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IFFR 2019: What I learned about internet memes, and how they infect films.

What have cat movies, the cartoon character disguised as Trump Pepe the Frog and the horror phenomenon Slenderman related? They are all internet memes. I must confess that I did not learn that term until I was at IFFR this week at the Rabbit Hole dived. Rabbit Hole is the title of one of the more curious programme sections at the Rotterdam Film Festival. The internet as the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland. You step in and you have no idea where you end up. For example, at the extremely bizarre feminist film tract Make Me Up.

Thus, the IFFR is presenting a series of short and some feature-length films inspired by memes in one way or another. In addition, a Meme Café has been set up in a corner of The New Institute. A kind of Internet café with computer screens where artists present their vision of the meme world. You can also make your own memes there - but maybe you were already doing that a long time ago. In the Meme Café, I was updated on the phenomenon by programmer Inge de Leeuw and Aria Mag and Silvia dal Dosso, co-founders of the artistic research collective Clusterduck.

A little meme history

I was already familiar with the older term 'meme'. Biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term in 1976. It stands for ideas or concepts that reproduce, multiply and adapt themselves in human culture. Like: the wheel, wearing clothes, darning words, fashion, popular tunes, capitalism. It is a broad spectrum. Even Wilders' 'more or less' has become a meme.

And what better medium to make memes go viral than the internet? Hence, since roughly the 1990s, the term 'internet meme' has been used for all kinds of information, slogans, visual jokes and catchy videos that spread via social networks and web platforms. Again, this is very broad, but often the term internet meme is narrowed down to an (edited) picture or cartoon. Which an internet user has provided with a funny or provocative text. Which in turn can inspire others to vary on it. Because without reuse, it is not a meme. As happened, for example, with the quote 'Is This Your King' and accompanying screenshot from Black Panther.

One of the many IsThis Your King memes

There are internet memes with crazy dances, featuring the versatile cartoon character Octocat, and there are niches on the internet where girls use meme language to discuss problems. A less innocent meme phenomenon that has gone wild is Slender Man, about which more later. The Rabbit Hole programme even kicked off with a real meme battle, where visitors could test their meme creativity. To illustrate, the meme of my colleague Hugo Emmerzael, who came second with it.

Meme Battle creation by Hugo Emmerzael

Meme propaganda

Those who think it's all just playful should also take a look at this internet meme showing how the popular character Pepe the Frog was deployed in the Trump campaign. Just as big companies sometimes use internet memes. Then it's called viral marketing.

Pepe the Frog appropriated by Trump campaign

#MEMEPROPAGANDA from Clusterduck and related projects are a great start to poking around in this matter further. The Baltimore-based film critic Eric Allen Hatch, also at the Meme Café, even uses internet memes as a form of ultra-minimalist film criticism.


For those who don't feel like crawling behind a computer screen at the IFFR, there is also plenty on offer in the cinema. In addition to a series of short films, for example, the documentary A Self-Induced Hallucination In which Dan Schoenbrun is the Slenderman phenomenon portraits. Entirely in style, it is composed entirely of YouTube clips. A fine piece of editing work, and as far as I'm concerned also proof that the traditional film form is far from losing out to the internet maze.

The Slenderman figure is a creepy tall lanky guy with no face. He first surfaced in 2009 as the result of a Photoshop contest. Eric Knudsen had added a creepy figure to some photos. It then quickly took on a life of its own via social media in circles of horror fans. Slenderman became a modern mythological figure. Basically just as mythical figures were created in folk culture in earlier times, only then centuries passed.

Slenderman even gained notoriety when, in 2014, two 12-year-old, I understand, schizophrenic girls were inspired by him to a near-fatal stabbing. Fairly recently, there was also the Sony-produced horror film Slender Man. From underground to mainstream.

Feminist satire

Spectacularly bizarre is Make Me Up by Rachel Maclean, definitely one of the most wondrous films here in Rotterdam. A feature-length feminist satire cum video essay that may not literally be about internet memes, but is crafted in style and spirit. Cast in an excess of acid colours that hurts your eyes.

It thus refers to the way girls or women sometimes present themselves online, but completely over the top. Make Me Up uses that ultra-kitsch as a starting point for an imaginatively constructed, vicious cultural-political commentary. Packed with references to the image of women in culture and art, and to the contradictory forces to which women are exposed.

Live-streaming Chinese

How the real world and that of social media become intertwined is also nicely shown in Present.Perfect., about young Chinese people sharing their lives with the world via live streams. This documentary made entirely of internet footage by Zhu Shengze is not in the Rabbit Hole programme, but is part of the Tiger Competition. What initially seems a tad curious slowly grows into a beautiful series of portraits of some Chinese people at the bottom of society. Craving human contact, they try to find through vlogs and internet chats what they lack in real life.

Good to know Good to know
Many internet memes can be found on sites such as 4chan and reddit. Very informative is also this article by media theorist and internet critic Geert Lovink.


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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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