50th International Film Festival Rotterdam

Report by Rolf Deen, The Netherlands

The 50th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) had its final day of screenings on the 7th February 2021. Of course, the organization had imagined the anniversary of the IFFR to be an unforgettable festive live event. The Covid-19 pandemic changed all that. The festival has managed however to pull off an equally successful event online with the Indian film Pebbles picking up the main award of the festival, the IFFR Tiger Award. To date IFFR does not have an Ecumenical Jury to grant an award. Members of the Dutch branch of SIGNIS/INTERFILM ‘Het Filmgesprek’ (formerly known as KFA Filmbeschouwing) have visited IFFR from its very beginning. Very often their programming of the annual Day of the Inspirational Film was heavily influenced by the selection of the IFFR.

I was able to watch a small selection from the many screenings that were offered online and published brief reviews for social media in Dutch. I am happy to share these in English with our international film friends through the media of InterFilm. You will find them in my order of preference, guided by the criteria of the ecumenical award.

First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, USA 2021)

There must have been some of those also among the pioneers on the western frontiers: quiet and close friendships. Cinematographer Kelly Reichardt gives a new twist to the western genre with her film First Cow (previously already with Meek's Cutoff in 2010). Who has ever seen a western in which a man puts down a bunch of flowers to liven up the home of his friend? In First Cow we witness just that. A line from William Blake's poem Proverbs of Hell was therefore the right choice for the motto of this film: 'The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship'. And friendship, unlike marriage, doesn’t end after death as we can see at the very start of the film.

In First Cow the arrival of a cow and the milk she yields radically changes the lives of the two protagonists. What they use that milk for is dangerous, but as one of the friends says: "Dangerous? So is anything worth doing." This adaptation of the novel "The Half-life" by Jon Raymond is beautifully accompanied by the minimal music of William Tyler underscoring the art of omission that Kelly Reichardt so sublimely controls. And by doing so, she captures ours hearts.

Drifting (Jun Li, Hongkong 2020)

The combination of the idealism of junior filmmaker Jun Li and the experience of the nestor of the Hong Kong cinema Francis Ng makes watching Drifting, premiering at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2021, a devastating experience. Drifting tells us about the consequences for the homeless of the gentrification of Hong Kong's working-class neighborhood Sham Shiu Po. Although it is an ensemble film, Jun Li tells the story mainly through the (mis)fortunes of the addicted ex-convict Fai. Francis Ng portrays this role in a relentless but never sentimental way. After the authorities' brutal eviction of their street corner, Fai and homeless friends, supported by a social worker, file a lawsuit against the government in which compensation and rehabilitation are at stake. 'I am homeless, but not worthless' they shout from the steps of the courthouse. Drifting gives a face to the millions of homeless people who live on the ragged edges of our society, a face with eyes that will follow you long after you left the cinema.

Riders of Justice (Thomas Jensen, Denmark 2020)

A great opening film for the festive 50th edition of the IFF Rotterdam. Riders of Justice shows a series of fateful events that end under a Christmas tree where an unusual assembly of people, three statistic experts, a Ukrainian male prostitute, a trooper, his daughter and her boyfriend listen together to the Christmas song: Little Drummer Boy. Rider of Justice brings fate, faith, coincidence, grief, religion and psychology together in a universe of insanity, in a way Thomas Jensen has done before with Adams Apples (2005) and Men & Chicken (2015), with a similar ensemble of actors among which of course the unsurpassable Mad Mikkelsen.

The Last Farmer (M. Manikandan, India 2021)

The International Film Festival Rotterdam is known for its strong programming of Asian films. This year's film The Last Farmer by Tamil director Manikandan is a prime example. The last farmer of the South Indian village is arrested on a false charge of killing three peacocks (the national symbol of India). Therefore, to save the harvest, he is forced to impart his knowledge of traditional agriculture to the villagers who visit him in prison. Most of them have already sold their land and exchanged it for more lucrative activities or just laze around all day and are therefore estranged from the land and its gods. They make little of it and thus endanger the sacrifice to the tribal god. The two-and-a-half-hour film works as a parable about the struggle between tradition and innovation in modern India. The Last Farmer is a tribute to the wisdom of old age and intergenerational solidarity. It ends as an Indian film should with a colorful celebration full of song and dance. As a viewer you are left with the question: how do you get out of the dilemma between tradition and innovation? And is there an alternative to the chains of superstition that imprison both traditional people and modern ones? Is there a "best of both worlds"?

Lone Wolf (Jonathan Ogilvie, Australia 2021)

The Australian thriller Lone Wolf is composed of footage from surveillance cameras, smartphones and ATMs. Ogilvie cleverly situates Joseph Conrad's Victorian spy novel Secret Agent in the Melbourne of the near future. The setting is now that of 21st century anarchists, animal and climate activists who are taken for a ride by corrupt police and politicians. How innocence is the first victim of terrorism is beautifully expressed through the role of the mentally challenged Stevie. And there is a surprising supporting role for the voice and idiom of nature filmmaker David Attenborough. The pressures of the "transparent society" (incidentally, razor-sharply analyzed by the German/Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han in his essay of the same name) is briefly but powerfully expressed in the following dialogue taken from the film. Ossipon: "Nobody cares about privacy anymore. They want to be observed, if not by God then at least by technology." Winnie: "I seem to exist and therefore I exist." Lone Wolf is a gripping and oppressive drama that, in addition to being a fascinating viewing experience, also provides us with a good starting point for conversation about the effect of ubiquitous surveillance cameras on a society held hostage by a sense of insecurity.

Pebbles (Vinothraj P.S, India 2021)

‘Arid’ is not only the word for the conditions under which the villagers in the Indian movie Pebbles are forced to live but also for the images by which director Vinothraj P.S tells u his award-winning story. Unlike the usually ultra-dynamic mainstream Bollywood scenario, this film takes us through the events in a meditative pace. Pebbles shows us the consequences for a schoolboy of domestic violence and subsequent separation of his parents. As the IFFR Tiger Award jury reports says: “The result is a lesson in pure cinema, captivating us with its beauty and humour, in spite of its grim subject.”

Dear Comrades (Andrei Konchalovsky, Russia 2020)

In the Soviet workers' paradise, crimes against humanity were also committed under Khrushchev. The Russian film Dear Comrades tells the story from the point of view of a local party official. The crimes by the KGB were covered up under a thick layer of asphalt and the dead disappeared into anonymous graves. The party official comes to a cynical realization with a shock, which is expressed in the film by a KGB agent: "That we live under socialism is also a state secret." Dear Comrades is a gripping historical drama based on facts. The production of this film by itself is a sign of hope because the regime's frantic attempts to erase the facts prove to have been in vain. 59 years later they can be witnessed in theaters all over the world now.

Shorta (Louis Hviid, Denmark 2020)

"I can't breathe" has long since ceased to be just the death cry of an individual victim of police brutality, whose name in the Danish film Shorta (Arabic for cop), is Talib Ben Hassi. It is the cry for help of an entire generation of residents of deprived neighborhoods whose lives apparently do not matter. This thriller shows in a very violent way what happens when things get completely out of hand. Director Frederik Louis Hviid and screenwriter Anders Ølholm seem to be saying with their feature debut: and the police owe it mostly to themselves.

Sweat (Magnus von Horn, Poland 2020)

If your depiction of hell is in need of an update the Polish film Sweat will provide you with the imagery showing you the life of a fitness guru/social media influencer Sylwia. The strange thing is that everyone around Sylwia thinks she can deliver them a piece of heaven. Unfortunately, the plot of the film doesn't really get beyond the cliché of the sad clown behind the smiling mask, now in the appearance of a successful young woman who comes to the obvious realization that success isn't everything in life. Why her introduction to this insight requires the head of her stalker to be beaten to a pulp doesn’t really make sense.

Feast (Tim Leyendekker, Netherlands 2020)

The film Feast by Dutch filmmaker Tim Leyendekker premiered in Rotterdam. The film asks philosophical questions taken from from Plato's Symposion about the motives of the three main suspects in the notorious 2005 Groningen HIV case. The three men allegedly deliberately infected visitors to sex parties they organized with HIV after they drugged them by putting GHB in their beer. And wouldn’t you like to know: in God's name, why? Or, for example: how can the main suspect reconcile his work in health care and the intentional infection of sex partners in his private life? ‘Feast’, however, has become more of a podcast than a movie. With closed eyes, everything is just as comprehensible and in some ways even more so than with eyes open. The only images that have any real cinematic value are those where we see the victims lying forlorn, abandoned on the side of the road, in a bus shelter or at a river beach while passersby tellingly literally pass them by. Let's hope for a remake of Feast but this time in the form of a movie.

​​​Link: Festival Homepage

Link: Het Filmgesprek