IFFR:This year‘s film festival in Rotterdam unveiled several documentaries and shorts, amongst them Above Us Only Sky – a calming exercise in intellectual and sensual stimulation – and Pelourinho: They Don't Really Care About Us, which proved to be a rough, angry gem of a picture.

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Neil Young
Young is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: February 15, 2019

While its feature-length fictions can be of bewilderingly variable quality, January’s International Film Festival Rotterdam regularly unveils several documentaries and shorts (especially towards the experimental end of the spectrum) which prove to be among the year’s best come Christmas. The 48th edition of the event, held in the Dutch port city from January 23 to February 3, once again yielded a rich haul of international titles whose apparently brief running-times concealed rich and complex content.

Himself a born and bred Rotterdammer, 49-year-old visual artist Arthur Kleinjan was represented by the 28-minute Above Us Only Sky, a Dutch-Czech co-production which exists in conventional filmic form and also as a three-channel video installation. His screenplay’s starting point is the 2010 eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, whose ash-cloud resulted – as Kleinjan’s unidentified narrator notes – in the most serious disruption of European air travel since World War II.

Recalling the impact of this geological phenomenon on his own travel-schedules – he ended up having to take a train from Brussels to Prague – the narrator goes on to accumulate an episodic, low key, cumulatively enthralling tale that encompasses such diverse figures as John Lennon, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Czechoslovakian novelist Bohumil Hrabal. He defines his own method thus: to compile «a story that consists of real, chance events… I will just respond to whatever story delivers itself to me.»

Above Us Only Sky is cine-flanerie of a high order

The film is a web of idées fixes, at the centre of which lies, somewhat randomly, the figure of Vesna Vulović. A Yugoslavian air stewardess who pursued that line of work to facilitate travel to the United Kingdom, home of her beloved Beatles, Vulović achieved an unlikely kind of fame in 1972. She was the sole survivor of a plane explosion and crash over Czechoslovakia, falling 10,160 metres without a parachute (this remains a world record). She suffered serious injuries – including a fractured skull, three broken vertebrae, broken ribs and both legs, and a fractured pelvis – but recovered and lived in good health for another 44 years. Three years after her death, the latter is now commemorated as a kind of guiding spirit for Kleinjan’s free-roving speculations.

«Essay cinema» of a witty and informative nature

Spoken by Marc Sabat – a Canadian composer based in Brazil – Sabat’s text is curious, erudite, quizzical, navigating geography, culture and history by means of elegantly interlocking tangents. This is «essay cinema» of a witty and informative nature – who knew that Wittgenstein, for example, «inherited one of the largest industrial empires in Europe» thanks to his steel-magnate father Karl? Rather in the vein of UK-dwelling German writer W. G. Sebald and English architect-turned-filmmaker Patrick Keiller, Kleinjan is genial company over the course of his film’s running-time; indeed, there seems no reason why his divagations and digressions couldn’t be extended further to feature length.

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