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Good Vibes (and Free Drinks): New Strains Directors Artemis Shaw and Prashanth Kamalakanthan on Their Trip to the International Film Festival Rotterdam

The New Strains team at IFFR (Photo: Vera Cornel)

Along with their baby and an AI-generated poster, filmmakers Artemis Shaw and Prashanth Kamalakanthan recently brought their debut feature, New Strains, to the International Film Festival Rotterdam, where it won a Special Jury prize. The film is about a couple who travel to New York just prior to the start of a worldwide pandemic and, holed up in a relative’s apartment, descend “into a toxic pattern of spite, jealousy and miserable co-dependence, wrote Vadim Rizov in our 25 New Face profile of the filmmakers. “Wryly funny and cuttingly satirical, New Strains has the rare distinction of being a pandemic film that actually feels authentic to the moment in which it was made.”

Upon their return to New York, the married filmmakers recorded the below conversation, in which they process their whirlwind trip, offer practical advice to future Rotterdam filmmakers, and comment, among other topics, on the oddities of Dutch food.

Recorded live at The Mansion Diner on York Ave., Feb. 6, 2023.

Kamalakanthan: OK, so hopefully this picks up on mic.

Shaw: It’s a little nerve-wracking to speak to your husband for public consumption.

Kamalakanthan: Why are you doing a funny voice?

Shaw: I don’t know. I feel nervous.

Kamalakanthan: I think you should just act like no one’s listening… Anyway, we’re back in New York. Back from the Misty Lowlands of the Dutch country. So how was your trip?

Shaw: Um, you know…

Kamalakanthan: Was it as relaxing as you thought it was gonna be?

Shaw: It kind of felt like a train moving really fast that could get derailed and fall into a swamp at any second.

Kamalakanthan: You know about that early movie where the train came at audiences and they ran away ’cause they thought it was real?

Shaw: Yeah, the Lumiere Brothers. A little bit like that.

Kamalakanthan: Why?

Shaw: You know. For the people at home: we have a new baby. This was baby’s first trip.

Kamalakanthan: You’re supposed to act like no one’s listening.

Shaw: Sorry. I was just constantly expecting a baby-related disaster. While at all these networking events getting twisted for the first time in months —

Kamalakanthan: An impending sense of doom.

Shaw: Impending sense of doom, yeah. Like, I kept worrying I’d get pooped on right before getting my photo taken. (To waiter: Thank you. Could I have mayonnaise and hot sauce? Okay, cool.) Like something was gonna go very wrong.

Kamalakanthan: But nothing did go wrong. In fact, we came home with that shiny, shiny trophy.

Shaw: Spoiler alert.

Kamalakanthan: It had to come up.

Shaw: So, I really meticulously packed for this trip in a way that I’ve never done before. First because I was anxious about having baby with me. Second because I felt like my Google search results were about to change in a meaningful way.

But with all that dread, I always went for the less good outfit. You know what I mean?

Kamalakanthan: Not really. I feel like I tried to whip out my best fits.

Shaw: You did. And I always went like a notch below. I was like, if I wear my good fit then I’ll get my hopes up and think that I’m gonna get the award. So I’m gonna wear something mid, because I can’t look like I’m trying hard.

Kamalakanthan: I think that is maybe also a testament to the festival in a way where it was really super fun and we were into just the films and the people… and then in the last two, three hours before the ceremony, it’s like, oh shit, this is a competition. Suddenly you’re reminded it’s a competition, and no one wants to admit they wanna win.

Shaw: Right? There’s €40,000 at stake, which was… more than the budget of our film.

Kamalakanthan: And indeed, the award ceremony was wild and flashy. Drag, disco lights, fog…

Shaw: There was a presenter who’s a famous actor in the Netherlands.

Kamalakanthan: It was a beautiful, magical night. I mean, I guess just to talk about the festival in general —

Shaw: Maybe my favorite festival ever.

Kamalakanthan: Yeah. And I would say the same. And I think that, first of all, because they recognize our talent and genius. But also, at a lot of other festivals it’s like you have to choose between good programming and good filmmaker development.

Shaw: And good vibes.

Kamalakanthan: Yeah. Good vibes too. IFFR has good programming, good filmmaker development, good vibes — usually it’s choose two.

Shaw: Oh and free drinks.

Kamalakanthan: Drinks, check. I had mad drink tickets left over.

Shaw: Really good programming.

Kamalakanthan: Triple check. Especially the award winners this year. But seriously, we made friends with a lot of the other filmmakers up there, and it was just really cool to see them win. Good people.

Shaw: It felt a little bit like going to the UN.

Kamalakanthan: The UN of dope-ass indie filmmakers. From literally all the continents except Antarctica. And I don’t think they have a film industry.

Shaw: No.

Kamalakanthan: There’s been a freeze on the market down there. But I hear it’s thawing.

Shaw: Moving on. So IFFR: four thumbs up. Maybe we do “high, low, buffalo”?

Kamalakanthan: Honestly for me, all three — and I’m not gonna put anybody on blast, but there was an, uh, Q&A attendee, you could say…

Shaw: Oh, our super fan?

Kamalakanthan: Our superfan. Also a producer of a film that shall go unnamed… who kept reminding us that he’d had four beers and that’s why —

Shaw: Over the course of the screening. Not before. We only found out later that during the screening, he periodically turned around to the rest of the audience and shouted, “Why aren’t you laughing?! This is so funny!”

Kamalakanthan: Didn’t he follow people to the bathroom and berate them there as well?

Shaw: Yes.

Kamalakanthan: I mean, any kind of enthusiastic response is a good response. I think the thing that any filmmaker most fears is apathy. The cold shoulder.

Shaw: Should we talk networking techniques?

Kamalakanthan: Yes! Tips and takeaways section.

Shaw: Top five networking techniques. I’ll start. Number one is: always bring a baby. And if you’re male, wear that baby.

Kamalakanthan: That definitely helped. I made tons of international contacts this way. One of them said that I reminded them of the protagonist of their film Joram, in which the protagonist is often seen carrying his baby. So I would research into that. Find yourself a baby.

Shaw: I think men wearing baby is a huge novelty and people wanna talk to you. Women wearing a baby, not so much. Attending a film festival as a breastfeeding mom is, uh —

Kamalakanthan: “Shit, is my supply going down?”

Shaw: Yeah. I was running to and from our Airbnb every three hours to either pump or nurse. I was clocking like 20,000 steps a day while seeing my supply just plummet…

Kamalakanthan: Had to get on that Dutch formula.

Shaw: Shout out to all my filmmaker moms, worrying about leaking at the bar.

Kamalakanthan: Oh, and if you bring a baby, also bring babysitters. We had multiple friends note how relaxed we seemed for young parents. And we were just like… this is vacation for us, too.

Shaw: Yes. We wanna give a formal thanks to Prashanth’s parents who graciously babysat our child all week, allowing us to participate in lively Q&As and leak at the bar, though they frequently said they were locked in our minimalist Dutch Airbnb and not allowed to leave.

Kamalakanthan: It took two days for the radiators to kick in, but then it was warm.

Shaw: Typical Europeans…

Kamalakanthan: Well, they’re having an energy crisis. I’ll tell you what, I’m having a margarita crisis right about now.

Shaw: Okay, other tips?

Kamalakanthan: Cherish the times between films. Because look, we all wanna watch movies. We’re big film lovers and film heads, but especially as a filmmaker, it’s often about the times in between.

Shaw: True.

Kamalakanthan: Throw out your map, throw away your phone, dude.

Shaw: Any film recommendations from this year’s edition?

Kamalakanthan: I mean, I regret not seeing more films, between baby and networking —

Shaw: And networking with baby.

Kamalakanthan: But I really liked Munnel, our co-Special Jury Award winner. It’s in Tamil, which I enjoyed not having to read the subtitles. I’ve thought about it a lot since watching, it kind of worms its way into your brain.

Shaw: I liked it too.

Kamalakanthan: Loved Gagaland, one of my favorite things that I saw at the festival. Made by a director who was 19 when they started shooting.

Shaw: Yeah, that was great. They styled it after a Chinese TikTok analog, Kuiashou, and all its crazy bootleg video effects and psychedelic cutting and so on. I loved the formal innovation of it.

Kamalakanthan: Just getting funky with it. Films like this remind you of the essence of cinema because they’re so threadbare and off the mark in a lot of ways, and yet they work. They reach audiences.

Shaw: Oh, another tip is that it seems like the craze for festival karaoke is international. I thought it was just an American thing, but —

Kamalakanthan: How is that a tip?

Shaw: I got the impression that preparing a really excellent karaoke song is a great way to be seen.

Kamalakanthan: Dark but OK. Final tip. So some of the cool filmmaker development stuff at IFFR is that they organize press conferences, pitch practice sessions, mentor meetings, and so on. All of that was really nicely set up. I’ve seen kind of janky versions. Hell, I’ve participated in janky versions.

Shaw: There’s that one crotch level interview of you wearing tight shorts.

Kamalakanthan: He specifically told me that my shorts wouldn’t be in frame. Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yeah — so filmmaking and public speaking are not necessarily related things. But it’s super helpful to be able to talk naturally about your movie, and it’s bad not to be able to talk about your movie.

Shaw: Yes.

Kamalakanthan: And so just having and rehearsing pithy, memorable lines about your film is good. Albeit, big caveat: you don’t want to sound canned.

Shaw: Right.

Kamalakanthan: Part of this thing of having it feel live is that audiences love when you address them specifically and let them in on things. It feels like a moment you’re sharing. And it can be fun that way, mutually too. I think it takes a lot of the stress off of you, to have to present something. It’s more like a two-way exchange of energies. Chakras, if you will.

Shaw: Anything else you wanna leave the people with?

Kamalakanthan: I did have a nightmare one night that I was at a Dutch restaurant eating a “bread sandwich.”

Shaw: Big bread people.

Kamalakanthan: My mouth was getting drier and drier as everyone else was enjoying their food. I was being stuffed by this bread, which kept expanding in a nightmarish fashion.

Shaw: Dutch people for the most part did not recommend Dutch food.

Kamalakanthan: They dissuaded us, sometimes strongly. Though they did bring the Indonesian fire, that Surinamese fire. Interesting mix up there.

Shaw: Any other observations?

Kamalakanthan: We went on a boat tour around Amsterdam where I learned a bunch of fun facts.

Shaw: OK, no.

Kamalakanthan: Those tall, skinny rowhouses? It’s ’cause everybody was doing shipping. They used their houses oftentimes as big warehouses for pepper and whatnot. And so you wanted be right on the canal when you brought back your spices from the far East. They still bring furniture in through the windows now, because they’re built so narrow!

Shaw: Uh-huh…

Kamalakanthan: Peperduur. The Dutch word for very expensive literally means “as expensive as pepper.”

Shaw: OK, no more facts about the Netherlands. Please. The people here wanna read about how to attend a festival.

Kamalakanthan: OK, then I think they’ll like this then. P&A, out!

Shaw: That’s our signoff?

Kamalakanthan: Prashanth and Artemis, signing off. Til next time, fest heads!

Shaw: Cut, cut. I’m cutting.

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