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Rotterdam film festival highlights

By Shane Danielsen
New artistic director Vanja Kaludjercic has shaken up the event’s programming ethos

Still from Bipolar, by writer-director Queena Li. Image courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam

The International Film Festival Rotterdam has for some time championed a certain kind of movie: airless, frequently inert, capital-A art films in which, as a critic once famously complained of Waiting for Godot, nothing happens, twice. I attended Rotterdam for years, in a variety of capacities, and then stopped, preferring to spend the time at home in Berlin. But the arrival this year of a new artistic director – Vanja Kaludjercic, formerly director of acquisitions for the online streaming platform MUBI – and the opportunity to access the program online led me to reconsider, and I’m glad I did, since my viewing yielded four superb films, three of them by female directors. Kaludjercic appears to have shaken up the event’s programming ethos and kicked some of its old selectors to the curb. For this, she has my admiration as well as my gratitude.

Shot over three years, by no less than five directors of photography, Ana Katz’s The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet is both casual and deceptively profound, a short (73-minute) black-and-white feature that nevertheless manages to encompass a vast and beguiling swathe of human experience. Starring Katz’s brother Daniel as amiable slacker Sebastian (“Seba” to his friends), a graphic designer and once-promising writer who seems to have wandered out of a Roberto Bolaño story, the film opens with a minor crisis in his life, when his neighbours come to him one morning to tell him they can no longer bear his dog’s incessant whining. A few days later, his bosses warn him that he can’t keep bringing the animal into the office. (The mutt in question, it’s worth noting, is nothing but perfectly behaved in every scene.) 

Feeling he has no alternative, Seba quits his job and leaves his flat, moving to the countryside to tend a farm – the first of many such dislocations over the subsequent hour, as the filmmaker attempts to represent the many ways in which one’s life can take unexpected directions. As his circumstances change, so does Seba. He develops a political consciousness after falling in with a group of cooperative farmers; he meets a woman at a wedding (she reels him in via a kind of mating dance, in one of the film’s funniest sequences) and, before you know it, they have a child. He’s also forced to deal with something entirely unexpected, a twist that pushes the film briefly into the realms of science fiction, and which I won’t spoil here, but which impresses as much for its uncanny prescience as for its conceptual ingenuity.

So precise is Katz’s vision that those five directors of photography deliver a consistent and seamless aesthetic. But special mention must go to Andrés Tambornino’s deft editing, which moves the viewer lightly yet unpredictably through the narrative; a simple cut might push you forward a few days – or leapfrog more than a year. 

It’s often said of certain great athletes that they “make their own time”, and that phrase came to mind as I watched The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, since there’s a spaciousness to this film, an expansive sense of detail, that belies its abbreviated length. Barely a second is wasted, yet the pace is never especially urgent; rather, Katz pauses every so often to contemplate the preparation of food before a meal, or to bask in a moment of calm contentment on a beach. Like João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s magnificent Araby (2017), one of the key films of last decade, it bears witness to, and honours, an entire life.

In Black Medusa, by Tunisian writer-directors ismaël and Youssef Chebbi, a mute young woman, appropriately named Nada (and played with febrile intensity by Nour Hajri), wanders alone through the country’s capital over the course of nine successive nights. She’s clearly suffered some trauma in her past, though thankfully the filmmakers resist the urge to explain what that might be. Instead, they simply depict her activities: lingering in bars and clubs, waiting to be picked up by a succession of men, then drugging these would-be paramours and extracting bloody vengeance upon them for the wider sins of their sex. 

She helps home the first guy we see her with, then anally rapes him – first with disgust, then with a kind of white-lipped determination. Another man, back at his flat, makes the mistake of showing her an antique knife in his collection. (“It used to belong to an assassin,” he murmurs, an explanation he quickly comes to regret.) 

Now armed, Nada’s hunt becomes more aggressive, pitiless and indiscriminate. And with little in the way of psychology on its mind, the film becomes something else: a moment-to-moment record of sensations and impressions, led as much by Amal Attaia’s oppressive sound design as by the mounting body count. The vision of Tunis it presents is also new: a sprawling, impersonal metropolis of wide boulevards, massive apartment blocks and underground techno clubs – all shot in a low-contrast black and white that’s closer, at times, to greyscale. 

Yet admirably, and crucially, the directors’ camera is always precisely where it should be. Even during extended takes (and the best of these, an impromptu killing spree on the fifth night, is as potent and unnerving a sequence as I’ve seen in some time), there’s an economy and assurance to the mise en scène, which, together with Hajri’s stern command of the screen, elevates this simple story to a kind of waking nightmare, at once anguished and abstracted. As a revenge fantasy, it’s about a hundred times better than Promising Young Woman, since unlike that film it actually has the courage of its (admittedly extreme) convictions. I can’t wait to watch it again.

The only colour film of the four, Looking for Venera – the first feature from Kosovan writer-director Norika Sefa – is perhaps the most visually ravishing. Shot by the great Venezuelan cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga (who first drew my attention with his work on Jayro Bustamante’s Ixcanul and Tremors), the film’s dark-hued, slightly underexposed photography yields compositions of almost sfumato subtlety, pierced by flashes of intense, jewel-like colour. (In this regard, digital colourist Gazmend Nela also merits a shout-out.) 

Set in a village near the North Macedonian border, it’s the story of a teenage girl, the eponymous Venera, chafing beneath the provincial dullness of the town and the bullying strictures of her father. She finds herself drawn to a rebellious, slightly older friend, Dorina, and the two girls form an inseparable bond against the ever-present patriarchy. “The war took all the good men,” someone mutters at one point. Maybe so, but there’s a whole lot of guys left in this dismal backwater – sullen, skinny, buzzcut creeps in cheap tracksuits, as indistinguishable from one another as zombies. They torture dogs (offscreen, mercifully) and start fights; they drink and stare and, most of all, take up space, consistently pushing Venera and Dorina – as well as their mothers and grandmothers – to the edges of the frame. It’s the only place, in this shabby and circumscribed world, left for women to inhabit.

Perhaps because star Kosovare Krasniqi reminded me so strongly of a young Sandrine Bonnaire, the result recalls Maurice Pialat’s great female-coming-of-age movie À Nos Amours (1983). At the same time, both Sefa’s directorial style (the glancing conversations, the cropped compositions) and her theme (two adolescent girls coming to understand the disruptive power of their sexuality) wear the influence of Lucrecia Martel’s magnificent La Niña Santa (2004), but lightly; ultimately, this film is very much its own, singular thing. A graduate of Prague’s renowned FAMU film school, Sefa is clearly a gifted filmmaker. I’m excited to see what she does next. 

Finally there’s Bipolar, a road movie from China that marks the feature debut of writer-director Queena Li. Arriving in a luxury hotel in Lhasa, a woman (musician Leah Dou, who also contributes the film’s score) sees a lobster trapped in a cramped display tank in the lobby. Touched by its plight, she kidnaps the crustacean and hits the road, intending to return it to the waters where it was captured, near the Ming Island lighthouse. Along the way she encounters a wryly enigmatic wigmaker (a cameo from Tibetan filmmaker Khyentse Norbu), an American cowboy on horseback, an otherworldly boy-monk and a pregnant hitchhiker her own age, who bears an extraordinary resemblance to Death from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics.

The daughter of the great Chinese pop star Faye Wong (who collaborated with the Cocteau Twins on a track you need to hear), Dou is a winsome, androgyne screen presence, fluent in English as well as Mandarin. Her character, never named, seems to be in flight from some recent event of which we catch only glimpses – a handsome young man, a public swimming pool, a razor blade… There are dream sequences that might be memories, encounters that may be imagined; it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not. Yet, as I watched, I couldn’t entirely shake the sense that the guy was actually a projection of herself (the pair look like twins), and that the fate she was trying to outrun was, in fact, her own.

Yet despite such intimations, the prevailing mood is comic, and Li directs, for the most part, with an admirable lightness of touch. I was reminded of a Hungarian film I love, Ildikó Enyedi’s My Twentieth Century (1989), another black-and-white fantasia with a playful, faintly overstuffed air. Like that film, Bipolar is undisciplined, self-indulgent, at times a little pretentious. Nevertheless (and somewhat to my surprise) I enjoyed it a lot. Your own mileage may vary; this is the kind of thing that very much depends on the mood you happen to be in while watching it. But whether you’re with it or not, it’s almost impossible not to be entranced by its widescreen visuals: high-contrast black-and-white images of the mountainous Tibetan landscape. The frontier towns folded into fog-shrouded valleys, the high, barren plains, the dense, shadowy forests. All unfamiliar, and all wondrous.

“When the students are ready,” someone declares at one point, “the teacher will show up.” What does it mean? you may ask. I say, who cares? Like all the best trips, the journey matters far more than the destination.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Still from Bipolar, by writer-director Queena Li. Image courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam

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