When I scroll through Instagram, I am fascinated by the ability of the interface. I am at a film festival, having what I presume to be a good time, until I see in my feed that someone else, at the very same festival, appears to be having more fun than me. Later, I’ll bump into that person, whose photos boast endless human to human interaction and glamorous revelry. I spend most of my time alone in the dark. We’ll chat in line for a film and, as they disappear into the facelessness of our collective audience in Rotterdam’s Pathé multiplex, I’ll take a moment to consider whether I’ve met a human of Planet IFFR. Eventually, I’ll resolve that I don’t know which one is real: the human in the auditorium or the parasite wriggling around in both the anxious void in my brain and the filtered beauty of the Insta-machine.

This year’s invitation to “Meet the humans of Planet IFFR” was about locating the humanity in cinema and cinema-going. For me, it reflected poignantly on how each of the micro worlds we create, such as a film festival like Rotterdam, participates in and wrestles with the wider global matrix. At its most hopeful, the theme demonstrates how there is more that unites us as humans than that which tears us apart.

Malene Choi Jensen’s The Return articulates this with both light and shadow. Playfully approaching the grand canyons of personal trauma and the emotional ruptures of global adoption politics through popping aural ellipses and jarring jump cuts, Jensen deftly handles a sensitive issue, based on her own experience as a Danish adoptee returning to South Korea to find her birth mother. Blurring the distinctions between documentary and fiction with a welcome fresh energy, each peppy and good-humoured glitch lead to an earnest exploration of identity in crisis. Staging the single most affecting scene I saw anywhere in the festival, exposing the vulnerability and fear that feeds separation and resentment, Jensen’s debut feature explored the best and toughest bits of humanity with flair and aplomb.

At its most vulnerable, meeting the humans of Planet IFFR was also an exercise in revealing how human hands create systems, machines and life that are subject to glitches, gremlins and parasites. Late night performances at Worm as part of the sound//vision program revealed a strange relationship between old and new media as digital video imagery glitched onscreen in correlation with Super8 projections that relied on live intervention to demonstrate gremlins. Berlin duo Kris Limbach and Scott Sinclair’s piece, Secret Shots, in spotlighting how information travels to the screen, suggested cinema-goers see a delayed or distorted version of the material the apparatuses present.

Further across the city and in a gallery space, an expanded exhibition, part of Curtain Call, a curated strand of screenings, installations and a symposium, further examined the festival’s planetary theme by looking outward, at the reach of human ambition. Through contemplating space, A.I, robotics and eco-exhaustion, curator Edwin Carels deftly presented what he termed in his introductory essay as, “above all a programme about human hubris.” A multitude of unnerving and delicate installations collectively revealed the complex planes of isolation and fragility of human creation. Kurt D’haeseleer’s The White saw two white screens project ghostly images onto a glass plate. Balancing at an angle between the two screens, each side of the glass produced a different but equally terrifying picture of a human, or humans, trapped in/as reflection. The alien-ation of the figure/s physically removed from and by their mode of production (the white screen projectors) and suspended in space like aliens to our world, was deliciously haunting.

A stone’s throw away in the same room was the low hum of a freezer, with an extraordinary tea set inside. Instead of porcelain or another manmade material that inflicts its permanence upon the earth in refusing to biodegrade, this tea set was temporary, and on life support; its very form of existence owing only to the electricity that pumped into its holding chamber. Made of frozen milk, Takahiro Kudo’s Untitled (Tea Set, 2012) is human fragility frozen in time; a manifest paradox of creation, that survives through its parasitic feast on the planet’s resources.

More literal parasites appeared in the Bright Future program, where Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing, adapted from Ryū Murakami’s 2007 novel of the same name, turned the sexual fetish horror subgenre up to 11. Constantly playing with audience expectation, the narrative volleyed between misandry and misogyny with wry humour and against a stunning mise-en-scène. The literal parasite, glimpsed only briefly, was an amusing manifestation of humanity askew.

International Film Festival Rotterdam 2018

Piercing

More literal bugs appeared in the most wonderfully nostalgic work in the program, Insect, Jan Švankmajer’s adaptation and ode to Karel and Josef Čapek’s political satire, Pictures from the Insect’s Life (1922). Where the original play had personified insects perform a comedic commentary on the morality of a post-war, increasingly mechanised, vain and violent society, Švankmajer’s film is self-reflexive to the max. He has actors dress up as the titular pests, playing players within Pictures from the Insect’s Life. This theatrical reflection takes place within a film that is itself a sort of documentary about filmmaking. From larvae to beetles and giant dung balls, Insect uses live insects and physical props to show how traditional stop-motion animation physically brought humans and parasites together, something CGI won’t allow. In Piercing, the parasite must be metaphorical because it is not really there.

Aged 83, Švankmajer has been making films for over 50 years, and announced that this will be his last. As such, reflexivity in the work is not necessarily intended as a commentary on changing technologies (though it is resoundingly present). Rather, here is a heartfelt reflection over a career and, most significantly, a craft. Instead of animating the source material, Švankmajer shares his approach and technical insights direct to camera in an effort to ask the viewer to reflect on the labour behind his product, such that produced the canonical and luminous works of adaptation in his oeuvre, Alice (1988) and Faust (1994).

International Film Festival Rotterdam 2018

Insect

In the brief moments between films I scroll through Instagram and cast an eye over Planet IFFR as it appears online. It is distant and close by.

Hot on the tails of its Sundance screening, Hans Block and Moritz Riesewick’s The Cleaners entertained a full house in Rotterdam before kicking off a panel discussion around ethics and the internet that ran almost as long as the doc itself. The Cleaners has grabbed hold of the zeitgeist and is sure to become a documentary touchstone. Not for its cinematic flair, but, like Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish (2013) before it, the subject matter raises significant ethical questions and, though exploitation behind globalisation is not exactly news, it will no doubt come as a surprise to some.

Focusing on how Google, Facebook and YouTube manage and moderate illegal and immoral content, Block and Riesewick followed the proverbial cables to expose who and how the Internet is “cleaned”.

The loaded title is attributable to a line of dialogue in the film where one of the content moderators describes their objective as “to clean up the dirt” online. But it is also a reflection on the way in which they do their work. To “delete” or “ignore” a daily target of 25,000 pictures with only a few seconds to weigh up their potential context and intent (even though the images are viewed in separation to any such text) the people we meet, the content moderators, make decisions that are anything but moderate. Tasked with absolutes and owing to both the quantity and nature of the material, which ranges from low level nudity to torture and child pornography, they want to make the call quickly.

The film divides its attention between the impact of the imagery on the workers and the easily evaded culpability of the media giants in Silicon Valley. The contrast of affluence is effective. What’s less so is the use of 3D CGI imagining of data uploads, a sort of visual aid for the immensity and facelessness of the Internet. The visual imprint of The Matrix (1999) on our collective imagination has a lot to answer for.

More irksome is that the literally and metaphorically dark work is clumsily dramatised as an activity that takes place in staged visual darkness. That the work would be done in the plain light of day, in a casual office space, like any other mundane daily work, and not as some covert conspiracy, means the filmmakers missed an opportunity to link the chain of content moderation with Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” and its historical implications of casually inflicting unimaginable violence on others. Relating to online media would have given it the necessary sting that’s missing.

Still, The Cleaners served as the perfect primer to Penny Lane’s parasitic psychosomatic YouTube mixtape, The Pain of Others. Lane’s film is an edited string of YouTube videos, as uploaded by three women who suffer Morgellons, a disease the mainstream medical community believes is a delusion. Whether Morgellons is about physical parasites living under the skin or psychosomatic parasites living in the mind, Lane shows us that the women genuinely suffer. In a sort of strange video self-therapy that suits the digital age, they have taken to the Internet to share their stories and find a community willing to believe them.

Cut together with short-burst news story coverage of reports of the disease, Lane shows us how conflictingly vulnerable and exhibitionist the women are. The film successfully raises more questions than it answers, none of which are about whether or not Morgellons is a real disease. Instead, it has us wondering what the lives of these women are like outside of their YouTube channels. Do they have any support IRL, or are they isolated in their physical communities? Is surfing the Internet an act of violence? Whatever we watch, there is a context and a mode of production we don’t see.

International Film Festival Rotterdam 2018

The Cleaners

Also shining a light on production methods and how stories are produced as well as told, was Ewa Banaszkiewicz and Mateusz Dymek’s My Friend the Polish Girl, a (spoiler alert) fictional documentary. Alicja (Aneta Piotrowska) is a lonely Londoner, trying to make ends meet and hoping to capture someone’s heart. She auditions for Katie’s (Emma Friedman-Cohen) “documentary” and lands the role by falsely stating that her partner is dying of cancer. The pain, the conflict and the potential for drama attract our burgeoning documentarian, a tongue-in-cheek hopeful talent who boasts that the film will play at “lots of festivals”. The film’s grainy, mostly black and white aesthetic plays well against lurid neon text, a delightful animation and colourful emojis that are added in post-production. Like scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, we see but never get to know the woman hiding in plain sight under the filmmaker’s polished veneer.

Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya also made a point of using distance to get at the so-called “truth” of an historical controversy. Using mockumentary to re-stage real life interviews with Tonya Harding, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and mother LaVona Golden, Gillespie unpacks layers of lies with melodrama and cheap laughs. The casualties are everywhere. No one comes out on top and no definitive truth can be attained. The most terrifying impact of which is that Tonya Harding’s life story is one of abuse. Behind her ability and hard work is yet another story of exploitation. Labour, it’s clear, is rewarded with pain and suffering; culpability is a problem we can’t locate, like the real life faces behind the fictional narratives that mask them.

As part of the Critics’ Choice IV program, led by Dutch critics Dana Linssen and Jan Pieter Ekker, Mark Cousins’s Storm in My Heart – A Diptych revealed the depths of Hollywood’s historical masks. Presenting a film experiment or, as he described it, “DJ event”, Cousins brought two musical films produced by 20th Century Fox together onscreen to show how two women, born on the same day, in the same place, but with different coloured skin, led disparate lives. 

With a Song in My Heart (1953), starring Susan Hayward, and Stormy Weather (1943), starring Lena Horne, appeared side by side on a split screen, in four sections, with alternating sound from the two films. In the crossfire of the split screen, issues of racism and sexism, views on the military and the usual all-American values played out. Intermittent textual interruptions help tell the story of two women’s different but symbolically political and politicised lives.

Another experimental performance that looked inadvertently at cinema history was Richard Tuohy and Diana Barrie’s Inside the Machine. Using three 16mm projectors, the duo let the film become a living creature, pulsing through the projector at mesmeric pace, producing otherworldly optical sound and capturing the soul of a peripheral object – their own hands in shadow. Though the performers’ hands were free and even in control, the projected image told an alternate story, one of dark resonance trapped on screen.

International Film Festival Rotterdam 2018

Inside the Machine

Metahaven and Rob Shröder’s Posssessed brought the notion of something living, trapped in a plastic art, to its inevitable conclusion. Though they removed the literal manifestation of a devil from the finished product, their visual essay is about searching for souls and finding death in the digital age. Social media and neoliberalism have finally burnt out and all that’s left are bodies, possessed by an insane desire to find their own image.

Twelve film critics calling themselves Team Metaprocessed made their own visual essay to accompany the film. Prepossessed, another entry into the Critics’ Choice program, brought the metanarrative full circle. Participating in an infinite feedback loop, Prepossessed used footage from Possessed and other films, alongside a desktop conversation between the critical cohort, staged on Facebook.

All of this hit upon the Critics’ Choice big question for 2018 around sustainable criticism. The conversation hit on the responsibility of the critic and how that responsibility serves engagement. For my part, imagining all of the virtual pieces of the puzzle as tangible objects helps. Much as we are (albeit slowly) waking up to the very real need to reuse, recycle and reduce our carbon footprints, contribution to landfill and general pace of life, so too should our output online engage in a sustainable cycle. If all we are doing is putting images and words out into the Matrix-imagined technology abyss, then our comments and criticisms are just landfill. But, if we actively participate in engagement and a discursive cycle, then we are part of a sustainable critical conversation.

Having left Planet IFFR, but residing in the same solar system, I continue to scroll, but now with caution, contemplation and care.

International Film Festival Rotterdam
25 January – 5 February 2018
Festival website: https://iffr.com/en