To cover the International Film Festival, Rotterdam is to be swamped with the sheer number of films screening in wide reaching, diverse categories. Not to mention the various sidebar events and cultural attractions going on at the same time.
This is a list of 10 of the most notable films we saw at the festival.
Azougue Nazare (Brazil)
First time director, Tiago Melo accepted the festival’s Bright Future prize in his native Portuguese with a highly political statement drawing attention to tensions in in his home country. But his film, Azougue Nazare is a lot more nuanced as he makes use of traditional conflicts to explore personal relationships in a post-colonial environment that is still very much in the evolution process.
The FIPRESCI jury, composed of international film critics (this writer inclusive) awarded Ere Gowda’s minimalist, languorous family drama, Balekempa its top prize, ‘’for its subtle and delightful portrayal of a universal theme against the background of a rich local culture.’’ Balekempa tackles patriarchy and feminism in a small South Indian village, using the lives of a childless couple as the entry into a world that is all too familiar, yet ultimately revealing.
The Guilty (Denmark)
What is the recipe for an arresting film these days? Try a handful of actors, a single space and a taut, clever script. Director Gustav Moller’s arresting, The Guilty was a huge hit at Rotterdam scoring lavishly with both critics (IFFR Youth Jury Award) and audiences (VPRO Big Screen Award, IFFR Audience Award). A tense thriller rendered in arthouse style, The Guilty speaks to the now, as it tries to make sense of a kidnap case.
The Insult (France/Lebanon)
Nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and screened in the Limelight category at IFFR, The Insult goes to uncomfortable places as it forces viewers to confront their prejudices head on. A simple quarrel between two neighbors who happen to be on opposite sides of a deep seated cultural and religious divide in present day Beirut, quickly escalates into a national crisis with far reaching consequences. The insult may be preachy and its politics obvious, but it packs a heavy punch.
The stunning and gorgeously shot Jonaki can be described as a moving picture book, suffused with blinding images that could make any cinematographer worth his salt green with envy. A contemplation on life, death and the thereafter, director Aditya Vikram Sengupta reimagines his grandmother’s life and pays homage to her with his uneven meditation on memory and the power it has to make life deeply meaningful or terribly inconsequential.
My Friend the Polish Girl (UK/Poland)
My Friend the Polish Girl is the kind of film that sits well in Rotterdam. On the surface, it is about a young American documentary maker and her subject, a beautiful but disturbed Polish immigrant. But dig a little deeper and the film is somewhat of an experiment, a mockumentary that eviscerates the very nature of the documentary and the sometimes manipulative relationship that settles between the observer and the observed. My Friend the Polish Girl veers into uncomfortable territory at times but it is never less than questioning.
The Reports on Sarah and Saleem (Palestine/Netherlands/Germany/Mexico)
Winner of the Special Jury Award for Rami Alayan’s complex but intricately rendered screenplay, The Reports on Sarah and Saleem details how a seemingly private preoccupation can quickly turn out to have political consequences. A daring extra-marital affair between lovers Sarah and Saleem, a Jew and Palestinian in troubled Jerusalem leads to an interrogation of the extent and limits of state surveillance and social control.
Alberto Monteras II’s Respeto shares some obvious similarities with the 2002 Eminem semi-autobiography film, 8Mile but ultimately stands on its own as a resonating study of trauma. On a basic level, Respeto is deeply moving coming of age story that tracks the relatable evolution of a young man. But peel back the layers and the film is also the story of a country and an interrogation of the ways that it consistently fails its citizens.
The Shape of Water (USA)
To fully enjoy Guillermo Del Toro’s latest is to surrender completely to the director’s gorgeously rendered world even as he hides under the cover of artistic license to get away with some improbabilities. The Shape of Water is a hopelessly romantic journey, a fanboy’s reinterpretation of noir films that inspired him, a tense action/monster movie and for the briefest of scenes, a breezy musical. It is a testament to Del Toro’s technical mastery that he is able to navigate through all these mazes and emerge with an uncluttered and gripping final product.
The Widowed Witch (China)
Winner of the Hivos Tiger Competition, the IFF Rotterdam top prize, The Widowed Witch takes its heroine on a remarkable journey of discovery and survival. Through sweeping exterior landscapes and cluttered interiors, director Cai Chengjie deploys stunning cinematography that is predominantly in monochrome to invoke a tale that is at once magical and rooted in the realism of real life. The Widowed Witch takes a feminist stance but avoids easy sentimentality.