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Still from The Tree House, dir. Minh Quý Truong (2019) (all images courtesy the International Film Festival Rotterdam)

ROTTERDAM — At first glance, a four-and-a-half-hour “slow cinema” film, a briskly paced time-travel chronicle, and a self-reflexive avant-garde work, all screening at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (January 22–February 2), would seem to have little in common. Lav Diaz’s The Halt consists of lengthy, unbroken sequence shots with minimal camera movement, while Mattie Do’s The Long Walk draws heavily on Hollywood editing and storytelling conventions. Minh Quý Truong’s The Tree House, meanwhile, is primarily an ethnography of Vietnam’s indigenous cultures, framed by a sci-fi narrative and first-person reflections.

Diaz, Do, and Minh — based in the Philippines, Laos (though born and raised in Los Angeles), and Vietnam, respectively — are each among their countries’ best-known contemporary directors. This distinction is skewed by global distribution: Producers and distributors are often reluctant to put their weight behind a film from a country whose cinema does not already have a successful track-record. As such, any filmmaker from the “global south” may be considered a nation’s “best known” director to Euro-American audiences just by getting traction on the festival circuit.

It’s a pattern that has impoverished American and European understandings of global cinema and helped Hollywood imperialize the art form. If there is a silver lining to this state of affairs it might be that Hollywood genres, tropes, and styles (of editing, storytelling, etc.) serve as starting points from which filmmakers without major funding can innovate in unexpected ways, as Diaz, Do, and Minh have done with science fiction.

Still from The Halt, dir. Lav Diaz (2019)

The Halt takes place in 2034, after a series of volcanic eruptions has thrust Australasia into perpetual darkness, a deadly flu has eradicated much of the population of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, and President Nirvano Navarra (Joel Lamangan), a stand-in for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, imposes a strict martial law. Drones and cyborgs play major roles in the narrative, but their possibilities, functions, and origins are never discussed (as they likely would be in a Hollywood sci-fi film). Instead, the film focuses on Navarra’s attempt to form a regional alliance to overcome economic difficulties, as well as the flu that has devastated the region. This is a world that imperialism has almost literally plunged into darkness, leaving the light to the all-powerful hands of the state while the people try desperately to avoid illness.

The Long Walk shares The Halt’s skepticism of Western technology and surveillance. We learn near the beginning that government-issued chips installed in people’s wrists are used for everything from timekeeping to monetary transactions. The narrative — about an unnamed man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) who travels back in time, aided by a female spirit, with the intent of improving his childhood — may sound apolitical at first, but the time-travel underscores how little Laos changes over the past 50 years. The man’s home and its surrounding area are identical, and in both timelines characters are scrounging for food, or for money to procure it. Around the halfway point, we learn why: in the early timeline, a pair of white Americans forces the man’s family to consent to solar panel installations. “We don’t need electricity, we need a tractor,” the father says, gesturing toward his fertile but untilled land. The Silicon Valley dream is revealed here as a nightmare, in which gadgets and tech are pervasive but the best hope for finding sufficient food and medicine is an encounter with time-traveling ghosts.

Still from The Long Walk, dir. Mattie Do (2019)

Minh’s The Tree House is yet more radical. The narrator, a filmmaker living on Mars in 2045, watches his own film footage of Vietnam’s Hmong, Kor, and Ruc indigenous cultures. In a poignant voiceover, he can’t help but wonder if his filming, despite its more noble intentions, is so different from American soldiers filming their eradication of Vietnamese towns during the Vietnam War. These questions are asked aloud in transmissions sent back to the narrator’s father, who is stranded on Earth, but the film never settles on easy answers.

Minh uses the sci-fi genre to both contemplate the ethics of ethnography — which often essentializes a culture for the consumption of outsiders — and propose an alternative for the genre, which frequently replicates the logic of colonialism in Hollywood films. The narrator ends his film unfinished; the western roots of cinema are so deep that he cannot divorce the medium from its historical associations with imperialism.

Watching what remains, one is both awed by the material and troubled by its implications. For Hollywood’s furthest-flung audiences, there is no better encapsulation of the positives and negatives that Hollywood’s film industry has produced during its century-long dominance.

The International Film Festival Rotterdam ran January 22 through February 2. Keep an eye out for these films at future festivals.

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Forrest Cardamenis

Forrest Cardamenis is a critic and film programmer living in Queens, New York. He received an M.A. in Film Studies from New York University, and has written for MUBI...