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IFFR 2020: This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, Drag Kids, Young Hunter, & More

It’s difficult to imagine Rotterdam as a place where a film festival isn’t taking place at all times.

Diego Semerene

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International Film Festival Rotterdam 2020
Photo: IFFR

It’s difficult to imagine Rotterdam as a place where a film festival isn’t taking place at all times. The city feels tailor-made for such an event, with its panoply of movie theaters teeming with character and charming espresso bars, convenient pitstops between screenings, so close to one another. Even the servers and baristas at various restaurants and cafés can seem like festival ambassadors, quick to express their excitement when spotting a person’s IFFR tote bag, at times offering recommendations on which screenings to attend. “I swear it’s not at all like the musical,” said one server, referring to Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables.

The LantarenVenster is the only venue that seems to require that you catch a festival shuttle from the downtown area. Here, too, the workers play their role with gusto, in a delicious fantasy of a port city so imbricated in cinema that its festival is all but an effortless consequence of its filmmaking spirit. One driver, as we cross the Erasmusbrug bridge at night time, chats about film criticism and turns on Miles Davis on the radio, and somehow it feels as we’re in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows. He points out certain buildings and riffs on their historical significance. When we pass by the Schilderstraat, letters forming the word CULT are inexplicably hanging above the cars on the street, where a garish “Merry Xmas” might appear in a different kind of town. The driver notes that Rotterdam is becoming almost too trendy and sophisticated. Almost.

This may be what filmmaker Pedro Costa had in mind when, in his remarkable Masterclass, he used precisely the figure of the festival chauffeur to paint a picture of how much film festivals have changed in the past couple of decades. He said that even the drivers have master’s degrees in film studies these days. This would perhaps be a plus, but in Costa’s brutal indictment of the film industry, the film festival circuit certainly included, it also means everyone is constantly trying to pitch something. “Don’t pitch anything, please!”

Costa used the figure of the driver with an MA to illustrate the hyper-specialization of everyone involved in the business, but he reserved his venom to attack another figure—that of “sales agents” who, he suggested, act like vultures, depleting every aspect of the filmmaking process from any possible art-for-art’s-sake ethos, transforming everything into an opportunity to sell something. In this context, Costa argued, a filmmaker could make any kind of demand—for Robert De Niro, for Sean Penn, or for a dozen elephants on set—just not for “time,” that most vital tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal (“When you don’t have time, you don’t discover life”).

Costa’s talk was packed with references of artists he looked up to, from Robert Bresson to Kenji Mizoguchi, from Buster Keaton to Wang Bing—directors who knew that to make a good film all one needs is “three flowers and a glass of water,” not “money, cars, and chicks.” Costa kept mistakenly presuming that everyone in the audience was an aspiring filmmaker, and hopefully they weren’t, as his advice was for everyone to just stop making movies because we have too many in the world already. And on the off-chance that someone in the crowd still wanted to go out and make one, Costa established poetry, sociology, and subtlety as pre-conditions for the kind of cinema he’s interested in making and consuming–even if on his iPhone during his daily train commute (Bresson looks great on the iPhone, he claimed). “This is not about revealing anything,” he said. Cinema should be about hiding, like a gift you put inside a box and wrap delicately before offering.

There were certainly a few of those kinds of films at Rotterdam this year. One of them was Lesotho-born, Berlin-based filmmaker Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, which, like Costa’s own Vitalina Varela, explores the impossibility of mourning. In Mosese’s film, Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo), an 80-year-old widow living in a rural village in Lesotho, learns that her last surviving son, a migrant worker laboring in a coal mine in neighboring South Africa, has just died. She has thus lost all of her loved ones and decides to plan her own funeral. She wants a simple coffin. No golden angels or other gaudy nonsense.

This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection

An image from Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection. © IFFR

Mosese’s mise-en-scène and camerawork are breathtaking. The opening of the film, for one, is reminiscent of the Titanik Bar scene from Béla Tarr’s Damnation, where the camera glides through a God-forsaken nowhere, certain of where it needs to go, despite the darkness, all the way until it spots a cabaret performer singing the most melancholy of all songs. In This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, the camera also sneaks gracefully through a dark nowhere until it finds, not a singer, but an old man playing a strange instrument and eager to tell us a sad tale about lands that weep, miners coming home, and “cups that could never be filled.”

Mosese takes us back to this non-space a couple of times, as if the old man, played by Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha, were a non-diegetic master of ceremonies for the story of Mantoa that unfolds. It’s a story told through the gracefulness of the camerawork, the stunningly lit tableaux, and, most remarkably of all, through fabric. Not many films, especially ones with a documentary sensibility, use texture—wool, mud, cement, ashes, and cloth specifically—as a storytelling device the way that This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection does.

Consider the moments where Mantoa, faced with the many obstacles that keep her from being able to dig her own grave, takes refuge in the gown her husband once gave her: an exquisitely lustrous damask dress with a black frill and white-collar trim. It’s a great sartorial departure from the sober blackness of her usual widow’s attire, which clashes with the flashy satin swathed around the bodies of the women around her and the blindingly yellow uniforms of city workers building a dam right where the dead lay, draped in white bedsheets.

In one of the film’s many unforgettable scenes, Mantoa gets up from the chair where she usually sits to listen to the radio and dances with her dead husband, raising her arm as if holding an actual body that isn’t there, a voice in the background telling her to take off her “cloak of mourning.” And she certainly takes it all off in a bewildering final sequence when Mantoa simultaneously surrenders to loss and spurns it.

Several other films at IFFR explored the theme of death and dying, such as Carl Olsson’s Meanwhile on Earth, an observational study of the Swedish funerary industry. The film reminds us of the artificiality of funerals, or rites more generally, exposing them as highly theatrical performances, with their wreathes, pots, and crosses staged just so. It also pays close attention to the mechanics of funerals: their perfectly timed music and the multiplicity of gadgets and machineries required to lift and transport corpses and coffins.

Olsson’s strategy for making the subject matter palatable is to try and extract discrete humor from it. He loiters on the professionals going about their tasks—transporting, cleaning, embalming—for long enough so that overtly banal dialogue emerges. In the film’s most successful moments, the juxtaposition between the morbid ambiance (bodies on stretchers that bleed long after dead) and chats about all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets or the nutritional value of bottled smoothies make for a Tati-esque skit with a disarming punchline at the end.

Kristof Bilsen’s documentary Mother is the portrait of Pomm, a caretaker at an Alzheimer’s care center in Thailand whose poverty keeps her from living with her children, and Maya, her incoming patient, a privileged 57-year-old Swiss woman whose husband and children drop her off at the care center and go back to Switzerland. Unfortunately, Bilsen allocates the same amount of time on both women’s daily lives in their home countries prior to their encounter, insisting on obvious contrasts between poverty-stricken Thailand and the idyllic mountains of Switzerland. Yet only Pomm allows herself to be vulnerable for the camera, as Maya’s family never lets their guard down. It’s difficult to engage meaningfully with some of the subjects (like Maya’s entourage) when the filmmaker is content to accept the fact that they only have their façades to offer.

Drag Kids

An image from Megan Wennberg’s Drag Kids. © IFFR

Rotterdam featured films about the exuberance of youth, too, liberated or stunted. Drag Kids, screened at the very laidback Scopitone Café, a bar named after film jukeboxes of yore inside the Theater Rotterdam Schouwburg. The documentary follows child drag artists, some as young as nine, and their supportive families, as they prepare for their first joint concert at Montreal Pride. Director Megan Wennberg is smart not to bank simply on the inexplicable thrill of watching young children perform like adults. She’s protective of the children, in fact, never lingering on the potentially embarrassing less-than-average performances, singing or voguing, from some of the kids. Instead, she focuses on the differences between the kids, suggesting that drag can take different meanings, and that it can make different promises of deliverance, for children with decidedly different psychic symptoms and family constellations. Their only kinship seems to be, apart for their love of drag, the apparently unconditional support from their parents. Still, problems arise, from Queen Lactatia’s self-obsessed competitiveness to Laddy GaGa’s near-psychotic outbursts.

It’s impossible to look at Drag Kids, which is unabashedly reality TV show-esque at various moments, and not think of TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras, with its barrage of Southern stage moms waxing their pre-pubescent daughters’ eyebrows and teaching them trophy-wife realness. Although some of the Drag Kids parents do seem eager to capitalize on their children as digital influencers or with merchandise featuring their child’s face, the role of hyper-femininity and artifice here seems to play more of a reparative and self-aware playfulness than they did in the gender-conforming theatrics, and orthopaedics, of Toddlers & Tiaras. Wennberg’s documentary refreshingly denies us a lot of the kiddy voyeurism one might expect, ultimately crafting a portrait of kids whose maladies, if they have any, are somewhere else to be found—not on stage nor in the glitter.

In Young Hunter, director Marco Berger offers us a gripping look at the tragedies that surface precisely when desire isn’t allowed to express itself freely and publicly. In Berger’s vision of Argentina, queer feelings are necessarily clandestine feelings. A boy like 15-year-old Ezequiel (Juan Pablo Cestaro), then, is forced to develop a sort of criminal mind, and a criminal gaze, from a very young age. The queer object of desire can only be a prey, or a victim to be duped into reciprocating one’s yearning, as Ezequiel has to go through all sorts of subterfuges and a certainly different kind of theatrics from drag in order to get a good glimpse at other men’s bodies, let alone touch them, including that of his cousin (Juan Barberini).

The whole world seems to be a tease that one can only enjoy along with the terrifying dread of being found out. Instead of dwelling on it, however, Ezequiel takes matters into his own hands and develops a system of tricks for having sex with other boys, inviting them over to his house when his parents are away, feeding them beer and straight porn magazines, and then suggesting that they jack off together. If it all fails, he might head to the nearby skatepark and stare at shirtless boys like Mono (Lautaro Rodriguez), who he ends up falling in love with. At first it seems gratuitously reciprocal, but then Ezequiel realizes that he’s caught in a web of intrigue and lies much more extensive than the one he had to construct for himself.

Young Hunter is playfully shot like a thriller, until you realize that it may actually be one. The film is refreshing in that, while it recognizes the ravages of queer desire in a queerphobic world, it doesn’t focus on the suffering but on psychological solutions and practical strategies for sexual survival that are bound to seem familiar to any queer child who’s dared to evade repression and its many laws through queer creativity and savvy.

International Film Festival Rotterdam runs from January 22—February 2.

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