IFFR 2019: An Impression of the 48th International Film Festival Rotterdam

Another Day of Life (Raúl de la Fuente & Damian Nenow)

War ravages the world. Always has, always will. Most wars are forgotten by all but those who fought them. One such is the Angolan civil war that preceded the country’s independence on November 11th, 1975. Backed by Russia and Cuba on one side and the US on the other, both after Angola’s rich resources as well as geo-political influence, the socialist MPLA clashed with the US-backed combined forces of UNITA and the FNLA. In the midst of this, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, a veteran of reporting revolutions the world over, found himself to be the only foreign reporter in the country as civil war erupted. His book Another Day of Life about his stint in the country describes how Angola found itself at the center of the Cold War in the heart of the ’70s.

Directors Raúl de la Fuente and Damian Nenow took Kapuscinski’s tale as the basis for an entrancing documentary about a forgotten war, imaginatively turning the reporter’s hallucinatory and surreal writing into a stylishly animated account of an obsessed man. Interspersed with interviews with some of the people that helped him and that he encountered along the way as well as archival material, Another Day of Life brings the conflict to life vividly in sequences that at times feel like fever dreams. The film focuses mainly on a trip to the country’s deep South, where Kapuscinski seeks an interview with an MPLA general who holds the border as South African troops march on it, instigated by the United States. It becomes a trip that opens Kapuscinski’s eyes, not in the least to the fact that journalists can change the outcome of the wars they report on, as he sits on information that is at once a scoop and crucial strategic information that could aid one side of the conflict if he withholds it.

De la Fuente and Nenow create an engrossing documentary that is coloured by Kapuscinski’s own ideological views, but gives an in-depth look at what drives war journalists and does so in a visually striking, often lyrical way. Another Day of Life could have easily been a dry documentary full of talking heads, but the surreal imagery that strongly resembles Waltz with Bashir punctuates the heartfelt details of Kapuscinski’s life, as told by his friends at the time when they are introduced as talking heads. There is still much to learn about this conflict, but if Another Day of Life can pique the audience’s interest just a little, the film is a success.

Sofia (Meryem Benm’Barek-Aloïsi)

Sexual relations outside marriage are a crime in Morocco. So when 20-year-old Sofia (Maha Alemi), daughter of an affluent Casablanca family, finds herself in a late-stage pregnancy her world is about to shatter. Having repressed the pregnancy psychologically, the young girl doesn’t realize what is happening until her water breaks. Aided in secret by her cousin Lena (Sarah Perles), Sofia embarks on a wild trip to hospitals that won’t help her without a husband to acknowledge the child, and on a search for Omar, the suspected father. Coming from a decidedly lower rung of Moroccan society, Omar’s family seizes this opportunity to get ahead in the world, while Sofia’s family does everything they can to hide the family shame from their circle.

In a debut as assured as it is calm, Meryem Benm’Barek-Aloïsi packs a lot of themes about Moroccan society into a short running time without resorting to exposition through dialogue. She reveals class differences through visual cues, family hypocrisy through unspoken words by her cast, and social pressure through a strong central performance by Alemi. Late revelations add punches that the film perhaps did not even need, but lend extra depth and pain to the young lives of Sofia and Omar, and give the director a chance for a deeper exploration of her themes.

Stepping back from the film one realizes the tough position of women in Moroccan and Islamic society, especially young women who need to find a balance in the increasingly Westernized environment of the upper class. This seems to be entirely Benm’Barek’s goal, and that she highlights these themes so effortlessly yet subtly in her directorial debut (for which she also wrote the screenplay, that won her an award in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar) suggests we might be witnessing the emergence of a young, powerful, and above all female voice in Arab cinema.

Soy tóxico (Pablo Parés & Daniel de la Vega)

After their feature debut Jennifer’s Shadow (2004), Pablo Parés and Daniel de la Vega’s second project was centered around the Argentinian hinterland being overrun by zombies after South America has been turned into an all-purpose junkyard. The film never came to fruition, but Parés’ brother started writing and drawing a comic series based on the novel. This series also never saw the light of day (not in published form anyway), but it in turn inspired Parés and his partner in crime De la Vega to return to their original idea, this time transforming it into a low-budget, Romero-esque zombie flick with a distinct ’70s feel.

Soy tóxico wears its comic influences on its sleeve, moving the story from gory set piece to gory set piece, but the underlying storytelling is smarter than it may seem on first sight. The unnamed protagonist (only dismissively called Dog by his captors) is taken prisoner by a gang of surviving humans living in a land filled with zombies. He has lost his memory, a symptom of progressing into zombie state and the reason for his capture. But while the film initially seems to have very little story, as the man slowly regains some of his memory it turns out an interesting family tragedy lies at the heart of a tale in which his connection to one of the gang members is closer than expected.

Even on a low budget Soy tóxico manages to pull off good tech work, although cinematographer Facundo Nuble perhaps went a little too far with the filtering. The makeup department more than makes up for it (horrible pun, I know). All of this put together makes for a grimy genre stomper in which most of the acting is quite over the top (which to an extent comes with the territory), but in which the story and its execution are just enough to keep you in your seat for the short 75-minute runtime. It’s mostly for fans of the genre (who, judging by the audience at the screening, are predominantly male), but as such it is a worthy entry to seek out.

Tehran: City of Love (Ali Jaberansari)

Director Ali Jaberansari’s sophomore effort Tehran: City of Love is an aptly-titled triptych about love in Iran’s capital. Featuring three socially awkward people wrestling with unexpected and unreciprocated love, what sets it apart is its open-minded handling of themes that one would expect to be tackled less frankly in a film coming from a country that is rather strict about sexual relations. This couldn’t be clearer than in the story of bodybuilding champion and personal trainer Hessam (Amir Hessam Bakhtiari). Vying for a role in a film that would feature French actor Louis Garrel (whose fame or absence thereof in Iran is bit of a running gag), his world is turned upside down when he gets a new pupil to train. Even if it is never expressed in words, it is clear that Hessam pines for this young man.

In the film’s second story, overweight beauty clinic receptionist Mina (Forough Ghajabagli) checks out prospective boyfriends in her workplace, then calls them in a sexy voice to set up meetings where she can gape at them from afar and exact revenge for the fact that they would never have given her a second look if she were being herself. But while taking a course on dating she finds affection in the hands of a man who is far from her ideal.

Finally, religious funeral singer Vahid (Mehdi Saki) is dumped by his fiancée. Dispirited, he tries to find new meaning in life by singing at weddings and parties. At one such party he runs into Niloufar (Behnaz Jafari) and falls for her because she treats him kindly. His new career path gets him in trouble with the imam who has him sing at funerals though, and that’s only the least of his problems.

Remarkably refreshing in its handling of gay love, beauty ideals, and illegal partying, Tehran: City of Love is at its heart a film about people seeking connections but not being able to make them in a city and society where individual freedom is sometimes hard to come by. That makes the way the film gives its three protagonists such individual, nonconforming roles an unexpected strength: one simply would not expect such an open film to come out of a society where nonconformity is frowned upon. That Jaberansari manages all this with a deadpan comedic flair makes Tehran: City of Love an accessible film which should play well at Western art houses.

Cities of Last Things (Ho Wi Ding)

What drives a man to suicide? Ho Wi Ding’s Cities of Last Things, awarded at TIFF, answers this question in reverse by focusing on three different time periods in the man’s life, after first showing us his protagonist Zhang Dong Ling jumping headfirst from a high-rise right onto the camera. This attention-grabbing opening sets the tone for a comedic yet melancholic neo-noir that doesn’t quite know how to balance its tone.

The opening segment is set in Taiwan in the near future, a rather dystopian place where surveillance is king (a jab at Taiwan’s mainland rival perhaps, where big brother is increasingly watching its citizens). Grizzled former police inspector Zhang is not exactly at a high point in his life: he is on a mysterious mission to assassinate a high-ranking official, but also has to confront his estranged wife who taunts him with her new lover. Zhang solves everything with violence, but then by chance runs into a prostitute who is the spitting image of a girl he once knew, in a former life when there was still hope and promise.

Moving back a few decades, Zhang is now a police officer who for the first time discovers that sleeping around is kind of a hobby for his wife, while at the police station his refusal to play along with his superior’s corruption schemes is putting the pressure on. A romantic summer night with a French girl (indeed, the same girl the older Zhang recognizes in the first chapter) seems like a reprieve, but it’s already clear that Zhang’s life is not going in the direction he had dreamed it would.

Dreaming is for the young, and so in the final segment we see Zhang as a teenager, arrested for a petty crime at the same time as gangster boss Big Sister Wang. This Big Sister turns out not to be his sister, but they are related, and subsequently Zhang has his hopes and dreams dashed for the first time in his young life.

Lushly shot on 35mm, the work of French cinematographer Jean-Louis Vialard (who also did Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady) creates a world that splashes off the screen in deep, grainy colour. The moodiness of the imagery, especially in nighttime scenes, enhances this noirish story of a lost man who leaves the world battered by the women who left him, even if some of them did so involuntarily. The film balances on that one night of love at the center, where you feel Zhang’s life could go either way, and which is the source of his regrets later in life and earlier in the film.

While the structure is nifty, it cannot hide the imbalance in tone. The melancholy of Zhang’s story isn’t quite congruent with the humor Ho infuses into the film. Often gallows humor, to be sure, but it wipes away the sadness that really drives his protagonist’s story, not allowing the audience to get close to Zhang. Because of this we can intellectually understand Zhang’s final act of despair but feel quite cold about it. And in this regard it does not help the film that his suicide is placed right at the beginning, when the audience hasn’t had a chance to build a relationship with Zhang. Cities of Last Things is a puzzling film that is rewarding but also makes you wonder why the warm images left you so cold.

Rojo (Benjamin Naishtat)

An altercation in a restaurant sets off an escalating chain of events on the eve of Argentina’s Dirty War in the mid-1970s. For the military junta’s fascist movement to take and hold power it needed the often tacit connivance of a good deal of its citizenry. Where and how such connivance can take root is at the heart of Benjamin Naishtat’s fourth film Rojo, an impeccably lensed film that suffers from a messy screenplay. It just can’t seem to get the tone right on what is essentially a serious treatise about the state of Naishtat’s country on the eve of one of its darkest eras.

Claudio (Darío Grandinetti) is a highly respected and succesfull smalltown lawyer who one night squares off verbally with a stranger in a local restaurant. The local patrons side with him, and the other man leaves in a huff. Claudio hasn’t seen the last of him though, as the man later attacks him and his wife and then commits suicide. Intent on taking the gravely injured man to hospital, Claudio changes course and dumps the body in the nearby desert. This is the start of him slowly spiralling out of control as he dodges his responsibilities and the consequences of his actions, which in turn affects his family.

The disappearance of one body in the desert, dumped by a bourgeois man who is held in high regard, is a prelude to a time when thousands disappeared in similar deserts and elsewhere. The constant looking away by a good portion of the public from such small crimes led to a complacency when small crimes turned into state terrorism. In a study of how evil is born, akin to Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Rojo succeeds in drawing an era and a milieu in which the banality of evil could come to fruition.

Filmed like a ’70s crime drama, through the use of original Panavision lenses and a typical mise-en-scene, the film looks and feels authentic. The problem is that Naishtat’s screenplay is simply too full of ideas which means that several plot strands are abandoned midway, leaving a scattershot impression on the audience. The director often aims for a darkly comedic tone, only to abandon that tone later for whole chunks of the film. Naishtat bit off more than he could chew here, and a tighter grip on his story could have made this a political thriller that resonates in today’s increasingly totalitarian regimes, for instance in Argentina’s northern neighbor. Rojo, however, is a bit of a mess, overripe with symbolism and often losing itself in side stories that are intended to drive home the point but result in a fragmented narrative that loses focus. The outstanding tech work and acting cannot save the film from being a bit of a misfire and waste of a good premise.

Sofia