Rotterdam 2022: 5 Emerging Talents

6 February, 2022

The festival in Rotterdam is the year’s first big event of the European circuit, and one that is also particularly interesting in this regard: it’s a festival that launches a series of titles that will certainly make the rounds in the small and medium-sized circuit, on both sides of the Atlantic, and that sets itself apart from the Berlin-Cannes-Venice triad (and their little sisters, Locarno and San Sebastian) because it’s a festival that mostly operates outside of the contemporary cinematic canon, cultivating a unique brand and roster instead. In other words, Rotterdam is the kind of festival that is famous especially due to its preference for newcomers and lesser-known filmmakers, thus turning it into a true talent goldmine; the big-name films which are often the topic of disputes between the triad (such as Bruno Dumont’s France, to give an exact from this year’s roster) are featured in Rotterdam’s secondary sidebars and sections, thus leaving the main stage for the young filmmakers and those who are often much too radical in style and politics for the “prestige” circuit (except for the Berlinale Forum and it’s still-young Encounters section, a successor to the now-defunct – and excellent – Signs of Life section at Locarno). This also translates to a higher degree of curatorial risks – this is certainly not a festival for all tastes, and I don’t believe that there are two single spectators with the same list of favorites at Rotterdam, but this challenge makes it all the more inviting, especially when it presents one with a diamond in the raw.

And so, what better way to map this year’s edition of the festival than by keeping an eye on these young talents – who seem to carry the promise of long and exciting careers in the years ahead? In the following piece, here’s a small crop of five filmmakers that I believe hold the promise of tomorrow’s cinema: Pedro Neves Marques, Morgan Quaintance, Maryam Tafakory, Ricky D’Ambrose, and Morgane Dziurla-Petit.

Pedro Neves Marques – Becoming Male in the Middle Ages (Portugal)

(presented in the Ammodo Tiger Shorts competition)

One of the three winners of this year’s Ammodo Tiger Short award is young multi-disciplinary artist Pedro Neves Marques – whose interest in cinema has gained momentum over the past couple of years, after having developed a career in video art and publishing. Just as in the case of his last film, The Bite (2019) – a prediction of the upcoming pandemic, set in a future scenario in which Brazil is mass-producing genetically modified mosquitoes to fight an extreme variant of malaria, and the members of a non-binary, polyamorous couple find themselves caught in the crossfire despite their isolation -, Becoming Male in The Middle Ages is another film that sets a handful of couples in a futuristic context, in which bioengineering has rendered the impossible into possible. This is a queer, speculative fiction that might seem at odds with its almost Rohmerian form: we see fragments of day-to-day life, conversations, and personal reflections brought on by personal crises, shot on a rich, colorful 16mm film stock. In particular, this is the tale of the tensions that arise between a heterosexual couple and a homosexual one, concerning their attempts to conceive – the straight couple cannot manage to have children, and the gay couple is attempting to have one by trying out an experimental technology through which one of the men, Vicente, has an ovary grafted under his skin, hoping that it will produce an egg which will then be inseminated by his partner, Carl, and carried to term by a surrogate mother. What connects the two couples is Mirene – whose connection to the gay couple is never fully explained, as she is seemingly the sister or cousin of either man. In her, Neves Marques constricts a complex figure, not without its rough edges: Vicente and Carl’s process causes her to feel a sort of anxiety that is not that far removed from the murky waters of TERF ideology, as she feels her identity as a woman is somewhat under attack; but far from being a negative character, and in little more than twenty minutes, Mirene is granted the necessary space to explore these fears and their origins, along with ampler questions surrounding contemporary bioethics, which Marques ties in neatly with that of queer bodies and existences.

I agree with Victor Morozov’s assertion that there is no “other national cinema that is as playful and exciting to watch as the Portuguese one”. Even a cursory look from its smaller (Jorge Jacome, Catarina Vasconcelos, João Nicolau) to its bigger names (Pedro Costa, Miguel Gomes João Pedro Rodrigues, Rita Azevedo Gomes) proves that Portugal’s modern cinema is as diverse and innovative as it is uncompromising. And Neves Marques’ films are a perfect fit in this polyphonic cinematic landscape.

Morgan Quaintance – A Human Certainty (UK)

(presented in the Shorts and Mid-length section)

One of Rotterdam’s recent darlings is British filmmaker of color Morgan Quaintance, whose progress and development in terms of technique and style is positively palpable, all the more given that he is a prolific artist, who currently has nine shorts and video works created over the last four years in the catalog of prestigious UK distribution boutique LUX. After the success of his latest short,  Surviving You, Always (2021) – an essay-film working on three levels: the visual one, composed of urban landscapes and photographic archives, the text-over, which was inspired by the filmmaker’s teenage experiences with drugs, and a voice-over compiled from audio soundbites from Timothy Leary and Ram Dass -, Quaintance returns to Rotterdam with yet another film that borrows its title from the discography of punk band Saccharine Trust. (As a side note, A Human Certainty had been used as the end-credits song on Surviving You, Always.) Although his latest is also heavily autobiographical, and is constructed within the same formal parameters, this time around, Quantaince uses an almost sarcastic tone in its exploration, almost as if he would wish to sabotage his tendency towards seriousness and somberness. Using humorous juxtapositions, he illustrates the story of a break-up as told in cursive, pink text overlays, its pathos pumped up by love songs from the fifties and images from a cemetery and a beach.

It’s an intentional usage of kitsch aesthetics, that is aware of the occasionally frivolous aspects of lovesickness (or of the awareness of said frivolity), which turns to the fertile ground to explore the topic of death and of the ways it is narrated, represented – from the myths of medieval saints to street photographers of the fifties. Since what is a break-up from a loved one other than another shape of mourning (which, according to studies, even applies at a psychological level) – a bizarre one, in which the “dead” person is not truly dead, yet the traces of their absence are all-consuming? Maybe it’s a bit early to claim that I’ve already stumbled upon one of the year’s best shorts, since, after all, it’s only February, but I do think that A Human Certainty fully deserves this distinction.

Maryam Tafakory –  Nazarbazi (Iran)

(presented in the Ammodo Tiger Shorts competition)

One of the edition’s most pleasant surprises was Nazarbazi, the work of young, Iranian filmmaker Maryam Tafakory – who lives as an ex-pat in London, and already had several short films under her belt. If a year ago I anticipated the fact that the pandemic would lead to an increasing number of found footage films due to the form’s viability in these times, Nazarbazi comes as a confirmation – one that is a testament to the fact that found footage films can be used for more than the mere illustration of an essay-like argumentative structure, but that it can also be put in the service of poetry.

Here, Tafakory starts from one of the effects of the Iranian Revolution on the country’s cinematic output – that is, the banning of all depictions of intimacy on-screen – and then explores the manifestations of this prohibition, focusing in particular on feminine characters (a topic which I explored in the latest issue of FILM MENU). Although a careful cinephile eye can recognize the works of world-famous filmmakers such as Asghar Farhadi or Marzieh Meshkini (featured with her feminist masterpiece, The Day I Became A Woman, 2000), most of the films that Tafakory uses here are virtually unknown, as she splices images of hands that cannot touch, save for intermediary objects, of feminine bodies subjected to various shapes of violence, of palms that cannot touch anything save for their children’s heads and inanimate objects. It’s as much of a video-essayistic analysis of Iranian cinema based on free associations, as it is the transposition of a poem through the use of ready-made images: “I travel outside my body / and inside me there are continents / that I do not know”. A strong short, which recalls Frank Beauvais’ Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (2019), which does more than to simply channel the thoughts of an anxious subjectivity – it equally traces the contours of a cinema that is repressed,  oppressed, down to its smallest, otherwise unnoticeable, details.

Ricky D’Ambrose – The Cathedral (USA)

(presented in the Bright Future section)

Premiering last year in Venice, young American independent filmmaker Ricky D’Ambrose’s second feature marks what doubtlessly is a moment of expansion in his career: one in which his aesthetics, profoundly inspired by the modern classics of cinema – Bresson, Antonioni, Schrader, Farocki – is put in the service of a plot that has the power to gain traction within the larger audience. If in his debut feature, Notes on an Appearance (2018), the narrative concerned the L’Avventura-esque disappearance of a young man in New York, leaving behind puzzling diaries, postcards, and maps, in The Cathedral, D’Ambrose proposes what Irina Trocan called “an un-celebratory, committed version of Boyhood”. Both films are constructed as Bildungsromans set in the millennial era – with all of their cultural artifacts -, but The Cathedral doesn’t aim at the pop culture that Linklater heavily relied on in his 2014 epic. Its soundtrack doesn’t feature music juggernauts like Coldplay’s Yellow, for one, but the life of protagonist Jesse is underpinned by audiovisual inserts, the vast majority of which are VHS fragments (although magazines and various prints also guide the film’s setting), which span everything from Kodak cassette commercials to footage of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. And Jesse, whose sensitive character blooms under our gaze, is not always the film’s focal point: The Cathedral is much rather a discreet epic of an Italian-American family (named Damrosch) caught in the dizzying fray of the end of the 20th century, and of the beginning of the 21st, when traditional communities, built around the family unit and belief, increasingly and definitively atomizes under the pressure of late capitalism.

Just like Dan Salitt in Fourteen (2019), D’Ambrose mostly avoids presenting actual moments of crisis – we do have a couple of moments in which the characters lose it, of course, yet the source of their anger and despair is never fully exposed or indicated. But it is, indeed – suggested: as the film prefers to observe small household gestures, which hold little to no narrative weight, all the small acts of cleaning, the house visits, and the birthday parties take place in the shadow of both small-scale history (the parents’ divorce, the grandparents’ deaths, the father’s failures) and capital-H History (9/11, the war in Iraq, the economic crisis). In a certain sense, The Cathedral is also very much a film about the loss of childlike innocence – which, of course, is very much a universal theme, but maybe it’s all the more potent for a now-mature millennial generation than at any other moment. A sophomore feature that announces a new, strong voice on the scene of independent American cinema.

Morgane Dziurla-Petit – Excess Will Save Us (France)

(presented in the Tiger Competition)

The winner of this year’s Special Jury Award, Morgane Dziurla-Petit’s debut film is ass intimate and freewheeling as it is formally ingenious and innovative: Excess Will Save Us, a chronicle of the filmmaker’s family and native village, a small French hamlet where, as she puts it, “there is no mall, there is no cinema”. But the chronicle which Dziurla-Petit turns into cine-ecriture (to quote Agnes Varda) rejects the simplistic methods of conventional documentaries, where, generally speaking, the most daring attempt at rendering the process transparent is to simply reveal the presence that lies behind the camera. Not only does she include herself in the film, but she also turns her documentary short of the same title (released in 2019) in one of the feature’s main plot points, including it entirely and then documenting, amongst others, the changes which the film causes in her family after its release. This is also an opportunity that she uses to push even further in terms of formality. The initial short, which explored how rumors of a possible terrorist threat spread like wildfire in the community, and resembled Anda Pușcaș’s Stremț 89 (2019), was rather conventional in terms of means. On the other hand, the feature film fully indulges in reenactments and hybrid stagings, transforming the subjects of non-fiction into fully-fledged actors who then dramatize their own lives.

To be fair, some of them don’t need to fictionalize anything to mesmerize the audience – the director’s lively, jokester grandpa is simply arresting in his presence; for others, such as Dziurla-Petit’s teenage cousin, the camera’s presence creates a safe space, where she is free to confess her small, day-to-day transgressions, the anxiety of her lack of perspectives and emancipation, her small hobbies and guilty pleasures, along with her greatest disappointments. Both a comedy of manners and an exploration of the ennui felt in rural areas, with all their social, political, and economic limitations, Excess Will Save Us is the kind of debut film that truly gives its all. And that inevitably raises the question of “where will it all go from here?” – but a filmmaker that is so capable of wielding such a vast arsenal of techniques and topics will definitely continue to create inspiring pieces of work.

Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short film festival - BIEFF, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. At Films in Frame, she writes the monthly editorial - The State of Cinema and is the magazine's main festival reporter.