The 50th iteration of the International Film Festival Rotterdam has turned out somewhat less auspicious than many might have planned. Like so many other events, significant anniversaries or otherwise, it’s been forced online by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But even with a reduced program, IFFR remains one of the vanguard festivals for the arthouse scene, premiering many of the movies you’ll continue to hear about throughout the year.

From Feast (2021), dir. Tim Leyendekker

One common thread through the program is reflection on the past. (I will leave aside any pop-psychological speculation on whether prolonged quarantine is encouraging mass introspection.) In Feast (2021), Tim Leyendekker examines a horrifying criminal case in the Netherlands wherein several men hosting sex parties injected other men with HIV-infected blood. The film continually shifts modes, moving freely between documentary and pure speculation. The opening scene features a meticulous cataloguing of the materials found at one party; the presence of the weaponized syringes taints the table-full of paraphernalia dedicated to pleasure. Imagined conversations between men on their ideas of sexual fun and freedom are observed by clinical researchers who further comment on their statements. In one morbidly fascinating sequence, a scientist demonstrates how flowers are used to store certain viruses, again blending the mundane and the sinister.

In Landscapes of Resistance (2021), Marta Popivoda explores a history both personal and political. The documentary consists of the recollections of her nonagenarian grandmother, Sonja, who was part of the Yugoslav resistance to the Nazi invasion and ultimately survived imprisonment in Auschwitz. Interspersed are Popivoda’s written ruminations on the challenges she and her fellow leftist activists face in contemporary Serbia. Sonja’s narration plays out not in interviews or recreations, but instead via long shots of nature, household objects, and other minutiae, yielding a feeling of being in the room or on a walk with her, absorbing her knowledge. The languid pacing paradoxically enhances the tension of her stories. (It helps that she’s a total badass with riveting stories, including of her shootout with a Nazi soldier and the one of how she shepherded comrades during their escape from Auschwitz.)

From earthearthearth (2021), dir. Daïchi Saïto

Those title elements, “landscapes” and “resistance,” characterize many other films in the festival, which similarly fixate on fighting the establishment, people’s relationship to land, or often both at once. Rising avant-garde director Daïchi Saïto’s latest, earthearthearth (2021), exemplifies the “landscape” theme. Using improvised saxophone riffs by musician Jason Sharp to set its editing rhythms, the short film presents imagery of hills and valleys that becomes increasingly distorted and abstract as it progresses. Simply by toying with colors and inverting angles, Saïto makes the familiar something alien, throwing into question how familiar it truly is. With Maat Means Land (2020), Fox Maxy does the opposite, acknowledging how Indigenous peoples in North America are already alienated from their traditional lands. In montage, the short presents numerous vistas and their respective Native inhabitants, in a variety of ways. (A choice vignette features a group of white video game Sims growing agitated as they watch a Native activist berating them on their television.)

One of my favorite ongoing documentary and art film projects is Marwa Arsanios’s Who Is Afraid of Ideology?, which focuses on the political struggles faced specifically by women, each in a different milieu. Having previously visited a Kurdish commune and a refugee town in Northern Syria, Part 3 of the series, Micro Resistances (2020), journeys to Tolima, Colombia, where women farmers are at the forefront of fighting the encroaching monopolies of agribusiness.

From Liborio (2021), dir. Nino Martínez Sosa

Resistance and dedication to the land come through most forcefully in Liborio (2021), which tells the true story of Dominican folk hero Olivorio Mateo Ledesma or “Papá Liborio,” an ordinary farmer who became a religious figure in his community, and then later a resistance leader against both Dominican authorities and occupying US forces. Though fact-based, the film defies the convention of historical movies and treats Liborio completely seriously as a prophet. The “blasphemous” devotion of his commune is depicted as an organic movement deeply in touch with the land, in contrast with the nearly inhuman coldness of the colonizers who harass them. It’s a potent social tragedy about a story which deserves wider attention, like many of the other films at IFFR this year.

The International Film Festival Rotterdam continues through February 7.

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