2020 Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFFR) Report

Documentaries telling the stories of extraordinary common lives

11 mins read

This year’s selection of documentaries highlights the value of cinema as a way to explore human nature and the sufferings of the common man.

On January 22, the 49th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) kicked off, opened by the world premiere of João Nuno Pinto’s period drama Mosquito and an inaugural speech made by the festival’s outgoing artistic director Bero Beyer. The Dutch producer and curator, who is leaving his post after five years, touched upon a “distinctive feature of humanity,” which is a strong “urge to communicate” through cinematic arts. (Former MUBI Director of Acquisitions Vanja Kaluđerčić will take over IFFR as the festival director starting this February.) This year’s selection of documentaries is certainly responding to this urge and includes a raft of notable titles screened in the Tiger and Bright Future sections. Here are ten non-fiction works which, to different extents, tackle the hopes and the troubles of common lives (individuals, couples and entire communities), either by adopting more traditional documentary approaches or by mixing, more or less skillfully, fiction and reality.

The first film on this list is definitely Luis López Carrasco’s Spanish-Swiss hybrid documentary-fictional narrative El año del descubrimiento (The Year of Discovery), set in a typically Spanish workers bar in Cartagena. Carrasco’s film is an outstanding three-hour look at the local vox populi, responding to events in 1992—the year of Seville’s Expo and Barcelona’s Olympics—and the present era. Observed through a number of tight close ups of the café’s visitors, framed in the two halves of a split screen, the film looks at the people who drink, eat, smoke and discuss their everyday concerns, the economic downturn, the role of unions and class consciousness, among other topics. 1992 was the 500th anniversary of Europe’s discovery of America and this thoughtful film shows people exploring what’s happening in Spain at the present time.

The second notable film is Vincent Boy Kars’ sophomore feature Drama Girl. In this hybrid documentary, the Dutch helmer invites Leyla, a young woman, to act out a number of key scenes from her recent past. Kars clarifies the purpose of his work upfront; in the opening scene, we see Leyla sitting barefoot on an armchair, listening to the director’s instructions, where she will be tasked to “play the leading role of his film about her life.” On the whole, the director’s experiment is odd but successful; the film is rich with intimate, touching and, at times, even puzzling moments and offers some fresh perspectives on the role of drama in gaining self-consciousness as well as a better understanding of the world.

Isabella Rinaldi, Cristina Hanes and Arya Rothe’s documentary A Rifle and a Bag also revolves around a troubled woman. Set in today’s India, the film is a portrait of Somi, who is pregnant with her second child (hopefully, a girl). The woman and her husband were members of the Naxalites, a group of Communist rebels fighting for the rights of Indian tribes. The couple was forced to surrender to the government for their family’s welfare and are now being treated like third-rate citizens. Through several controlled interviews and more observational sequences, the No-Cut Film Colletive’s work is an unmissable, timely account of their discrimination and sufferings.

Nuria Giménez’s debut feature My Mexican Bretzel opens with a quote by a fictitious Indian guru, called Paravadin Kanvar Kharjappali (“Lies are just another way of telling the truth”). It’s swiftly followed by black-and-white clips of pilots during World War II in Switzerland and subtitled excerpts from Vivian Barrett’s diary, an imaginary character whose vicissitudes are built upon the home movies shot in 16mm film by the director’s grandparents. Giménez’s documentary is a hypnotic viewing experience, almost entirely lacking sound, with the narration is mostly driven by the words of Barrett, who tells us about her life and her fears. It is definitely a bright example of a creative hybrid documentary that successfully manipulates archival footage in order to tell a fascinating fictional story.

Ana Elena Tejera’s Panquiaco centres on a man called Cebaldo, who has left his indigenous family in Panama and now works in a Portuguese fishing port. Cebaldo’s journey revolves around the themes of homesickness and nostalgia; every evening, the man plays a melancholy song on the juke-box in a café in order to console himself. Overall, Tejera’s style is original and engaging, as the Panamanian filmmaker manages to expertly and, coherently blend fiction and non-fiction elements with a powerful tale about memory and identity.

Hannah Jayanti’s Truth or Consequences also tries to develop a fictional narrative by manipulating real events and by using extensive archival footage. In particular, this speculative documentary is set in the remote town of the same name, located in the desert of New Mexico and represents a profound reflection on mankind’s eternal urge to seek new frontiers. Here, Jayanti mixes sci-fi, experimental virtual reality and documentary genres, accompanied by a captivating and improvised original score courtesy of jazz guitarist and composer Bill Frisell.

Besides Ana Elena Tejera, another Panamanian documentarian, Mauro Colombo, presented his first feature, Tierra Adientro (Inland). The film, recipient of the Yellow Robin Award at IFFR’s sister festival of Curaçao last year, is a political piece, in which the director decides to immerse himself in a mysterious jungle that divides Panama and Colombia, called Darién Gap. Colombo’s diretorial approach is purely anthropological and analyses the standing conflicts between the two countries and their diverse population, made of guerrilla warriors, peasants, drug dealers, police officers and indigenous people. It is a noteworthy work, as it exploits the jungle as a metaphorical place capable of embodying humanity’s more visceral, wilder nature while gradually bringing the film’s message from a local dimension to a more universal, relatable one.

The lead character of Alejandro Telemaco Tarraf’s debut Piedra Sola (Lonely Rock) is a llama herder who lives with his family in the scarcely populated highlands of Northern Argentina. The man and his son make a living out of the llamas’ wool and meat, which they sell to the closest city. A puma is threatening the flock and the man decides to search for the predator. Tarraf’s ethnographic style is combined with staged choices: the main characters engage in a long re-enactment of events during which they, more or less, play themselves. Throughout, the filmmaker the spectators with stunning landscapes and intense close-ups. Despite its spectacular technical aspects and the herder’s interesting search for the puma (who here symbolizes his ancestors), Piedra Sola fails in sustaining the pace required by a feature-length documentary. Nonetheless, Tarrif’s effort is commendable, as he tries to depict the semi-mystic life of remote Andean communities with their “cosmovision,” surely little known to Western audiences.

Wissam Tanios’ We Are From There focuses on two Syrian brothers, Jamil, an enthusiastic carpenter ready to follow in his father’s footsteps, and Milad, a sensitive trumpeter and dreamer. Tanios provides another important account of the lives of Syrian refugees. Here, the civil war plays a secondary role to the long-term psychological impact of emigration on the brothers. The director follows the two men’s displacement for over five years; Milad initially stays in Damascus and then moves to Germany, whilst Jamil first emigrates to Lebanon and then enters Sweden illegally. They both experience their own odyssey, develop a strong spirit of adaptation and are plagued by an uncertain future. Throughout the film, their uprooting is highlighted by exploring their childhood memories and questioning what they can really consider to be ‘home.’


Finally, Luísa Homem’s Suzanne Deveau sketches a curious portrait of the adventurous geographer of the same name. This marvellous empowerment film tells the extraordinary life of a scientist way ahead of her time, whose thirst for knowledge and fieldwork brought her to visit (and to live in) places such as the African continent and Portugal. Deveau’s testimony, conveyed through her voice-over commentary, is candid and passionate and the film resembles Pat Murphy’s Henry Glassie: Field Work, a beautiful work about the life and the extensive research work of the American folklorist. Both films share an infinite love for discovery while portraying scholars who look at the world through the lens of an unprejudiced learner, full of honesty and respect toward diversity.

The 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam ran January 22 to February 2.

Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian film critic and filmmaker based in Cork, Ireland. He currently works as a foreign correspondent for the EU-funded press agency Cineuropa, where he regularly writes about Irish and European cinemas. He is a PhD Excellence Scholar in Film and Screen Media at University College Cork. His bylines appeared on other European outlets such as The Location Guide, the Independent Cinema Office’s blog and Film Ireland. He is also a member of FEDEORA (Federation of Film Critics of Europe and the Mediterranean) and NECS (European Network for Cinema and Media Studies).

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