Rotterdam 2014 Review: AFTER THE TONE Leaves A Message

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Some films catch attention because of a single, clear, brilliant idea. Something you immediately know could be great, or fail badly, based on execution. Digna Sinke's After the Tone is such a film. Its central gimmick is that all you hear are the recordings on an answering machine, in chronological order, while you see the locations of the persons speaking. An office building, a harbor, a mall, a house. All shot handsomely, but that's it. That's all you get.

What happens is this: Onno is a successful designer. A busy man, his firm is about to get a few big new assignments, and he plans to take his girlfriend to a pop concert in the evening. So much is clear from the first few messages on his answering machine.

Thing is: Onno doesn't answer his messages. Onno has disappeared, into thin air it seems. You hear friends, family, colleagues, and business associates first being cordial, but as the silence continues they start to sound annoyed, angry, worried, panicked... despaired. And still Onno never answers his phone.

What follows is a very thorough investigation into the effect someone's disappearance has on the people surrounding him. Social media have made us used to the notion that when you really, REALLY need to speak someone, there is always a way to reach that person. The messages on Onno's machine show how accustomed we have become to this, how much we rely on it. As family members start to break down on the phone, and friends wonder if they have done something to offend Onno, the film even becomes hard to watch. The hole Onno leaves behind becomes ever more visible. Some learn to cope with him no longer being there, some don't.

You don't get to see the people who speak in the phone, you don't get to see the mysterious person whose answering machine you hear being used... For its entire 85 minutes, these one-sided conversations are all you get to piece together what story there is. It's a simple concept, and Digna Sinke does a good job keeping it simple. No conspiracy is uncovered, no sudden revelation lifts the tension. Everyone on the phone needs to figure out a way of life without Onno. Their conversations throughout the film show whether or not they are successful in that.

Being this single-minded a film could have been its downfall. It could have become an old idea fast, a pretty boring one. But it isn't boring at all. It's actually quite a tense and emotional roller coaster of a ride. Some of the monologues sound a bit artificial, read or rehearsed, but in general they hit home, and sometimes they hit hard.

Surprisingly, this film turned out to be one of the biggest crowd pleasers of this year's International Film Festival Rotterdam, where it had its world premiere. The audiences at the IFFR awarded the film a whopping high approval rating of 4.3 out of 5, even making it end up in the top 20 of the festival...

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