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Bending the laws of film

Written by Maricke Nieuwdorp 

Last year, the IFFR programme Rotterdämmerung returned after a decade’s absence. This year, nine idiosyncratic genre benders will be pushing the envelope of film conventions seemingly set in stone. Filmmakers Elizabeth Sankey (Romantic Comedy) and Jagoda Szelc (Monument) smash these conventions.

In horror films it is always the sexually free girlfriend that gets it first, action films always centre on some tough guy saving women and children, and in romantic comedies it’s always the gay couple, the chubby girl or the black character who act as the butt of jokes - and never the bride. After the dream wedding, the white, heterosexual middle class couple live happily ever after.

Surprise surprise: many film audiences just don’t recognise this. Time for a new generation of genre benders who want to successfully push the envelope when it comes to film’s conventions. Elizabeth Sankey (Romantic Comedy) and Jagoda Szelc (Monument) both do so in their own way, in a different form and with other motives.

Seeing what you never saw before

After her own marriage, British actress, musician and debuting filmmaker Elizabeth Sankey discovered that when she re-watched her favourite romantic comedies they all presented a somewhat warped impression. Sankey: “Basically I was being told that my romantic life was over now that I was married - as was life in general. We’ve been told this since Shakespeare and Jane Austen, and this message has been broadcast in cinemas since the 1940s and 1950s. We seem to have calcified since. Because I love romcoms, I suddenly felt betrayed.”

Sankey isn’t just referencing the Medieval message, but also the lack of diversity and originality. “OK, so action films like James Bond are terribly white and heterosexual. Even small indie films largely represent the white, heterosexual middle class. I think almost every genre is guilty of this.”

Her film essay Romantic Comedy targets the eponymous film genre and studies where things go wrong on the basis of famous scenes and a few fellow viewers, as well as what could and should be different. “There is no room for politics in romcoms, but that doesn’t mean it always has to be that way.”

Sankey is far from alone in her criticism. “Luckily there is increasing audience pressure. People think filmmakers and major film studios’ visions should be more diverse as well as more inclusive. Take Moonlight (IFFR 2017) for example. The film was an unexpected success and for good reason: audiences want new stories and different characters. It’s so much nicer to watch something you’ve never seen before!”

Art is about implying something without forcing the viewer into a particular viewpoint or emotion.” – Jagoda Szelc

Hard to categorise

Jagoda Szelc is not from the film world. The Polish filmmaker originally trained as an artist. Szelc’s Monument is hard to categorise genre-wise. Is the film about the mysterious events that befall a group of interns at a gloomy hotel a psychological thriller? A horror film? A drama perhaps? According to Szelc that is precisely the point: “What it is actually about is that everyone will see something different in it. In my view, that is what cinema is: no one sees the same film. Why not? Because we all live in a different reality.

Monument received prizes and praise, but also caused incomprehension and confusion. As far as Szelc is concerned that’s positive: “That is, in my opinion, precisely what art is about. You imply something without forcing the viewer into a particular viewpoint or emotion. This is of particular importance in Poland if you look at its current political climate. People sometimes forget they always have the opportunity to interpret narratives themselves.”

Rotterdämmerung on IFFR Unleashed

IFFR Unleashed also features a selection of genre bending films shown at previous festival editions. Among them, you'll find two films by the eccentric Belgian-French couple Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Amer and Laissez bronzer les cadavres, who make stylistic references to the giallo, western and other cinematic genres. In our collection, you'll also find two bonkers genre films by Japanese filmmaker Lisa Takeba, Jim Jarmusch' vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive and the cannibalistic coming-of-age film Raw. Check out the whole collection here.

Photo in header: Romantic Comedy