10 Must-See Films from the International Film Festival Rotterdam

by C.J. Prince

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday February 14, 2022

A scene from "Becoming Male in the Middle Ages."
A scene from "Becoming Male in the Middle Ages."  (Source:Courtesy of IFFR)

Through no fault of its own, the film festival circuit seems to be stuck on repeat. Back at the beginning of 2021, festivals like Sundance, Rotterdam, and Slamdance had no choice but to go virtual with the spread of COVID-19 rising in the winter months. Despite the wide distribution of vaccines in developed nations, the Omicron variant forced these events to go back online for a second year in a row. It's a less than ideal scenario for everyone involved but the decision to let the show (virtually) go on is a commendable one. The pandemic hasn't stopped people from making art, and festivals are a vital platform to ensure artists get their works seen and appreciated.

The International Film Festival Rotterdam (or IFFR), based in the Netherlands, always has a smaller reputation compared to other European fests despite its large size and adventurous programming. This might be due to timing, since it occurs each year around the same time as Sundance, a much more popular and accessible festival for people in North America. The virtual format has given press and industry folk a chance to engage with IFFR and its programming who might have never had the chance to attend the festival otherwise, and in turn bring about a host of new discoveries that might have passed by unnoticed. The loss of a chance to catch IFFR premieres as they were meant to be seen is a great one, but to make the best of a bad situation, I'm glad I got to catch such a strong, diverse, and eclectic line-up. If Rotterdam can show work this strong under such strained conditions, I look forward to seeing what they'll be able to do once they can return to an in-person format.

Take, for example, "EAMI," which I feel obliged to mention given it won the Golden Tiger, the festival's top prize for films screening in the main competition strand. Focused on the indigenous Ayoreo Totobiegosode people in northern Paraguay, Paz Encina's feature unfolds from the perspective of 5-year-old Eami, who also takes the form of a bird that travels across her homeland. Eami collects testimonials from others who, like her, find themselves displaced as a result of rapid deforestation in the area. It makes sense that "EAMI" would win the Golden Tiger given its ambition and noble intentions. Encina blends fiction and documentary together into something that aims to reflect the life and culture of her film's subjects, an obvious attempt to veer away from standard, Western forms of storytelling. I can't say the film worked for me as well as the jury who awarded it, as I found myself questioning whether or not Encina's approach was especially successful as an act of honoring and preserving her subjects (and, try as she might, I couldn't shake how much Encina's perspective felt like it came from the outside looking in). But there's value in grappling with a film, especially one as evocative and earnest as this one.

There were plenty of other highlights throughout the festival's multiple themed sections. Here are 10 more films worth keeping an eye on, whether they end up getting a release in the future or pop up at a festival near you.

"The African Desperate"

Martine Syms' debut feature charts one day in the life of Palace (Diamond Stingily), a sculptor who receives her Master of Fine Arts in the film's awkward opening scene. Anyone who's been remotely involved in the realm of arts and academia will find plenty to chew on with Syms' ultra-specific satire, as Palace has to navigate around one art school type after another that want nothing more than to box her into their idea of who she is rather than just let her be herself.

It's far from a perfect film, with some uneven performances among the supporting cast and pacing issues given its structure, but when "The African Desperate" clicks into place it becomes an unstoppable force of charisma and energy, with Syms avoiding the easy option of going broad in her portrayal of art school types. The specificity of the upstate New York setting and the 24-hour timeline go a long way in grounding her film and its characters; as much as Palace's classmates and teachers exude an annoying need to assert their 'type' and 'brand' at all times, Syms also shows how the rural, small-town location of their college creates a weird, tense communal bond that never lets anyone fall into the realm of caricature. The subject matter may be a little too inside baseball for some, but "The African Desperate" establishes Syms as a distinct voice worth paying attention to with whatever she does next.

"Answering the Sun"

Austrian filmmaker Rainer Kohlberger has been making films for a while that rely on algorithms and computer programming to generate images, creating works that call attention to how they're entirely artificial. His latest work, the hour-long "Answering the Sun," will be an endurance test for some. Split in two distinct halves, the film is almost entirely empty space; the screen flickers different colors at a pace so rapid it feels violent, while the soundtrack plays harsh tones and frequencies that trick the ears into hearing sounds that aren't even there.

Sparse and aggressive in style, Kohlberger's film creates a compelling dialogue between the film and its audience (it should be mentioned that this film is best seen in total darkness, or as close to a theatrical experience as you can make it). The imagery and sound's ability to distort one's perception, in combination with the computer generated nature of the film, act as unsettling reminders of our inherent imperfections, and how those imperfections have been built into the creation and development of technology. New techs like deep learning and artificial intelligences trying to create images out of words tend to disturb people with its uncanny valley effect and how 'unhuman' it can be. "Answering the Sun'' and Kohlberger's other films interrogate why we feel that way, and in turn wonder if we're really as far removed from machines as we might believe.

"Becoming Male in the Middle Ages"

Winner of the Ammodo Tiger Short Competition, Pedro Neves Marques' "Becoming Male in the Middle Ages" takes on science fiction with a casual tone as it explores ideas surrounding sexuality and identity. Gay couple Carl and Vicente want a child so badly they decide to do an experimental procedure where an ovary gets implanted in Vicente's body, getting fertilized with his cells before being removed and placed inside a surrogate mother. The idea disturbs their friends Mirene and André, a straight couple who can't conceive a child of their own.

Marques finds a perfect balance between the sci-fi story and naturalistic style, where the seemingly innocuous act of the procedure itself (just a tiny scar on the body where the implant goes in) clashes with the threat it poses against the 'natural order' of reproduction. Mirene tackles her hesitations around Carl and Vicente's attempts at a family head on, and Marques lets his film offer a hopeful future, where people can learn to embrace a change to our social orders rather than see them as immovable barriers to a new world.


The way we measure things is something people wouldn't give much thought to. For directors Sasha Litvintseva and Beny Wagner, "Constant" is an opportunity to dive into the history and science around how concepts like the meter came into existence. It's an essay film centered around a meeting between the filmmakers and scientists about possibly filming at a lab dedicated to metrology.

From there, "Constant" dives into how many different forms of measurement existed over the centuries, along with how much politics informed much of what we have today. At one point, after one of the scientists boasts about the beauty of having a universal standard of measurement like the meter, the film's narrator explains that the metric system was realized during the French Revolution only because the idea aligned nicely with the government's colonialist goals. Litvintseva and Wagner play with multiple formats and styles the whole time, switching between documentary, re-enactments, 360-degree cameras, drone photography, and a striking use of 3D renderings of environments. The animations, turning spaces into piles of tiny particles, show how modern technology can provide us with other ways of measuring and perceiving the world around us.

"The Dream and the Radio"

A relationship between a couple (directors Renaud Despres-Larose and Ana Tapia Rousiouk), their homeless friend (Genevieve Ackerman), and an alluring revolutionary (Etienne Pilon) acts as a springboard for a host of ideas and themes in "The Dream and the Radio." The title comes from an idea that bookends the film: while dreams are individual, the radio's far reach and power of imagination can pull people into a collective dream.

The relatively straightforward story acts as an anchor of sorts, with the film bouncing off in multiple directions that include various literary, musical, philosophical, and cinematic references (all of which get listed in the end credits). Shot on an old camcorder with almost no budget, "The Dream and the Radio" contains what will surely be some of the most memorable and gorgeous images to come out of the movies this year. And despite its long list of influences (with Jean-Luc Godard's later output the biggest one), the film carves out its own radical, singular space that goes against so many cinematic conventions, it functions as a necessary breath of fresh air.

"Give Me Pity!"

Amanda Kramer brought two features to Rotterdam this year, one of which describes itself as "A Primetime Saturday Night Network Television Spectacular starring Sissy St. Claire!" And that's pretty much what "Give Me Pity!" is: a warped recreation of one-woman TV specials from the 70s and 80s, with Sophie von Haselberg playing Sissy St. Claire. Kramer and von Haselberg indulge in all the cheesiness and retro qualities of the specific cultural point it's riffing on, but it lets the format double as a peek into the raw psyche of its star. We see Sissy St. Claire in all her glory, whether it's her boisterous, performative side or the terrifying insecurity and self-doubt that threatens to turn the whole thing into an abstract nightmare.

Rotterdam gave Kramer a whole section dedicated to her prior shorts and features this year, and after seeing "Give Me Pity!" it's easy to see why the festival wanted to give her body of work a showcase. Kramer commits hard to the format, with a level of gusto that von Haselberg matches as the deranged diva, tearing into hilarious monologs and pulling off multiple song and dance numbers (von Haselberg's ability to pull off this role with such ease shouldn't come as a surprise given her mother is Bette Midler). It's hard to say whether or not "Give Me Pity!" will have much appeal outside of those familiar with the TV specials it's taking inspiration from, but with its short runtime, compelling central performance, and utter weirdness, anyone willing to give it a shot should have a fun time with it.

"A Human Position"

In the sleepy coastal town of Ålesund, young journalist Asta (Amalie Ibsen Jensen) lives a pleasant life with girlfriend Live (Maria Agwumaro). One day, a story in the local paper about an immigrant deported after an investigation into the factory where he worked creates a sort of shift within Asta; she can't shake the story, and decides to investigate it further to make her own article.

Not much is explained throughout Anders Emblem's film, although it's easy to pick up on Asta's internal dilemma. The film's reliance on ultra precise compositions, with an emphasis on windows and doorways that box characters within the frame, underline the pleasing yet alienating feeling that Asta finds herself grappling with, and her research on this one person's tragic exile is a way for her to peel back the quaint surface she's become accustomed to. Emblem lets his film's ideas around privilege and class act as a sort of elephant in the room, letting them develop organically as a numbing awareness that feels true to life. It's a small, modest film, but an impressive one in how well its form and content maintain an underlying tension without one overpowering the other.

"The Photo Camera"

A weird, queer, abrasive comedy that's bound to gain devout fans once more people get to see it, Sam de Jong's third feature is a welcome piece of singular entertainment. With a style that looks like someone swallowed up every mall from the '90s and threw it back up, "The Photo Camera" follows rich game show host Eveline (Hadewych Minis) as she quits her job to pursue her dream of making documentaries about the poor, underprivileged people in her neighborhood. On her first day of shooting, Eveline gets tricked by high school student Yousef (Shahine El-Hamus) who distracts her while his classmate steals her camera so Yousef can sell it and buy himself a new pair of sunglasses. Eveline immediately runs to the cops claiming Yousef mugged her at knifepoint, which triggers a series of events that ruins his life and gives Eveline more great material for her documentary.

De Jong sets his sights on both modern documentary filmmaking and the hypocritical liberal types who make them, taking advantage of the less fortunate to boost their own profile as they perpetuate the same systems of oppression their films are meant to expose. "The Photo Camera" pulls no punches in its takedown of these types, and de Jong's direction pulls from a variety of influences including Gregg Araki, Jonas Akerlund, Wes Anderson, Bruno Dumont, and much more. By far Sam de Jong's best film to date, "The Photo Camera" is the kind of fun, angry film that will have viewers either running away from it or (like me) embracing every moment.

"The Plains"

If you want to be cheeky, David Easteal's "The Plains" could be described as a road trip movie, although the trip is really one man's daily commute home from work. Set over the span of a year, Easteal's film has a basic set-up: the camera stays plunked down in the backseat of the car almost the entire time, watching driver Andrew (Andrew Rakowski) from behind over almost a dozen trips home, each one filmed in a single take. He tends to call his wife or ailing mother, and sometimes carpools with co-worker David (Easteal), where the two talk about their lives.

Patience is key with "The Plains," which lasts almost 3 hours but becomes more rewarding as it goes on. By setting itself almost entirely within a transitional space, Easteal puts the emphasis on the value of time and how we use it. So much of Andrew's time is spent traveling from one place to another, and as he deals with his mother's declining health, drama at work, or drama with his in-laws, he begins to confront how much of his existence has been wasted on the hamster wheel of the 9-to-5. It's a contemplative and, at times, lovely experience.

"Please Baby Please"

The second Amanda Kramer feature premiering at this year's Rotterdam, "Please Baby Please" is an entirely different beast from "Give Me Pity!" although both share a similar sort of manic energy around ideas of identity. This time, Kramer recruits a high profile cast and takes inspiration from classics of queer cinema and culture like John Waters, Kenneth Anger, Tom of Finland, and much more. In a strange, fantasy version of 1950s New York, married couple Suze (Andrea Riseborough) and Arthur (Harry Melling) cross paths with a gang of greasers, and the experience leaves them rattled. Arthur, who rejects ideas of masculinity, finds himself attracted to one gang member (Karl Glusman), while Suze laments the presence of a 'real man' in her life and starts becoming overaggressive herself.

Kramer dives headfirst into artifice, as if she's looking at elements of 1950s culture (leather-clad bikers and preppy girls) through aesthetics one might associate with sleazy gay porn from the 80s. Shot almost entirely on sound stages and bathed in neon blues and reds, "Please Baby Please" operates as a sort of hyperqueer cinema, with Riseborough giving the sort of go-for-broke, unhinged performance that probably won't be topped by anyone else this year.