Shake Ups and Discoveries: IFFR 2021
If my experience attending the International Film Festival Rotterdam in person last year is a valid indicator, it is a true discovery festival. Unlike Cannes, where the competition is full of the biggest names in arthouse film, or Toronto and Sundance, where distribution and hype tend to precede screenings, the best premieres are largely unknown going in and propelled by word-of-mouth. The festival, with its navigability and its spacious theater lounges, as well as its courting of younger critics (full disclosure: I was among them, attending last year at the invitation of the festival), is built to facilitate that discussion and discovery. This has long been treated as a double-edged sword: on the one hand, “highlights” haven’t been predetermined; on the other, several hundred films, plus installations and talks, means that gems likely remain unearthed. One of the primary duties of the new Festival Director Vanja Kaludjercic, formerly Director of Acquisitions at MUBI, is finding a way to mitigate the pains of the latter without sacrificing the pleasures of the former.
I mention this because every festival is currently undergoing something of an identity crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has largely resulted in the suspension of in-person film festivals. Cannes announced an honorary lineup but never screened a film; Toronto, New York, and Sundance all found success with online screenings with viewing windows of varying lengths, prompting important questions among critics and attendees about traditional limits on access and the often divergent desires of some filmmakers and sellers on the one hand (to premiere a film at a major festival and attain some traditional form of distribution) and audiences on the other (to actually be able to watch exciting contemporary cinema).
For these and other reasons, speculation about the state of the industry is rampant, with every data point serving as tempting but ultimately insufficient grounds for extrapolation. Much easier is to discuss the actual films being screened, and I am happy to report that the compacted IFFR, featuring just 43 features and 22 short and mid-length films, handled these challenges very well (another week of programming is slated for an in-person event the first week of June), even if no one festival report can adequately address the highlights, let alone the whole slate.
The winner of Rotterdam’s marquee slate, the Tiger Competition, was P.S. Vinothraj’s Pebbles. It begins with a drunken man pulling his son out of school to track down his wife, who has fled his violent tendencies. It wisely forgoes exposition, offering instead an array of glimpses into other lives that provide a social context for its story. While much of its plot, such as its long walks through the desert — father in front, child trailing some ways behind with a rock in his mouth or a piece of glass in his hand to reflect the sun onto his father’s bare back — might normally lend themselves to more mythopoetic interpretations, we also see in the absent mother’s community women hard at work catching and cooking rats as their husbands, troublesome if not abusive, laze about; we see jugs of water not as symbols of life but as the material to sustain it. In the film’s best moment, a pair on a motorbike lightly berates the father for making the son walk miles back to their village (they visited the mother by bus, but the child tore up the bus money after the father blamed him for their misfortune). They take the son back, but their involvement ends there, signifying not a “struggle” between the abusive, patriarchal father and the communal, even matriarchal living that he invades, but their uneasy coexistence.
Where Pebbles is at its best highlighting contrasts, Marta Popivoda’s Landscape of Resistance thrives on understated comparisons, namely between the fascism sweeping through Europe today, particularly in Popivoda’s native Serbia (and other ex-Yugoslavian countries), and that of World War II. The comparisons are only foregrounded in title cards at the end of the film, but the detailed and harrowing testimony of Sonja, both a partisan who led the resistance against Germany and an Auschwitz survivor, is presented without any archival material. Instead, carefully composed close-ups of buildings, fields, walls, and other mundane things fade from one to another. “Fade” is the key word here: elements, textures, and depth within one shot remain unchanged even as the actual landscape changes, providing a remarkable sense of continuity. The aural history charges these images with historic significance, while their contemporaneity reminds us that the past is never dead, nor even past.
But perhaps the most aesthetically striking film I saw was Renata Litvinova’s The North Wind, whose name some may recognize from her acting and screenwriting credits in films by Kira Muratova (to whom The North Wind is dedicated) or from her 2004 film The Goddess. The film, adapted from her own play, the hit of the Moscow Art Theatre’s autumn 2018 season, takes place almost entirely on a single set — a Siberian mansion — but Litvinova is always finding new ways to frame the action, and the production design and cinematography is not only extravagant but precise. The film depicts a series of New Year’s Eve celebrations, beginning with one where a son of the family matriarch introduces his new wife, a flight attendant, to the family. She soon dies in a plane crash, and her widower marries her sister and the family, in the ensuing years, sees its influence wane. Litvinova has Muratova’s humor and storytelling instincts, and the result is equal parts tragic, satirical, and absurd, even as she relies on a phantasmagoric mise-en-scène rather than Muratova’s sharp editing.
These and other films (to name just a couple that I couldn’t squeeze in, Daïchi Saïto’s “earthearthearth” and Taiki Sakpisit’s debut feature The Edge of Daybreak) would be worthy of notice in any year, not just one marked by diminished slates and halted productions. If one should be hesitant to draw too many conclusions about either a festival or the state of cinema at a time when it has been subsumed entirely to social, political, and economic pressures (even in countries where this has long been true, COVID-19 poses significant additional challenges), we can evaluate the films themselves with the same confidence and attentiveness as always. The state of both cinema and the world is in flux, but the solace a good film provides remains unchanged.
Top image: Renata Litvinova’s The North Wind
A virtual iteration of the 2021 International Film Festival Rotterdam took place between February 1 and 7. An in-theater edition will take place between June 2 and 6.