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The 51st edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam was among the first of many this year to be pushed online by the materialisation of the omicron variant. Consequently, instead of the theatrical settings of the Pathé Schouwburgplein or the LantarenVenster, my film festival took place in the living room, with this year’s selections projected onto a blank wall of my house in Durham, North Carolina. Unable to replicate the celebratory energy or solemn decorum of the festival experience on my own, my time with the Rotterdam program was more intimate and reflective. My screening experiences were contoured by the textures of domestic life: volume adjustments were made when my skittish foster dog flinched at the artillery fire in The Anatomy of Time (Jakrawal Nilthamrong), Medea (Alexander Neldovich) was paused when I realised I was late for class, my tanguera roommate supplemented my viewing of Corsini Interpreta a Blomberg y Maciel (Mariano Llinás) with key contextual commentary about the Argentinian sense of humour. 

Amidst the reminders of household chores to be performed, embedded in the soundscape of rumbling garbage trucks, household Zoom calls, and cardinal song, I took a slow path through this year’s programme. Felicitously, many of the stand-out selections were similarly unhurried. Despite their distribution over various affective registers, these films lingered over the textural qualities of daily life, the natural and built environment, and the specific affordances of vantage points suspended between the home and the street outside. This attunement to quotidian sensorial information was particularly evident in one of my first films of the Festival, Mara and Eugenio Polgovsky’s tender Malintzin 17. An unusual collaborative project between brother and sister, Malintzin 17 was first conceived after Eugenio’s sudden death at the age of 40. Sorting through the late documentarian’s possessions, Mara found the skeleton of a film about Eugenio’s young daughter Milena watching a pigeon incubate eggs just outside their apartment window. With the benefit of Mara’s light editorial touch, Eugenio’s fragments blossomed into a warm reflection on the imaginative worlds co-created between parents and children, serving simultaneously as a eulogy for a sensitive ecological filmmaker.

Malintzin 17

The film opens with a snarl of telephone wires and bougainvillea on Calle Malintzin in Coyoacán; the camera traces a long stretch of cable against the open sky before resting on a nest cradled precariously over the urban street below. We soon meet Milena, the film’s proper star, who is full of conjectural hypotheses about her new neighbour – the bird doesn’t move much, so maybe she’s a robot-pigeon; she probably built her nest so far from the trees to protect her eggs from roving squirrels. Eugenio’s camera pivots on the fulcrum of the windowsill, alternately capturing the nest imposed on the backdrop of daily life in Mexico City and turning inside to track his daughter’s purposeful wanderings through their home. His gaze affectionately registers her small toes gripping the wobbly rock that allows her to peep over the edge of the windowsill; he documents her painstakingly balanced walk as she carries offerings in the form of little plastic dishes of grain and water across the kitchen. Outside, Eugenio’s camera takes in an urban ecological mélange: the whine of the fighter jets streaking overhead, the jingle of the Oaxacan tamale van, the slow progress of the spider’s web, and the wet lines drawn by passing cars after the rain. Milena is radically included in the filming, with father and daughter taking turns directing each other in image-making. Don’t film that, look over there; don’t shake me, be quiet now; do we have to film the bird and not other things? Sharing some of the contours of Krzystof Kiéslowski’s 1979 drama Camera Buff (down to a cinematic attunement to pigeons), Malintzin 17 discards the trope of the obsessive and overbearingly masculine home documentarian in favour of an exploration of receptivity, entanglement, and collaboration.

Malintzin 17, which at first glance seems to make the most of the pandemic’s isolation constraints, was actually filmed several years earlier, before Eugenio fell ill in 2017. Unlike many of the homebound films which have emerged in the last two years, this film captures a quality of safety embedded in the domestic which has recently felt more difficult to access. The Plains, David Easteal’s contemplative docufiction hybrid about the cadences of the everyday, also seemingly benefits from the perspective of two years’ distance from a certain mode of ‘normality.’ Composed around 11 commutes which middle-aged law mediator Andrew Rakowski (playing himself) makes between the office and his home outside of Melbourne, The Plains retraces the same stretches of rush hour highway again and again. The camera, which is mounted in the backseat of Rakowski’s Hyundai, often runs for 20 minutes or more, while Rakowski makes his habitual 5 PM calls to his wife and mother or listens to the radio. Rakowski is sometimes accompanied by his colleague David (a loosely fictionalised David Easteal) in the passenger seat, who acts as a sounding board for Rakowski’s complaints about his sister-in-law and concerns about his aging mother. Like Malintzin 17, The Plains inventively incorporates the textures of the home movie; Rakowski passes an iPad full of photos and clips to his colleague in view of the camera, providing rare moments of variation in the cyclical flow of visual information. Otherwise, the film relies heavily on the auditory track, lulling viewers into narrative immersion as they become bodily habituated to the beats of the commute. The Plains’ fine-grained consideration of interpersonal relationships – especially those disclosed largely via one-sided telephone conversation – is facilitated by the steadiness of Easteal’s attention, as well as his attention to the inextricability of the ordinary and extraordinary.

The Plains

If Malintzin 17 and The Plains both engage in some form of nostalgic imagining of a quotidian ‘before,’ Paz Encina’s Tiger Award-winning EAMI is more attuned to the moment in which the everyday confronts the end of the world. Since her acclaimed debut feature film Hamaca paraguaya (2006), Encina has woven impressionistic, sonically-rich cinematic tapestries from the stories of the indigenous peoples of Paraguay. EAMI tells the story of the Ayoreo Totobiegosode people, whose existence has been threatened by deforestation, foreign-borne disease, and evangelisation since the 18th century. The film, while anchored in a dreamy, non-Western conception of space and time, seems to recount the Ayoreo Totobiegosode’s violent encounter with encroaching Mennonite ranchers in the late 1990s. The film – which can also be considered a work of docufiction inasmuch as Encina incorporated the testimony of her Ayoreo cast throughout the story – is told through the perspective of the omniscient child Eami (“Eami” means forest/home in Ayoreo). Eami (Anel Picanerai) is in desperate search of her companion Aocojaí, whom she is intent on recovering before the coñones (non-native, literally “insensitive” people) drive them out of their land. 

EAMI

With her eyes closed, Eami flies over and through the forest, sensorially immersing herself in the reflective, distortive surfaces of various bodies of water, listening closely to the contrapuntal chorus of birdsong and tractor motors, and melding her body with the round, blooming fruits of cactus pads. A famous cinema history anecdote recounts that viewers of the early Lumière brothers film Le Repas de Bébé (1895) were transfixed, not by the “narrative” content of an infant working his way through his lunch of cracker and several spoonfuls of mush, but by the leaves rustling on trees in the background of the frame. The film camera’s ability to capture the ‘incidental’ qualities of motion which add grain and texture to the homogeneous passage of time gains a wholly new meaning in EAMI. Encina Paz’s camera registers the wind in the trees not from the French perspective of a nature to be domesticated, but from within the collective being of a doomed forest, composed of intertwined memories and personalities. At the culmination of the film’s violent conflict, when the Ayoreo Totobiegosode have been driven from their homes and the Menonite ranch has burned to the ground, the falling embers and growl of machinery are imbued with this incidental poetry, one charged with the anguish of dispossession and extinction. Don’t forget, Eami’s unseen guide counsels her, we were the ones who lived here. 

This year’s programme was bolstered by several phenomenal contributions from Latin American women directors; in addition to EAMI and Malintzin 17, this roster included Gessica Généus’s stunning drama Freda. The film, which earned Généus the distinction of being the first Haitian woman nominated for an award at Cannes, paints a dynamic portrait of life in Port-au-Prince during the 2019 anti-corruption protests. The sprawling narrative of Freda spins out from the stoop of one neighbourhood store, run by Jeanette (a towering Fabiola Remy) with the help of her adult children Esther (Djanaïna François), Freda (Nehemie Bastien), and Moïse (Cantave Kevern). The siblings’ friendships, romances, and professional prospects are embedded within the charged landscape of Haiti at a crossroads; a deceptively simple family drama, Freda’s project is in fact sweeping and ambitious. Généus’s camera takes us into the classroom, the market, and the bedroom; her audience is afforded a view into the colourism of the service industry, the complex heritage of the French educational system, the micropolitics of the international art gallery, and the unremitting tension between vodou traditions and Catholic dogma. Généus’s bright, artfully balanced frames are intercut with shakier phone footage of anti-petroleum extraction protests; the texture of the everyday rises to the surface in a few verité-style college seminar discussions, which stage fiery debates over demonstration tactics and decolonisation. Haiti, a country which has long struggled to develop a viable film industry, finds in Généus a gifted auteur up to the task of bringing the nation more fully into cinematic view.

Gessica Geneus & Nehemie Bastien

Of the many films attending to the themes of colonialism and First Encounter at IFFR this year, a striking proportion relied on elements of fantastical or speculative storytelling to reilluminate familiar scenarios of exploitation. Ammodo Tiger Short Award-winner Nosferasta: First Bite (Bailey Sweitzer and Adam Khalil) and They Carry Death (Helena Girón and Samuel M. Delgado), for example, each weave surreal parables out of the painful legacy of Christopher Columbus. The impressive feature Neptune Frost (Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams) turns its gaze towards the devastating consequences of coltan mining in Rwanda. An afrofuturist musical in the tradition of 1972’s Space is the Place (John Coney), Neptune Frost follows the collaborative attempts of intersex hacker Neptune (played by both Cheryl Isheja and Elivs Ngabo) and miner Matalusa/Martyr Loser King (Bertrand Ninteretse) to overthrow the mysterious governing entity known only as The Authority. While some of the film’s rallying cyberpunk slogans (including Hackers–derivated cries of “hack the patriarchy/ownership/banks” and a hollow climactic “Fuck Mr. Google!”) feel thin or hackneyed, Neptune Frost’s crucial intervention lies in its insistence that understandings of contemporary technocapitalism must begin in the depths of the mines. The film is punctuated by dream sequences brightened by phosphorescent body paint; these moments specifically, and the film’s approach more generally, reminded me of theorist Denise Ferreira da Silva’s work on blacklight or (UV light) as a tool of critical visuality. da Silva describes blacklight as a “Black feminist poethetical tool” which does not illuminate things (like incandescent lights), but instead causes things themselves to emanate or shine.1 In da Silva’s framework, the metaphor of the blacklight redirects attention to the inherent properties of the raw material of global capitalism, which she identifies as Blackness itself. Like da Silva, Uzeyman and Williams perform a critical flip to access an inverted view of extraction, creating an operatic epic from the daily struggles of miners embedded deep within streams of technological consumption.

Constant

Each in their own way, these films asked us to reconsider the sensorial and political substance of the journeys we take, apparatuses we use, and homes we build over the course of our daily lives. One of my favourite films this year, Constant (Beny Wagner and Sasha Litvintseva), recounted a history of metrology, reviewing the power of standard measurement to co-create the world it calculates. Many of the most engaging films at IFFR this year performed a similar reorientation, harnessing the metaphoric and illustrative power of the cinema to reposition viewers in their relationships to what is seeable, sayable, and identifiable in the fabric of the everyday. For my part, curled up on a purple couch in the Southeastern US with a finicky projector humming overhead, I came away with a new intuitive understanding of the way overlapping entities – those on the screen, those filtering through my window, and those leaning out the kitchen door to verify the dinner menu – combined to make up something like a day.

International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR)
26 January – 6 February 2022
Festival website:
https://iffr.com/en

Endnotes

  1. Denise Ferreira da Silva, “Blacklight” in Otobong Nkanga: Luster and Lucre, Clare Molloy, Pierre Pirotte, and Fabian Schöneich, eds. (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017), pp. 245-252.