It feels like every week since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has contained more than a year’s worth of news events, and the week of the International Film Festival Rotterdam was no different. The February festival kicked off on the same day as the coup in Myanmar and continued as lawmakers in the USA splintered over proposed pandemic relief packages. Dolly Parton also dropped her Squarespace Super Bowl TV spot: titled 5 to 9. The jingle sounds a lot like her 1980 hit, but advocates “workin’, workin’ workin”’ instead of organizing for better pay. I (virtually) attended IFFR as part of the Young Critics program. This gave me the opportunity to speak with other critics and filmmakers, comparing coronavirus restrictions and pandemic-exacerbated financial strains between countries. It was within this mental framework, mulling over the unique challenges (and occasional joys) of the strange tele-labor that we find ourselves performing, that I approached the films of IFFR 2021.
The films of IFFR 2021 revealed a world (or at least an artistic class) keenly aware of the precarity of contemporary labor paradigms. From Latin America to China, filmmakers documented the Kafkesque absurdity of state-corporate collusion and the alienating effects of the interminable twenty-first century workday. Contending with uncertainty and burnout, many of these films’ protagonists turn to the guiding lights of ritual, folklore and inherited knowledge, devising fresh sacraments of their own where no appropriate customs exist. If, as the political economist Max Weber proposed in the early twentieth century, scientific rationalization and the inexorable march of capitalist progress promote a ‘disenchantment of the world,’1 films like Gritt (Itonje Søimer Guttormsen, 2020), Carro Rei (Renata Pinheiro, 2021), and Who Is Afraid of Ideology? Part 3 Micro Resistances (Marwa Arsanios, 2020) are interested in exploring where animism, communal rites, and a politics of care persist.
At the start of the festival, I watched a film which would shape my outlook for the rest of the week: Renata Pinheiro’s technofetishistic, sophomore feature Carro Rei. The film is set in the fictional nation of Carrouaru, where a blinkered politician has just passed a law removing all cars fifteen years or older from the road. This piece of legislation disproportionately affects working class citizens and the sting is particularly cruel for the family which owns and operates the aging fleet of Carrouaro Taxi. The members of this family and their automobiles are entangled in a particularly fraught web of relationships: teenage son Ninho (Luciano Pedro Jr.) was born in the same car which he would later witness running over his mother. This betrayal feels especially personal because of Ninho’s unusual talent – he can speak to cars. Economic pressures induce Ninho to join forces with his whiz-mechanic uncle Zé (Matheus Nachtergaele) and convert the battered taxis to meet the new law’s stipulations, but all hell breaks loose when these newly revamped machines hatch a depraved plan to exterminate the agronomy collective which stands in the way of their comeback.
Sentient cars with nefarious agendas have long snagged starring roles in macho blockbusters and B films alike. Take, for example, cult classics like John Carpenter’s Christine (1983), Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007), or Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber (2010). However, none of these films has hitherto packed the political punch of Carro Rei, which ultimately reads more like a treatise on class and posthuman connectivity than a gory diesel-fest. Zé, who is sympathetic to the zombie cars’ schemes, assembles a cult of auto laborers to convert and ultimately serve the titular King Car and his contingent. In an extended dance sequence, the workers drink blue lubricant acid and seem to merge with their overlords; their movements become robotic and they zip the hoods of their mechanic jumpsuits down over their eyes, which superimposes a headlight-like band of reflective fabric over their eyes. Technofetishistic rituals slide into technofascism as Zé and King Car become increasingly corrupt; the workers crowd around as Zé spouts Heidegerrian rhetoric about technology as the natural extension and augmentation of man. In a distinctly Cronenbergian episode, King Car seduces the (human) performance artist Mercedes (Jules Elting), who writhes on his pulsating, leather hood while he blasts the song “Automatic Lover (Call For Love)” from his surround-sound speakers. A trip to director Pinheiro’s Instagram reveals a grid of Brazillian politicians with doodled-on vampire teeth and forked tongues, spewing forth The Exorcist-like bile; her mode of engagement there, as in the film, is sharp and topical, if not always comprehensive or subtle.
The film’s political project attains its greatest clarity in conversations between Ninho and his friend/dramatic foil Amora (Clara Pinheiro), who is deeply involved with the Family Agriculture Center of Carrouaru. Ninho presents a newly-remodeled car to the Center as a gift, hoping to prove to Amora that these advanced machines will be a boon to the working class, as well as to the Center’s ecological project. In return, Amora scoffs that car companies have only ever been aligned with the working class in temporary marketing ploys; echoing the Soviet position in the famous Kruschev-Nixon Kitchen Debate,2she argues that “labor-saving” technologies are never inherently liberatory. Amora and her agronomist comrades ultimately save the day when they successfully disable the rampaging automobiles with a little agrochemical know-how, but the film’s facile conclusion does not quite match the political rigor of its opening. While the film’s premise intelligently demonstrates the ways in which both extractive corporate policy and superficial liberal greenwashing leave the working class behind, the film’s substantial imaginative range operates more often in service of spectacle than it does in service of scrutinizing these pervasive conditions.
Anna Katz’s VPRO Big Screen Award-winning film El perro que no calla (The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, 2021) similarly concerns itself with alienation and the hazards of the gig economy. Protagonist Sebastian (an expertly muted Daniel Katz) falls into job insecurity after an absurd series of events: his dog whines when he is away at work, causing the neighbours such emotional distress that he is persuaded to bring her along to the office – until he is fired for doing so. Sebastian enters a barren job market, finding his skills as a graphic designer no longer marketable. He pulls water on the pampas, cares for the elderly, seeks employment at a food collective and ultimately becomes a teacher. The film is structured around two cataclysmic events, each accompanied by a sketchy, animated interlude: the first is the death of the titular dog (who was Sebastian’s only constant companion) and the second is a semi-apocalyptic meteor collision. Due to the air pollution caused by the meteor’s impact, the air is no longer safe to breathe above four feet. Everyone must duckwalk through the halls of their homes and offices or shell out for pricey, insular bubble headgear. In what feels like a familiar parental argument, Sebastian and his wife (Julieta Zylberberg) argue over whether to buy a bubble for their toddler. He argues that the bubble is expensive and doctors say it’s not strictly necessary. She counters, asking if he truly wants what’s best for their son. The couple separates. In this world, survival is contingent on a degree of alienation, whether via the operative metaphor of the bubble or via a willingness to forgo interspecies care. The film, which is by turns humorous and absurd, holds particular resonance for the circumstances of the pandemic, but gestures towards conditions which were latent in Argentine society pre-crisis.
Like The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, Itonje Søimer Guttormsen’s sharp feature debut Gritt addresses the precarity of the creative class, albeit from a perspective critical of Scandinavian liberalism. Gritt follows the tribulations of a young thespian named Gry-Jeanette (a pitch-perfect Birgitte Larsen), who is thrown into a tailspin when her application for a national arts grant is rejected. At first blush, Gry-Jeanette (nicknamed Gritt) resembles Greta Gerwig and Lena Dunham’s maladroit heroines. She struggles to articulate her shapeless proposal for a postcolonial theater production entitled ‘The White Inflammation’ and disguises her jealousy of her friend Marte’s success in accusations of bad politics. However, Gritt diverges from this well-worn path when Guttormsen pivots to probe what it means for figures like Gritt (or Hannah Horvath, or Frances Halladay) to take up cultural airspace. Struggling to find affordable housing, Gritt catches a break when Lars Øyno (the director of the Norweigian Theatre of Cruelty) offers her an opportunity to assist with rehearsals and sleep in the theater. She ultimately appropriates one of his projects (which centers African refugees as social ‘abjects’) and begins staging parallel rehearsals in secret. When Øyno finds out, he kicks her out of his theater; Guttormsen ensures that the audience understands this is not an “adorkable” faux pas, but rather an error with concrete, social and political collateral damage. Throughout the film, Guttormsen performs a difficult balancing act of empathy and condemnation towards her wayward protagonist, maintaining a level of critical reflection which allows Gritt to surpass the navel-gazing of some of its peers.
When cornered at parties or other social gatherings and asked about her profession, Gritt replies, without fail, “I work on developing rituals.” Both professionally and personally, Gritt seems magnetically drawn to ceremony and procedure. But, crucially, she seems to have no grasp of the social context which usually imbues these rituals with their power. Gritt drifts in and out of various performance ensembles, consults a witch in New York City, hires a fitness trainer in Oslo and spends the night at a feminist collective organized around lilithic rites. As the film progresses and the sharp definition of the narrative begins to blur, Gritt falls increasingly out of sync with the world around her, finding its codes increasingly difficult to decipher. She performs a lonely and lackluster imitation of Burning Man when she returns to her hometown for the annual harvest festival, dousing a decorative hay bale figure with gasoline and setting him ablaze. By the film’s conclusion, Gritt has retreated to her aunt’s cottage in the woods, where she devises and practices her own individualistic, idiosyncratic rituals, concocting potions and donning elaborate costumes alone.
While many of the feature films at IFFR examined the empty, neoliberal self-help regimens espoused by new-age gurus, afternoon talk show hosts, fitness instructors, and beauty influencers alike, the short film lineup was more interested in excavating pre- or extra-capitalist modes of understanding the world. In her short film Who’s Afraid of Ideology: Part 3 Micro Resistances (the third chapter in an ongoing series centering ecofeminist praxis and Indigenous land rights) Lebanese filmmaker Marwa Arsanios visits the Grupo Semillas collective outside of Bogotá, Colombia. Arsanios takes the opportunity to consider how Indigenous land rights and inherited agricultural knowledge threaten state agendas, weaving new materialist theory into interviews with prominent local activists. Ghita Skali’s The Hole’s Journey (2021) and Fox Maxy’s Maat Means Land (2020) also center Indigenous land rights, in Morocco and the US, respectively– the two young filmmakers seem to work in tandem on opposite ends of the globe. Amusingly, both weave a Democracy Now! clip into their film, drawing from local and international news archives to collectively make a case for the struggle against continuing colonial appropriation and dispossession. Finally, Ruth Höflich’s Plant (879 Pages, 33 Days) (2021) explores the 1717 witch trial and execution of Anna Maria Wagemann in Fürfeld, Germany, which occurred near the director’s family estate. The film centers around the surviving accounts of the trial, which detail how Wagemann was accused of witchcraft by her daughter-in-law. The young woman claimed to have been bewitched, adding, according to the documents, that Wagemann was a “plant woman.” As the intertitles of the film recount: “Suspicious objects that were found at her residence were later used against her …including a lizard’s head and a small pouch filled with peas.” According to feminist autonomist theorists like Silvia Federici, the rationale behind the demonization of ‘witches’ in the early modern period was tied to the threat of woman-held lands and inherited knowledge to emerging capitalism;3 it is no accident that these traditional rites have been displaced by the rhythms of consumption and entrepreneurship of the self.
The films of the 2021 festival were largely completed without substantial knowledge of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they were steeped in the conditions which exacerbated its deadly impact: extractive and dehumanizing labor conditions, environmental racism, corporate greed, alienation, and lack of communal awareness. Grasping at the shared histories which flounder in the face of globalization and postmodern fragmentation, these filmmakers seek to identify and name the practices which might bring us more traction against regimes of control. When the crisis of the moment has passed, this collection of films might help us think through how we can go about re-enchanting the world to radical ends.
- Max Weber, Sociology of Religion, trans. Ephraim Fischoff. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. ↩
- Shane Hamilton, Supermarket USA: Food and Power in the Cold War Farms Race. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), pp. 123-130. ↩
- Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004. ↩