The 48th edition of the International Film Festival of Rotterdam was IFFR director Bero Beyer’s fourth iteration. The four program groupings that he instigated in his inaugural year remain in place with special themes in the Perspectives series, discovery in Bright Futures, high profile screenings in Voices and the innovation of Deep Focus addressing a cinephile audience. This quadrant is useful in unpacking a cluttered and manifold program, with the IFFR app enabling scheduling decisions and changes to be made with agility. There was a slight attendance downturn from over 330,000 in 2018 to 327,000 this year. Locals remained catered for with homegrown films, Dutch language screenings, “best of” marathons and special audience days.

Given the number of venues, most within walking distance of each other, flexibility remains the key to getting the most out of recommendations that float your way. The outlier venue is the LantarenVenster, a brisk walk over the Erasmus Bridge or reached by Metro or tram. There the atmosphere was ordered and more sedate than previously encountered, definitely down on the energy levels at the Kino where an innovative short film scene flexed its muscles. One of IFFR’s appeals is as prospectus for mining cinema’s inventive margins. I was drawn to those short films that offered new modes of making or viewing and had found innovative paths to political empowerment, although the feature films Present.Perfect., Heroes, Drylongso and Capharnaüm are also cited here.

Like most film festivals there was a space given to VR installations. This is certainly an innovative space with an expanding future, but is it Cinema? Limited headset availability always restricts accessibility. As an audience we are all cloistered off from each other receiving highly pixelated images. This is lounge-room experience. This space is reminiscent of the CD-ROM sidebars occupying festivals in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Melbourne International Film Festival’s current programming of full-dome projections at Scienceworks seems a better fit for a festival audience.

At IFFR short films that subverted or enhanced the stereoscopic experience were of more interest. Stains and Scratches by Deimantas Narkevičius re-processed black & white film from a 1970s Vilnius youth club event. Shards of film were framed over different parts of the image field. By offsetting the left and right eye images in these windows, an artificial but fruitful Stereoscopic effect emerged. We could have been inside Liverpool’s Cavern Club during the Beatles’ reign. Aykan by Sebastian Buerkner, using abstracted architectural images recorded in public space, played with stereoscopy by intermittently delivering disparate images to each eye, producing artifacts not quite stereoscopic artifacts that behave like afterimages.

Present.Perfect. (Zhu Shengze, 2019)

The Tiger Competition was reduced down from 15 to 8 features this year. Zhu Shengze’s third feature Present.Perfect. won that competition, a documentary gleaned down from 800 hours of real time webcam live streaming footage over 10 months. Live-streaming with hosts or anchors is both pervasive and ephemeral in China and can lead to star status visibility for its better performers. State censorship has also shut down a number of these showrooms recently. Not unlike performers on the street, viewers comment and bestow gifts redeemable for money. Shengze has not followed the stars but those at the margins. We see a bored crane-driver’s bird’s eye view, as he participates in high rise construction. We watch a young mother at her sewing machine in a clothing sweatshop. We follow a youth who dances badly in various public spaces. At one time this young man sets up his boombox under a bridge and he is castigated by a local official, the only other person present, to move on. There is also physical deformity. We meet an anchor with a burnt face, a short young man with a boy’s voice and another young man with malformed limbs. We witness the viewing public continuously enquire about these variations from the norm.

What are the moral dimensions of our looking and enquiry here? I am reminded of the carnival’s bearded lady or the circus cast of Todd Browning’s 1932 feature Freaks. Now anchors themselves unwittingly move these attractions online enabling Shengze to usher them back into cinema. Over time the presented situations evolve. We read into the cracks, the cuts that separate the long durational recordings. We see the deformed man hobbling in a public space with his computer next to an upturned cap, accumulating donations simultaneously online and on the street. The mother and short statured man’s economic situations both seem increasingly precarious. Having to work and also look after her young daughter, when does she sleep? Has he been banished from the family home to a constricting factory dormitory? This film’s value lies in the relentless mundane depth of daily life performed here, the marginal spaces created by a thousand small gestural cuts, executed through each question asked, each answer given. For the viewer this becomes an increasingly uncomfortable inspection of daily life. Is there any real difference between our surveillance here and the way Facebook mines our personal data?

I’ve Never Been a Fisherman (Joe Stankus, 2019)

A couple of short films also skirt around the impact of surveillance machinery. I’ve Never Been a Fisherman by Joe Stankus follows street photographer Jay Giampietro around New York taking street snaps of extraordinary people and situations in public spaces, while on his bike or walking, pretending to be on the phone, which he then posts on Instagram. Speed is of the essence. Giampietro’s most celebrated snap, available online, has a man receiving a clandestine blow-job on a public park bench. Giampietro defends the ethics of this photo in the film and Stankus addressed it in his Q&A. Is such image stalking the thin wedge to mass surveillance, or is it fair game when one traverses or occupies public space? Again, why not place this discussion in relation to the corporate vacuuming of online data, which impacts millions.

Where Zhu Shengze uncovers the relentless mechanics of class, Jeroen van der Stock’s Night Horse moves into abstraction. But abstraction can also be about technical, political or social breakdown and dysfunction as other films by Taiki Sakpisit (The Mental Traveler) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Blue) also demonstrate. Van der Stock’s Night Horse is constructed completely from online material, from live feeds from unsecured surveillance cameras. There is a skill and technique in locating these feeds. The film compiles night images from such half-forgotten inadequately lit malfunctioning cameras and unwanted artifacts. An eye peering out of the darkness. A horse sleeping in his stall in the dead of night.

Study for a Battle (Esther Urlus, 2019)

While Night Horse embraces the relics of digital breakdown to build a new lyricism, Study for a Battle by Esther Urlus kneads the materiality of 16mm film to process, print and shape the repeating gesture of a horse emerging out of a yellow field. Hers is an artisanal response to the pervasive use of digital imagery and Urlus has been a leader in this artist-based home processing movement internationally. She situates her horses back in relation to medieval sketches and tends her yellow to the medieval Epiphanie medicorum, or urine wheel. Her technique can be referenced back to similar 16mm strategies developed in Canada by Al Razutis and Jack Chambers in the early ‘70s, but there bi-packing prints in the lab rather than the studio. For me the yellow film grain is reminiscent of the Middle East desert vistas flown over or identified in maps of the Syrian wars on television. The swirl of surface movement offers a convergence between the behaviour of sand and film grain.

The lyrical possibility of film’s chemical materiality was further demonstrated by Charlotte Pryce’s short films and performances (1988-2019). Shown at the intimate UBIK screening space at WORM to a specialist audience, with a 16mm projector and an array of slide projectors humming at the back of the room, Pryce presented two programs of delicate tangible imagery created over decades of alchemy. The slide projections especially gained from a turn of the head to glimpse the hands and movement of the “puppeteers” orchestrating this subtle promenade of tactility. The audience was transported back beyond the birth of cinema into the world of magic lantern projection. Light performs differently through these foundation technologies and Pryce’s intimacies magnify this difference.

At the other end of the spectrum, IFFR’s audience award was won by Nadine Labaki’s feature length Capharnaüm. The film takes its name from a biblical city condemned to hell. Like Present.Perfect. it lays bare the desperation of daily life, but here in crowded streets and makeshift dwellings of Beirut’s slums. Labaki mixes a fairy tale ending with war-zone situations on the kind of streets that have triggered mass migrations across the Mediterranean Sea. This fantasy/reality formula suits western audience consumption. Such audiences urgently want to consume empathy and outrage but then need to move on without “getting involved”. Capharnaüm is a well-told, heart-wrenching journey in the tradition of Dickens or Twain. Twelve year-old Zain takes his parents to court for failing to take care of him and his siblings, a moral privilege itself only accessible to a western middle class, the judge or the filmmaker herself. Zain dreams of going to Europe. The parents stand accused. Their daily struggle for survival offers no path to moral deliberation. The reality is that most Zains do not reach Europe. Or do they?

Freedom of Movement (Nina Fischer & Maroan el Sani, 2019)

Related issues of migration and resistance were core to two of the Tiger short winners; Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani’s Freedom of Movement and Vincent Meessen’s Ultramarine. Freedom of Movement re-enacts Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila’s first African Olympic gold medal win in Rome in 1960. Bikila’s triumph is framed as Africa’s first barefoot step out of colonialism. In celebration, young runners from multi-various backgrounds run past the monuments of present day Rome. Zain was not amongst them.

Such migration has become a well-beaten path. A track becomes a road, becomes a superhighway and flips into a parking lot. Ultramarine’s imagery and jazz percussions were powered by the Black Power delivery of African American poet Gylan Kain (Kain the Poet). Ultramarine gains its title from Kain’s 1970 solo Album Blue Guerilla. His presence motors the film’s imagery and focus. Kain now lives in Amsterdam, enabling this “exile blues” collaboration to eventuate.

Ultramarine and Freedom of Movement’s celebratory tone empowers. Similarly, African American filmmaker Cauleen Smith does not linger on traumas in her historic past. Smith avoids remaining frozen or angry inside these traumas. She locates and names those troubling histories but places them creatively in the here and now. Her interest is to present an archive of “mundane instances of wonderment”, to recombine the familiar into the uncanny. She unsettles the incumbent authoritative voice. Given her pervasive presence at IFFR in installation, performance, feature and short film mode, a number of works are discussed.

In H-E-L-L-O (2014) Smith appropriates the five notes from the alien “hello” call in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and invites noted New Orleans bass musicians to play them in sequence but with the emphasis and style left open. These performances are recorded in locations integral to the history of low frequency sound in New Orleans. We watch the music change the presented visible spaces. The meaning of alien is flipped. Like the Vortex image that completes Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), a whole historic arc is successfully compacted into one gestural moment.

In Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band (2011) Smith channels Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place” through The Rich South High School Marching Band in Chicago’s Chinatown Square in flash mob style. This orchestrated intervention into public space delivers history back into the bodies of unsuspecting shoppers. Like a traumatic flashback’s impact on the body these witnesses remain unaware of the ramifications of the historic churn unexpectedly engaging their senses. This dynamic replicates Christian Boltanski’s intervention at Antwerp Railway Station where he showed photos of lost children to those passing by, hoping they would recognise them. In reality these were photographs of children obliterated by the final solution decades earlier.

Sojourner (Cauleen Smith, 2019)

In her latest film, Sojourner, Smith assembles a futurist feminist utopia. Alice Coltrane’s music and visions are linked to that aspirational activism for equality, health care and education that is traceable back to Sojourner Truth’s work (1797-1883). Smith invites contemporary African American feminists to gather at Noah Purifoy’s Neo-Dada Outdoor Desert Art Museum in Joshua Tree, California. This is a Mojave Desert field of assemblage sculptures constructed with the same spirit evident in Rodia’s Watts Towers.

The women are there to re-enact an essential historic photograph. In 1966, a year after the Watts Riots, LIFE magazine’s Bill Ray visited that neighbourhood taking a series of colour pictures at Watts Towers of stylish young African American men that challenged the racist dystopias swilling through mainstream media. Smith’s ideal is an autonomous self-creative persona perched at the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. She is well on her way there herself. Like a song-line this dreaming passes through multiple generations to its imagined future.

A restored 16mm print of Smith’s first feature Drylongso (1998) (slang for “ordinary, everyday”) was also screened at IFFR. Like Ray, the young art student Pica starts photographing young men, creating her own archive. For Pica, these young African Americans were an endangered species. In Pica’s mind, post-extinction these photographs will provide proof of their existence.

Black Bus Stop (Claudrena N. Harold & Kevin Jerome Everson, 2019)

Black Bus Stop by fellow African Americans artists Claudrena N. Harold and Kevin Jerome Everson is structured in related fashion. A series of re-enactments are staged at a University of Virginia bus stop. A compendium of physical action witnessed globally as entertainment at New York’s Apollo Theater re-surfaces. Is this where they originated before morphing into showbiz? Or is the other way around, or is it both? Remembering is a material and physical dance.

Canadian Mike Hoolboom’s 27 Thoughts About my Father also deftly processes a challenging past that takes in colonialism, war and migration through deeply personal delivery. This is a meditation on Hoolboom’s elusive but caring relationship with his often silent father who recently passed away. The soundtrack extends a eulogy delivered at his funeral. Through a mixture of found footage, home movie and family photographs we gain insights into family life. The images and thoughts are all neatly arranged in place, like a well ordered Dutch home. Much is left unsaid, but each of the 27 thoughts leaves gaps and hesitations fertile for post-screening rumination. This is the airing of an open wound altered and neatly folded through its presentation. Hoolboom’s critical practice is a rejoinder to the conundrums history dealt his father and how his father lived out his responses. In this way we become a response to our parent’s absences. We can now look back on all of Hoolboom’s cinema with this insight in hand.

Raw trauma was delivered in its most incisive form in the representation of two older works. One was Harun Farocki’s Gefängnisbilder (2001), a found footage film documenting the use of surveillance technologies in the prison system and a premonition of a pervasive surveillance society. One of Farocki’s most brutal revelations documents the orchestration by guards of vicious confrontations between in-mates in the exercise yard for entertainment and gambling purposes. The prison morphs into Coliseum. Death is at the ready. The other trauma was delivered by Sidney Bernstein’s abandoned German Concentration Camp Factual Survey (1945-2014), recently reconstructed by the British Imperial War Museum. Here we are re-united with piles of emaciated bodies being carried and moved by those held responsible. It is not only the bodies, but the expressions on the faces of those present that are seared into your memory.

Heroes (Köken Ergun, 2019)

I conclude this review with a film that all Australian and New Zealand audiences should see. The documentary Heroes by Turkish filmmaker Köken Ergun was commissioned by the Australian War Museum. The film is about the mythologising of trauma, of the First World War campaign on the Gallipoli (or Çanakkale) Peninsula. Ergun includes interviews at the monuments with the April 25 pilgrims and tourists that reveal shared moments and differences. He follows the tour coaches where tour guides deliver their spiel. One side has Simpson and his donkey the other the captain and cannon that turned back the British Fleet. A spectrum of emotions are played out here, from Nationalism to familial loss. The ANZAC fallen are respected as brothers, while other locals ruminate on why these tourist intruders are here; let them go back to where they came from. These opinions have an uncannily familiar ring to those that follow contemporary immigration debates in Australia.

International Film Festival Rotterdam
23 January – 3 February 2019
Festival website: https://iffr.com/en