As was the case with Sundance, International Film Festival Rotterdam embraced the new virtual reality of film festivals in 2022. Offering a hybrid experience with plenty of in-person exclusives and taped press conferences or Q&As only available at times when those of us in the U.S. were likely sleeping, IFFR then made most of their heavy selection, “more than 570 feature, mid-length, and short films from almost 90 countries,” available to stream. IFFR’s breadth, as well as its timing squeezed between Sundance and Berlinale, makes for the chance to see a lot of weird and wonderful and destined-to-be-underseen stuff for the first time.
Still, themes and motifs and historic events carry across many of these films—diegetic drone shots, Christopher Columbus, VHS static and halo and 1980s pastiche, the documentary reenactment, homages to programming that typically occurred on Saturdays, the Cultural Revolution, the 4:3 aspect ratio. Exhausted by the plague, these are the things that occupy us now.
Of the more than 30 films I watched at IFFR 2022, these stayed with me longest:
A stomach-churning glimpse of mass resistance at the ground level, Chan Tze-woon’s follow-up to 2016’s Yellowing chronicles the sweeping Hong Kong protests kicked off in 2019 to oppose the Fugitive Offenders extradition bill, quickly expanding to comprise calls for independence in the face of brutal Chinese crackdowns. Far more than visceral documentation, Blue Island is, according to the director, a “desperate attempt to capture the final moments of a sinking island.” Integral to that are Chan’s reenactments of protest movements from three previous flashpoints on the island—1967, 1978 and 1989—casting the mostly young, college-aged activists leading prominent movements today, many who in the wake of the film are either still awaiting trial or serving long sentences for their protests. Likewise, Chan catches up with the people these current activists are playing, decades after they’ve moved on from political work, encouraging the older generations of activists to confront the vitality of the ideals they ostensibly left behind. In that abrasion, as generations rub up against one another, Blue Island becomes essential, a film that offers neither optimism nor pessimism about Hong Kong’s hopes, but a clear-eyed view of what resistance demands of its purest acolytes, and what resistance means for the rest of us.
Winner of the Tiger Competition’s top prize, Paraguayan director Paz Encina’s EAMI attempts to capture a disappearing way of life. Like in Emilia Mello’s recent No Kings, deforestation has devastated everything for a small indigenous community. Like Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi, EAMI tells of a dying culture through the grand, imagistic movements of myth, preserving the stories, sounds and sights of Paraguay’s Ayoreo-Totobiegosode people in celluloid. We’ve wandered past the point of no return, and now all we can do is document what’s left before it’s gone.
In voiceover, Eami (Anel Picaneri), a little Ayoreo-Totobiegosode girl, tells of the destruction of her village and her flight into the rainforest. With a talking lizard companion, she wanders as a transformed bird-god to collect any survivors from her people’s diaspora. “Eami,” we’re told immediately, means “forest” in Ayoreo, as well as “world,” all connected and symbiotic. Industrialization has obliterated everything they know. Amidst stentorian bird cackles and the drone of machines pulling the earth apart, Encina weaves in the testaments and recollections of surviving Ayoreo-Totobiegosode people, who tell of outsiders, the so-called coñone (“the insensitive”), mostly workers and migrants employed to violently displace locals. “Shall we all have to heal eternally?” Eami asks, wondering how deep trauma goes. A man answers, recalling his own village’s destruction: “If they kill us, best if they kill us all, so no one is left to regret it.” As we study Eami’s face in close up, Eami’s lizard reminds her of her responsibility, “Remember, we were the ones who lived here…In our eyes we keep all the landscapes.” Through lush soundscapes and prelapsarian dream logic, Encina attempts to do the same. It’s all anyone can do anymore.
It takes some time in Eles transportan a morte (They Carry Death) before you reach the image of Christopher Columbus’s severed head, his shocked expression covered in dirt and obscured in shadow. The three sailors (Xoán Reices, Valentín Estévez and David Pantaleón) who nearly trip over it, having abandoned Columbus’s crew in the Canary Islands and stolen one of Columbus’s ship’s sails, regard the remains of their decapitated once-captain with requisite horror: This is clearly a sign of death. More than that, it means that the former crewmates chasing the three thieving sailors have mutineed, and won’t stop at only retrieving the sail. That bodyless dome means death may be their only escape.
Meanwhile—or, at least, told in tandem—a younger woman falls face-first from a rocky cliff while her sister leads their donkey below, muttering as she struggles to push her sister’s lifeless back onto the pack animal that the two (Sara Ferro and Nuria Lestegás) should have never parted. Because now the elder must lug the younger’s broken corpse through the dense and unforgiving “Old World” to reach a healer who may be able to save the young woman who likely didn’t want to be saved at all.
Further psychedelic notions emerge and urge these stories to touch in less literal ways than the film’s conceit: The three men and the older sister carry symbols of death, the sail the reason for the sailors’ doom and the younger sister’s body a vessel for fleeting life. They measure their worlds and their era in toil. Directors Samuel M. Delgado and Helena Girón focus on the physical difficulty of what these protagonists do—swimming through a sail bound to drown you toward a surface that never seems to come, or heaving that same wrapped sail like a backpack up treacherous rocks, or trudging through impenetrable brush and forests to reach a crone in a hut. The irony is that the sail and the sister’s body hardly matter; giving back the sail won’t save the sailors from punishment, and bringing the young sister to the healer won’t renew the sister’s life. There is only exertion, bulk juttering through spacetime, propagating death by doubting it, disrespecting it. A severed head is exactly what it is, and nothing more: Probably heavier than it looks. And even They Carry Death reminds us that Christopher Columbus never had his head cut off in the Canary Islands anyway. He just went on to herald the slaughter of millions instead.
The subject of a whole section at IFFR, Amanda Kramer has two features premiering in 2022 (and at the festival), both rigorously aesthetic dissections of genre tropes and disposable culture, both exhausting. Where Please Baby Please gets a bit too talky in laying out its issues and proclivities—Andrea Riseborough’s performance an unhinged jambalaya of archetypes and lower jaw gymnastics, pressing Fire Marshall Bill into James Dean, or giving a go at being a Neville Brand-like noir-psycho heavy—Kramer’s Give Me Pity! is a much more concise, much more enjoyable autopsying of the same nostalgic detritus.
Sophie von Haselberg is Sissy St. Claire, an up-and-coming ingenue who’s finally made it: She’s scored her own Saturday prime time TV variety special, an exquisitely soft-focus showcase for dancing, singing and getting closer to her many fans. As Sissy fills every frame with a warm smile and increasingly disassociating eyes, extravagant musical numbers and silly sketches can’t distract her from the menace lurking just offstage, stalking behind key lights, a literal Shape and also perhaps a member of Slipknot in a lavender tuxedo. Kramer and cinematographer Patrick Meade Jones’s chosen VHS vision—staticy, smudged and halo’d—accommodates the unseen and unnerving, the 4:3 aspect ratio cramming us closer to Sissy’s deterioration the further her dream project spins into a nightmare. As it was bound to, Sissy’s oversaturated set falls apart and the audience continues to not notice how a family friendly night’s entertainment has devolved into lurid, neon giallo. At all times, Sissy’s life is in danger, von Haselberg inhabiting Cinema’s Hysterical Woman, writhing on stage for our sakes. This is what making it really demands. The sacrifice is deeply appreciated.
In Paul de Jong’s Met mes, the world is much too bright. So bright that teenagers use the sun (and some hand mirrors) as schoolyard weapons. So bright that Yousef (Shahine El-Hamus), one such tall teenager with a porcelain complexion and a head swarmed in tiny stringy braids, needs to get the perfect pair of sunglasses, both to defend himself and to represent his irrepressible style, no matter what. So bright that Met mes feels at odds with itself—drowning out reality in artificiality. In oversaturated colors, de Jong and cinematographer Emo Weemhoff portray an anachronistic Netherlands, live studio audiences forecasting emotional beats and eyeliner the stuff of Liquid Sky while technology wanders somewhere between digital and analog and, in some cases, alchemical. Medieval magic, but glowy. Even the pair of sunglasses Yousef craves are ludicrously shaped like skinny diamonds, talismans of the vaguely ’80s kitsch that only grows weirder and as Yousef’s situation worsens.
It worsens because of Eveline (Hadewych Minis), mostly, who meanwhile leaves her popular gig as a gameshow host to make hard-hitting, tear-jerking “documentaries” about the “social structure of [her] neighborhood.” Really, she just wants to feel like she’s doing something meaningful with her life, even if she has to emotionally manipulate passersby to do so, forcing their quotidians into Dateline-friendly episodes. As Eveline gracelessly documents the neighborhood on her “expensive” now-extremely-obsolete movie camera—in turn, the film’s English title is The Photo Camera—the more she struggles to capture anything compelling, even as her producer cautions her against exploiting the travails of everyday neighbors for emotional payoff. Inevitably, Yousef’s carnal desire for impossibly sharp sunglasses leads him to conspire in the theft of Eveline’s camera, affording her the opportunity for the drama she sought all along. (This altercation followed by a shot of Eveline stumbling frantically through the woods(?), wailing ridiculously realizing that her camera’s been stolen, that then tilts down to show a rotting log crawling with very audible bugs, as if Lars von Trier suddenly took over. It’s a good joke.)
Lots of good jokes, actually, and gloriously 79 minutes, attractive for those of us preternaturally bent to not tolerate shit like this. De Jong seems to intuit the bounds of our tolerance. He is pretty obviously taking a dig at true crime documentaries and the recent prestige rash of “reenactment” in the genre—making every documentary seem to be about itself more than anything—but what all could feel shallow, disparate, and grating he blesses with honesty and endless creativity and the tenet to never let anything take itself too seriously lest we risk underappreciating anyone’s pain.
Oba’s origin story begins with Christopher Columbus, who was (is?) a vampire, at least as Oba tells it to a social worker (Sarah Kerr) helping him renew his green card. Oba doesn’t detail Columbus’s fate, only that long ago when he washed ashore on Columbus’s so-called “New World” as an unconscious African slave lost at sea, the famed explorer bit Oba’s neck and made him immortal—except then Rastafarianism broke Columbus’s curse and Oba eventually moved to Brooklyn, where he now resides and smokes an exceptional amount of weed, which he says helps him. What it doesn’t help him do is successfully navigate the convoluted U.S. immigration system, especially as he ages and his health begins to dim the greyer his dreads grow. It’s possible that American life has wrinkled him irretrievably. One of three winners of the festival’s Ammodo Tiger Short Awards, Bayley Sweitzer and Adam Khalil’s Nosferasta: First Bite offers Oba the opportunity to purge that origin story from his bloodstream, recreating it with the transformative powers of cinema and weedthought. Then we follow him to a Rastafarian potluck in the park, where everything seems OK, despite the weight of centuries on his back. And we’re not sure if he ever gets that green card renewed either.
The earliest and biggest slug in the gut comes when, as director Claire Doyon describes the early stages of her and her partner accepting their daughter’s diagnosis of Rett syndrome—a genetic disorder causing the progressive loss of neurological and developmental function—one of the many doctors they see recommends, “in front of Pénélope,” that they begin to mourn their child. Grief in its many forms seems to consume Doyon’s voice-over throughout Pénélope mon amour as she tells the story of being Pénélope’s parent, devoting her life to “saving” her daughter’s. Grief over losing a childhood to wrongheaded procedures and false cures and medical violence, over missing some of the best years of her life to one undefined goal, over not having any time for herself, ever again. But rather than indulge in any self-pity, Pénélope mon amour mourns, with unassuming clarity, all the time Doyon’s wasted mourning anything at all.
In every place I’ve lived I’ve fostered a friendship forged during a car commute. These are strange but special bonds carpoolers share, vaguely shaped by chance, the common need to pass vast liminal distances while occupied enough to not lose one’s mind, occupation, and proximity of residences. Like David Easteal, director of The Plains, I’ve usually been the one to get the ride. In this role you share music, vent about work, vent about the meaninglessness of your life, vent about feeling unappreciated, muse about better lives, reminisce about better times, talk about news maybe, tease the limits of each other’s senses of humor, test the listlessness of each other’s values, occasionally stop for happy hour, and somehow that’s enough. You ask questions, and you listen. And in the vast flatness of everything around your incredibly small life, you marvel at how it’s come to be that you’ve spent seemingly so much time with a person only because you work in the same building, or for the same company. You wonder how two people can survive the merciless repetition of existence together. You give the driver your attention, buy them a beer if you can.
In The Plains, Easteal charts that specific relationship developed in that specifically confined and blandly modern space. Over three hours, our perspective very rarely moves from the backseat of a Hyundai—the car a deep-ish red, serving as a source of conversation confirmed by what we can see of the side mirrors—steeped in weekday Melbourne evening traffic, facing and fixed forward. The dashboard splits our view vertically, centered by a console displaying either a radio station or, more usually, the time, and flanked by the shoulders, cheeks, ears, sideburns and occasional side profiles of our driver and the person to whom he’s offered a ride. From the first drive home, in which we join Andrew (Andrew Rakowski) leaving work, context emerges and patterns imprint themselves. The color of the sky, precipitation, what kind of jacket he wears, a phone call to his mother, then to his wife Cheri (Cheri Rakowski), then this on-ramp, then this sign, then this tunnel, the same no matter what continent, these are the markers for Andrew’s reality traversing, as we’re bound to do with him, the most thankless portions of his adult life. Soon, Andrew begins giving coworker David (director Easteal) a lift home, grafting new patterns and context over Andrew’s. Small talk dominates at first, but susurrant warmth lights between them as they fill the silence with increasingly tender exchanges—tender, maybe, because you can sense they care at all.
Easteal edits clips of Andrew’s drone videos between the long shots of his car commutes, yanking us from the cramped back of an economy-sized automobile to high above the coruscated expanse of the Australian outback, where Andrew owns a huge farm. All of this Andrew and David discuss, their longing for being anywhere but there dampered by the pleasant nature of their conversation, David getting glimpses of Andrew’s life through what he can browse on Andrew’s iPad. Love and death and escape come up, as well as the quality of suburban restaurants vs. City food or the percentage of red cars that occupy the road, their story together tending toward resolution only because David plans to leave his job. Otherwise, there’s little emotional catharsis in their journeys together; we never even get to see them reach their homes. Easteal seems to understand the necessity in moving on, and the power in remembering what remains. The Plains is a remarkable debut.
Splendid Isolation is a COVID movie, though that increasingly means less and less the more every movie released now wears shades of the constraints in which it’s made. The film, too, is about an unknown illness, the rules of which feel incomplete and only barely manageable as long as you boil your water and your life down to its essentials. But even during a time when most art could be about the chasms that separate us, Splendid Isolation feels fully alone.
A sad romance kissed with sci-fi, or an allegory for the omnipresence of death—or both, probably both—Urszula Antoniak’s sixth feature finds two women, the sickly Anna (Anneke Sluiters) and her caretaker Hannah (Khadija El Kharraz), as they slowly inhabit a seemingly abandoned, cleanly modern home on a deserted coast. Hannah occupies herself with the tasks of tending to Anna as the latter’s health mysteriously declines, changing sweat-drenched sheets and purifying water and scouting the landscape with a drone that acts the makeshift canine companion, floating dutifully behind. Hannah wears medical gloves but shares Anna’s air; they never talk about how they can’t touch, or what Anna’s afflictions actually entail, but as Anna’s illness drags on she begins to have feverish fantasies of Hannah quietly caressing her body, the outline of Hannah’s hands and shape hanging in the air. Maybe they were lovers before this. Inevitably, a third figure slinks between the couple, androgynous and arguably only visible to Anna. Death is like that now, intrusive and in every waking moment. Ghosts cling to those unanswered silences—loss is everywhere, a part of the atmosphere. Likewise, Antoniak wreathes their world in golden hour and the kind of blemishless vistas only the end of the world could afford. With editor Milenia Fiedler, she makes Splendid Isolation’s quiet, yawning gestures of intimacy feel both urgent and unrushed. The apocalypse as told through the tenderest of mise en scène.
Dom Sinacola is a Portland-based writer and editor. He’s also on Twitter.