Eye of the Tiger

Highlights from the 49th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam


“We believe in the power of cinema to increase our understanding of society. We trust its potential to infuse positive social change. We collectively expand the creative space for film citizenship and celebrate the diverse forms of cinema.”


As the film industry once again finds itself mired in criticism of being pale, male and local, there is one event that continues to prove an exception to the exclusive rule – the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). At this year’s festival, 145 out of the 574 films were world premieres, with the wider industry represented by 89 different countries. Its inaugural showcase in 1972 infamously garnered seventeen visitors, but now, in its 49th year, it remains one of the best moments in the calendar to enjoy experimental, documentary, fiction, short or feature-length independent cinema from all reaches of the globe. Rotterdam itself is a microcosm for this multi- cultural and lingual showreel, with half of the city’s residents having non-Dutch origins (or at least one parent born outside the country), housing large communities from Suriname, Turkey, Morocco and the Caribbean. Cycling down its coffee shop lined streets, you get the feeling most residents would have no problem overcoming the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles and dual ways of seeing. Art installations, performances, exhibitions and artists films also continue to make up a substantial part of the festival’s diverse offering, via its Art Directions programme. This element, according to IFFR director Bero Beyer, is to “shake up our expectations and transgress boundaries.”

Below, you’ll find some of my highlights from Art Directions and across the festival – from Taiwanese Virtual Reality to Afrofuturism from Baltimore.

Photography Jeroen Mooijman

Beasts Clawing at Straws

Korea continues to create great cinema (Bong Joon-Ho incidentally attended this year and showed a black and white screening of his excellent film Parasite), and Kim Yonghoon’s Tarantino-esque multi narrative crime drama rightly deserves the special jury award from the festival. Bloody and brilliant, it coalesces all of its strands into a darkly comic game of cat and mouse in which characters are crossed and double-crossed, devoured and destroyed by their greed.

Sacred Beings 

A number of countries in Asia have a long and rich history of non-binary expression through religious ritual and practice (transgender and intersex individuals were considered closer to God), at odds with the current, reductive debates around gender diversity and queer culture, which is arguably an ugly import of Western colonialism. This short and sweet installation attempts to “reimagine, reconcile, re-establish and reclaim these so-called gender deviations”, and a personal highlight was the documentary photography in Indonesia by academic Sharyn Davies.

The Making of [5×1] & O [5×1] double bill

We are beginning to see VR as a viable art form and although are some way off from it reaching its full potential, both these VR shorts were incredible. The first, created by Midi Z, places you directly around a table of actors, arduously going over and over a scene due to an overbearing director. Swivelling around 360 degrees, you can take in the full production crew, which makes for a dizzying combination of naturalism and artifice, compounded by the medium and playfully altered further when the director is then given feedback on his own acting, a film within a film within a…you get the idea. At once intimate and destabilising, this could well be the future of filmmaking (as demonstrated by Mende’s recent computer game-like 1917) – with you at the very epicentre of the story, the action orbiting around you.

The second film that followed, directed by Qiu Yang, was a grotesque, intense movement piece by French performance artist Olivier de Sagazan. You find yourself in a vast warehouse filled with caged doves and in front of his stage, a milky body of water sits opposite a blinding 2001-like obelisk. A suited man then proceeds to break down – physically, mentally, running through birth and death and rebirth via his transformative materials of clay and paint and straw. Anyone familiar with the film Samsara or his now infamous clay performance art, in which he repeatedly layers and punctures and remodels his face like a palimpsest, will understand how unsettling it is. Least of all when he is grunting, shouting, writhing and undressing right in front of you. VR has yet to perfect the technology so that a piece longer than 10 minutes doesn’t make your head ring from nausea, nevertheless, it’s an incredibly emotive, dangerous and unsettling film, made all the more so by its immediacy.  

G/D THYSELF: Spirit Strategy On Raising Free Black Children

An incredible spectacle from the American Ummah Chroma collective sees visitors don robes and enter a vast, sacred space. You are invited to explore, meditate, draw, smell sage and even rake the soft gravel within the Afrofuturist installation. It is a sensorial and poetic piece that explores the histories of Baltimore (poignantly Rotterdam’s sister city) and the power of black creativity and spirituality, perfectly at home within the impressive Het Nieuwe Instituut.    

Uncut Gems 

Do not see this film if you suffer from anxiety. I loaded up on a Kit Kat and some Haribo before the screening and by the end I thought I was going to have a heart attack. The Safdie brothers have produced a fantastic, frenetic film that mines the hardly-ever-used potential of Adam Sandler, finding the tragicomic balance that Paul Thomas Anderson demonstrated in Punch-Drunk Love. Sadler’s New York jeweller is a repulsive, compulsive gambler ricocheting from one terrible decision to the next and we are dragged along, watching between our fingers at his mounting debt. Wonderfully stressful, truly visceral viewing experience.

How to Overthrow the US Government (Legally)

Filmaker and professor Caveh Zahedi runs a how-to-make-a-web-series course that also probes how to bring about political change at the experimental The New School, New York. During the course, the students film the entire process and edit, together with Zahedi, the film itself. What follows is a hilariously raw and open exploration of the lesson’s – and their own – shortcomings. Starting as an exploration of macro politics and bureaucracy, the documentary turns inward as the importance of relationships, learning and connections between peers take centre stage, with the class almost doubling as therapy. A very clever, introspective experiment which showcased its honesty artfully.

Robby Müller Polaroids

The beauty of Wim Wender’s films (Paris, Texas) as well as Jim Jarmusch’s (Down by Law), are in part thanks to the careful eye of the late Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller. Like the former director, he was an adept polaroid photographer, using them to capture local flora, landscapes and potential locations for films. This is a quiet, beautiful exhibition commemorating a rarely seen part of Müller’s work, a gentle reminder of his mastery of minimalism and natural light.

Love’s Twisting Path

Reportedly Nakajima Sadao’s final chambira (sword fighting film), this faithful genre story involves one drunk, sulking, pouting, disgraced Ronin rediscovering his honour and craft by hacking down a collection of bad guys and protecting the woman he (kind of) loves. Set against the tumultuous background of the end of Shogunate rule, the choreography, set and costume make this worth seeing alone.   


The Colour Of Pomegranates

At this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, Port talked to Daniel Bird about never before seen outtakes from Parajanov’s poetic masterpiece – The Colour of Pomegranates

Part film, photograph, painting and poetry, The Colour of Pomegranates is a vibrant hieroglyph come to life. Told in tableaux chapters, the film recounts the inner life of the 18th-century Armenian poet and singer Sayat Nova using coded visual metaphor, ritualistic, stylised movement and rich choral soundscape. Simultaneously sensual, hypnotic and abstract, it remains a testament to the fact there is an alternate way to create and experience cinema.     

The pure magic of the film, released by the Soviet Union in 1969, is matched only by the story of its production and its director, Sergei Parajanov. Shot in four countries amid ancient, holy ruins, the dreamlike celebration of Sayat Nova was deemed incomprehensible at the time of its release. Imprisoned shortly afterwards for a collection of dubious crimes, Parajanov and his visual-sonic tapestry has fluctuated between obscurity and international celebration over the past four decades. Since its official release to Western audiences in 1982, its stature and notoriety continues to grow. When Martin Scorsese first introduced The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and Cineteca di Bologna’s restored version, he stated that the audience was about to see something “pretty much unlike anything in cinema history.”.

Port attended the 49th International Film Festival Rotterdam for its Art Directions programme to see The Temple of Cinema, never before seen outtakes projected within a cross of monitors, set within an incense filled church. Made possible by the Hamo Bek-Nazarov Project, a collaboration between the National Cinema Centre of Armenia and Fixafilm, we spoke to Project director Daniel Bird about the ethics of outtakes, creating national identity through cinema and Parajanov’s legacy.

What makes Pomegranates such a revolutionary format / medium?

Parajanov was asked to make a film about Sayat Nova, the national poet of Armenia and a symbol of the Caucasus. Parajanov was an Armenian born in Tbilisi, so in making a film about Sayat Nova, he was also making a film about himself. He expressed an interest in making a film about the inner life of the poet, not a conventional biopic. The state-run studio, Armenfilm, actually embraced this. Parajanov incorporated the great tradition of Armenian miniatures based on the life of the poet. He tried to translate poetry into cinema in the way that we translate English into French, developing a visual and sonic analogue.  

What will the outtakes reveal?

That there was a lot of experimentation in terms of finding a look, feel and tone. When you look at the outtakes you can see Parajanov trying lots of visual ideas – different angles and a wider lens – which he then decides to omit during the editing. The distinctive look which we associate with the film was found during the shooting. There’s also a lot of improvisation in the outtakes. One of my favourite scenes is referred to as ‘Sayat Nova’s wet dream’ and it involves Sayat Nova in a monastery at night, milking a llama. You see the milk going into a goblet and he parades the cup around a monastery as is if it’s some sort of holy relic. Meanwhile his beloved is dressed in black and behind her is a sheet of glass. He approaches from behind and throws the cup, it splashes and then rolls down behind her. She then pulls away a kind of a chest piece, with a white Rorschach ink print. It’s completely vulgar, but fantastic.

How did you go about selecting the screening space?

It’s obviously reverential putting the outtakes in a church, but we’re not putting it on a pedestal. It’s not a prerequisite to have a firm grasp on Armenian or Soviet history, anybody can go into that space and appreciate the film on a sensual level. We have twelve hours of material and only exhibited three, so roughly a quarter, and decided to leave the spliced reels as they were. They’re constantly generating random associations between the monitors, so it’s like a self-editing film. They talk amongst each other. Parajanov loved the theatre of religion, the incense, the costumes, the rituals, but he wasn’t a religious person. Jean-Luc Godard once said that “In the temple of cinema, there are images, light, and reality. Parajanov was the master of that temple.” That’s where our title comes from, we wanted to create a secular space where god was cinema itself.

Why was the film challenging to USSR authorities at its time of release?

In the 1970s, Parajanov was imprisoned ostensibly for spreading venereal diseases, inciting suicide, dealing in foreign currency and stealing religious icons – which just sounds like the ultimate John Waters villain. Those were the official reasons he was sent to prison, but everybody assumes that it was to do with his homosexuality. He wasn’t imprisoned because of the film, he was imprisoned because of himself. The main reason it was recut was that it was deemed incomprehensible. The main concern was, ‘who is this film for? Why are we making films for Western intellectuals? What about the man on the street – is he going to understand?’. When I spoke to Stepan Andranikyan, the production designer, he said when they screened the film the people in the village had no problem understanding, they got it entirely. Likewise with the intellectuals. The problem was the middle classes, who believed ‘no one will understand this’ – quite a condescending attitude. Frankly speaking, it’s is no different to the mentality of most institutions in the UK when commissioning films. Everything is about comprehension, or accessibility. So at the time of its release, the assumption was that it had been butchered by bureaucrats. That’s not true. There was an Avant Garde filmmaker called Sergej Yutkevich who suggested sharpening the narrative and simplifying it by putting it in chapters. So that was the ‘bastardized version’ that was most widely seen. It wasn’t until 1990 after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the domestic cut, Parajanov’s cut, started to go into circulation. In my opinion, there’s no definitive version of The Colour of Pomegranates.

We have a very black and white view of Soviet cinema which I’m trying to dispel – there was room for experimentation. It was the biggest, most expensive film for Armenfilm at the time, shot in four countries and in production for over two years. Can you imagine the BFI agreeing to a biography about Shakespeare’s thought process that uses a visual language to capture what makes his language so interesting? The closest we have to that is with people like Derek Jarman, but we don’t make films like that now. It’s easy to be dismissive of Soviet filmmaking conditions, but there was an openness.

What is the films cultural significance?

There’s a sequence in the film which is very important – a line of poetry delivered in three languages, Armenian, Georgian and Ottoman-Turkish. That is the triple identity of Sayat Nova. When I first saw the film in the 90s, it was a Soviet film. Then over time it’s been reclaimed as Armenian and as Georgian. These formerly oppressed nations are developing a national identity through cinema. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at de facto war with each other since the late 80s, but cinema has the capacity to transcend national boundaries. There’s almost a post-colonial dialogue going on between these states about repatriation of elements. In this particular moment, politically, we need a cinema of migrants and immigrants, shifting away from rigid, closed national identities.

What were the ethical and artistic considerations for the show?

We had to contend with the obvious ethical issue that they are outtakes – they were never meant for public consumption. There was a debate about whether or not they should be shown, before being given blessing by the Parajanov Museum and close friends of the director. They lie somewhere between history and a creative presentation. To what degree do we impose our artistic identities or not? I’ve tried not to impose my own ego on this and it’s been a really interesting exercise presenting the outtakes as an open book, not editing the material.

At the close of the film, Sayat says: “Whether I’m living or dead / My song will awaken the crowd / I’ll depart but from that day / A piece of me will stay in the world.” Were he alive today, what would Parajanov say about the renaissance and revival of his film?

It’s impossible to answer. You just have to make a judgment call in whose interest this revival is. Is it in my interest, is it in Parajanov’s? Or is it in the interest of interest of filmmakers and most importantly, viewers? There’s a triptych program at Rotterdam this year made up of some other restored Parajanov films and one from Francesca Levi – it’s 45 minutes long. This is less than one episode of a TV show on Netflix. I cannot say how many ideas, how much humour, how much melancholy, how much imagination is in that 45 minutes. Parajanov had a mentality that you can be profoundly clever, vulgar, sad and humorous at the same time. You can be all of these – you can be alive. These films are like that last line by Sayat Nova, fragments of Parajanov. Having them in a place like the International Rotterdam Film Festival with lots of young emerging filmmakers – if it in some way triggers an idea that there is a different way of doing something and that filters into the films or TV we watch – that can only be a good thing. We need someone like Parajanov to remind us that a different filmmaking is possible.