On his early evening drive home from work (he leaves just after 5pm every day), Andrew Rakowski, the Melbourne lawyer who serves as protagonist in David Easteal’s The Plains, remarks, “No safety lanes anymore.” He is driving along the Monash Freeway, from the south-eastern suburbs towards Eastlink. His statement is plain. It is also indicative of the unstoppable expansion of Melbourne, which has already hit the peninsula and has little to no place left to go. It refers to his personal journey, too: at work, and as the son of an elderly mother with dementia, who lives in Adelaide. Steady but slow-moving traffic towards the city, and an epic tailback outbound, aren’t images that you often see in Australian cinema which, for international appeal, prefers to focus on the country’s vast empty spaces and long open roads. But here, Melbourne is seen and understood as a congested arterial road, and one that has had its safety lanes removed. There quite simply is not enough space. There is only blockage, and no contingency: Andrew (and the viewer, thanks to the affixed camera in the backseat) must sit with it. 

This is possibly the most authentic I’ve ever seen Australia depicted onscreen. For all of the marvellous images of the country I have watched throughout my life, this is the one that most resembles my personal experience. Though I don’t know exactly how many cumulative hours I have spent on that particular stretch of road, I know it is significant, and strangely profound. Especially now, as I sit, again, in the so-called ‘comfort’ of my own home, in England, watching and writing about films, nowhere near what we once understood as a film festival. 

Having attended IFFR at home in 2021, I was excited to return to the physical festival in 2022. Alas, Omicron had other plans. Sat on my sofa, still homesick for Melbourne, Easteal’s film, which is extraordinary for its slow and deliberate pacing, invited me to reflect deeply on space and progression – two things that lockdowns and other impacts of the pandemic have already brought into sharper focus. 

The Plains

Paced to feel like both a steady progression and a continuous attempt, The Plains stitches together several of Rakowski’s post-work homewards bound journeys. En route, he usually phones his wife Cheri and his elderly mother, sometimes listens to the radio, or chats with his colleague David (Easteal), whom he sometimes gives a lift home. Starting with the camera in an empty car, Easteal focuses on the act of ‘setting off’ for the first maybe third of the film. Then, he cuts so that we move later and further into the drive – personal and narrative revelations about Rakowski deepening as we go. On the first day, for instance, we only get a short way down the road, and it isn’t until almost a full hour in that Rakowski – who has casually referred to the Monash as a ‘freeway’, signalling his age and experience in driving that road (which was once free) – finally hits the tollway, his Etag (electronic tag) beeping as the fee is paid. It is just under another half hour before he hits the Burnley tunnel, which coincides with his personal revelations about various problems, including how his wife Cheri’s mum’s dementia differs from his own. 

When we finally see Melbourne CBD (central business district), we have also heard snippets about coal supply, mining, car industry, climate change, property development, offshore processing and ‘community’ via SBS and ABC radio. The socio-political hangs around in the film like a city smog. Rakowski, when he does talk about work, says things like, “Work’s good – gives you focus, takes your mind off other stuff,” and “I mean, we all know the reasons why we work. It’s the social interaction, as much as anything else. Or the desire to do something vaguely worthwhile.” The reality of Melbourne as presented in Easteal’s film, though Rakowski tries to inch forwards in an upstream direction, is paradoxically all about alienation – spatial, capitalist, and personal. “Maybe,” he says, “we just live in an anxious world. Maybe everyone suffers from one anxiety or another.”

IFFR ‘Drinks’

IFFR has, for me, since I first started attending in 2015, been about the physical, spatial, human, cerebral and personal interactions. And though I live in England, it is not lost on me that Melbourne had some of the strictest (and many) lockdowns anywhere in the world. Psychologically still a Melburnian, and as anxious as Rakowski imagines us all to be, I’ve lived mostly in lockdown during this time, too. As such, last year, I managed a ‘social’ Zoom, where fellow critics and IFFR-made friends and I ate dinner ‘together’ chatting about what we had watched on the online viewing platform and just generally exchanging ideas. This year, enthusiasm for Zoom has severely waned. Instead, I joined one of the festival’s online drinks ‘events’ and, bemused, watched as the circular avatars on my screen moved around, as if I were a scientist staring down a microscope at amoeba. 

The distance I felt, to the festival, to home, has been even more immense this second time around. So much so that each film I watched felt like another act of cultural social vandalism. As if sitting on my sofa and seeing the Tiger appear on my TV were a performative and depressed, punk act in defiance of social and cultural exchange. The inferior quality of my home sound set up aside, it felt like a somehow fitting environment in which to watch Amanda Kramer’s heavily stylised and disaffecting films, which just so happen to be, amongst other things, all about alienation. 

Give Me Pity!

Kramer was a Filmmaker in Focus among this year’s online offering, her four features and four shorts bringing both brand new and older work from the musician and filmmaker to light. The overall effect was like a “soft, smoky blue-red haze of sex and gender pastiche, with a discursive edge of identity politics across film history.” Or at least that’s what I wrote on Twitter. And, in an age where experience and interaction has, largely, moved online, I can only assume that this stands as my so-called authentic, and presumedly affected response (not least because it exists as a form of published documentation of my – albeit alienated – thoughts).

I’m struck by the fact that I made a lot of notes when watching Kramer’s intelligent, satirical and creatively staged films, and yet most of her work left me cold. Give Me Pity! (2022), where Sissy St Claire (Sophie von Haselberg) hosts her own television special, is a sort of one-woman variety show with sequins, canned laughter, throwbacks to the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, but with a post-2000s sense of irony about the intersection of spectacle, media and gender politics. When asked, “Who do you consider to be our biggest competition?” Sissy responds at first with, “Me, myself,” the appropriately self-deprecating (and audience pleasing) response. But she later adds, “Women. All women. Each and every woman has something I want but do anything to have.” Questioning the extent to which spectacle incites a Lacanian lack (a wry critical nod amongst the many reflective surfaces in the film from the saturated lighting hitting Sissy’s shiny outfits to literal mirrors and mirror balls), Kramer’s film highlights home entertainment as a form of pre-internet, pre-social media doom scrolling. Much like the way TikTok and Instagram offer a variety of reels, that you may or may not ‘like’, Sissy’s television special moves between the high-gloss performativity of her ‘performances’ and her carefully constructed, but also highly performed (and ultimately lonely, alienated) authentic self.

Please Baby Please

Both Give Me Pity! And Please Baby Please (2022) were international premieres at the fest, with (presumably limited) future releases planned for the UK and US. Of the two, Please Baby Please is more likely to garner attention as its cast boasts Andrea Riseborough and Demi Moore (the former starring and the latter appearing in what’s more like an extended cameo). An excellent example of craft and design, Please Baby Please has the look of a high-quality vinyl that might just trick you into thinking it’s leather at first. But as it goes on, and as the melodrama – which Riseborough especially amps up, well beyond 11 – intensifies, the homemade elements and really quite sparse mise en scène begin to show. It’s not a problem, per se, as the cardboard cut-out white goods (which, here, are blue) are supposed to be artificial and absurd, the entire idea of domesticity and its machinated signifiers exposed as extensions of sex and gender performativity: at one point Riseborough is seen straddling an ironing board. With references that span Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951) and Divine-era John Waters, Please Baby Please is Kramer’s assured hand on film history, like a man with his hand on his junk, stroking its ego – but only teasingly.

The pace of her two premiering titles, though not exactly fast, was certainly a counterpoint to her earlier features, Paris Window (Kramer, 2018) and Ladyworld (2018), both of which spoke uncannily to the experience of living through the pandemic, and felt glacial, even at 85 and 93 minutes, respectively. Paris Window is about a dysfunctional brother and sister, Julian (Noel David Taylor, who is also co-writer on the project) and Sunny (Sophie Kargman), who cohabit happily until Sunny begins a romantic relationship. Julian, who is essentially living in self-imposed lockdown, becomes entangled with the oddity of late-night television and a conspiracy theory. Paris Window is Kramer’s first feature and, aside from low-budget tell-tale signs including its single location, small cast and crew, and simple conceit, it feels a lot like a graduate art film project, its mannered acting and coffee table magazine style fashions and mise en scène outshining its ideas. 


Ladyworld, however, is the one feature that really did get under my skin; its all-girl Lord Of The Flies style social breakdown hitting closer to home (I attended an all-girls secondary school). At a pyjama party gone wrong, eight young women find themselves trapped without electricity or water. Their descent into physical and psychological violence is fast, the strange and elusive threat of ‘a man in the house’ (for much of the film we don’t know if he really exists) accelerating their social, communal demise. Again, the costume and interiors are excellently styled, Kramer’s distinct aesthetic already emerging. What sets Ladyworld apart from some of her other works, however, is the acting in this film – the best she elicits from any of her prior or subsequent casts (including Riseborough in Please Baby Please who, despite giving it her embodied all, just doesn’t have the same character depth or range to play with as is given to the eight fully realised characters here). 

From her shorts, Bark (2016), the earliest work included in the focus, stands out, a doff of the cap to Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009), where two young women gaslight each other in a status exchange, ending with one of them barking, silently. Intervene, where a mother and daughter ‘take care’ of their son/brother who is tormented by religious sightings, is like a moving portrait, each scene perfectly composed and framed in stasis, coming slowly and carefully to life. Requests (2017) – my personal favourite of the four – brilliantly captures the internal dialogue of a karaoke performer and the necessary narcissism that the kitsch activity requires of its bold hosts. “Okay, but aren’t we special?” the online subtitles ask, mid performance, only to be met with, “No, we’re just people.” from the backing singers. At just six minutes, it’s a tasty delight that makes its quip and mic drops before the mood changes. Finally, Sin Ultra (2019) is the glue between Give Me Pity! and everything that came before it – an obsessive study of our infatuation with mediating and fetishizing women ‘on the slab’. A dance piece where photographs of and notes about a young woman’s semi-clad dead body are taken, it speaks to the contemporary obsession (although it is as old as visual re-presentation) with stylising and sexualising women as inert objects. 

I can’t help but think, though, that this programme – along with a lot of the more esoteric and experimental works that IFFR is known for – would have felt entirely different if seen in cinemas. Not least because of their slow pacing and ephemeral sound designs, neither of which fared particularly well on my moderately sized, standard def TV and small speakers. 

What now concerns me is what shape the festival will take next. Though lockdowns are, for the most part, since lifted, in the days and weeks before filing this report a festival restructure has been announced, with many of the festival’s key staff (senior programmers and others) either having their contracts terminated or leaving of their own volition. Speculation on just what this means for the future of the festival is at a high (as reported by Eric Kohn for Indiewire1 and by Geoffrey McNab for Screen Daily2) but one thing is certain, and that is that IFFR, like so many film festivals, exhibitors and other advocates along the theatrical value chain, have lost a lot of money and momentum. For my own part, I am weary of watching links and screeners, longing for the real-life experience of sitting in a cinema, surrounded by friends and strangers (incidentally the name of my favourite film from IFFR in 2020 – Friends and Strangers by James Vaghan). And, most pressingly, I wonder if and when the discursive practice of casual conversation and encounters will be reinstated. Or if this is actually an arterial development on what is slowly revealing itself as the congested tailback of the global film festival economy in cultural and capitalist crisis.

International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR)
26 January – 6 February 2022
Festival website:


  1. Eric Kohn, “Why the Film Industry Isn’t Doing Enough to Support Programmers (Column)”, Indiewire, May 7, 2022
  2. Geoffrey McNab, “Rotterdam heads address festival restructure”, Screen Daily, May 20, 2022

About The Author

Tara Judah is an editor at Senses of Cinema and a postgraduate researcher at the University of the West of England, researching the role of independent cinema in the age of on-demand culture.

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