Rotterdam’s Eclectic Discoveries

The Daily — Feb 5, 2019
Shengze Zhu’s Present.Perfect. (2019)

If cinema were to release a vinyl single each January, an opening salvo for the new year, Sundance would be the A-side, the stab at scoring a chart-topping hit. The International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) would be the B-side, traditionally the set of grooves showing off what else an artist can do. The focus of Rotterdam, whose forty-eighth edition wrapped this past weekend, is on the discovery of emerging filmmakers few of us know much about yet and unduly neglected treasures from the archives.

Notebook editor Daniel Kasman’s diary-like dispatches from the IFFR give us a sense of the festival’s eclectic range. He’s written about Natsuka Kusano’s Domains, “a fiction film without what one normally would assume would be in it”; the sound//vision section, “a nightly expanded cinema presentation confronting different ideas of cinema’s sensorial split”; formally innovative essay films by Federico Atehortúa Arteaga and Peter Schreiner; and perhaps most intriguingly, the Laboratory of Unseen Beauty, “a series whose code word, as its curator Olaf Möller described it, was ‘ruin films’—movies unfinished, abandoned, some picked up by others, some left in a state of incompletion, some never really intended to be shown in a cinema, and all, by dint of them being shown now, are shown as finished films—films finished as unfinished. This state could be ‘a description of cinema as such,’ Möller gleefully noted, and in this laboratory ‘whatever happens will be interesting.’”

The winner of Rotterdam’s top prize, the Tiger Award, is Present.Perfect., whose title “is a reference to grammar and a meditation on cinema’s function of recording the past and live-streaming’s function of broadcasting the present,” director Shengze Zhu tells Becca Voelcker at Film Comment. The two-hour film has been pieced together from over 800 hours Zhu recorded from a dozen online “anchors” in China who stream whatever it is they might be up to. Viewers reward popular anchors with virtual gifts that can be traded for real cash, and as the IFFR points out, within just a few years, live-streaming has become an industry worth billions.

Voelcker finds Present.Perfect. “pixelated and jumpy—seemingly in contrast with the static, Vermeer-like treatment of space in Zhu’s previous documentary feature, Another Year (2017). But Present.Perfect.’s characteristic use of the long take and her careful cutting, along with the conversion of found-footage to black and white, demonstrate Zhu’s continued interest in framing everyday life in formally precise ways.”

Present.Perfect. is one of ten world premieres at this year’s IFFR that Adam Cook advises us to keep an eye out for. Also on his list for IndieWire is Ena Sendijarević’s Take Me Somewhere Nice, the winner of a special jury award. The Jim Jarmusch–inspired road movie tracks a young woman’s journey from the Netherlands to her father’s home in Bosnia. “Meticulously composed in 4:3 with a colorfully cartoonish style, Sendijarević imbues the film with an offbeat sense of humor,” writes Cook, but “at its core,” Take Me Somewhere Nice is “a poignant study of migration and belonging.”

Ulaa Salim’s Sons of Denmark, set in 2025, one year after a bomb in Copenhagen has claimed twenty-three lives, opened this year’s Tiger Competition. A nineteen-year-old Muslim is recruited by an underground movement to combat the rapid rise of ultra-nationalism, and “this slickly handled vision of day-after-tomorrow Scandinavia clicked with Rotterdam audiences,” writes Neil Young in the Hollywood Reporter. For Young, though, the film “has the feel of a project which could very easily have been presented as a multipart miniseries for the small screen. This larger canvas would have allowed, for example, a greater sense of the wider political context.” At Cineuropa, Kaleem Aftab finds that “the closing scenes are overblown, given over excessively to genre elements and shock, whereas it’s the character study that compels.”

In the Voices program, Philippe Lesage’s Genèse tracks three parallel teenage love stories, and David Pountain finds that “this keen-eyed study of young love and lust amounts to a richly insightful and engrossingly empathetic character study-cum-social commentary.” Also writing for Vague Visages, Paul Farrell reviews Dan Schoenbrun’s “documentary/essay/playlist” A Self-Induced Hallucination, an entry in the Perspectives section which moves “from a recounting of the Slender Man phenomenon into a rigorous study on the ethical quandaries within internet culture.”

A popular draw this year was Brian Welsh’s Beats, the story of two Scottish working-class fifteen-year-olds who become fast friends in the mid-1990s at the height of the illegal rave scene. Variety’s Guy Lodge is reminded of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996). “The same spirit of raggedly exuberant, techno-pumped nihilism courses through both films,” he writes. Amy Taubin caught Beats at Slamdance, where the film screened a few days after the IFFR world premiere, and writing for Film Comment, she argues that “it’s not only the boys who escape their imprisoning lives in a druggy, mind-blowing, eye-opening, open-air, law-defying rave, but the film itself, in a third-act breakout that has the nerve not merely to sample the delirious experience of hundreds of kids coming together through music, but to sustain that delirium long enough to override conventions of how the climax of a film should be shaped.”

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