Skip to main content

IFFR 2024: Pleasures on Display

By Forrest Cardamenis

Two figures wearing dark shirts and glasses sit at a square table. They are surrounded by bookshelves, and are each drinking a mug of tea.

Film still from Elegies. Courtesy of IFFR

A publicist for the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) remarked to me near the end of this year’s festival that after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the festival online and last year’s tepid restart, this was the “real” first festival under the artistic directorship of Vanja Kaludjercic. When Kaludjercic came aboard in February 2020 from MUBI, where she was director of acquisitions, there was talk that Kaludjercic might pare down the festival’s enormous lineup, which featured 575 films in Bero Beyer’s last edition. Now that we are as removed from the COVID pandemic as we are going to get—the only mention of it I heard in my weeklong stay in Rotterdam was in reference to past editions—we can confirm that, with “just” 424 films in the lineup this year (half features, half shorts/midlength), she did. 

IFFR’s enormous slate and strong programming have historically given it a reputation as both a discovery festival and a crapshoot. If done optimally, trimming the slate by more than a quarter could emphasize the former. While the average quality of the new films I watched did seem higher than in previous years, if you are reading this hoping for a rave, I’ll disappoint you, because of the 23 such features, none were truly great, either. Among the possible explanations for this are my own bad luck or the festival’s inadequate pruning and insufficiently defined sections, which make it hard to navigate the slate—I found myself at screenings in the “Harbour” section frequently, but that included a crowd-pleasing Japanese boxing film, One Last Bloom; the documentary essay Avant il n’y avait rien, discussed below; and the oneiric Estonian arthouse 8 Views of Lake Biwa, among other titles I couldn’t fit together. 

But two facts seem expeditious. Following the 2022 festival, a number of programmers felt a loss of autonomy under Kaludjercic’s directorship and were let go in subsequent “restructuring,” and, relatedly, the festival is facing increasingly visible budgetary problems. While the exact budget for 2024 has not been reported, Screen previously reported a 2020 budget of €9.8m and a 2023 budget of €7.8m, and first-year managing director Clare Stewart spoke of “a reduction in scale to match our resources.” 

The programming visibly suffers from budget issues. A surefire way to ensure a good screening at IFFR in the past had been to turn to its 16mm/35mm programming, but there appeared to be but one celluloid program this year. The “Cinema Regained” section, programmed by the always idiosyncratic Olaf Möller, and consisting primarily of documentaries about filmmakers and accompanying films by the subjects, was characteristically invigorating, though digital retrospectives on the Mannetti brothers and Scud excited me less than past retrospectives. But the cuts are noticeable even outside the slate. There was talk among colleagues that they were booked further from the festival center for fewer nights, and one even observed (not without ire) that the press badges were not even laminated. 

If these complaints seem tacky, it’s worth remembering that, while the festival ecosystem is precarious (and probably dying), it remains a primary avenue through which many films outside the mainstream make their way to viewers. IFFR in particular is admirable for its distance from the marketing and publicity cycle that dominates the industry. While its “Limelight” section does create a PR opportunity for Dutch distributors, these films have often played the festival circuit extensively and hence do not distract from the rest of the programming. The competition films, the international and world premieres, and the CineMart marketplace selections often hail from parts of the globe that lack resources—such as the backing of well-funded cultural institutes and the leverage of big-time sales agents—afforded to films that fill the lineups of more prestigious festivals. At its best, IFFR gives these films and experimental films of all lengths a chance to be noticed without the distraction of concurrent red carpet photo ops with big movie stars. As this egalitarian ethos disintegrates at film festivals around the world, it’s crucial that IFFR finds a way to maintain it.

All that said, the festival’s pleasures were still on display. The diversity of the program, which covers films of many lengths from all over the world in all cinematic modes, meant that the possibility of discovery died only with my flight home. And while the program is a sprawl, the physical footprint is compact and navigable, making it easy to attend more screenings and solicit and share recommendations with colleagues. Attending experimental or obscure arthouse films in a commercial IMAX theater and seeing nearly every seat full is also a genuine and rare thrill. IFFR has won the hearts of its locale’s population, and in an era when there is very little about the future of film to be hopeful for, that sight suggests that maybe all is not lost.

I was spurred to watch Avant il n’y avait rien based purely on the synopsis: Yvann Yagchi, a Swiss-Palestinian man, attempted to make a documentary with his childhood best friend, an Israeli settler, about their views on the competing claims to the West Bank. We get a taste of the unmade film at the start of this one—the two shot footage independently, then responded to the other’s footage with their own—but when Yagchi’s friend drops out, Yagchi takes the film in a different direction. It’s notable but unsurprising that what begins as a mutual search for “truth” led to Yagchi becoming increasingly invested in history and learning about the occupation while his settler counterpart withdrew from the search altogether. 

In the early stages, when Yagchi first travels to the settlements and speaks with Israelis and Palestinians alike, Avant is commendable in its curiosity. Rather than “both-sides”-ing an issue that needs no such approach, as the initial idea threatened to do, it reflects the process of education and discovery through experience and confrontation. In the film’s best scene, a Palestinian man explains how he finds peace in a cemetery, where, he says, all his friends and family whom God pulled from the unjust earth are buried, and then asks Yagchi where he stands. Caught off guard, Yagchi remains silent, and his sound recordist offers some vagaries about wanting to learn the “truth.” 

What ensues is Yagchi’s subsequent dive into his family history, interesting enough in the details (Yagchi’s great-grandfather’s books, left behind during the Nakba, are viewable by appointment as “abandoned property” at Israel’s National Library, an absurdity Yagchi rightfully lingers on), but well short of revelatory. Even the film’s other standout sequence—in which Yagchi’s cousin takes him around East Jerusalem, draws our attention to the proliferation of surveillance cameras, and uses the local topography to explain Israel’s ongoing project—is almost quaint in the face of far less subtle, ongoing atrocities. Yagchi made Avant il n’y avait rien before the start of the current war, but since then, the need to “reveal” anything has disappeared, and the suggestion of a gradual encroachment on Palestine described in the scene has been upended; the genocide is plain for all to see. 

Those looking for revelations should turn instead to Luis Parés’ extensively researched La Primera Mirada, an all-archival affair offering a glimpse of the films made at Spain’s first film school. Many of the films made there were critical of Franco, and none of them have been screened for the public. However, the institute remained open even as the films it produced were shelved because it was a valuable resource for training below-the-line workers for jobs in the Francoist industry. At first, the student films took influence from Italian Neorealism, but they began to direct their criticism to the bourgeois and their sympathy toward the plight of women as Spain opened up and its relationship with America blossomed. 

Parés’ accomplishment is twofold: First, he expertly marshals clips that illustrate his historical read of these student films, helping us to see the history of Francoist Spain through films that were never screened. Second, he shares with the world for the first time the impressive work of talented filmmakers (he proffers dozens of names, most recognizably Carlos Suara, Victor Erice, and Luis Garcia Berlanga, each of whom had previously unseen films to their name from their time at the school). 

The first of these accomplishments is what makes the film work as history, but it’s the second that lingers. The sheer number of films that Parés showcases—works of distinguished and distinguishable style and authorial vision—astonishes, even as clips no more than a couple minutes long. In a post-screening Q&A, Parés said he had to work very hard to convince the archive to grant him access to these works (he only knew where they were because he worked there), so one can only hope that La Primera Mirada might be the first step in making them available to a wider audience.

Equally in need of a wider audience are the films of Greek director Antoinetta Angelidi, the subject of her daughter and collaborator Rea Walldén’s Obsessive Hours at the Topos of Reality (the title is a mouthful because it combines the titles of the four feature films directed by Angelidi). Its premise is simple—Angelidi discusses her life and work for the camera—but such a description elides the precision of the film’s formal construction. Some sequences are in black and white while others are in color, depending on what Angelidi is discussing, and she moves in discrete intervals from the initial theatrical setting, sitting at a table against a black background in an unidentifiable space, toward an unadorned presentation of the apartment Walldén and Angelidi share. 

Obsessive Hours, despite being an interview directed by an interested party, is more than just a primer for an underappreciated filmmaker. Listening to Angelidi explain her relationship to painting and how it brought her to cinema and relates to her youth in Greece and studies in Paris is riveting, but the film demonstrates admirable attention to formal stakes. Aside from the play with the color, the interview unfolds in identifiable groups of shots—head-on interviews, over-the-shoulder looks at Angelidi’s notebook, shots where she sits in a rocking chair, among others—and within each group, each shot builds consciously on the one before, introducing a new formal element into the mix. Its central performance is equally captivating, with Angelidi’s cadences and sometimes elliptical storytelling serving as a formal mirror to the exploration of repetition with variation so central to her films.

Hong Kong stalwart Ann Hui’s latest film, Elegies, also sees her talking to other artists, specifically a handful of the city’s poets. It would, if nothing else, make a great companion piece to Jia Zhangke’s Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (2020)Jia interviewed four generations of Chinese writers and their descendants to document how China’s modernization and rapid growth have resulted in a loss among its younger generations of rural culture, provincial dialects, and even knowledge of the nation’s tumultuous twentieth century. Hui captures Hong Kong on the precipice of a similarly seismic shift, one that is mentioned only in passing but whose imminence and uncertainty is mirrored in the film’s formal approach. Hui films herself in conversation with her subjects, cuts freely between interviewees, and documents the city itself at length, as if searching in Hong Kong’s poetry culture for hints of what is to come or for a narrative as clear as the one Jia is afforded in retrospect.

A similar shift haunts Obedience, Wong Siu-pong’s examination of recycling in Hong Kong’s Hung Hom district. Wong’s wide shots and overlays of broadcast announcements tracking neighborhood development are impressive in their formal precision. The film observes from afar the sanitation workers, recycling shops, restaurants, and scavengers that comprise the parallel economy in which those excluded from Hong Kong’s economic boom fight to survive. By the end of the film, Wong makes the impending loss of this precarious system to gentrification explicit with shots of ambitious construction projects.

Hui, by contrast, trades specifics for impressions, and if we understand the granularity of contemporary Hong Kong worse for it, the space we are given to lament Hong Kong’s dying literary culture and its rapid change via its poetry and a series of lectures on Polish Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska (delivered in the film by Liu Wai-tong), nevertheless captures Hong Kong’s liminality more vividly. Those lectures are compelling on their own terms; if IFFR couldn’t quite deliver a masterpiece this year, it at least managed to populate my library wish list with a few.

Forrest Cardamenis is a film critic based in Astoria, New York. He received an MA in cinema studies from NYU, and his writing has featured in a variety of publications, including Reverse Shot, MUBI Notebook, and Filmmaker.