49th International Film Festival Rotterdam Art Monthly #434, February 2020

Despite the bewildering array of thematic taxonomies at International Film Festival Rotterdam set on cross-referencing every film, somehow a distinct theme-between-themes remix emerged around collectivity, and it was this that enriched a small corner of the sprawling programme. 

Whether as a means to make work, as something formed by the work, or as a route to showing work, five collectives here approached plural practice united by the will to reappraise dominant narratives, challenge political hegemony or lever real change—some all three.

The indigenous Australian Karrabing Film Collective presented an overview of their fierce and fabular films. Members Kieran and Aiden Sing, Angelina Lewis and Elizabeth A Povinelli outlined the ongoing struggles which animate their work: colonial oppression, particularly via the judicial system; the despoiling of the land; the stolen generation and its active legacy; and the ongoing racism of the settler state. In the Karrabing’s home, Belyuen, life is lived communally, and the formation of the group served as a means to galvanise kin, organise collectively, and form a well of solidarity on which to draw. Favouring improvisation over scriptwriting, their work purposefully harnesses an oral idiom at risk of disappearing, yet forgoes memorialising in favour of re-animating pervasive stories: here is no dead archive, but a living set of instructions, destabilising the colonial project by refusing the division or dispersal of their culture.

What the Karrabing and Phil Collins’ Bring Down the Walls – housing a collective formed for the work itself – have in common beyond immediate thematic concerns around incarceration is the strength of the group as a path to solidarity and resistance. The sum of a tortuous process, Collins’ film started as a project to create a band with inmates of the notorious Sing Sing prison, and by doing so to think around incarceration and rehabilitation—but the state authorities reneged on their involvement shortly after filming started in 2015.

The project’s eventual emergence as a one-off nightclub in Brooklyn, delivering classic house tracks by night while dissecting the prison-industrial complex by day, is an improbable feat of bravura out of reach to many but emblematic of much of Collins’ work. Bring Down the Walls brings together former inmates and community activists, largely through a feminist and queer lens, to establish, respectively, the city’s latest-running, loudest-thumping club, and a daily forum to share, organise and form resistance around the US prison system. Furious by day, joyous by night, by standing up and voicing the impossible – an end to prison – it wills it to no longer be so; and despite the white heat of the injustices that propel it, the tenor of the film is love and hope. 

Where Phil Collins’ method has been invariably to work with communities to enact something of the truth of their situation as a means to achieve a certain catharsis, Francis Alÿs’ Sandlines seemed at first glance as though it might share at least its method and possibly its outcome, billed as it was as ‘a collaboration with the children of a small village in the Nineveh province of Iraq.’ 

It is possible that any perceived imperative in the statement that ‘to make the children understand their present by revisiting their past, Alÿs invites them to perform a role play’ (my italics) is a fault of translation, but it becomes an unwittingly accurate guide to the timbre of the film. The children retell the history of their country, not in their own words or by their own means, and are reduced to actors, charming and watchable but with no agency of their own, in a dumb-show orchestrated by a foreigner with an eye for a scene. The timeline they relate is not uncritical, but neither does it engage the sense of unbelievable-but-true satire intended—not least because Iraq’s colonial history is still unfolding violently. And the spectre of ethics hangs over Alÿs’ decision to make the production, though deliberately sparse, ploddingly realistic: requiring the young children to face the same tanks that not long ago decimated their villages, and to dress up as their erstwhile dictator Saddam Hussein, seemed perversely tasteless.

Elsewhere, the alternative cinema exhibition network Kino Climates convened a series of public events, with cinemas from across Europe presenting original programmes as heterogeneous as the exhibitors themselves, which included the Cube, Bristol, and Newcastle upon Tyne’s Side Cinema and Star & Shadow Cinema—many back in Rotterdam after their first meeting ten years ago. A double book launch, of Anouk de Clercq’s Where is Cinema? and Agnès Salson and Mikael Arnal’s Cinema Makers, only confirmed the health of alternative exhibition, with or without the support of dominant distribution networks.

Where the twin threads of radical activism and collective art-making met most urgently was at the festival’s annual Freedom Lecture, delivered this year by members of Rojava Film Commune, a community of resident filmmakers in the semi-autonomous region of Rojava, Kurdistan, described by moderator Jonas Staal as ‘a stateless democracy’.

If the lecture began gloomily, pinpointing not only the failure of internationalism in dealing with the humanitarian crises distilled in the Middle East but the culpability of that system itself, it was to highlight only more clearly the extent of the utopian aims of the Rojava communities themselves. Perhaps, given its position – ruled by four nation states and presiding over a population both Christian and Muslim – the least likely society to emerge from the ashes of the Syrian war and its subsequent IS occupation was one that is democratic, tolerant, artistically active and women-led, yet Rojava’s bloodless revolution achieved exactly that. 

For the Rojava Film Commune, their task, through filmmaking but also exhibition, is ‘first to make people love cinema.’ But cinema was forbidden for 40 years in Syria, and many of the Kurdistani population’s memories stop short at 13 November 1960, when 283 children were burned alive in Amûde Cinema. Here, the concerns of any collective endeavour – strength through union; plurality of opinion; rejection of autocracy – are crystallised vividly, cinema not merely a pleasurable addendum to an otherwise comfortable life, but an essential tool in the quest for a more just society.