The tote bag I picked up at the headquarters of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) had four fluorescent words printed on it, one for each feeling the festival’s 48th edition promised to make me experience in a 12-day long cinematic bonanza: rebellious, inspired, loved, and obsessed. Save for the inexplicable absence of “hungry” and “cold”, the bag already fit the state I found myself in after an Easyjet flight shipped me to Amsterdam’s airport, and a 20-minute train ride brought me to Rotterdam.

Squeezed in between Sundance (which it overlaps with) and the Berlinale (which it predates by a few days), Rotterdam must confront the notoriously difficult task of arm-wrestling with the two winter season titans to secure world and international premieres. And notoriously, it succeeds. Over the years, IFFR has managed to carve and nurture a wondrously fertile ground where established auteurs and new and experimental voices alike can blossom (and that the festival exerts a certain charm among some of the circuit’s most revered icons can be gauged by the many terrific masterclasses IFFR organizes each year, this edition’s featuring Claire Denis, Carlos Reygadas and Jia Zhangke).

If navigating Rotterdam’s gargantuan program can be a tiresome feat (though nothing quite like the soul-crushing experience of sifting through a 400-strong Berlinale lineup), a trip to IFFR is an obligatory early-year rendezvous for anyone wishing to keep abreast of the circuit’s most interesting voices and trends. Obsessed with an official Tiger Competition lineup that promised plenty (and largely lived up to the expectations), inspired by those who’d sung IFFR’s praises before me, loved by an accommodation staff that lavished guests with all sorts of tiger-branded freebies, and rebellious enough to convince myself I could power through an official competition, two sidebars, write along the way, and come out of the whole gig unscathed, I was as ready as I could ever be. Except I hadn’t quite understood the sheer size of the festival I was traveling to – and certainly hadn’t braced for its extraordinarily curated, social-media friendly image.

From the moment I picked up my badge until the day I hopped on a train back to Amsterdam, IFFR made me feel like I’d just landed a ticket to a 12-day generation-defining rendezvous. Walking the streets of Rotterdam, everything around me was IFFR, and IFFR was everything. Flags with stylised tigers towered above the festival venues and all around the city; the festival’s trademarked emotions sprouted on billboards inviting people to feel IFFR; selfie booths encouraged attendees to snap pics, caption them with a IFFR feeling, and rush to the nearest cinema, where said selfies would be projected during pre-screening festival updates; merchandising of all kinds was sold to IFFR aficionados – provided they could pay with credit or debit, for Rotterdam (or IFFR, at least) seems to run on a strictly cash-less basis; and a Meme Café  invited people to learn the craft of film meme-making from reputable maestros, generate their own quirky content, and upload it online. “Feeling IFFR”, as the edition’s motto would have it, was as much about being at the festival as it was about capturing what that experience felt like, and sharing it with others.

Surviving the offline world: Present. Perfect.

Curiously, the interplay between the online and offline world was at the heart of the edition’s official competition winner, Zhu Shengze’s Wan mei xian zai shi (Present.Perfect.). Culled entirely from online footage, Present.Perfect. is a perturbing excursion into China’s recent live-broadcasting hysteria. By 2017, nearly half a billion Chinese regularly logged into online “showrooms” to broadcast their lives, or watch as other strangers offered glimpses of theirs. Picture it as online gaming meets reality TV: live broadcasters (otherwise known in the jargon as “anchors”) perform their routines before a faceless audience, who in turn can write to them and send online gifts the hosts can exchange for cash.

Naturally, the bubble has burst. In June 2017, Xi Jinping’s cabinet placed the country’s 150 or so live broadcasting channels under the watchful eye of the country’s Cyberspace Administration, on account of the allegedly perverted and unpatriotic messages the showrooms were accused of sharing. Some channels have been closed – some anchors, including one featured in Zhu’s documentary, have been prosecuted. Which explains why, transferred onto a blurred black-and-white, the montage patched together from the online antics of the dozen of anchors Present.Perfect. zeroes in on exudes a peculiar nostalgia for a truncated and irretrievable past.

Interestingly, the streamers are not the country’s glitziest, but everyday folks plagued by financial constraints, health conditions, or a combination of the two. Among them: a street artist with Idiopathic Short Stature, a bored crane operator, a girl with muscular dystrophy, a street dancer with no sense of rhythm, a cross-dresser, a burn survivor, a 30-year-old man with stunted growth. Neatly divided into four chapters, and distilling some 800 hours of footage Zhu recorded over the course of 10 months into a 124-minute documentary, Present.Perfect. approaches an extraordinarily lucrative and ever-expanding online milieu as a space for sociopolitical critique, while problematising our position vis-à-vis anchors and their audiences. Indeed, our distance from the showroom hosts is no larger than the gap dividing them from their online guests. That we may not be able to send in questions or gifts is beside the point; drawing a line between witnessing the belittling treatment online viewers often subject the anchors to and actually partaking in it can be a difficult feat, especially when the anchors’ fourth-wall breaking interactions further blur the difference between their audience and Zhu’s – us.

Wan mei xian zai shi (Present.Perfect., Zhu Shengze, 2019)

Still, there’s no mystery around the purportedly uplifting role live broadcasting can play, too. Streaming glimpses of one’s life can turn into a profoundly liberating experience, an escapist machine which, if not a solution to one’s misfortunes, can at least offer a degree of solace against the loneliness of the offline world. There are moments when the anchors poke back at their hosts’ curiosity – “I always look handsome,” says the street artist with Idiopathic Short Stature, “not just today” – and another particularly moving segment when the man with stunted growth says he’s become an anchor after another one he’d followed for a long while convinced him to open up to others about his health condition. But all the uplifting is ultimately reined in by the anchors’ own realisation of what live streaming truly is: a hopeless mirage that may blur the boundary between the online and offline world, but a mirage nonetheless. “Do we still have something called friends?” wonders the chalk artist. “Yes, but rare.”

Dislocated identities: Take Me Somewhere Nice

The day I saw Zhu’s Present.Perfect. was also the day I sat for what turned out to be my official competition’s favourite, Bosnian-born, Holland-raised Ena Sendijarević’s engrossing coming of age-cum-road-trip Take Me Somewhere Nice. Digging into a richly autobiographical terrain, Sendijarević follows teenage Alma (Sara Luna Zorić), Bosnian-born and Dutch-raised herself, as she travels to her native turf to visit her estranged and bed-ridden father. It’s the rollicking and picaresque journey of a young adult inhabiting two irreconcilable worlds – each demanding her undivided allegiance, none familiar and close enough to be called home – told with the grace and compassion only those who’ve lived through the stories they tell can inject in them.

Yet Take Me Somewhere Nice is not – at least not in any simplistic sense of the word – a comeback story. Alma flies to Sarajevo, crashes at her estranged cousin Emir’s (Ernad Prnjavorac), falls for his best friend-cum-partner in crime Denis (Lazar Dragojević), and is escorted by the two to her father’s hospital. But she does not return home, for that would imply a degree of proximity with a place that doesn’t seem to recognise her, much like she seems to be forgetting her own mother tongue. Pitted against two discursive spaces that concurrently cast her as an outcast, Alma is no more at home in a country that belittles her as a spoiled pariah than in an adoptive turf that casts her as a “foreign loser”, a history of racism she obliquely refers to during a bitter altercation with Denis.

Take Me Somewhere Nice (Ena Sendijarević, 2019)

And this is where Sendijarević’s own bi-national identity grants Take Me Somewhere Nice the contagious empathy of a deeply personal story. Alma, whom Zorić embodies seesawing between a no-nonsense swagger and the wide-eyed stupor of a perpetual foreigner, is the film’s chief point of view, but Sendijarević’s script never once tilts the balance uncritically in her heroine’s favour. That the teenage girl was able to escape a war-torn country does not make her any better – or wiser – than those who’re still mired in it for reasons beyond their control. Taciturn Emir and the more flamboyant Denis burst with the same dignity and empathy Sendijarević crafts and treats her alter-ego with. In one particularly endearing sequence, Denis clumsily flirts with some German tourists – as the girls glide past him, unresponsive to the courting, he turns to Emir, waxing lyrically about a country he’s never seen: “imagine us, barbecuing in a backyard in Frankfurt…” And it is Emir who teaches Alma the crucial difference between nationalism and patriotism (arguing the former is predicated on hatred, the latter on love), debunking the girl’s crass generalisations on Bosnia’s identity politics.

If Sendijarević’s script pens Alma’s fragmented identity through constant misunderstandings, evasive answers and lost-in-translation moments, Emo Weemhoff’s cinematography translates the dislocation visually. All throughout Alma’s road trip, hands, feet, and fingers protrude into a 4:3 format from unseen bodies – severed roots of a teenage wanderer fumbling after a coherent self in a world that casts transnational identities as system errors, and national allegiance as a zero-sum game. Take Me Somewhere Nice does not find a resolve in Alma’s quest for an estranged father, but in a late scene where the girl, stranded in a hotel with Denis and Emir, begrudgingly volunteers for a “sawing a body in half” trick offered by a local magician. The smile that forms on Zorić’s face as she stares at her body magically chopped in half, finally embracing her fractured identity in all its whimsical beauty, ranked high among the edition’s most poignant moments.

Enter Parenthood: The Days to Come

Having fallen for Carla Simón’s riveting feature debut Summer 1993 last year, spotting actor David Verdaguer’s luminous face in another engrossing Catalan offer, Carlos Marqués-Marcet’s Els Dies Que Vindran (The Days to Come), felt like a much-welcomed déjà-vu. Starring opposite Maria Rodríguez Soto in Marqués-Marcet’s follow up to his 2017 IFFR entry Tierra Firme (Anchor and Hope), Verdaguer plays one half of a Barcelona-stranded thirty-something couple grappling with an unexpected pregnancy. The parents-to-be weigh their options, decide not to abort, and watch as a nine-month journey propels them into parenthood while shaking their relationship to the core. It’s a story you’ve been spoon-fed countless times before, but that it still thrums with so much unbridled and contagious energy is a testament to Marqués-Marcet’s empathetic eye, as much as the outstanding chemistry of The Days’ extraordinary power couple.

For Verdaguer and Maria Rodríguez Soto really are a real-life couple, as real is the pregnancy Rodríguez Soto carries until the film’s delivery room climax. Hastily planned as the couple realised they were expecting a baby – with Marqués-Marcet and Verdaguer still busy shooting Anchor and Hope The Days to Come unfurls like a series of journal entries, an ode to the mysteries of parenthood that dances between fiction and truth, chuckles and tears. Verdaguer plays Groucho Marx-moustached lawyer Lluís; Rodriguez Soto’s Vir works in marketing. The prospect of raising a child plunges the couple in all sorts of financial concerns, but insecurities teem with awe, and for a while – at least until Lluís sells his soul to an uncle’s firm in hopes of a more remunerative salary – Marqués-Marcet relishes in capturing the couple’s clumsy and somewhat melancholic fumbling into parenthood. There’s an early sequence when Lluís shares the news with his old-time pals, and the boys improvise a street football match, Verdaguer’s tipsy face making room for a bittersweet smile as he watches a whole world drift farther away from him. And there are other moments when the camera zeroes in on Vir as she devours VHS tapes of her own birth and mother’s pregnancy – only to rehearse for future routines dressing and lulling bowling pins, as The Days to Come crafts a nostalgic choreography between two pregnancies, past and present, Vir and her mother’s coalescing into a richly engrossing whole.

Moments of intramural conflict dot the journey, and that the prospect of seeing Lluís and Vir drift apart should ache so much is a testament to all the terrific compassion the two have stirred along the way. But conflict is an integral and necessary component of the couple’s life, and this is something Marqués-Marcet understands all too well. People fight, but arguments need not spell the end of a life together. In a short scene that best captures all the ineffable beauty of this moving memoir, Lluís rests his head on Vir’s womb, and whispers to the child: “don’t ever trust people who don’t argue; you and I will, too – but we will still love each other.” It’s a pity IFFR doesn’t hand out awards for best actors – seeing Rodríguez Soto and Verdaguer go home with one would have been a terrific, and well-earned finale.

Els Dies Que Vindran (The Days to Come, Carlos Marqués-Marcet, 2019)

“Don’t make an issue of my womanhood”: Lubitsch’s Ninotchka and IFFR’s The Spying Thing

With the Tiger Award given to Present.Perfect., and a Special Jury Prize to Take Me Somewhere Nice, Aya Koretzky’s A Volta ao Mundo Quando Tinhas 30 Anos (Around the World When You Were Thirty) won the IFFR’s Bright Futures competition, with the sidebar’s jury also awarding an honourable mention to Karin Cuyul’s Historia de Mi Nombre (Story of My Name). Yet my most riveting IFFR experience did not come from either the Tiger or Bright Futures lineups, but from a thematic retrospective on all things espionage, The Spying Thing, and an 80 year-old classic screened therein, Ernst Lubitsch’s 1939 Ninotchka.

Co-curated by Gustavo Beck and Gerwin Tamsma, The Spying Thing was a cinephile’s Christmas. Ostensibly organised around the second of Mariano Llinás’ monumental 3-part, 14-hour epic La Flor, the retrospective brought together rare gems (John Krish’s 1959 docudrama on Korea-stranded English POWs Captured and Zbyněk Brynych’s 1960 Skid were worth the ticket alone), timeless classics (from Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three [1961] to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window [1954]) as well as some of the genre’s latest offerings (László Nemes’ Napszállta [Sunset] and Yoon Jong-bin’s Gongjak [The Spy Gone North]), in a program that sought to dissect espionage in its different dimensions and historical contexts, from the tensions inherent in the two-Bloc world, spying as propaganda, voyeurism, surveillance mechanisms, and of course, the genre’s pantheon of heroes and femmes fatales.

If the pleasure of watching the breadth of films The Spying Thing had to offer stemmed largely from understanding each as a mirror of its own zeitgeist, nothing felt more eye-opening than looking at the gender dimensions of Ernst Lubitsch’s extraordinary Ninotchka. Greta Garbo plays an uber-cool Soviet special envoy tasked with retrieving confiscated Imperial jewels in Paris; as she reaches France, she meets a count (Melvyn Douglas) whom the gems’ former owner, Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) has instructed to halt the Russian mission. Except, of course, Ninotchka and the count eventually fall for each other – but not before Douglas tries to make her laugh, in a triumph of gags and savage one-liners penned by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch which – a whopping 80 years after MGM rallied people to movie theatres to the chant “Garbo Laughs!” – haven’t aged at all.

Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939)

Yet falling in love does not mean Ninotchka should relinquish any of her stern and no-nonsense swagger. Compared to the other female heroines in the retrospective, all too often reduced to mere ornaments in a male-dominated world, Garbo’s Ninotchka looks like a creature from an altogether different universe. If Michael Curtiz’s British Agent (1934, also shown in the retrospective, much to my delight) had Kay Francis mutter to her diplomat-turned-spy lover Leslie Howard “I haven’t the courage to go on being a patriot or idealist any longer (…) I tried to, but I’m too much of a woman,” Garbo’s super-spy arrives in France with a ferocious and memorable warning to her fellow male Soviet agents: “don’t make an issue of my womanhood.” Even after she finally gives in to Douglas’ courting, proving communists can fall in love, after all (a crass stereotype that had surfaced in yet another rarity offered by the sidebar, Leo McCarey’s infamous piece of virulent anti-commie propaganda, My Son John [1952]), succumbing to romance does not mean giving up any of her resolute attitude.

More interestingly still, Douglas’ masculinity also receives its fair share of poking. A far cry from the archetypal male heroes of the genre (from Captured’s Alan Dobie to Skid’s Jiri Vala), Douglas’ identity does not pivot on either prowess or courage. In fact, while the count may well be introduced as Grand Duchess Swana’s lover, there are moments when he comes across as financially dependent on her, and others still when the script reduces him to a subaltern position, belittled to the rank of a charming if disposable toy-boy. That Douglas’ count should find himself mired in the toxic gender dynamic one would expect to find Garbo’s heroine in is a testament to how extraordinarily smart and groundbreaking Lubitsch’s masterwork is. At a moment in history when xenophobia permeates the public discourse to an extent not unlike the poisonous McCarthy era that fathered a piece of vitriolic propaganda as My Son John, works like Ninotchka serve as a much-needed breath of fresh air. Here’s a film released in 1939 that pays justice to two irreconcilable worldviews – capitalism and communism – mocking both with equally ferocious satire, and crafting a heroine for the ages. That Ninotchka should eventually stand out as the single most memorable experience of my first year at IFFR isn’t an indictment of the festival’s official lineups – it’s a testament to the beauty of this outstanding retrospective, and of an extravaganza perfectly in tune with new voices and ageless gems alike.

International Film Festival Rotterdam
23 January – 3 February 2018
Festival website: https://iffr.com/en