As big as International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) has become in the last four decades, it has maintained an air of egalitarianism apparent in the festival’s flouting of the red carpet tradition, and a deep dedication to innovation and breadth in its support of outlying cineastes. Nestled between Sundance and the Berlinale, it’s the aberrant yet well-adjusted middle sibling, contented with its place in the film festival family. In celebration of turning 40, or XL, this year, Rotterdam offered many special additions to its traditionally sidebar-friendly avant-garde program: 40 site-specific installations and performances (which visitors were encouraged to visit via bicycle); Return of the Tiger—recent films by former Tiger Award candidates such as Kelly Reichardt and Hong Sang-soo; and an augmented Signals section, replete with Red Westerns and a sweeping selection of wuxia and kung fu films. The films below, representing the gamut of the festival’s sections, are indicative of the programming purview encountered at Rotterdam—from bizarre vignettes of a water buffalo riding vagrant, to a sci-fi doc about utopian islands—staunchly championing the auteurist vision.
Nathanial Dorsky (USA)
In one of the most comprehensive retrospectives of Nathaniel Dorsky’s work to date, the IFFR screened 16 of his 16mm films (silent with the exception of one early work) at his distinctive 18 frames per second. A repose from the bustling festival outside, Dorsky’s films recalibrate our approach to seeing, enabling us to witness not simply “objects in the world, but states of mind,” as we watch the movement of light, shadows, sand, and serendipitous flashes of the magical within the mundane. One of my favorite shots was taken through the blinds of a storefront window that looks out onto a street. While waiting at a crosswalk, a woman clasps her hands behind her back, and they line up perfectly with the bottom of the blinds. A moment later, another woman in front of her repeats this setup exactly—a perfect instant of un-choreographed unison. We see such simple moments unfold, one after another, and joyfully glean these tiny miracles—the result of Dorsky’s devotion to an engaged looking.
But this is only the beginning. In the case of many of his films, the footage he shot would sit in his closet for years, sometimes decades, before they (and he) were ready for the (in his terms) alchemy or transmutation to occur. The shots are composed to express what it means to be an existent, physical being—a perspective. This is true even of his work that’s composed of footage he didn’t shoot. Pneuma (1983) was born out of a fortuitous accident during a dark period in his life, when the unexposed portion of a roll of outdated film came back from the lab with its own graphic imagery. Through his synergistic approach to editing, Dorsky brings out the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the distorted film stock, by virtue of a carefully developed trust in his own hand as a maker, expressing not “meaning but meaningfulness.”
Naomi Kawase (Japan),
Return of the Tiger selection
Ostensibly about natural birthing, Genpin is an artful portrait of a community and a meditation on life, death, and the intertwining cycles of both. Obstetrician Yoshimura Tadashi has performed over 20,000 natural births in his clinic in a woodsy enclave of the city of Okazaki. Here, he trains mothers to work and use their bodies—chopping wood, cleaning the house, working the garden—instead of the typically recommended low-impact, coddled pregnancies. According to Yoshimura, modern lifestyles are the culprit of most abnormal births, and mothers don’t prepare themselves physically or emotionally for this significant endeavor. Kawase portrays Yoshimura as an old curmudgeonly sage who believes that death is an inevitable part of birth: “Because there is death, there is life, and to deny death you’d have to deny life.” For Yoshimura, to live within nature’s rules is to embrace life’s ongoing cycles. Kawase’s gentle and intimate approach draws out the strength of these women—who choose to take control over their bodies and this often mystified procedure—and the pride they feel in the power to give birth.
Ben Rivers (UK),
Tiger Short in Competition
When you create your own world you get to reinvent all the rules—new systems of measurement, metaphysical laws, epochs, histories, species—and appropriate all your favorite bits and pieces from this world. Informed by Darwin, Slow Action explores four fictional utopian island environments that have evolved in isolation due to an apocalyptic rising of the sea level. The silent prelude, a montage of old black and white photographs of innumerable ghostly faces, sets the tone of loss and of a time gone by. The 16mm Cinemascope-induced otherworldliness is immediately established in the opening shot of “Eleven.” Rivers implements admittedly crude movie magic tricks to create his sci-fi effects. Holographic geometric shapes float over a Mars-like landscape, and the dry, encyclopedic tone of the narration draws you into a kind of pedagogical trust. But as the elliptically uncredited information begins to flow, its poetic fragmentation becomes apparent, and thus begins a peculiar journey through Rivers’s microcosms. “Hiva,” or the “Society Islands,” is an archipelago where verdant leaves frame mounds of garbage and junk cars, through which wild boars and island inhabitants navigate their way. The soundtrack similarly layers nature and detritus—bird songs and distorted radio transmissions. The “distressed” footage pulls us further into the spiral of time warp. “Kanzennashima,” the Japanese coal-mining ghost town, recalls the documentation of another vacated island—Spinalonga, from Jean Daniel Pollet’s L’Ordre (1973). Lastly, Rivers’s hometown of Somerset has been depicted as an island, the forested terrain inhabited by mask-wearing, ritual-performing “natives.”
Like many sci-fi films, Slow Action throws us for an ontological loop, requiring us to question from what time and space we ourselves are observing these new worlds. But while other films usually tether us to characters and narratives through which this uncanniness is mitigated, Slow Action suggests that we ourselves are perhaps the sole survivors in a post-apocalyptic epoch who, happening upon a reel of archival, ethnographic, bio-geographic footage, are postured to tackle this one on our own.
Lotte Stoops (Belgium),
Bright Future selection
Although 2,600 inhabitants call the Grande Hotel their home, it’s an impermanent dwelling for most. Built in 1955 in Beira, Mozambique under Portuguese colonial fascism, the hotel was a luxury resort intended for opulent clientele. Its failure to turn a profit led to its closure in 1962. Since then, it has occasionally housed conferences and weddings, served as a prison during the Communist revolution of the ’70s, and eventually evolved into its current-day incarnation—a squat.
Grande Hotel weaves together the historical and personal layers of this architectural palimpsest, carefully evoking a sense of the building’s continued transformation through a juxtaposition of archival images and Lotte Stoops’s own footage: a photograph of the grandiose Olympic-sized pool, the first in Africa, cuts to the murky waters of a cement “beach.” The low water-level and gradation of the pool floor simulate the slope of the shoreline where women wash their clothes and themselves, and their children play. Stoops is interested in what this place has meant to people, and how these individuals’ stories unearth the history of Mozambique’s complicated past. Several of the current inhabitants are key figures who give us a tour of their makeshift homes, sharing their stories and their way of life. As “voices of the past,” the former Portuguese residents of Beira nostalgically reflect on life there in its heyday, before the Communist uprising displaced them. Their stories are told over adagio pans across the edifice in its current state, a dilapidated structure washed in the dark grey stains of neglect, pilferage, and decay.
Sivaroj Kongsakul (Thailand),
Tiger Award Winner
In a pastoral Thai landscape, calm and sweeping, contiguous with the mountains and a single dirt road, we follow the meanderings of a figure on a motorbike, depicted with meditative patience. Without knowing it, we have been positioned to observe parental mourning from this oblique distance. A man approaches a traditional Thai farmhouse, and he is crying. After this overture of despair, we then enter the next and most substantial section of the film in which Wit, who sells insurance in Bangkok, brings his new bride, Koi, home to his humble family farm for a holiday. The atmosphere is palpable through subtle textures—the dark rough wood of the interiors, the prevalent dust from dirt roads, the quiet, casual chatter of an intimate family, the incessant hum of summer insects—you can almost feel the humidity seeping through the screen. In long, placid scenes Wit and Koi hang out and talk as naturally and lethargically as any couple on vacation—swinging in the hammock, bathing in the pond, sauntering through an outdoor temple. The final movement focuses on a mother and her two children, and we infer that this is Koi years after Wit has passed away. The elliptical treatment of ghosts, life, afterlife, and spirituality, as pertaining to the commoner, has a precedence in experimental Thai narratives, but Sivaroj succeeds in carving a distinct tone and approach to the content, however gently. Eternity is more grounded in the mundane, without any of the fantastical leaps we often get from Apichatpong. Time is vague, yet maintains linearity, and the long open shots patiently carve space for the presence of an incorporeal being whose sign of existence—a lamp briefly turning on in a dim room—may go unnoticed if you aren’t paying attention.
THE ONE AND ONLY CONCERT OF THE AMAZING KOMMANDER KULAS AND HIS POOR CARABAO IN THE LONG AND UNWINDING ROAD OF KAMIAS
Khavn De La Cruz (Philippines), Spectrum selection
Once again we start down a road, but this time it is not only “long and unwinding,” it is undoubtedly bizarre. The film unravels almost like an illustrated storybook, with images accompanied by poems read aloud or old recordings of Filipino pop songs. The film has no diegetic speech, and establishes a rather formulaic pattern in its exhaustively thorough opening credits, which inform us of who does what in each of the 12 vignettes that follow. The poems often suggest images (“a typewriter floating in the flood with all the other typewriters that cannot swim”) that are more illustrative and compelling than those we actually see: an obese woman defecating into a small bowl in what looks like a cement cell, or a man clad only in stockings and a bra making out with a decapitated pig’s head. Outré, indeed. De La Cruz repeatedly cuts to an image of a baby grand piano made out of plywood, always in a different location—usually a street or parking lot—every time we return to it. It is even on fire once, but in its next appearance, is completely intact. And then there is the image of Kommander Kulas, a vagrant who looks like a peasant farmer-cum-’80s rapper, riding a water buffalo through bucolic Filipino greenery. We are told in the beginning that we don’t have to wait until the last scene to witness the last word, but there it is—Kommander Kulas splayed out on the forest floor with his trusty carabao kneeling beside him.