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The day I arrived in the Netherlands was the same day that the provisional measures request from South Africa in their genocide case against Israel was brought before the ICJ (International Court of Justice) in The Hague.

I wasn’t far from the site where international human rights were upheld. I felt hopeful. 

*

My first encounter enforced a border. At passport control, I stood (momentarily) in the wrong place – approximately two feet from the right place. When called, I was humiliated by and for the joy of the person processing my passport. I was asked if I thought I was special and could stand wherever I like because I am British. “No, of course not, I’m sorry.” I apologised profusely and repeatedly, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake,” I said. I was then asked, “How is it possible to make such a big mistake?” 

I felt awful for what I’d done / where I’d stood / how I’d existed, physically sick and panicked by the intensity of the power imbalance in that moment: my passport symbolised Brexit and entitlement even as sorry tears welled up in my eyes, what happened next entirely up to him. 

He asked why I was visiting the Netherlands and I explained that I was attending the film festival, in Rotterdam. “Were you looking forward to it?” he asked, and hastened to add, with the only grin he wore during our encounter, “But not anymore?” Upon receiving my ashamed agreement, “No, not anymore,” he returned my passport to me. 

*

I talked to a friend of mine, a Dutch film critic, about depression and about politics while drinking cheap champagne. The festival director said some words that I can’t recall and people clapped. I put my coat on and walked to the cinema. 

*

Low-Flying Aircraft

In Solveig Nordlund’s Low-Flying Aircraft (2002), an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian short story of the same name, the population is dying out because the majority of pregnancies result in ‘Zote’ babies, who are human, but sensorily divergent, and whom the state abort as a matter of precaution. That the very notion of a sensorily divergent race – whose humanity could potentially be greater and more deeply felt or affected – is, to state powers, something to annihilate. For Judite (Margarida Marinho), who is pregnant for the sixth time, and for her state employed husband, having this baby is important enough to risk everything. They leave town and find a reclusive doctor near a run-down hotel by the sea. The doctor helps Judite reach full term and delivery. At her husband’s request, he assures her that her pregnancy is completely normal, even though it isn’t. 

Appearances are important and toeing the line involves repeating the state mantra, “We believe in the future,” something the film evidences as hating, fearing and, in some instances, even taunting the Other. As Judite’s pregnancy progresses, horrors unfold: a blocked pipe reveals a dead ‘Zote’ in a bag, who is then thrown in the sea; Judite is repeatedly told, “Zotes hate their mothers”; the body inside hers causes physical changes that affect her thoughts and emotions. What if someone sensorily divergent could change us, from within? This is what the state is afraid of. But not Judite, for hers is an embodied fear. What happens when the world is not fit for change? Who will be Othered, then? She cries out: “He’ll have no one to play with!” 

The truth (here posited as the hidden past) comes out, and so too do the horrors of life under an authoritarian system, where everyone obscenely keeps the status quo – every supporting character is defined by their disrespect for others, their gruesome desire to see another suffer. Through them, every cardinal sin is alluded to. I can’t remember if it is Judite or her husband who says it, but the film’s final resolve is thus: “Our world has come to an end. If we want him to know our love, he must live in his world.” Our human sensory state of being, Nordlund clearly reasons, is not fit for humanity to persist. 

I closed my notebook and went ‘home’ to bed.

*

A doc about the geopolitical underpinnings of big screen fiction hit hard as the ICJ confirmed that the rights asserted by South Africa under the Genocide Convention were plausible, yet Israel’s assault on civilians continued.  

Under a Blue Sun

Daniel Mann’s Under a Blue Sun is a filmmaker’s attempt to understand the complicated context of the much loved – but ideologically, politically and economically problematic – 1980s Hollywood blockbuster, Rambo III (Peter MacDonald, 1988). America’s relationship with the Middle East is more than the movies. But the movies maintain a significant cog in the wider machinations of white, western supremacy. Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is an extraordinary ordinary who represents the strength and tenacity of America. His enemy is well-established by the late 1980s – he fights Soviet forces – but the backdrop imperialist mission is strategic: Rambo is in Afghanistan, finding a sort of common ground with the people there who, though clearly “different”, have honour and will defend themselves – two values Americans apparently pride themselves upon. Only it isn’t Afghanistan. It’s Palestine. And it is called Israel. For what was apparently the “most expensive production of the 1980s,” Hollywood paid the Israeli military. They received access to the land (the Negev desert), and some not-so-special effects – one of the most astounding revelations is that Rambo III features mostly live explosions, carried out by the Israeli military in their ‘training zone’. Mann investigates the land, and he interviews both a Palestinian (Bashir) and an Israeli who worked on the film. It is home – and was once villages – for the Palestinian Bedouin. 

Using history and historicity, as well as personal reflections – both from Bashir (through interviews and his personal archive) and Mann (whose voiceover letters to Sylvester Stallone frame the film) – the film shows the invisible and entangled connections between Hollywood as a conduit for the U.S. and Israel. And despite the oppressive dominant narrative that both Hollywood (acting as PR for America) and Israel have and continue to spew, there is empiric primary evidence of what once was. It is heart-breaking when Bashir shows Mann his personal archive of photographs and videos: a 1967 panorama of his village before it was razed; filmed footage of the bulldozers literally evicting children and then crushing their homes; children playing in and adults building from debris. Israelis think the landscape is littered, Bashir tells Mann, but it is the Israeli military who made it litter. 

As we well know from the documented 97 journalists Israel has killed since October 7 and the audacious ban on Al Jazeera just days before their assault on Rafah (where an estimated 1.4 million people, including more than 600,000 children, are sheltering), it is the narrative and not the reality that matters. Rambo can pretend that the Negev desert is Afghanistan; lighting and phosphorus make the landscape look “strange” and “foreign”. If there’s one thing Hollywood knows well, it’s how to tell a story. As the official mouthpiece of America and the Israeli state, Hollywood ensures we view the Arab world through a lens of Otherness and, moreover, despite its rich tapestry of cultures, as a homogenous, interchangeable Other. Hollywood, as America’s PR, can attribute the land to another sovereign power, if they like. It’s their story, after all. 

There is another narrative. It is being told by civilians and journalists, some of whom were killed for speaking out. Because, as Bashir says, “Your enemy hates your footprints.” Holding onto a photograph of a footprint on the land, he shows us: “I was here.”  

The lights came up and I thought about home. 

*

Flathead

Flathead (Jaydon Martin) is a black and white, somewhat dramatized portrait of an elderly ex-addict (Cass) who addles along, searching for spiritual forgiveness / purpose in his childhood town of Bundaberg (Queensland, Australia). It’s likely to attract attention for its depiction of humour and relief amidst an otherwise ‘gritty’ life, the type rarely given focus on film but hailed as brave when it is (an unfair comparison in my mind and yet, for cine-shorthand, I’ll say it is of the ilk of Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s Hail, 2011). Though Cass is the primary protagonist, there are other semi-central characters – one of whom I found far more charismatic than Cass – and the film’s inability to decide whether the film is focused or meandering felt like a tension that could have been resolved in the edit. There is formal flex: cinematographer Brodie Poole’s camera is often looking up at Cass, revering him as though he is the higher being that the film is in search of. The careful compositions that frame Cass, not quite in the centre, but by windows and doors, looking in and out, sometimes from behind, or by his side, and almost never from his point-of-view, because we are not trying to see as him, but à côté de. Perhaps we can only ever get near to someone or something. Even so, the film is so deeply fettered with the failings of humanity, that it remains an unpleasant experience. One of Cass’s friends, a Zionist and a born-again Christian, whose inherent contradiction fails to register, spouts abhorrent thoughts, unfiltered with devastating conviction. Speaking of heaven and how to get in, he says: “Anybody who loves Israel will get in straight away!” Espousing the most deplorable attitude to abuse and murder, he continues: “Don’t worry about how many people you kill – child abuse, no matter what – I’ll forgive you.” Cass may have spent his time searching for spirituality, and even have found it in a community of toxic masculinity that believes hyper-religion can forgive anything, but the film does nothing to make the case for humanity.

Ceasefire now.

* 

Mika Taanila’s Failed Emptiness felt quintessentially like a Rotterdam film, in that it would be fair to call it experimental, but within a context and history of explorative work that still develops narrative, albeit through form rather than plot. Using a black and white thermographic camera – a technical, industrial device that measures heat – the film explores objects and space, movement and breath, stillness and change. There is text – a story, even – that begins as intertitles but, eventually, becomes visual, the letters and words filling the screen as image rather than meaning. There is footage of a single room – someone doing yoga, a vacuum cleaner, a house plant – and of a house being demolished (or eaten by a crane-like dinosaur, perhaps…) The images play with the uncertainty between construction and deconstruction. At times, it is unclear exactly what it is that the camera is observing, but that doesn’t much matter. There are diegetic and synthetic sounds that blend and blur like the narrative that both falls away and develops throughout the film: there is space for the viewer to construct or deconstruct, also. 

Failed Emptiness

In their Q&A following the film, Taanila, screenwriter Harry Salmenniemi and sound designer Nika Son talked about the ways in which they used a hot air blower and lighting to “heat up” certain objects (like the house plants) to experiment with degrees of light and shade. They also discussed the choice of a thermographic camera – itself an implement of war, notably used in Vietnam, a device that can investigate pipes and minerals, but one that is also capable of looking for people. 

When I left the screening, I decided not to look for anyone. 

*

Festivals present as social spaces – for meeting and mingling, for drinks and parties, for conversations – but I spent most of my time in Rotterdam alone. Organised conversations aside – there was a meeting of critics thanks to the dedicated and creative minds behind the Critics’ Choice program (Dana Linssen and Jan Pieter Ekker), which had its 10th and final edition at this year’s festival – film festivals thrive upon exclusivity. After all, access to films and filmmakers, industry bigwigs and the like is a form of currency in an industry where jobs and wages are scarce. We talked about the future of film criticism. I suggested that it might be collaborative: independent cinemas are about community and partnerships, perhaps there is a way (and funding) to work together. Many remain resolute: film criticism is not dialogical. It is, I suppose, a lot like an encounter with an Other. The thing is, the encounter risks annihilation. 

I left, wondering what’s left among the debris – a semblance of self-righteousness, perhaps, an opinion above all else. 

I headed back to my hotel for the last time to pack my bag. My notes, written in the dark, alone, wondering where the fuck humanity is, nestled next to my passport. 

*

At the airport, I had almost enough time to watch a film on my laptop before departure. I started watching Avant il n’y avait rien (Yvann Yagchi). Yagchi has made a film about himself and his friend. Yagchi has Palestinian roots. Both he and his Jewish friend grew up in Switzerland. As they grew older, they each embraced their ancestry, resulting in Yagchi understanding and visiting his family’s stolen home in Palestine, while his friend embraced Zionism and relocated to the Occupied West Bank. Yagchi’s film is revealing and deeply moving. His friend not only denies his former best friend’s humanity in ideology and practice, but he further refuses to be a part of the film, leaving Yagchi with a dilemma of how to proceed. I had to board the plane before I could see the end of the film, but fragments stuck.

*

Almost four months have passed since the festival and despite Hollywood’s attempts to divert the narrative – the Oscars, the Met Gala, et al. – all eyes are on Rafah. 

I don’t care where the narrative is. There is blood everywhere. 

International Film Festival Rotterdam
25 January – 4 February 2024
https://iffr.com

About The Author

Tara Judah is an editor at Senses of Cinema and a postgraduate researcher at the University of the West of England, researching the role of independent cinema in the age of on-demand culture.

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