Experimental Reviews

Rotterdam, verlaat ons niet [Rotterdam, Don’t Leave Us] (2022) – 4.5 stars

Director: Guido FG Jeurissen

Cast: Dean Bowen, Vienne Haagoort

Running time: 12mins

Anthropomorphism doesn’t just end with cutesy cartoons about talking animals. Humanity’s propensity to make everything about us sees it seep into the very stones beneath our feet – and a strange norm emerges where we discuss our hives of concrete and steel as if they were human themselves.

Laureates Dean Bowen and Vienne Haagoort find fruitful grounds for poetry in this linguistic quirk, weaving it into a rhythmic conversation with the city they call home. Rotterdam, verlaat ons niet is a strange request, when you consider it literally. Rotterdam itself is not capable of leaving anyone behind. But of course, when we refer to a city in this way, we’re using it as shorthand for the collective of people who inhabit it – and they are constantly reshaping life there, for better and for worse.

In 2020, Bowen was made stadsdichter (city poet – like the UK’s poet laureate roles) of Rotterdam, while Haagoort was jeugdstadsdichter (youth laureate). Their verses speak of a population which has learned to survive by moving forward, but in a way that can sometimes fetishise innovation for innovation’s sake, while neglecting pre-existing ways of life.

Bowen encapsulates this with his opening statement, speaking of being “stranded” in the city, and becoming “a foundling, thrown in your lap”. As a historic port city, Rotterdam has been a place of new beginnings for centuries of immigrants, seeking refuge in the city’s “heart”. It is a heartbeat Bowen still suggests he can hear, but the city’s “whims” of modernisation at all costs mean this heart “has no place” – something he prays will change.

Meanwhile, Haagoort’s verses conjure a vision of a city in metamorphosis. It is still a familiar place, but it is becoming distant from the very people that made it a place worth living. Amid the 600,000 people living in Rotterdam, many are falling behind or being swept beneath the carpet of a place keen to be seen as modern and innovative.

But, as with the pushes for gentrification in every major city, marginalising those people who make the city vibrant and alive will shoot that push for ‘innovation’ in the foot. It creates vacant corporate shanty-towns in place of pulsating communities. If you want a place to truly thrive, you’d be better off supporting the communities that are already in place – and Haagoort seems to suggest as much. Arguing against creating “a sea of silences”, Haagoort asks that Rotterdam finally “give us the unknown voices” to enable the city to “prolong your passion in the sky”.

The intervening verses, documenting the city’s ebb and flow, its destruction and rebirth, are accompanied by some intriguing cinematic still-life work. Director Guido FG Jeurissen, art director Iris Schutgevaar and director of photography Lawrence Lee collaborate to craft what seems to be an unnerving approximation of a 22nd century museum. In scenes reminiscent of York’s Jorvik Viking Centre, men and women in modern attire pose motionless, before pale-blue painted skies. In one particular market scene, a woman is conspicuously dangling a raw herring above her mouth – the fish appears to twist in the breeze, suggesting a truly Herculean feat from the performer who remains as still as a mannequin for minutes.

The attention to detail to construct these moments in time is extremely impressive. At the same time, it provides an eerie image of the present we know fading into the past. What kind of place our society could already be becoming is hinted at next, when the scene transitions to another arrangement. This time, an opulent gathering of consumers crowds a clean, bright scene – but we only see their legs, and their pristine clothing; spotless white trousers; unblemished Nikes; wellington boots sans mud. This sterile semi-future is not the focus here, so much as its underbelly – with hordes of figures in shadow, holding the whole scene up, carrying the floor on their backs – evoking the famous Tsar’s Wedding Cake graphic made popular during the Russian Revolution.

The final image simply depicts miscellaneous rubble. Amid the carnage of a destroyed building, some shards of timber are still on fire. What we are witnessing is left to the imagination. The obvious thing would be to associate this with the bombing of Rotterdam during the Second World War, when Nazi Germany virtually destroyed the city. But the fact this image would come as part of a futurist exhibit of what may come to pass suggests something else: that the city which was reborn from that rubble could once again return to it.

The poets refuse to consign Rotterdam to this fate, though. Even during this stark final shot, Haagoort asks Rotterdam not to leave, as “we have not yet unlearned to hope”, while Bowen concludes that even when the city feels silenced, it is “within us always aloud.” This could be seen as bringing the poem’s framing device full-circle. Rotterdam is silent, unable to save itself in a literal sense, because it is an inanimate construct. But within the people who live in it, who hold on to hope, the city has its ‘voice’, and it can still be reshaped, and reborn for their good.

This is an uncompromising yet hopeful film-poem, balancing evocative prose with striking imagery. And while there are plenty of specific, niche Rotterdam references within it, it is still accessible, and relatable to people in every town or city facing the themes it touches upon – helping convey an important message well beyond the port city it depicts.

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