The bulk of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival screenings take place in a mall. Unlike the Emirates Palace, the swanky site of the festivalâs gala opening night, the Cinestar multiplex theaters offer stadium seating. The rooms not showing festival films screen Eat Pray Love, Devil, and The Town. Fuddruckers is among the most popular nearby restaurants, Carrefour and Ikea among the most popular stores. I wandered around nodding to men in white and women in black in search of an authentic cultural experience, until realizing that I had already found one.
The festivalâs first public show, a Friday mid-afternoon gathering, filled the house. Itâs a shame that the movie wasnât better. Coline Serreauâs Think Global, Act Local starts with jumps between talking heads discussing Western agriculture as a postcolonial practice; one expert claims that the First World is practicing genocide both against farmers and against women. Iâm not sure how the movie makes this argument, but it involves lots of shots of rural parts of India and of Brazil. We learn that oat has twice as much DNA as human beings have, and close with close-ups of smiling interviewees. The film knocks you dizzy.
I latched onto a loudly bleeped word at one point, which made me wonder if Secretariat had been a good opening-night choice because of its offensive desire not to offend (in a religious country, itâs worth considering these things). Neither of the subsequent two films contained profanity that I recall. The first, China: The Empire of Art?, focuses on “a community of artists with long hair and utopian ideals” who worked at a key moment. In February 1989, the Chinese government closed a modern art show, prompting an artist to fire a bullet at his own work; four months later, the military fired bullets at student protesters in Tiananmen Square. The film cannily claims that the uprising helped fuel a Western interest in contemporary Chinese art, much of which we see in clear images: a black-and-white photo of a man with multiple pins in him, a loud orange-and-red painting of another man in pain. Artâs reception depends on its cultural contextâa tired point, but the film makes it well.
“To do a successful exhibition, you had to inject some exoticism,” one of China: The Empire of Art?âs artists says. He could have been speaking about the festival, which offered the world premiere of the new Adrien Brody film Wrecked (with Brody attending) at the Emirates Palace an hour after China: The Empire of Art? That coincided with a world premiere of a documentary so small it doesnât even have an IMDb entry. But Children of the StonesâChildren of the Wall is a wonderful film.
The German director, Robert Krieg, tracks down six boyhood Palestinian friends who posed triumphantly in a photo together during the 1989 Intifada. Twenty years later, their minds have mainly left uprisings and moved on to daily routines. One man, who slaughters chickens for a living, says that if Israel proper were open to Palestinians theyâd leave their grimy settlements ASAP; another man clamors for isolationism, only to hear his wife sigh for Israeli citizenship so that she could simply move around.
Krieg said after the film ended that he first cut the film to focus on day-to-day labor before filming more material of the men discussing their perpetual imprisonment (“The wall rules our lives now”). He did well; concerns about an outsider speaking for the guys vanish as soon as they start speaking clearly and cogently for themselves. Children of the StonesâChildren of the Wallâs funniest scene shows one of the men explaining to an American woman he meets online that yes, heâs a Muslim, but heâs also a free (“fry”) man. Its most pointedly dialogic comes when one group member claims that soldiers should back off because “I belong neither to Fatah nor to Hamas,” and another group member stumps him by asking how to handle community members that do.
The film is appropriate for a Muslim country, partly because itâs so relevant to Jews. Much of the greater Jewish community, a frequently liberal, historically oppressed group, turns staunchly, oppressively conservative on Israel. (I know several American Jews who voted for George W. Bush because of Israel alone.) The urge to protect a homeland is understandable, but when two of the filmâs characters hold up a map that shows how much land the Israeli governmentâs seized from Palestine since setting the original border, itâs difficult not to feel oneâs liberal sympathies aroused. Theyâre stuck, and the space theyâre stuck inside is shrinkingâand expatriate Palestinians arenât usually allowed inside. I have some issues with the filmâs structure and pacing, but for a work like Children of the StonesâChildren of the Wall, those problems donât much matter. Itâs effective for people of all faiths. The world should see this film.
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival runs through October 23. For more information, click here.
Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020: Mon Amour, Film About a Father Who, & The Kiosk
Thereâs colossal might to a cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means.
In the opening narration to his documentary Mon Amour, David Teboul recalls a message that his former lover, FrĂ©dĂ©ric, sent him in the middle of the night before taking his life: âItâs crazy how many things we must invent to keep us from just eating, shitting, and sleeping.â The great organizer of these âmany thingsâ we invent to convince ourselves to be something more than mere organisms is the belief in love. That, anyway, is the idea that organizes Mon Amour as Teboul travels from his native France to Siberia in order to interview locals about their experiences with love, as a way to mourn the end of his own love story.
What Teboul finds in Siberia is quite disheartening: that love, when it materializes in the figure of the lover, burns fast, and what seemed like a panacea to make our miserable world a livable place turns into the poison we call domesticity. Lovers become enemies we canât get rid of. But the little bit of love thatâs saved in the ashes of the deflated mirage that once promised to save us is once in a while rekindled through Teboulâs prodding as he interviews elderly couples who seem to articulate their feelings for the first time in ages.
The very dispositions of these individuals mimic the abyss between what was once a prospect of a pleasurable life and the crude reality of vodka and violence that replaced it. In the rare moments when someone sings the praises of togetherness, they do so by looking down or away, as if addressing their own partners when speaking about love would mean losing the little bit of honor they have left after putting up with so much betrayal.
Although Teboul interviews young people, too, the strongest portraits are those of the elderly, who, on some level, take advantage of their cinematic moment to air their grievances and, once in a while, admit gratitude. A very old-looking woman in her mid-60s who lost her sight from reading too much Pushkin late at night tells us that any other man would surely have left her long ago, but not her husband, who senses when sheâs awake in the middle of the night, makes her tea, and tells her that if she dies he will follow her to the grave. Teboulâs questions can be refreshingly unexpected. As when he asks the woman what her husbandâs favorite body part is. When she whispers the answer into his cute little mushroom ears, you sense that itâs the closest thing to an âI love youâ that he will ever hear. We donât know if his eyes water as she praises his ears, for he looks down and away, before then heart-breakingly saying, âThe main thing is not to suffer, and not to make others suffer.â
Teboul juxtaposes these portraits with digressions about his simultaneously wonderful and dismal times with FrĂ©dĂ©ric. These reflections borrow from Hiroshima Mon Amour, which Teboul watched as a child and has haunted him ever since. FrĂ©dĂ©ric, like Emmanuelle Rivaâs character in that film, was also from Nevers. In these poetic detours, we see barely lit naked bodies meant to represent Teboul and his ghostly lover, recalling the opening of Alain Resnaisâs film. It often feels like these autobiographical avowals, plagued by unnecessary classical music, belong to a different film. But theyâre symbolically important, if not indispensable, as if Teboul was offering a self-implicating gift in exchange for awakening the long dormant intimacies of strangers.
The absence of love, and our insistence on spending our entire lives looking for it anyway, is also at the core of Lynne Sachsâs Film About a Father Who. Sheffield Doc/Fest is screening several of Sachsâs documentaries on its streaming platform. For Film About a Father Who, Sachs spent over three decades amassing footage (from Super 8 to digital) of her father, an eccentric salesman from Utah who lived a Hugh Hefner kind of life, neglecting his children and hosting a different girlfriend almost every night at his official family home. Lots and lots of them got pregnant, which resulted in Sachs having what feels like hundreds of siblings, whose testimonials she collects here. Some didnât know who their father was until they were adults. Others, in order to protect themselves from so much hurt, still think of him as a kind of godfather.
The title of the film is an obvious play on Film About a Woman Who…, Yvonne Rainerâs experimental masterpiece about heteronormativity and monogamy. Rainerâs approach is acerbic, perhaps even folkloric, in the sense that her film portrays one specific woman wallowing in the sinking boat of heterosexual coupledom at the same time that it tells the archetypal tale of heterosexual domesticity writ large. Sachsâs approach feels a lot less multi-layered. Film About a Father Who is so fast-paced and Sachsâs narration so detached, or literal, that it can seem more like an underdeveloped absurdist comedy as random siblings keep turning up out of nowhere to give a brief account of their contradicting feelings toward their father. One of Sachsâs many sisters recounts how their father was arrested for possession of weed when they were kids and how she didnât know whether to weep or jump with joy at the time. But the family constellation in Sachsâs film is so vast we never spend enough time with any one single relative to see them as something other than an element.
Thereâs a sort of North American pragmatic froideur in the film, also present in self-ethnographic films like Sarah Polleyâs Stories We Tell, that Rainer queers through stylistic experimentation, and that Teboul completely avoids by surrendering to melancholia with gusto. There isnât much of a point in self-ethnographies where filmmakers protect their vulnerability through intellectualization, or prod their family wounds with a 10-foot pole. At one point in her narration, Sachs tells her audience that Film About a Father Who isnât a portrait but, rather, her attempt to understand âthe asymmetry of my conundrum.â The film is also shot in such a matter-of-fact manner that you may forget that the father is actually the filmmakerâs. It doesnât help that the father himself pleads the fifth on every question and Sachs often directs her camera elsewhere, toward her siblings, instead of letting it linger on the silent and sad remnants of an aging womanizer.
Alexandra Pianelli also captures aging bodies in The Kiosk, but in a very different fashion. Her film was entirely shot on her phone, which was mostly stuck to her head, and without her ever leaving the tiny area behind the cash register of her familyâs press kiosk in a posh area of Paris. We never see the world outside of Pianelliâs field of vision from her counter, and yet it feels like she shows us the entire mechanics of the contemporary world.
The filmâs subjects are mostly the elderly regulars who seem to show up at the kiosk everyday, for magazines and for Pianelliâs company. Pianelli crafts a tale of hopeful pessimism about humansâ relationship to otherness by explaining the ecosystem of her tradeânamely, the slow decline of the printing industry in France and how the physical circulation of ideas can be the only connection to the world for an aging population that doesnât master digital technology and for whom kiosks play the role of cafĂ©s, pubs, or even the analystâs couch.
When filmmaker Pedro Costa said, at this yearâs International Film Festival Rotterdam, that all one needs to make a great film is âthree flowers and a glass of water,â not âmoney, cars, and chicks,â this is what he means: the colossal might of the cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means. The Kiosk is a master class in filmmaking resourcefulness. Pianelli paints a portrait of our times through simple drawings that she makes of her clients, makeshift props and miniature sets made out of cardboard, and the anachronic gadgets around her workstation: a cassette tape player, an early-19th-century clock, coin holders that bear her great-grandparentsâ fingerprints, and the very publications that she sells. Pianelliâs no-nonsense voiceover glues these elements together with the stunning honesty of the unflappable young Parisian for whom difference is an existential aphrodisiac. Thereâs no affectedness here. Itâs as if a refined cinematic object accidently emerged on the road to her making an artisanal project for the sheer pleasure of making something out of dead time.
Pianelli humanizes the figure of the press kiosk clerk who, in turn, humanizes the strangers she comes across, from seniors who spend more time with her than with their own children to the Bangladeshi asylum seeker who goes to her for legal help. In one sequence, Pianelli witnesses a homeless man insistently offering his metro-ticket money to a bourgeois lady upset that the machine wonât take her credit card. We also learn that the demographics of the clientele per day of the week is contingent on what kinds of publications come out on which day, as well as which niche newspapers are the most anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, or pro-monarchy.
Pianelli lets the serious emerge but doesnât dwell on it. Seriousness often comes wrapped up in quirkiness and play, as when she plays a guessing game with the audience, telling us what a random customer will buy before they open their months, solely based on what they wear, and always she gets it right. Men in suits and ties go for either the newspaper Le Figaro or Les Echos, while the well-coiffed ladies who don fur coats gravitate toward Voici, unless Kate Mossâs ass is on the cover of a nearby fashion magazine.
At one point, Pianelli says that she considers herself a seller of dreams. By this she means that each magazine at the kiosk stokes a different fantasy, from a supermodel body to a nation without Arabs. But The Kiosk makes Pianelli a saleswoman of a very different sort. Instead of working as the intermediary between vulnerable denizens and the idealized images that tease and haunt them, she cobbles a much more original fantasy through the bodies they actually have. The kiosk becomes the prototype for the most utopian vision of the public library, or any old space inhabited by a curious mindâan ebullient infinity of poetry and care.
Sheffield Doc/Festâs online platform will be available to all public audiences from June 10âJuly 10.
Visions du RĂ©el 2020: State Funeral and Purple Sea
These notable documentaries utilize found footage to document the aftermath of dying in dramatically different fashions.
In State Funeral, Sergei Loznitsa cobbles together archival footage from the various grandiose celebrations that followed the death of Joseph Stalin in order to paint a portrait not of the Soviet politician himself, but of the theatrics that prop up totalitarianism. Crowds gather in Poland, Chekoslovakia, Azerbaijan, East Germany, and beyond, all the various places collapsing into a single mourning square. Statesmen disembark from their planes. Uncountable wreaths are laid. Everyday folk carry larger-than-life photographs of their leader. Some stand still in front of shops, as if unmoored by the news, waiting for guidance on how to go on without âthe greatest genius in the history of mankind.â
No oneâs mouth seems to move even just a little, to speak or to cry. Throughout, people appear stunned, and they may faint were they not buttressed by the certainty of what they had to do next, according to the voices telling them what to feel and where to go. The voices seem to come from reports on the radio or from megaphones. They announce the end of a life but the continuation of the ideas and deeds that unite all of the bereaved into one big family.
Surely the forlorn lady who reads the death announcement on the front page of a newspaper in Minsk is listening to the same speech as the gentlemen in ushanka hats gathered at a square in Tallin. Loznitsaâs ingenious sound design produces an uncanny sense of simultaneity, linking far-away faces and places under the same paternalistic fantasy. Through an inconspicuous editing strategy that makes irony emerge little by little, State Funeral exposes the pathetic absurdity of collective adoration. It does so with a subtlety similar to that of the facial expressions of those who grieve, and the dutiful slowness of their dragging feet.
Thereâs enough certainty in this communal trance to transcend physical distance and the finality of matter itself. Even if, or precisely because, itâs that irreversibility that Stalinâs unresponsive body announces. And thereâs indeed a body, which the crowds flock to see. But not without the most elaborate of preparationsâfrom austere rituals to extravagant attires to lethargic pacesâso that by the time these orphans are confronted with the fatherâs pitifully inert flesh they have been blinded by the myths that birthed him.
How to believe the immortality of the thing that lies dead before oneâs very eyes? The voicesâdisembodied for a reason, and presumably wafting from speakersâhave a plan for that: to disavow the inarguable reality of what has just happened. Because Stalin was supposed to be an immortal hero, a father and God, â(âŠ) there is no death here! There is only eternal life!â
The images that Loznitsa deftly assembles feature astonishingly consistent angles, mise-en-scĂšne, and gestures: gentle camera pans, stern visual compositions, and people marching along in freakish unison. The shots have also been restored to such uncanny crispness it seems impossible to believe them to have been âfoundâ as fragments devoid of an original vision captured by the same light, with the same film stock, and signed by the same cameraperson.
Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed utilize found footage and document the aftermath of dying in a dramatically different fashion in Purple Sea. The film is essentially an ode to migrants who board rafts bound to capsizeâbodies for which there will be no collective mourning, no news stories, not even burial. Like Alzakout, who manages to survive but not before finding out why the Mediterranean is sometimes referred to as a liquid grave.
Unlike State Funeral, thereâs nothing clear about the images in Alzakout and Abdulwahedâs film, apart from the gut-wrenching lack of artifice behind the off-camera wailing: children dreading their drowning. From beginning to end, the hazy image suggests weâre submerged underwater, with the occasional orange cameo of the fabric of Alzakoutâs life jacket. And apart from the occasional crying, the most prominent voice here is that of a woman reciting a poem, epistolary and diary-like, to a lover on the other side of the ocean. This narration is often as perplexing as the perpetually unclear image, as when the woman talks about a frog that jumps into the pond and a fish that swims away. Or when she confides that she can âsmell the snow.â
After fleeing her native Syria and meeting Abdulwahed in Turkey, Alzakout tries to join him in Germany, where heâs managed to escape to. In Purple Sea, all we see is an uninterrupted sequence of images haphazardly captured by a water-proof camera strapped to Alzakoutâs body. At the time of their recording, these images were allegedly meant as a home-movie diary, not a film to circulate on the festival circuit. She starts filming long before the raft overturns in the hopes of showing the footage to her lover and leaves the camera on while she, yet another orange dot trying not to drown in the Mediterranean ocean, waits to be saved.
Although the sea here is closer to purple, Purple Sea recalls the monochromatic intimacy of Derek Jarmanâs Blue, another film about dying slowly but living desperately, and to the point of blindnessâliteral or otherwiseâuntil the moment death finally arrives. The pieces eventually come together through deduction, not demonstration, in this experimental documentary, which respects the unhurried speed of metaphors. We hear whistles and men shouting, and itâs here that the voiceover narration becomes a bit more tangible. âWhat are you doing right now? Are you sleeping?â âHow long do you have to stay in the refugee camp?â
The voice, which couldnât be more distinctive from the guiding voices of State Funeral, promising eternity and peddling strength, eventually reverts back to poetic digressions. The woman says she digs a hole that gets big enough to fit all her bracelets. And that someone will find the bracelets in 100 years and think they belonged to a queen. She then falls in the hole. Poetry emerges in Purple Sea as the strategy of those deprived of the luxury of sugar-coating death with farcical disavowals and collective delusionsâthose who must confront the horrors of finitude head on because they are always already inside them.
Visions du RĂ©el runs online from April 17âMay 5.
Visions du RĂ©el 2020: Love Poem and Babenco: Tell Me When I Die
Many of the films at Visions du RĂ©el expand the notion of âthe realâ in all of its plasticity.
Many of the films at Visions du RĂ©el, this year running as a digital-only event in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, expand the notion of âthe realâ in all of its plasticity, exposing the layers of fiction inherent to any form of documentary filmmaking. In Love Poem, for example, director Xiaozhen Wang amplifies the complicated relationship between spontaneity and artifice into a puzzling sleight of hand. The film begins in the confines of a car, where a couple is quarrelling in front of their young child. The camera lingers on the woman (Qing Zhou) in the back seat, who feeds her daughter seaweed snacks and lollipops while her husband drives the vehicle. No one seems to be wearing a seatbelt.
The woman chastises her husband for never changing their childâs diapersâand for being unfaithful. He accuses her of being selfish with her money. She threatens to divorce him and asks their daughter if sheâd rather stay with her father or mother (she chooses the latter). By the end of this asphyxiating car ride, sheâs kicked, slapped, pinched and spat on him.
It all feels heartbreakingly realistic until the woman brings up the fact that her husband makes films. Which may make you wonder if the husband is played by the filmmaker himself (he is) and start speculating about how much of Love Poemâs drama is candid and how much of it is staged. The question of manipulation seeps into the surface of the film along with the perversity inherent to filmmakers, and husbands, who might reduce human beings into tools for personal enjoyment or for the sake of building up their oeuvres.
Thatâs precisely the complaint of the woman in the filmâs second half, which takes the audience on another stifling car ride. Here, heterosexual coupledom is spoiled by a womanâs endless complaints and her male loverâs very reliable ability to screw everything up. The scene appears to be a flashback to a time when the man from Love Poemâs first half was seeing the woman who his wife was so angry about. The husband wants to see the other woman one last time before bringing a pregnancy test kit home to his wife.
In this setup, Wang is less worried about exploiting the cusp between reality and fiction. Instead, he allows the seams of the filmmaking process to show, as the couple sometimes stop speaking to check if the camera battery is low, but also for the woman to complain about the fact that all the man wants to do is film. âYou donât even see me as human,â she tells him.
We are, then, never quite sure whatâs real and whatâs notâa disorienting but also immersive feeling. Wang insists on re-living the situation in the second half of the film multiple times as the man and woman repeat dialogue that a few moments prior seemed so convincingly off the cuff, as if flaunting the fact that any representation turns behavior into acting, or at the very least outs behavior as acting, and that once filmed, any drama is melodrama.
The seams of the cinematic process are also visible in Babenco: Tell Me When I Die, Barbara Pazâs exquisite portrait of her husband, Hector Babenco, in his final days. While Love Poem documents the violent asymmetry between a filmmaker and his subjects, in Babenco cinema appears as a kind of lovemaking that puts lovers in dignified dialogue with each other.
Though thereâs unquestionable dissonance between the dying veteran filmmaker and his much younger pupil, their roles arenât so fixed. Not only because they take turns filming each other, but because to be filmed in Babenco doesnât mean becoming a directorâs puppet. Babenco, for instance, teaches Paz about depth of field and camera lenses as she films him, discovering different apertures. Preparation and doubt about the crafting of an image is refreshingly front and center, which complicates and destabilizes the relationship between filmed subject and filmmaker, as the makers are here either dying or still learning how to shoot.
Babenco used to dream of becoming the next Luchino Visconti and could seem arrogant at times. But Paz steers clear of appeasing his ego or turning Babenco into a hagiography. She isnât cowered by Babencoâs grandeur, nor does she try to channel it into her filmmaking. Sheâs simply a good pupil, taking Babencoâs filmmaking tips to heart in order to make her own film. That includes not romanticizing every moment they share, or âotherwise youâll have a movie lasting four hours and 15 minutes,â as Babenco tells Paz.
There are things bigger than cinema in Babenco. Things like the joie de vivre borne out of intimacy of the kind no cinematic proficiency can fake, and for which the camera is a useful witness but not an almighty cause. Bigger things like death, too, which taunted Babenco repeatedly from his first bout with cancer, when he was nominated for an Academy Award for The Kiss of the Spider Woman at age 37, all the way to his death at 70.
Paz evokes the nodes linking Babencoâs films to his psychic life through exquisitely seamless editing. She steeps all of her images in a consistent black-and-white dreamscape and forges a surreal dialogue between the filmmakerâs own words in interviews and those uttered by the characters in his films. One of them says cancer is the only thing he ever got. Another one says she thinks we die when we canât stand it anymore. Paz is more interested in reflection than explanation, so weâre never told the titles of the films or when they were made. Itâs as though her ingenious hands have returned these fragments of fiction back to their place of origin, imbricating them with the real of Babencoâs body one last time.
Visions du RĂ©el runs online from April 17âMay 5.
IFFR 2020: This Is Not a Burial, Itâs a Resurrection, Drag Kids, Young Hunter, & More
Itâs difficult to imagine Rotterdam as a place where a film festival isnât taking place at all times.
Itâs difficult to imagine Rotterdam as a place where a film festival isnât taking place at all times. The city feels tailor-made for such an event, with its panoply of movie theaters teeming with character and charming espresso bars, convenient pitstops between screenings, so close to one another. Even the servers and baristas at various restaurants and cafĂ©s can seem like festival ambassadors, quick to express their excitement when spotting a personâs IFFR tote bag, at times offering recommendations on which screenings to attend. âI swear itâs not at all like the musical,â said one server, referring to Ladj Lyâs Les MisĂ©rables.
The LantarenVenster is the only venue that seems to require that you catch a festival shuttle from the downtown area. Here, too, the workers play their role with gusto, in a delicious fantasy of a port city so imbricated in cinema that its festival is all but an effortless consequence of its filmmaking spirit. One driver, as we cross the Erasmusbrug bridge at night time, chats about film criticism and turns on Miles Davis on the radio, and somehow it feels as weâre in Louis Malleâs Elevator to the Gallows. He points out certain buildings and riffs on their historical significance. When we pass by the Schilderstraat, letters forming the word CULT are inexplicably hanging above the cars on the street, where a garish âMerry Xmasâ might appear in a different kind of town. The driver notes that Rotterdam is becoming almost too trendy and sophisticated. Almost.
This may be what filmmaker Pedro Costa had in mind when, in his remarkable Masterclass, he used precisely the figure of the festival chauffeur to paint a picture of how much film festivals have changed in the past couple of decades. He said that even the drivers have masterâs degrees in film studies these days. This would perhaps be a plus, but in Costaâs brutal indictment of the film industry, the film festival circuit certainly included, it also means everyone is constantly trying to pitch something. âDonât pitch anything, please!â
Costa used the figure of the driver with an MA to illustrate the hyper-specialization of everyone involved in the business, but he reserved his venom to attack another figureâthat of âsales agentsâ who, he suggested, act like vultures, depleting every aspect of the filmmaking process from any possible art-for-artâs-sake ethos, transforming everything into an opportunity to sell something. In this context, Costa argued, a filmmaker could make any kind of demandâfor Robert De Niro, for Sean Penn, or for a dozen elephants on setâjust not for âtime,â that most vital tool in a filmmakerâs arsenal (âWhen you donât have time, you donât discover lifeâ).
Costaâs talk was packed with references of artists he looked up to, from Robert Bresson to Kenji Mizoguchi, from Buster Keaton to Wang Bingâdirectors who knew that to make a good film all one needs is âthree flowers and a glass of water,â not âmoney, cars, and chicks.â Costa kept mistakenly presuming that everyone in the audience was an aspiring filmmaker, and hopefully they werenât, as his advice was for everyone to just stop making movies because we have too many in the world already. And on the off-chance that someone in the crowd still wanted to go out and make one, Costa established poetry, sociology, and subtlety as pre-conditions for the kind of cinema heâs interested in making and consumingâeven if on his iPhone during his daily train commute (Bresson looks great on the iPhone, he claimed). âThis is not about revealing anything,â he said. Cinema should be about hiding, like a gift you put inside a box and wrap delicately before offering.
There were certainly a few of those kinds of films at Rotterdam this year. One of them was Lesotho-born, Berlin-based filmmaker Lemohang Jeremiah Moseseâs This Is Not a Burial, Itâs a Resurrection, which, like Costaâs own Vitalina Varela, explores the impossibility of mourning. In Moseseâs film, Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo), an 80-year-old widow living in a rural village in Lesotho, learns that her last surviving son, a migrant worker laboring in a coal mine in neighboring South Africa, has just died. She has thus lost all of her loved ones and decides to plan her own funeral. She wants a simple coffin. No golden angels or other gaudy nonsense.
Moseseâs mise-en-scĂšne and camerawork are breathtaking. The opening of the film, for one, is reminiscent of the Titanik Bar scene from BĂ©la Tarrâs Damnation, where the camera glides through a God-forsaken nowhere, certain of where it needs to go, despite the darkness, all the way until it spots a cabaret performer singing the most melancholy of all songs. In This Is Not a Burial, Itâs a Resurrection, the camera also sneaks gracefully through a dark nowhere until it finds, not a singer, but an old man playing a strange instrument and eager to tell us a sad tale about lands that weep, miners coming home, and âcups that could never be filled.â
Mosese takes us back to this non-space a couple of times, as if the old man, played by Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha, were a non-diegetic master of ceremonies for the story of Mantoa that unfolds. Itâs a story told through the gracefulness of the camerawork, the stunningly lit tableaux, and, most remarkably of all, through fabric. Not many films, especially ones with a documentary sensibility, use textureâwool, mud, cement, ashes, and cloth specificallyâas a storytelling device the way that This Is Not a Burial, Itâs a Resurrection does.
Consider the moments where Mantoa, faced with the many obstacles that keep her from being able to dig her own grave, takes refuge in the gown her husband once gave her: an exquisitely lustrous damask dress with a black frill and white-collar trim. Itâs a great sartorial departure from the sober blackness of her usual widowâs attire, which clashes with the flashy satin swathed around the bodies of the women around her and the blindingly yellow uniforms of city workers building a dam right where the dead lay, draped in white bedsheets.
In one of the filmâs many unforgettable scenes, Mantoa gets up from the chair where she usually sits to listen to the radio and dances with her dead husband, raising her arm as if holding an actual body that isnât there, a voice in the background telling her to take off her âcloak of mourning.â And she certainly takes it all off in a bewildering final sequence when Mantoa simultaneously surrenders to loss and spurns it.
Several other films at IFFR explored the theme of death and dying, such as Carl Olssonâs Meanwhile on Earth, an observational study of the Swedish funerary industry. The film reminds us of the artificiality of funerals, or rites more generally, exposing them as highly theatrical performances, with their wreathes, pots, and crosses staged just so. It also pays close attention to the mechanics of funerals: their perfectly timed music and the multiplicity of gadgets and machineries required to lift and transport corpses and coffins.
Olssonâs strategy for making the subject matter palatable is to try and extract discrete humor from it. He loiters on the professionals going about their tasksâtransporting, cleaning, embalmingâfor long enough so that overtly banal dialogue emerges. In the filmâs most successful moments, the juxtaposition between the morbid ambiance (bodies on stretchers that bleed long after dead) and chats about all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets or the nutritional value of bottled smoothies make for a Tati-esque skit with a disarming punchline at the end.
Kristof Bilsenâs documentary Mother is the portrait of Pomm, a caretaker at an Alzheimerâs care center in Thailand whose poverty keeps her from living with her children, and Maya, her incoming patient, a privileged 57-year-old Swiss woman whose husband and children drop her off at the care center and go back to Switzerland. Unfortunately, Bilsen allocates the same amount of time on both womenâs daily lives in their home countries prior to their encounter, insisting on obvious contrasts between poverty-stricken Thailand and the idyllic mountains of Switzerland. Yet only Pomm allows herself to be vulnerable for the camera, as Mayaâs family never lets their guard down. Itâs difficult to engage meaningfully with some of the subjects (like Mayaâs entourage) when the filmmaker is content to accept the fact that they only have their faĂ§ades to offer.
Rotterdam featured films about the exuberance of youth, too, liberated or stunted. Drag Kids, screened at the very laidback Scopitone CafĂ©, a bar named after film jukeboxes of yore inside the Theater Rotterdam Schouwburg. The documentary follows child drag artists, some as young as nine, and their supportive families, as they prepare for their first joint concert at Montreal Pride. Director Megan Wennberg is smart not to bank simply on the inexplicable thrill of watching young children perform like adults. Sheâs protective of the children, in fact, never lingering on the potentially embarrassing less-than-average performances, singing or voguing, from some of the kids. Instead, she focuses on the differences between the kids, suggesting that drag can take different meanings, and that it can make different promises of deliverance, for children with decidedly different psychic symptoms and family constellations. Their only kinship seems to be, apart for their love of drag, the apparently unconditional support from their parents. Still, problems arise, from Queen Lactatiaâs self-obsessed competitiveness to Laddy GaGaâs near-psychotic outbursts.
Itâs impossible to look at Drag Kids, which is unabashedly reality TV show-esque at various moments, and not think of TLCâs Toddlers & Tiaras, with its barrage of Southern stage moms waxing their pre-pubescent daughtersâ eyebrows and teaching them trophy-wife realness. Although some of the Drag Kids parents do seem eager to capitalize on their children as digital influencers or with merchandise featuring their childâs face, the role of hyper-femininity and artifice here seems to play more of a reparative and self-aware playfulness than they did in the gender-conforming theatrics, and orthopaedics, of Toddlers & Tiaras. Wennbergâs documentary refreshingly denies us a lot of the kiddy voyeurism one might expect, ultimately crafting a portrait of kids whose maladies, if they have any, are somewhere else to be foundânot on stage nor in the glitter.
In Young Hunter, director Marco Berger offers us a gripping look at the tragedies that surface precisely when desire isnât allowed to express itself freely and publicly. In Bergerâs vision of Argentina, queer feelings are necessarily clandestine feelings. A boy like 15-year-old Ezequiel (Juan Pablo Cestaro), then, is forced to develop a sort of criminal mind, and a criminal gaze, from a very young age. The queer object of desire can only be a prey, or a victim to be duped into reciprocating oneâs yearning, as Ezequiel has to go through all sorts of subterfuges and a certainly different kind of theatrics from drag in order to get a good glimpse at other menâs bodies, let alone touch them, including that of his cousin (Juan Barberini).
The whole world seems to be a tease that one can only enjoy along with the terrifying dread of being found out. Instead of dwelling on it, however, Ezequiel takes matters into his own hands and develops a system of tricks for having sex with other boys, inviting them over to his house when his parents are away, feeding them beer and straight porn magazines, and then suggesting that they jack off together. If it all fails, he might head to the nearby skatepark and stare at shirtless boys like Mono (Lautaro Rodriguez), who he ends up falling in love with. At first it seems gratuitously reciprocal, but then Ezequiel realizes that heâs caught in a web of intrigue and lies much more extensive than the one he had to construct for himself.
Young Hunter is playfully shot like a thriller, until you realize that it may actually be one. The film is refreshing in that, while it recognizes the ravages of queer desire in a queerphobic world, it doesnât focus on the suffering but on psychological solutions and practical strategies for sexual survival that are bound to seem familiar to any queer child whoâs dared to evade repression and its many laws through queer creativity and savvy.
International Film Festival Rotterdam runs from January 22âFebruary 2.
Under the Radar 2020: The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, Not I, & More
Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder.
Most of the plays I see in New York City are created by able-bodied, Anglophone playwrights. (More often than not theyâre men, and more often than not theyâre white.) For most New York theater critics, most of the time, âinternationalâ means âimported from London.â If it doesnât, it probably means âdirected by Ivo van Hove.â But at the Under the Radar Festival, the Public Theaterâs 16-year-old annual international theatrical extravaganza, the thoughtfully curated program of new works blasts apart the predictable comfort of knowing what youâre getting yourself into.
Despite the relentless pace, marathoning in a festival setting like Under the Radar works against the critical impulse to get in and get out. Lingering in playing spaces beyond the curtain call to soak in the experience and seeking threads of connections between plays before cementing my verdict on any are rarer opportunities than Iâd realized.
Experiencing the Under the Radar Festivalâespecially taking in shows at high quantity in quick successionâreplaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder. I havenât adored every offering at this yearâs festival, but, in each theater space, Iâve been keenly, refreshingly alert to my presence and my perspective as an audience member, to the ways in which I hear and watch and engage. Iâve looked sideways as well as dead ahead, and over the weekend, I saw two performances that required lengthy, committed conversations with the strangers sitting next to me. (And thatâs especially valuable for critics, who sometimes need the reminder that other peopleâs opinions coexist alongside ours.)
This yearâs lineup of plays has been particularly successful in making audiences acutely aware of themselves as a whole, as people who lug assumptions and anxieties and uncertainties into their seats. Take The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the first play I saw this season and the festivalâs most rewarding in its complexity. Throughout its hour-long run time, I had occasionally taken note of a long strip of yellow tape at the front of the playing space. During the play, the four actors, all of whom are neurodivergent and play characters who are neurodivergent, frequently step up to that line to speak to the audience. I imagined the line as a necessary, neon beacon for the performers to find their way forward.
Yet, in the final moments of the play, actor Simon Laherty (who also co-wrote the script with his castmates and other members of the Back to Back Theatre, an Australian company), tears the tape off the floor and exits. The gesture reads as a direct rebuke to the very ideas Iâd been holding for the playâs duration: It seems to ask, âWho are you to assume that the world of this play was built for its performers instead of for the characters they play? How can you, sitting there, decide what we, putting on a show for you up here, need in order to perform?â And I wondered, not for the first time: How did they read my mind?
Directed by Back to Backâs artistic director, Bruce Gladwin, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes stars four performers with disabilities playing characters (with their own first names) who host a sort of town hall meeting to educate the people in attendance about what itâs like to have a disability. The shared names between characters and actors are a red herring. These actors have disabilities, yes, but that doesnât mean the characters with disabilities they play are them, any more than neurotypical roles match the neurotypical actors playing them. Again and again, through moves so subtle Iâm not sure I didnât imagine them, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes sets graceful, invisible traps for the audienceâs assumptions about the capabilities of the performers and the distance between performer and character. And while Iâm not entirely sure of the titleâs meaning, it might have something to do with the playâs constant shadowy evasion of comforting resolutions: Never once is an audience member allowed to feel like they have mastered the art of empathy.
An early sequence seems deliberate in putting an audience on edge, as the long stretches of silence as actor Sarah Mainwaring prepares to speak made me wonder whether it was the actor or the character who had forgotten her lines. Was this discomforting silence performed or real? Itâs part of the play, of course, just like most of neurotypical theaterâs long pauses. But I feel sure that The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes anticipated my discomfort and my doubt. That dark cocktail of emotions following the clarifying momentsârelieved admiration for the performers, guilt for the assumptions I had made, embarrassment that I had been caught feeling uneasyâstayed with me for the rest of the playâs rich hour.
In that regard, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes is very much about the audience, and thereâs nimble, layered playfulness as the characters obsess around whether the imagined audience at the town hall meeting are understanding their message. And while some of the sections of the text work better than others (Iâm not sure about the suggestion that everyone will be deemed disabled when artificial intelligence overtakes human thought), the actors also engage brilliantly with the supertitles, which are supposedly transcribed live at the meeting by Siri. Supertitles seem at first like a tool for us, the audience, to understand the performersâ speech. As Scott Price laments, âI have autism, and, unfortunately for me, I also have a thick Australian accent.â But the projected text also doubles as a symbol for the dehumanization of people on the spectrum. âYou can tell we have disabilities as everything we say comes upon a screen,â Sarah notes with disdain. âThe subtitling is offensive.â
This point of view leads to a heated argument about language and representation, with Scott claiming the label of disability: âIâm a disabled person here and Iâm proud and I donât want to weave my way around language.â But thereâs no unified front in how these four characters perceive themselves and seek to be perceived.
Perhaps the playâs sharpest touch is that Michael and Scott talk down to Simon, describing him as âvery childlikeâ and insinuating that he canât understand whatâs going on or fully participate in the meeting. Sarah calls them out on this (âYouâre talking like Simonâs not even in the roomâ), and itâs not just an indictment of how individuals with disabilities can be dehumanized to their faces but also an illuminating glance into how internalized measures of normalcy have permeated the disability community. This quartet of characters doesnât include heroes or victims or saints and the play relishes in catching the audience in the act of attaching such labels to the performers. Itâs a play I want to see again in order to try again, to use what Iâve learned from my first encounter with Back to Back to do better the next time.
If The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes invites us to project imagined limitations on to the performers and then to watch those assumptions crumble, the creator of Samuel Beckettâs Not I at BRIC (the Brooklyn venue hosting this show) wants us to know exactly what to expect from the beginning. Yes, this is a performanceâand an exhilarating oneâof Beckettâs 15-minute, stream-of-consciousness monologue, first performed in 1972, but this production positions the piece at the center of a conversation with the performer, Jess Thom.
Thom, who’s best known in the U.K. for Touretteshero, an alter ego aimed at educating and spreading awareness of Touretteâs syndrome, has a number of repeating verbal tics that spark from her speech: Among the most frequent are âbiscuit,â âsausage,â and âI love cats,â plus a few words and phrases that arenât quite so âcute,â as Thom describes them. Unlike The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the sense of unpredictability here is shared by the performers. A few times throughout the day, Thom explains, she will lose control over her body and speech, and this possibility creates a space of âgenuine jeopardy.â
Such pre-show disclaimers are neither warnings nor apologies but a crucial aspect of Thomâs central work here: envisioning a truly inclusive performance space and then co-creating that space with her audience. There are no surprises in Not I. Thom explains, in detail, that her wheelchair will be lifted eight feet into the air atop a hydraulic lift; that only her mouth will be lit (as in all productions of Beckettâs monologue); that an ASL interpreter (the warmly expressive Lindsey D. Snyder) will sign every word of Beckettâs explosively high-velocity text, plus each unexpected tic along the way; that the post-performance experiences will include watching a video, discussing the monologue with a stranger, and participating in a Q&A.
The audience sits on padded benches and pillows on the floor, and Thom invites people to move and make noise during the piece as needed. An online guide to the performance even includes a sound map, alerting audience members to patches of loud noise, like applause and a section of the monologue featuring terrifying screams. With its shrieks and terrorizing, relentless intensity, Not I certainly defies expectations for the sorts of theater pieces that tend to offer relaxed, inclusive performances. But by reclaiming the character of Mouth through the lens of disability, Thom has made the jumbled thoughts of the character suddenly specific and, if not quite understandable, accessible through empathy.
Though Beckett meant for Not I to unnerve its auditors with its impenetrableness, Thom uses the text to grant entry into her own experiences of losing control over her own speech and movement. Thomâs tics remain present throughout the monologue, absorbed into the labyrinthine, spontaneous stitches of Mouthâs words. In fact, as Thom explained in the Q&A section, the tics actually multiply to fill the spaces between breakneck sections of monologue; the speed with which she articulates the text temporarily displaces her tics, âlike a stone in water,â but they flow back in during Beckettâs indicated silences. âMy version of silence,â Thom clarified, often sounds like eight or 10 âbiscuitsâ in a row. If we can embrace and understand the charismatic, wisecracking Thom, we should be able to extend that compassion toward embracing and understanding her version of Mouth too.
After the performance of Beckettâs monologue, Thom sits on the floor as a short video about the making of this piece plays. In the video, Thom attributes her emergence as a performer to the exclusion and isolation she experiences as an audience member: on-stage seemed to be âthe only seat in the house I wouldnât be asked to leave.â And even as we hear her words, their truth immediately confirms itself: Itâs only during this section of the performanceâa few minutes in which Thom herself is not visible as she sits in the darkâthat I reverted to experiencing Thomâs tics as disruption or interruption. At the exact moment I was nodding along with the videoâs celebration of inclusive theatrical spaces, I was simultaneously sensing my own flashes of concern or maybe frustration or maybe fear that someone sitting beside me in the darkness was breaking the sacred rules of stillness and silence. With love and warmth and unvarying good humor, Thom manages to shine a glaring, pointed spotlight on our own limitations as compassionate stewards of the spaces we strive to co-inhabit. Then she asks us to look around the room and gives us the chance, right then and there, to change.
The limitations of the human intellectâand the human spiritâare put to the test in Grey Rock, an English-language commission by Palestinian playwright-director Amir Nizar Zuabi which premiered at La MaMa a year ago. Zuabiâs play, besides being performed in English, boasts an instantly recognizable form: Itâs a family comedy, actually one of the funniest Iâve seen in a while, with a bittersweetness that calls to mind, in a very different geopolitical context, Neil Simonâs Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.
Lila (Fidaa Zaidan) is perplexed that her father, the widower Yusuf (Khalifa Natour), has suddenly started working out vigorously. Why the sudden focus on getting in shape? At first she thinks heâs seeing someone newâitâs been three years since her mother diedâbut that doesnât explain why heâs also spending hours assembling mechanical parts in his shed with a brilliant young engineer, Fadel (Ivan Kevork Azazian). Yusufâs plan, it turns out, is to build a rocket to the moon, a feat that will put Palestinian fortitude and ingenuity on the map.
Itâs in Yusufâs very insistence that his rocket-building is about humanity rather than political conflict that Zuabiâs play becomes, in fact, forcefully political. Much like The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes foretells the audienceâs expectations of the performersâ failures, Grey Rock anticipates the need for viewers to see conflict and war in every image and line of dialogue with Palestine attached to it.
Israel is a reality in the world of Grey Rock, of course, and one which diminishes what some of these characters think they can become: Fadel describes the Israeli forces as âstop signs for the imaginationâ and Yusuf later tells Lilaâs ill-matched fiancĂ© Jawad (Alaa Shehada), âYou have the occupation [as] your excuse for your lack of creativity.â But Zuabi seems less interested in using the play to protest the Israeli presence in Palestine than in advocating for a Palestinian uprising of imagination and creativity in the face of dehumanization. Thereâs an aspect of 21st-century fairy tale to Grey Rockâs structure and plot twists, but the play remains grounded enough to suggest real-world pathways forward for oppressed peoples to dream big. (The fact that these performers, who all identify as Palestinian, have overcome complex visa hurdles to perform in New York twice in the span of a year, is a dream realized already.) Except for the final scene (a tonal shift that doesnât entirely pay off), Grey Rock keeps the darkness at bay. The Israeli occupying forces are a constant off-stage presence, an invisible menace that the characters must sometimes ignore in order to live and shape their own stories.
Most of the story careens through amusingly familiar tropes, but itâs a familiarity that seems to be there by design. I think I would have found Grey Rock just as absorbing in supertitled Arabic, but thereâs something appealing in the transparency with which it draws us in. The play was written for English speakers, with the intention of exposing the ordinary vibrancy of quotidian Palestinian existence. Knowing some of the well-trodden arcs of the plot in advance narrows the space between Anglophone audiences and the world they encounter.
Zuabi is a far nimbler writer than director; the playâs magnetic energy only diminishes in its awkwardly staged moments of physical comedy and occasionally rudderless transitions between scenes. But his dialogue briskly fleshes out his five characters, who also include the villageâs anxious imam (Motaz Malhees). Thereâs a particularly delightful rapport between Natourâs gruff stargazer and Azazianâs overeager yet tentative assistant.
Beyond the crisp comedy, the relationship between Yusuf and his beloved, aspiring daughter Lila feels almost operatic in its balance of tenderness and tumult: Lila harbors years of resentment that her father allowed himself to be jailed for anti-occupation propaganda, leaving her mother to raise Lila independently for five years. When Yusuf leaps to his feet jubilantly upon hearing that Lilaâs broken off her engagement, and then tries to backtrack his demonstrativeness, itâs both hilarious and sweetly moving.
Iâm not sure if Zuabi deliberately snuck in one particular idiom for this festival run: âI order things in small quantities so I go under the radar,â Yusuf says, explaining his rocket-in-progress to an ever-expanding community of supporters. But to go Under the Radar, the Public has ordered up a series of shows which are anything but small in their expansive commitment to transforming audiences, preparing them to be more perceptive, empathetic people, perhaps even in time for the next performance.
Under the Radar runs from January 8â19.
The 10 Best Documentaries of 2019
The yearâs best documenaries found the monstrous in the mundane, the epic in the everyday.
Lest we forget, 2019 saw the release of Avengers: Endgame, the bloated culmination of a franchise marked by needlessly convoluted storylines and an almost perverse overreliance on computer-generated spectacle. On the extreme opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, some of the best documentaries of the year were small-scale, intimate, articulate snapshots, often adventurous in form, of actual human perspectives and dilemmasâqualities that at least partly explain why the films are so easy to love.
Look no further than Chinese Portrait, which in any one of its brief observational shots of people living their everyday lives raises more thought-provoking ideas about the passage of time than Avengers: Endgame does in three hours. And Xiaoshuai Wangâs film wasnât the only documentary this year to offer a hugely empathetic account of peopleâs relationship to their community. Both Khalik Allahâs Black Mother and Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieriâs The Gospel of Eureka rejected portraying their subjects solely as victims of marginalization, presenting whirlwind celebrations of multifaceted people and their culture. And Roberto Minerviniâs What You Gonna Do When the Worldâs on Fire? powerfully expressed the profound levels of kindness and strength people display when fighting to make a difference in the civic life of their communities.
It wasnât just the everyman who was the star of 2019âs best documentaries, but also influential cultural icons in singular late-career works. In the captivating and bittersweet career self-evaluation Varda by AgnĂšs, the late, great AgnĂšs Varda did something few filmmakers do: cap off a robust oeuvre on her own terms. And Rolling Thunder Revue, by rockumentarian extraordinaire Martin Scorsese, is notable not only for its playful mash-up of pop history and myth, but also for showing Bob Dylan, in both archival footage and present-day interviews, like weâve never seen him before: loose, buoyant, and, believe it or not, actually looking like heâs having fun. As a gaudy new box-office king became anointed, 2019âs documentaries proved that the genre is more vital than ever for not just homing in on the monstrous in the mundane, but also the epic in the everyday. Wes Greene
10. The Silence of Others
Almudena Carracedo and Robert Baharâs The Silence of Others is monumental for its clamorous sounding of an alarm. It reminds us, and we do need reminding, that the acts of horror committed by nation states are often followed by a convenient amnesiaâa whitewashing of manâs brutalityâwhere everyone agrees to be good citizens moving forward. But beyond its pedagogical function, the film helps us posit more philosophical questions of justice versus revenge, along with the endless transmission of trauma. From generation to generation, the ravages of Spainâs dictatorship are passed on like a cursed heirloom. The sadism of yesterdayâs jackals becomes palpable through the accounts of their deeds, but their victimsâ progeny, now close to death themselves, have rather modest wishes. Namely, getting official confirmation that their loved ones were murdered by the state. Or seeing whatâs left of the bodies, even if from a distance. Diego Semerene
9. Rolling Thunder Revue
Throughout Rolling Thunder Revue, Martin Scorsese culls various images together to offer a startlingly intense vision of America as place that, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, essentially believes in nothing, following one demoralizing crisis after another. The film gradually collapses, mutating from a freeform document of the Rolling Thunder Revue into a series of essays and anecdotes, such as on the origin of Dylanâs Rubin Carter tribute âHurricane.â The film attains a shaggy shapelessness that suggests the haze of travel, as Dylan and his cohorts push on, delving deeper into their micro worlds. The true shock of the documentary, however, is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage. All of the make-up and masks he wearsâother allusions to reinvention, to the essential, simultaneously nourishing and damaging textures of pop cultureâseem to liberate him. On this tour, Dylan performs quite a bit of material from Desire, and his singing is clear and urgent and stunningly divorced of his ironic parlor games; heâs connecting with these songs, using the revue concept to channel his canniest and most sincere instincts as an actor and storyteller. Chuck Bowen
8. What You Gonna Do When the Worldâs on Fire?
Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Roberto Minerviniâs subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew thatâs clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titusâs inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocenceâan impression thatâs affirmed later in What You Gonna Do When the Worldâs on Fire? when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titusâs hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness thatâs bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love thatâs deeply poignant. Bowen
7. Varda by AgnĂšs
In Varda by AgnĂšs, cinema is a form of thinking out loud that follows the trajectory of a spiderweb, unimpressed by the benefits of control and linearity. Detours, accidents, asides, footnotes, and marginalia are the core of AgnĂšs Vardaâs modus operandi. Hers is the zigzagging ethos of the flĂąneur, or the glaneur, re-signifying the mundane without calculation, surrendering control to life itself, as she wonders around various worldsâsome inhabited by Godard, Birkin, and Deneuve, others by the anonymous folk who were Vardaâs real muses. In her pedagogical scene we trace a genealogy of her oeuvre, but the filmography that serves as her PowerPoint slides, as it were, are more like rabbit holes than historical markers. They take us on a dreamlike expedition that reminds us of cinemaâs political duty. That is, its ability to extract poetry from everyday life, to affect communities and restitute the value of rejected people and things. Most importantly, cinema for Varda was always a matter of mutual contamination, with the filmed object architecting the cameraâs gaze too. Could there be a more urgent panacea for a culture steeped in overproduced imagery, synthetic drama and concept-less drivel? Semerene
Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevskaâs Honeyland pulses with vividly observed detail, offering a patient, intimate, and complex portrait of a disappearing way of life. Its subject is Atidze, an old Macedonian woman who lives with her even older mother in a remote village without paved roads, electricity, or running water. When we first see her, in a series of breathtaking landscape shots that open the film, she calmly ambles across a vast field, climbs up a hill, and then carefully edges across a narrow ridge before stopping in front of an unassuming rock face. There, she gingerly pulls away some of the stone to reveal the most vibrant, sumptuous honeycomb youâve ever seen. Without straining to make a grand environmentalist statement, Honeyland manages to dramatizeâsimply, directly, and without sentimentalism or condescensionâthe importance of a holistic approach to agriculture. As the world continues to suffer ever-increasing mass die-offs of honeybee colonies, Stefanov and Kotevskaâs film reminds us that thereâs indeed a better way to interact with our planetâone rooted in patience, tradition, and a true respect for our surroundings. Keith Watson
Los Cabos Film Festival 2019: Workforce, The Twentieth Century, Waves, & More
There was plenty of merit to the connections being made at Los Cabos between filmmakers and audiences.
Martin Scorsese recently sparked controversy by stating in an interview with Empire magazine that Marvelâs superhero movies, which have become indispensable moneymakers in a Hollywood system increasingly beset by pressures to build or renew popular tentpole franchises, are ânot cinema.â The conventional wisdom in film marketing terms is that each new contribution to an already recognizable franchise requires such minimal effort at garnering public awareness compared to the type of cinematic ventures that Scorsese would argue, as he wrote in the New York Times in explanation of his interview comments, âenlarg[e] the sense of what was possible in the art form.â These more original offerings require ground-up campaigns for the attention of moviegoing audiences who are increasingly comfortable ignoring altogether the existence of films not actively targeting mass consumption.
The opening-night film of the eighth annual Los Cabos International Film Festival happened to be Scorseseâs highly anticipated epic crime drama The Irishman. The film is only being granted a minimal theatrical release in the U.S. before its arrival on Netflix on November 27, because, according to Scorsese, âmost multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures.â Robert De Niro, who stars in the film, was on hand in Cabo to walk the red carpet and represent a cinematic community founded on principles of âaesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation,â in Scorseseâs own words. This was the kind of audience primed to appreciate his latest effort.
The audience was primed for greatness, even as oblivious vacationers guzzled tequila just outside on the streets and sidewalks of Cabo. When I told my seatmate on the plane about the screening of Scorseseâs film later that evening, she furrowed her brow in confusion. âIâm staying at the Hard Rock,â she said in explanation. And as I later walked from my own hotel toward the theater, I passed by countless tourists wielding Tecate tallboys and squinting behind cheap sunglasses who were no doubt completely unaware of the film festival taking place inside the giant mall at the north end of the downtown harbor. Many of them even wore T-shirts and tank tops that might easily have been emblazoned with the visages of Marvel characters.
As I drifted between the incessant buzz of the party atmosphere outside and the quiet engagement with contemporary filmmaking taking place within the theater throughout the festival, I couldnât help but notice that several of the films that screened at Los Cabos seemed similarly concerned with liminal spaces between two very different worlds. The characters in these films learn to navigate the borderlands between class differences and racial divides, fleeting flirtations with freedom dashed by constant threats of persecution. These characters know their place, but even the brutal reality of their circumstances isnât enough to prevent them from trying to get somewhere else. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Mexican filmmaker David Zonanaâs mesmerizing Workforce, a tightly shot and richly layered film documenting the rise and fall of a group of construction workers in Mexico City who dare to dream beyond their otherwise meager means.
The film begins with the sudden death of Claudio, a member of a construction team putting the finishing touches on a swanky new house in a posh district of the city who falls from a rooftop in the opening shot. Workforce then quickly pivots and takes on the perspective of Claudioâs brother, Francisco (Luis Alberti), whose search for justice following his brotherâs death becomes all-consuming and destructive. Claudioâs death has been deemed by officials to be caused by irresponsible alcohol consumption while on the job, even though Claudio had been a known teetotaler, and the wife (Jessica Galvez) and unborn child heâs left behind are thus denied compensation following the accident. And after the homeowner (Rodrigo Mendoza) waves him away from inside his fancy car when Francisco makes a plea for compassion, he becomes obsessed with the other man, following him through the streets and monitoring his every move. And after the homeownerâs mysterious death, which we learn about after witnessing Francisco surreptitiously enter his apartment building the night before, Francisco begins occupying the now dormant construction site as if it were his own home.
The shift between Franciscoâs life in a tiny, rain-drenched apartment to his fresh start in the sprawling home that lays unclaimed in the wake of its ownerâs deathâcomplete with furniture still unwrapped, appliances yet to be installedâwill ring familiar to those whoâve seen Parasite. Bong Joon-hoâs film operates in a more satirical and less tragic register than Zonanaâs but still narrates the kind of violently enacted class mobility that lays bare the stark differences between the kinds of lives that are lived on either side of the poverty line.
Francisco eventually moves several members of his former construction team into the abandoned house, along with their families, in an effort to lay a more legitimate claim to its ownership. The film briefly soars with the ecstasy and sudden privilege that its characters feel as they inhabit a space representative of those from which they have historically been excluded. But problems quickly mount: the small indignities of overcrowding, persistent struggles over limited resources, cringe-inducing abuses of power on the part of those currently in control. And the final high-angle shot of the house, its inhabitants now expelled and powerless against the forces of the state, is notable for how the film has until then been heavily anchored at ground level, a powerful demonstration of the universal struggles of the Mexican working class.
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, a Canadian film written and directed by Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, is another story of an invisible divide whose boundaries are nonetheless palpably felt. Two women from differing indigenous backgrounds, and from opposite sides of the class spectrum, are thrown together one late afternoon on the streets of Vancouver. A very pregnant Rosie (Violet Nelson) has fled her abusive loverâs apartment and is barefooted, bruised, and in obvious need of help when the lighter-skinned Aila (Tailfeathers) happens upon her and decides to shelter her. Aila has just had an IUD inserted earlier in the day, and the availability of advanced methods of conception is just one of the many marks of privilege that the film will subtly deploy. And the encounter between the two women is fairly straightforward from the start, but the subtext of their interactions is what gives the film its thematic weight and its staying power.
The differences between the women are played out with racial signifiers as well as those of relative affluence, and Hepburn and Tailfeathers make the bold formal decision to film their story in real time, by and large foregoing traditional scene structures and editing techniques and instead lingering in the quiet, interstitial moments between narrative transitions. The choice of indulging in the long take allows for moments of silence and digression as the audience infiltrates the scene as a third party. This uncomfortable intimacy is felt most acutely in a devastating, mostly silent shot late in the film of the interior of a taxi as Aila accompanies Rosie back to the apartment complex where her abusive lover awaits after Rosie has rejected a place in a womenâs shelter, both of their faces in the frame as they quietly contemplate their very different futures.
The impending crisis of motherhoodâurgent on Rosieâs part, delayed indefinitely on Ailaâsâremains unspoken until that final taxi ride, in which both women tell the other that they believe they will be good mothers. And the city of Vancouver itselfâand with it the ghost of Canadaâs colonial past, specifically its systematic erasure of First Nations cultureâhaunts all of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, glimpsed mostly through car windows as it passes by unremarked upon while the filmâs characters grapple silently with how the present has been irrevocably troubled by the past. The film demonstrates the power of simply inhabiting a tension and absorbing its complications, rather than demanding a resolution.
Another Canadian film, and the winner of the festivalâs competition award, Matthew Rankinâs The Twentieth Century is an alternate history of the rise to power of Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne). Funny and daringly experimental, the filmâs overtly oddball aesthetic, redolent of Guy Maddinâs work, often feels borrowed from the silent era in terms of how particular objects take on greater significance because of their necessity to move along a narrative otherwise hindered by constraints, deliberate or not. And the plot unfolds erratically, difficult to synopsize due to its incredulity, as well as its reliance on a more than cursory knowledge of Canadian history for its most sophisticated jokes and cultural observations to be understood, as explained to me by a Canadian film critic on our way to the airport at the close of the festival. I may not have understood the film as cultural commentary, but Iâll never forget the ejaculating cactus.
Following the trend of delightfully strange films populating the festival slate is Greener Grass, written and directed by Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, who also star. The film is a color-saturated romp that presents a suburbia recognizable at first but then made bizarre by an accumulation of unexplained oddities that ultimately become understood as an ingenious form of worldbuilding. All of the adults, soccer moms and dads donning bright pastel outfits, wear braces. Everyone inexplicably drives golf carts. Characters make impulsive, culturally inappropriate decisions, such as in the catalyst to the filmâs action when Jill (DeBoer) literally gives her baby away to her friend Madison (Luebbe), after Madison acknowledges, while sitting in the bleachers at an outdoor soccer game, how cute the infant happens to be.
Later, Jillâs only remaining child, the nerdy and bespectacled Julian (Julian Hilliard), frequently seen struggling with the traditional expectations of boyhood, falls into a swimming pool and emerges as a golden retriever. Jillâs subsequent psychological decline is mostly tied to her inability to accept her sonâs new corporeal form, as well as her insistence that her infant daughter must be returned to her, despite her reluctance to offend Madison with the request. Meanwhile, a serial killer is on the loose. Greener Grass is a mash-up of genresâsatire, mystery, dark comedy, horrorâthat may not ultimately cohere as deliberately as some viewers might have wished, but the feeling of witnessing something truly new and unique is as addictive as the swimming pool water that Jillâs husband, Nick (Nick Bennet), seemingly canât stop drinking.
The American slate of films at Los Cabos includes Scorseseâs The Irishman among other likely Oscar contenders such as Noah Baumbachâs impeccably written and performed Marriage Story, Rupert Gooldâs Judy, and Taika Waititiâs Jojo Rabbit. But Trey Edward Shultsâs slick and stylish but ultimately detached Waves is a frustrating contribution. The film tracks the rise and fall of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a black high school athlete pushed toward success by a domineering father (Sterling K. Brown) who, in a scene definitely not written for a black audience, makes plain how the color of his skin predisposes him to a life spent working harder than everybody else for a seat at the same table. But after a series of setbacks, poor choices, and personal failures culminate in a desperate act of terrible violence on Tylerâs part, the second half of Waves investigates the aftermath of his abrupt downfall through the eyes of his family, focusing mostly on his younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), and her own journey toward some kind of peace after the family tragedy.
For all its intensely scored set pieces and dramatic camerawork, Shultsâs attempt to stylize an interior life through a deliberate connection between form and contentâwhile Tylerâs section is frenetic and loud, Emilyâs is almost jarringly languid and mutedâisnât enough to deliver to the audience the kind of realization about family and responsibility to one another that the filmmaker seems at times so close to achieving. The possibility of transcending its aesthetic and arriving at any kind of epiphany is ultimately drowned out by a cinematic style more distracting than illuminating.
A more revelatory film about fathers, sons, and the lasting effects of our emotional wounds is Honey Boy, directed by Alma Harâel and written by Shia LaBeouf, in whatâs clearly an autobiographical account of the actorâs childhood in Hollywood with an overbearing father whose profound influence still haunts him today. LaBeouf plays James, the now-sober father of a child actor, Otis (Noah Jupe), who stars in a popular television show while bearing the brunt of the erratic behaviors and sudden violence of a lifelong addict. The film centers in flashback on a period of time in which father and son lived together in a seedy and downtrodden hotel, the close quarters intensifying the seething undercurrent of resentment, jealousy, and yet still ever-present heartbreakingly rendered familial love that perseveres in spite of everything else.
James ultimately passes down his own struggles to his son, who we see as an adult (Lucas Hedges, who also stars in Waves) in therapy reckoning with his childhood, his addiction, and his predilection toward other self-destructive behaviors. The film also explores the ways in which his traumas might have also served as reference points for his own obvious skill as an actor, artistic success inextricably linked here to emotional wounds that have clearly never properly healed. The relationship between James and Otis is marked by a tenderness undercut by rage, and Harâelâs careful staging of the power struggle between the two charactersâa give and take based alternately on the currencies of masculinity and the literal exchange of money, as Otisâs earnings subsidize his fatherâs existenceâis both compassionate and unflinching.
A film festival is always a hopeful affair, a chance to look into the future and see what awaits us as the contemporary film discourse continues to evolve. Unlike the flashy slate of American films that draws non-industry viewers to the theater, many of the entries at Los Cabos have yet to land wider distribution deals, and a festival like this one is a chance for these films to impress audiences enough to secure a position in a cinematic landscape where the âart houseâ or non-Marvel film will always struggle to keep up, as long as success continues to be measured by per-screen earnings and the numbers of views on popular streaming sites.
LaBeoufâs careerâfrom his early success in the tentpole Transformers franchise to eventually writing and starring in a film as complex, poignant, and quietly ambitious as Honey Boyâis perhaps a worthwhile microcosm through which to demonstrate the shift in priorities that must take place in order for success to be redefined in terms that align with artistic merit rather than profit, personal connection rather than consensus. And there was plenty of merit to the connections being made at Los Cabos between filmmakers and audiences, a festival that continues to deliver quality international cinema to eager viewers who wander out of the theater each evening to join the throngs of partiers who might in daylight be clamoring for the next Marvel movie. Scorsese may mourn the diminishment of character-driven, risk-taking filmmaking in favor of easily digestible products that are âcloser to theme parks than they are to movies,â but itâs still there if you know where to look.
The Los Cabos International Film Festival ran from November 13â17.
A Space in Time: Doclisboa 2019 Explores the Politics of Memory, Space, and the Image
The film image opens a space for both a reckoning with the old and the creation of the new.
Just before the start of this yearâs Doclisboa film festival in Lisbon, the organizers put out a press release protesting the Brazilian governmentâs apparent crackdown on independent filmmaking through censorship and abrupt budget cuts to Ancine, the South American countryâs state-supported cinema fund. Given the close ties between Portugal and its former colonyâwhich include shared memories of 20th-century dictatorshipsâitâs not surprising that Doclisboa felt compelled to address Brazilâs ongoing crisis, unambiguously decrying the Bolsonaro governmentâs âdismantlement of democracyâ and installation of a dictatorship, and announcing additional screenings of anti-dictatorship films from Brazil.
Several Brazilian films, of course, were already on Doclisboaâs docket this year. One of the standouts of the festivalâs international competition was Jo Serfatyâs Sun Inside, which follows four Rio de Janeiro teens as they struggle to find their identities in the summer after school ends. Featuring compelling, naturalistic performances from each of its young leads and practically radiating hope for the future represented by Generation Z, the film has the makings of an American award-season darling.
But Sun Inside qualifies its own sense of hope: Its fun, woke teens know they live in a time of change, crisis, and inequity, and neither the script nor Serfatyâs camera offers an easy path toward transcending the cramped spaces and precarious circumstances they navigate in Rio. The film, which suggests a very muted version of Fernando Meirellesâs City of God, is as much about a milieu as it is about its characters.
Serfatyâs socially minded film shares its exploration of the politics of narrative form and the cinematic image with much of the 2019 Doclisboa slate. And Brazil isnât the only former Portuguese colony represented at the festival: The Sound of Masks explores the traumatic history of Mozambique in the decades since it freed itself from Portuguese rule in 1975 by focusing on AtanĂĄsio Nyusi, a renowned dancer of the mapiko, in which a solitary male dancer dons a wooden mask. For Nyusiâand for director Sara CF de Gouveiaâhis tremulous mapiko dance serves as a record of the trauma Mozambique experienced over a century of colonialism and civil war. His jolting movements and often frightful bearing toward his audience implicitly speak of pain and terror, but the fact that he and his company continue to perform suggests perseverance and pride.
Nyusi, appropriately, also manages his communityâs archive of mapiko dancers, the existence of which by itself points to the fact that the dance isnât some timeless tribal practice. A crucial subtext in The Sound of Masks is that precolonial practices arenât objects frozen in time, but bear the marks of history like any form of transgenerational human activity. Throughout, de Gouveia uses television footage from the days of colonialism and the civil war relatively sparingly, illustrating through montage the events that she and Nyusi understand his dance to be evoking. This expressive use of archival footage is combined with haunting footage of Nyusiâs performancesâboth contemporary and from when he was youngâand slow-motion shots of Nyusi or other members of his company in full makeup against a black backdrop, staring directly into the camera. In this way, the documentary is utterly transfixing, often as strange as it is revelatory.
A confrontation with Portugalâs colonialist legacy is also implicit in Welket BunguĂ©âs I Am Not Pilatus, one of the short films in the festivalâs international competition. Itâs composed of cellphone footage of two recent racist incidents in Lisbon, one of which took place on the Avenida do Liberdade, down the street from Cinema SĂŁo Jorge, where many of Doclisboaâs screenings are held. The unseen woman doing the recording stands on one of the broad commercial avenueâs many plazas, filming at a great distance a confrontation between Lisbon police and a group of black youth and, though she admits she cannot see whatâs happening, making racist conjectures. BunguĂ© manipulates the footage, mockingly distorting the womanâs voice, flipping the footage upside down, looping her racist or obviously hypocritical lines, and ironically splicing in footage from a police beating that undercuts her assertion that the police are there to keep order.
Aesthetically, I Am Not Pilatus hardly breaks new ground, but itâs an instructive reminder of a certain activist filmmaking credo: Because reality is already structured by unjust systems, itâs incumbent upon artists like BunguĂ© to use film as an instrument of intervention, rather than merely reproduce unjust realities. However slight, I Am Not Pilatus is an admirable and coherent political intervention, simmering with righteous anger at the racism and anti-immigrant sentiments apparently on the rise in Portugal, which recently elected a far-right representative to parliament for the first time since the end of the Salazar dictatorship in 1974.
Other distinctly political shortsâlike Josip LukiÄâs The Rex Will Sail In and Filipe Oliveiraâs HĂĄ Margem, which screened together out of competition in the âGreen Yearsâ sectionâexplore the manifestation of bigger socio-political structures in the lives of the underclass. The Rex Will Sail In concerns a Croatian family supported by their matriarch Marinaâs work on a cruise ship, which sends her away from home for months at a time; the stress of working in the neoliberal tourism industry has taken its toll, and Marina uses the camera as her therapist, monologuing her buried anxieties about her sonsâ behavior and upcoming changes at work. By and large consisting of close-ups, and filmed mostly in Marinaâs car and small apartment, the short conveys the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in an unforgiving, often unpredictable profession.
HĂĄ Margem is also in part about feeling closed in. âItâs tight in here,â says one subject about a narrow alley that bends between buildings, and that remark resonates throughout the film. Capturing slice-of-life footage from Segundo TorrĂŁo, a neighborhood on the other side of the Tagus River from Lisbon whose homes are all illegal because the land there isnât appropriately zoned, Oliveiraâs poetic documentary looks at the ways people make what they can out of a life on the margins (âThereâs Marginâ is the English translation of the filmâs title).
Spatial politics also play an important role in Christian Haardtâs A New Environment, an essayistic film with rather esoteric interests and a dry tone. Composed of archival footage edited to the audio of an interview with the architect Heinrich Klotz, it covers, among other topics centered around 20th-century architecture, how national character and memory is revealed or hidden by major building projects like the postwar reconstruction of Frankfurt. Klotzâs thinking can be intriguingly dialectical: Suspicious of modernityâs penchant for reproductions, he nevertheless embraces the design principles of Disney World because even if it represents the pinnacle of fabricated living, it contains the dream of a unique and specific utopia. But Haardtâs sparse, quiet film has a monotonous quality that often makes it easy to lose the stakes of Klotzâs extended discourse.
Thomas Heiseâs Heimat Is a Space in Time, which won the Caligari Prize at this yearâs Berlinale and screened at Doclisboa in the âFrom the Earth to the Moonâ section, is more effective in grappling with German history. Heise delves into his own archival materialâletters, diary entries, photographs, even a resumeâto reconstruct the effect that the tragedies of the 20th century had on his family. At one point, he reads an exchange of letters between family members from the â30s and â40sâsome in newly annexed Vienna, some in their adopted home of Berlinâover scrolling images of deportation lists. As the dispersed family reports of the increasing persecution they face and expresses their growing fears of being deported and murdered, we wait in anguish for the inevitable appearance of their names on the lists. In this sequence and others, the filmâs deliberate pace demands intellectual engagement, compelling us to look and truly consider the material reality of the past.
Heimat Is a Space in Timeâs title uses the German word for âhomelandâ in an evocative, paradoxical phrase that suggests the historically mutability of the concept, and the problem of a notion of homeland for a German whose family was shattered by the most notorious and inhumane of the 20th centuryâs nationalist movements. By contrast, Wook Steven Heoâs Under-Ground is a far less personalized confrontation with significant historical spaces affected by the chaos that nationalist aggression set loose in the world. Wook sends his camera contemplatively into the cold landscapes of factories and industrial campuses where the Japanese forced Korean captives to work, through now-empty caverns under Okinawa where Korean prisoners died alongside Japanese soldiers, and around Japanese anti-war memorials, looking to capture spaces of suffering that were forgotten even as the rest of the world memorialized their fallen.
The filmâs anonymous feel suits the legacy of dehumanization Wook is concerned withâUnder-Ground is in large part a protest against Japanese steel giant Nipponâs refusal to reckon with its historical participation in war crimesâbut at times its presentation can feel a bit cold, suggesting a particularly somber travel film. Finding a more metaphorical way of dealing with the spaces of the past is Clayton Vomeroâs Zona, a documentary-narrative hybrid that draws parallels between the spread of individualism among young people in the â80s, which helped bring an end to Russiaâs totalitarian communist state, and todayâs Russian subculture.
Zonaâs title is surely a reference to Andrei Tarkovskyâs Stalker, in which a mysterious event creates an exceptional zone of temptation in which wishes come true. One of the veterans of the soâcalled second Russian revolution in 1991 describes post-communist Russia as permanently existing in the state of exception declared during the militaryâs attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Russia here appears as a metaphysically suspended space, caught between the dream of the West its young people had at the turn of the â90s and the reality of a country that managed to successfully adopt neoliberalism but not democracy.
The attitudes of todayâs counterculture youth, which the film represents through scripted but veracious interviews, offers a glimpse at the possibility of a more open Russia, but itâs clear now that this open future wonât be achieved by building more McDonalds. The problem with global capitalism, one of the Gen-X rebels interviewed notes in despair, is that âin the end, everyone will just be American.â Finding a Russian identity that doesnât depend on such a perverse dream may require finally canceling the state of exception that the film proposes the country has found itself in for nearly three decades.
The selections cited here represents a miniscule portion of the 303 films showing at Doclisboa. Many, like Heimat Is a Space in Time, have already received attention after playing other festivals earlier this year. Werner Herzog probably counts as the biggest name with a film at Doclisboa, with his strange new Japan-set drama Family Romance, LLC, about an actor (Ishii Yuichi) who works for a company that hires him out to impersonate the missing father to a 12-year-old girl (Mahiro Tanimoto). It played Cannes earlier this year. Eric Baudelaireâs disarming documentary A Dramatic Film, made over the course of four years in collaboration with a diverse group of pre-teen children at a Paris school, premiered more recently at Locarno.
Gathering such already-premiered films under the Doclisboa umbrellaâor, as a recurrent advertisement for the fest suggests, baking them into the same cakeâinvites us to consider their politics alongside their experimental aesthetics. When a director chooses to allow a black French child to record his walk home for inclusion in his film, when an established German director elects to make a film about the mechanization of family relations in Japan with Japanese principles, theyâre not merely aesthetic choices, but political interventions that color the filmsâ reconstruction of the real. As Doclisboaâs program and emboldened stance against the burgeoning democratic crisis in Brazil attests, film may be a form of action as well as one of thought. Its images open a space for both a reckoning with the old and the creation of the new.
Doclisboa runs from October 17â27.
New York Film Festival 2019
If cinema is, indeed, the domain of freedom, then the festival doesnât see Netflix as the villain in that struggle.
“Cinema is the domain of freedom, and itâs an ongoing struggle to maintain that freedom,â said New York Film Festival director and selection committee chair Kent Jones in a statement last month accompanying the announcement of the films that will screen as part of the main slate of the 57th edition of the festival. And depending on who you ask, Netflix is either the hero or villain in that struggle.
More than half of the 29 titles in the main slate enjoyed their world premiere earlier this year at Cannes, where Netflix had no film in competition, as its battle with festival director Thierry FrĂ©maux, who requires a theatrical run for any Cannes entrant, continues unabated. (The streaming giant did walk away from the festival with acquisition rights to JĂ©rĂ©my Clapinâs I Lost My Body and Mati Diopâs Grand Prix winner Atlantics.) Thereâs no right or wrong here per se, though itâs clear that FrĂ©mauxâs edict is an extension of his nostalgia for the golden age of cinema, which he sees as sacrosanct as the length of the theatrical window, and just how steadfastly he sticks to his guns may determine the fate of the worldâs most important film festival.
The New York Film Festival opens on Friday, September 27 with the world premiere of Martin Scorseseâs hotly anticipated The Irishman, almost one month to the day that it was announced that Netflix could not reach a distribution deal with major theater chains, including AMC, Regal, and Cinemark. The film will drop on Netflix less than a month after opening in some theaters across the countryâa non-traditional distribution strategy that will continue to be seen as short-circuiting a Netflix filmâs best picture chances at the Academy Awards, at least until one comes along and does what Alfonso CuarĂłnâs Roma couldnât last year.
It remains to be seen if The Irishman will be that film. But this much is also clear, and the New York Film Festival is making no bones about it: This streamable movie is very much a movie, and to be able to see a new Scorsese film that might not have run three hours and 30 minutes had it been released by a traditional distributor is very much a win for freedomâor, at least, a certain stripe of cinephileâs idea of freedom.
In addition to The Irishman and Atlantics, Netflix also has Noah Baumbachâs Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, at the festival (the centerpiece selection no less). Baumbachâs divorce drama bowed last month at the Venice Film Festival, alongside Martin Eden, Pietro Marcelloâs first feature since Lost and Beautiful, and Wasp Network, which marks Olivier Assayasâs 10th appearance at the New York Film Festival. Among the returning auteurs are Kleber MendonĂ§a Filho (Bacurau, co-directed with Juliano Dornelles), Kelly Reichardt (First Cow), Albert Serra (LibertĂ©), Arnaud Desplechin (Oh Mercy!), Pedro AlmodĂłvar (Pain and Glory), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Young Ahmed), and the greatest of the great, AgnĂšs Varda, whose Varda by AgnĂšs premiered earlier this year at Berlinale alongside Nadav Lapidâs Golden Bear winner Synonyms and Angela Schanelecâs I Was at Home, ButâŠ
Among the festivalâs noteworthy sidebars are Spotlight on Documentary, which includes new works by Tim Robbins (45 Seconds of Laughter, about inmates at the Calipatria State maximum-security facility taking part in acting exercises), Michael Apted (63 Up, the latest entry in the filmmakerâs iconic, one-of-a-kind British film series), and Alla Kovgan (Cunningham, a 3D portrait of the artistic evolution of choreographer Merce Cunningham); the MUBI-sponsored Projections, which features the latest films from Ăric Baudelaire (Un Film Dramatique) and Thomas Heise (Heimat Is a Space in Time); and a Special Events section that includes Todd Phillipsâs surprise Golden Lion winner Joker and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club Encore, which brings the 1984 period film back to its original length and luster. Ed Gonzalez
For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, visit Film at Lincoln Center.
Atlantics (Mati Diop)
Starved for work after the depletion of Senegalâs local fishing industry, thousands of young men take to the sea every year aboard pirogues, or small boats, fleeing their country for Spain. Those who have emigrated, died, or been incarcerated as part of the âpirogue phenomenonââreferred to colloquially as âBarcelona or deathâ in Senegalese communitiesâare the ghosts that haunt Atlantics. The forms those spirits take in the film represent just some of whatâs so extraordinary about Mati Diopâs first feature as a director, a work of disparate influences and genres that pulses on its own oblique wavelength. Atlantics transitions into oblique genre fare in a manner reminiscent of Bertrand Bonelloâs Zombi Child, with electronic musician Fatima Al Qadiriâs multifaceted score adding ghostly strings and pop guitar riffs over spiritual, syncopated Middle Eastern arrangements. Despite its wild narrative leaps, the film is undergirded with a holistic mix of serenity and trauma that recalls Apichatpong Weerasethakulâs Cemetery of Splendour. Christopher Gray
Bacurau (Kleber MendonĂ§a Filho and Juliano Dornelles)
Kleber MendoĂ§a Filho and Juliano Donnellesâs Bacurau assembles a vibrant and eclectic collage of reference points. Itâs a wild neo-western that pulls into its orbit UFO-shaped drones, elaborate folklore, limb-flaying and head-exploding gore, and Udo Kier as a villain who shouts in a mockingly high-pitched voice, âHell no!â The Bacurau of the filmâs title is a fictional town in Brazilâs northeastern interior, depicted here at some point in the not-too-distant future. The citizens live in a relatively undisturbed harmonyâuntil Bacuaru is literally wiped off the map (GPS no longer can locate the backwater), local cell service is jammed, and the people find themselves hunted, A Dangerous Game-style, by gringo infiltrators. MendoĂ§a Filho is one of contemporary Brazilian cinemaâs most sharply political filmmakers, and Bacurau solidifies his commitment to rebuking Brazilâs current administration and its willful erasure of the countryâs culture and heritage. Sam C. Mac
Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)
Kantemir Balagov has set Beanpole largely in tones of dark amber, bright green and red, and filthy yellow redolent of old incandescent lightingâand itâs the red of upholstery, Soviet imagery, and blood that cuts most forcefully through the brightest of those greens. Cinematographer Kseniya Seredaâs color palette recalls that of Krzysztof KieĆlowskiâs The Double Life of Veronique for the way it gives settings an artificiality that nonetheless brings Beanpoleâs grounded sociopolitical commentary into greater focus. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse working at a Leningrad hospital after the end of World War II, feels trapped in trauma, suffering from recurring fits of full-body catatonia. Her psychological state is magnified by the more visible scars of the soldiers recuperating all around her, adding to the sense that Balagovâs hermetically sealed vision of Leningrad only compounds and reflects Iyaâs PTSD back onto her. The filmmaker may depict the pain of his characters in blunt terms, but he traces the aftershocks of collapse with delicate subtlety. Jake Cole
Fire Will Come (Olivier Laxe)
Oliver Laxeâs Fire Will Come refreshingly occupies an almost uncategorizable cinematic realm. Were it a piece of writing it would exist at the crossroads of an essay, a reportage, and a series of haikus singing the praises and the plights of a threatened ecosystem. Although we know its images to be composed and assembled, and as such âfiction,â the filmâs delicate pace and the contemplative choreography of its camerawork conjure a sense of authenticity so organic that weâre almost convinced that thereâs no space between the characters and the actors, between the filmed setting and the actual landscape. This is a film where the charactersâ names coincide with those of the actors playing them. Itâs at once a portrait of a place and a portrait of a personânamely, of the Galician countryside and of Amador (Amador Arias), an arsonist who returns home to see his elderly mother, Benedicta (Benedicta SĂĄnchez). Given the rich simplicity of the scenario, Laxe recognizes that even the smallest amount of traditional plot would feel excessive. Diego Semerene
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
First Cow is one of Kelly Reichardtâs shakier efforts. The film begins with an especially incisive William Blake quote (âThe bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendshipâ), and its themes of systemic exploitation, the enduring vagaries of the free market, and the alternately tender and tempestuous bonds of male camaraderie are propped up by characters who come off as half-formed avatars rather than flesh-and-blood human beings. That isnât to say Reichardt, whoâs edited all of her films since Old Joy, has lost the ability to create multilayered, gently provocative imagery. Thereâs a beauty of a shot in First Cowâs first scene, set in the present day, of a young woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog and uncovering a pair of skeletons beside an Oregon river. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt frames the bones in a steady, un-showy composition (the film is photographed in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio) so that it takes a few seconds to realize what youâre looking at. The slow-dawning revelation of the moment epitomizes Reichardtâs tendency in First Cow, as well as in many of her other films, to let drama emerge steadily and organically. Keith Uhlich
A Girl Missing (KĂŽji Fukada)
Throughout his 2016 film Harmonium, KĂŽji Fukada favored ambiguous, emotionally charged tableaux over narrative mechanics, and he continues that emphasis in A Girl Missing to ambitious, evocative, and troubling effect. The film is a story driven by kidnapping thatâs almost entirely disinterested in the motivations of the kidnapper and the pain of the victim and her family. Instead, the film is attached, to a consciously insular degree, to a nurse, Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui), whose life is ruined peripherally by the kidnapping due to one peculiarly bad choice on her part. As austere as Harmonium could be, the characters were in their way dynamic and made sense. With A Girl Missing, Fukada may believe that heâs transcended the melodramatic strictures of a regular crime film or of the kind of womanâs martyr vehicle in which Joan Crawford used to specialize. Instead, heâs fashioned an occasionally haunting art object with miserable stick figures. Chuck Bowen
The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)
More so than Goodfellas or Casino, Martin Scorseseâs two other told-in-retrospect gangster films, The Irishmanâat least for the first two hours of its riveting three-and-a-half-hour runtimeâfeels composed of burnished, often blackly funny, fragments of erratic memory. The elderly, wheelchair-bound labor union official and mobster Frank âThe Irishmanâ Sheeran (Robert De Niro) glosses over the truth even when heâs telling it, recalling the past, even at its most violent, with a propulsive, rosy cheer that plays at a cursory glance like Goodfellas-lite. Scorsese knows what his audience is hoping for: glory days, resurrected. But he also understands the impossibility of anyone being exactly as they once were. So he weaves that longing into both The Irishmanâs text and its technique, presenting Sheeranâs youthful recollectionsâhis rise in rank with Russell Bufalinoâs (Joe Pesci) crew, his work with a beleaguered Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) during the era when Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Jack Huston) worked hard to bring down organized crimeâas augmented hoodlum reveries that will soon catch up with the characterâs spiritually impoverished present. Uhlich
I Was at Home, ButâŠ (Angela Schanelec)
Angela Schanelecâs I Was at Home, ButâŠ take a fairly simple premise and builds a multilayered series of narrative threads around it, one filled with the detours and inconsistencies of life as itâs experienced on a day-to-day basis. In doing so, Schanelec isnât complicating or overthinking the familiar, but, rather, inviting her audience to rethink how these seemingly universal narratives function. The film is at its in moments when Schanalecâs insight into trauma as a menace that asserts itself at inopportune and confusing moments is powerfully dramatized. Itâs less successful when reaching for symbolic associations, as in the strikingly staged but inert passages of Shakespearean recitation that draw out connections between the story of Hamlet and a troubled fortysomething motherâs (Maren Eggert) life, or in the strained, bookending bits of business involving a dog and a donkey. For her part, Schanalec has preached in interviews that an experiential, non-intellectual approach to watching her films is ideal, so itâs telling that, in spite of its occasional academicism, I Was at Home, ButâŠ configures itself most potently in hindsight as a punch to the gut. Carson Lund
LibertĂ© (Albert Serra)
As they move inexorably forward in time, Albert Serraâs films donât crescendo so much as peter out. In Story of My Death, the harbinger on the horizon is the return of irrational, Romantic thinking in the late 18th century, which would effectively smother the enlightened libertinism that the story otherwise wallows in. And in The Death of Louis XIV, itâs the fate promised by the title, to which the film marched with solemn certitude. Serraâs new film, the audaciously perverse and amorphous LibertĂ©, doesnât give up its game so readily. Nearly without narrative conflict, it homes in on a long night of sexual experimentation among a group of libertines hiding out from the French courts on the Prussian border in the late 17th century, and for much of LibertĂ©âs duration, the only things generating forward momentum are the subtly escalating intensity of the acts themselves and the faint expectation, however ruthlessly exploited, that the sun will eventually rise again. Lund
Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)
Noah Baumbachâs Marriage Story initially occupies a rather nebulous spot between broad-strokes comedy and raw melodrama. But as the initially amicable split between a playwright, Charlie (Adam Driver), and his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), takes a sour turn, the film becomes more acerbic, fixating on how familiarity breeds contempt. At one point, we catch a glimpse of old magazine profile of the coupleâwritten at the height of their artistic collaboration and domestic blissâtitled âScenes from a Marriage,â a throwaway allusion to Ingmar Bergman thatâs also a winking promise of the decline and fall to come. But even at its most blistering, the film contains small moments of grace in which Nicole and Charlie reflexively help or comfort each other. These subtle glimpses of their lingering affection for one another and familiarity complicate the bitterness of their separation. Elie Wiesel once said, âThe opposite of love is not hate, itâs indifference,â and only two people who were once as deeply in love as Nicole and Charlie were could have spent so long observing every minute detail of their partner to become so obsessed with each otherâs flaws in the first place. Cole
Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)
Pietro Marcelloâs Martin Eden works better as a story of self-loathing and self-destruction than it does as a social critique or political statement. Marcello and Luca Marinelli, as the handsome, uneducated sailor of the filmâs title, don’t make the difference between Martin at the beginning and Martin at the end distinct enough for viewers to really appreciate the characterâs transmogrification. But as a piece of filmmaking thatâs about the craft of filmmaking, Martin Eden, which was shot on 16mm, is occasionally brilliant. Itâs an amalgamation of epochal aesthetics and formal styles, from drifty handheld shots and grainy close-ups of emotional faces that recall the French and Italian films of the late-â60s, to static compositions and inky-black shadows that threaten to swallow Martin and the bourgeoisie. The color grading lends an ethereal air to the landscape shots (the ocean, blue and writhing, looks especially beautiful). Marcello splices in clips of silent films and footage of workers in Naples, which further emphasizes the timelessness of the filmâs themes. Greg Cwik
The Moneychanger (Federico Veiroj)
Federico Veiroj’s The Moneychanger charts the prosperous, morally rotten career of Humberto Brause (Daniel Handler), a prominent money changer for all manner of neâer-do-wells. Much is made of gestures like hand-tailoring suits to transport money, but the movement of cashâfrom client to Humberto to various far-flung locations around the globeâis by and large curtly presented. The film eventually verges on the farcical, with Humberto engaging in a Force Majeure-esque act of cowardice during a shooting while driving with his wife (Dolores Fonzi) in Argentina and a rushed scheme to steal from a dead man before heâs interred, among other indiscretions. While these scenarios are somewhat absurd and funny, they feel calculated in their attempts to stress just how pitiful Humberto has become that he has to turn to such pathetic ploys to stay afloat. Itâs apparent that Veiroj disdains no one so much as Humberto, but the film makes little of the manâs undoubtedly twisted psyche. Throughout, The Moneychanger maintains a monolithic meanness, skirting even the smallest gesture of sympathy for Humberto and bulldozing him with further proofs of his depravity. Peter Goldberg
Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton)
Fans of Jonathan Lethemâs Motherless Brooklyn will be immediately struck by Edward Nortonâs decision to change the novelâs time setting from 1999 to 1957 for his long-gestating film adaptation. Given how effectively the novel transplanted a classic hardboiled noir setup to contemporary New York, Nortonâs popping of the novelâs anachronistic bubble is curious for how it makes literal what Lethem made so playfully postmodern. By setting his film in the â50s, when the noir style was at its most influential, Norton only makes it easier to spot those moments where the dialogue is trying much too hard to capture the snap, wit, and loquacious cynicism of the genreâs best films. Throughout, Nortonâs too-neat visual coverage is indicative of his filmâs greatest failing. At its best, noir leaves enough unsaid that, even if a mystery is solved, one is left with the distinct impression that nothing has been fixed. Motherless Brooklyn feels altogether too tidy, a film that revives many of the touchstones of noir, but never that throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre. Cole
Oh Mercy! (Arnaud Desplechin)
Based on a 2008 documentary, Oh Mercy! follows a police precinct in Roubaix as it pursues various cases. Throughout, director Arnaud Desplechin is bracingly concerned less with any isolated crime or character than he is in conveying simultaneousness by seizing on stray details. Thereâs a sense here of the dwarfing mechanics of maintaining process amid chaos, which is rare for films and common of perfunctory crime novels. Before the authorities in Oh Mercy! can comprehend an act of arson, a serial rapist commits another assault in a subway. And before someone can make sense of that action, a girl runs away. Presiding over the madness is a police captain, Yakoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem), whoâs a quiet and dignified model of patience and sobriety, who must navigate nesting strands of social tensions, on the personal as well as the political level. Oh Mercy! is a striking stylistic departure for Desplechin. By the standards of florid pseudo auto-biopics such as Kings and Queen and Ismaelâs Ghosts, this film is an exercise in formal and tonal restraint. Bowen
Pain and Glory (Pedro AlmodĂłvar)
A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro AlmodĂłvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while AlmodĂłvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteurâs part that he hasnât made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined Law of Desire and Bad Education. Still, however much AlmodĂłvarâs formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever. Mac
Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)
Parasite finds Bong Joon-ho scaling back the high-concept ambitions of Snowpiercer and Okja, in favor of examining a close-knit family dynamic thatâs reminiscent of the one at the center of The Host. Except this time the monster isnât some amphibious abomination that results from extreme genetic mutation, but the insidious forces of class and capital that divide a societyâs people. Parasite is an excoriating indictment of South Koreaâs dehumanizing social culture, mounted by Bong with a dazzling control of genre conventions that he continues to seamlessly bend to his absurd comic rhythms. The film is also reinstates the emotional core thatâs been missing from Bongâs recent work, and even feigns a concise narrative structure. Itâs the kind of bold and uncompromising work that confirms why Bong is one of our most exciting auteurs, for how his sociocultural criticisms can be so biting, so pungent, when theyâre imbued with such great focus and sense of intent. Mac
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (CĂ©line Sciamma)
CĂ©line Sciammaâs Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a taxonomy of gazes thatâs also a discourse on them. This sweeping portrayal of a romance doomed to brevity asks how to memorialize an image, but also how to keep it eternally alive. Sciamma isnât out to question the gazes exchanged between Marianne (NoĂ©mie Merlant) and HĂ©loĂŻse (AdĂ©le Haenel), but to point out that one gaze is always met by another, and whatâs most stirring about her film is the lack of artifice in HĂ©loĂŻse and Marianneâs feelings for one another. The film frustrates when it feels compelled to elucidate those struggles in words, or through a hokey flashback structure (that, it should be said, yields to an ecstatic final shot). Sciammaâs script has more than a handful of dazzling turns of phrase, but itâs also unnecessarily keen to give some present-day relevance to a romance thatâs assuredly timeless. Where her prior films have excelled in situating their protagonists in complex, sometimes hostile societies, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is at its most beguiling and probing when the rest of the world feels far away. Gray
Saturday Fiction (Lou Ye)
With Saturday Fiction, divisive Chinese director Lou Ye applies a distinctly modern film vernacular to an anachronistic period setting. As in Michael Mannâs Public Enemies, the digital image, disjunctive editing, and a roving handheld camera serve to tether the filmmaking of the present to more remote events of the past, lending immediacy to the action. In Public Enemies, this served to frame what weâre watching as a construct of mediaâhistory bleeding into myth and articulated through a modern-day understanding of celebrity. But in this film, the artifice also exists to complement his World War II spy narrativeâs preoccupation with different modes of performativity. And at the center of all this is screen legend Gong Li, who, in her first film role in three years, gradually undergoes a transformation from passive observer into gun-wielding firebrand, resulting in the most truly iconic performance that the actress has delivered in decades. Mac
Sibyl (Justine Triet)
Justine Triet uses the relationship between the creative process and the work of psychoanalysis, or its simplified cinematic version, as raw material for her latest dramedy. Sibyl follows the madcap efforts and subterfuges that the eponymous alcoholic therapist (Virginie Efira) deploys in order to finally write a novel. And the first step she takes is to get rid of most of her patientsâmost, not all, so that thereâs always a lifeline connecting the new Sibyl to the old one. That is, so Sibyl never has to truly let go of anything at all. This tactic, beyond mere plot device, is the first crucial clue, or symptom, that Triet discloses about Sibyl as the filmmaker smartly humanizes the figure of the therapist as someone in desperate need of a therapist herself. The initial line in Sibylâs (non-)emancipatory equation, to start anew by keeping her old life handy, is one of the filmâs many instances of mirroring, as some viewers will easily recognize in Sibylâs pursuits their own tendency to make half-decisions. Which is to say, the way we can fool ourselves into thinking that weâre pursuing something whereas weâre secretly pursuing something elseâsomething less avowable. Semerene
Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)
Nadav Lapidâs Synonyms doesnât hew to a steadily progressing plot. The attraction Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) feel to Yoav (Tom Mercier), and the tensions that drove Yoav away from Israel, will come full circle, but only after the film takes a circuitous route through Yoavâs brief employment in security at the Israeli embassy; his friendship with a militant Zionist who tries to provoke fights he can claim as anti-Semitic attacks; and a required assimilation class he takes as he attempts to legitimately immigrate. A certain calculated inconsistency in style and pacing also makes the film feel elusive and estranging, but thatâs most likely the point. Certainly one concern of Synonyms is the irrational sickness thatâs nationalism: At times it appears that Israeli nationalism has driven Yoav mad, given him his detached affect and his habit of obsessively reciting synonyms in the street. Funny, frustrating, and stealthily sad, Synonyms is a bold film about the refusal to assimilate in one country, and the failure to assimilate in another. Pat Brown
To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Kiyoshi Kurosawaâs latest is a radical departure for the auteur, as it isnât beholden to a taut narrative. Instead, itâs squarely focused on characterâa strategy that results in his most intricately rendered portrait of the psychology of fear to date. To the Ends of the Earth is not, by any measure, a horror film, but it uses aesthetic and philosophical foundations that Kurosawa laid in his genre work to insinuate tensions and anxieties lurking beneath the serene surface of everyday life. The filmâs setup could almost be interpreted as a kind of self-aware joke: A Japanese camera crew arrives in Uzbekistan with the purpose of shooting footage for a travel show and becomes increasingly frustrated over not having enough usable material. As such, generally little in the way of incident occurs for much of the film. However, To the Ends of the Earth isnât just a meandering film born of an auteurâs plane ticket to a foreign country: If Kurosawa is less interested in narrative dynamics, itâs because heâs focused on an acute understanding of societally and sociologically conditioned behavior. Mac
The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)
Though Pierfrancesco Favino plays Sicilian mob boss turned informant Tommaso Buscetta with the stern poise of a criminal boss, the gangster easily, almost comically buckles under the slightest pressure from the state. But itâs in director Marco Bellocchioâs depiction of the âMaxi Trialâ in a heavily fortified courtroom in Palermo that The Traitor completes its metamorphosis from a grisly, stone-faced drama about mob violence into an almost farcical satire of Italyâs justice system. Unfortunately, as is often the case with contemporary Italian genre pieces, the film is too brutish by half, as well as 40 minutes too long. The comic brio of Bellocchioâs staging of the âMaxi Trialâ invigorates The Traitor, but he surprisingly wraps up that arc with close to an hour left in the filmâs running time. The extended final act, which follows Tommaso and his family as they enter into American witness protection before ultimately returning to Italy for a series of follow-up trials, drifts along without clear purpose, unevenly oscillating between the comedic and the somber. Cole
Varda by AgnĂšs (AgnĂšs Varda)
AgnĂšs Vardaâs final film is essentially a lecture, with the iconic filmmakerâs talks from multiple events threading together highlights from her oeuvre. Throughout, she shares the underlying inspiration for films like ClĂ©o from 5 to 7 and details her creative process. While her other documentaries (among them The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of AgnĂšs, and Faces Places) have often explored the intersection between art and life, Varda by AgnĂšs finds the filmmaker far less able to extend her gaze beyond her own work. She allows herself to go off on tangents, and, ironically, her ancillary thoughts feel a bit less navel-gazing than the filmâs main thrust. For one, the story about directing Robert De Niro for one day for her final fiction film, One Hundred and One Nights, should seem an extraneous bit of boasting, but Vardaâs bashfully excited tone makes it seem generous. And whenever she talks about her beloved husband, director Jacques Demy, who died of AIDS in 1990, the film also approaches a kind of âsharingâ not borrowed from her previous work. Brown
Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)
As in Horse Money, shadows blanket Vitalina Varela, with slivers of light only illuminating people and whatever objects writer-director Pedro Costa wishes to call attention to. This yields images that are arresting on their face but also hint at richer meanings, as in a shot of Vitalina (Vitalina Varela) in silhouette folding the safety vest of a construction worker who stands in a doorway in the background, also in shadow, with only the reflective green-yellow of the vest giving off any light. The sight of immigrants obscured from view as a symbol of their menial labor glows in the foreground speaks volumes to a way of life that consumes the characters. Yet the film is no polemic. It raises delicate questions about postcolonial immigration, such as whether breadwinning vanguards should gamble on the allure of the unknown to make way for a possibly better life or settle for the hard but known life they already have. The filmâs oblique nature elides any simple interpretations, and the irresoluteness of the social commentary mingles with Vitalinaâs personal ruminations over her life. The film, like Colossal Youth and Horse Money, is a ghost story. Cole
Wasp Network (Olivier Assayas)
Both too much and not enough, writer-director Olivier Assayasâs Wasp Network takes a surprisingly little-known chapter in the post-Cold War espionage game and starts to blow it up into an epic-sized story before losing the thread. Based on Fernando Moraisâs 2011 book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, the film starts out as a crisply paced, lavishly photographed, and character-based study of what the members of the so-called âCuban Fiveâ spy ring did and how they did it. Unfortunately, it spreads its attentions so wide and at times without consequence that the import of the events it depicts starts to get lost. While it was exciting to hear that Assayas had shifted away from his literate urban dramas, Wasp Network is ultimately a misstep. Because it never fully embraces the Cold War spy narrative and fails to dig in-depth into the storyâs tangle of intrigue and moral murk, the final product feels like more of an interesting and beautifully filmed anecdote than compelling political and human drama. Christopher Gray
The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)
Mercilessly efficient and righteously cynical, writer-director Corneliu Porumboiuâs The Whistlers is nested with twists that place corrupt Bucharest policeman, corrupt Bucharest policeman, further and further from discovering whoâs manipulating the byzantine plot he finds himself enmeshed within on La Gomera, the âpearlâ of the Canary Islands. Cristiâs inability to make sense of his place in the very case heâs investigating is just one of the filmâs cruel, quite funny jokes. Another is Silbo, a whistled register of the Spanish language that inspires the filmâs title. Composed of a half dozen notes that each represent certain letters of the Spanish alphabet, the ancient language has been used by natives of La Gomera for generations. Throughout, Porumboiu largely handles The Whistlersâs persistent strain of artifice masterfully, hurtling his narrative ahead even as heâs jumbling timeframes and lingering in moments of ironic menace. Though the film is sometimes too liberal in its arsenal of references, Porumboiu executes his plot with a persistently low-key swagger, coaxing his actors into memorable but perfectly blank performances. Gray
The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan)
Diao Yinanâs The Wild Goose Lake is a crackerjack genre exercise, but itâs up to a fair bit more than it might at first seem. Diao joins other contemporary Chinese filmmakers like Vivian Qu (Trap Street) and Xin Yukun (Wrath of Silence) in recognizing that genre movies offer a kind of smokescreen for a form of sociopolitical engagement that the Chinese censors likely wouldnât otherwise approve. Which is to say, the heightened violence and ugliness of a crime film seems to allow for a kind of depiction of Chinese social life that wouldnât be acceptable from a ârealisticâ drama. Diao takes this all a bit further, however, utilizing the sprawling geography of whatâs essentially a chase film to deep-dive into the sordid underbelly of a Chinese society where lawlessness trumps order. The Wild Goose Lakeâs masterstroke is that its fugitive antiheroes are framed by an environment that reflects their criminal lives back at them, seemingly no matter where they turn. Mac
Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
In many of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenneâs films, elliptical structures communicate the scattershot-ness of peopleâs lives, suggesting an endless string of calamity and confusion. But in Young Ahmed, the ellipses suggest an unwillingness to imagine an aspiring radicalâs inner life. Initially, the Dardennes donât exactly engender pity for Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), as that response would compromise their fetishizing of his impenetrability as a testament to their own humanist bona fides. They maintain a distance from the Belgian teen as a way of celebrating their refusal to reduce him to any easy psychological bullet points, which ironically reduces him to a signifier of their virtue. Yet Ahmedâs seduction by a manipulative mentor, Imam Youssouf (Othmane Mouman), is still fleetingly âexplainedâ with references to family trauma that unsurprisingly suggest that Ahmed has daddy issues and is looking for a mentor. The Dardennes donât dramatize these traumas, as such events might destabilize the plaintive quotidian mood they cultivate throughout and require them to stretch and challenge the strict boundaries theyâve applied to this subject matter. Bowen
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)
Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonelloâs Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the directorâs prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee MĂ©lissa (Wislanda Louimat)âclassmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon BonaparteâBonelloâs interests go much deeper than race relations. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonelloâs artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. Mac
Locarno Film Festival 2019: Technoboss, Echo, & A Voluntary Year
A striking number of the titles that appeared in the festivalâs competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register.
Locarno often leans into its reputation as Europeâs most unapologetically highbrow summer festival, but a striking number of the titles that appeared in the festivalâs competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register. Such as JoĂŁo Nicolauâs Technoboss, an unwaveringly deadpan musical comedy about an aging divorcĂ©, LuĂs (Miguel Lobo Antunes), nearing the end of what seems to have been a tedious career selling and maintaining integrated security systems. His existence is far from enviable, as heâs past his prime as a salesman and baffled by modern technology, while his primary companion is his cat. To compound the overriding sense of ennui, Nicolau presents a decidedly drab vision of Portugal, all cramped offices, cluttered shop floors, and soulless hotels.
LuĂs, though, remains optimistic, as evinced by his tendency to burst into song as he drives between assignments, and by the quietly determined way in which he attempts to regain the affection of an old flame, Lucinda (Luisa Cruz), despite her apparent disdain for him. Antunes, in his first professional acting role, is compelling, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye that hints at a rich inner life. And while his vocal range is limited, to say the least, he brings an earnestness to the musical numbers that elevates them above mere quirky window dressing.
Ultimately, the film is too narratively slight and tonally monotonous to justify its two-hour running time. One running joke in particular, involving a smarmy executive whoâs frequently heard off screen but never seen, runs out of steam in the final act. And yet, when viewed in close proximity to the likes of Park Jung-bumâs dreary crime drama Height of the Wave, which bafflingly won this yearâs special jury prize, Technoboss is a breath of fresh air.
Runar Runarssonâs Echo isnât exactly a laugh a minute: An early scene depicts the preparation for a childâs funeral, while subsequent sequences revolve around police brutality, domestic violence, and the lasting impact of childhood bullying. But itâs delightful to behold Runarssonâs sly execution of a formally bold premise. Clocking in at 79 minutes, the film is composed of 56 standalone vignettes connected by a Christmas setting. The constant narrative shifts are initially jarring, but recurring themes begin to emerge: rising social inequality in the aftermath of the financial crisis; the impact of modern technology on traditional ways of life; the drabness of winter and its impact on the countryâs collective mental health.
Yet while the filmâs underlying tone is melancholic, there are frequent bursts of pure comedy, from the absurd spectacle of abattoir workers bopping along to a jaunty rendition of âJingle Bellsâ amid animal carcasses, to a farmer and her partner earnestly squabbling about the state of their relationship as they document the mating habits of their goats. Humor also arises through the juxtaposition of scenes. The haunting image of a boy in a coffin is followed by a clinical shot of a similarly motionless adult body, and it takes a moment to register that weâre looking at not another corpse, but rather a man lying under a tanning lamp. Later, a heartwarming kidsâ nativity scene cuts abruptly to a shot of bikini-clad bodybuilders performing in a harshly lit, half-empty auditorium.
However, itâs Echoâs sincerity that really impresses. One sequence, in which an emergency services operator calmly reassures a child reporting a violent altercation between his parents, is remarkable in the way it hooks the viewer emotionally in mere seconds. The film ultimately coheres into a vivid portrait of contemporary Iceland thatâs equal parts bleak and beguiling.
A Voluntary Year, co-directed by Berlin School alumni Ulrich KĂ¶hler and Henner Winckler, is a similarly bittersweet affair, walking a fine line between raw domestic drama and precision-engineered comedy of errors. Sebastian Rudolph stars as Urs, an off-puttingly pushy small-town doctor intent on packing his teenage daughter Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke) off to Costa Rica to volunteer in a hospital. Jette, though, would rather spend her gap year at home with her boyfriend, Mario (Thomas Schubert), who seems harmless enough but has been written off as a poisonous influence by Urs. A sequence of mishaps in the thrillingly unpredictable opening act gives the young couple a brief chance to take charge of their own futures, but the decision Jette hastily makes pushes her strained relationship with her father towards breaking point.
KĂ¶hler and Winckler do a fine job of eliciting sympathy for their deeply flawed characters. Jette is maddeningly indecisive and prone to overly dramatic outbursts, but her brash exterior masks deep-seated vulnerability. Meanwhile, itâs easy to share Ursâs disbelief that Jette should be even remotely infatuated with the woefully uncharismatic Mario, but the boyâs earnestness ultimately proves strangely endearing. Urs is much harder to warm to, as heâs the quintessential big fish in a small pond, clearly used to throwing his weight around and getting his own way. To add insult to injury, his handling of sensitive situations is often jaw-droppingly misjudged. And yet, the viewer is given a strong enough sense of his good intentions to at least partially root for him as he attempts to patch things up with Jette.
While it may not do this modest film any favors to make the comparison, there are shades of Maren Adeâs masterly Toni Erdmann in The Voluntary Yearâs nuanced depiction of a fraught father-daughter relationship, and also in the way the filmmakers play the long game when it comes to delivering comic payoffs. An enigmatic narrative thread involving a migrant boy has a laugh-out-loud resolution that also neatly paves the way for a moving final scene.
The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 7â17.
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