IFFR 2019: my top films ranked (part 2)

7 februari 2019

Yesterday I published part I of this article in which I started ranking and reviewing the films I have seen at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) 2019. In this article I will uncover my top 3. One quick give away: number 1 is a double bill. Read on to discover which two films are at the top.  

3. Take Me Somewhere Nice (Ena Sendijarevic) 

Prior to the festival I was aware that this film was in the making, because as both a filmmaker and a fellow Dutch-Bosnian, I follow the work of the writer/director Ena Sendijarevic. Shortly before IFFR was going to kick off, it was announced that Take Me Somewhere Nice will premiere in Rotterdam. And that it was one of the contenders for the Tiger Award, the most important prize at IFFR. Much was written in the press about the exceptional talent of Ena Sendijarevic, hailed as the next big Dutch director. So the expectations were very high. No surprise that the film sold out at a maddening pace. I was lucky enough to score a ticket on time, though for the very last screening. So I had to wait untill the last regular festival day to see it. And it was certainly worth the wait!

Take Me Somewhere Nice centers on teenage girl Alma, born in Holland, but of Bosnian origin. She lives in the Netherlands with her mother. She barely remembers her father, who chose Bosnia over his family long ago because he was suffering from nostalgia. Upon hearing that her father is lying ill in a hospital in Bosnia, Alma decides to go and visit him. With some reluctant help from her cousin and his friend she embarks on a roadtrip of discovery. A coming-of-age tale evolves, where the rebellious Alma explores her roots, dual identity and her sexuality.

Watching the film it was clear that the form was more important than the story. And a beautiful form it is. The distinctive meticulous style earned the film a Special Jury Award at IFFR. Sendijarevic and her cinematographer Emo Weemhoff construct a dreamlike, lollypop coloured world on a 4:3 canvas. It’s Bosnia through a lens you’ve never seen before. As told in many intervews and during the Q&A, the director drew heavily on the idea of Bertolt Brechts VerfremdungseffektThe sense of alienation emphasizes the fact that this world is a construct, sending a broader message that we all construct our own worlds and therefore are able to change them.

Back to the story, it is a simple premise, yet it contains multiple layers of meaning. It is full of references to the state of Bosnian society and growing up between two worlds. Though the story is smart enough, it does not reach the same level as the style and form of the film, For me the story somewhat derails in the third act, which makes the story the weakest element in this otherwise magical production. But it’s just a small stain, and easy to overlook. I am very much looking forward to new endeavours  from this directors creative mind. During the Q&A Sendijarevic said that her next film will be a very Dutch one, centering on Holland’s collonial past. Rests to wait and see.

Take Me Somewhere Nice on IFFR

2. Dirty God (Sacha Polak) 

The beautiful opening film of IFFR 2019 made by the Dutch screenwriter/director Sacha Polak. Dirty God takes us into the world of a young London mother who tries to pick up her life after an acid attack by her ex-boyfriend. Learing to live with the physical and mental scars. As I learned from interviews with Polak, UK has one of the highest rates of acid attacks in the world. A schocking practice. In the film Polak does not focus on the attack itself, but on the aftermath. The rebuilding of  life that has forever been altered and learning how to live with scars in a society that is so focused on looks.

The role of the young mother Jade is strongly acted by newcomer Vicky Night, herself a real  life fire victim. This neorealistic casting is probably the reason why the acting is so very natural and honest. Which in big part contributes to the fact that as a viewer you can emotionally relate to Jade to a high extent. I was sad with her to the verge of tears, and happy for her in little victories. For me this relatability was one of the strongest things about this film. Along with beautiful cinematography and great directing. Storywise, I find a few wrong notes are struck, but they are minor and do not diminish the overall impact of the film. I won’t name them to avoid spoilers. I do warmly recommend to go and see this wonderful film when it hits theaters.

Dirty God on IFFR

1. The Load (Ognjen Glavonic) + Queen of Hearts (May el-Toukhy) 

And so at the top of my list we have a double bill. A shared spot for two very different, but in my opinion equally strong films, that have one big thing in common: bravery. As it happens, I saw both movies on the same day. My morning started with the last festival screening of The Load, after which I went off to work, and later that evening I closed the day off with the Rotterdam premiere of Queen of Hearts.

The Load was one of the first titels announced for IFFR 2019. As the film already had a succesfull festival year, premiering in Cannes last year and winning prizes at a.o. Sarajevo Film Festival, I was quite familiar with the story and the history of its production process. But I had not seen it yet, so I was glad it would be showing at IFFR.

The action takes place during the NATO airstrike of Serbia in 1999, during the Kosovo war. The story is based on true facts. We follow the middle aged Vlada, a Serbian truck driver who is transporting a top-secret cargo from Kosovo to Belgrade. Not even he nows what’s in the back of his truck, nor is he allowed to ask. The suspicion of something horrible is present in the atmosphere and imagery. The bleak colour palette, sounds of bombs heard but never seen. The landscape, the people, their worn out clothes, everything breaths despair and sadness. As wars always do.

As the mystery of the cargo slowly unravels, the layered meaning of the films title becomes clear. Its literal and methaphorical sense intertwine as Vlada is left with a moral burden and a big decision to make. Will he stay a knowing participant to a war crime? More importantly, will he carry this burden, this guilt over to his own son? The thematic of The Load is actually much broader than the specific story told, as the question of war-related heritage one generation leaves to another is a very actual one in the post-war ex-Yugoslav region.

The minimalistic approach and the amount of integrity handling such a sensitive subject are some of the things I appreceated about The Load. I also very much love the way this film was shot, with lots of flowy camera movement and smart use of landscape, landmarks and symbolism. Though this last aspect is a potentional point of misunderstanding for viewers who are not so familiar with the ex-Yugoslav history. Symbolism from the WO II era playes a significant part in the story, but is not verbally explained. To un unknowing viewer it might be a confusing or missed layer. But despite this, the central story should resonate to all.

The Load on IFFR

Queen of Hearts, a wonderful and chilly film by Danish director May el-Toukhy, deals with sexual abuse within a family, told from an angle we rarely see in films, that of a female predator. In this case Anna, a wealthy middle aged lawyer, married to a succesful surgeon with whom she has a couple of sweet twin daughters. They live a priviledged life in a big stylish house, located in the vicinity of nature. Very soon we discover that beneath the pretty surface things are not perfect. The marriage lacks intimacy because both partners seem married to their demanding jobs. Anna, who we discover is not a stranger to recklesness, is unhappy and feels unfulfilled. When her 17-year old stepson, estranged and troubled child from the husbands first marriage, moves in with them, Anna takes a reckless  decision. She seduces the boy and sets things in motion that will change the courses of all their lives.

This is a very strong film, very stylish, well directed, cinematographycally beautiful. The entire cast is truly excellent. But the strongest performance is the one that carries the film, that of Trine Dyrholm, in my opinion one of the best actricess working today. Dyrholm is known for taking on and excelling at challenging parts. In Queen of Hearts she gives the performance of a lifetime, playing a very complex and nuanced character.

Director el-Toukhy had freshly flew in from Sundance, where Queen of Hearts premiered just a day before, for the Q&A at this Rotterdam premiere. It was one of the best Q&A’s I’ve attended, for there were many good questions from the public and el-Toukhy gave eloquent and fulfilling answers. She told us the seed of this story was sawn with her wanting to make a film about family secrets. After extensive research she and her co-writer came at the topic of domestic sexual abuse. The choice to have a female perpetrator, is an attempt to raise consciousness about the fact that society tends to preceive the crime differently depending on the gender of the predator. When a man molests a girl, the judgement and need for punshment is clear. But when the roles are reversed, the judgment tends to puddle in a grey area. The line between right and wrong is not always clear. Some boys might not feel assaulted (joy of experience with an older lover) but many do and end up scarred. And they should be taken very seriously.

Queen of Hearts on IFFR