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On the 7th of February, International Film Festival Rotterdam concluded the online portion of its 50th edition – an anniversary celebration sadly limited to virtual spaces by the pandemic. The festival’s award winners were announced through a mise en abyme of screens, video calls within livestreams, and pre-recorded Zoom meetings. IFFR is set to be back in early June this year for a series of physical events and special programmes to make up for the only thing that was truly and conspicuously missing from its truncated online version: personal interaction.

In spite of these limitations, IFFR 2021 brought together an impressive array of films for its jubilee, with a particular emphasis on its trademark – the Tiger Competition. Founded in 1995, the Tiger Competition serves to prop up emerging directors from every corner of the planet, offering a venue for the exploration of unconventional topics or modes of expression that are commonly the exclusive domain of filmmakers with existing festival cachet. With a €40 000 cash prize for the main awardee and two €10 000 Special Jury Awards, recognition by the IFFR jury (in this case, Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, Orwa Nyrabia, Hala Elkoussy, Helena van der Meulen, and Ilse Hughan) can often jumpstart careers and legitimise future projects. Aside from representing different styles and cinematic languages, this year’s Tiger Competition selection also seemed to focus on different landscapes and community snapshots, abound with ensemble casts, road movies, and multigenerational family stories.

One Special Jury Award went to I Comete: A Corsican Summer by Pascal Tagnati, a vibrant depiction of life on Corsica projected through the diverse perspectives of its inhabitants and visitors of all ages and classes. The various episodes show the film’s characters engage in fragmented, but revealing conflicts, caught up in antagonisms centred on race, status, and family that are both particular to Corsica and widespread across human society. Another Special Jury awardee was filmmaker Norika Sefa with Looking for Venera, a coming of age story set against the backdrop of a small Kosovo town, once again defined by its tight-knit but troubled community. The teenage protagonist Venera struggles in this environment as she tries to develop a sense of independence and to fend off feelings of both peer pressure and parental prohibition.

This year’s winner of the Tiger Award was Pebbles by Vinothraj P.S., an Indian filmmaker who decided to dedicate his feature length debut to the dry outskirts of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Pebbles perhaps best encapsulates the character of this year’s selection: a meditative story about a father and son wandering through a desolate landscape, navigating between small villages as the tensions in their relationship slowly simmer and erupt into abuse. As the director pointed out himself during a Q&A, Pebbles’ location is a character in its own right, with its high temperatures and unforgiving aridity enveloping the protagonists at every moment.

Of course, no festival goer returns home (or, in this case, closes the browser) without dwelling on some sort of personal disagreement with the jury, no matter how minor. Queena Li’s Bipolar seemed to be somewhat neglected given the Chinese director’s impressive interpretation of the road movie genre. Bipolar sends its protagonist on an impulsive journey to Tibet that, though slightly formulaic in terms of structure, is certainly not lacking in sincerity and genuine internal discovery. Other films in the selection stand out as immersive accounts of a people’s history, such as Nino Martínez Sosa’s Liborio, a film about the genesis (and subsequent colonial suppression) of the Liborista religious movement in the Dominican Republic. Here I would also add Marta Popivoda’s Landscapes of Resistance, an extended, moving interview with one of the Yugoslav Partisan movement’s first female fighters and Auschwitz survivors.

One term that made a regular appearance throughout the online press conferences and jury statements was “slice of life”. Indeed, the 2021 Tiger Competition selection is perhaps best described as a prolonged glimpse into the everyday lives of communities and places that too often remain invisible in mainstream artistic practice. With their intimate vignettes and sprawling landscapes, the films communicate harshness and conflict, but also webs of inextricable personal bonds across vast distances – a capability for which most of us have found a renewed appreciation over the past year.

Check out Betty’s coverage on our February edition on our radio show.