Rotterdam round-up: the best of the 2021 IFFR

The first edition of IFFR 2021’s two-parter festival showcased films exploring the relationship between the corporeal and the environmental, tales of modern-day languor… and Japanese volleyball.

10 February 2021

By Kambole Campbell

International Film Festival Rotterdam 2021
Sight and Sound

Split into two separate editions and restricted to the online space, this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) is the latest festival operating in a limited digital capacity. Perhaps more than others, this one acutely felt the cinema’s absence – its films characteristically patient in their pacing and layered in sound design. Nonetheless, there was a fascinating programme to unearth in the first part of the festival (the second part is coming in June) – a lot of it reckoning with the relationships between our bodies and habitats.

Chief among those explorations were Marta Popivoda’s Landscapes of Resistance, Nino Martínez Sosa’s Liborio and Félix Dufour-Laperrière’s Archipelago, all about the tenuous history of land and people and even anti-fascist resistance. Landscapes and Archipelago are conjoined by their director’s tactile alterations of photography, superimposing people onto landscapes via silhouetted drawings. Landscapes places anecdote over still imagery, while Archipelago is more fluid in its alteration of the film’s texture, an animated anthropological journey down a river which feels mythic in scope.

Archipelago (2021)

If Archipelago detailed connection between land and body, James Vaughan’s Australian comedy Friends & Strangers did the opposite, a tale of contemporary malaise that sees its protagonists disconnected from and increasingly bewildered by each space they enter.

Though more gentle in temperament, Yukiko Sode’s Aristocrats is similarly interested in generational ennui. Dual perspectives effectively highlight the differing privilege of its leads and how it affects their connections to their family, even the same man. Sode examines each social space with acute attention to detail. While this applies to the urban area of contemporary Tokyo, its concern is universal: as one character says, “Wherever you’re from, you have great days, and days where you cry.”

Perhaps the festival’s highlight, Julien Faraut’s sports documentary The Witches of the Orient documents the rise and dominance of the historic Japanese women’s Nichibo Kaizuka volleyball team (nicknamed the Oriental Witches for their supernatural gifts) and their journey from factory workers to Olympic champions. With rare access to the surviving players, Fauraut observes both their incredible feats and the country’s power over them, the team candid about their uneasy relationship with those pressuring them to represent Japan. The unearthed footage is riveting and specific, observing the daily minutia of players’ routines, cycles of threading machines interspersed with training.

The Witches of the Orient (2021)

More impressive still is the meta-textual twist of the Witches’ real exploits intercut with clips of their fictionalised triumphs from 1960s anime Attack No.1, a show based on the team. This method reaches an exciting crescendo for its final act, playing archive footage of the 1964 Olympic final alongside its animated recreation. It feels tailor-made for those who gained a fascination with the sport through the contemporary anime Haikyu!!, which teaches interest in the game’s strategical nuances by slowing proceedings down. It’s a style that compliments Witches surprisingly well, with editing that emphasises the women’s teams’ awe-inspiring power and speed.

It’s strange to be thinking about connections of body and land when current circumstances require self-isolation. Still, perhaps that just means we’re more keenly aware of our relationships to the spaces in which we reside, and the programming this year’s IFFR is as such perfect for the time, even if unintentionally.

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