Rear Windows: International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019
Chantal Akerman’s Là-bas (2006). Photo Courtesy of Icarus Films.
Lucky dipping is a feature of most film festivals but at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, whose program spans some 500 titles of all lengths and genres, it functions as a structuring principle. It’s a running joke that no one seems to know what the program’s numerous sections and subsections stand for and their interchangeable names—Voices, Perspectives, Signatures—come across more as a facetious acknowledgement thereof than an attempt at offering guidance. While this mode of festival-going tends to disadvantage work by lesser-known filmmakers and often proves frustrating, it can also result in serendipitous concatenations like the one that ensued from my viewing of Chantal Akerman’s Là-bas (2006).
Included in a very loosely defined series of surveillance-themed films, Akerman’s diaristic documentary borrows and simultaneously inverts the general premise of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) (also in the series), transfiguring voyeurism into introspection. Alone in a Tel Aviv apartment, Akerman films her neighbors through her living room windows. The view is in large part obstructed by matchstick blinds, which both evokes prison bars and exacerbates the digital camera’s limited resolution, visually elaborating the thematics of entrapment and clouded visibility at the heart of the film.
At first, it isn’t clear what we’re supposed to draw from these mundane, largely invariant images of people sitting on their balconies. Through overheard phone calls from concerned friends and relatives, and through Akerman’s own voiceover, which relates her struggle to complete everyday tasks and the circumstances of her aunt’s suicide years earlier, the film gradually emerges as an attempt at processing her personal depression. Beyond the windows lies a world from which she feels painfully excluded, and she goes on to draw parallels between her interiority and the State of Israel, two besieged entities for whom peace seems like a utopian prospect. As in her final film, No Home Movie (2015), the static frames pulsate with longing and the conveyed poignancy is rendered devastating by the knowledge that a decade later, following another depressive crisis, Akerman took her own life.
That Là-bas contains no reverse shots and Akerman never films herself, apart from a few brief glimpses of the back of her head, was brought into relief by the next film I saw, Going South (2018), the second installment of a planned tetralogy by Dominic Gagnon. The first, Of the North (2015), almost got the Quebecois director crucified for its collage of Inuit home videos, whose sordid and sensationalist focus proved incendiary. Avoiding a repeat of this controversy by taking on the challenge Edgar Morin posed to Jean Rouch with Chronicle of a Summer (1961), Gagnon has now made a film about his “own tribe.” All of the material is again sourced from YouTube, but what initially comes across as a hodgepodge of squalor—Australian surfers doing beer bong hits and vomiting on themselves, ravers at the notoriously debauched Full Moon Parties, tourists gawking at strippers in Bangkok’s red-light district—eventually crystallizes into a trenchant treatise on the health of the Western psyche.
By regularly returning to the video diaries of a handful of vloggers, including a teenage trans girl, a young air stewardess, a “flat Earth” conspiracy theorist, a New Age health fanatic and a gamer grandmother, Gagnon fleshes them out as protagonists, piecing together an affecting mosaic portrait of 21st century loneliness. Though their cameras are trained on themselves at all times, these unhappy souls lack Akerman’s capacity for self-analysis. As such, the dynamic between interior and exterior is reversed: the vloggers each purport to offer life advice to the world at large, represented by their invisible and probably meager audiences, but what they’re actually doing is giving unconscious expression to their own alienation. When their façades crack, their desperation bursts forth and Gagnon, despite the reputation for mocking exploitation he earned through Of the North, which shows himself remarkably empathetic. The trans girl’s most anguished video, for instance, is intercut with clips of people diving in shark cages, offering a simple yet potent metaphor for her subjectivity within an oppressive society.
This YouTube ethnography represents a new form of cinéma vérité, retaining the camera’s dual catalysing function, encouraging and dissolving the subject’s performance, while relegating the filmmaker’s quest for truth exclusively to the edit (and opening up a whole new horizon of ethical quandaries pertaining to agency and consent). It was felicitous that the festival should include another example from a different part of the world: Shengze Zhu’s Present.Perfect (2019), winner of the Tiger Award, the festival’s top prize. Zhu drew her clips from live-streaming showrooms, a Chinese variant of vlogging that only takes place live and allows viewers to send text messages and cash gifts to the ‘anchors’, as the hosts are called. The film’s opening titles state that 422 million Chinese people (roughly a third of the population) used live-streaming sites in 2017. Much like Gagnon, Zhu begins with a wide panorama and slowly narrows her focus to half a dozen protagonists. A key difference is that in Going South the socioeconomic context is for the most part left implied, whereas Present.Perfect places it front and center.
The anchors in the film are all lower class, working in factories, construction sites or panhandling, and it quickly becomes evident that live-streaming, which many of them do while at work, has largely if not completely replaced their social life. A young single mother, who sews underwear 12 hours a day, six days a week, takes her three-year-old daughter to work and, in a surreal tableau worthy of a Jia Zhangke film, we see her sitting at her desk, chatting away into her phone’s camera and sewing at a furious, mechanical pace while her daughter sits silently by her side, bored and ignored. As with all the anchors, the content of her live-stream is strictly mundane, with viewers asking her where her accent is from, what she’s sewing, how old her daughter is, or what she plans to cook that evening—the private, the social and the economic as fully merged. Zhu’s protagonists may be a lot less demonstrative than Gagnon’s, but their solitude is just as palpable, offering an alarming illustration of a reality that consigns individuals to being alone together.
“Non-political, non-aesthetic, non-educational, non-progressive, non-cooperative, non-ethical, non-coherent: contemporary.” What could be a perfect tagline for either Going South or Present.Perfect is actually a text written by Angela Ricci Lucchi across one of her lovely, Quentin Blake-like watercolors. Ricci Lucchi, who died last February, made up one half of a filmmaking duo with her life partner Yervant Gianikian and their highbrow, rigorously political films garnered them a small yet ardent following not unlike Straub/Huillet’s. Devoid of sentimentalism but bursting with feeling, I diari di Angela – Noi due cineasti, which Gianikian made after Ricci Lucchi’s death (though she’s given co-directing credit), is a celebration of their life work, a stirring elegy, and a beautiful, quietly devastating love letter.
The film collates, in roughly chronological order, home movies that Gianikian shot throughout their life together, starting in the 1970s. First on 8mm and later on video, we’re shown the couple visiting various countries for research—Turkey, Iran, the USSR, Bosnia and Herzegovina—and at home in the Italian countryside, where their domestic day-to-day is portrayed as inextricable from their work. In a move that is at once conceptually brilliant and hopelessly romantic, Gianikian reads entries from Ricci Lucchi’s exhaustive diaries in voiceover, effectively continuing their collaboration by letting her narrate his images and upholding their conception of cinema as defiance— even against death. The couple dedicated their life to a definition of art that is the very opposite of Ricci Lucchi’s epigrammatic estimation of the contemporary: “We wanted to see, feel and understand,” reads one of her diary entries. In the present era of rampant, capitalistically nurtured solipsism, I diari di Angela serves as a potent tribute to the increasingly anachronistic notion of filming as a gesture directed outwards.
The Cambodian filmmaker Kavich Neang belongs to the camp that still regards cameras as instruments of testimony and resistance. The delicate and poignant Last Night I Saw You Smiling, his first full-length feature, documents the last days leading up to the demolition of the White Building, a large apartment block in Phnom Penh that was constructed in the 1960s as a symbol of Khmer modernity. Neang grew up there and in a series of quiet, beautifully framed and largely static long takes, he observes how his family, alongside 492 others, pack up their lives following the White Building’s purchase by Japanese investors.
The government supported the deal, promising the displaced families financial compensation, though at time of filming these payments had yet to materialize and none of the residents seem convinced that they would. One woman compares their eviction to the Khmer Rouge’s take-over of the building in 1975. At least, she says, this time they’re allowed to take their things with them. The stoicism on display is remarkable, especially given that many of them do not have new places to live, speaking to the fortitude of a people routinely subjected to the vicissitudes of history and capital. In the final scene, after bulldozers have finished ripping down the White Building, Neang cuts to photographs of the edifice at the time of its inauguration. Its former grandeur recalls the gleaming new constructions that were seen jutting out of the cityscape earlier on, closing the film on a note of grim prognostication.