Still from Erde Essen. Courtesy IFFR

Poetry and dreams: three films from this year’s IFFR reviewed

Issue no1
feb - mrt 2023

The concentration of women protagonists is encouraging at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam. Jue Yang selects three films of the 50th edition of the festival that kicked off last Monday. As life unfolds in confinement and at warped speed, these films offer her solace and understanding.

Abstract concepts and thoughts are difficult to portray in film. Poorly executed, they risk turning into confusion. I try to stay open-minded until — bombarded by cryptic images and voiceovers — I lose interest in the story. However, three films of this year’s IFFR have found ways to connect and express the abstract. In a time where I experience fatigue, restlessness and agitation in confinement, they offer me unexpected revelations.

Stories of Womanhood: Erde Essen

Mother, woman, girl — these words and images appear again and again in Laura Weissenberger’s short film Erde Essen. As the door opens to an abandoned house, a flashlight shines over old photos of an old woman and a family. The camera follows two bare feet walking. A voice of a young girl speaks softly in Spanish, “this is the house I remember.” The film begins with a ghost walking through her mother’s house. Friendly and curious, she steps on the furniture in her white dress and leaps into the air.

I am drawn into the web of intimacy between characters. The film’s decisive cutting creates a relational field without explicitly stating who is who. One woman tells the story of being forced to leave her child; another greets her plants in the morning; two children run and whisper about the girl who only eats soil. It is unclear if these people know each other, or if they can see the ghost.

As the ghost wanders through her and her mother’s past, the characters seem to overlap each other’s existence and generations. Throughout the film, the camera heightens the sense of touch. The gentleness of the scenes is palpable. Two old women comb and braid the hair of a grandchild. A pair of hands — belonging to a small child — touch a woman as she floats in a small pool. Weissenberger has gathered the most tender threads of the tales of womanhood and woven them into one, single tapestry.

Still from Erde Essen. Courtesy IFFR

Still from Erde Essen. Courtesy IFFR

Still from Erde Essen. Courtesy IFFR

A Journey of Awakening: Bipolar

Queena Li’s Bipolar is a film of the mind. In this mostly black-and-white film, bipolar refers to mental illness, polarized colors and androgyny. The protagonist is a young, androgynous woman. In the opening scenes, she calls from a dilapidated phone booth, yet no one answers. Suddenly, with the sound of water, she is in a pool. Throughout the film, scenes of dreams, memories and hallucination transition in and out of each other freely. I would not be able to access the film if it lacked the spine of a narrative.

I identify with the narrative as the young woman seeks liberation from the mind. Her journey takes the form of a road trip, through which she encounters a magical, absurd and desolate world. At first, she is oblivious — and numbed — to her surroundings and her wealth. But as she finds a mission, she becomes filled with determination and begins to awaken. I find humor in one of the main camera angles, which comes from the perspective of a lobster, a non-speaking character. These shots — half the size of the screen and consisting of scenes of distortion and farce — cleverly reflect the uncontrollable flow of life and the protagonist’s choices among it.

I find the film's references to water meaningful. Here, water becomes a metamorphic medium between different worlds. In the aerial shot of the ocean, water appears black and swallowing. In a hyper reflective pool, water appears as a solid divider. The protagonist moves in and out of water, covering her eyes with the same pair of dark goggles that she wears during the day. It takes a while to get used to the fluidity of the many worlds the film creates and merges into one another. However, once they take hold, I find myself swimming with the protagonist — until the end, as the sky turns blue.

Still from Bipolar. Courtesy IFFR

Still from Bipolar. Courtesy IFFR

Still from Bipolar. Courtesy IFFR

Rebellion towards Hope: Archipel

In Felix Dufour-Laperrière’s Archipel, animation intertwines with archival footage and speech. As I watch the film, I question the legitimacy of any one version of history: there is no such thing as reality, only one’s experience and reading of it.

A line-drawn figure of a female crops a river landscape. “You don’t exist,” asserts a man’s voice. “Not true,” a woman’s voice responds. The dialogue — which I perceive as intentionally gendered — sets the tone of the film. The woman’s voice is that of the Saint Lawrence River in Québec, a place with its thousand islands, wars and wounds, a place where “the first inhabitant, who fish for all eternity; the French who settle, clear the land and ruminate; the English who seize, trade and rename.”

The woman resists the man’s condescending comments and insists that he goes on a journey with her. It is here that the story starts, and it is here that I encounter resilience and courage. As the landscape passes by a train window — the footage seems painted by a brush — the man names the places: St Rose, St Dorothée, St Lambert, places once named by the European settlers. “Look, they are all suburbs,” he generalizes. In a colonizer’s gaze, the land is an empty space. To this the woman says, “And they shall tremble. Tremble, suburb.” The footage turns into a line-drawn swimmer. The screen has become a dark pool with bright magenta splashes of water.

“You don’t exist,” the man repeats again and again. I lose my patience and politeness. I want the woman to say something back. “Enough Calm,” she finally says, “what we need is anger.” The footage of hills and river stops — abstract paintings and dissonant music takes its space. The female figure comes back, this time filled with sparks. With assertiveness in her voice, she no longer asks the man to go along. She takes him where she will — to the bottom of a mine where a chiaroscuro stop-motion fire burns. In the next sequence, she shows the man the decades of women rising along sounds of protests and charcoal drawings of groups of women.

The woman speaks for me, and for many others: to traverse history through a place is to face its truths and nuances. In the last part of the film, she wakes from a dream. “I’ve some breath left, and I’d like to ask for a new share of the world.” She reimagines the land — she is the land itself. On the screen, an animated drawing of water floods the hills in an archival photo. The man’s voice has disappeared.

Still from Archipel. Courtesy IFFR

Still from Archipel. Courtesy IFFR

Still from Archipel. Courtesy IFFR

I open my own eyes. A curfew is currently in place in the Netherlands. Our spaces have been conflated into the same screen. On this screen, sound bites of disaster, violence and despair prevail; images are often on the edge of losing meaning. At this moment in time, I welcome poetry and dreams. As the female voice in Archipel says: ‘‘perhaps, as our voices name and embrace our surroundings — perhaps we might, in our way, hope’’.

The 50th edition of International Film Festival Rotterdam takes place online from Feb 1 to Feb 7, 2021. The festival has changed into a two-part program this year, with the second part will take place in June. Films in February can be viewed in the Netherlands.

Jue Yang
is a writer and filmmaker

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