative offers various perspectives, including Liborio's wife, a skeptical community member, an orphaned boy brought back from the brink of death, and, surprisingly, an American military officer. This approach somewhat hinders the vigor of the various vignettes, but it does create a rare, levelheaded evocation—neither doubting nor enthralled—of someone who could be taken as mythical inspiration. (And subsequently, in the 1960s, was—in the forming of a commune in Liborio’s name that was brutally repressed in 1962 by the government, resulting in hundreds of deaths.) Instead, we see a gradual building and enforcement of a supportive community around this figure, as years seem to slip by and hints of both contentment and danger are found around the edges.
What kind of leader Liborio actually was is difficult to discern; Martínez Sosa admirably doesn’t attempt to guess at what the man was thinking or how he was feeling, but the film also is discreet about his direct impact on the rural countryside in which he lived. Certainly a Dominican audience will understand more from the intentionally spare contours Martínez Sosa gives us through the polyphonic perspectives, where for the ignorant viewer there remains equal parts ambiguity and vagueness. Nevertheless, the film, clearly conceived as a whole piece, is impressive. Lucid and surprisingly told, wonderfully cast, and subtly moving, Liborio offers a fresh and welcome vision of the precarious but necessary existence of a leadership that fights for the well-being of peasants, the poor, and the marginalized.
Films about community-based solidarity and resistance are a rare breed. Less so, cinematic tales of singular female vengeance, which certainly predate the contemporary furor inspired by #MeToo and other waves of social justice. Recently, it seems dismayingly easy for entries in this welcome genre to fall into the trap of novelty self-righteousness or push-button opportunism. Few could have the analytical and observational precision of Kitty Green’s The Assistant, a film whose vengeance does not exist on the story level but rather on the meta, with the film itself and its observational acuteness being a weapon against abuse. Black Medusa, the lean and sinister feature debut of Tunisian directors ismaël and Youssef Chebbi, takes another route, sidestepping both systemic exposure and giddy revenge fantasy for something more mythopoetic.
The film’s twenty-something heroine, Nada (Nour Hajri), stunning and silent, wears her little black dress out into the evening like many of her new generation, but few employ it as she does: like a superhero’s costume. In this ensemble her nighttime alter ego picks up men at bars and clubs, takes them to their place, drugs them to unconsciousness and then wreaks physical revenge. We learn little about Nada beyond a gasping glimpse of a rape that seems to have taken her voice away, and the scenes with her victims move with a rhythmic ease somewhere between ritual and dream. Told through ismaël and Chebbi’s satiny, solemn imagery and clipped storytelling rather than through psychodrama, the film has little interest in, nor need of, dialog. Unlike many vengeance films, Black Medusa is a tale recited, not exuberant wish fulfillment or even an immersion into victimhood and subsequent empowerment.
When one of her men upsets the ritual and Nada’s practice of controlled violence tips into murder, murder soon becomes a part of her; murder becomes something she cannot not commit. Throughout, Black Medusa resembles films by punk poet F.J. Ossang, pitched at the disjunction between reality and iconography. Shot in beautifully toned and composed black and white and accompanied by the throbbing music of Omar Aloulou that resembles a mix of doom-laden electronica and Neil Young’s score for Dead Man, Nada prowls a nocturnal, ghostly and very much modern Tunis. Shown as a mixture of indistinguishable bars and streams of glowering high-rises, the urban landscape evokes at once predator’s amoral territory and the inhuman world that may have birthed such a predator. A glimpse of hope in the figure of a female coworker (Rym Hayouni) drawn to Nada is a tantalizing possibility for comradery, commiseration, and perhaps queer desire, but the film’s tale is not of freedom from trauma or even catharsis through vengeance, but of a kind of curse for this woman, violence begetting violence, the tragic and solitary embodiment of an angel of death.
Fueled more by archetype than by mythology, Vinothraj P.S.’s beautiful, gracefully just-so feature debut Pebbles is a story of that perennial of cinematic duos: a quick-tempered and ill-kempt man paired with a doleful, sweet-natured boy. The equation, when well-observed, founded on both chemistry and dramatic anecdote, prefers a lower class milieu, finding in the unstable parent-child dynamic a potent vehicle for observations not just on parenting and childhood, but also on poverty, class, and a universal longing for respite and acceptance. With admirable humility but no lack of filmmaking panache, Pebbles joins a venerable genre.
A lean and sharply evocative road movie, Pebbles starts with the drunk and mean spirited father (an immediately detestable Karuththadaiyaan) pulling his young son (Chellapandi) out of school to track down his wife, who has run away—very understandably, we quickly gather, from the man’s violent temper, filthy tongue, and physical abuse. With an arrogant stride and wilting glower he takes his son on a parched and desperately single-minded journey first by bus to his mother’s family’s home, where the boy is met with protective empathy and the father with insults, spite, and eventually fists, and from there by foot on a long, sunburnt hike back to their home village. His is a jealous, possessive, and animal need to recapture the wife and mother whose absence we are torn over: On the one hand, wanting her never to be found by this monster, and on the other, to appear and save her addled son with compassion and kindness.
Pebbles’s production is spartan but all the more emotionally direct and physically tactile for it. Vinothraj P.S.’s direction aptly choses when to pin the father and son into a dwarfing, desolate landscape, when to deploy a virtuosic camera, and when to explore peripheral strands of the world, as when the bus ride inspires a digression following another mother figure, and later we find a unified family together hunting for food before we see them observed by on the father and son. The film’s centerpiece is a tremendous single-take sequence that contains within it the entire dynamic of the missing woman’s family as the boy arrives to look for her on behalf of his dad. In it, we see their conflict and dismay over the state of their daughter’s life; we see another unsteady marriage and three other women in varying states of discord and acquiescence to their own meagre livings; and we see a kind of hope in another community for the boy, only to have him shockingly choose to follow his father onward on his drunken quest.
The story is evoked with a specificity of setting and people that allows it to be at once archetypal and exact. Throughout, the film’s style shifts carefully to complexify the simple tale—narrative digressions, the long take, clever perspective changes—and add details that accrue potent meaning: a sister’s toys, the father’s matches and cigarette, rat catchers, a mirror found on the road, jugs of precious water in a barren land. In its humble 74-minute runtime, the film manages to be more rich in storytelling and in humanity than movies that expend much more time, and much more money, with very little to show for it.
After all of this, after watching all of these films, I’m still not sure that what I encountered was a festival. Like with last autumn’s NYFF, I watched these movies in my living room between bouts of unrelated viewing, work, cooking, calls, distracted multi-tasking, and other such unremarkable bits and bobs of lockdown lifestyle. Sometimes there was an audience, as my wife occasionally got to experience a muffled, homebound echo of my usual festival experience—that is, back to back to back movies of unknown quality and source, and the varying frustrations and joys this can bring. It was a relief to share a movie even with one other person; after all, a collective experience only needs two. Ultimately, the streaming premieres put before me things from which I found inspiration, beauty, and delight. These days, that isn’t just enough—it’s something to be grateful for.