This article appeared in the February 10, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

The Dream and the Radio (Renaud Després-Larose and Ana Tapia Rousiouk, 2022)

Of all the festivals forced to go virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Film Festival Rotterdam is the only major international film event that’s now canceled all in-person activities two years in a row. What’s more, these virtual editions have been IFFR’s first under new director Vanja Kaludjercic, who, while dealing with this radical change in format, in short order has remedied many of the problems that had recently plagued the festival. Chief among her interventions is the slimming down and refocusing of a few unwieldy sidebars (Limelight, Big Screen Competition, Bright Future); the addition of a new section, Harbour (“a safe haven to the full range of contemporary cinema,” per festival literature, and mostly comprising under-the-radar or unclassifiable work); and the expansion of the Tiger Competition, IFFR’s main section for filmmakers with fewer than three features to their name. While under previous regimes the Tiger selection could feel rather slim—both in quantity and quality—under Kaludjercic it has proven robust, even vital, with 14 films in contention this year following last year’s 16. On the evidence of the past two years, the Tiger Competition now stands as arguably the foremost platform for exciting and adventurous new talent on the international festival circuit.

EAMI, winner of this year’s top prize, exemplifies that spirit. The first narrative feature in 16 years from Paraguayan director Paz Encina, best known for her award-winning 2006 film Paraguayan Hammock, EAMI employs a hybrid form to explore a locale and a people not often seen on screen: the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode community of Paraguay’s Chaco region. (At 50 years old, Encina was a rare veteran in the Tiger program, which this year also featured a beautiful posthumous feature from Mexico’s Eugenio Polgovsky titled Malintzin 17, which was completed by his sister, Mara Polgovsky.) Developed over a period of years during which the director immersed herself in the community, EAMI’s boundary-blurring form fashions an in-between space reflective of its setting, whose ecosystem is slowly dying out due to rapid deforestation and forced migration. Cast entirely with nonprofessional locals, the film foregrounds the words and faces of its subjects—in particular those of a young girl named Eami (Anel Picanerai), a self-styled bird-god who journeys into the rainforest after her village is destroyed—to offer a highly poetic consideration of a world on the brink of extinction. The voiceover that narrates the film contemplates the myths and indigenous histories of the region, while Encina and editor Jordana Berg’s intricate montage mixes close-up portraits of the village’s young people with vivid landscape imagery and moments of pure observational wonder. The film’s stunning opening shot, in which a cascade of changing lights and shifting weather conditions unfold over the course of nearly eight minutes, feels like a new benchmark for sensory ethnographic cinema.

My two favorite Tiger films, The Plains, by David Easteal, and The Dream and the Radio, by Renaud Després-Larose and Ana Tapia Rousiouk, stand at stylistic extremes but together speak to the variety of ways in which a narrative can reinvent itself from scene to scene. In Easteal’s first feature, the Australian director adopts a durational model of filmmaking that arguably hit its peak around the turn of the 2010s, but he parlays the conceptual framework into a casually engrossing work free of slow cinema’s more trying aspects (e.g., long passages of silence; quasi-symbolic characters on seemingly endless quests toward enlightenment). Running 180 minutes and set almost entirely inside a car, The Plains depicts the daily commute of a middle-aged businessman from the parking lot of a Melbourne law office to his home in the city’s outer suburbs. Every day, at just after 5 p.m., Andrew (Andrew Rakowski) gets into his Hyundai, calls his wife, and checks in with his ailing mother, before listening to talk radio for the remainder of the hour-long drive. Occasionally, he offers a lift to a coworker, David (played by Easteal), who’s going through a breakup and is generally dissatisfied with his personal and professional life. Over the course of the film— told recursively, beginning at the same time and location each day—Andrew and David reveal themselves in casual, offhand conversations (apparently scripted but delivered so naturally as to evoke the feel of a documentary) that accumulate into an acute portrait of modern life—one in which otherwise unarticulated beliefs, regrets, and anxieties bring to light a shared humanity too often lost in the commotion of the world.

Where The Plains is immaculately composed and structured, The Dream and the Radio is messy and ornery, spilling over with images and ideas that the narrative can barely contain. Part millennial urban romance, part political essay in the vein of late Godard, it’s a shape-shifting work that nods to and interpolates signifiers from across the history of silent, experimental, and modernist art cinema. Beginning with an extended montage of war imagery, protest footage, and distressed radio broadcasts, the film settles into the story of Constance and Eugène (played by the French-Canadian directors), a young artist couple whose friend Beatrice (Geneviève Ackerman, also the film’s co-writer) gets all three entangled in a conspiracy involving a mysterious activist named Raoul (Étienne Pilon). Based loosely on the lives of its makers, the film plays something like Out 1 by way of Film Socialism, thrumming with discursive paranoia and furious ideological energy. It’s also strikingly beautiful: shooting in what appears to be a variety of digital and analog formats, Després-Larose and Tapia Rousiouk cast story-driven passages in deep shadows and crepuscular candlelight, while the more opaque interludes bring to mind the abstractions and provocations of an avant-garde tradition stretching from Hollis Frampton to the Quebecois artist collective Double Negative. (Indeed, the film’s closest aesthetic analogue among this year’s selection isn’t a narrative film but instead the stunning 16mm Darkness, Darkness, Burning Bright suite by French filmmaker Gaëlle Rouard, featured in the typically rewarding shorts program.) A certifiable UFO, The Dream and the Radio has the feel of something distantly familiar but altogether different, a transmission from a far-off place that nonetheless speaks the universal language of cinema.

Jordan Cronk is a film critic and founder of the Acropolis Cinema screening series in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in ArtforumCinema Scopefrieze, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sight & Sound, and more. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.