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Stinking Heaven
Stinking HeavenCourtesy of IFFR

The best of Rotterdam Film Festival

A Pussy Riot pep rally and the gritty realism of junkie love in Heaven Knows What – here’s the best of IFFR

The Rotterdam Film Festival, which built its rep on pushing risk and discovering new talent, came to a close on Sunday after another packed programme of films. With global power struggles increasingly played out through the net and ever-more subtle means of media manipulation, this year's fest dedicated a whole “Everyday Propaganda” strand of movies and installations to help us stem the tide of misinformation headed our way, inviting guests Pussy Riot to town with bands in tow for us to scream with if critical thinking got too taxing. Here’s a snapshot of what we caught in the Dutch port city.


Martin Radich’s blend of gritty realism and poetic, ominous surrealism had its world premiere in the main Tiger competition for new talent. Rising star Barry Keoghan (who also appears in ’71) stars as a young lad divided between his glowering father, a disillusioned mercenary, and a romantic connection with a young revolutionary (a strong debut from street-cast Goda Letkauskaite) in a Norfolk uniquely envisaged as a haunted no-man’s land. Look out for a UK release later this year.


Another world premiere in the Tiger competition, Hannah Murray plunges into psychologically dark territory for director Jeppe Rønde’s fictionalised take on the mysterious spate of youth suicides that has rocked Bridgend in Wales. She stars as a newcomer to the insular community in this divisive feature, which treads clear of exploitation but is bound to spark debate on pack mentality, alienation and appropriate representation.


Adam Curtis uses his characteristic evocative, freewheelingly associative style to suggest that, in the face of our confusion at an increasingly complex world, global events are being ruthlessly simplified into moral fables of good and evil by our leaders and media outlets. Drawing on little-seen footage of the ongoing tumult in Afghanistan as well as scenes from Tarkovsky’s sci-fi masterpiece Solaris, the fascinating doc screened in Rotterdam’s Everyday Propaganda strand.


Young Berlin-based directing talent Anna Sofie Hartmann’s slow-burning, unsettling feature debut stars Annika Nuka Matthiassen as a teenager in a seemingly uneventful rural Danish town whose usual collectedness is thrown off-kilter by an unrequited crush she develops on her teacher, Karen.


Quiet is not the word for New York indie director Nathan Silver’s raw latest: an exhilaratingly hysteria-infused, can’t-look-away mess of dysfunction that’s blackly comical and searingly, sourly human. The grimy, grainy-looking film, which had its world premiere at Rotterdam, captures the breakdown of a communal house for recovering (or not) addicts in the 90s, punctuated by group therapy re-enactments, with a change in dynamics brought by a new arrival, convincingly played by rising indie star Hannah Gross.


Grimy fingers, the soul-sapping nihilism and the banal, bleary ramble of whacked-out chat – junkie love has never looked less glam. Directing brothers Joshua and Benny Safdie achieve a rawness rarely found in US indies any more with their acclaimed, naturalistic depiction of life down and out which taps into a tradition of grimy New York street films from Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer to Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park, and is based on a memoir by Arielle Holmes, who also stars as Harley.


US experimental filmmaker Ben Russell (who collaborated with Brit helmer Ben Rivers on 2013’s hypnotic A Spell to Ward off the Darkness) is a regular at Rotterdam with his work. His short Greetings to the Ancestors is set between Swaziland and South Africa in a psychedelic, anthropological dreamscape of ritual and verbal memory. It won a short film Tiger award at the fest, and is the third in his trilogy about the search for utopia in modern times.


Nadya and Masha of Pussy Riot were in town and took to the stage to present a half-hour preview of the new doc by Gogol’s Wives about them Act and Punishment (a sequel to Pussy vs Putin), which includes close-access before-and-after footage of their infamous whipping by Cossacks while demonstrating at Sochi. Two Russian bands affiliated with the activist group’s collective, the Blues-infused Jack Wood and cracklingly raw, female-fronted Moscow punk group Scofferlane, hammered out sets after the segment.


Jessica Hausner’s wickedly comical, sumptuously shot film about the death wish of poet Heinrich von Kleist was among the best of the recent festival circuit on show at Rotterdam. It’s a merciless take-down of delusional romanticism and social hypocrisy that chronicles the self-obsessed artist’s quest to find someone devoted enough to die with him. Set in 19th-century Berlin, it never takes itself too seriously, while its strange ambiguities make it strikingly unique. Catch it on its UK release on February 6.


Rotterdam’s audience award went to this New Zealand biopic about Genesis Potini, a bipolar sufferer played by Cliff Curtis (Once Were Warriors) who, fresh out of an institution, puts time into a youth chess club to give young Maori a meaningful focus in their lives. His nephew is already deep in the violent gang hazing process, and set to earn his jacket patch. Directed by James Napier Robinson, the film stays close to conventional drama and set Kiwi cinematic themes, but reins in sentimentality to pack an emotional punch while successfully weaving in tales of Maori myth as a means to feed tradition’s survival.