If there are three things sure about International Film Festival Rotterdam every year, it’s that: there will be wind, there will be rain, and there will be some of the most boundary-pushing new cinema around on its screens. It’s known among Europe’s major festivals for its daring taste for experimentation and support for renegade talents. We inevitably couldn’t catch all of the Dutch port city’s packed, almost fortnight-long programme – chief among regrettable misses being the Tiger feature award winner, Chinese director Cai Chengjie’s reportedly dark satire about a female shaman, The Widowed Witch – but below is our pick of ample highlights.
The planes of waking life, spirits and dreaming merge in the mesmeric film universes of Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul. In his Cannes-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) the dead stop by to visit their relatives; in Cemetery of Splendour (2015) a sleeping sickness epidemic has the stricken troubled by visions. At Rotterdam he took his audacious, enchanting disregard for borders between worlds a step further with SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL, transforming a convention centre floor into a scaffolded space guests could book into for an overnight bed opposite a circular screen glowing with projected imagery. Soundtracked by lapping water and creaking ships, the footage of boats, sleeping beings and other serene ephemera mined from our last century of cinema created a haven of gently immersive reverie within the typical festival bustle.
2. Nico, 1988
Lead actress Trine Dyrholm is the best thing about Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Nico, 1988, a downbeat portrait of the later years of German singer and art-world muse Christa Päfggen, or Nico as she was known. That’s no small feat, given what an utterly singular and difficult to emulate presence the deep-voiced icon had. The film shows the frustrations of a star who had moved on in her career as a solo artist, but was hemmed in by others’ obsession with her defining years in the 60s collaborating with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. Her enduring heroin addiction is front and centre, as is her erratic rebonding with her troubled son Ari, but the tragic tint to the tale does not moralistically overwhelm subtler layers of characterisation in what becomes a sometimes shambolic road trip touring with her new band, including a clandestine concert in then-communist Prague.
3. The Pain of Others
Penny Lane’s prior documentary feature NUTS! (2016) was a surreal tale of quackery and invention, exploring the intersection of science, hoax and community mythologies in its take on an American goat-gland implant peddler from the early 1900s. The Pain of Others, the noted found-footage director’s latest, follows this thematic terrain down a darker rabbit hole. It’s made from YouTube clips posted by women convinced they have Morgellons – a disease many doctors insist is a delusion, but which its sufferers believe is the cause of bizarre symptoms. Lane does not ask us to solve this mystery but rather to consider it in the light of poet Anne Carson’s line: “One of the principle qualities of pain is that it demands an explanation”.
The Western genre has inspired countless riffs and re-envisionings. German directors – such as Roland Klick, with his desert stand-off by way of psychedelia Deadlock (1970) – have been no less immune to its charms. Valeska Grisebach sets her wary frontier-style clash, Western, in the sweltering countryside of Bulgaria, as German labourers arrive to build infrastructure and their acts of arrogance stir wartime resentments, along with their gentler attempts at cultivating local friendships. Grisebach nails the more subtle as well as overt aspects of cross-cultural communication and mistrust, imperialism and historically entrenched prejudices in her arthouse hit, in which conflict over a white horse brings tensions to boiling point.
5. Rose Gold
Rotterdam is a strong showcase for the vanguard of short filmmaking, and among the most arresting work this year was Tiger Short Competition winner Rose Gold by New York-based director Sara Cwynar. It mixes collage and promotional-style displays of richly coloured, glossy luxury items and lifestyle accessories from perfume bottles to Swedish designer kitchenware, overlaid with a free-flowing voice-over of musings on status-giving products and emotion. Its prime obsession is Apple’s Rose Gold iPhone and its updated, mesmerising colour – asking if it is totemic through the cult of desire surrounding it, and the hold of symbolism that attracts us (in China, gold is revered as an especially auspicious colour).