26 January 2015. During the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2015, I write at this location: 'What happens when the critic starts using figurative language too?'
This will be on the occasion of (The Return of the) Critics' Choice, an independently organised programme section of IFFR. Spurred on by then programmer Gerwin Tamsma and festival director Rutger Wolfson on by Dana Linssen (NRC) and Jan Pieter Ekker (Parool). Beginning of an annual programme with a choice of films, video essays, post-festival discussions, a film made during the festival, a live knitted data visualisation scarf and whatever else could be imagined to bring more excitement to the conversation between audience, critics and makers.
From then on, those video essays will be the focal point of Critics' Choice. Dutch and foreign critics are asked to provide an introduction to the selected films. But that has to be in the form of a video essay. Still fairly new to the Netherlands. Kevin B. Lee is one of the critics who has been doing this for some time. See for instance Transformers: The Premake. For that first new Critics' Choice, Dutch Bianca Stigter elaborates a three-minute home-movie, shot in 1938 in a Jewish community in a Polish village, into a video essay. To later develop that further into the extraordinary and critically acclaimed documentary Three Minutes: A Lengthening.
24 January 2024. IFFR is upon us again. This year, Ekker and Linssen present the 10th edition of Critics' Choice, and I learn that with it, they are going to call it a day. Was No. 10 also not an Alex van Warmerdam film? But this aside.
25 January 2024. How come no more Critics' Choice? I call Jan Pieter. Yes, after ten times, it's been nice, he agrees. Which is not to say that the conversation about film is no longer necessary. But, he sums up, while every year was different, it was also a variation on the same form. You sometimes have to stop to start something new. To add that there was no pressure whatsoever from the festival.
This year's theme is 'Whisper'. A word that can be used in many ways in this context. 'In a time when everyone threatens to shout over each other, we go in search of the quiet voice of film reflection, for depth and reflection', I read in this year's Critics' Choice programme paper. Just on paper for every festival-goer to grab. As a one-off edition of the now defunct Daily Tiger. As an example of that floor largely filled with various reflections on Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest. A Holocaust film like you have yet to see. For the horror is in the unsettling soundtrack. What we see is just on the other side of the Auschwitz camp wall. The mundane, almost banal household and leafy garden of Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller), the wife of camp commander Rudolf Höss.
And something new? Yes, there will be a new thing that Another Point of View will be called. The website is almost ready.
Crazy or vulnerable
26 January 2024. I take a quick look at the Critics' Choice 10 programme. The Talk by the aforementioned Sandra Hüller is on the list, alongside a working lunch for critics and other professionals, plus of course films ranging from The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire, an homage to the writer from the title who emerged as an activist of Afro-Surrealism, to the wacky Dutch comedy Krazy House. I did not expect that one in this selection.
Future Me by Vincent Boy Kars is another Dutch Critics' Choice title. I can see that one online in advance. After Kars' Drama Girl another unusual blending of fiction and docu, or rather, real and reenacted. Now in the form of a self-examination by the maker, who simultaneously has himself played by Martijn Lakemeier and in the process makes himself quite vulnerable. Even if he can hardly put that notion of 'making himself vulnerable' into words in a conversation with a therapist.
27 January, 6:30pm. I arrive in Rotterdam at Cinerama, where this year's first Critics' Choice film is running in half an hour: Avant Drag!. In the meantime, I've been doing a bit of puzzling to see if there is some kind of connecting line among this year's choices. Something like rebelliousness perhaps? Whimsical shapes, challenging subjects or characters?
I see Jan Pieter there too, and can ask him. According to him, it is not so fixed. It could be anything. As long as there is substance for conversation, adds Dana, who also walks by. So an unexpected title like Krazy House From the illustrious duo Steffen Haars/Flip van der Kuil (New Kids on the Block) can also be included. Reportedly, festival director Vanja Kaludjercic is a fan of the duo, Dana just isn't, and Jan Piketer calls it a guilty pleasure. At Krazy House's recent premiere at the not-insignificant Sundance festival, there were many thumbs downs, but also thumbs ups.
27 January, 19:00. Avant Drag! begins. It turns out to be more than a group portrait of nine drag performers taking to the streets of Athens to put Greek patriarchal conservatism under fire. Talk about rebellion. More than a group portrait, because you can safely call the film itself a manifesto.
But where is the video essay by Roosje van der Kamp that was supposed to introduce this performance in film form? Maybe I'll find out tomorrow.
Jan 28, 10am. Gather at Fontein Rooftop for the working lunch, with stunning views over Rotterdam. A mixed bunch will brainstorm on how to proceed after Critics' Choice, and the future of film criticism beyond the review. That's roughly how I summarise it. Invited by Dana Linssen, Jan Pieter Ekker and Janilda Bartolomeu (programmer, filmmaker and researcher).
So also a chance to ask Dana: where had Roosje's video essay gone? Mmmm, when Avant Drag!-director Fil Ieropolos had seen it beforehand (as is the custom) he turned out not to be happy, and the e-mail exchange with Roosje produced so much noise that the Critics' Choice team decided not to screen the video essay. In those 10 years, some 50 video essays were made for Critics' Choice, and this is the first time something like this has happened. So not really that bad, say the organisers. But perhaps not the commotion you would like, I think to myself. Roosje, who is also there, tells me that she is over the shock by now.
Too many words already for this incident. Because the next two hours are about more important matters. At four tables brainstorming about 'whisper' and film criticism, about video essays, about film criticism at festivals and independent film criticism. In a spoken column, Coen van Zwol elaborates on what he wrote a few days ago under the title You don't want short but long and deep.
Great to have a conversation with new people about that, which is too much to summarise here (hopefully there will be another report online somewhere), but from the wrap up at the end I fish out some keywords. We don't have to throw out the old formats, but we can compost them together so that something new emerges. Abandon the illusion of objectivity, see what appeals to younger generations. More conversations, for instance also in the cinema halls themselves.Think community building, seek each other out. One of the tables even considered a kind of global association of freelancers, partly to give them a firmer position. I would like to hear more about that in the future.
A new initiative that is already very far along is Another Point of View, with the website apov.space, which will hopefully be online soon.
27 January, 16:15. I am going to use the aforementioned The Zone of Interest see. Indeed, as I read somewhere, a film that gets under your skin.
27 January, 20:00. In a Juried Hall in the Doelen filled to the brim, Sandra Hüller (One of the Zone of Interest-chief actors) onto the stage to engage in a very animated conversation with critic Peter Bradshaw. About her portrayal of Hedwig Höss, she says, among other things, that she normally establishes an emotional connection with her characters, but found that impossible in this case. 'I wanted to make her empty, a very physical form of acting.' To add that she considers it an important film, especially in the light of developments we see today.
Once again the video essay
28 January, 11:30am. I am about to end this report, but this morning I still had a chance to take a look at some of the video essays from this tenth Critics' Choice. The unaired essay by Roosje van der Kamp at Avant Drag! turns out to be a kind of viewing exercise, exploring how drag queens in Avant Drag! and other films are visually introduced. And wonders if that is voyeurism or the bestowing of power. With a somewhat abruptly aimed metaphor (hit or miss/miss anyway?) as a bouncer.
Furthermore, I see how you can roughly go two ways with such a video essay. Janilda Bartolomeu has an introduction to The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire made with a voice-over that you could also just read as a written article. But then you miss that accompanying impression of images from The Ballad. And when she conflates the concept of a negotiation with a dancing couple, it works just a little better.
Hugo van Emmerzael (made the video essay at Krazy House) and Joost Broeren-Huitenga (at Future Me) compare their subject matter with a montage of scenes from other titles in which similar issues crop up. Like the safe house as a place of doom (watch out for aliens!) or films in which (among others) filmmakers are confronted with their characters. Joost does this entirely visually, without any commentary. Look closely, and see how Vincent Boy Kars finds himself in illustrious company.