Saturday, 13 February 2021

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2021

Drawing to a temporary close last weekend, the 50th edition of the Rotterdam International Film Festival (better known as IFFR) switched up its format for these pandemic stricken times, mirroring most of the other big-hitter festivals by shifting online, but rather than offering a reduced festival Rotterdam is setting itself apart by expanding and splitting in two - a February programme and another, more optimistic instalment scheduled for June that aims to incorporate outdoor screenings an in-cinema events across The Netherlands that will highlight the festival's rich history and reputation of championing emerging filmmakers from around the globe.

Incorporating different areas of competition - the Tiger Competition, the Big Screen Competition and the Tiger Shorts Competition -  that comprised 30 features and nearly the same amount of shorts, the winners were announced as part of the closing night celebrations, that also honoured director Kelly Reichardt with the second annual Robby Müller Award for her work in film. With so many films on offer it's simply impossible to take them all in - I missed out on the new Mads Mikkelsen film Riders of Justice that I was hoping to see - but along with the switch to a virtual format there's a newfound joy in going into screenings (at home) blind with no pre-conceived ideas or word of mouth buzz that you'd expect at old-fashioned "physical" festivals, apart from the occasional mention on Twitter that's not always a sure-fire benchmark of quality.

Directed by Félix Dufour-Laperrière, French animation Archipelago/Archipel creates an almost trance-like world of imagery and poetry, using natural landscapes and archive film as part of their palette to aide the animation of the imagined islands of the title. Using a variety of techniques from simple line drawings to rotoscoping, my personal favourite element was the inverse silhouettes it employed that draw the eye like the keyhole of a door to another world. It's a technique used before, perhaps most notably in the Pixar short Night and Day, but accompanying the dialogue that's delivered as if it's a confessional diary entry written by a warring couple ("You don't exist", "You're wrong"), there's a deeper emotional weight to it. I'll be honest that it's the visuals that make Archipelago a compelling experience, and even if you do check out from the continuing narrative as you're entranced by a rotoscoped swimmer or old film brought to new life with some animated enhancements, the cyclical nature of the film is forgiving.

Drawing way too much inspiration from Todd Phillips' Joker, The Cemil Show follows a shopping mall security guard (Ozan Çelik) as he lives out his fantasy of being a movie star by studying and copying the performance of his idol, Turgay Goral, the villain in a series of films in the 1960s. By chance, Cemil's co-worker Burcu (Nesrin Cavadzade) happens to be Goral's daughter, giving Cemil access to a VHS archive of his past performances that will push the already unhinged wannabe actor over the edge of insanity. As his delusion becomes a psychotic desire to become Goral's villain for real, Cemil puts the lives of Burcu and the original film's director in serious danger.

It's a sad, joyless film with a thoroughly unclear message that's drastically and un-ironically hampered by its own desire to ape Joaquin Phoenix's Oscar winning turn as Arthur Fleck in Joker, not helped at all by budgetary limitations that mean a large proportion of scenes are shot on the empty level of a multi-storey car park. There's some surprisingly effective character work by Cavadzade, as Burcu becomes increasingly fed up with her lot in life, but the performance of Çelik as an average Joe turned homicidal madman just isn't convincing.

Dutch director David Verbeek's Dead and Beautiful follows the nocturnal activities of a group of young, wealthy urbanites as they explore the benefits of their newfound blood lust on the streets of Taiwan. Waking up after a spiritual cleansing with fangs, they retreat to the empty luxury penthouse owned by one of their billionaire fathers and plot how best to make the most of life as a vampire. Equal parts socio-political and sociopathic, Dead and Beautiful taps into the 80's yuppie excess of Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys and Flatliners. It's a pleasingly inventive update on the genre that treats vampirism like a designer drug, starring a group of characters that are blinded by their immense privilege and contempt for everyone else.

Nodding heavily towards Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Alice Lowe's Prevenge and Abel Ferrara's The Addiction, Black Medusa stars Nour Hajri as Nada, a near mute young woman who picks up random men in the nightclubs of Tunis in order to violently and sadistically murder them. When her workmate Noura extends an offer of friendship, Nada rejects her, until a dangerous turn of events sees her calling on her in her time of need.

Presented as a 'Tale in Nine Nights', it's a mystery as to why Nada is doing this, although the sexual humiliation she inflicts on these men (such as penetrating them with a broom handle) hints towards her motivation. Shot over 12 days with a small crew, it's a gorgeous black and white that features a number of outdoor day-lit scenes that show off the vibrancy and beauty of Tunis. Despite being almost entirely mute and carrying a blank, numb expression, Hajri's a compelling presence on screen and manages to convey a lot with a simple stare. A troubling look at a woman taking action against the repulsive side of life in her city, Black Medusa is a dark, catharsis-free revenge fantasy. 

More than 50 years after competing at the Tokyo Olympics, the surviving members of the Nichibo Kaizuka volleyball team are brought back together to reminisce about their worldwide success that lead to them being dubbed the Witches of the Orient, and the rigorous training they were put through by their head coach, Hirofumi 'The Demon' Daimatsu. Using some of the vintage volleyball anime that became prevalent after their success on the world stage and footage from their training sessions, director Julian Faraut has crafted a truly fascinating documentary on the young lives of these women, and the pressure they were under to succeed.

Cut together to create a collage of animation, old footage and a new propulsive soundtrack, Witches of the Orient (or to give it its original French title, Les Sorcières de l'Orient) resembles something akin to a Spike Jonze music video montage, but with a deeper emotional journey served with its use of the present day interviews with the women, now in their seventies. As the film sets into the final showdown against the team from The Soviet Union, the reveal of the restoration work is incredible, making it a gripping, joyous experience to watch. Inventively presented and compelling, Witches of the Orient is a fantastic achievement in documentary filmmaking.

In Karen Cinorre's dreamlike Mayday, Grace Van Patten stars as Ana, a waitress at a wedding who in the middle of a storm warning is transported into a new world where soldiers are falling from the sky and the world she knew is out of order. Teaming up with a troop of young women lead by Mia Goth's Marsha, they listed to radio signals from their beached submarine and fend off the danger posed by the continuing appearance of new soldiers around them.

A 'girl's own adventure' with a World War II meets Wizard of Oz slant to it, Mayday throws a lot of creativity at the screen and not all of it sticks. The world they're in is a befuddling one, and although unexpected dance routines and synchronised swimming might make for charming interludes, it's hard to see what relevance they have to the story. Van Patten, an absolute star on the rise after solid performances in Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories and Dolly Wells' Good Posture, serves the script well and has a great interplay with Mia Goth, but there's not enough substance to make this feel more than just a flight of fancy.

The final feature I was able to see and one of the absolute delights of the festival was Ana Katz's The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet/El Perro Que No Calla, following a young man, Sebastian (Daniel Katz), as he tries to placate his neighbours and his workplace when his dog suffers immense loneliness when he's not there and cries out until he returns. The deserved winner of the Big Screen Competition prize, it's a fascinating and completely unpredictable story that jumps ahead to key moments in Sebastian's life as it takes a number of unforeseen turns, including a segment that sees characters forced to wear breathing helmets and obey a strict protocol to stay below 4ft. Science fiction that's utterly feasibly given the 2020 we just had, it's a film that continually shifts what you think it is, giving lovely, sweet moments of unexpected comedy to balance the rigours of Sebastian's life.

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