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.
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.”
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.”
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.