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52nd Annual Rotterdam International Film Festival Highlights

Emerging from the Covid era of virtual festivals with a seeming new resolve to top itself in what it does best, the 52nd Annual Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFFR) opened an all in-person festival on January 25, for a run through February 5, with a broad slate of 455 films, including 242 features, 97 of them world premieres. Behind the scenes, virtual access to high-profile sections of the festival and press conferences was enabled for selected international press, which made my coverage from afar possible. An on-site friend and her cell phone camera provided me with a virtual front-row seat for events including the opening ceremony.

Festival director Vanja Kaludjercic welcomed the opening night audience in De Doelan, Rotterdam’s vast concert and conference venue, expressing relief at IFFR’s full return to the communal experience after a three-year wait. Kaludjercic went on to aptly capsulize the festival’s legacy and mission as “to look where others don’t look, and to go where others don’t go,” confronting audiences with “images, sounds, and words that rip the rug from under our feet.” “We are quite good at doing that,” she declared, underlining IFFR’s well-known gravitation to a cinema that is relentlessly adventurous and experimental in all its international manifestations.

Nowhere are IFFR’s rug-ripping intentions more clearly expressed than in the festival’s signature Tiger Competition, which celebrates emerging global filmmakers. Sixteen features, all world-premieres, ranging from the poetic Albanian feminist documentary “Three Sparks” by Naomi Uman to the slow-burning Ukrainian policier “La Palisiada” competed for a 40,000 Euro award.

The five-member jury, which included acclaimed American independent producer Christine Vachon and Filipino writer/director Lav Diaz, selected “The Specter of Boko Haram,” by Cyrielle Raingou of Cameroon as the winner. This evenly paced yet deeply disturbing documentary features neither histrionics nor significant action beyond child’s play but is distinguished by its dispassionate cinema verité view of the milieu of terror seen through children’s eyes.

“The Spectre of Boko Haram” begins with the image of flames from a campfire as the reedy voice of a child calmly relates the murder of his father. Director Raingou focuses on three children, brothers Mohamed and Ibrahim, lively little boys given to bouts of giggling and wrestling, and a pre-teen girl named Falta. The brothers had previously been kidnapped into a Boko Haram camp but escaped. Now, they are in search of their missing parents. All three children live in a village on the Nigerian border in the north of Cameroon, which is under heavy military occupation to protect the residents.

“I aim at the enemy and he falls,” chant the kids as they play a game. A boy casually entertains his friends by describing how he saw hostages executed with an ax to the head. The village teacher reminds his students that no war imagery is acceptable when they discuss what to make with their modeling clay. Nevertheless, the final products include childish renderings of tanks and guns made of clay. The schoolhouse windows look out on a line of soldiers fitted out in full combat gear and carrying assault rifles, the sight of everyday life.

The film’s acute sense of place and knack for intimate portraiture gives it a look that characterizes many an ethnographic documentary, but with the essential difference that life in all its aspects is skewed by uncertainty and the sharp awareness of the unseen threat that lies in wait somewhere in the distance. In a press conference, director Raingou revealed that she had initially set out to develop a film centered on adults but found that she was increasingly drawn to the children. The more time she spent with the children, the less the adults took notice, regarding her as a kind of handy babysitter keeping the kids entertained with her camera. The resulting freedom to work unhindered provided a unique window on horrific unfiltered childhood.  

New Strains

“New Strains,” by married American co-directors Artemis Shaw and Prashanth Kamalakanthan, was named winner of one of the Tiger Competition’s two special jury prizes of 10,000 Euros. A quasi-romantic comedy, it’s set in a New York City apartment during the lengthy lockdown for an unnamed and highly contagious pandemic. The directors play a version of themselves as Rom and Kalya. When isolation in an apartment borrowed from her well-to-do uncle challenges their tolerance for togetherness, their courtship phase dissolves into dissonance and a no-holds-barred dissection of their foibles.

As Rom and Kalya explore the confines of their new temporary home, panic, jealousy, and tedium are illustrated in goofy vignettes that involve horseplay and probing word games. There are also absurd arguments over precautions, including hand-cleansing, signaling that “New Strains” is taking flight into the realm of satire. The filmmakers relieve the visual constriction of the environment with silly touches, including jaunty musical cutaways to the uncle’s collection of nautical-themed paintings.  

At a press conference, Kamalakanthan remarked that one of the catalysts for the project, filmed entirely and authentically under the couple’s early Covid lockdown, was the discovery of Shaw’s childhood Hi8 camera in a closet. The low-tech look of the now-obsolete format, along with the camera’s 240X zoom capacity, enabled them to give the film a handmade visual aspect that matches the homely personal quality of the narrative, which according to Kamalakanthan, takes place “in the disjuncture between the world ending, and being extremely bored while it ends.”

Numb

Standing out in the Tiger Competition for its intricately crafted subtlety, the Iranian film “Numb” by Amir Toodehroosta plays bait and switch with viewer expectations. “Numb” is set in a kindergarten, the only educational level in Iran where boys and girls are not yet segregated into gender-specific classes. In the opening minutes, the film appears to be a classroom documentary in the vein of Nicolas Philibert’s 2002 international hit “To Be and to Have,” or the 2016 Dutch documentary “Miss Kiet’s Children.” Cute antics prevail, up to a point, with contrariness often hilariously confounding the teachers' intentions.

A teacher warns one little five-year-old to adjust her scarf to completely cover her hair. As soon as the adult is out of sight, the child slyly slides it halfway back on her head. As the children rehearse for an upcoming show for the parents, a boy is prompted to dance. He turns his back to the class and launches into a provocative butt-wriggling performance that gets him quickly yanked back to his seat by the teachers. In one session, the mullah providing moral instruction to the children is thrown by the off-the-wall question, “Where do babies come from,” eliciting a sanctimonious “praying for them,” answer.

The setup is disarming and funny, suggesting that Toodehroosta’s goal is to demonstrate that curious young minds inherently resist indoctrination. However, it soon develops that his calculated air of kids-say-the-darndest-things is a subterfuge. Almost imperceptibly, this unthreatening-seeming milieu turns weirder and darker and is unmasked as a tightly scripted drama rather than a documentary. The “Where do babies come from” question is a turning point. Suggestions of sex and sexuality are gradually insinuated into the most unexpected situations.

Brief and yet jarring incidents upset the status quo of childhood innocence. A boy’s curiosity about his mother’s pregnancy leads to a distinctly unchildish plot by the boy and his little friends. A classroom crush involving Rana and her male classmates Roham and Azad outpaces its cute factor in developments that mirror adult rivalries worthy of a steamy soap opera. Bit by startling bit, Toodehroosta suggests a society in which pedophilia, domestic abuse, family dysfunction, adultery, abandonment, and more lie just beneath the surface.

IFFR’s Big Screen Competition encompassed a wide range of international work, from the more mainstream-friendly “Endless Borders,” also from Iran, to the more challenging Mexican three-character chamber drama “Before the Buzzards Arrive.” 

Before We Collapse

“Before We Collapse,” co-directed by French novelist Alice Zeniter and Benoit Volais, brought comic touches, pathos, and a political slant to the tale of one man’s inadvertent brush with fatherhood. Tristan, a callow political campaign manager who juggles an active string of hookups in his private life, is brought up short by receiving a positive pregnancy test anonymously through the mail. His situation is complicated because a fatal hereditary disease runs in his family, but he has refused to be tested for the gene. Fear fuels his pursuit of past paramours in an attempt to find the prospective mother.

Zeniter’s script takes Tristan on a nostalgic tour through various lifestyles and ideologies representing the women of his past and includes a visit to a communal farm where urban revolution vs. grassroots activism is dinner table talk. Before it ends, “Before We Collapse” wittily evokes a bit of early Godard, the talky political affinities of Alain Tanner, and the romantic complications typical of Philippe Garrel.

The Iranian/Czech/German co-production “Endless Borders,” by Abbas Amini, was ultimately announced as the winner of IFFR’s Big Screen Competition, an award that guarantees that the film will play for a run in Dutch cinemas. Although relatively conventional in its form, the film has a currency that meshes with IFFR’s implied global concerns. A drama overt in its political implications, “Endless Borders” highlights hot-button issues that include the plight of Afghan refugees attempting to escape to the West and the Iranian regime’s persecution of intellectuals.  

Endless Borders

Vaezi is the sole schoolteacher in a tiny remote village on the Afghan border. The barren landscape, with its white-sand flatlands and formidable cliffs, projects loneliness and isolation. He is not there by choice but as a result of being sentenced to exile for an unspecified crime of a political nature. His wife Niloofar, also a teacher, is serving a sentence in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for the same crime, which in her case, appears to be guilt by association.

When a bedraggled clutch of Afghan refugees heading for the Turkish border turns up near the village, Vaezi leaves his classroom unattended and attempts to render what humanitarian aid is possible given his meager circumstances. In one family group, a dying old man is in dire need of medication. The teen girl, who appears to be his daughter, seems strangely unconcerned. Not everyone in this family is who they seem. Village rivalries and ethnic animosity are stirred up by the arrival of the needy strangers, and the teacher’s good intentions threaten to sabotage his freedom and future when he is unwittingly entangled in a web that involves attempted murder and illicit love.

Barbara Scharres

Barbara Scharres is the former Director of Programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, a public program of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  

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