Notes from International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019
By Young Film Critic André Shannon
In the 1950s two radical filmmaker-besties smashed open cinema in NY City. They were Barbara Rubin and Jonas Mekas. They shared a spiritual bond as collaborators akin to a Bradley/Gaga level of creative compatibility, but 50s art-house. An expert on the two, filmmaker Chuck Smith – who made the documentary Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground which played the Deep Focus section – relays their optimism. "Rubin wrote a letter to Mekas saying one day we'll be running around with such small cameras our hands will become cameras…" That was their dream, Chuck said during an interview in Rotterdam. Mekas never owned a camera phone, he tells me, but he was adamant in what film was always to be: young.
Off the back of Mekas-cinephilia comes IFFR 2019 and another round of young film critics. For more than two decades a trainee project has invited emerging critics to Rotterdam to learn and earn from working pros. Still, after 10 days of 'young film critics,' it's difficult to project a sense of identity in the large pool of established critics from around the world. What does young film criticism even mean? Is it about gearing up to walk down a long aisle to eventually tie a knot with a magazine that pays their writers in prestigious by-lines? This is a question often being addressed while everyone’s busy struggling to keep a steady workflow. The industry is so concerned with failing publications, keeping their bottoms tight on digestible content, rolling their eyes at young ambitious folk to even bother to ask who on Earth we are.
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So I turned to the most interesting people at the festival, the young film critics themselves, to ask their view. "I often feel looked down [upon] for making videos. It’s my insecurities perceiving that" says Luís Azevedo, prolific video essayist, reflecting on his experience in the programme. This idea of new-cinephilia comes up a lot, considering our backgrounds in film criticism 2.0 - memes, video essays, podcasts, and occasionally written reviews. Pablo Staricco comes from a journalistic background but agrees film criticism needs to branch out from the printed word. "There are so many ways of making content. It's ever-changing (…) You get to develop your own voice, but in literary forms, there are still rules to play by." With respect to the writers in the room, young critics still feel the large leap from 'breaking in' to becoming 'established', and the common denominator is the unconventional format.
As a programmer for Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival, Becca Voelcker – another member of the YFC programme - speaks of knowledge-based judgment at film festivals. "You never feel like you've seen enough films" she explains, as if a number of 'seen' films is relevant to film comprehension. Becca is impressive – a multi-lingual Ph.D. student who can bring a rigorous academic background to a film festival. "Not that many people read that much film criticism! I think it comes down to programmers and festival directors. Print is reducing every single year." she explains, reminding us of the uncertain career prospects emerging critics feel entering the field.
Innas Tsuroiya – aka the 21-year-old Trojan Horse young film critic – has the Internet to thank for her love of film, a portal for somebody who couldn’t easily access print journals. The cinephilia of her friends "started with memes and social media, so, by all means, let's play with medium!" she proclaims in regard to her practice. What matters to her is especially global. "The world is changing! It is more interesting [now] to approach cinephilia through ways that are expanded." This is a way to reach more people from various sides of the world. If Expanded Cinema was the playground of Rubin and Mekas Expanded Criticism is the playground for 2019 young film critics.
Film festivals feel like they exist in a vacuum because they do – our daily conversations during IFFR weren't about the death of Mekas, Oscar nominations, or even about what's happening at other festivals right at the moment. We’re too busy trying to connect with other film buddies, go to industry parties, and relish in free booze to bring hangovers and UTIs into film screenings. While navigating all these components there still exists a generation-based problem; like, where are the young filmmakers? Film festivals are built off archaic legacy filmmakers and red carpet. Auteurs, as well as industry veterans, are often invited to discuss their career in hindsight, but it would be great for young talent who have little support to give their take on what it is to be young and working in film.
Phaim Bhuiyan is an example of this. An Italian-Bengali filmmaker, at 22 he is premiering his first feature Bangla, and I hope to connect with him on this matter. His film follows a young Italian-Bengali boy falling in love with someone outside his community and has been heavily compared by critics to The Big Sick (2017). Nevertheless, in an act of anti-film, Bhuiyan rejects the judgment. "We don’t pretend to be the new Italian cinema. We want to bring in new content, but don’t want to pretend to be new.” He almost has to fight off the comparisons. "I don’t really want to be labeled. We work so hard to make something new…Our film is compared to The Big Sick but our film is really at the start of something. In Italy, we are sure the pioneer of this new generation." When asked about his influencers it’s no surprise he name drops Xavier Dolan, the most famous 'young' filmmaker in a Western context. I wonder if a film festival could fathom a masterclass in Post-Clerks Italian comedy by Bhuiyan himself, or if that would deviate too much from their roster of old auteurs 'in conversation'.
BanglaPhaim Bhuiyan IFFR 2019 87′
Avoiding alcohol and pork is no problem for Phaim. But how do you rhyme infatuation with no sex before marriage?
Based on the life of the filmmaker himself, this romantic comedy tells the story of a second-generation immigrant in Rome. When he falls in love, his butterflies clash with parental expectations. A playful debut that tackles complex themes such as integration, multiculturalism, religion and identity without losing its light-hearted tone.
No one knows how to usher in the New Wave because established platforms don’t know how to accommodate the change. Generally, there exist more online review journals than video essay series. Still, the landscape is so rapidly changing that fitting in with alt-cinephilia will emerge between video essays and the written word. Kevin B Lee, one of the most renowned video essayists of our time, and invited mentor of the YFC programme suggests we're living in the films of our lives. If a youth generation has grown up symbiotic with audio-visual media then we are literally living the film(s) of our lives. To conform is to lose form, so young film critics should pursue their imagination over traditionally formal prose.
Excuse the cheese but cinema is obsessed with younger selves. One need only look outside the festival vacuum at Lady Bird (2017) which single handily challenged the potential of female-directed American dramedy by combining young talent with a filmmaker’s experience of childhood. Mark Cousins – film historian of the people – believes so deeply in the poetry of childhood he made the portrait A Story of Children and Film (2013). And, straight up, Kevin B Lee believes the youth have a cultural and market value as voices – coming from someone who started making video essays over 10 years ago for the internet that comment has weight.
Lady BirdGreta Gerwig IFFR 2018 93′
Most known for acting and screenwriting, Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) makes her solo directorial debut with this highly praised tragicomedy on teen desire in America. Saoirse Ronan shines as a high school student calling herself 'Lady Bird' and struggling with love and sex, arguing with her mom and dreaming of faraway, expensive New York. Winner Golden Globe Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy.
Mekas advised artists; 'trust your angels'. By this he meant find your people and believe they’ll guide you. Mekas was eulogising Barbara Rubin here, his second muse, and the radical young film critic. Turns out Mekas was saying we’re a blessing to film culture. Young film critics relate to Mekas because they’re community oriented through social media, and share themselves with the world. We navigate the choppy waters of failing publications while living in the most mediated moments in history, without the support of 'prestigious' journals. Young film critics can respond to film with images now, not just with words.
By and large notable film movements started with people sitting down in cafés talking about cinema. After sitting down with what felt like the only young people at IFFR it is more and more evident how our idealism and imagination is moving cinephilia forward. Between the 1950s and 2019, young critics ultimately inform the film festivals of the future. So take us seriously, and trust your angels.