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Art of the Real 2016: The Mesh and the Circle, Roundabout in My Head, The Moon and the Sledgehammer, & The Woods Where Dreams Are Made Of

Implicit in Hassen Ferhani’s Roundabout in My Head is the notion that there should be a certain level of trust between filmmaker and his subjects.

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Art of the Real 2016: The Mesh and the Circle, Roundabout in My Head, The Moon and the Sledgehammer, & The Woods Where Dreams Are Made Of
Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

Can cinema be a vehicle for thought? It’s a question that has been bandied around since at least the silent era days of Jean Epstein. That it can seems to be the premise that undergirds Mariana Caló and Francisco Queimadela’s half-hour The Mesh and the Circle, a cerebral meditation on the nature of the moving image. This philosophic inquiry kicks off with a display of the kind of rigorous formalism reminiscent of Hollis Frampton: An unnamed narrator, who we only recognize through a pair of ostensibly male hands, writes out—instead of speaks—the film’s “script” in a blank journal in a dark room, illuminated only by an adjacent projector throwing images onto a screen. “Film can be a labyrinth,” the hand writes, “where we lose and find ourselves.” The analogical meaning of this shot is clear enough: The narrator’s hands literally “write” the film and the projected images are presumably the very ones that compose the film we’re seeing.

Yet despite the film’s theoretical posturing, its motif of choice could hardly be more concrete: pairs of hands involved in some kind of work, be it in rubbing eyebrows, holding paintbrushes, cutting paper, opening locks, spinning clay, hammering out a copper plate, or dipping metal into molten lava. Altogether, these images, woven together in a brisk, percussive manner, are tightly framed so as to exclude the subjects’ faces—an abstraction that brings to mind the stylistics of Robert Bresson. Though it begins arcanely, the film finds its grounding in these montages of labor. “Hand is the brain…the brain is the hand,” the narrator posits at one point, as if to assert that this film is as much a material concept as a conjectural one—in other words, that it’s as brainy as it is pleasurable.

Supplementing these images is a drone-like, background noise (diegetic sound is mostly absent) that peters in an out of prominence on the soundtrack, resembling at times the sound of airplanes blitzing through the sky or the soft murmur of bees. Indeed, though The Mesh and the Circle may start off resembling nothing so much as a gimcrack graduate thesis, it quickly reveals itself to be just as preoccupied with providing a sensuous, nearly hypnotic, viewing experience.

Labor also appears as a theme in Hassen Ferhani’s Roundabout in My Head, an interior look into one of Algeria’s oldest slaughterhouses. Had the film been produced under the auspices of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, one can imagine it being chock-full of long, gratuitous takes on writhing cows, hacked limbs, and splayed blood, all in the name of empirical study. In that, Ferhani deserves some credit for bucking the cozy aesthetic of recent trends, and opting to capture something much more elusive, and ultimately more interesting: the political mood of contemporary Algerian youth.

The slaughterhouse, where feral cats nip at the entrails that litter the perpetually wet tiled floors, may not be the most likely place to stumble across sophisticated conversation about the future of a nation, but Ferhani’s main subjects, the twentysomething duo of Yusuf (thin, worrisome, and skeptical) and the portly “Uncle” Ali (a child of the Arab Spring and preternaturally optimistic) are clearly singular in this regard. “Only going underground can save us!” Ali blurts out during a late-night debate. Yusuf retorts in his customary fatalism: “You can’t do a thing against the state.” While Yusuf’s qualms (“My brain is upside down and full of paths”) are what inform the title of Ferhani’s film, it’s Ali’s buoyant confidence that impresses. Together, their sharp, passionate discourse offer a compelling pulse of those down on their luck. Ferhani is careful, however, to ensure he doesn’t paint his subjects simply as talking heads. Yusuf and Ali are buddies, foremost, and Ferhrani works to keep that brotherly spirit alive by shooting them in the most casual of places, like on sidewalk curbs, where Ferhani tells Yusuf, “Suffering for love, that’s beautiful! It’s a beautiful kind of suffering,” or in their bedrooms where they watch French-dubbed thrillers.

While neither Yusuf nor Ali are able to agree on a political action that can be beneficial to both their own desires and the prosperity of the country, they will agree with Ferhani that for most working-class Algerians, and perhaps for people all over the globe, incessant work stultifies the mind and, more damning, keeps you broke. Toward the end, an elderly man gingerly takes out his work ID, dating back to 1945, when he first entered the slaughterhouse. “I’ve been working for so long,” he says with heavy regret. “I could’ve had a better position…but today, I clean toilets.”

Implicit in Roundabout in My Head is the notion that there should be a certain level of trust between filmmaker and his subjects. Such an orientation, however, is a foreign concept to Philip Trevelyan, whose 1971 film The Moon and the Sledgehammer, a folktale-like sketch of an eccentric family of luddites living deep in the woods somewhere south of London, lacks sophistication. The Page clan, consisting of the proud, pipe-smoking Mr. Page, his sons, Peter and Jim, and his daughters, Kathy and Nancy, lead an Edenic life completely removed from modern technocracy. For them, the modern age is filled with lazy blokes who won’t work and run by a government that “[keeps] putting things up.” Here in their isolated dwelling, the women take care of the home and knit in their spare time. When they’re not hunting, the men, in the film’s quirkiest aspect, work on overblown, steam-powered machines straight out of the 19th century. Their resistance is admirable.

A natural showman who shows up in each frame sporting a three-piece tweed suit and pipe, Mr. Page is keenly aware of Trevelyan’s camera, starting scenes with flourishes like: “Ladies and gentleman, I’m about to make a boat!” Pity that Peter and Jim aren’t nearly as interesting as their father, and the women, reduced to wallflower status under Trevelyan’s gaze, are practically written out of the film altogether.

The Pages aren’t as outlandish as, say, the Beales in Grey Gardens, but their collective oddities seem to be taken advantage of by Trevelyan, whose objective, styleless manner of shooting supposedly precludes prejudice. All too often, the filmmaker creates the impression that he’s giddily awaiting for the next bizarre moment, like a zoologist eager to take back his findings to his colleagues, or worse, a muckraker snooping around for tomorrow’s headline. Trevelyan even goads Mr. Page on at one point in a discussion about which animals make the best pets, asking him with feigned innocence, “What about kangaroos?” To which Mr. Page responds with a lengthy, considered answer. Still, Mr. Page’s charming ruminations on such topics as overpopulation and people’s mass abandonment of country life (“There’s no one to work the land and feed the population”) manage to carry the film.

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For the multitude of men and women who flock to the Bois de Vincennes on any given day, their purpose for using the forest isn’t so different from that of the Pages. They seek refuge and clarity among the greenery, if only for a few hours. At least, that’s the point that Claire Simon emphatically makes in her handheld sylvan trek The Woods Where Dreams Are Made Of. Simon casts a broad, democratic overview of the incredibly eclectic group of men and women who, for one reason or another, find solace in Paris’s largest park. Nobody, apparently, is unimportant to Simon, as she encounters in her perambulation an ex-boxer, a painter, Cambodian refugees, garbagemen, single mothers, landscape architects, and bikers, to name a few. Misfit or not, the Vincennes accommodates all. (Considering the growing xenophobic rhetoric of France’s National Front party, Simon’s portrait of an integrated community is a stiff and timely jab.) Simon’s affectionate eye is best revealed in her rapport with Stéphanie, a young mother and “12-to-seven” prostitute for whom the Vincennes is her “office,” enabling her to make an independent living without the intrusion of a pimp. “This is my patch,” she tells Simon, gleefully smiling. The film runs on longer than it should, sure, but it’s a small concession for a work that can make even the most parochial a bit more empathetic.

Art of the Real runs from April 8—21.

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Locarno Film Festival 2019: Technoboss, Echo, & A Voluntary Year

A striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register.

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Technoboss
Photo: Locarno

Locarno often leans into its reputation as Europe’s most unapologetically highbrow summer festival, but a striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register. Such as João Nicolau’s Technoboss, an unwaveringly deadpan musical comedy about an aging divorcé, Luís (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 he’s 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.

Luís, 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 who’s 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-bum’s dreary crime drama Height of the Wave, which bafflingly won this year’s special jury prize, Technoboss is a breath of fresh air.

Runar Runarsson’s Echo isn’t exactly a laugh a minute: An early scene depicts the preparation for a child’s funeral, while subsequent sequences revolve around police brutality, domestic violence, and the lasting impact of childhood bullying. But it’s delightful to behold Runarsson’s 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 country’s collective mental health.

Yet while the film’s 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 “Jingle Bells” 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 we’re looking at not another corpse, but rather a man lying under a tanning lamp. Later, a heartwarming kids’ nativity scene cuts abruptly to a shot of bikini-clad bodybuilders performing in a harshly lit, half-empty auditorium.

However, it’s Echo’s 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 that’s equal parts bleak and beguiling.

A Voluntary Year, co-directed by Berlin School alumni Ulrich Köhler 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.

Köhler 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, it’s easy to share Urs’s disbelief that Jette should be even remotely infatuated with the woefully uncharismatic Mario, but the boy’s earnestness ultimately proves strangely endearing. Urs is much harder to warm to, as he’s 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 Ade’s masterly Toni Erdmann in The Voluntary Year’s 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.

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The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 7—17.

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The National and the Global Intersect at the 2019 Jerusalem Film Festival

Even the most casual exchanges at the festival ended with some variation of a sentiment that arose as a mantra: “It’s complicated.”

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Peaches and Cream
Photo: The Jerusalem Film Festival

Gur Bentwich’s Peaches and Cream contains a running joke that resonated in the context of the 36th Jerusalem Film Festival. Bentwich follows a director named Zuri (played by Bentwich) who undergoes an odyssey after his new film, also called Peaches and Cream, has been indifferently received on its opening weekend. In various encounters, people tell Zuri that they prefer European to Israeli cinema—claims that feel ironic given the way that the lurid and feverish nature of Bentich’s film feels pointedly European and American in sensibility. Peaches and Cream’s wandering camera, eroticized women, and narcissistic macho anxiety suggests a Fellini production as viewed through the prism of contemporary American films like After Hours, Listen Up Philip, and Birdman, creating a friction. Zuri and Bentwich—the two are deliberately indistinguishable—have both made a quasi-European film only to be discounted for not being European enough for Israeli cinephiles.

I thought of Bentwich’s running joke when the international critics’ delegation of which I was a part—and which also included writers from China, Poland, Lithuania, Portugal, Russia, and Slovakia—was treated to a dinner with a group of Israeli critics. Peaches and Cream came up in conversation, with one Israeli writer voicing his irritation with the film’s references to Western cinema, the sort of fealty which he said was part of the problem of Israel’s cinematic exposure to the rest of the world. Western films reference one another, he said, creating an echo chamber that serves as an affirmation of legacy, while Israeli cinema tends to emulate not itself but the West as well. This writer’s sentiments echoed comments I heard at the Warsaw Film Festival last year, from critics and filmmakers from various countries.

Such conversations are reminders that pop culture is one of the West’s great legacies and means of influence. (In Tel Aviv for a few days after leaving the festival, I noticed that every bar in my neighborhood played vintage American music, from Bob Dylan to the Talking Heads to Alice Cooper to the Notorious B.I.G.) Another joke in Peaches and Cream almost subliminally parodies the neuroses that such an attitude may inspire: Zuri fights to keep posters of his film up in public, trying to protect them from being obscured by other notices.

Relatedly, I saw a Peaches and Cream sticker that had been stuck on a large banner for Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, a hot-ticket item at the festival. The banner’s commanding image—of a tormented and gray-bearded Antonio Banderas, who won the best actor trophy at this year’s Cannes for his performance, casting a shadow in the shape of Almodóvar himself against a red backdrop—had been merged with an advertisement for Bentwich’s film, the round sticker providing Banderas with a makeshift eyepatch that cheekily embodied the very intersection between Israeli and international cinema that drives the JFF at large. The festival had one of the most eclectic lineups that I’ve seen, including vintage restorations, lurid thrillers, many Cannes entries, notable American films from last year, documentaries, shorts, and homegrown Israeli productions, which were often the most difficult to get into.

Generally, my fellow critics didn’t care much for Peaches and Cream, finding it narcissistic and borderline sexist—qualities which struck me as part of the film’s joke. There’s no way that an actor-director, other than maybe Kevin Costner, could give himself this many close-ups without a satirical intent. Peaches and Cream is a messy and unruly film, at least until the requisite redemption provided by the third act, and it indicates the Jerusalem Film Festival’s taste for bold formalism. Most festivals open with a bland audience-pleaser, while the 36th edition of the festival kicked off with Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winning Parasite, which is the very embodiment of confrontational political cinema.

Parasite initially suggests a South Korean cover of a Patricia Highsmith novel, with a family that literally lives under the surface of mainstream society conning its way into jobs with a wealthy household. In the film’s first hour, the greatest achievement of Bong’s career to date, viewers are encouraged to enjoy the poor family’s ruse, which the filmmaker renders with svelte long takes and pans that elucidate shifting modes of power while providing visceral visual pleasure. Bong’s kinetics are also a form of misdirection, as the film’s tone gradually curdles, with the class resentment that’s been percolating under the narrative’s surface eventually exploding into a massacre that suggests a microcosm of both revolution and genocide. As always, Bong clinches his themes and symbolism too tightly, but Parasite is still a significant comeback from the exhaustingly broad Snowpiercer and Okja.

The setting of Parasite’s premiere at the JFF intensified the film’s power, as it was shown at the Sultan’s Pool, a striking outdoor amphitheater from which you can see the walls of the Old City, the Tower of David, and even, from certain angles, portions of Palestine. Now a legendary venue that’s hosted the likes of Eric Clapton and Dire Straits, the Sultan’s Pool was a site for children’s sacrifices centuries earlier, before it was later modernized by Herod into a portion of Jerusalem’s water supply system. Before Parasite’s premiere, there were many speeches testifying to Israel’s dedication to cinema, including an appearance by the country’s president, Reuven Rivlin. This pageantry isn’t without tension, given the conservative government’s hostility to films that are critical of authority, which was expressed by the audience’s traditional booing of the Minister of Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, who’s wanted to cut the government’s funding of the arts, and who appeared at the JFF this year via a pre-taped speech. Which is to say that, in a setting freighted with ghosts and nesting political tensions, in a city and country with as much cultural baggage as any in the world, a left-wing horror film like Parasite carries extra weight. It even feels a bit like a dare.

Film festivals can be a paradox. On one hand, they’re the ideal of the world most artists and critics would like to live in, one where like-minded people share the experience of art, food, and drink as communion, though they’re also dream realms that cast a potentially insidious illusion of rebellion, giving audiences a faux catharsis that enables the very repression that artists and critics are often railing against. Aren’t festivals, regardless of the politics of the art they program, ultimately P.R. for governments that still do whatever they like? (Perhaps Regev either doesn’t understand this possibility or is expertly playing her role as a liberal foil.) In such contexts, I think of Matrix Reloaded, in which the hero learns, in what must be one of the most convoluted speeches in the history of cinema, that he’s a tool for providing an appearance of hope and choice to a population that’s still nevertheless controlled.

Yet it also feels unfair to single out the festival experience for this train of thought, as all artistic endeavors run the risk of rendering palatable the sources of their ire—a topic we also touched on at the critics’ dinner. Art opens us up to other cultures and ideas, but it can also lull us into a kind of waking sleep, making us think we’ve initiated change merely by going to a festival or watching a film or posting something critical on Facebook or Twitter. And this danger of art is especially material when one gorges on the fruits of creativity for days at a time. The act of sipping a drink and eating nice dishes before the Parasite premiere while surveying the Palestinian landscape does, for instance, carry a certain frisson. Many films playing at the festival were concerned with the legacy of Israel, particularly regarding Palestine, and the Israeli critics and press openly spoke of these ambiguities. Even casual exchanges with journalists and average filmgoers alike ended with some variation of a sentiment that arose as a recurring festival manta: “It’s complicated.”

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The JFF seems intent on working within the system by using government funding as well as donations to both preserve and establish an Israeli cinematic canon, which it compares and contrasts with the cinema of the rest of the world. Many of the festival’s screenings were held in the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which is located near the Sultan’s Pool and houses a film archive. The delegation was invited to take a tour of the archive, and in the labs we saw ravishing silent images of Jerusalem desert that have since been modernized as part of the city. We also spoke with people who are restoring films from Israel and other countries. Several restorations played at the festival, among them Amos Guttman’s 1986 crime drama Bar 51 and Clemente Fracassi’s 1953 opera Aida, a stagey yet hypnotic Verdi adaptation featuring a gorgeous Sophia Loren and Technicolor that might make the artists of Hammer Films blush.

Color is used to florid and rapturous effect in another JFF selection, Karim Aïnouz’s The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão. The film tells one of the oldest of melodramatic tales, following two sisters who’re separated from one another in 1950s-era Brazil by a patriarchal system that fetishizes female obedience. Eurídice (Carol Duarte) is an aspiring pianist, while her older sister, Guida (Julia Stockler), is a free spirit who runs off with a Greek sailor. Returning home single and pregnant, Guida is rejected by their father, Manuel (Antonio Fonseca), who calls her a slut and lies to each girl about the other in order to keep them apart. It’s a ruse that will haunt the family for the rest of their lives.

Starting with the film’s opening, a humid fantasy sequence in a tropical forest that serves as a metaphor for the girls’ eventual plight, Aïnouz goes stylistically big, utilizing a swooping camera and a wrenching score to sweep us up in Eurídice and Guida’s longing for one another, which resembles romantic passion. This texture gives The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, which won the Un Certain Regard prize at this year’s Cannes, a streak of perversity that’s amplified by the explosion of harlequin reds and blues that signify dwarfed desire. Though this film has an unimpeachably feminist sensibility, Aïnouz also evinces remarkable sympathy for Manuel, a square who’s stymied by his devotion to a hypocritical culture. A shot of the man waiting for his “good” daughter and her child in a restaurant, while the “bad” daughter spies on them unseen, is among the most haunting images I’ve seen this year.

Colors serve the story of Aïnouz’s film, while color is much of the story driving Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake, a Chinese gangster drama that grows increasingly hallucinatory as it somewhat moseys toward its climax. The narrative opens on a man with a past, Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), as he meets a woman, Liu (Gwei Lun-mei), from the wrong side of the tracks. We soon learn that Zhou is waiting for a different woman, though Liu assures him of her loyalty. But the play of light and rain across these arresting faces is more commanding than this expositional business, with Diao soon splintering his plot into suggestive abstraction, as we learn how Zhou became a hunted man enmeshed in a war between crooks and law enforcers. The plot becomes so riven with betrayals and reversals that one’s encouraged to digest the film as pure poetry, homing in on the explosive hues and stunning action scenes and foreboding shadows and, particularly, the pervading feeling of rootlessness and loss that’s occasionally exacerbated by brutal violence. The Wild Goose Lake is a ballad of aggression and decay, relating a shaggy dog story that’s truly a portrait of a country eating itself alive.

Color has a colder and more sinister purpose in two of the other thrillers I saw at JFF. In Vivarium, through sheer force of will and formalism, director Lorcan Finnegan makes a potentially trite premise eerie and suggestive. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a couple looking to move in together, and on a whim they agree to look at a townhome in a yuppie neighborhood that they’re sure they’ll despise. The neighborhood is revealed to represent corporate efficiency and impersonality to the ultimate degree, with identical, unforgettably hideous pea-green homes that suggest Monopoly pieces as arranged by the Tim Burton of Edward Scissorhands. The neighborhood is so generic, in fact, that Gemma and Tom get lost trying to leave, until it’s revealed that they’re trapped here via supernatural means, and forced to raise a child (Senan Jennings) who suggests an ill-tempered robot, screaming at a glass-shattering pitch when he isn’t fed on time.

Finnegan understands that to explain his premise too much is to dispel its power, and the vagueness of his narrative serves to place the audience in his protagonists’ shoes. The filmmaker also doesn’t over-emphasize the obvious thematic hook, which is that Gemma and Tom’s no-exit situation suggests a nightmarish version of the disappointment that can arise when people succumb to the social pressure to mate, procreate, and attain boring jobs in the name of respectability. As precisely made as Vivarium is, with irrational images that are worthy of classic horror cinema, it’s all concept. Gemma and Tom are merely sketches of the fear and ennui that arrive on the cusp of reaching middle age. The characters’ immediate accommodation of their new hell feels truthful, but it also robs Vivarium of urgency. Once one accepts its message, which is clear early on, there’s nowhere else for the film to go.

In certain fashions, Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe is reminiscent of Vivarium, though it’s a richer and more unsettling work. Both films feature intensely symmetrical imagery and rich colors that suggest a mockery of the emotions that are being suppressed by the rigid settings. But there’s more mystery and emotional variety in Little Joe; one can’t quite pinpoint the meaning of Hausner’s aesthetic flourishes, such as deliberately unmotivated dolly shots that cut characters out of certain frames in order to emphasize windows or other passageways. And why does a laboratory for breeding plants suggest a Wes Anderson set, with clothes that match the colors of certain pieces of furniture? This color scheme subliminally complements the plant that Alice (Emily Beech, who won the best actress prize at this year’s Cannes for her performance) has bred. Her creation, which she calls “Little Joe” after her son, Joe (Kit Connor), is obscenely fake-looking, suggesting a combination of a rose and a penis. When the plant is stimulated by human talk, it opens up into full bloom, its bright red head serving to satiate the yearning emanating from Alice, a single mother, and her workaholic compatriots.

The plant is engineered to trigger happiness in humans, a concept that reveals how alien the notion of human interaction is to Alice, who rebuffs her poignantly worshipful colleague, Chris (Ben Whishaw). But Alice, a control freak, stymies the plant in a way that reflects her own alienation, rendering it incapable of reproducing. The plant strikes back, gifting human happiness at a price that steers Little Joe into Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory, leading to a brilliant joke: that Alice, in her self-absorption, can’t see the invasion that’s engulfing the world around her. At times, this stark, sad, weirdly exhilarating film also suggests David Cronenberg’s The Fly, similarly boiling a potentially sprawling plot down to a few settings and characters, evoking an aura of clammy claustrophobia. Cronenberg’s film ended with an operatic crescendo, however, while Hausner keeps us trapped in her hermetic world, in which a plant teaches humans to abandon the possibility of ecstasy.

At the JFF, I missed Yolande Zauberman’s much-buzzed-about M, a documentary about the child abuse that’s wrought in an Orthodox Jewish community, due to considerable demand. I did, though, catch a few documentaries that should earn attention outside of the festival circuit. Ai Weiwei’s The Rest continues the artist’s project of exposing the refugee crisis in Europe, in which countries like France, Turkey, and Greece fight over where to store people who’re fleeing from endless wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and others. Thematically and aesthetically, the film is similar to Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow, though the filmmaker has compressed his footage here, editing The Rest down to 79 minutes’ worth of tactile physical gestures that bring home the reality of the refugees’ lives, divorcing the topic of platitude. We see refugees burning plastic water bottles to start a fire for warmth, people cradling a cat deep into their chest, and, most wrenchingly, Ai Weiwei captures a government destroying a shanty village with a bulldozer, a sequence the filmmaker shoots with a matter-of-factness that’s unflinching and unforgettably moving. Most importantly, Ai Weiwei reminds us of a harsh reality: Most of the refugees merely want to return to their war-torn countries, willing to risk death over the abuse and contempt that awaits them throughout the rest of the world.

Because of the auteur theory, people have an image of films as springing from a maestro director’s head, when they’re really works of communal endeavor. Catherine Hébert’s Ziva Postec reminds us of this fact, following the primary editor of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah as she goes antiquing and recollects the six years she spent culling hundreds of hours of footage into a nearly 10-hour opus that would help define the world’s grasp of the Holocaust. A few startling details emerge. Shoah’s most important formal gambit—the contrast of the aural interviews with filmed footage of Holocaust sites as they looked at the time of the film’s production—didn’t crystallize until years into the post-production process. Also, Postec tells us how she remixed the interviews, adding space between sentences so that dense descriptions of atrocity would attain a musical cadence that would help viewers understand the stories. Hébert eventually connects Postec’s astonishing accomplishment with the editor’s own conflict over her Jewish and Israeli roots, and Ziva Postec becomes a testament of a woman facing her culture’s demons and arising out the mess somewhat cleansed. One senses that this sort of reconciliation—of the demons of the past with the yearnings of the future—is what ultimately drives the JFF at large. Such a bazaar of art allows us to give voice to anxieties and exaltations that are normally thought to be, well, complicated.

The Jerusalem Film Festival ran from July 25—August 4.

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Odessa IFF 2019: La Belle Epoque, Sorry We Missed You, & The Orphanage

The festival feels very much on the rise, both as an international industry shindig and a well-funded driver for cultural tourism.

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La Belle Epoque
Photo: Les Films du Kiosque

The Odessa International Film Festival feels very much on the rise, both as an international industry shindig and a well-funded driver for cultural tourism. Free open-air screenings on the Potemkin Stairs ensured a broad public audience; festival branding adorned buildings all over the gently chaotic city center; a modest film market attracted buyers and sales agents from across Europe; and this year’s guests of honor included Mike Leigh, Catherine Denueve, and Rose McGowan. And yet, in the absence of any significant world premieres, the midsummer event seems to serve largely as a chance for local cinephiles to catch up with highlights from more venerable recent European festivals.

I was particularly struck by three titles, relatively fresh from the Cannes Film Festival, each of which takes a distinctive approach to depicting a family unit under duress. The 10th edition of Odessa IFF opened with Nicolas Bedos’s La Belle Epoque, a crowd-pleasing comedy about a stale long-term relationship and the cultural impact of the digital revolution. Daniel Auteuil stars as Victor, an aging bourgeois Parisian who sees himself as a victim of technological advances: The slow death of print media has put an end to his lucrative job as a newspaper cartoonist, while his wife, Marianne (Fanny Ardant), has taken to donning a VR headset at bedtime to distract herself from the monotony of their passionless marriage.

Victor, however, is offered a shot at regaining his joie de vivre by his son’s friend, Antoine (Guillaume Canet), a screenwriter who’s amassed a fortune devising personalized interactive theater productions that allow wealthy clients to live out their historical fantasies—think Westworld staffed by temperamental actors rather than malevolent robots. For reasons that aren’t immediately apparent to the audience, Antoine owes Victor a debt of gratitude, and so offers the older man his first “experience” on the house. A sentimental soul at heart, Victor elects to relive the day he first met Marianne in a bohemian Lyon bar in 1974. Perhaps inevitably, he swiftly falls for Margot (Doria Tillier), the actress hired to play the young Marianne, who also happens to be Antoine’s on-and-off-again girlfriend.

La Belle Epoque sustains a compellingly off-kilter tone, bouncing viewers disorientingly between the real world and Antoine’s elaborate soundstages. One sequence, in which Victor and Margot escape the set of a weed-fueled ‘70s house party and find themselves in a painstaking reconstruction of Nazi Germany, feels decidedly Charlie Kaufman-esque. And yet the film never fully succumbs to whimsy, as Victor’s nostalgia trip ultimately proves deeply poignant, while the depiction of Antoine and Margot’s dysfunctional relationship introduces a darker view of romance. And while the gags and social commentary are often a little broad, Bedos admirably refuses to hold the viewer’s hand as the intricate plot unfolds, paving the way for several immensely satisfying moments as the puzzle pieces finally slot together.

Ken Loach’s bruising 2016 drama I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, tapped into mounting Brexit anxiety and anti-Tory sentiment to become both the director’s highest-grossing film in the U.K. to date and the subject of heated parliamentary debate over its damning portrayal of Britain’s broken welfare system. Sorry We Missed You sees the octogenarian filmmaker reteam with screenwriter Paul Laverty to deliver another timely, compassionate account of working-class life in North East England.

This time around, the focus is on a nuclear family suffering immensely as a consequence of the gig economy. Former builder Ricky (Kris Hitchen) has struggled to maintain a steady income since the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and thus jumps hastily at the chance to sign a zero-hour contract as a delivery driver. What seems like a valuable opportunity to quickly accumulate cash soon begins to resemble a Kafkaesque nightmare, with humorless traffic wardens, obstinate customers, opportunistic thieves and a thuggish depot manager (Ross Brewster) conspiring to make Ricky’s work life borderline unbearable.

Things aren’t much better for his wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), a benevolent contract nurse with neither the time nor the resources to adequately care for her elderly patients. Adding insult to injury, the couple’s taciturn teenage son, Seb (Rhys Stone), seems intent on punishing Ricky for his failings. And to cap it all off, Seb’s sensitive younger sister, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), has started wetting the bed in response to this domestic disharmony.

In some regards, Sorry We Missed You is an even angrier, more urgent film than I, Daniel Blake. Scenes depicting Ricky’s delivery runs are mini master classes in stomach-churning tension, which hammer home the appalling precariousness of his existence. However, Loach offsets the mounting misery with moments of warmth. A sequence in which the family resolve to make the most of a rare evening together is particularly moving, and serves to make the bitter feuds that inevitably follow all the more heart-wrenching.

By and large, Sorry We Missed You is a little rough around the edges, as some of Ricky’s interactions with customers feel stilted and contrived, while Rhys Stone struggles to convey a convincing sense of Seb’s inner life. And yet, as a tirade against modern Britain’s obscene social inequality, Loach’s latest is undeniably propulsive and persuasive.

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Shahrbanoo Sadat’s warmly received 2016 debut Wolf and Sheep tells a mildly fantastical tale of childhood in 1980s rural Afghanistan, centered partly around a boy named Quodrat (Qodratollah Qadiri). The Orphanage continues Quodrat’s story, catching up with him as a teenage orphan living on the streets of Kabul. After he’s caught by police selling cinema tickets on the black market, he’s sent to a Soviet-funded orphanage where bullying is widespread. The boy swiftly learns that he’ll need to form strong allegiances in order to keep his head above water, and thus he sets about building his own family unit.

For a large stretch, this is an enjoyable, if generic, coming-of-age drama, heightened chiefly by the novelty of its setting; Afghanistan’s brief period as a secular Soviet ally is a fascinating, oft-overlooked footnote in the country’s turbulent modern history. But the film really comes to life thanks to a smattering of charmingly shambolic Bollywood-style musical numbers, employed to offer insight into the withdrawn Quodrat’s desires and fears. Those paying close attention to the timeline may be anxious to learn what role the mujahideen, the Islamist guerilla groups committed to ending the Democratic Republic, might have to play in the narrative. Sadat’s bold decision to answer this question with a bombastic musical-action set piece pays off handsomely, bringing The Orphanage to an achingly bittersweet conclusion.

The Odessa International Film Festival ran from July 12—20.

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Odessa IFF 2019: The Cossacks, Queen of Hearts, Monos, & Projectionist

The festival feels like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.

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Monos
Photo: Neon

At first glance, Odessa recalls the Algeria of the 1980s as described by playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce, a place where local “currency has no value and there is nothing to buy anyway.” Odessa seems coy about offering a fantasy version of itself to those who aren’t already confined to it and to whom displaying the city—in the shape of superfluous possessions or souvenirs—would amount to a perverse redundancy. It’s a city coherent to the brutal honesty of its human faces, a city virtually without store windows to hawk unessential goods to passersby—unless one traverses its center, where a McDonald’s and a Reebok shop appear as reminders of a glossier elsewhere. Perhaps the way Cameroon, as one Cameroonian once told me, is a country without sidewalks, “unless you go to Douala.” This is, of course, a respite from the capitalist assaults of places where to experience the city is to stack up on its mementos. It’s this context that made the Odessa International Film Festival (OIFF) feel like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.

By the Lermontovskiy Hotel, where the international journalists covering the OIFF stay, only food seems to be for sale. There’s a 24/7 supermarket that closes when the security guard sees fit, a “Japanese and Thai Asian Café,” and a regal restaurant named Aleksandrovskiy, which sits inside a garden full of Versailles-esque fountains and statues, and where a select few can feast on a scrumptious leg of lamb on a bed of polenta for 12 euros. Perhaps the same select few who show up for OIFF’s outdoor screening of the 1928 film The Cossacks at the Potemkin Stairs but don’t use the steps as bleachers, like the rest of us, instead taking their seats in the large cordoned-off VIP section close to the live orchestra for a few selfies and then dashing off.

A brief video pleading for the release of Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from a Russian prison preceded the film, eliciting passionate applause. Those actually using the steps as seats seemed to truly savor the event, which took the shape of what film screenings were probably more like in the early 20th century: raucous fair-like happenings with lots of talking and where the film was only one of many multi-sensorial elements. In many ways, The Cossacks is about how the production of a nation is entwined with the production of gender norms. Lukashka (John Gilbert) is seen as a softie. He’s derided as being a fraction of a man, or a half-Cossack, because he would rather spend his time reading than fighting, to the horror of his entourage. He ends up going to war in order to legitimize his status as a man for his family and his beloved Maryana (Renée Adorée). In the world of the film, becoming a man involves killing at least one Turk or two, and becoming a woman means marrying a man who has killed Turks.

The Cossacks was a fascinating selection to screen at the Potemkin Stairs because it wrapped a critique of normativity in some of the most sexist of cinematic languages, female ass shots as gags and all, making it hard to know what kind of selective reading of the film the audience might be making. The men on the screen are always either accosting, harassing, molesting, or trying to rape Maryana, which might be what triggered Rose McGowan, one of the festival’s celebrity guests, to leave just a few minutes into the screening.

As much as watching a film such as George Hill and Clarence Brown’s silent drama at the place where one of cinema’s most iconic sequences was shot feels like the crossing off of a bucket-list item we didn’t realize was on that list until we experienced it, the off-screen drama was just as enticing. There was, for instance, the blatant spectacle of Ukrainian income inequality with “the people” huddled up on the uncomfortable steps for two hours eager to engage with a silent film while Ukrainian socialites decked out in animal prints treated the event more like a vernissage. There was also the impossible quest for a public bathroom mid-screening. This involved walking into a half-closed market across from the Potemkin Stairs and interrupting a loud quarrel between a mother and her adult son, who worked at one of the market stalls.

It’s difficult to guess where queerness goes in Odessa. Maybe it only lives as disavowal, as in The Cossacks, which ends with Lukashka, after anointing his masculinity by slaughtering 10 Turks, stating to Maryana heterosexuality’s mathematical logic in its simplest form: “I am your man. You are my woman. I want you.” And the anointing is never final, the film seems to say. Indeed, as his father lies dying in his arms, Lukashka asks him: “Father, am I Cossack?” The question of where queerness might live, in this context, would be finally answered a few days later when I visit the only gay club in Odessa, Libertin, and meet a trans woman name Jalala, who confides that there’s a “place” in Odessa where straight men can go to to have sex with women like her. “Is it an app?” I ask. Jalala smiles and says that it’s a park. “But it’s dangerous,” she tells me. “It’s very exciting and very dangerous.” Because there are skinheads, she says. “Do the skinheads want to kill you or fuck you, or fuck you and then kill you?” I ask her. “I don’t know,” she responded. “That’s why it’s dangerous.”

The festival main grounds, in front of the majestic Odessa Academic Theatre of Musical Comedy, aren’t unlike London’s Southbank Centre in the early days of summer, where visitors and locals are both sold the idea that the city is this fun all year long. The atmosphere is cosmopolitan, with Nina Simone remixes or early Erykah Badu playing in the background, food trucks, a Mastercard stall, and outdoor sitting poufs. There’s also no stress in the air, no suffocating crowds, and as such no anxiety about being turned away from a screening.

When looking at the festival’s program, one may scoff at the apparent lack of diversity and, more specifically, queerness. After a few screenings, though, one may get the sense that queerness does live at the Odessa International Film Festival and, per Jalala’s account, in Odessa more generally—it just isn’t publicized. In Queen of Hearts, for instance, director May el-Toukhy takes the age-old narrative of the stranger who turns up to disrupt domestic bliss, or ennui, and gives it a daring incestuous twist. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) and Peter (Magnus Krepper) live an idyllic life in a mansion somewhere in Denmark with two young, and creepily angelic, twin daughters (Liv and Silja Esmår Dannemann). There’s something eerie about this setup even before Peter’s problematic teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), from another marriage is shipped from Sweden to live with his dad and unsettle everything.

What’s uncanny about Anne and Peter’s home is, of course, the way it gleams a kind of speckless completion of the heterosexual project, which could only ever be possible as a mirage. Theirs is the home of dreams bound to become nightmares by the introduction of even the most vaguely foreign element. Such as reality, that most irksome of registers, or a long-lost son. The house of Queen of Hearts, whose drama is so latent you’d only have to snap your fingers for chaos to erupt, evokes the house of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the kind of immaculate luxury that could only be sitting on top of some macabre bunker full of roaches and well-fed zombies. The drama that links these homes is the notion that the epitome of the heterosexual family bliss borders its very obliteration, with the unruly resurfacing of all the gunk that had been swept underneath, as the very foundation for its habitat.

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When Gustav arrives, then, and ends up having an affair with his stepmom, a trench coat-wearing lawyer for young victims of sexual abuse, we’re only surprised at how careless they seem to be about being found out. El-Toukhy is smart to avoid sensationalizing the taboo-breaking premise of the narrative with a camera that sides with Anne: her sexual hunger, her contradictions, her stretch marks. This isn’t a film about roundabout incest, but one about the impossibility of satisfaction even for the most privileged woman, one with a high-powered and socially engaged job, money to spare, and a mansion by the lake in a Scandinavian country.

Queen of Hearts focuses on Anne’s paradoxes: She’s a savior and a monster, a middle-aged mother and a horny teenager, unabashedly exposing the inconvenient pores that remain underneath even the most beautifully made-up Nordic skin. And the film is about skin, ultimately. In the way Anne and Gustav have raw sex and the marks on Anne’s stomach are filmed with purpose, sincerity, and no apology. The affair begins when Anne walks into Gustav’s bedroom and gives him a handjob without bothering to lock the door. This comes soon after he brought a girl his own age home and Anne had to sit in her living room, staring at her laptop and drinking a glass of wine, while listening to the teenagers having sex. By the time Anne goes to the lake with Gustav and one of her twin girls, and Anne decides to get in the water, we know the deal is done. “But you never swim,” says the girl. Water in Queen of Hearts bears the same prophetic sexual force that’s appeared in many films, queer or not, from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake.

The affair isn’t about love, of course, or passion. It’s not even about the sex itself. The affair is a settling of accounts, a vampiric attempt to deny the passing of time, which, by virtue of having passed, feels like it’s been wasted. For Anne, the culprit is Peter, who becomes a cock-blocking nuisance. The film, a melodrama with a superb final shot that offers no closure, at times tries too hard to provide a cause for Anne’s passage à l’acte. When Gustav asks Anne who she lost her virginity to, she answers, “With someone it shouldn’t have been,” which makes it seem like the film is suggesting that predatorial behavior is a sort of damned inheritance. The Queen of Hearts is much more successful, and courageous, when it follows the logic of sexual yearning itself, not worrying about rational justifications.

The first few sequences of Alejandro Landes’s Monos evoke Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, except it isn’t only men training in the deserted landscape. A few young women join them, which, inevitably takes the narrative elsewhere, even if the films’ basic premises are similar. In Monos, teenage guerilla fighters are supposed to guard a foreign hostage, Doctora Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson), and a conscripted cow named Shakira. Intrigue and sexual tension ensure that nothing goes according to plan. The only thing that never finds any respite is the flow of violence, which increasingly loses its metaphorical sheen, becoming gratuitous toward the end. What starts out like a social critique gains the aura of an unnecessarily grisly horror film, more about overtly visible chains than the allegorical slaughtering of cows by paramilitary children named Rambo, Lady, Bigfoot, and Smurf.

It turns out that queerness lives even in the faraway mountaintops of the Colombian jungle, as one of the guerilla girls makes two boys kiss at the start of the film, which brought a discrete discomfort to the screening room I was seated in. By the time Nicholson’s character shares a brief lesbian kiss with a reluctant fighter who’s supposed to watch over her, later in the film, queerness is no longer a conceptual surprise hinting at meaningful registers beyond the narrative’s surface, but a kind of desperate attempt to make the plot seem cryptic. Like The Cossacks, Landes’s film is also about the impossibility of maintaining complete control over one’s claim of masculinity, or power more generally. In moments of crisis, the line between predator and prey get very thin, and even the most well-armed warriors have a way of becoming disarmed, naked, and sentimental.

Yuriy Shylov’s Projectionist follows the frailty of all flesh, hawkish accessory in hand or not, through the portrayal of the end of a film projectionist’s 44-year tenure at one of Kiev’s oldest movie theaters. It’s an end that coincides with the crumbling of projectionist Valentin’s own coughing body, and that of his bedridden mother. It turns out that the movie theater, too, is reaching its expiration point. Soon, its doors will close and its employees will be fired, and there’s a sense throughout Shylov’s documentary that analog cinema will be dealt a major blow with the theater’s closure. What will become of the space? Perhaps a Reebok or a McDonald’s. Perhaps a derelict muse for a Nikolaus Geyrhalter portrait of decay.

“You think you’re loud, but in reality you can only hear yourself,” Valentin tells his mother at one point. Her futile yelling of her son’s name from her bed is one of the most haunting motifs in the film. An uttering for uttering’s sake, a demand without expectations of an actual response, a mantra to remind oneself that one is, for now, still alive. Valentin has installed a whistle next to the bed, which he would actually be able to hear when she called if only she’d use it. But the mother mostly refuses to blow in the pragmatic apparatus, instead finding solace in the calling that won’t be heard and, thus, will need to be repeated ad nauseam.

Projectionist can feel a bit aimless, but it’s a welcome reminder of how the materiality of film, and thus its finitude, has something in common with our own—a kinship of frailty that the flawlessness of the digital image erases. Analog is the only technology that Valentin knows, whether he’s sewing, as he’s seen doing in the film, fixing a neighbor’s straightening iron, or projecting old home videos on filthy kitchen tiles. There’s pleasure to be found, for Valentin, not just in the stories, concepts, and metaphors of cinema, but in the very stuff that supports his craft, the paraphernalia of cinema that’s bound to crack, to dry out, to turn to dust, to disappear forever: film stock, Movieolas, spools, and so forth. Cinema, we’re reminded, is necessarily a tool of exposure, not just of the human condition in the face of death, but the human condition as an always gendered affair. It’s a tool that’s never settled, never comfortable, and never forgotten. “Men are cowards, didn’t you know that?” is how Valentin puts it toward the end of Projectionist. In his world, one would know, by looking at the projector, at the very stuff of cinema, how much longer a film would last. The remainder of the film’s “life” is perfectly real, perfectly tangible, and alive because it’s in constant danger of being jammed up and torn by the very engine that ensured its running.

The Odessa International Film Festival runs from July 12—20.

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Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.

Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.

At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.

And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.

A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.

More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.

The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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Docaviv 2019: Comrade Dov, A Whore Like Me, & The Times of Bill Cunningham

Docaviv continues to thrive in increasingly challenging circumstances.

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The Times of Bill Cunningham
Photo: Harold Chapman

Docaviv, Tel Aviv’s biggest film festival and Israel’s most high-profile celebration of documentary cinema, continues to thrive in increasingly challenging circumstances. The festival is partially reliant on government funding, but since her appointment as minister of culture in 2015, conservative politician Miri Regev has done her best to create a nerve-racking environment for Israel’s artists, threatening to withdraw financial support for any cultural enterprise deemed to undermine Israel’s image or criticize government policy.

Yet these threats have largely proven empty, and after spending a week at the recent Docaviv, I was left with a strong sense of Tel Aviv’s film community rallying together to resist censorship and preserve their freedom of speech, albeit in a tactful manner. The festival sustains a tone of political neutrality in its presentation of films, but a striking number of titles in this year’s selection, both from Israel and abroad, centered around tenacious underdogs speaking truth to power, questioning the status quo and remaining optimistic in the face of adversity.

Freedom of artistic expression in Israel is directly addressed in Comrade Dov, Barak Heymann’s affectionate portrait of left-wing Jewish politician and activist Dov Khenin, who represented the Arab-dominated Joint List party at the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, for 12 years before retiring in April 2019. During one of the documentary’s numerous heated parliamentary exchanges, Khenin eloquently voices his outrage at a proposal by fellow member Alex Miller that funding for the Tel Aviv Cinematheque (Docaviv’s primary venue) should be cut in response to a festival commemorating the 1948 Palestinian exodus. The sequence illustrates both Khenin’s innate skill as a negotiator and his effectiveness as a stone in the Knesset’s shoe: He persuasively counters extreme-right rhetoric with an impassioned leftist stance, and deftly steers conversation towards a middle ground.

Heymann is plainly enamored with his subject, and strikes a playful, upbeat tone in the establishing scenes. As we observe Khenin silently moving around his spartan apartment, the filmmaker wryly explains, in voiceover, that “this is the first and only time I filmed him at home. I was so excited that I forgot to turn on the sound.” Shortly thereafter, Heymann remarks that “all of the activists I know are depressed. But Dov always seems to be optimistic, which is why I love being with him.” Indeed, Dov is an instantly appealing protagonist, equal parts scrappy boyish charm, intellectual rigor, and emotional honesty.

But despite Dov’s enviable personal attributes, and his impeccable track record of fighting for social justice, Heymann takes care to ensure that the film doesn’t become too blandly hagiographic. In a particularly poignant sequence, Israeli Arab activist Hana Amoury explains, calmly and respectfully, that while Dov clearly wants to improve the lives of his Palestinian constituents, his desire to simultaneously be part of the Israeli establishment ultimately makes him an ineffective ally. And several of the battles we witness Dov wage over the course of the film, including one on behalf of mistreated factory workers, end in decisive failure.

Sharon Yaish and Yael Shachar’s A Whore Like Me, another Israel-set account of a David-versus-Goliath battle, benefits from an instantly gripping, thriller-like premise. At 22 years of age, Chile was abducted in her native Hungary and sold to Israeli sex traffickers, leaving behind a young daughter. She ultimately escaped her captors, but subsequently lived on the streets for years before conquering drug addiction. Now, 20 years on from her kidnapping, her only hope for successfully appealing against the Israeli Ministry of Interior’s decision to deny her residence is to procure concrete proof of her ordeal. Thus, she hires a private detective and embarks on a quest that forces her to relive past traumas.

The film clocks in at just 60 minutes, but it offers an impressively rich portrait of a woman who’s been failed by society at every turn. The filmmakers keep the exposition succinct, focusing on the emotional cost of Chile’s decades-long ordeal. She has, by all accounts, made a remarkable recovery: When we meet her, she’s 10 years sober, and volunteering at a sexual health clinic helping other vulnerable women. Yet the odds remain depressingly stacked against her. Without permission to work in Israel, she finds herself lapsing back into prostitution to stay on top of legal costs. And in the film’s most uncomfortable scene, we’re introduced to an older man, presumably a former client, who takes complete credit for her rehabilitation and demeaningly refers to her as his pet, while she sits awkwardly by his side.

However, as the investigation into the whereabouts of her captors begins to yield promising results, Chile becomes increasingly emboldened, and uses the filmmaking process as an opportunity to reckon with the ways in which sex work has shaped her identity and sense of self-worth. At one point she begins filming encounters with clients, as if to assert authorship of her narrative. While Chile’s future hangs in the balance at the end of A Whore Like Me, one is left with a powerful sense that Yaish and Shachar have at least armed their protagonist with the tools she needs to build a better life for herself.

As if to offer respite from appalling social injustice and hot-button political issues, Docaviv lightened the tone of this year’s international selection with a host of art, fashion, and music docs. But even among these glossier picks, tales of underdogs and marginalized communities took center stage. Mark Bozek’s The Times of Bill Cunningham, a worthy companion piece to Richard Press’s Bill Cunningham, New York, is structured around a previously unseen interview with the late fashion photographer, conducted by Bozek in 1994. It’s a pleasure to hear Cunningham describe in his own words his rise from impoverished milliner to the toast of Manhattan high society; he’s an irresistible screen presence, with a wide-eyed enthusiasm for his industry, a childlike demeanor, and an occasionally eccentric turn of phrase.

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Moreover, when detailing Cunningham’s work as a discreet queer activist, the film packs an emotional punch. Though by all accounts he lived a monastic existence, he clearly felt a deep personal kinship with New York’s LGBTQ+ communities, and took advantage of editorial freedom at the New York Times to celebrate them throughout the dark days of the AIDS crisis. At one point in the film, his chirpy demeanor cracks and he begins silently weeping for the friends he lost to the disease. And yet the film is ultimately celebratory, paying tribute to a headstrong individual who resolutely refused to obey his family’s orders to pursue a more “manly” career, and who pursued his passions entirely on his own terms.

The Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival ran from May 23—June 1.

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Cannes Film Festival 2019: Oh Mercy!, Les Misérables, Young Ahmed, & Atlantics

Many of the selections at this year’s festival were genre films, or, at least, exhibited notable genre-adjacent elements.

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Oh Mercy!
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Surprisingly, many of the selections at this year’s Cannes Film Festival were genre films, or, at least, exhibited notable genre-adjacent elements. By and large, audiences recognized the influence of genre on these works in the moment, as in a UFO randomly popping into frame during Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau, or the eyes of a group of women rolling back in their heads during Mati Diop’s Atlantics.

Sometimes, though, a film turned out to be exactly as advertised, and that’s for the worse in the case of Oh Mercy!, Arnaud Desplechin’s follow-up to his prismatic, semi-autobiographical Ismael’s Ghosts. Set in the director’s hometown of Roubaix, this modest film about the work of maintaining order in a community stars Days of Glory actor Roschdy Zem as a level-headed police chief in charge of overseeing a number of investigations. Captain Daoud largely farms out his duties to a phalanx of hot-headed underlings, but he takes a determined interest in one case involving the murder of an old woman, possibly at the hands of her two neighbors, Claude (Léa Seydoux) and her girlfriend, Marie (Sara Forestier).

This case paves the way for the film’s most impressive sequence: two parallel interrogations depicting the methods used to meticulously weaken Claude and Marie’s resistance to being interrogated and draw out the truth. Otherwise, there isn’t much depth to this scenario to capture the viewer’s attention. At the margins of the plot, Desplechin’s attentiveness to local color is noticeable, which at least imparts a sense that he knows this community quite well and understands how social dynamics play out within it. But it isn’t too long into its running time that Oh Mercy!, in its generally abiding faith in the effectiveness and general well-meaning of police work, comes off as undiscerning in its pro-cop stance.

Still, Oh Mercy! somehow manages to seem a lot more empathetic and realistic than Les Misérables, Ladj Ly’s police drama set in the Parisian commune of Montfermeil. Ly’s feature directorial debut pretentiously co-opts the cultural cache of its Victor Hugo-penned namesake as a means of bolstering its activist political message. A brief and promising montage opens the film, and depicts jubilant Parisians of all races in a state of revelry. (This is actually documentary footage from the aftermath of France’s 2018 World Cup victory, so not exactly the June Rebellion that closes Hugo’s opus.) From this point forward, Ly largely relies on gritty faux-doc aesthetics redolent of The Wire to maneuver through a narrative that splits its time between police on the job and embedding itself with the people they’re meant to serve.

Nonetheless, the focus remains largely on Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), the newest recruit of the dubiously named Anti-Crime Squad that’s tasked with patrolling Montfermeil’s crime-ridden Les Bosquets social estate, and the way the soft-spoken man’s conscience is tested on his first day as he rides alongside two corrupt cops (Alexis Manenti and Djibril Zonga). Ly seems to give the cops too much latitude, or at least he muddles his condemnation of their behavior by lumping it in with a broader message about an untamable chaos in the suburbs of Paris. The film’s explosive finale, which sees the oppressed city kids rise up and start a war with law enforcement, could be interpreted as a call for revolution, but it could just as easily be read as a fortification of the idea that The Streets Aren’t Safe, and a film like this shouldn’t make the conflation of progressive and conservative politics that easy.

Les Misérables does, at the very least, lay bare the reality of an everyday form of violence and prejudice and makes some kind of attempt at responding to it, which is more than Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne bother to do with Young Ahmed. In the film, the eponymous Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) puts distance between himself and his family, deciding that his Arabic teacher is a heretic before, finally, turning to violence. The Dardennes’ signature observational cinema, one that’s shaped by lightly applied genre conventions and subjected to chain reactions of dramatic incident, comes to feel exploitative in this context, as Young Ahmed demonstrates little interest in understanding the psychology or pathology of the troubled youth at its center, or even in grasping the sociocultural conditions that affect him.

As is their wont, the Dardennes start their film in medias res, which proves to be their first big mistake: Ahmed has already been radicalized, and so from here on out we observe his actions in a kind of vacuum. The film, then, becomes just an exercise in redundancy for the Dardennes, hitting as it does the same narrative beats of sin and redemption that all their character studies do, albeit with a different cultural face. This isn’t a well written or conceived narrative either, especially in its contrived and manipulative finale. But what makes the film outright offensive is its flippancy toward the Muslim faith. At one point, we get a match cut between Ahmed being kissed by a non-Muslim girl and the young man vigorously washing out his mouth—a moment that elicited much laughter at the film’s gala premiere.

In the past, the veracity and realism of the Dardennes’ aesthetic mode has made for convincing portraits of life on the margins, but here there’s an uncomfortable friction between the way their technique engenders a feeling of truthfulness and the calculated and methodical depiction of Ahmed’s actions. The only party that benefits here are the Dardennes, who’ve brazenly attached themselves to a subject that grants their film an unearned political weight.

One film at Cannes this year that got its genre inflections, its social commentary, and its understanding of race generally right was the steely and quixotic Atlantics, Mati Diop’s first feature-length fiction film. Atlantics derives some of the broader strokes of its narrative from a short of the same name that Diop directed a decade ago, about Senegalese youths discussing the possibility of crossing the Atlantic toward Europe. The feature version of Atlantics is set in Dakar and follows Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a 17-year-old who’s in love with a boy named Souleimane (Ibrahim Traore) but who’s been arranged by her parents to marry a wealthy older business man. After this ostensible love triangle ends in tragedy, Diop’s film briefly morphs into something of a procedural, as a young detective (Amadou Mbow) is called on to investigate a mysterious act of arson committed on Ada’s wedding day.

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It’s the way that Atlantics pivots into the realm of the supernatural, and even flirts with the horror genre, that makes it so unique. The blend of folklore spiritualism and commitment to social realism, paired with an ethereal visual sense that emphasizes the spectral experience of the subaltern, can be imprecise in terms of its political implications, but Atlantics nonetheless evokes the palpable feelings of its characters’ displacement through its shift into ghost-movie terrain. Even Diop’s balance between a more visually poetic register and a devotion to maintaining her narrative’s momentum seems less like a compromise than a reflection of this filmmaker’s confidence in her own ability to tell complicated and unusual stories in the guise of familiar narrative form. In fact, that’s a good way to frame a lot of Cannes’ competition films this year: Many are genre-adjacent, but it’s those from filmmakers that display a sense of confidence in their approach that have tended to leave the best impression.

The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 14—25.

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Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro

These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

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Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.

The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.

I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.

Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.

Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.

Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.

After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.

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The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.

L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”

One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.

Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.

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Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory

This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Maryland Film Festival

Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.

Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.

Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.

Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.

The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.

Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.

In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.

Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.

Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.

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If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.

American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.

The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.

What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.

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Jeonju IFF 2019: The Grand Bizarre, Up the Mountain, & Germany. A Winter’s Tale

Diversity is undoubtedly one of the strengths of the festival’s curation, as exemplified by films by Jodie Mack, Zhang Yang, and Jan Bonny.

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The Grand Bizarre
Photo: Jeonju International Film Festival

A bustling, overstuffed cinephile jamboree, the Jeonju International Film Festival features a dizzying array of competition selections, sidebars, master classes, student films, and expanded cinematic offerings, such as a VR program and a gallery full of installations. One could spend the entire festival watching nothing but new Korean films, taking in only the best of contemporary European art cinema, or simply watching all the Star Wars movies back to back. And no matter how much you decide to take in, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve only scratched the surface of what the festival has to offer. Diversity is undoubtedly one of the strengths of the festival’s curation, as exemplified by films by Jodie Mack, Zhang Yang, and Jan Bonny, three very different artists united by their willingness to push the boundaries of cinema for their own idiosyncratic ends.

A film that’s constantly on the move, Jodie Mack’s The Grand Bizarre is, like Jeonju IFF! itself, a brilliant bonanza of color, texture, and globe-trotting good vibrations. With extensive use of time-lapse photography, stop-motion animation, and quick-cut montages, Mack creates a sense of boundless energy and constant movement, of people and things (but mostly things) in an endless flow around the globe. Mack takes fabric—vibrant, beautifully crafted swatches and scarves from a range of different cultures—as her central image, seeing them on trains and planes, popping out of suitcases, on the beach, in rear-view mirrors, and in dozens of other configurations that present them not as objets d’art to be admired in some folk art museum, but as products moving in the international stream of capitalism.

Though it runs just over an hour, The Grand Bizarre is epic by the standards of Mack’s oeuvre, which has mostly consisted of shorts, and so it’s no surprise that the documentary is essentially a series of vignettes providing endless variations on the same themes: globalization, the interconnectedness of culture, and the beauty of traditional textiles. Repeatedly, Mack emphasizes the thing-ness of these fabrics. These are items that were made—some by hand, others by machine—before they were subsequently packed up and shipped off to different corners of the world. Each one originated in the artisanal traditions of a particular place and people, to which they are just as deeply rooted as the music and language of these cultures, parallels that Mack draws with a uniquely jaunty sense of style and wit.

For better and worse, these traditional designs now belong to the world. For examples of the “worse,” simply look to the film’s montage of horrible tattoos of ankhs and tribal patterns emblazoned on white people’s backs—a hilarious sampling of cultural appropriation at its most oblivious and inept. But The Grand Bizarre isn’t really an indictment of this tendency to wrest cultural artifacts out of their historical contexts. (After all, Mack herself doesn’t specify the origins of these fabrics, nor does the English-born American experimental filmmaker identify the varied locations in which she shoots.) The film is, rather, a rumination on human creativity, and it’s so idiosyncratic and highly personal that it ends with the director’s sneeze. It’s also one of the most purely enjoyable works of avant-garde cinema made this century.

Chinese auteur Zhang Yang offers a far more tonally subdued yet no less pleasurable exploration of artmaking and traditional culture in Up the Mountain, a Zen-like portrait of the mountaintop studio of Shen Jianhua, where the artist lives with his family and trains a group of elderly ladies in the ways of folk painting. The film straddles the line between documentary and fiction, with everyone playing versions of themselves. Some scenes seem to have been reconstructed, while others appear to capture candid moments in the studio and in a nearby village. Zhang never clues us in to how much of Up the Mountain is fictionalized, but it scarcely matters. Zhang isn’t particularly interested in interrogating the endlessly fuzzy line between fiction and reality, as his methods are aimed at something richer and deeper: capturing the serene, gentle spirit of Shen’s studio.

The film is like a gentle stream, always moving forward while maintaining an implacable, inviting quietude. Little of dramatic consequence occurs here—there’s no real conflict or character development or traditional plotting of any kind. People paint and chat, Shen and his wife sit around listening to opera, people work in the fields. Time is marked by gradual changes: a painting slowly developing, a baby being born and growing older, Shen’s daughter slowly improving at the accordion. If this all sounds a bit dull on paper, in practice it’s captivating because the film is infused with rich sensory details like the warmth of a fire, the smell of a well-cooked meal, and the celebratory chaos of a New Year’s festival.

With the exception of a roving final tracking shot, Up the Mountain consists entirely of static camera setups composed in a boxy aspect ratio that mimics the canvasses used by Shen’s students. It may be a tired cliché to liken a film’s compositions to that of a painting, but Zhang invites the comparison here. Shooting in digital and manipulating the footage in post-production, Zhang has colored the film like a painting, amplifying a pop of red here, a splash of orange there. Art in Up the Mountain is an extension of life, as Shen’s pupils take the world around them—cats, fields, local gatherings—as the subject matter of their vibrantly colored, highly stylized work. So, too, does Zhang: Rather than simply recording the goings-on at Shen’s studio, he transforms them into a work of contemplative, deeply humane art.

The tranquility of Zhang’s elegant still frames could scarcely be farther from the muddy handheld camerawork of Jan Bonny’s Germany. A Winter’s Tale, one of the most unremittingly ugly films in recent memory. A claustrophobic examination of the sex lives and death drives of a trio of vicious, stupid, horned-up racists (Judith Bohle, Jean-Luc Bubert, and Peter Eberst) who embark on an anti-immigrant killing spree, the film admirably resists even the slightest romanticization of the anti-immigrant killing spree they embark upon. But Bonny also fails to give us any particular reason to care about the vicious antics of these thoroughly hate-able individuals who fancy themselves the vanguard of a right-wing terror movement.

Germany. A Winter’s Tale resists offering context for or commentary about its characters’ actions, save for a bizarrely on-the-nose end-credits song that features lines like “Your violence is only a silent cry for love.” And perhaps that’s the appropriate artistic response to a dangerously atavistic movement that cries out less for explication than annihilation. Even so, Bonny’s attempt to indict his nation’s racism—from the inflated title drawn from Heinrich Heine’s famous satirical poem to the characters’ toasting to Germany just after making some particularly vicious remark—come off as ham-handed and lame. That also goes for the filmmaker’s deliberately off-putting aesthetic: Severely underlit with a harsh, clattering sound design, the film attempts to evoke the feeling of living with such hatred and misdirected anger. But as the characters oscillate constantly between screaming matches and bouts of savage love-making, their antics ultimately feel less like the distressing seeds of a nascent revival of German herrenvolk fascism than the cartoonish spectacle of a Jerry Springer episode.

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The Jeonju International Film Festival runs from May 2—11.

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