Going Dutch

On the 52nd International Film Festival Rotterdam

Winnie Cheung, Residency, 2023, DCP, color, sound, 75 minutes.

THE FIRST IMAGE of the first movie I watched at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam set the mood: a woman splayed out on a pile of trash next to a kitschy painting of a sad clown. The remainder of Winnie Cheung’s acid-washed pseudo-documentary Residency—made during a “lockdown” residency at Brooklyn’s Locker Room studio—follows suit, tracking Cheung’s crew of cloistered creatives as they work, party, shoot the shit, space out. Forget what’s real and what’s not. The chaotic DIY setting, deliriously rendered in abstracting close-ups and ruby-red atmospherics, resurrects the collective spirit that once defined New York City’s artistic ecosystem, yet the zombified venture spirals into derangement as the film shifts into the mode of funhouse horror à la Ryan Trecartin. “I dreamt I was in a film and my superpower was my ability to sell my work” is a line that’s stuck with me since.

2023 marks the physical return of Rotterdam after two years of virtual festivities as well as extensive layoffs that hit many of its longtime programmers. The gloomy Dutch city felt extra gloomy this time around, but the feeling was not unfamiliar—it’s that discrete malaise of modern-day arts institutions buoyed by a high price of admission, underpaid (and/or) volunteer workers running on fumes of passion, and the memory that it used to be different.

The titles of the combined short-to-mid-length programs radiated a similar distress. “9-5,” “Shared Spaces,” “Private Recollections,” “Centuries.” I was particularly taken by the three entries in “PoMoFoMo”—Postmodern Fear of Missing Out—a package loosely about the smallness of the individual in the face of monolithic and perpetually surveilling forces: Mateo Vega’s “Center, Ring, Mall,” an incantatory meditation on the false hopes embodied by once-revolutionary developments in urban infrastructure; James J.A. Mercer and Yifan Jiang’s “Vacation,” a punchy animation in throwback Microsoft threads about a man who communes with the natural world only to discover that the animals work office jobs, too; and the veteran Croatian experimentalist Boris Poljak’s “Horror Vacui,” which applies the Aristotelian maxim to contemporary militarization, presenting overlapping, detail-saturated images of tank parades and war tourism via extreme long lenses to lugubrious, miragelike effect.

Artemis Shaw and Prashanth Kamalakanthan, New Strains, 2023, Hi8 video, color, sound, 78 minutes.

Several of my favorite discoveries possess an uneasy relationship to the art life. From New York, Artemis Shaw and Prashanth Kamalakanthan’s mumblecore-esque New Strains offers an original take on the pandemic picture. Shot with a Hi8 camera and filled with woozy Stendhal Syndrome incursions caused by mediocre seascapes, it’s a weirdo rom-com that presents cohabitating coupledom as a double-edged sword of existential solace and unfettered neuroses. La Palisiada, by the Ukrainian director Philip Sotnychenko (a current resident of Kyiv who has yet to be drafted), is an oblique thriller about state violence at the grimly comic pitch of Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass. Straddling static painterly compositions and jittery, documentarylike realism courtesy of ’90s-era mini cameras that Sotnychenko found on eBay, it begins in Ukraine’s present-day cultural milieu, a world of wine-fueled chatter and gallery exhibitions seemingly distant from both the country’s ongoing conflict and the historical event on which the plot hinges—the execution of a scapegoat, the final one before the death penalty was phased out in 1996.

Philip Sotnychenko, La Palisiada, 2023, color, sound, 100 minutes.

André Gil Mata’s slow cinema homage The Damned Yard, Benjamin Deboosere’s joyously idiosyncratic reinvention, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe Who Lived for Twenty and Eight Years All Alone on an Inhabited Island and Said It Was His, and Morgan Quaintance’s rhythmic ode to modern labor, “Repetitions,” stand out among the festival’s younger, less-established filmmakers. IFFR mainstays like Lav Diaz, Aleksandr Sokurov, and Albert Serra presented their latest films—as did Ulrich Seidl. The Austrian formalist claims that Wicked Games represents the original (and less easily distributable) concept behind his previous two films, 2022’s Sparta and Rimini. Last year, I was supposed to see Sparta at the Toronto International Film Festival, but a few hours prior to my press screening, the film was pulled due to the publication of a Der Spiegel article accusing the director of exploiting the minors in his cast. Ironically, Wicked Games premiered in the “Harbour” section, a “safe haven to the full range of contemporary cinema” per the online notes. The film shifts between the sweat-slicked Romanian backcountry, where Sparta’s repressed Ewald establishes a day camp for the local boys, and the coastal Italian ghost town of Ewald’s brother and Rimini’s protagonist, Richie, a leonine lounge singer-cum-sex-worker. Seidl’s work consistently writhes in the muck of modern European life, poisoned at the root by a history of fascism, yielding, if not explicit Hitler salutes, then desires and principles with similarly perverse power dynamics. Not that the brothers are unambiguously villainous. With Ewald, Seidl mounts one of his greatest provocations: Despite the character’s deviance, he provides a kind of sanctuary for boys whose homelives are plagued by domestic violence and gross machismo, with the genuine bond he forms with one of the group’s beta-members comparable to the corrupted codependency of the Nazi soldier/Jewish prisoner romance (i.e., 1974’s The Night Porter). Perhaps the sympathetic light cast on the slimy Ewald is too easy, too predictably exculpatory coming from a filmmaker with allegedly questionable practices, and there is something to be said about the parallels between Ewald and Seidl. Both are emboldened, relatively well-to-do Austrians who set shop in a disadvantaged country, their real intentions obscured from the members of the community. Ewald limits his exploits to shirtless roughhousing and gazing, shooting videos of his pupils that he revisits in private, grist for the mill of his sexual gratification.

Ulrich Seidl, Wicked Games, 2023, DCP, color sound, 205 minutes.

The festival’s selection felt particularly attuned to cinema’s spectral qualities, its fraternization with the ghosts of history: Khavn De La Cruz’s National Anarchist is a compilation of scraps by the Filipino filmmaker Lino Brocka, and Jeronimo Atehortua Arteaga and the late Luis Ospina’s Mudos Testigos (Silent Witnesses) creates a fictional melodrama using footage from the silent era of Colombian cinema.

No film proved as haunting as Steve McQueen’s deceptively titled Sunshine State, a double-sided, two-channel installation housed on the fifth floor of the Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen. Set on loop, the piece chops and screws a pivotal sequence from The Jazz Singer (1927) in which Al Jolson slathers his face in black makeup and performs on stage; in McQueen’s work, as Jolson applies the color, his face disappears, creating a void where the head once was. Both sides of the installation are the same, but the side-by-side screens cycle through different parts of the same sequence in different keys: The images sometimes play in reverse, the black-and-white flips to negative, Jolson’s real face occasionally comes into being as the “invisible” paint is rubbed off in the rewound iteration. What more, McQueen strips The Jazz Singer of its claim to fame—its sound—inserting his own voice instead. He tells a story about his father who was nearly lynched and repeats it over and over again—in full, then in nonchronological fragments, snatched phrases and words. Eventually, it’s just Jolson on the stage on both screens, the background denuded of detail. As it reaches its crescendo, Sunshine State becomes a flicker film, both screens rapidly switching between black and white. Then the pulsing, hypnotizing sun, which throws the cacophony of the Jolson sequence into relief.

Steve McQueen, Sunshine State, 2023, two-channel video installation, black-and-white and color, sound, 30 minutes. Installation view, Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Of McQueen’s past work, J. Hoberman has written about its impulse toward the “destruction of meaning.” Through compulsive repetition, image and narrative takes flight, transforms, collapses, flatlines. Sunshine State, commissioned for Rotterdam’s fiftieth anniversary and drawing on a film that embodies the fraught history of moving images, may be the opposite of a “love letter” to cinema, seeing in the medium and its legacy a kind of devastation. I’m reminded of a poem by Henri Michaux: “Relieved of the abscess of being someone, I will drink anew the nourishing space . . . I will expel from me the form they thought so well attached, composed, coordinated.” It’s called “Clown.”

The 52nd International Film Festival Rotterdam ran from January 25 to February 5.