Footnote and Malintzin 17 provide leading insights into isolation and resilience
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Rotterdam International Film Festival took place virtually for the second consecutive year. Some of the selections reflect the crisis and, dare we say, opportunity, resulting from the global spread of Covid-19.
At Urszula Antoniak’s Splendid Affair (Netherlands), we meet two lovers on a desert island. They have the place to themselves. Plus, there’s an empty house waiting to be occupied – bliss, isn’t it? The eerie music and increasingly eerie turn of events prove that isolation is as much a psychological state as it is a physical one.
The fixed vision imposed by stay-at-home restrictions is the theme of American filmmaker Zhengfan Yang Footnote. Made in Chicago in 2020, the documentary reflects the health crisis as well as the racial tensions that characterized the Donald Trump era.
The 90-minute documentary is filled with movement but also stasis. Yang positions a fixed camera at different windows in his apartment. Twenty-three long shots of the city filmed over the seasons are juxtaposed with police radio chatter.
The interplay between barely changing visuals and urgent conversations about potential crimes and false alarms creates surprisingly dramatic cinema. The information relayed by the imperturbable operators to the police units paints an intimate portrait of a city on the move and in turmoil.
The racist situation is reflected in calls for rallies in support of Black Lives Matter and racial slurs against citizens. From queries about Chinese, Korean or Polish speakers on the networks emerges a picture of Chicago’s multiculturalism and the monoculturalism of its police on the other hand.
There are complaints about trespassing and domestic violence, homelessness and burglary. Yang often leaves call follow-ups hanging, allowing viewers to fill in the blanks.
Some juxtapositions are breathtaking. Over a view of a gray sea above which a shocking purple kite flies, we follow the audio of the police chasing a criminal through the streets. Reports of sightings of homelessness, abandoned animals and thefts (of toilet paper and groceries) give a small measure of the ravages of the pandemic. One of the most heartbreaking audio relays involves a homeless man trying to stay warm against the punishing Chicago winter by breaking into cars.
The double distance that Fang puts between himself and his subject – first through the views filmed from a distance, then through the second-hand accounts of street events – dissolves in the making of the film. Fang, who shot and edited Footnote in addition to designing the sound, extends his empathy to hard-working police teams.
A New Year’s greeting is followed seconds later by another warning of a potential crime. The only time near-silence falls on Footnote, the viewers are rewarded with one of the finest scenes in the film. We see police on a highway, their faces strangely bathed in the glare of their headlights. Instead of chatter on the radio, we hear running water and the gurgles of a baby.
Another documentary in Rotterdam, Malintzin 17, powerfully demonstrates the power of fixed perspective. In 2016, Eugenio Polgovsky installed a camera in the windows of his apartment in Mexico City. The main subject was a pigeon warming its eggs.
Polgovsky had company during his exercise: his adorable daughter Mile, fascinated by the pigeon. In the documentary, Mile has imaginary conversations with the bird, walks around the house, and pesters his father with the kind of questions only children can ask.
Garbage trucks come and go, residents walk their dogs, and a couple kisses for what feels like forever. Without leaving his apartment, Polgovsky captures the whole spectrum of existence.
Malintzin 17 is the documentary as memorial. Eugenio Polgovsky died suddenly in 2017. His sister Mara Polgovsky found the home video and edited it into a 64-minute documentary. The result is a moving chronicle of a father-daughter relationship, expressed through the language of cinema and encapsulated in the images of the pigeon protecting its brood.
Indeed, an entire universe can be documented with a minimum of movement. In ten (2002), Abbas Kiarostami provides a vivid snapshot of Iranian society by installing two cameras on either side of a moving car and recording conversations between drivers and passengers.
In Taxi Tehran (2015), Jafar Panahi imaginatively defied a temporary ban on his travels by the Iranian authorities. Posing as a shared taxi driver, the iconoclastic filmmaker drove strangers and debated Iranian politics with his niece, all inside the vehicle.
Closer to home, Malayalam director Don Palathra filmed his relationship drama Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam (The Joyful Mystery) in a single take inside a car. The Tiger Competition section of the Rotterdam festival includes Australian director David Easteal The plains, in which cameras attached to the back of an automobile capture the evolving relationship between a middle-aged man and his colleague. The camera goes nowhere, and everywhere.
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