In early December, I received an unexpected email. After participating virtually in the IFFR Young Critics Program in 2019, I was invited to take part in a second round of workshops–this time in person, as the festival reassumed its pre-pandemic format. For many, this year’s edition of IFFR represented a long-awaited return, but for me, nearly every experience was new. This was the first time I attended a full festival outside of my own home. I learned about the strange bodily and psychic effects produced by long days lived between cinemas. I fell into the rhythm of a morning tea and afternoon lentil soup served with crunchy bread in the windowless, neon-lit food court; I paid for these in festival currency, little stiff paper coupons printed with tiger faces. I was introduced to Rotterdam staples like Tai Wu, the enormous Cantonese restaurant where no one can ever manage to finish their orders, and the makeshift nightclub staged in the lobby of the Theater Rotterdam Schouwburg, where industrial techno was paired with gin and tonics (I learned that the Dutch really like gin and tonics). I met editors with whom I had emailed for months, and quickly developed friendships with the other participants of the Young Critics Program. The hotel bed where I collapsed every night after festival-organized drinks with filmmakers, programmers, or critics was overlooked by an enormous rainbow print of a rather despotic-seeming Dutch train conductor. These are, of course, the textures which are impossible to approximate online; they carry a totally different charge than the ones I wrote about last year,1 in my festival dispatch from my living room. As I took everything in, I was surrounded by happy reunions and festival veterans revelling in the return to ‘normal.’


However, I am well aware that this edition of the festival represented a significant departure from the pre-pandemic state of affairs. This year brought a series of “restructurings” (that thinnest of neoliberal euphemisms) to the festival, which entailed, among many things, the firing of nearly all of the senior programmers. As Maria Palacios Cruz and others have noted, the brutality of the IFFR layoffs shone an especially harsh spotlight on the precarity of festival work. “Festival programming jobs, just like film critic jobs,” she gloomily observed, “have become the stuff of fiction.”2 Even with my limited basis for comparison, I was able to perceive the dissonance between, on the one hand, bottomless drinks and boutique magenta lighting and, on the other, volunteers and short-contract staff stretched thin, running on coffee and waning enthusiasm. One programmer remarked to me that, due to the freelance nature of the existing contracts, virtually no IFFR creative staff have access to employment benefits. This is a strange moment to show up, notebook, badge, and film degrees in hand, to a film festival, attending networking events for an industry that increasingly seems like a spectacular mirage.

IFFR casts itself as a champion of non-commercial programming, of emerging filmmakers, and of filmmakers from the Global South. Many festivals have faced cutbacks this year, but IFFR’s posture of ethical commitment and dedication to marginal cinema render the contradictions between its ethos and operation particularly stark. As I made my way through this year’s programming, I was keenly aware of this tension between spectacle and the ethical. Now that filmmakers and festivals alike have begun to stretch their wings and expand into a post-lockdown reality, how will they use their newly regained capabilities? Who can still afford to be in these spaces, doing this work, and how? What awaits us, as we re-establish contact with other bodies and migrate back to cherished venues? The films I watched in Rotterdam thrilled in touch and moving bodies, but also mourned the loss of places and ways of life.    

Delivery Dancer’s Sphere

Early in the festival, I was lucky to catch one of the most interesting answers to these questions: Ayoung Kim’s impressive short, Delivery Dancer’s Sphere. In Kim’s alternate version of Seoul, an Amazon-like corporation pushes its delivery drivers to work so quickly that they cause a leak in the time-space continuum. This premise, which writer William Gibson would surely covet, analogizes the inhumane labour expectations of the consumer fulfilment industry to the paradoxes embedded in quantum mechanics. The delivery workers are slotted into an employee hierarchy; the most elite workers, the Ghost Dancers, reach their delivery targets on straight, projected paths deviated from the actual infrastructure of the labyrinthine city. Like Heisenberg’s particles, their velocity and position can’t be determined at the same time. The film’s protagonist, Ernst Mo (Seo-kyung Jang) hurtles through the streets of Seoul on a black motorcycle; slipping off the paths of the physical world, her avatar drifts through a permeable and partially rendered simulacrum of the cityscape. In a classic twist borrowed from Marx’s Das Kapital (1867), the system’s ruthless algorithmic logic causes itself to glitch, bringing Ernst Mo face-to-face with her troublemaking double, En Storm (also Seo-kyung Jang). Over the course of an economical 25 minutes, Kim builds a baroque and captivating narrative architecture around a widespread structure of feeling. Delivery Dancer’s Sphere joins dazzling, computer-generated graphics with attentive world-building, bringing us closer, as all good science fiction does, to the world in which we live.

Bodies and motor vehicles perform a different kind of choreography in Love & Crashes, Lucile Chaufour’s exploration of the French-British sidecar racing community. Framed by Chaufour’s direct gaze, leather-clad racing partners navigate the extreme thrills and shared vulnerabilities of a dangerous, collaborative sport. Each pair is composed of a driver (typically larger, often a husband or father) and a sidecar rider (typically smaller and more agile, often a wife or son). The racers rely on each other to correctly assess the possible risks and rewards of each acceleration or weight shift, though the sidecar riders seem exposed to greater possible injury. Chaufour prompts the partners to speak about the complexities of power, trust, and consent in this configuration; the racers explore how their dynamic on the track overlaps with their relationship outside of the sport. In the film’s most absorbing sequences, the partners rehearse stationary manoeuvres in a parked car before practicing on the track. The driver calls out the contours of the racecourse – “slight right!” “long straight away!” – while the rider clambers over them and back, curling up in the sidecar to reduce wind resistance or initiating a tight embrace. The cars are old and temperamental; the racers’ middle-aged, working-class ruggedness belies a breath-taking grace of coordinated motion. As in Delivery Dancer’s Sphere, the spectacle here is translated through the nuance of ethical contracts and shared vulnerability. The interface between bodies, as well as between the body and the machine, becomes the site of a complicated negotiation of authority, capacity, and submission. 

Orpheus in der Unterwelt

I was surprised to find that many of the festival’s strongest offerings this year were repertory screenings in the Cinema Regained series, which presents various glimpses into IFFR’s claimed cinematic heritage. Many of these films are, in some way, large-scale exhibitions: they are anchored in song and dance, or genre extravagance, or the ‘tasteless’ excess specific to B-movies For example, Orpheus in der Unterwelt (Orpheus in the Underworld), Horst Bonnet’s 1974 film adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s 1858 opera of the same name, provides a deliciously outrageous spoof of ruling-class indulgence and self-serious classicism. In the opera’s famous “Fly Duet,” Jupiter (Rolf Hoppe), disguised as a golden fly, buzzingly seduces Eurydike (Dorit Gäbler, shod in GoGo boots) on a bed with an ornate phallic headboard. The historical correspondence between Offenbachs’ Second French Empire and the civil unrest of Bonnet’s 1970s West Berlin lends the film a particular sardonic note; the overindulgence of the staging is braced with a cynicism that links it to contemporary political art. 

Romance at Lung Shan Temple (Pai Ko), a 1962 movie musical from Taiwan, was similarly compelling, if less overtly spectacular. Romance blends tropes of American Golden Age musicals with Taiwanese folk music to tell the story of a love triangle between two young people from the PRC and a Taiwanese islander. The resulting pastiche carries faint echoes of West Side Story (Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, 1961) and Summer Stock (Charles Walters, 1950) while touching on the tense social climate of the Kuomintang government (1927-1949). A buoyant and delicately crafted film, Ko’s masterpiece has been critically overlooked and will hopefully be boosted by IFFR’s spotlight.

Romance at Lung Shan Temple

The festival also exhibited a particularly strong and rangy program of queer cinema this year, from the thoughtful family drama Something You Said Last Night (Luis De Filippis), to the postmodern erotic ghost story Bodyshop (Scud). Of the many offerings, I particularly enjoyed I Love You Beksman, Filipino filmmaker Percival Intalan’s delightful inverted romcom. The film opens with a long pan across a crowded vanity table; the perky synth soundtrack, credit font, and bedazzled makeup cases come straight out of an early-noughties Disney Channel film. The vanity belongs to Dali (a pitch-perfect Christian Bables), a twenty-something makeup artist and stylist with a Ken doll helmet of hot pink hair and a closet full of neon, psychedelic button-ups. Raised in a queer home and immersed in beauty pageant culture, his friends and family assumed that the flamboyant Dali would naturally prefer to date men than women. However, when a fateful concealer mishap brings him face-to-face with beauty queen Angel (Iana Bernardez) and he falls in love, he is dismayed to discover that his interests and mannerisms may represent an obstacle to his courtship. Thus begins his odyssey to become more straight-presenting, assuming a kind of butch drag persona to impress Angel and her family (most notably, three brothers with well-developed muscles and drawn-on moustaches). To spoil an ending which only a decade ago would not have felt nearly so inevitable, Dali ultimately discovers that sexuality and gender presentation are separable: he can dress and act how he pleases, and still find love with the gender(s) he wishes. Intalan gleefully heightens all that feels naturally queer about the romcom: the metamorphosis of the makeover montage, the two-dimensional flimsiness of the gender roles, and the narrative trope of an interfering social convention. In the end, Intalan delivers a film that simultaneously works as a camp, Butlerian read of gender performativity and a heartfelt, expansive love story for the times.

Another notable selection was Playland, Georden West’s ode to Boston’s now-defunct Playland Café. West developed the film from the time they spent in the Boston LGBTQ+ archives, tracing a tangled history of subcultures that converged at Boston’s oldest gay bar. Playland, which takes the form of a dreamy, poetic eulogy, interweaves a wide range of elements, including surreal vignettes, choreographed dance, magic tricks, and a staging of “Mir ist die Ehre widerfahren” from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. In its best moments, the film relies on archival audio to remind the viewer that queer spaces do not randomly fade out of existence but are instead targeted by the arbitrary municipal enforcement of liquor licenses, blue laws, and anti-pornography or anti-sex work initiatives. However, the highly stylized rendering of the space and its clientele seemed to abstract away from the reason for making the film in the first place, namely, the lives and experiences of the cafe’s patrons. I couldn’t help but reflect on the (unfortunately) robust canon of odes to now-shuttered queer spaces, including Leilah Weinraub’s Shakedown (2018) or Samuel R. Delany’s classic essay collection Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999). These tellings vibrate with the lifeforce of lovers, performers, and hangers-on; Playland’s romanticized, confectionary ruins and dispassionate, largely non-speaking characters make it difficult to access the heart and hardships of Playland Café’s long-lived community. 

If Playland sacrifices the players for the space, Drunkard Nursing Home, Shuai Zhang’s plunge into the Beijing post-punk scene, takes the opposite tact, following the nomadic wanderings of a group of friends after the 2021 demise of their primary gathering place. The film opens on the only footage of the eponymous nightclub, an aerial view of a packed dance floor with strobing spotlights, where the DJ growls, “Where there is oppression, there is resistance” before dropping the beat. For the remainder of the film, Zhang tags along, camera in hand, as the newly evicted friends congregate on the streets and in each other’s apartments. Aided by the clear intimacy and mutual trust he shares with his subjects, Zhang lovingly traces the many bonds that form the basis of a cohesive subculture. In the film’s last minutes, for lack of a trendier venue, the crew assembles over a meal in the back room of a brightly lit restaurant, toting a bulky karaoke machine and cases of beer. 

Drunkard Nursing Home

Though the film is the last to receive my attention here, it was actually my first screening of the festival; Drunkard Nursing Home has only returned to my mind now that I’m back home in the States. Watching the displaced comrades, illuminated by harsh fluorescence, rally for the chorus of a cheeky song about Hainan Island felt a lot like showing up as a newcomer to IFFR this year. While I experienced the warm pull of a community and way of life, I also couldn’t help but feel that the party might be over. Amidst the ongoing wave of COVID-prompted cutbacks and institutional abandonment of arts workers, I will be looking to the back rooms for what comes next.

International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR)
25 January – 5 February 2023
Festival website: https://iffr.com/en


  1. Madeleine Collier, “Day by Day: IFFR 2022,” Senses of Cinema, Issue 101 (May 2022).
  2. Maria Palacios Cruz, “The Ghosts of Rotterdam,” MUBI Notebook (January 2023).

About The Author

Madeleine Collier is a New York-based writer, researcher, and translator currently pursuing a PhD in Literature from Duke University. Her work has appeared in Film Quarterly, Film Comment, and AfterImage Journal, among other publications; she is also a member of the editorial collective at Barricade: A Journal of Antifascism and Translation.

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