New Directors/New Films opens this year with a provocation about a provocateur: Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.. The documentary, which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, is an all-encompassing yet scarcely conclusive portrait of singer-songwriter and activist M.I.A., and was stitched together by director Steve Loveridge from self-shot footage given to him by his musician friend. The film, already controversial because of M.I.A.’s relationship to it, is nothing short of a testament to the authority of perspective, which could be said to be the mission statement of New Directors/New Films.
Forty-seven years young, New Directors/New Films—programmed by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art—is an eclectic, geographically far-flung survey of bourgeoning filmmaking talent, and more than ever, this year’s lineup suggests a willingness on the part of the programmers to celebrate works made under the most defiantly independent of conditions. The festival this year is chockablock with more mysterious contemplations of identity, tradition, technology, and more—and ones that more daringly straddle the line between truth and fiction.
Not a single one of the 25 features in this year’s program was purchased by a studio at another festival for countless millions, and don’t expect any of them to be thrust into the Oscar conversation. And to these eyes, that’s a badge of honor. Only a fraction of these films already have distribution, among them Gustav Möller crime thriller The Guilty and Valérie Massadian’s Milla, though one hopes that will change by the time the festival wraps on April 8 with RaMell Ross’s radical Hale County This Morning, This Evening, a documentary that’s as deep about race as it is about its own construction.
See below for selected coverage from this year’s New Directors/New Films, which runs from March 28—April 8. For tickets click here.
As written, the role of Ava almost insists on a consistent level of intensity from an actor, and Mahour Jabbari more than rises to the task. She gives a performance of constantly simmering rage, filtering typical teenage angst through a steely tone that fills otherwise banal rejoinders with disdainful sangfroid. Ava’s hardened features offer a tacit warning to everyone who interacts with her, and she often meets her mother’s loud hectoring with cold indifference. As Bahar’s (Bahar Noohian) outbursts against teachers and parents gradually turn Ava’s friends against her, the girl finds a kind of release valve in taking out her frustrations on her peers. And Jabbari acutely depicts the self-annihilating fury that eats away at Ava, emphasizing the girl’s volatility even at her most vulnerable. >>
Khalik Allah’s Black Mother simultaneously elucidates and scrambles notions about class, gender, spirituality, and the history of a nation. The photographer turned director’s new documentary marks a striking advance from Field Niggas, which announced him as a sui generis talent. Filmed entirely at a single Harlem intersection, that 2015 film employed a radical formal gambit, melding photographs and videos of children, K2 addicts, police officers, and other community members with an asychronized soundtrack drawn from interviews Allah recorded with his subjects before or after shooting them. Though few people have seen Field Niggas, Allah’s distinctive close-ups and stream-of-conscience editing style will feel familiar to viewers of Beyoncé’s Lemonade film, on which Allah served as a director. >>
It’s been said that a jazz musician is someone who never plays anything the same way twice. If that’s true, then Dominican director Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias may qualify as the jazziest filmmaker of all time. His first fiction feature, Cocote, is a dazzling collage of styles and approaches in which every scene—practically every shot—feels different from the one that came before. Evoking the restless unpredictability of a late-period Jean-Luc Godard film, de Los Santos Arias’s images shift form almost constantly—from film to video, from black and white to color, from widescreen to full frame—as the writer-director experiments with a vast array of aesthetic stylings, everything from slow-cinema stillness to ethnographic vérité to lustrous film noir. The result is an invigorating, if slightly exhausting, parade of near-perpetual innovation, in which the only constant is the filmmaker’s stylistic dynamism. >>
The ocean has provided fertile territory for visual experimentation in recent years in a number of non-narrative art-house films, from Mauro Herce’s hallucinatory Dead Slow Ahead to Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s frantic Leviathan. Helena Wittmann’s Drift can now be added to this micro-genre, which isn’t so much nascent as inextricably connected to an ancient tradition of storytelling based around the unknowable mystery of the sea. Two examples of this narrative legacy get cited early on in the film when its nameless female protagonists share thoughts at a beachfront café somewhere in wintry Germany prior to their parting from one another after a long weekend. One (Theresa George), who will soon embark on a solo expedition across the Atlantic, paraphrases a Papua New Guinea creation myth regarding a primeval crocodile and the warrior who slays it. The other (Josefina Gill), who plans to return to her native Argentina, responds by mentioning the legend of Nahuel Huapi, a Patagonian riff on the Loch Ness monster. >>
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
The eschewal of narrative thrust has profound implications throughout Hale County this Morning, This Evening. The film’s subjects can’t help but recall those of Hoop Dreams, a documentary that threaded the everyday struggles of African-Americans in Chicago through an overarching drama about whether its teenage subjects would “make it”: land a college scholarship, play professional hoops, and more broadly “overcome” their upbringing. Hale County is much more impressionistic, and centered around a fundamentally tranquil relationship between its subjects and their surroundings. Much of the film transpires around social gatherings on public sites—parking lots, schools, churches, and front and backyards—and the interactions director RaMell Ross captures suggest lives so intertwined that the presence of a camera and a filmmaker couldn’t possibly alter or disrupt them. >>
Set in the harsh bushlands of the Congo, Emmanuel Gras’s documentary Makala opens with a young man, Kabwita, walking toward a massive, twisting tree. It appears to be the sole object of beauty in the surrounding area, yet as soon as the camera begins to lovingly trace its long, winding branches in a Malick-esque low-angle shot, the sounds of an axe rhythmically striking the tree’s trunk return us unceremoniously to the humdrum of Kabwita’s inescapably and invariably demanding existence. For the audience, the tree may stand out as the aesthetic pinnacle of this patch of land, but for Kabwita it represents the raw materials for his and his family’s very survival. >>
There’s quite a lot of M.I.A.’s music in the film, and her insistence otherwise gets at one reason why she’s been such a magnet for criticism over the years: M.I.A. is generally uncompromising, uniquely combining dogged political intentionality and an aesthetic informed by absorbing different cultures’ sensibilities and making a self-determination that art might as well be borderless. All that, along with a natural facility with pop music that very few iconoclasts can claim, and a certain form of techno-paranoia that turned out to be prescient, make M.I.A.’s body of work as enthralling and vital as that of any contemporary artist. That she’s struggled to explicate the various impulses that inform that work to those who’ve had difficulty wrapping their heads around her biography, and that she’s often defaulted to provocation as a coping mechanism, seem to be themes that Loveridge is grappling with as he works to narrativize and contextualize M.I.A.’s life and career. >>