This article appeared in the February 9, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here

Under a Blue Sun (Daniel Mann, 2024)

Now four years into its run under the leadership of director Vanja Kaludjercic, the International Film Festival Rotterdam has firmly established its new MO. Following a pair of quietly inspired online iterations during the pandemic and last year’s somewhat scattershot return to in-person activities, the 53rd edition exemplified the strengths and tradeoffs that have come to define Kaludjercic’s regime compared to prior eras: namely the welcome expansion and diversification of the Tiger Competition for up-and-coming filmmakers, and a tightening (and in some cases, outright elimination) of some of the more unwieldy sections. While experimental cinema, one of IFFR’s longtime calling cards, has not disappeared from the festival entirely—this year featured at least one group program of artists’ work on celluloid, as well as a focus on the anonymous Mexican consortium Colectivo Los Ingrávidos—the adventurous spirit that one might encounter in an avant-garde showcase is now more likely to be found in the Harbour section, a dizzyingly eclectic sidebar introduced in 2021 that takes in auteurist cinema of all stripes.

Among this year’s notable Harbour titles, Japanese director zonpilone’s Born in Gunsan and after seven years, I was repatriated to Japan… embodies the kind of proudly exploratory international filmmaking that even the most fearless festival might hesitate to program, while both Larry Fessenden’s Blackout and Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s Dream Team speak to IFFR’s longstanding interest in oddball American DIY cinema. These three films defined, in a way, the outer limits of the section. Born in Gunsan…, an ambitious four-hour essay about a Zainichi Korean academic who breathlessly narrates his life story over abstract and archival imagery, typifies both the most trying and transcendent aspects of contemporary art cinema, while the two American films offer up similarly poignant, if comparatively modest, rewards on more agreeable terms. In Fessenden’s latest self-consciously low-budget B-movie, Charley (Alex Hurt), an alcoholic painter recovering from a divorce, suspects that he may be responsible for a recent spate of grisly deaths. Local officials, otherwise preoccupied with an election and a contentious land development project overseen by Charley’s ex-father-in-law (Marshall Bell), have pegged these bloody events to something inhuman—a familiar enough setup for a horror film that Fessenden turns into a shrewd reflection on family dynamics, small town xenophobia, and ecological malpractice.

An eco-parable of a different sort, Dream Team is another in Kalman and Horn’s incredibly vibey catalog of retro-genre pastiches. Like L for Leisure (2014) and Two Plains & a Fancy (2018), the co-directors’ third feature is first and foremost a feast for the senses, a work whose era-specific style and influence risk distracting from its more serious concerns. Set in 1997 and inspired by the decade’s basic-cable TV thrillers (think La Femme Nikita), the film unfolds episodically, with unique credit sequences separating each chapter, and centers on two Interpol agents (Esther Garrel and Alex Zhang Hungtai) investigating the death of a coral smuggler in Mexico. Haunted by visions of a psychic network of poison gas–emitting coral, the two soon find themselves embroiled in an absurdist conspiracy involving sexy scientists, fitness enthusiasts, neuropsychology scholars—even an invisible colleague. In signature fashion, Kalman and Horn outfit the film with kitschy details (fax machines, dial-up internet) and good-looking actors (pretty much everyone), which they pair with beachside locales—beautifully captured by Horn’s sunset-streaked 16mm photography—and archly intelligent and innuendo-laced dialogue that elevates every exchange to a level of delirious irony. In contrast to much of today’s environmentally-minded cinema, Dream Team doesn’t simply gesture at the natural world; it conveys its very essence.

Over in the Tiger Competition, a number of worthwhile films stood out in comparison to last year’s mostly forgettable slate.. Take Lea Hartlaub’s sr, an essayistic reflection on the giraffe as a symbol of global development, or Justin Anderson’s intriguingly Teorema-esque adaptation of Deborah Levy’s 2011 novel Swimming Home, about a married couple (Christopher Abbott and Mackenzie Davis) whose fragile family life is upended by a mysterious stranger (Ariane Labed). Better still was Dmytro Moiseiev’s Grey Bees, a darkly comic Ukrainian war film that, like last year’s Tiger highlight from the same country, La Palisiada, stood as perhaps the competition’s most formally accomplished work. Set in a small mining town in Donbass in the “gray zone” between Russia and Ukraine, the story—based on a 2018 novel by Andrey Kurkov—centers on Sergiich (Viktor Zdanov) and Pashka (Volodymyr Yamnenko), two elderly neighbors and the last inhabitants of an otherwise deserted village. An odd couple in every way—Sergiich is Ukrainian and practices beekeeping, while Pashka is Russian and acts as an amateur spy for the DPR—the duo, armed with a steady supply of humorous barbs, are nonetheless reliant on each other to survive in a town with few resources. Occasionally, a soldier from either side of the divide will drop in, but their seemingly sympathetic visits soon reveal the complexities of navigating even ostensibly neutral territory. Moiseiev keeps the violence mostly in the background of his stately compositions, letting the sounds of bombs ring out in the distance as his protagonists board up their windows, light a few candles, and share some soup, fated to bicker until the bitter end.

For all its dry humor, Grey Bees isn’t what anyone would consider a good time, or even an easy sit. For that, there was Daniel Mann’s competition standout Under a Blue Sun, a surprisingly accessible yet rigorous and politically committed essay film in which the Israeli-born, London-based artist uses the Reagan-era blockbuster Rambo III (1988) to investigate the way Hollywood and the media use cinema as a tool for imperialist propaganda. The third entry in Sylvester Stallone’s post-Vietnam action franchise follows the title character to Khost, in Afghanistan, where he teams up with the Mujahideen in a battle against the Soviets. But the film was in fact shot in Israel’s Negev Desert, with the support and occasional assistance of the Israeli Defense Forces. Mann combines behind-the-scenes footage from the original production with images of those same locations in the present day, as well as interviews with Palestinian Bedouins and other locals who worked on the film. Narrating the proceedings via unanswered letters written to Stallone about the project’s implications, the filmmaker creates a fascinating dialectic around ideas of colonialism, representation, and American exceptionalism. In one key sequence, we see how Rambo III director Peter MacDonald and his team used IDF flyover routines for its war scenes, which were then tinted blue to disguise the Negev’s distinct color palette. Fleet, fascinating, and above all timely, Under a Blue Sun is a reminder of the inherently political nature of image-making, and an implicit call to question all forms of entertainment—from the multiplex to the festival circuit and beyond.

Jordan Cronk is a film critic and founder of the Acropolis Cinema screening series in Los Angeles. In addition to Film Comment, he is a regular contributor to Artforum, MUBI Notebook, Reverse Shot, Sight and Sound, and more. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.