The ebbs and flows of what was planned to be a glorious 50th anniversary of the International Film Festival Rotterdam were ingrained throughout this year’s program. Like many anniversaries celebrated behind closed doors, the festival made it a virtue to move away from fanfare to focus on instead offering a sense of depth in times where the spatiality of the cinematic experience is imagined at best through a wall of 2D images on our home screens. Rotterdam’s selection seemed almost slender compared to previous editions, though we will have to revisit this notion when its physical sequel, Rotterdam Part II, takes place in June with outdoor presentations and screenings in cinemas throughout the country to mark this semicentennial properly. However, unlike many other festivals opting to toss films into a pool of sameness replete of curatorial context, leaving them wobbling like nondescript buoys in a choppy sea, IFFR’s curated precision was kept intact to expose the hidden threads that constitute the festival’s distinct relevance as a harbor for innovative moving image work.
Nowhere are inner workings more astutely displayed than in Tim Leyendekker’s debut feature Feast (2021). Here, Leyendekker examines the crime commited at multiple sex parties in Groningen, Netherlands that came to the surface in 2007 when three men deliberately drugged and injected numerous other men with HIV-infected blood. The parallels to Frédéric Beigbeder’s 2000 novel 99 Francs are striking: There, the protagonist Octave Parango checks into rehab at a detox clinic. His upstairs neighbor, a self-proclaimed “sidophile,” describes his ploy with an accomplice suffering from AIDS to have unprotected sex with women who were likewise unaware that they were being filmed during the act. He boasts of the immense sexual arousal he gained from the shock and terror he witnessed in the eyes of the women when they later discovered that they were HIV positive.
While Beigbeder’s critique on the decadence of consumerism oozes pop cultural bravado, Leyendekker’s interest lies in the quieter explorations of the facts and traces of the crime in focus here. In the first scene, an officer empties a stack of boxes placed next to her filled with items belonging to a yet unknown person. Compact disks, sex toys, 3.5kg of pink ectasy pills, cans of beer. A love letter stating “you were in me,” signed with the name Hans. Another letter, in which Hans confesses to the crime. She registers the objects calmly and lays them out on a table in front of her. By and by, we witness the mapping of a story displayed through possessions, drawing in on the events we are soon to learn more about.
We venture into what seems to be a reenactment: partners in crime Peter, Hans, and Wim are sitting in the living room, recounting a conversation that may or may not have happened. Inspired by Plato’s Symposium, the opinions oscillate between hunger and thirst, desire and pain, and they debate what is love and beauty. Similar to their ancient predecessors, these men’s discussions are inconclusive, but they gesture toward the motives of the perpetrators. Then, the same actors, now playing a psychologist, a lawyer, and a policeman, analyze the scene in front of them having watched themselves through the glass window of a control room. This mirroring between the observers and the observed creates a layer of reflection and weaves a metatextual web between appearance and reality.
In the following scene the real-life Hans gives his own account of the crime. We listen to his voice while the camera follows a tight closeup of human skin, the grainy, coarsely pixelated images alluding to the mingling of bodily flesh. Yet Hans’s own body is kept anonymous. He renders himself as victim and perpetrator, having been seduced by Peter and Wim to offer his infected blood to be transferred to the unconscious party members. For contrast, we visit Peter’s house next. His memory of the events is equally revealing, but in the opposite sense. He assures the spectator that the evenings were consensual and the accusations were untrue. While speaking, Peter’s head is redacted with a computer-generated black veil. In due course the shadow mask loses its opacity and progressively his face becomes more visible, raising the question if this sequence was real or staged. Through these interchanging, disparate angles on the crime, Feast not only interrogates what is factual and fictional, but urges its viewers to critically scrutinize the images presented.
Later, the chilling charm of an infection, of getting closer to the Other by incorporating a part of the Other into oneself is examined in a haunting scene with a behind-the-camera Leyendekker talking to a microbiologist about the transmission of viruses in plants. When a plant gets infected, the virus triggers the communication of volatile chemicals within it to heal and generates a sense of being alive and bonding for the plant. The scientist sees it as “a very special gift … then you have someone always with you,” while injecting a virus into a tulip. By applying different genres and visual aesthetics Feast allows for a more intimate engagement with the morals of a problematic case. Leyendekker’s use of seven cinematographers amid his visual investigation is cunning: from a TV studio to tripod-fixed outdoor shots to handheld camera and back again. Feast negotiates the “real” alongside the fictional neither to mislead nor to take sides but to encourage the viewer to look closely at the delicate links between the actual events and the speculative images they inspire.
A multisensory experience screening in the Tiger Shorts programme is Daïchi Saïto’s earthearthearth (2021). Filmed on 35mm in the Chilean and Argentinian Andes, Saïto’s half-hour-long work seeks to break down the impenetrable and static nature of a mountainscape. Abandoning a natural representation of spectacular wide-angle photogenic images, he is more concerned with bringing out the hidden visceral textures of the landmass. By using a telephoto lens he eliminates depth in order to cloud the common relation between foreground and background. Therewith he peels away the layers of land and geological sedimentation and engages with notions of absence and extinction. Horizontally, dividing lines such as mountain ridges and horizons cut through the frame. Through superimpositions, surfaces melt into each other and animate the landscape. Kryptonite greens appear on the plain, while wood print-like textures of light blues are set against a copper brown sky, drawing similarities to Peter Schmidt’s painterly cover art on Robert Fripp & Brian Eno’s 1975 album Evening Star.
The images are absolutely fluid, without a hint of rigidity nor stasis. For earthearthearth, Saïto used optical and contact printing techniques to manipulate different film stocks. A prominent feature is the solarization effect, which yields an image that rests between negative and positive and supports strong contours and outlines, as well as uneven textures and unstable colors. The handmade and time-consuming traces of reworking the material are visible on the surface of the film, evoking its haptic nature and skin-like emulsion. The images are in a constant process of disappearing or morphing into something new and at the same time suggest the fragility of the analogue medium. These corporeal implications also become apparent through the film’s soundtrack: Montréal composer Jason Sharp’s bass sax drone has the urgency of a booming foghorn echoing on a plain via synthesized feedback loops. Using his heartbeat and circular breathing technique—and amplifying his breath through medical equipment—his improvisations add to the bodily experience of the images and reinforce their living quality.