Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the International Film Festival of Rotterdam has been held virtually for the second year in a row. Some of the selections reflect the crisis and, dare we say, opportunity, resulting from the global spread of Covid-19.

In Urszula Antoniak’s Splendid Affair (Netherlands), we meet two lovers on a deserted island. They have the place to themselves. Plus, there’s an empty house waiting to be occupied – bliss, right? The foreboding music and increasingly strange turn of events prove that isolation is as much a psychological as a physical state.

The fixed view forced by stay-at-home restrictions is the theme of American filmmaker Zhengfan Yang’s Footnote. Made in Chicago in 2020, the documentary reflects the health crisis as well as the racial tensions that characterised the Donald Trump era.

The 90-minute documentary is filled with movement but also stasis. Yang positions a stationary camera at various windows in his apartment. Twenty-three long takes of the city filmed through the seasons are juxtaposed with police radio chatter.

The interplay between barely changing visuals and urgent conversations of potential crimes and false alarms makes for surprisingly dramatic cinema. The information relayed by the unflappable operators to police units builds up an intimate portrait of a city on the move and on the boil.

The racially charged situation is reflected in calls about rallies in support of Black Lives Matter and racist slurs against citizens. From queries about Chinese or Korean or Polish speakers on the networks emerges a picture of just how multi-cultural Chicago is, and how mono-cultural its police is in contrast, emerges

Footnote (2022).

There are complaints about trespassing and domestic violence, homeless people and break-ins. Yang often leaves the follow-ups to the calls hanging, allowing viewers to fill in the blanks.

Some of the juxtapositions are breathtaking. Over a view of a grey sea above which a shocking purple kite flies, we follow audio of the police chasing a criminal through the streets. Reports on sightings of homeless people, abandoned animals and robberies (of toilet paper and groceries) give a small measure of the pandemic’s ravages. One of the most heartbreaking audio relays is about a homeless man trying to stay warm against the punishing Chicago winter by breaking into cars.

The double distance that Fang puts between himself and his subject – first through the remotely filmed views and then through second-hand accounts of street happenings – dissolves in the filmmaking. Fang, who has shot and edited Footnote as well as designed the sound, extends his empathy to the hard-working police teams.

A new year greeting is followed seconds later by yet another report of a potential crime. The only time near-silence descends on Footnote, viewers are rewarded with one of the film’s most gorgeous scenes. We see policemen on a freeway, their faces uncannily bathed in the glow of their headlights. Instead of radio chatter, we hear running water and a baby’s gurgling.

Footnote (2022). Courtesy Burn The Film.

Another documentary at Rotterdam, Malintzin 17, powerfully demonstrates the potency of the fixed perspective. In 2016, Eugenio Polgovsky set up a camera at the windows of his apartment in Mexico City. The main subject was a pigeon warming her eggs.

Polgovsky had company during his exercise: his adorable daughter Mile, who was fascinated with the pigeon. In the documentary, Mile has imaginary conversations with the bird, potters around the house, and badgers her father with the kind of questions that only children can ask.

Garbage trucks come and go, residents take their dogs for walks, and a couple kiss for what seems like forever. Without leaving his apartment, Polgovsky captures a full spectrum of existence.

Malintzin 17 (2022). Courtesy Tecolote Films/Piano.

Malintzin 17 is documentary as memorial. Eugenio Polgovsky died suddenly in 2017. His sister Mara Polgovsky found the home video footage and edited it into a 64-minute documentary. The result is a moving chronicle of a father-daughter relationship, expressed through the language of cinema and summarised in the images of the pigeon protecting its brood.

Indeed, an entire universe can be documented with minimal movement. In 10 (2002), Abbas Kiarostami provides a vivid snapshot of Iranian society by fitting two cameras to either side of a moving car and recording the conversations between drivers and passengers.

In Taxi Tehran (2015), Jafar Panahi imaginatively defied a temporary ban on his movements by Iranian authorities. Posing as a share taxi driver, the iconoclastic filmmaker gave rides to strangers and conducted a debate on Iranian politics with his niece, all while inside the vehicle.

Closer home, Malayalam director Don Palathra filmed his relationship drama Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam (The Joyful Mystery) in a single take inside a car. The Rotterdam festival’s Tiger Competition section includes Australian director David Easteal’s The Plains, in which cameras fixed to the rear of an automobile capture the evolving relationship between a middle-aged man and his colleague. The camera goes nowhere, and everywhere.

The Plains (2022). Courtesy David Easteal.

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