Intentionally or not, the programmers of this year’s New Directors/New Films seem to be suggesting that we need to be paying more attention to Rotterdam. Flanked on the calendar by Sundance and Berlin, Rotterdam has been presenting work by emerging filmmakers in its Tiger competition for over a quarter of a century now—work that too often gets lost in the noise kicked up by the two other winter festivals with higher profiles. Of the twenty-seven features in the ND/NF 2021 lineup, six premiered a few months ago at Sundance; seven in Berlin, plus another, Arie and Chuko Esiri’s Eyimofe (This Is My Desire), from last year’s Berlinale; and seven in Rotterdam. That’s considerable representation.
All seven Rotterdam titles were in the running for the festival’s top prize, and the winner was Pebbles, the debut feature from P. S. Vinothraj. “With the stark clarity of its story and the audacity of its style, it presents a complex view of social life, material conditions, and the struggles for selfhood in a remote mountainous region of India’s Tamil Nadu,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody of “the best dramatic feature I’ve seen in this year’s New Directors/New Films.” Set on the hottest day of the year, a drunk and furious father, Ganapathy (theater actor Karuththadaiyaan), yanks his son, Velu (Chellapandi, a nonprofessional first-timer), from school, and Pebbles then becomes a road movie on foot.
Ganapathy drags his son to the village where his wife, Velu’s mother, is staying with her family. He insists that she return home with them, and he’s so nasty about it that Velu tears up their bus ticket money, forcing them to walk the eight miles back home—without the wife and mother. Vinothraj is “an extraordinary observational filmmaker,” writes Brody, “which is to say that he imagines his characters’ lives with extraordinary physical and psychological complexity. He conceives daily incidents in teeming yet sharply focussed details and invests them with great moral weight.” Nicolas Rapold talks with the director for Screen Slate. “Seeing the momentum of someone almost impatient to get his vision into the world, I was not surprised to learn that Vinothraj essentially storyboarded the entire film and every cut before shooting over thirty-six days in a summer so hot it could stop cameras,” writes Rapold.
In James Vaughan’s Friends and Strangers, Ray (Fergus Wilson), who earns a living shooting wedding videos, finds himself in a tent with Alice (Emma Diaz) on an unplanned camping trip. Nothing comes of it, though, and their impromptu pairing grows even more awkward once they return to Sydney. “These people are truly deprived of a driving force, comfortably meandering around in unfiltered unawareness and unaudited privilege,” writes Alonso Aguilar for photogénie. “Shrewdly, Vaughan lets them inhabit the screen fully with no attempt at moral pronouncements. One of his most inspired decisions is to make the whole universe the characters inhabit one of pure artifice. Shots are symmetrically composed, the color palette is pastel and sunny, and the grainy 16 mm aesthetic clamors to be tagged #Dreamy in an early 2010s Tumblr post.”
For each title in this year’s Tiger competition, Rotterdam invited a critic or filmmaker to write a few notes, and given that Vaughn is Australian, it was only natural for the festival to turn to Adrian Martin. “In its unique way, Friends and Strangers is a comedy of manners,” writes Martin. “As such, it will be inevitably compared with the work of Eric Rohmer. But, with its elliptical structure of characters who appear and disappear across a fan of seemingly disconnected episodes, it is closer to the Hong Sangsoo model. Like Hong’s films, it projects a droll, quizzical, frazzled perception of the oddness of meetings, partings, and uncertain emotional (and physical) fumblings.”
Rotterdam’s collection of “Appreciations” also includes Spanish director Jaime Rosales, who for the past several years has been following the development of Dominican filmmaker Nino Martinez Sosa’s Liborio, a retelling of the legend of a village farmer who disappears and is resurrected as a messiah. Rosales singles out the contributions of cinematographer Oscar Durán and editor Angel Hernández-Zoido, “two great artists who must have contributed to giving the film the rigor that is one of its trademarks.” Liborio “offers us a glimpse of an unknown filmmaking style, through a sophisticated and exciting eye.”
With Bebia, à mon seul désir, Juja Dobrachkous tells the story of seventeen-year-old Ariadna, a successful model called back to her rural village in Georgia when her grandmother, Bebia, dies. True to her namesake, Ariadna must walk the twenty-five kilometers from Bebia’s deathbed to her grave, unspooling a thread along the way to ensure that her grandmother’s soul won’t lose her way. “Amid dark shadows and tightly framed, constricted spaces, the cord Ariadna maps evokes family tensions over where her relatives and country people end and her independence, or isolation, begins,” writes Carmen Gray. “It’s the lineage that holds successive generations together in collective belonging; it’s also the bind of gendered tradition and expectation that seeks to prevent a remaking of horizons anew according to personal ambition.”
Filmmaker and programmer Jordi Costa calls Ainhoa Rodríguez’s Destello bravío “a fabulous journey” through a small town in southwestern Spain that nods to both Federico Fellini and David Lynch while guiding us through “more recognizable landscapes and rites: the remote village, the Easter procession, the bar chatter, the shepherds. All this is accompanied by a sound design that at times evokes the menace of a volcano about to erupt, or the imminent explosion of a transformative irrationality, ending the paralysis of what until then seemed eternal. Destello bravío, as its name suggests, dazzles with its blinding talent and bears down on us with savage energy.”
Another small town, this one in Brazil. Three lives are radically altered by the death of a local trans woman in Madiano Marcheti’s Madalena. “Marcheti skips some of the standard scenes,” notes David Bordwell. “We never see the police investigation, or even the discovery of the body. The crime plot has been a pretext to reveal a cross-section of life in the community, from the wealthy farmers to the cottages where the staff live. The resolution shifts the question of who did it to the broader impact of the death, and how it stands for a horrifying statistic: Brazil has the world’s biggest murder rate of transgendered people.” Bordwell adds that Madalena has been “filmed with a pictorial intelligence that one seldom sees these days” and that he is reminded of Agnès Varda’s Vagabond (1985), “in which an enigmatic figure’s fate charts the range of human indifference, but also affords glimpses of sympathy.”
In Queena Li’s Bipolar, Leah Dou, the daughter of composer and performer Dou Wei and pop star Faye Wong, plays a nameless singer-songwriter on an aimless wander when she arrives in Lhasa, set atop the Tibetan Plateau and one of the highest cities in the world. There, among a throng of iPhone-wielding tourists, she witnesses the presentation of a rainbow lobster and decides to rescue the crustacean by nabbing it and driving it halfway across to the country to the sea. “Throughout, flashbacks make the most of the actress’s rock-star cool, with wide-angle shots that sweep up and down bodies, zipping across clubs and staircases, as if trying to explain away her character’s past life as a blur of hedonism,” writes Ben Flanagan at Slant. “By reveling in the rambling and weird beauty of first impressions, and infusing the weary narrative with an underbelly of rock music needle drops, Bipolar has the off-kilter vibe of an early Jim Jarmusch film,” finds Glenn Heath Jr. at the Film Stage.
For all the trauma of the flashbacks, “the austere landscape itself, and its complex inhabitants, presented in perfectly composed vignettes, constantly remind us that to travel—regardless of the baggage one carries—is to create one’s own magical phantasmagoria,” writes Ela Bittencourt. “This sense is firmly established by Tian Zhuangzhuang’s fluent editing, and further enhanced by Ke Yuming’s limpid, gorgeous cinematography.”
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