Highlights from the Rotterdam Film Festival

The most interesting works in the IFFR’s Short Film section all grappled with questions of truth, honesty and recollection

I had been making a conscious effort not to filter my viewing of the Tiger Competition for Short Films through the lens of post-Brexit, post-Trump politics. But to be drawn into that paradigm proved inevitable. During the competition, the United States began enforcing a ban on immigration from the Middle East, and a mosque was attacked in Quebec City leaving six dead. In the face of this, here were 23 artists representing 17 countries showing works ranging from abstract analogue film to the first Martian ‘landscape film’. Though only a handful dealt directly with contemporary politics, the most interesting works in the competition all seemed to grapple with questions of truth, honesty and the reliability of personal and cultural recollection.

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Lawrence Abu-Hamdan, Rubber Coated Steel, 2016, HD video still. Courtesy: the artist

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Rubber Coated Steel, 2016, HD video still. Courtesy: the artist

Two of the most compelling, Rubber Coated Steel by Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Information Skies (both 2016) by the Dutch duo Metahaven, found success with the jury despite representing diametrically opposed approaches to the relationship between politics and the moving image. Rubber Coated Steel, one of three films to win a Tiger Award and a €3,000 cash prize (Jorge Cadena with El cuento de Antonia and Prantik Basu with Sakhisona were the other winners), concerns a 2014 effort to prosecute an Israeli soldier accused of killing two Palestinian teenagers. Abu Hamdan, in his capacity as a professional forensic audio analyst, had appeared as an expert witness in the trial of the Israeli soldier. The transcript of his testimony is imposed over spectrograms of the gunshots in question, which hang like targets in a shooting range alongside other images given in evidence. Speaking in a video message played after the announcement of the award, Abu Hamdan made a passionate plea for artists and filmmakers to commit themselves to the collection and analysis of evidence as an art or media practice, a methodology thoughtfully demonstrated in this work.

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Metahaven, Information Skies, 2016, video still. Courtesy: the artists

Metahaven, Information Skies, 2016, video still. Courtesy: the artists

Information Skies – which also received a nomination to compete in this year's annual European Film Awards in Berlin in December – similarly questions the politics of truth and justice, but here via a ‘design fiction’ based on the experience of virtual reality and its cultural effects. Splicing semi-abstract anime sequences and hyper-cinematic live action footage with CGI overlays which the artists refer to as ‘interfacial ruins’ – the corroded remains of a browser window or head-up display – Metahaven reconsider the relationship between digital subjectivity and the notion of truth, producing what competition jurors referred to as ‘a post-truth essay film’. A disjointed, poetic text runs through the work, spoken aloud in Hungarian and (deliberately) obtrusively subtitled in Korean and English; some elements of the voiceover reflect on the effects of virtual reality, others point to some unrevealed judicial context. Originally screened via custom online platform, the video’s translation to the cinema tends to emphasize the cinematic sequences, which borrow from the sci-fi films of Tarkovsky, at the expense of some of the browser-specific digital motifs. The effect of this, however, is to call into question more effectively the utopian vision of a virtual paradise that has long been the promise of digital technology.

Claims to truth preoccupied several of the competition entrants. Simon Fujiwara’s Joanne (2016) documents the real-life efforts of former beauty queen and art teacher Joanne Salley to ‘rebrand’ herself after being publicly shamed, when pupils circulated her topless photos. The video – part documentary, part viral advertisement – toys with conventional narratives of redemption and the aesthetics of success to contrive an engrossing yet disquieting interrogation of authenticity after the internet. The artist’s refusal to reveal the extent and nature of Joanne’s involvement in the film seemed to frustrate the audience of his Q&A, but it is precisely this slipperiness around the facts that makes the work effective.

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Rosa Barba, From Source to Poem, 2016. film still. Courtesy: the artist

Rosa Barba, From Source to Poem, 2016. 35mm film still. Courtesy: the artist

Rosa Barba’s 35mm film From Source to Poem (2016) draws connections between Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘The Library of Babel’ (1941) and the audio-visual archive of the Library of Congress in Washington, continuing her investigation into the internal logic and infrastructure of cultural storage. By densely layering unnamed archived voices from the ‘subconscious’ of America, Barba pushes polyphony to an extreme. She renders incomprehensible recordings which might be understood as ‘factual documents’, at least on first viewing – like most of her films, this was intended to be looped in a gallery where repeat viewings enable greater comprehension. This aural lack of clarity finds its visual echo in brief moments where references to libraries emerge from a wall of morphing letters and symbols; as in Borges’ library which amassed all human knowledge and so was impossible to make sense of, so too Barba finds historical truth lost in the onslaught of nonsense and noise.

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Su Hui Yu, Super Taboo, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Su Hui Yu, Super Taboo, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist

If Barba’s film suggests that conventional archives are prone to failure, then several other works in the competition propose alternative approaches to engaging with the past. Super Taboo (2016), by Taiwanese video artist Su Hui Yu, uses a personal recollection of encountering pornography to explore the intersection of cultural history and collective fantasy. The video pans in slow motion through an unidealized Taiwanese wilderness in which a variety of sexual tableaux vivants play out, corresponding to well-worn pornographic tropes, and is framed by older businessmen reading from a pornographic novel and being carried off by uniformed policemen. The fantasy produced in the work, in conjunction with its specific historical references, suggests the capability of the moving image to both document and reconstruct cultural and personal histories. Less concerned with any objective truth than with subjectivity, Su’s work foregrounds experience, desire, and memory in the construction of history and identity.

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Jorge Cadena, El cuento de Antonia, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Jorge Cadena, El cuento de Antonia, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist

This approach is shared by the two other Tiger award winners, Jorge Cadena’s El cuento de Antonia (The Story of Antonia) and Prantik Basu’s Sakhisona (both 2016), both by young filmmakers that grapple with national, religious, and sexual identity through narratives of personal experience and collective memory. Cadena’s film emerged from a return to his home in Colombia, where a narrative was developed in collaboration with locals who appear in the film. Punctuated by surreal, erotic rituals, this experimental coming-of-age film calls for a break with religion and tradition and for enlightenment to be drawn from sexual liberation. Basu’s film is similarly tied to ritual and location, in this case a mountain near West Bengal where archaeologists have unearthed the remains of an 6th century Buddhist monastery. Sakhisona records the ruins and the objects found there and restages the myths associated with them, telling a story of love, grief, and transformation based on Samkhya philosophy. Folklore, mythology, song and dance unite on film to articulate a cinematic Hindu identity from a history hidden in the layers of the earth.

This year’s Tiger Competition served as a reminder that, in the face of burgeoning nationalism and reactionary politics, there remain artists and filmmakers committed to more thoughtful approaches, and an audience ready to receive them.

Main image: Simon Fujiwara, Joanne, 2016, HD video still. Courtesy: the artist

Arron Santry is a freelance art writer based in London.

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