February 22, 2022

Film

Rotterdam film festival 2022 highlights

By Shane Danielsen
Still image from EAMI, directed by Paz Encina. Image courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam

Still from EAMI, directed by Paz Encina. Image courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam

Films by Jacques Doillon, Maryna Er Gorbach, Adilkhan Yerzhanov and Paz Encina are among the standouts from this year’s festival

I wish I could say that this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, its second online-only edition in a row, was as surprising and rewarding as 2021’s. That one boasted a new artistic director and, it seemed, a refreshed programming ethos, one appreciably more interested in audience satisfaction than before. This one, though under the same management, felt like backsliding. It’s possible that the films simply weren’t there to select from – last year, after all, was nothing if not fraught with difficulties, in terms of film production and everything else. But I wonder.

One of the better entries, Third Grade, came from a somewhat unexpected source. Now aged 77, France’s Jacques Doillon has had a long and somewhat uneven career that’s seen him ranked among the perennial second division of French directors, alongside the likes of Benoît Jacquot, André Téchiné and Philippe Garrel. He’s always had a deep interest in young people, and I mean that not in the typically creepy French Male Director way; on the contrary, he’s fascinated by and sympathetic to the struggles of children and teenagers to assemble their identities and define their place in the world. “For them, every experience is new,” he told The New Yorker in 2009. “They have a freedom of imagination that’s so much greater than that of adults.” (That said, my favourite Doillon is one of his “adult” films: La Puritaine from 1986, with Michel Piccoli and Sandrine Bonnaire.)

Consequently, he has a remarkable ability to extract great performances from non-professional kid actors. In perhaps his most acclaimed film, 1996’s Ponette, he directed Victoire Thivisol, then just four years old, in the title role, and crafted an unbelievably vivid and detailed picture of a child’s interior life. (Thivisol was rewarded with the Best Actress prize at that year’s Venice Film Festival.) Third Grade, as its title implies, is about the lives of various eight- and nine-year-old students at a public school in Clermont-Ferrand – and specifically about the friendship that evolves between working-class Kevin (Cyril Sader) and petite bourgeoisie Claire (Roxane Barazzuo), two kids from entirely opposite sides of the tracks. 

Kevin starts out tormenting Claire with sufficient intensity to necessitate a parental intervention, but slowly he comes to protect and even love her. And all the while, he struggles to overcome his own demons: a broken family, and a home life filled with abuse and neglect. So convincing are the children’s scenes together and so undiluted the realism on display (when Kevin smacks her, he’s really hitting her) that for a while a viewer might assume they were watching a documentary; it’s only as the narrative proceeds, and their relationship deepens and becomes more complicated, that one senses the careful design at work. A study of how economic class determines character (and opportunities), the film is all the more powerful for the lack of resolution in its final scenes – an acknowledgement that, for these kids, nothing in either their lives or their characters is yet settled, nor can it be. Life will simply go on. 

Maryna Er Gorbach’s Klondike begins incredibly strongly: a married couple discuss planned home renovations, while a fixed camera orbits their bedroom counterclockwise through 360 degrees, taking in their conversation and movements (she’s heavily pregnant, he’s concerned), up to and including the moment that an explosion blows away an entire wall of their farmhouse. We’re in eastern Ukraine, a caption informs us, in the town of Hrabove, close to the Russian border. The year is 2014. And that detonation – an errant mortar shell, part of yet another exchange in the ongoing skirmishes between Russian separatists and Ukrainian nationalists – is merely a prelude to what follows: the crashing to earth, a few kilometres away, of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down over the Donbas on July 17 with the loss of 298 passengers and 15 crew. 

Using such a tragedy as the spine of your narrative is a risky artistic gambit, skirting the limits of what some viewers would consider good taste, and for a while this film is held together less by political outrage or grief (as one might expect) than by simple aesthetic conviction: the steely rigor of Er Gorbach’s mise en scène. Every shot is a wonder, the camera sometimes in graceful motion, travelling swiftly with the characters across the flat, barren landscape, and at other times fixed, using precise blocking and depth of field to achieve its effects. (Credit must go to cinematographer Sviatoslav Bulakovskyi, working wonders in widescreen with mostly natural light.)

Halfway through, however, Er Gorbach’s grip begins to falter. The wife’s determination to keep living as normal – she begins tidying the ruined living room – begins to seem either delusional or passive aggressive, while her husband’s insistent horniness seems almost comically misjudged. (Read the room, mate… or, at least, what’s left of it.) The film’s thesis – men are brutish and destructive, and women suffer as a result – is clear, and so unarguable as to be scarcely worth the effort. Before long, you begin to wonder if the device of the downed plane was even necessary to tell this didactic little tale. Still, watching it in the first days of February 2022, as Russian soldiers were massing along the very same border, imbued Klondike with a genuine sense of urgency and significance – one it perhaps didn’t entirely merit.

Over the past five years, 39-year-old Kazakh director Adilkhan Yerzhanov has been quietly making a name for himself on the festival circuit with a series of films set in the fictional small town of Karatas. With his coolly elegant shooting style, his fondness for deadpan comedy and bursts of random, often clumsy violence, he’s probably the closest thing world cinema has to the spirit of the early Coen brothers. The Gentle Indifference of the World (2018) bought him acclaim at Cannes, but my favourite is his 2019 crime thriller A Dark, Dark Man, which began with the discovery of a child’s corpse, and opened up to reveal a world of rampant corruption, bureaucratic neglect and personal opportunism – a cynical, pitch-black worldview worthy of Raymond Chandler.

Yerzhanov’s latest, Assault, continues this run of triumphs. It’s a frozen winter morning in Karatas, and a squad of masked gunmen march casually into a high school – utterly unnoticed by various bickering or distracted members of staff – and summarily execute one of the students. Tazshy, a maths teacher, has just been surprised mid lesson by his estranged wife, armed with papers to finalise their divorce; panicking, he locks his students (which include their son) in the classroom while he sneaks a calming smoke in the toilets. But when he hears the gunshot, he thinks only of himself, and flees to a waiting bus – a moment of reflexive cowardice for which he’ll spend the rest of the film attempting to atone.

The roads are snowed in and the town is famously remote: no help is coming from Almaty. So a local drunkard, who may or may not have served in Afghanistan, marshals Tazshy, his soon-to-be ex-wife (who proves an alarmingly expert shot), the school’s meathead physical education teacher and his none-too-bright sidekick, and an ineffectual local cop, and begins training them to storm the building and take down the terrorists – a mission that at first seems suicidal, but quickly begins to acquire its own weird momentum.

Like Klondike, the film draws heavily from real life (one recalls similar hostage situations in Beslan and Kazan), but Yerzhanov’s touch is far lighter and, ironically, this irreverence winds up feeling more respectful than Er Gorbach’s intense solemnity. All of his stylistic tics are accounted for: the panning shots with their poker-faced payoffs, the discreet movie references (one beat, of a character explaining his tragic backstory, feels like a send-up of every Western confession-around-the-campfire scene ever filmed) and, above all, his equation of machismo with blundering stupidity. He also has an extraordinary compositional eye, an almost Old Master-ly gift for positioning figures within a frame. I can’t wait to see what he does next, and I won’t have to – at least, not for very long: in the past 12 months, he’s reportedly shot three entire features.

The Word For World is Forest is the title of a great Ursula K. Le Guin novella (which may or may not have inspired James Cameron’s Avatar) – and so it is for the Ayoreo people of Paraguay, a tribe whose exile from their heavily forested ancestral land is partly chronicled in Paz Encina’s EAMI. In fact, the word “Eami” serves triple-duty here, being the title of the film, the Ayoreo term for the forest/world from which they’ve been displaced (through a succession of forced evictions since the 1970s), and the name of a five-year-old Ayoreo girl who narrates much of the film in an affectless monotone, and who speaks of “the invasion” of her homeland in such a way as to suggest that the borders between past and present are both porous and negotiable. Likewise, images of the girl’s fellow Ayoreo – rendered in unflinching close-up, their eyes closed, their faces expressionless – implied (for me, at least) a kind of gestalt intelligence, a collective identity maintained even as their connection to their homeland is severed. 

Originally trained as a musician, Encina debuted at Cannes in 2006 with Paraguayan Hammock, an austere slice of ethnographic minimalism (a “film object”, per US critic J. Hoberman) that focused on, well, a hammock in a forest in rural Paraguay, in which an old man lay and waited with his wife for their son to return from the war with Bolivia. (It was set in 1935, though this fact was not immediately apparent.) EAMI is more ambitious in scope and a good deal more engaging: a kind of full sensory immersion in the light, textures and, in particular, the sound-world of the Paraguayan Chaco.

The film opens very much as it means to go on, with a seven-minute shot of a cluster of eggs nestled in sand beside some water. We see the light change around them, watch colours shift along the spectrum, and listen as various noises proliferate on the soundtrack: the growls of unknown predators, the rushing wind, fragments of birdsong. Yet there’s a clear purpose to the sequence, which seeks to convey nothing less than the cumulative beauty and danger of the natural world. Its duration primes us not only for the attenuated pacing to follow – this is a slow, almost hypnotic experience – but also for the generally uncompromising terms of this work, at once meditative and bitterly furious. Despite the film’s niche appeal, it took out Rotterdam’s Tiger Award for best film. 

My own favourite film at the festival, however, didn’t premiere at Rotterdam at all. They Carry Death, the debut feature from Spanish artists Helena Girón and Samuel M. Delgado, screened at Venice and San Sebastian last September. Its narrative is bifurcated. In the first story, three men, prisoners on one of Christopher Columbus’s ships, are unwilling to risk the journey to the New World, so they leap into the sea off the coast of the Canary Islands with one of the ship’s sails (which entangles and almost drowns them before they reach shore) and also something else: a sack containing a mystery that’s resolved only in the film’s final moments. They manage to reach shore, and hope to build a raft that will carry them to freedom, but they find themselves pursued into the hills by their former shipmates. Meanwhile, in Galicia, another person leaps into the unknown: a lovesick young shepherdess abruptly hurls herself from a tall cliff. Badly injured, she’s taken by her older sister to a healer in the mountains, in a desperate attempt to save her life.  

Slowly it becomes apparent that the two stories are occupying different time periods – a woman in the second tale recounts the events of the first – but even that clarification does little to dispel the opaque, almost hallucinatory mood that Girón and Delgado evoke here. The film was shot in Ourense and Tenerife, and is alert to the physical splendours of those locations, their jagged volcanic mountains and dense forests captured in dreamy, high-grain 16mm by cinematographer José Alayón. Delgado was the co-writer of Théo Court’s Blanco en Blanco, one of my favourite films of 2019, and he seems unusually sensitive to the crimes of the past. (At one point, the film incorporates archival footage from the 1951 Spanish epic Dawn of America, a Franco-era glorification of the conquistadors’ achievement.) As the film’s title suggests, these colonisers did indeed bring death – not only in terms of diseases and bacteria, but also in their erasure of indigenous cultures. Throughout the film’s concise 75 minutes, we witness colonialism’s legacy: in a mummified corpse discovered among the hills, in the accounts of women burned as witches. You emerge from it feeling a little like you’ve woken from the nightmare of history.

Shane Danielsen

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

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