These days, as cinematic ingenuity strains to get screened in theaters, and perhaps even more so onto streaming services, film festivals are providing a most welcome ray of hope. In the film industry, many are continuing to struggle to work; many to get work made; and those lucky ones who’ve passed these hurdles, to see their work released and seen by audiences. The continued existence of a festival, despite the tremendous encumbrances of pandemic disruption and mostly undiscussed financial precarity, serves as a crucial vector of sustenance: Movies are being made; moreover they’re being shown and being seen. Even better: movies are great.
That, anyway, was my take away from the second virtual International Film Festival Rotterdam, an event that had to be brought online—with one summertime in-person event for locals last June—twice already. Its most recent edition shifted virtually precariously close to its January event, which meant yet again another highly constricted, and likely highly compromised program: A full suite of competitors for its Tiger Awards, yes, but little of the normal, expanded program’s usual range of countries, eras, genres, and formats. There was also a bizarre and rather confusing disparity between the program that was available to the press and industry folks, and that which was available online to local audiences. Even so, like last year, Rotterdam was strong.
After the mindful commerciality of Sundance, whose January timing nips at Rotterdam’s heels and steals some of its thunder (and the presence of many American movies), a Sundance where it felt like every other film was a creature half conceived by filmmakers and half conceived by a market, Paz Encina’s EAMI, the Paraguayan director’s third feature and the winner of this year’s Tiger competition, was like a slap in the face, a bracing confrontation with the world. A film of extraordinary power and risk, akin to the cinema of excavation and resilience of Pedro Costa and Wang Bing, EAMI comes from and is devoted to the nomadic Indigenous Ayoreo-Totobiegosode people, whose myths and histories are intertwined into what seems, to my eyes, an inextricable mixture of documentary, fiction, fable, and ethnography. Rather than force its message through a standard format, this is a film that uses the blurred boundaries of storytelling to evoke loss and accusation, as well as to prioritize the sharp, unique sounds of forest bird calls and the faces of its people, and spend time lamenting with its young heroine the death of a childhood friend.
“Remember Eami, as we won’t be able to come back,” the titular girl is told by her guide, a man who is also a lizard, “if we leave we can’t come back.” Narrated mostly by Eami within an incredible auditory mix among the landscape’s sounds and factual interviews and voices telling of Ayoreo myths, the girl wanders through a forest and swampland that veers between verdant and decaying, hosting and embodying the precarious existence of her people and their stories. We hear of legends of flora and fauna, as well as firm facts, like tales of outsiders—specifically, Mennonite incursions—fires and exiles. “Do wounds ever heal?” asks an elder. “Can a coñón”—an outsider—”move our spirit from its place?” One photograph, edited into the proceedings, shocks to ground the tone of a magical fable into something real and tangible. Are we watching someone live their life, relive their people’s history, reenact the past, embody old stories, or reconstitute living memory? The girl’s passage through the forest, as in Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman, feel akin to time travel, here an evocation of the nomadic existence of her people whose land overlaps what is now Paraguay and Bolivia, and of the living fluidity between tribal stories, recent history, and the present. To this outsider, the true nature of the story, its perspective, and the heart of its transmission—all told in the Ayoreo language—seemed frequently inaccessible on first viewing, but felt all the more necessary because of it. The filmmaking is there to keep us in hand through this intimate transmission: the complete decisiveness of the editing, the spare yet confident framing, the implacable patience and discreet compassion of the collaboration and storytelling. The camera becomes a weapon for memory and representation. Such is a work of resistant cinema, fighting back to claim space for those and their stories that have little graced screens big or small.
Another kind of reimagined history, of a more delightful register, could be found in the festival’s exuberant opening film, Amanda Kramer’s Please Baby Please. Pulling with gleeful fun from West Side Story and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it tells a story of 1950s urban bohemia, gendered sexual awakening, and biker gangs. This hip and horny material is distilled through Technicolor pop, witty dialog, a bravura performance from Andrea Riseborough, and an indelible cameo by Demi Moore, as a woman with many new appliances and little respect for marital fidelity. Riseborough and her nebbish hipster husband, played by Harry Melling, witness a couple’s beating by a wandering leather-clad gang, lithely prowling around the film’s backlot—shot in Montana of all places—like extras from The Wild One, Grease, and Querelle. The occurrence shocks the husband, transfixed by the hottest of the gang (Karl Glusman, the star of Gaspar Noé’s Love) into realizing he’s not the man he’s long thought he has failed to be—that there are other paths to identity and satisfaction. Riseborough’s questioning of the needs of her womanly, wifely, and heterosexual role isn’t quite as clear-cut, but Kramer’s exquisite alternate-world universe—the film feels like it is remixing the American indie ‘90s as much as it is the cinema of the late ‘50s, and is part of a festival focus on the filmmaker—is utterly winning in its arch, genderqueer stylization, at once delivered with a sly wink and unabashed sincerity.
Similar virtuosity could be found in Rahat Mahajan’s sweeping debut, The Cloud Messenger, in which a boarding school romance crosses wires with a mythical story of separation, death, and a quest for recovery. Pitching in on half the production credits (writing, directing, co-photographing, co-editing), Mahajan ennobles a high school drama of teenage isolation, unhappiness, and mismatched love interests and recasts such a story as they actually are felt: all-consuming, world-defining. The boy-rescues-girl archetype here may be worn to dust at this point and stretched a bit too far, but Mahajan rejuvenates the cliché by making this no mere high school drama, but a cosmic saga of a fight against fate, a small human tale writ large against a landscape literally imprinted by a god’s foot-print. Here, at this boarding school in the mountains, mythical figures in eye-popping costumes cross-bleed into real spaces to sing of reincarnation and destiny, and one feels wrapped up not in the quotidian existence of school routine, but in the life-changing struggles happening outside of class, glimpsed in the hallway, unseen by other students and treated with skepticism by all adults. A photography professor of rare sensitivity tries to impart lessons of patience, receptivity, and shared artistry, while the couple get sucked farther away from the classroom and deeper into the calling of the cosmos. As the film goes along, and more and more myth takes over the lives of its boy (Ritvik Tyagi) and girl (Shalya Shetty), the film increasingly moves away from drama, takes on an oneiric quality bending time and space, whirling through the romantic crush, the fear of rejection, the tentative connection, and the realization of being subsumed into a battle with gods. In the hands of Mahajan’s sumptuous, impressively styled film, school and teenagehood becomes a liminal place of gestation and eventual embodiment to a higher calling, ideals to chase and achieve.
Cinema’s capacity to reimagine the world before the camera as a terrain for reclamation and new possibilities continued in the Tiger competition with Le rêve et la radio (The Dream and the Radio), a totally unique and artisanal concoction from Quebec filmmakers Renaud Després-Larose and Ana Tapia Rousiouk. Opening with a rich Godardian frenzy of color-saturated, superimposed imagery and dense poetic voiceover, it moves on to recount a story of an artist couple (Després-Larose and Rousiouk themselves), who write and make political sound art and become consumed by a need for poetic revolution. Inspired by a itinerant friend, who sleeps on the streets and protests regularly, after she becomes obsessed by a radical activist, the couple seek not a practical or doctrinal revolution against capitalist society, but something more abstract and poetic: A way of living differently in the world, and making a change through creation and gestures. A thicket of quotations—sources cited at the end, à la Godard’s The Image Book—fuel their dialog and thought, and the imagery has that wonderful hazy, stained-glass digital quality inspired by cheap flats consciously lit by candlelight. The spare but beautiful mise-en-scène dreamily evokes an imagined artist’s existence of love, creation, abstruse political debate, and the urge and frustration of trying to change a world that seems to exist on another plane of reality from an artist’s life. Some may laugh at the idea of a poetic revolution, but it is argued here with such passion and filmic imagination, it is hard not to wish these artists success. An idiosyncratic, risky, not infrequently self-absorbed but frequently beautiful film, it is an admirable cri du coeur.
If the youths of Le rêve et la radio seek to change the world for the better, it reflects a more hopeful generational stance than could be found in Every Week Seven Days, a Czechoslovkian New Wave from 1964 directed by Eduard Grečner. It is programmed in the Cinema Regained section devoted to film history that is usually a major stand-out at Rotterdam but has been knee-capped for the second year by the move to a virtual festival. In the move to digital presentations, it is film history rather than new cinema that suffers most. Nevertheless, this new restoration enables it to be streamed, and thus discovered remotely for those like myself who aren’t familiar with the work. And it is well-worth discovering: A portrait of a cluster of college students raised in the shadow of Hiroshima, through a mixture of cinematic modernism familiar to anyone watching contemporaneous Godard or Teshigahara films, it evokes a postwar anguish and existential waywardness of 1960s youths trying to find vocation, romance, and meaning in a world presenting very few obvious answers. Wonderful camerawork, impressively dispersed attention to both the young men (who are the leads) and the women (who are whole characters of full agency), and adventurous excursions into freeze-frames, scientific voiceover, and experimental bleating music make for a sensitive yet frequently surprising viewing. As the debut film by Grečner, who made few films, it is all the more remarkable, and points to a figure well-worth pursuing.
Grečner’s first movie, made in a socialist Czechoslovakia before the Prague Spring, would also make a bold double feature with Martine Syms’s brassy, colorful, and exasperated debut, The African Desperate, which premiered in the Bright Future section and is another rare and stand-out American film at Rotterdam. Like Every Week Seven Days, it is also about college-age artists, but set in a small American liberal arts college. After facing down a pretentious and condescending academic committee, Bard College student Palace (Diamond Stingily) is granted her MFA and in the subsequent empty hours traces a distinctly 21st century and American kind of aimlessness, filled with bouts of anger, distended relaxation, depressed apathy, accidental drug usage, friendships, rivalries, and fitful flirtation. If Grečner’s students were concerned with how to find meaning in a youth leaving the generation-defining Second War War in the rearview mirror and shadowed by the constant reminder of nuclear annihilation, Syms’s less ambitious but more intimate and emphatic portrait is of a young artist of color whose life, let alone subsistence, outside the confines of a rural liberal arts is a gaping void with little to suggest stability and happiness. Little, that is, beyond Palace’s stalwart perseverance through all these modes of distress and doubt, and a body of work we don’t see much of but about which she elicits complete confidence. The performance by Stingily, who is an artist herself, is particularly daring, bobbing and weaving Palace between an alienated and worried experience and a chummy one as she wanders between her profs and her peers, from casual racism to warm camaraderie, lurking nothingness and unanswered questions to last-ditch, no-tomorrows fun. It ends before we know what will happen to Palace beyond an assurance that she has the gall and bravura to survive, though in what state of fulfillment is anyone’s guess.
The Tiger competition gained some needed levity and playfulness from Excess Will Save Us, Morgane Dziurla-Petit’s weird documentary-fiction hybrid featuring her family mixed with actors in the northern French region home to many a Bruno Dumont film, and what happens after she makes a successful short film about them. Charmingly rough around the edges and willing to take risks, to observe and to stage, to be funny and to be political, it calls to mind the wry, grounded cinema of Luc Moullet. Other highlights include A Child, a film as polished as Excess Will Save Us is tousled. Marguerite de Hillerin and Félix Dutilloy-Liégeois’s debut is an impeccably directed adaptation of a Kleist drama of family legacy, romance, and finances elegantly transposed to 16th century Portugal. In dappled sunlight around a country estate and monastery, romance and prosperity seem possible, yet secrets and prejudices abound behind the elegant surfaces. This duo are filmmakers to follow.
Finally, a resoundingly tremendous yet bizarre experience was watching Gaëlle Rouard’s two astonishing Darkness, Darkness, Burning Bright shorts, Prelude and Oraison. Their compromised virtual presentation made one all the more aware of the missing auditorium experience: as hand-processed 16mm projections, the stream seemed to be of a recorded live projection of the film rather than a digital scan. Accompanying notes to the stream entreated the viewer to be aware the films should be watched projected on celluloid. It speaks to the power of Rouard’s films that they nevertheless achieved an enthralling immersion into countryside verdure and animal life in various states of colorful luminosity and visited upon by cosmic rays. Such artist works on film usually feel distinctly handmade, and two long works (in total, it’s nearly feature length, but goes by in a flash) using extensive analog techniques even more so. But in watching a record of a past projection, the experience was somehow even more precious, like someone sharing an intimate staging or personal secret for your home. It was remarkable how such a piece of cinema clearly was wrought through these most labor-intensive, painstaking means, yet achieved such effortless, sensitive results. There is no doubt that neither Rotterdam nor the artist wanted to show this work in this way, and yet its power transcends these limitations and makes a cinema of wherever it is shown.