AftersunAll the world’s a stage IFFR Critics’ Choice 9: PLAY Tara Judah May 2023 Festival Reports Issue 105 In Inge Coolsaet’s video essay (putting) On Aftersun, she divulges that her brother missed the early scene in the film where the tour guide mentions Torremolino in Spain. With this part of the film missing, Coolsaet’s brother essentially ‘resignified’ meaning in the film, understanding instead that Sophie (Frankie Corio) remembered two different holiday destinations: Torremolino in Spain and Ölüdeniz in Turkey. When I saw the film at baby cinema, I too arrived late (babies!) and missed this early scene. But I didn’t resignify in the same way as Coolsaet’s brother. For me, with the framework of the film missing entirely, I misunderstood the holiday as a memory and resignified its temporality as happening. Coolsaet uses Greek writer and filmmaker Ado Kyrou’s idea (via Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopez) of making a film one’s own to relate to Wells’ work, suggesting that it is not only a spectatorial act but an action that Wells invites us to do. Coolsaet then highlights a piece of text from the A24 website, ‘A Note from Charlotte Wells’: “And there is room for you in this film too. I hope you can take it, fill it, in order to feel it.” Coolsaet inserts images of her own childhood holiday into the video before returning to Sophie’s; the film is an invitation, and so too is this video essay – to play with memory and experience, to allow your own resignifying of the viewing experience to occur. In the context of film criticism, this is such a refreshing statement. The decline of staff writers has led to a precarity of work and endless freelancers. Ultimately, the gig economy this creates results in homogeneous film press: just last week I read two reviews of a Mia Hansen-Løve film by the same critic, published by two different publications, less than one week apart. If everyone is writing everywhere, there are fewer instances of resignification, allowing a dominant narrative (or reading/take/review) to form. What Coolsaet’s (putting) On Aftersun does so beautifully is remind us of the invitation from the filmmaker; how we then act upon it is something else. Personally, I love the idea of being a part of a film – I think it is what drew me to film and film criticism in the first place – and yet so many times we are told, perhaps even taught, to remove the personal voice, to (over)use snappy and snarky phraseology and to write in a sort of journalese that belies the existence of a person with feelings: be objective but have opinions, possibly the two worst attributes to bring to art. I didn’t love Aftersun and, among cinephiles, admitting to this feels almost taboo. But, if I understand Coolsaet, Martin & Alvarez Lopez, Kyrou and Wells right, then the (distinctly personal) process of resignifying as a form of viewing “beyond analyzing films” simply means that films mean differently to me, which is fine. My action is my own. What if then, we extended this thought and understood all criticism, creating and even just plain review writing about film, as its own form of resignifying? I wonder what sort of criticism that might create, free from form, style and even content. What if – and this is what Critics’ Choice 9 was really all about – we play? All the world’s a stage, a famous playwright once wrote, and all the men and women merely players. That includes you, critic. So, play! EO 95 attempts to know EO a video essay by Kevin B. Lee on Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO is all about watching, and being watched. We watch the donkey(s) in EO, but what Lee’s video is keen to point out is that EO watches, too. The following text appears onscreen: Animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are. John Berger Berger and Lee offer a reminder that the act of criticism is also an outlet for indexing power: the more we know the further away the art is. What if critics could accept being observed? I wonder how much more generous criticism might be if its exponents understood their work as an action under observation. I recently came across a tweet from a film critic, commenting on a filmmaker commenting on a review, that suggested it was either inappropriate or perhaps just sour grapes for the filmmaker to weigh in. Perhaps some critics have, as Berger has it, forgotten that observing does not free one from being observed. Or, that such index of power only serves to further separate the critic from their subject. Criticism, contrary to the creation of critics’ circles, aggregate websites, parties, swag and exclusive access events, does not belong to anyone or any group. Criticism, quite simply, is for the curious. It belongs to an enquiring mind. It is an invitation to think. It can’t be bestowed and you don’t have to produce anything for it to exist. Critical engagement cannot be gatekept, even as the Foucauldian nightmare of imprisoned arts continues under conservative governments and certain rule. Die Middag No Place Like Home by Joost Broeren-Huitenga explores the political index that takes place inside and outside of homes. Predominantly private spaces, the home becomes a public space when filming takes place. This is not always immediately obvious but, as Broeren-Huitenga points out, there are Iranian films where actresses are inside, wearing their veil. He also highlights private spaces that move through public spaces – cars featured in Iranian cinema like Jafar Panahi’s titular taxi take on this role, the discussions that they hold too hot for stasis, literally transgressing the social structures within which they reside. But, Broeren-Huitenga asks, what kind of freedom lives behind lock and key? Where does free thought become free action? Dutch-Iranian filmmaker Nafiss Nia’s Die middag contemplates whether we are locked in or out by our thoughts. I wonder if film festivals and events that receive funding to attract new and diverse audiences yet predicate their business models on scarcity run public or private events. Demigod: The Legend Begins Demihuman: A Video Essay from Yoana Pavlova is cut in smartphone aspect ratio and was accompanied by a live performance element where Pavlova performed on stage. She enters in the third part of the experimental video which focuses on texture, movement and form. Her movements represent an interaction between the player and the played. I didn’t see the performance live at the screening but watched a recording of her rehearsal. The film she is playing with, Demigod: The Legend Begins by Chris Huang, is a wuxia puppet animation. Drawing on the notion of hybrid storytelling techniques, Demigod is also variously described as baroque, traditional and modern. Pavlova’s embodied action is one of the finest examples of a critic aware of being observed. And that awareness, which inverts the power index, is a direct result of play. Mascotte At WORM, the IFFR young critics hosted a panel discussion with filmmakers whose work was featured in the Critics’ Choice program: Valentin Merz, Nafiss Nia, and Remy van Heugten. Four of the young critics had worked together to respond to van Heugten’s Mascotte, which they also screened. Fractured: a video essay by IFFR’s Young Critics on Mascotte by Remy van Heugten is intended for cinephiles, referencing a wide range of cinema beginning with Lucrecia Martel’s Zama (2017). “Within the last decade, global cinema as a whole has begun to reckon with a long history of glorified toxic masculinity on the screen,” Madeleine Collier says in voice-over as the images play out. Having already aurally interrupted the film, the image is further invaded by its own container as a desktop essay begins, pausing Martel’s Zama so that an email template can be brought up on screen. Alonso Aguilar responds to the film with reference to Costa Rica, Mexican Golden Age Films and 1980s comedies. Text messages from Kyrylo Pyshchykov and clips from Ukrainian cinema also pop up onscreen, following American masculine figures like Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo and any number of cowboys. “Films reflect and refract human experiences,” Jason Tan Liwag says. Together, the four contributions from the young critics play with the themes in Mascotte. Their video is not a judgement on it. Video essays haven’t replaced reviews but I am struck by the way in which the filmmakers on the panel speak about criticism: “I enjoy reading it when it surprises me,” Merz said. It is the connections the critic has made in developing their own work that Merz values, a sentiment with a playful irony, as developing creative intention is often what critics value, too. De noche los gatos son pardos In “cinema, literally”, Dennis Vetter asks what makes a film “literal” and contemplates action, ecstasy, empathy and fantasy in Merz’s De noche los gatos son pardos. Vetter wonders: And I wonder… Why do we want to be together with one film? While there are so many more Waiting to be seen Longing for our commitment For you I read On meta-cinema And found “prosthetic memory” – cinema as memory of a culture The idea is that cinema extends beyond individuals and across generations, until it links up as a collective thinking and corporeal memory. It’s sort of alive like us – I wonder if it observes us. And how. Vetter shares and is playful with his criticism, almost confessional. He highlights the intimacy of being “together” in a cinema, referring to German performance artist Daniel Cremer who likes to think of the audience as a mushroom: “an organic being that grows together”. I watched all of these video essays on my laptop, at home, alone. Shackled by life (there are no baby cinema screenings at major film festivals), I access my cinephilia and enact my criticism between night feeds for my infant. Cinema is about a lot of things that are not in the frame. I hadn’t seen his film but I met Merz while I was in Rotterdam – we walked together (he, I, and my baby) from WORM to De Doelen. As we walked, we talked about the houses we passed, some of which we could see inside. Are they there for us to look at? We looked. We observed some people sit down to eat. I wondered if they would observe us back. They didn’t. It was awkward and maybe even uncomfortable. Merz told me that, in Holland, people don’t look in. It’s understood. But I’m a curious tourist, and my misunderstanding was both an index of my power as a tourist free from the social contracts and codes of the locale and a resignification of the experience. For a Dutch local, it would be a transgression. For me, it was a moment of learning and play, about another culture, myself and my assumptions. It was too a critical moment of curiosity. Curiosity didn’t kill me, it simply made me laugh fondly, awkwardly, outwardly and inwardly. It was only a moment, if it was anything at all. Yet it was active engagement that brought me literally together with cinema: the people in their home, my moving images; my companion on the walk, a filmmaker; and my baby, an audience. I may have missed most of the so-called “festival experience”, having attended with a baby in tow. But I resignified the event’s meaning and, much like a mushroom, me and my daughter took the stage and organically acted out our own collective memory of cinema.