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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2010: Mountains and Clouds

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2010: Mountains and Clouds

The second movie in a 12-part series on the politics of U.S. immigration reform, Mountains and Clouds is an IV injection of inside-baseball maneuvering for political junkies. But directors Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini have bigger ambitions than that for the series. As Robertson says on the series website: “Our hope is that if you watch the shows, and get to know Esther or Frank or Alfredo, or Randy, Margaret, Becky, pretty much any of our friends who helped us get these movies made, they will inspire you to be a more active participant in the running of this country.” It’s a noble goal, but I wonder how many of us are up for it. All I could think, after watching this earnest film, was: I’m not worthy.

Robertson and Camerini picked a great topic and had great luck in their timing: They even end this one with a kind of cliffhanger, warning that the battle it covers strengthened the hand of anti-immigration zealot Tom Tancredo and his allies. But the earnest tone of Mountains and Clouds (the film is named for the Calder sculpture in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building) made me long for a little more sizzle and snap. A little time behind the scenes with the anti-immigration activists, for instance, might have given this more insight into that point of view, and more effectively dramatized the gap between the two sides.

The filmmakers, who spent six years filming, started in early September 2001, when comprehensive immigration reform looked likely. Then the World Trade Center towers fell—an event they wisely refrain from showing yet again. Immigration dropped way back on Congress’s agenda and got mixed up in talk of terrorism and protecting our borders. The directors got very good access to some of the key people working for reform, primarily aides to senators Sam Brownback and Senator Ted Kennedy and staff of an immigration reform advocacy group. As they strategize, schmooze, and react to setbacks, the intensity and sincerity of their commitment is clear. So, for the most part, are the stakes, though I suspect you need to watch more of the series to get the filmmakers’ take on why we need immigration reform to begin with.

A large part of this film focuses on the political maneuvering to try to pass just one small bill: a law allowing illegal immigrants married to U.S. citizens to stay in this country while waiting to have their cases heard. After a small but effective anti-immigration group whips up sentiment against it, the pro-immigration people decide to drop it and save their political capital for a bigger fight. In the silky, NPR-ish voiceover that periodically adds context and measured commentary, Robertson says Kennedy’s immigration aide estimates the law would have saved 80,000 families a year from traumatic separations.

That’s a moving insight, but the focus is generally on the people making the laws, not the people affected by them. Mountains and Clouds sometimes descends into mind-numbing procedural detail, like when Brownback’s aide chortles geekily about his own story of how Senator Byrd finessed some obscure parliamentary point to get his way. This movie may show us how the sausages are made in D.C., but it’s a strictly fat-free affair.

Mountains and Clouds will play on June 19 as part of this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. For more information click here.

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NewFest 2020: Dry Wind and Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil

It’s a provocative juxtaposition for Dry Wind to stage its queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.

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NewFest 2020: Daniel Nolasco’s Dry Wind and Gil Baroni Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil
Photo: The Open Reel

Daniel Nolasco’s Dry Wind and Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior, both screening in the international section at this year’s NewFest, are refreshing in no small part because they find two Brazilian filmmakers telling stories set in regions of their country that are cinematically underrepresented and largely unknown to international audiences. Dry Wind, for one, takes place in the rustic countryside of the state of Goiás, known for its cowboy iconography, livestock music festivals, and extremely conservative politics. It is, then, a provocative juxtaposition for Nolasco to stage his queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.

Dry Wind follows the routines of a community of factory workers in the rural city of Catalão, where sex between soccer-loving men who wouldn’t hesitate to call themselves “discreet” always seems to be happening or about to happen. These torrid trysts mostly take place in the woods, on bare soil or parked motorcycles, and involve piss, ass-eating, and face-spitting. Throughout, Nolasco’s frames are also filled with much hair—hairy faces, butts, and backs, suggesting a queer sexuality cobbled together with the coarseness of the men’s local environment, despite the clearly foreign influence of Nolasco’s hyper-stylized aesthetics. The film’s drama lies in the decidedly Brazilian-ness of the arid landscape, the provincial accents, and the scruffy faces framed by a mishmash of international visual references whenever horny bodies escape to act out queer desire: from Tom of Finland to Tom de Pékin, from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle.

Nolasco alternates between explicitly sexual, neon-colored sequences that veer toward complete dreamscapes and the kind of European-film-festival-courting realism that Brazilian cinema is known for. The contrast can be quite bewildering, so much so that viewers may wish that Dry Wind would remain in the realm of reveries. Instead, Nolasco often tries to reassert Dry Wind as a film with an actual plot. In this case, it’s one that has to do with jealousy, or the impossibility of intimacy in such queer configurations where sex is public only if it’s clandestine but affection must be refused for the sake of social survival. Apart from a needless plotline involving a homophobic assault, it all makes perfect sense. But the film’s most interesting moments emerge precisely when it surrenders to the presumably illogical strangeness of erotic fantasy.

For instance, when Sandro (Leandro Faria Lelo)—who regularly has sex in the woods with a co-worker, Ricardo (Allan Jacinto Santana), after their shift at the factory—happens upon what looks like a leather bar, the place turns out to be an empty construction site where queer archetypes—the harnessed master, the puppy slave, the drag-queen hostess—are there to perform for Sandro and Sandro alone, in a mix of silent performance art and interactive pornography. In another moment of poetic-pornographic license, an evident nod to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, a generically bearded hunk (Marcelo D’Avilla) with chained nipple clamps comes out of a man-made lake, ready to take Sandro into the water for an ecstatic drowning.

Significantly more comedic, Alice Júnior focuses on a trans wannabe influencer, Alice (Anne Celestino), and her perfumer of a father, Jean Genet (Emmanuel Rosset), who move from Recife to a small town in the south of Brazil. Subtlety isn’t Baroni’s aim, which is clear in the film’s social media-like sense of pace and aesthetic bells and whistles, as well as in the obvious trans metaphor built into the narrative premise. Alice and her dad have to move down south because he wants to develop a new fragrance using pine cones local to the region, whose fruit only comes out if the person blowing through the cone has discovered the pine cone’s real essence.

Alice Júnior

A scene from Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior. © Beija Flor Filmes

One becomes accustomed to the film’s initially annoying incorporation of social media language into its aesthetic, such as the emojis that pop up on the screen whenever Alice does something or other, because it mirrors the interface through which contemporary teenagers animate everyday life. But Alice Júnior visibly struggles to differentiate itself from a soap opera. The over-the-top acting (the villains speak like Cruella de Vil) is technically in line with Baroni’s animated Insta-grammar, but it becomes a problem when the film tries to tap into something other than its cute flamboyance. The film reaches for pathos only to find tinsel instead.

As fun as Alice Júnior can be, it’s at its core a typical Brazilian kids’ movie, in the vein of on-the-nose fare about enjoying life but not doing drugs that Brazilian megastar Xuxa put out in the 1980s and ‘90s, except queered by its trans protagonist and the visual language of the times. It wears its pedagogical message on its sleeve but is betrayed by a lack of substance. Alice is at once a naïve little girl yearning for her first kiss from a boy and a queer activist with an arsenal of didactic one-liners at the ready. This means some of the plot doesn’t feel credible, as Alice masters LGBTQ resistance discourse perfectly in her interactions both on and offline, but prefers pissing her pants during a class exam, which naturally becomes a viral video, than demanding her right to use the women’s restroom. At times she’s a woke warrior, and at times she’s a helpless little girl.

Alice Júnior only manages to transcend its sparkling surface in a few sequences where it pitches itself at grownups. In one, Jean Genet gets drunk with Marisa (Katia Horn), the kooky mother of one of Alice’s gay classmates, and they start being a little too honest about what they think of their own children. The social media histrionics have nothing to offer in these incredibly entertaining scenes, which finally bring the film closer to Starrbooty than Clueless. These moments are fabulous precisely because they’re unfiltered—queer in attitude, not in wardrobe. Jean Genet and Marisa don’t toast to their kids because they’re decent human beings fighting heterosexual patriarchy, but for being the “devilish bitch” and “dirty-mouthed trans” that they are.

NewFest runs from October 16—27.

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New York Film Festival 2020

There’s something equal parts twisted and romantic about the left-for-dead format of the drive-in theater uniting with theater-killing streaming technology to preserve the institution of the film festival.

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New York Film Festival 2020
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Film festivals, like the rest of us, are still adapting to the unique challenges posed by the Covid pandemic, with major ones drastically scaling back their lineups or devising a hybrid physical-virtual screening schedules. The 58th New York Film Festival will kick off on September 17 with simultaneous screenings of Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock at two drive-in theaters in Brooklyn and Queens (the festival will also be using another drive-in in the Bronx for further screenings). Lovers Rock is the first episode of McQueen’s five-part Small Axe miniseries, set among London’s West Indian community; the “film,” along with two others in the anthology (Mangrove and Red, White and Blue) will also be available to ticket-holders for designated four-hour windows online. After the cancellation of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s been encouraging to see so many festivals coping with the impacts of the pandemic, even if it seems somewhat antithetical for a film festival like this one to be effectively dispersed across the globe rather than concentrated in a single communal event.

The festival’s socially minded main slate features a wealth of new works from master documentarians like Fredrick Wiseman (City Hall), Jia Zhang-ke (Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue), and Gianfranco Rossi (Notturno). And particularly notable among the works of nonfiction in this year’s slate is Garrett Bradley’s Time, a stirring look at 21 years in the life of a family that’s been irrevocably altered by the prison-industrial complex. On the fiction side, the lineup is no less auteur-friendly, with the festival presenting the latest works by Christian Petzold (Undine), Tsai Ming-Liang (Days), Hong Sang-soo (The Woman Who Ran), Cristi Puiu (Malmkrog), and more. And this year’s much-anticipated centerpiece selection is Chloé Zhao’s follow-up to The Rider, Nomadland, about a woman (played by Frances MacDormand) who lost everything in the Great Recession and travels the country in a camper in the wake of her husband’s death.

This mix of socio-politically engaged documentaries and auteurist cinema also marks the festival’s Spotlight section. There, you’ll find new films by Pedro Almodóvar (the short drama The Human Voice starring Tilda Swinton), Sofia Coppola (On the Rocks), and the prolific-in-death Orson Welles (Hopper/Welles), as well as David Dufresne’s The Monopoly of Violence, about police violence in France, and Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus’s All In: The Fight for Democracy, which is concerned with the history and current activism against voter suppression and is based around interviews with American politician Stacey Abrams.

Elsewhere, 59 films with a more experimental bent, interweaving fiction and nonfiction, will screen as part of the Currents program. Of particular note is the latest from Nicolás Pereda (Fauna) and another dispatch from beyond the grave by Raúl Ruiz (The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror, co-directed by his widow and collaborator, Valeria Sarmiento). And among the notable titles slotted in the Revivals section, which “connects cinema’s rich past to its dynamic present through an eclectic assortment of new restorations,” are Béla Tarr’s Damnation, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai, and Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct.

Right now, even the films most engaged with reality can feel out of date if they happen to have been shot more than eight months ago; seeing everyday people on screen shaking hands or standing in lines can have an uncanny effect. But then, watching art flicks at a drive-in might serve as a constant reminder to festivalgoers how much stranger the world has gotten than last year’s already-unnerving status quo. There’s something equal parts twisted and romantic about the left-for-dead format of the drive-in theater uniting with theater-killing streaming technology to preserve the institution of the film festival. It’s like temporal streams have been crossed, the mid-20th-century society of the auto hybridized with the 21st-century society of the mobile phone. The erstwhile downsides of these formats—the isolation of the home theater or hermetically sealed family car—turn out to be their primary advantages in our current context. Pat Brown

For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, visit Film at Lincoln Center. Capsule reviews of films in the main slate appear below; check back as more titles are added, with links to full reviews.


Atarrabi & Mikelats

Atarrabi & Mikelats (Eugène Green)

A challenge inherent to a parable of this sort is that evil, being so seductive, can make good seem dull or prissy by comparison. The only real way for an artist to compensate is to somehow capture the ineffable quality of transcendent grace that many believe results from living a virtuous life. The great Éric Rohmer was a master at this, and Atarrabi & Mikelats occasionally feels kin to such medieval fables such as 1978’s Perceval or 2007’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, in which morality has an ecstatic, at times erotic charge that the devil can’t hope to compete with. If he can’t connect, he can’t collect. Green, though, doesn’t have Rohmer’s deep-rooted sense of faith in life. His beliefs stem from the soil of artistic forms long out of fashion. And he reconstitutes them in our modern world as a kind of scornful, superior exercise. When characters speak, as they often do in Green’s movies, direct to camera, it has the feel of a judgment from on high rather than an invitation to engage, a bridge-burning as opposed to a bridge-building. Keith Uhlich


Beginning

Beginning (Dea Kulumbegashvili)

Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning centers around a Jehovah’s Witness missionary, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), who lives with her husband, David (Rati Oneli), and young son in a remote village in the mountains outside of Tbilisi. The close-knit community they tend to faces extreme prejudice and persecution from the local Orthodox Christian majority, as illustrated in the film’s startling opening. Foreshadowing another shocking event late in the film, one that shows the imperceptible force of religious scripture weighing on the characters, this opening’s blurring of boundaries between spiritual imagination and reality reveals itself to be a key theme of the narrative. Though a strictly minimalist approach means that her visual motifs emerge organically from the action, Kulumbegashvili makes a few unexpected, rather Hanekian compositional choices that break with the film’s sense of naturalism to more explicitly wring allegorical significance from certain sequences. Demonstrating the extent of Yana’s resilience in facing the most extreme and personal tests of faith, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for her community, Kulumbegashvili vividly imagines powerlessness and despair being transformed into a supernatural, redemptive force. David Robb


The Calming

The Calming (Song Fang)

The meticulousness and control of Song Fang’s feature-length directorial debut, Memories Look at Me, gave the film a specific conceptual focus. The Chinese actress and filmmaker’s follow-up feature, The Calming, places a similar emphasis on technique, but its scrupulously shot and staged compositions tend to suck the life out of every frame. The narrative is simple, and again loosely autobiographical: Song surrogate Lin Tong (Qi Xi), a documentary filmmaker who we learn early on has recently been through a breakup, drifts between Japan, China, and Hong Kong—locations with stated sentimental value to Song, who drew on her memories of visiting them during the film festival run of Memories Look at Me. That sense of personal meaning is meant to be conveyed through a film’s worth of immaculate long takes of Lin inhabiting different spaces, from bustling cityscapes to minimally furnished apartments, to lush, sprawling natural environments. But as a result of Song’s seeming unwillingness to give us much understanding of this character and her limited formalist vocabulary, The Calming is left unable to connect angst to anything significantly deeper. Sam C. Mac


City Hall

City Hall (Frederick Wiseman)

Frederick Wiseman never steps in the same river twice, though the methods of this prolific, preeminent documentarian are, with rare exception, unchanging. So it is with City Hall, Wiseman’s formidable and incisive exploration of local government in Boston, Massachusetts. Non-diegetic score and identifying on-screen titles are eschewed throughout, while the film’s duration is well past the feature-length norm—in this case, four-and-a-half engrossing hours. The camerawork, courtesy of Wiseman’s longtime collaborator John Davey, is mostly fly-on-the-wall, swish-panning between or settling for extended periods on a given scene’s subjects. Mundanities that many other artists would turn away from are manna to Wiseman. He gets as much poetic and provocative mileage out of a budget meeting that projects the fiscal year to come as he does a glass skyscraper reflecting a magic-hour sunset. The film’s provocations can seem savage at a glance, but they emerge from an observational tranquility that is uniquely Wiseman’s own, and which leave room for individual interpretation. What each of us sees is what each of us gets. But how do we arrive at our respective ideological terminus? City Hall isn’t an incitement, so much as an invitation to serenely reflect on and think through systems of power that are, like the people who labor within them, constantly evolving—for better and for worse. Uhlich


Days

Days (Tsai Ming-liang)

Centered on the quotidian lives of two unnamed men (played by Lee Kang-sheng and Anong Houngheuangsy), Days finds Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang reflecting once again on people’s unspeakable loneliness and alienation in a world lacking in reciprocity. In a series of tableaux vivants, where the camera remains mostly still and sound is entirely diegetic, the uneventful days of the two men unfold, or, considering the film’s meticulous attention to such elements as water and fire, you could say that they burn slowly. Indeed, the younger man (Houngheuangsy) stokes the embers of a fire so he can methodically make his lunch, washing vegetables and fish in buckets inside his bathroom and concocting a makeshift stove by placing a pot on top of the other one containing the embers. The older man (Lee), in turn, is seen taking a bath, stretching his sore body in the woods, and staring out a window for what feels like an entire afternoon, as he listens to the sound of water. Were Lee facing the lens, the sequence would belong to the same documentary universe of Wang Xiaoshuai or Sergei Loznitsa—of evidence through dogged visual persistence. Diego Semerene


The Disciple

The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane)

Like the destitute musician at the center of Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star, Sharad (Aditya Modak) sees singing as more than just a profession; for him, it’s a heightened state of being. And even as we see him become weathered and pudgy as time, along with a lack of success and, naturally, money, wears him down, he remains determined to teach raag at a local school, while still performing and trying to sell CDs of rare raag musicians on the side. Given the philosophical nature of the guru Maai’s interview snippets and the remarkably beautiful musical performances of Sharad and his guru, Sindhubai (Dr. Arun Dravid), writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane appears, for much of The Disciple, to be fully celebrating the asceticism and endless struggle that Sharad has committed himself to. But as time goes on, we not only see the costs of pursuing perfection, but also the isolation that results from his strict and limiting adherence to practicing and teaching only raag. It’s a single-minded focus that is, in large part, passed down from his own gurus, though when he berates one of his students for wanting to sing raag in a fusion band, it reveals not a love for the artform to which he’s devoted his life, but a domineering spirit that arises from his musical monomania. Derek Smith


Gunda

Gunda (Victor Kossakovsky)

On paper, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a wordless documentary about the everyday life of a few farm animals may suggest a quiet idyll in the vein of the goatherding sequences from Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte. But with its stark, forbidding black-and-white cinematography and dense, unsettling sound design, the film resembles nothing so much as Eraserhead. The newborn piglets in the film, whose faces look surprisingly alien-like in extreme close-up and whose aching squeals can be rather unnerving, even at times resemble the baby from David Lynch’s cult classic. By eschewing the Disneyfied anthropomorphism of Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins and the tidy narrativizing of the Planet Earth series, Kossakovsky refuses to resort to the old cliché that animals are “just like us.” They’re not, really. And in Gunda, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human. Which isn’t to say that we don’t form a relationship with these creatures. Relying heavily on shallow-focus shots often positioned near ground level—and thus close to its subjects’ eyeline—the film gives us something of the experience of being a farm animal: of grazing in a field, caring for a newborn, and aimlessly roaming around a farm. And by the time the credits roll on the film, we realize we’ve been watching not so much a sketch of the lives of farm animals as a threnody for their deaths. Keith Watson


I Carry You with Me

I Carry You with Me (Heidi Ewing)

Across I Carry You with Me, director and co-screenwriter Heidi Ewing devotes herself to championing a cause above all else. Which is to say, she doesn’t attest to a belief in cinema as art of nuance and ambiguity. Hers is a kind of pedagogical, if not exactly activist, filmmaking style that’s not without its commendable intentions or political urgency, but it ends up feeling like a one-dimensional PSA. Ewing’s tale of immigration and deportation afflicting the lives of a Mexican gay couple flashes its reason for being at every turn, robbing the spectator of the experience of doubt—of wandering and of wonder. Perhaps inevitably, this approach reduces Iván (Armando Espitia) and Gerardo’s (Christian Vazquez) life in Mexico to the tropes to queer victimhood: the sissy boy whose father catches him wearing make-up and teaches him a lesson so he can become a “real man,” the gay couple who’s attacked by rowdy straight men on an empty street. Iván and Gerardo are flattened into spokespeople for a preconceived idea that’s imposed on us instead of richly developed—that is, whether the most suffocating closet is the one where you live in the shadows as an illegal immigrant or as queer person afraid of being outed. By the time Ewing changes aesthetic course in the end, the rawness of the filmic style feels contrived and unearned, unable to retroactively grant lifeblood into archetypes. Semerene


Isabella

Isabella (Matías Piñeiro)

Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella, a cubist riddle composed of elliptical scenes that hint at conflict, finds the Argentine writer-director sliding further into abstraction than ever before. The film cloaks its muted, wispy narrative in symbolic digressions and repetitive formal gestures that imply some grand design just beyond comprehension—a fitting analogy given the recurring presence of an overhead shot of hands arranging a puzzle consisting only of differently shaded notecards. Piñeiro remains a superlative director of actors and a careful modulator of rhythm, and part of the film’s longueurs have to do with an effort to provide respite from just how fast everyone talks and walks. But the drama of external turbulence and internal reckoning being sketched in the film, particularly as it relates to emerging motherhood, feels emotionally distinct from the amorous entanglements that Piñeiro was reveling in just half a decade ago, and if he’s indeed entering a phase of middle-aged concerns, it’s easy to feel primed for something deeply moving to come next. If that’s the case, then Isabella feels like a stylistic and thematic trial run. Carson Lund


Lovers Rock

Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)

One of three episodes from his upcoming miniseries, Small Axe, that will world premiere at the New York Film Festival, Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock is nothing if not a mood piece. For McQueen, who’s of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent, the series is his most personal project to date, weaving together various stories within London’s West Indian community in the 1980s. Set largely over one night at a house party and gently tracing the growing attraction between Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and the mysterious Franklyn (Micheal Ward), Lovers Rock lovingly captures the sense of community that’s fostered within the house right out the gate, as the musicians set up the sound system and the jolly cooks in the kitchen start banging out curry goat and ackee and saltfish. The film’s centerpiece, set to Janet Kay’s lovers rock hit “Silly Games,” plays out across a sea of polyester, beautiful black bodies rapturously entwined. The social world that McQueen envisions is lived-in, tactile, and especially wondrous across scenes that fixate on the temperature of a song (from Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting” to the Revolutionaries “Kunta Kinte”) turning the dial up on people’s libidos. Luckily that’s the better part of Lovers Rock’s 70-minute runtime, because whenever it follows Martha out of the house and puts her in the crosshairs of a potential threat or generally catches her in a moment of confusion about some incident that feels every bit as alien to us, it’s difficult to not see the film’s episodic roots. Ed Gonzalez


Malmkrog

Malmkrog (Cristi Puiu)

Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air. That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Ben Flanagan


Mangrove

Mangrove (Steve McQueen)

Though set in 1960s London, Steve McQueen’s Mangrove is very much pitched to the contemporary moment, specifically the global movement against racism and police brutality. The first of five episodes in McQueen’s Small Axe miniseries (though, oddly, the second to screen at this year’s festival), the film is a docudrama-style retelling of the case of the Mangrove Nine, a group of protesters who were arrested and put on trial for demonstrating against the local police’s relentless harassment and intimidation of Notting Hill’s black community. Unfortunately, McQueen never quite finds his footing with this rich historical material, packing the script (co-written with Alastair Siddons) with so much leaden exposition and impassioned though repetitious speechifying that there’s little room left for the characters to breathe. The trajectory of Caribbean restaurant proprietor Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), an at-first reluctant member of the emerging resistance who comes to embrace his role as a movement leader, ostensibly forms the emotional core of the story, but Crichlow is too aloof and vaguely drawn for his arc to leave much impact. In contrast to the intoxicating late-night groove of Lovers Rock, which showcased the loosest, funkiest filmmaking of McQueen’s career, Mangrove finds the director at his most formally conservative, wrapping this story of resistance, rebellion, and racial terror in a disappointingly stuffy package. Watson


MLK/FBI

MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard)

Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI is an impressive reassessment of an American icon, approaching sensational material in forthright terms and without devolving into sensationalism. Based largely on Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow’s 2015 book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, this knotty and compelling documentary threads together the story of the F.B.I.’s obsession with finding compromising secrets about King with an unusually frank accounting of what some of those secrets were. When Garrow published a blockbuster story in 2019 alleging that King had witnessed or potentially even taken part in a 1964 rape at a hotel, it caused a brief flutter but was largely overlooked in the mainstream media. Pollard handles this explosive issue with restraint and intelligence. The film shows no illusions about the extent of King’s affairs. But it also refrains from any dubious moral calculations by giving his personal deceptions the same weight as his public morality. Pollard also deals carefully with Garrow’s most damning allegation, giving the thinly documented charge its due but carving out space around it for uncertainty. While the film doesn’t try to elevate King’s pedestal any higher, it also doesn’t try to knock him off of it. Chris Barsanti


Night of the Kings

Night of the Kings (Philippe Lacôte)

Inside the La MACA prison in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a newly arrived prisoner (Bakary Koné) becomes a “Roman,” a storyteller tasked with spinning yarns as entertainment, with the threat of being hung on an iron hook if he fails to hold everyone’s attention. This unlucky Scheherazade-like character thus finds himself at the center of an explosion of activity as the other prisoners prepare for this ritualistic evening. The most striking aspect of Night of the Kings is the way in which the prisoners begin to act out Roman’s story, voicing characters and even engaging in interpretive song and dance as if possessed by the spirit to act. The camera regularly shifts away from Roman to move in lockstep with the prisoners’ contortions and twirling movements, resulting in a poetry of motion that illuminates his improvised tale better than the actual depictions of it. Despite its bleak context, the film is a celebration of oral traditions as a means of giving purpose to even the most hopeless of lives. That a film so frequently harrowing can so often feel joyous without every trivializing the state of its characters’ imprisonment is a testament to the way that writer-director Philippe Lacôte resolutely finds the meaning embedded within ritual, and how the activities of the inmates, however strange, constitute routines every bit as normalizing as the daily tasks of those living their lives outside the walls of the prison. Jake Cole


Nomadland

Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)

“I’m not homeless,” Fern (Frances McDormand) says in response to the concerned query of an old friend in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. “I’m just houseless.” And she says it in a distinctly sharp, guarded, and prideful tone that McDormand expertly deploys throughout the film. I’m fine, her voice and slightly narrowed eyes say, but don’t come any closer. Her standoffishness points to the pride of a van-dwelling and only occasionally employed woman who spurns pity while trying to carve out a place for herself in a society that doesn’t leave space for people not defined by steady careers or well-rooted homes. Using a minimal and improvised-feeling script that emphasizes interaction and happenstance over story, Zhao places Fern and the gorgeous landscapes she travels through at the forefront of the film. There are times when Joshua James Richards’s sweeping cinematography and Ludovico Einaudi’s gently emotive music point to a far more romantic vision than that suggested by Fern’s hard-bitten attitude. But by juxtaposing beautiful vistas filled with promise, a rotted social safety net, and the scrappy itinerant workers navigating the space in between, Zhao generates a gradually swelling tension underneath her film’s somewhat placid surface. In the end, whether Fern roams the desert or returns to housed life, the unfulfilled promise of America will keep pushing her back to the horizon. Barsanti


Notturno

Notturno (Gianfranco Rosi)

The common understanding of documentaries is that they’re intended to inform in particular ways: candid footage often complemented by explanatory text and graphics, testimony of witnesses and experts who frame and flesh out the events in question, contemplative pans across archival evidence, and, in the age of reality TV, extended interviews with the subjects themselves in close-up, providing a kind of running interior monologue. Gianfranco Rosi’s documentaries, though they take on topics of great socio-political import, eschew virtually all of these conventions and thus demand a different kind of engagement—one rooted in empathy for the experiences of his essentially anonymous human subjects. His refusal to firmly place the segments of life that he captures within an explicit broader framework might be seen as an effort to keep his images resolutely in the present. The unpredictable power outages and food shortages in major cities, the unsettling presence of foreign armies, the mental and physical suffering of children whose families and neighbors have been slaughtered by ISIS—the dreadful beauty of Notturno’s experiential approach to cinema emphasizes that these aren’t impersonal events on a timeline, but the current life as lived by millions in the Near East. Brown



The Salt of Tears

The Salt of Tears (Philippe Garrel)

Despite so much identification, and despite the fact that some of the best films ever made, from Scenes from a Marriage to A Summer’s Tale, are precisely about masculine cowardliness and feminine despair, why is it that The Salt of Tears makes no room for genuine emotion to emerge? Which is peculiar given that Philippe Garrel so recently, with In the Shadow of Women and Lover for a Day, documented the impossibility of monogamy with not only a no-nonsense sensibility but also profound gravitas. Maybe the failure of the film is in Garrel’s use of melodramatic music during transitional scenes, a device at odds with the detached style of the rest of the film. Maybe it’s in the overtly fable-like structure that reduces the characters to not just archetypes, but cutouts. Maybe it’s in the omniscient voiceover narration that punctuates the film with such disaffection and irregularity. Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple with the same cynicism that permeates his previous work but none of the humor or wit. He thus elevates The Salt of Tears to the status of a work to be enjoyed only intellectually, as if, like Luc (Logann Antuofermo), he, too, had learned to foreclose feeling for the sake of some fantasy of self-preservation or pride. Semerene


Red, White and Blue

Red, White and Blue (Steve McQueen)

A conspicuous gray pall hangs over the images in Steve McQueen’s Red, White and Blue, as if a storm were brewing just over the characters’ heads, ready to burst into an angry rain at any moment. But that downpour never comes, nor does the gloom ever lift. The ‘80s-set true-life story of a black London Metropolitan police officer, Leroy Logan (John Boyega), who attempted to push for the organization’s reform from the inside, the film depicts Logan’s struggle as lonely, enervating, and ultimately naïve. A model cop, Leroy succeeds in little more than becoming a PR tool for the force’s campaign to enlist Afro-Caribbean recruits, meanwhile alienating himself from his friends, community, and family—particularly his father (Steve Toussaint), who suffers a beating at the hands of the police at the same time his son is endeavoring to join their ranks. Though just as formally conventional as Mangrove, Red, White and Blue exerts a much greater emotional pull thanks to its greater attentiveness to the details of its characters’ lives and the simmering rage of Boyega’s lead performance. If Mangrove illustrates the joy of collective action, Red, White and Blue offers a bitter lament for the futility of fighting alone. Together, the films proffer a simple yet powerful theory of change, one captured in these lines from the old union anthem “Step by Step”: “Drops of water turn a mill/Singly none, singly none.” Watson


Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (Jia Zhang-ke)

Divided into 18 titled chapters, Jia Zhang-ke’s documentary Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is a quietly reflective, intermittently rambling rumination on an explosively momentous period in history. In the film, a 2019 literary festival in Jia’s home province of Shanxi is the springboard for three writers’ takes on how China has been transformed since the 1940s. Although the style and manner of the writers vary widely, they each describe a time of radical change, particularly how small villages like Jia’s were rocked by the tumult of the Communist Party takeover in 1949, then the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, and then the turbo-charged urbanization of the new millennium. Taking a quieter and less barbed approach to addressing the state of modern China than fans of his work are likely used to from such politically pointed dramas as A Touch of Sin, Jia refers to the documentary as a “symphony.” As such, it features discrete movements and some repeated themes, like the beautiful interludes in which farm workers recite short snippets from the books being discussed. What it doesn’t have, however, is much of a crescendo. Barsanti


Time

Time (Garrett Bradley)

In 1997, Robert Richardson was convicted along with his wife, Sibil, of robbing a credit union in Shreveport, Louisiana. At the time, the couple had four sons, and Sibil was pregnant with twin boys. Considering her situation, Sibil took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 12 years, though she was out on parole after only three-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Robert was sentenced to 65 years without parole. Time doesn’t, and perhaps doesn’t need to, trot out statistics to make the case that Robert’s draconian sentence represents a perpetuation of anti-black racism. That’s because director Garrett Bradley has the receipts: years of home-video diaries that Sibil recorded for Robert as she worked tirelessly to support her family while also trying to secure legal motions for his re-sentencing. The film’s title evokes “doing time,” but we don’t see Robert actually serving his sentence; instead, we feel its duration in the gap it’s left in his family’s life, and in their words we’re offered an oblique commentary on the history of black incarceration. Bradley’s film is about feeling time, about conveying some idea of what 21 years feels like to someone else. Far more than a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, Time reminds us in eminently cinematic ways that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time. Brown


Tragic Jungle

Tragic Jungle (Yulene Olaizola)

Set in the 1920s on the border between Mexico and Belize, Yulene Olaizola’s Tragic Jungle initially tracks the clandestine movement of Agnes (Indira Andrewin) as she runs away from an arranged marriage to a white settler. This narrative arc plays out as a vicious critique of colonialism, but the film takes a dramatic turn when an unconscious Agnes is found by a group of chicleros. Agnes, who earlier acknowledged her sexual inexperience and curiosity to her sister (Shantai Obispo), is at once apprehensive and receptive to the callous advances of the more aggressive workers. And the convoluted sexual politics that arise from her excitement and fear complicate scenes where sexual violation becomes indistinguishable from fantasy. Tragic Jungle never becomes a full-on horror film, but Olaizola engages with indigenous legends and colonial history across a story where misogyny is turned against the patriarchy in ways that recall recent genre offerings like The Witch. Compared to that film’s turn toward the outright macabre, though, Tragic Jungle operates in a dreamier, more ambiguous register. It suggests that Agnes is working in unison with nature to dole out revenge for their exploitation against men who second-guess their fears and superstitions until they realize too late they should have trusted their instincts from the start. Cole


The Truffle Hunters

The Truffle Hunters (Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw)

Clearly identifying with and celebrating the expertise of their subjects—a handful of elderly men from Piedmont, Italy, who pursue precious white alba truffles in the forests of the country’s northern region—and their resistance to nosy profiteers, The Truffle Hunters seems driven by a desire to enshrine the men in a timeless tableaux. Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw establish a leisurely movement between the film’s different threads, presenting each in the same handsome, methodical manner so as to encourage viewers to draw their own conclusions about the ethics of the buyer-supplier dynamic. The sequences devoted to the highbrow arena of truffle auctions, where enthusiasts come to sniff and evaluate samples of the earthy substance, are no less detailed in their observation than the passages in the forests and at country homes. But what eventually becomes self-evident is the warmth, self-sufficiency, and camaraderie of the hunters compared to the businesslike aloofness of those on the receiving end of their labor—insatiable careerists who, in a handful of scenes, are shown to barely even evince much pleasure for the food itself. This reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is a welcome one delivered with tact and subtlety, but Dweck and Kershaw occasionally deliver it at the expense of their titular subjects. Lund



Undine

Undine (Christian Petzold)

Throughout his increasingly formidable oeuvre, Christian Petzold has nested stories of doomed love in surveys of his home nation’s reaction to economic or historical upheavals. Though at once lighter and stranger than any of his earlier work, Undine makes the melodramatic trappings of the director’s previous films its explicit subject, questioning the fixed nature of human behavior in a world whose borders are constantly shifting. It’s ironic and puzzling, then, that Undine’s eponymous character (Paula Beer) is both human and a water sprite. As this typically compact but deceptively rich film moves along, flashes of dislocation proliferate, undermining its seemingly contemporary setting and leaving us to wonder whether love and logic are compatible. As Petzold ushers his lovers toward doom, the film almost seems to rewind, revisiting most of its settings and turning sites of passion into mausoleums of aching and regret. “Form follows function,” Undine says at one point, and with minor alterations in framing and presentation Petzold fundamentally shifts our sense of these locations. Apparently the first in a trilogy of modern stories based on fables, Undine is a striking change of pace that sacrifices none of the director’s intellect or ambition. Christopher Gray



The Woman Who Ran

The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo)

Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran is defined by absences: by who isn’t in the frame and by what isn’t said throughout conversations that appear to be determinedly trivial. Returning to Seoul after years away, Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) reconnects with a trio of female friends, and they talk of the food they eat and indulge in local gossip, repeating observations with a fervor that feels obsessive and mindless, as if these women have gotten too calcified in their own lives to utter anything but mantras. Yet Hong and his actors communicate the disappointment and sadness that’s being suppressed by well-practiced politeness, offering anecdotes that abound in pointed loose ends. Throughout, you may recall that audacious sequence in Grass in which a woman repeatedly went up and down a flight of stairs, as Hong fashions a similar yet subtler portrait of stasis with his latest. Many Hong films examine romantic pressures from the POV of a surrogate for the director himself, while The Woman Who Ran suggests Hong’s fantasy of how women discuss him when he’s not around. Chuck Bowen

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Fantasia 2020: Labyrinth of Cinema, No Longer Human, Detention, Morgana, & More

The exhilaration of virtual film festivals is that they radically expand the access and means of audiences.

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Fantasia International Film Festival
Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

The Montreal-based Fantasia Film Festival, which kicked off August 20 and concludes on September 2, offers a superb illustration of the losses and—yes—the gains of having to virtualize everything in the midst of a pandemic. Lost, of course, is the traditional form of community, in which filmmakers, press, and committed fans get to interact with one another, grabbing quick drinks and food between screenings and symposiums and later sharing their impressions over loud music at after-hours get-togethers. The sense of discovery and spontaneity of film festivals, the sense they impart of a quickly formed and just as quickly dissolved society unto themselves, is reminiscent of long wedding weekends or college orientations.

The exhilaration of virtual film festivals, which could and should prove revolutionary, is that they radically expand the access and means of audiences. Travel necessities are eliminated, and speaking events can now be seen by many more people. The virtual dimensions also offer a subtler democracy, as you’re under no pressure to dress and socialize beyond your comfort zone—which is to say that the stressors associated with work have also been lifted. In short, it’s an introvert’s dream. My experience with Fantasia was less socially adventurous, by necessity, than my experience with past festivals, but I felt more of an undistracted communion with the dozen or so films I saw and with the discussions that I watched, the latter of which are currently archived and available for free on Fantasia’s website (Live post-screening Q&As were allowed to expire however, perhaps and understandably to maintain certain elements of the you-have-to-be-there festival experience.)

The new age of film festival interaction was evident in Fantasia’s Master Class with filmmaker John Carpenter, who first attended the festival in 1998 with Vampires and who was given a lifetime achievement award, the Cheval Noir, this year. Carpenter answered questions for 45 minutes, which included standbys about potential sequels and remakes in addition to new projects he might have on the burner. These were fan-centric questions, and Carpenter was good-natured yet often vague, his casual aura suiting the milieu of the homey Zoom-esque presentation. The event felt less like a class than the fulfillment of a fan’s dream to have a beer with a legend, and incisive criticism was provided in one respect, with an opening seven-minute-ish montage of Carpenter’s films that emphasized their poetry and especially their sense of loneliness, even in maligned projects like Memoirs of Invisible Man and his remake of Village of the Damned. (Other special events included a lecture on Afrofuturism and a discussion with the Rue Morgue staff about the status of the press.)

The titles I saw among the 100 movies offered this year provided a vast spectrum of tones, aesthetics, and point of views. Fantasia’s name suggests a specialty in genre flavors, which is generally the case, though the festival offers an exhilaratingly vast interpretation of this idea. In fact, I didn’t see one typical meat-and-potatoes thriller or horror film, but rather documentaries, character studios, and biographies that reinvigorated genre concepts with radical formal devices, subtexts, and empathy. The films featured in this festival are also vastly international, underscoring the voices of various genders, colors, and ages.

The most ambitious and exhausting film I saw at Fantasia was Labyrinth of Cinema, a three-hour rumination on war and cinema by Nobuhiko Obayashi, who’s most famous for the 1977 cult classic House. Imagine an even more maximalist variation of that film’s gonzo aesthetic and you’ve got an idea of Labyrinth of Cinema, in which several teenagers are whisked into a cinema screen and teleported into sequences that represent the Boshin War, the second Sino-Japanese Conflict, and, most agonizingly, the bombing of Hiroshima.

Obayashi isn’t much interested in literal coherence, especially in the dizzying 90 minutes that open the film. Instead, he fashions a slipstream of formal devices and flourishes—feverish Technicolor hues, cheekily obvious uses of blue screen, kinetic samurai battles—that suggests how war is mythologized and in the process sanitized by cinema. Obayashi complicates this mythology by emphasizing for prolonged stretches of time the dread of impending death and repeated loss, particularly as embodied by an innocent young girl who dies again and again throughout the ages. Obayashi died earlier this year at the age of 82, and Labyrinth of Cinema may eventually come to be seen as his ultimate testament to the glories and delusions of his art form. This “elder” film has an audacity that should shame many young bloods in the game.

No Longer Human

A scene from Mika Ninagawa’s No Longer Human. © Fantasia International Film Festival

Another Japanese film examines insidious clichés not with maximalism, a la Obayashi, but austerity. Filmmaker and photographer Mika Ninagawa’s No Longer Human, a 2019 adaptation of the oft-adapted 1948 autobiographical novel by Dazai Osamu, is a stark chamber play that conveys a painfully matter-of-fact apart-ness, recalling David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch without the surreal special effects. Mika reworks the source material, placing the author directly in his own narrative, which has been narrowed here to the late ‘40s, when Dazai (Shun Oguri) was in the final stages of his life, suffering from depression and tuberculosis and drinking himself to death while on the verge of writing his most famous novels, including No Longer Human. The film is pointedly apolitical—World War II is never mentioned—though Mika parallels the macho military notion of “dying in honor” with the stereotype of the great male writer-boozer and detonates both in the process.

Dazai drinks and screws endlessly, actions that Mika and Shun somehow manage to drain of vicarious pleasure. Dazai essentially lives at bars, spouting obnoxious jibberish that’s typical of drunks. Mika lingers on the pain of addiction, especially on the alienation that it fosters—a feeling that one, always fucked up, doesn’t belong to clockwork society. When Dazai is in the midst of a sexual conquest, Mika emphasizes less the heat of the action than the deliberate and inadvertent miscommunications that seem to be necessary to broker the act, as well as the physical limitations that come with being a sick addict. No Longer Human’s most moving moment finds Dazai alone in an alley after being caught with a woman, regarding his family as they vanish into the night. It’s a moment of unmooring loneliness, intensified by stylized colors that underscore the film’s artificiality. We’re seeing merely a reproduction of a miserable, brilliant, vanished man.

John Hsu’s Detention also explores real atrocity, which it merges with a surreal scenario. The film is set in Taiwan in 1962, when the country was governed under martial law and punished with torture and death anyone who spread left-wing ideologies. In a high school, children are secretly taught forbidden literature and, just as the stage is set for a higher-stakes Dead Poets Society, Hsu jarringly upends the film’s sense of reality. Suddenly, two children wake up in a condemned version of the high school, a nightmarish realm with heightened colors and frightening monsters that suggests a Mario Bava adaptation of Silent Hill. The disorientation Hsu nurtures is more than cinematic game-playing, as this irrational hellscape suggests the confusion that totalitarian regimes sow in their populaces with cruel, nonsensical rules that ultimately serve to inspire terror and accommodation. Resonantly, the ghosts and monsters of Detention have no eyes, as they are products of a government that destroys free will and most of history.

Morgana

A scene from Josie Hess and Isabel Peppard’s Morgana. © Fantasia International Film Festival

The documentary Morgana focuses on an overweight, middle-aged Australian woman as she reinvents herself as a porn star named Morgana Muses. Filmmakers Josie Hess and Isabel Peppard interview Morgana as she recalls her weight gain and her husband’s increasing hostility and shame. Yearning to be touched again, she eventually hired a male prostitute for a sexual encounter that was to be her last before suicide. There’s no sense of canned recitation in these recollections. Morgana is still viscerally haunted by her past rejections, continued feelings of inadequacy, and convictions that she’s worthless and should die unmissed by husband, children, or friends. Anyone whose experienced depression, or addiction, knows that such demons never leave you; they abide, perhaps starved, waiting for an opportunity to regain dominion. Or least that’s how recovery feels, and Morgana fearlessly conjures these emotional currents for the filmmakers.

A sensitivity to pain and the perils of fearlessness prevent Morgana from becoming a fashionable totem of pop “empowerment,” even as Morgana’s fling offers her an unexpected catharsis. This film isn’t comfortably progressive in certain fashions, as Morgana’s productions occasionally center on fantasies of rape and domestic violence, drawing the ire of feminists who believe in a singular, approved-in-advanced form of freedom of expression. No, Morgana’s central, forgivable problem is its brevity. In 70 scant minutes, we’re given an origin story, a rebirth, a move from Australia to Berlin as a cult celebrity, a relapse into depression, and eventually a qualified happy ending. There should be much more footage of Morgana’s films, which are truly erotic and show that notions of hotness and sexual democracy needn’t be mutually exclusive.

Martin Kraut’s La Dosis features another middle-aged, overweight, lonely person whose perilous connection to society is challenged. Marcos (Carlos Portaluppi) is a veteran nurse at a hospital who’s both beloved and resented in the manner of many people who live only for their job and subtly lord it over everyone else. Kraut captures realistic tremors of physical tension among the characters, and much of the film’s first half is a captivating, slow-burn study of the protagonist in his setting. Marcos’s principal co-worker, Noelia (Lorena Vega), regards the man with a mixture of tenderness and pity that’s familiar to relationships between beautiful people and lonely hearts, while other co-workers exclude Marcos from social activities. The most poignant element of these passages is Marcos’s quiet, unyielding dignity; he knows how he’s perceived and he refuses to sully himself by asking for sympathy or inclusion. Marcos’s greatest sense of connection and duty is, troublingly, is his willingness to secretly euphonize hopeless patients.

A new nurse, Gabriel (Ignacio Rogers), threatens Marcos’s sense of place in the hospital. Gabriel is younger, relatively attractive, and gets along effortlessly well with everyone on the staff, especially Noelia. Gabriel doesn’t bow down to Marcos as a neophyte often does to a veteran, treating him instead as an equal and, later, rival. There’s no need to reveal how La Dosis morphs into a thriller, as Kraut exploits that mystery for a great deal of tension. And the thriller mechanics serve to explode Marcos’s alienation—his fear of losing a life that he’s already had to settle for. Marcos’s increasing panic renders him more obnoxious and eventually stronger, willing to step up for what’s his. The film’s final shot is a tragically casual image of someone embracing, of all things, a return to stasis. It’s the sort of moment that inadvertently resonates with our Covid-addled times, during which we’re often tasked with settling for facsimiles of past ambitions and pleasures.

The Fantasia International Film Festival runs from August 20 to September 2.

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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020: Mon Amour, Film About a Father Who, & The Kiosk

There’s colossal might to a cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means.

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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020
Photo: Arte France Cinéma

In the opening narration to his documentary Mon Amour, David Teboul recalls a message that his former lover, Frédéric, sent him in the middle of the night before taking his life: “It’s crazy how many things we must invent to keep us from just eating, shitting, and sleeping.” The great organizer of these “many things” we invent to convince ourselves to be something more than mere organisms is the belief in love. That, anyway, is the idea that organizes Mon Amour as Teboul travels from his native France to Siberia in order to interview locals about their experiences with love, as a way to mourn the end of his own love story.

What Teboul finds in Siberia is quite disheartening: that love, when it materializes in the figure of the lover, burns fast, and what seemed like a panacea to make our miserable world a livable place turns into the poison we call domesticity. Lovers become enemies we can’t get rid of. But the little bit of love that’s saved in the ashes of the deflated mirage that once promised to save us is once in a while rekindled through Teboul’s prodding as he interviews elderly couples who seem to articulate their feelings for the first time in ages.

The very dispositions of these individuals mimic the abyss between what was once a prospect of a pleasurable life and the crude reality of vodka and violence that replaced it. In the rare moments when someone sings the praises of togetherness, they do so by looking down or away, as if addressing their own partners when speaking about love would mean losing the little bit of honor they have left after putting up with so much betrayal.

Although Teboul interviews young people, too, the strongest portraits are those of the elderly, who, on some level, take advantage of their cinematic moment to air their grievances and, once in a while, admit gratitude. A very old-looking woman in her mid-60s who lost her sight from reading too much Pushkin late at night tells us that any other man would surely have left her long ago, but not her husband, who senses when she’s awake in the middle of the night, makes her tea, and tells her that if she dies he will follow her to the grave. Teboul’s questions can be refreshingly unexpected. As when he asks the woman what her husband’s favorite body part is. When she whispers the answer into his cute little mushroom ears, you sense that it’s the closest thing to an “I love you” that he will ever hear. We don’t know if his eyes water as she praises his ears, for he looks down and away, before then heart-breakingly saying, “The main thing is not to suffer, and not to make others suffer.”

Teboul juxtaposes these portraits with digressions about his simultaneously wonderful and dismal times with Frédéric. These reflections borrow from Hiroshima Mon Amour, which Teboul watched as a child and has haunted him ever since. Frédéric, like Emmanuelle Riva’s character in that film, was also from Nevers. In these poetic detours, we see barely lit naked bodies meant to represent Teboul and his ghostly lover, recalling the opening of Alain Resnais’s film. It often feels like these autobiographical avowals, plagued by unnecessary classical music, belong to a different film. But they’re symbolically important, if not indispensable, as if Teboul was offering a self-implicating gift in exchange for awakening the long dormant intimacies of strangers.

Film About a Father Who

An image from Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who. © Lynne Sachs

The absence of love, and our insistence on spending our entire lives looking for it anyway, is also at the core of Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who. Sheffield Doc/Fest is screening several of Sachs’s documentaries on its streaming platform. For Film About a Father Who, Sachs spent over three decades amassing footage (from Super 8 to digital) of her father, an eccentric salesman from Utah who lived a Hugh Hefner kind of life, neglecting his children and hosting a different girlfriend almost every night at his official family home. Lots and lots of them got pregnant, which resulted in Sachs having what feels like hundreds of siblings, whose testimonials she collects here. Some didn’t know who their father was until they were adults. Others, in order to protect themselves from so much hurt, still think of him as a kind of godfather.

The title of the film is an obvious play on Film About a Woman Who…, Yvonne Rainer’s experimental masterpiece about heteronormativity and monogamy. Rainer’s approach is acerbic, perhaps even folkloric, in the sense that her film portrays one specific woman wallowing in the sinking boat of heterosexual coupledom at the same time that it tells the archetypal tale of heterosexual domesticity writ large. Sachs’s approach feels a lot less multi-layered. Film About a Father Who is so fast-paced and Sachs’s narration so detached, or literal, that it can seem more like an underdeveloped absurdist comedy as random siblings keep turning up out of nowhere to give a brief account of their contradicting feelings toward their father. One of Sachs’s many sisters recounts how their father was arrested for possession of weed when they were kids and how she didn’t know whether to weep or jump with joy at the time. But the family constellation in Sachs’s film is so vast we never spend enough time with any one single relative to see them as something other than an element.

There’s a sort of North American pragmatic froideur in the film, also present in self-ethnographic films like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, that Rainer queers through stylistic experimentation, and that Teboul completely avoids by surrendering to melancholia with gusto. There isn’t much of a point in self-ethnographies where filmmakers protect their vulnerability through intellectualization, or prod their family wounds with a 10-foot pole. At one point in her narration, Sachs tells her audience that Film About a Father Who isn’t a portrait but, rather, her attempt to understand “the asymmetry of my conundrum.” The film is also shot in such a matter-of-fact manner that you may forget that the father is actually the filmmaker’s. It doesn’t help that the father himself pleads the fifth on every question and Sachs often directs her camera elsewhere, toward her siblings, instead of letting it linger on the silent and sad remnants of an aging womanizer.

Alexandra Pianelli also captures aging bodies in The Kiosk, but in a very different fashion. Her film was entirely shot on her phone, which was mostly stuck to her head, and without her ever leaving the tiny area behind the cash register of her family’s press kiosk in a posh area of Paris. We never see the world outside of Pianelli’s field of vision from her counter, and yet it feels like she shows us the entire mechanics of the contemporary world.

The Kiosk

An image from Alexandra Pianelli’s The Kiosk. © Les Films de l’oeil sauvage

The film’s subjects are mostly the elderly regulars who seem to show up at the kiosk everyday, for magazines and for Pianelli’s company. Pianelli crafts a tale of hopeful pessimism about humans’ relationship to otherness by explaining the ecosystem of her trade—namely, the slow decline of the printing industry in France and how the physical circulation of ideas can be the only connection to the world for an aging population that doesn’t master digital technology and for whom kiosks play the role of cafés, pubs, or even the analyst’s couch.

When filmmaker Pedro Costa said, at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, that all one needs to make a great film is “three flowers and a glass of water,” not “money, cars, and chicks,” this is what he means: the colossal might of the cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means. The Kiosk is a master class in filmmaking resourcefulness. Pianelli paints a portrait of our times through simple drawings that she makes of her clients, makeshift props and miniature sets made out of cardboard, and the anachronic gadgets around her workstation: a cassette tape player, an early-19th-century clock, coin holders that bear her great-grandparents’ fingerprints, and the very publications that she sells. Pianelli’s no-nonsense voiceover glues these elements together with the stunning honesty of the unflappable young Parisian for whom difference is an existential aphrodisiac. There’s no affectedness here. It’s as if a refined cinematic object accidently emerged on the road to her making an artisanal project for the sheer pleasure of making something out of dead time.

Pianelli humanizes the figure of the press kiosk clerk who, in turn, humanizes the strangers she comes across, from seniors who spend more time with her than with their own children to the Bangladeshi asylum seeker who goes to her for legal help. In one sequence, Pianelli witnesses a homeless man insistently offering his metro-ticket money to a bourgeois lady upset that the machine won’t take her credit card. We also learn that the demographics of the clientele per day of the week is contingent on what kinds of publications come out on which day, as well as which niche newspapers are the most anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, or pro-monarchy.

Pianelli lets the serious emerge but doesn’t dwell on it. Seriousness often comes wrapped up in quirkiness and play, as when she plays a guessing game with the audience, telling us what a random customer will buy before they open their months, solely based on what they wear, and always she gets it right. Men in suits and ties go for either the newspaper Le Figaro or Les Echos, while the well-coiffed ladies who don fur coats gravitate toward Voici, unless Kate Moss’s ass is on the cover of a nearby fashion magazine.

At one point, Pianelli says that she considers herself a seller of dreams. By this she means that each magazine at the kiosk stokes a different fantasy, from a supermodel body to a nation without Arabs. But The Kiosk makes Pianelli a saleswoman of a very different sort. Instead of working as the intermediary between vulnerable denizens and the idealized images that tease and haunt them, she cobbles a much more original fantasy through the bodies they actually have. The kiosk becomes the prototype for the most utopian vision of the public library, or any old space inhabited by a curious mind—an ebullient infinity of poetry and care.

Sheffield Doc/Fest’s online platform will be available to all public audiences from June 10—July 10.

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Visions du Réel 2020: State Funeral and Purple Sea

These notable documentaries utilize found footage to document the aftermath of dying in dramatically different fashions.

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State Funeral
Photo: MUBI

In State Funeral, Sergei Loznitsa cobbles together archival footage from the various grandiose celebrations that followed the death of Joseph Stalin in order to paint a portrait not of the Soviet politician himself, but of the theatrics that prop up totalitarianism. Crowds gather in Poland, Chekoslovakia, Azerbaijan, East Germany, and beyond, all the various places collapsing into a single mourning square. Statesmen disembark from their planes. Uncountable wreaths are laid. Everyday folk carry larger-than-life photographs of their leader. Some stand still in front of shops, as if unmoored by the news, waiting for guidance on how to go on without “the greatest genius in the history of mankind.”

No one’s mouth seems to move even just a little, to speak or to cry. Throughout, people appear stunned, and they may faint were they not buttressed by the certainty of what they had to do next, according to the voices telling them what to feel and where to go. The voices seem to come from reports on the radio or from megaphones. They announce the end of a life but the continuation of the ideas and deeds that unite all of the bereaved into one big family.

Surely the forlorn lady who reads the death announcement on the front page of a newspaper in Minsk is listening to the same speech as the gentlemen in ushanka hats gathered at a square in Tallin. Loznitsa’s ingenious sound design produces an uncanny sense of simultaneity, linking far-away faces and places under the same paternalistic fantasy. Through an inconspicuous editing strategy that makes irony emerge little by little, State Funeral exposes the pathetic absurdity of collective adoration. It does so with a subtlety similar to that of the facial expressions of those who grieve, and the dutiful slowness of their dragging feet.

There’s enough certainty in this communal trance to transcend physical distance and the finality of matter itself. Even if, or precisely because, it’s that irreversibility that Stalin’s unresponsive body announces. And there’s indeed a body, which the crowds flock to see. But not without the most elaborate of preparations—from austere rituals to extravagant attires to lethargic paces—so that by the time these orphans are confronted with the father’s pitifully inert flesh they have been blinded by the myths that birthed him.

How to believe the immortality of the thing that lies dead before one’s very eyes? The voices—disembodied for a reason, and presumably wafting from speakers—have a plan for that: to disavow the inarguable reality of what has just happened. Because Stalin was supposed to be an immortal hero, a father and God, “(…) there is no death here! There is only eternal life!”

The images that Loznitsa deftly assembles feature astonishingly consistent angles, mise-en-scène, and gestures: gentle camera pans, stern visual compositions, and people marching along in freakish unison. The shots have also been restored to such uncanny crispness it seems impossible to believe them to have been “found” as fragments devoid of an original vision captured by the same light, with the same film stock, and signed by the same cameraperson.

Purple Sea

A scene from Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed’s Purple Sea. © ZDF/Arte

Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed utilize found footage and document the aftermath of dying in a dramatically different fashion in Purple Sea. The film is essentially an ode to migrants who board rafts bound to capsize—bodies for which there will be no collective mourning, no news stories, not even burial. Like Alzakout, who manages to survive but not before finding out why the Mediterranean is sometimes referred to as a liquid grave.

Unlike State Funeral, there’s nothing clear about the images in Alzakout and Abdulwahed’s film, apart from the gut-wrenching lack of artifice behind the off-camera wailing: children dreading their drowning. From beginning to end, the hazy image suggests we’re submerged underwater, with the occasional orange cameo of the fabric of Alzakout’s life jacket. And apart from the occasional crying, the most prominent voice here is that of a woman reciting a poem, epistolary and diary-like, to a lover on the other side of the ocean. This narration is often as perplexing as the perpetually unclear image, as when the woman talks about a frog that jumps into the pond and a fish that swims away. Or when she confides that she can “smell the snow.”

After fleeing her native Syria and meeting Abdulwahed in Turkey, Alzakout tries to join him in Germany, where he’s managed to escape to. In Purple Sea, all we see is an uninterrupted sequence of images haphazardly captured by a water-proof camera strapped to Alzakout’s body. At the time of their recording, these images were allegedly meant as a home-movie diary, not a film to circulate on the festival circuit. She starts filming long before the raft overturns in the hopes of showing the footage to her lover and leaves the camera on while she, yet another orange dot trying not to drown in the Mediterranean ocean, waits to be saved.

Although the sea here is closer to purple, Purple Sea recalls the monochromatic intimacy of Derek Jarman’s Blue, another film about dying slowly but living desperately, and to the point of blindness—literal or otherwise—until the moment death finally arrives. The pieces eventually come together through deduction, not demonstration, in this experimental documentary, which respects the unhurried speed of metaphors. We hear whistles and men shouting, and it’s here that the voiceover narration becomes a bit more tangible. “What are you doing right now? Are you sleeping?” “How long do you have to stay in the refugee camp?”

The voice, which couldn’t be more distinctive from the guiding voices of State Funeral, promising eternity and peddling strength, eventually reverts back to poetic digressions. The woman says she digs a hole that gets big enough to fit all her bracelets. And that someone will find the bracelets in 100 years and think they belonged to a queen. She then falls in the hole. Poetry emerges in Purple Sea as the strategy of those deprived of the luxury of sugar-coating death with farcical disavowals and collective delusions—those who must confront the horrors of finitude head on because they are always already inside them.

Visions du Réel runs online from April 17—May 5.

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Visions du Réel 2020: Love Poem and Babenco: Tell Me When I Die

Many of the films at Visions du Réel expand the notion of “the real” in all of its plasticity.

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Love Poem
Photo: Visions du Réel

Many of the films at Visions du Réel, this year running as a digital-only event in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, expand the notion of “the real” in all of its plasticity, exposing the layers of fiction inherent to any form of documentary filmmaking. In Love Poem, for example, director Xiaozhen Wang amplifies the complicated relationship between spontaneity and artifice into a puzzling sleight of hand. The film begins in the confines of a car, where a couple is quarrelling in front of their young child. The camera lingers on the woman (Qing Zhou) in the back seat, who feeds her daughter seaweed snacks and lollipops while her husband drives the vehicle. No one seems to be wearing a seatbelt.

The woman chastises her husband for never changing their child’s diapers—and for being unfaithful. He accuses her of being selfish with her money. She threatens to divorce him and asks their daughter if she’d rather stay with her father or mother (she chooses the latter). By the end of this asphyxiating car ride, she’s kicked, slapped, pinched and spat on him.

It all feels heartbreakingly realistic until the woman brings up the fact that her husband makes films. Which may make you wonder if the husband is played by the filmmaker himself (he is) and start speculating about how much of Love Poem’s drama is candid and how much of it is staged. The question of manipulation seeps into the surface of the film along with the perversity inherent to filmmakers, and husbands, who might reduce human beings into tools for personal enjoyment or for the sake of building up their oeuvres.

That’s precisely the complaint of the woman in the film’s second half, which takes the audience on another stifling car ride. Here, heterosexual coupledom is spoiled by a woman’s endless complaints and her male lover’s very reliable ability to screw everything up. The scene appears to be a flashback to a time when the man from Love Poem’s first half was seeing the woman who his wife was so angry about. The husband wants to see the other woman one last time before bringing a pregnancy test kit home to his wife.

In this setup, Wang is less worried about exploiting the cusp between reality and fiction. Instead, he allows the seams of the filmmaking process to show, as the couple sometimes stop speaking to check if the camera battery is low, but also for the woman to complain about the fact that all the man wants to do is film. “You don’t even see me as human,” she tells him.

We are, then, never quite sure what’s real and what’s not—a disorienting but also immersive feeling. Wang insists on re-living the situation in the second half of the film multiple times as the man and woman repeat dialogue that a few moments prior seemed so convincingly off the cuff, as if flaunting the fact that any representation turns behavior into acting, or at the very least outs behavior as acting, and that once filmed, any drama is melodrama.

Babenco: Tell Me When I Die

A scene from Babenco: Tell Me When I Die. © Taskovski Films Ltd.

The seams of the cinematic process are also visible in Babenco: Tell Me When I Die, Barbara Paz’s exquisite portrait of her husband, Héctor Babenco, in his final days. While Love Poem documents the violent asymmetry between a filmmaker and his subjects, in Babenco cinema appears as a kind of lovemaking that puts lovers in dignified dialogue with each other.

Though there’s unquestionable dissonance between the dying veteran filmmaker and his much younger pupil, their roles aren’t so fixed. Not only because they take turns filming each other, but because to be filmed in Babenco doesn’t mean becoming a director’s puppet. Babenco, for instance, teaches Paz about depth of field and camera lenses as she films him, discovering different apertures. Preparation and doubt about the crafting of an image is refreshingly front and center, which complicates and destabilizes the relationship between filmed subject and filmmaker, as the makers are here either dying or still learning how to shoot.

Babenco used to dream of becoming the next Luchino Visconti and could seem arrogant at times. But Paz steers clear of appeasing his ego or turning Babenco into a hagiography. She isn’t cowered by Babenco’s grandeur, nor does she try to channel it into her filmmaking. She’s simply a good pupil, taking Babenco’s filmmaking tips to heart in order to make her own film. That includes not romanticizing every moment they share, or “otherwise you’ll have a movie lasting four hours and 15 minutes,” as Babenco tells Paz.

There are things bigger than cinema in Babenco. Things like the joie de vivre borne out of intimacy of the kind no cinematic proficiency can fake, and for which the camera is a useful witness but not an almighty cause. Bigger things like death, too, which taunted Babenco repeatedly from his first bout with cancer, when he was nominated for an Academy Award for The Kiss of the Spider Woman at age 37, all the way to his death at 70.

Paz evokes the nodes linking Babenco’s films to his psychic life through exquisitely seamless editing. She steeps all of her images in a consistent black-and-white dreamscape and forges a surreal dialogue between the filmmaker’s own words in interviews and those uttered by the characters in his films. One of them says cancer is the only thing he ever got. Another one says she thinks we die when we can’t stand it anymore. Paz is more interested in reflection than explanation, so we’re never told the titles of the films or when they were made. It’s as though her ingenious hands have returned these fragments of fiction back to their place of origin, imbricating them with the real of Babenco’s body one last time.

Visions du Réel runs online from April 17—May 5.

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IFFR 2020: This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, Drag Kids, Young Hunter, & More

It’s difficult to imagine Rotterdam as a place where a film festival isn’t taking place at all times.

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International Film Festival Rotterdam 2020
Photo: IFFR

It’s difficult to imagine Rotterdam as a place where a film festival isn’t taking place at all times. The city feels tailor-made for such an event, with its panoply of movie theaters teeming with character and charming espresso bars, convenient pitstops between screenings, so close to one another. Even the servers and baristas at various restaurants and cafés can seem like festival ambassadors, quick to express their excitement when spotting a person’s IFFR tote bag, at times offering recommendations on which screenings to attend. “I swear it’s not at all like the musical,” said one server, referring to Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables.

The LantarenVenster is the only venue that seems to require that you catch a festival shuttle from the downtown area. Here, too, the workers play their role with gusto, in a delicious fantasy of a port city so imbricated in cinema that its festival is all but an effortless consequence of its filmmaking spirit. One driver, as we cross the Erasmusbrug bridge at night time, chats about film criticism and turns on Miles Davis on the radio, and somehow it feels as we’re in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows. He points out certain buildings and riffs on their historical significance. When we pass by the Schilderstraat, letters forming the word CULT are inexplicably hanging above the cars on the street, where a garish “Merry Xmas” might appear in a different kind of town. The driver notes that Rotterdam is becoming almost too trendy and sophisticated. Almost.

This may be what filmmaker Pedro Costa had in mind when, in his remarkable Masterclass, he used precisely the figure of the festival chauffeur to paint a picture of how much film festivals have changed in the past couple of decades. He said that even the drivers have master’s degrees in film studies these days. This would perhaps be a plus, but in Costa’s brutal indictment of the film industry, the film festival circuit certainly included, it also means everyone is constantly trying to pitch something. “Don’t pitch anything, please!”

Costa used the figure of the driver with an MA to illustrate the hyper-specialization of everyone involved in the business, but he reserved his venom to attack another figure—that of “sales agents” who, he suggested, act like vultures, depleting every aspect of the filmmaking process from any possible art-for-art’s-sake ethos, transforming everything into an opportunity to sell something. In this context, Costa argued, a filmmaker could make any kind of demand—for Robert De Niro, for Sean Penn, or for a dozen elephants on set—just not for “time,” that most vital tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal (“When you don’t have time, you don’t discover life”).

Costa’s talk was packed with references of artists he looked up to, from Robert Bresson to Kenji Mizoguchi, from Buster Keaton to Wang Bing—directors who knew that to make a good film all one needs is “three flowers and a glass of water,” not “money, cars, and chicks.” Costa kept mistakenly presuming that everyone in the audience was an aspiring filmmaker, and hopefully they weren’t, as his advice was for everyone to just stop making movies because we have too many in the world already. And on the off-chance that someone in the crowd still wanted to go out and make one, Costa established poetry, sociology, and subtlety as pre-conditions for the kind of cinema he’s interested in making and consuming–even if on his iPhone during his daily train commute (Bresson looks great on the iPhone, he claimed). “This is not about revealing anything,” he said. Cinema should be about hiding, like a gift you put inside a box and wrap delicately before offering.

There were certainly a few of those kinds of films at Rotterdam this year. One of them was Lesotho-born, Berlin-based filmmaker Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, which, like Costa’s own Vitalina Varela, explores the impossibility of mourning. In Mosese’s film, Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo), an 80-year-old widow living in a rural village in Lesotho, learns that her last surviving son, a migrant worker laboring in a coal mine in neighboring South Africa, has just died. She has thus lost all of her loved ones and decides to plan her own funeral. She wants a simple coffin. No golden angels or other gaudy nonsense.

This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection

An image from Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection. © IFFR

Mosese’s mise-en-scène and camerawork are breathtaking. The opening of the film, for one, is reminiscent of the Titanik Bar scene from Béla Tarr’s Damnation, where the camera glides through a God-forsaken nowhere, certain of where it needs to go, despite the darkness, all the way until it spots a cabaret performer singing the most melancholy of all songs. In This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, the camera also sneaks gracefully through a dark nowhere until it finds, not a singer, but an old man playing a strange instrument and eager to tell us a sad tale about lands that weep, miners coming home, and “cups that could never be filled.”

Mosese takes us back to this non-space a couple of times, as if the old man, played by Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha, were a non-diegetic master of ceremonies for the story of Mantoa that unfolds. It’s a story told through the gracefulness of the camerawork, the stunningly lit tableaux, and, most remarkably of all, through fabric. Not many films, especially ones with a documentary sensibility, use texture—wool, mud, cement, ashes, and cloth specifically—as a storytelling device the way that This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection does.

Consider the moments where Mantoa, faced with the many obstacles that keep her from being able to dig her own grave, takes refuge in the gown her husband once gave her: an exquisitely lustrous damask dress with a black frill and white-collar trim. It’s a great sartorial departure from the sober blackness of her usual widow’s attire, which clashes with the flashy satin swathed around the bodies of the women around her and the blindingly yellow uniforms of city workers building a dam right where the dead lay, draped in white bedsheets.

In one of the film’s many unforgettable scenes, Mantoa gets up from the chair where she usually sits to listen to the radio and dances with her dead husband, raising her arm as if holding an actual body that isn’t there, a voice in the background telling her to take off her “cloak of mourning.” And she certainly takes it all off in a bewildering final sequence when Mantoa simultaneously surrenders to loss and spurns it.

Several other films at IFFR explored the theme of death and dying, such as Carl Olsson’s Meanwhile on Earth, an observational study of the Swedish funerary industry. The film reminds us of the artificiality of funerals, or rites more generally, exposing them as highly theatrical performances, with their wreathes, pots, and crosses staged just so. It also pays close attention to the mechanics of funerals: their perfectly timed music and the multiplicity of gadgets and machineries required to lift and transport corpses and coffins.

Olsson’s strategy for making the subject matter palatable is to try and extract discrete humor from it. He loiters on the professionals going about their tasks—transporting, cleaning, embalming—for long enough so that overtly banal dialogue emerges. In the film’s most successful moments, the juxtaposition between the morbid ambiance (bodies on stretchers that bleed long after dead) and chats about all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets or the nutritional value of bottled smoothies make for a Tati-esque skit with a disarming punchline at the end.

Kristof Bilsen’s documentary Mother is the portrait of Pomm, a caretaker at an Alzheimer’s care center in Thailand whose poverty keeps her from living with her children, and Maya, her incoming patient, a privileged 57-year-old Swiss woman whose husband and children drop her off at the care center and go back to Switzerland. Unfortunately, Bilsen allocates the same amount of time on both women’s daily lives in their home countries prior to their encounter, insisting on obvious contrasts between poverty-stricken Thailand and the idyllic mountains of Switzerland. Yet only Pomm allows herself to be vulnerable for the camera, as Maya’s family never lets their guard down. It’s difficult to engage meaningfully with some of the subjects (like Maya’s entourage) when the filmmaker is content to accept the fact that they only have their façades to offer.

Drag Kids

An image from Megan Wennberg’s Drag Kids. © IFFR

Rotterdam featured films about the exuberance of youth, too, liberated or stunted. Drag Kids, screened at the very laidback Scopitone Café, a bar named after film jukeboxes of yore inside the Theater Rotterdam Schouwburg. The documentary follows child drag artists, some as young as nine, and their supportive families, as they prepare for their first joint concert at Montreal Pride. Director Megan Wennberg is smart not to bank simply on the inexplicable thrill of watching young children perform like adults. She’s protective of the children, in fact, never lingering on the potentially embarrassing less-than-average performances, singing or voguing, from some of the kids. Instead, she focuses on the differences between the kids, suggesting that drag can take different meanings, and that it can make different promises of deliverance, for children with decidedly different psychic symptoms and family constellations. Their only kinship seems to be, apart for their love of drag, the apparently unconditional support from their parents. Still, problems arise, from Queen Lactatia’s self-obsessed competitiveness to Laddy GaGa’s near-psychotic outbursts.

It’s impossible to look at Drag Kids, which is unabashedly reality TV show-esque at various moments, and not think of TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras, with its barrage of Southern stage moms waxing their pre-pubescent daughters’ eyebrows and teaching them trophy-wife realness. Although some of the Drag Kids parents do seem eager to capitalize on their children as digital influencers or with merchandise featuring their child’s face, the role of hyper-femininity and artifice here seems to play more of a reparative and self-aware playfulness than they did in the gender-conforming theatrics, and orthopaedics, of Toddlers & Tiaras. Wennberg’s documentary refreshingly denies us a lot of the kiddy voyeurism one might expect, ultimately crafting a portrait of kids whose maladies, if they have any, are somewhere else to be found—not on stage nor in the glitter.

In Young Hunter, director Marco Berger offers us a gripping look at the tragedies that surface precisely when desire isn’t allowed to express itself freely and publicly. In Berger’s vision of Argentina, queer feelings are necessarily clandestine feelings. A boy like 15-year-old Ezequiel (Juan Pablo Cestaro), then, is forced to develop a sort of criminal mind, and a criminal gaze, from a very young age. The queer object of desire can only be a prey, or a victim to be duped into reciprocating one’s yearning, as Ezequiel has to go through all sorts of subterfuges and a certainly different kind of theatrics from drag in order to get a good glimpse at other men’s bodies, let alone touch them, including that of his cousin (Juan Barberini).

The whole world seems to be a tease that one can only enjoy along with the terrifying dread of being found out. Instead of dwelling on it, however, Ezequiel takes matters into his own hands and develops a system of tricks for having sex with other boys, inviting them over to his house when his parents are away, feeding them beer and straight porn magazines, and then suggesting that they jack off together. If it all fails, he might head to the nearby skatepark and stare at shirtless boys like Mono (Lautaro Rodriguez), who he ends up falling in love with. At first it seems gratuitously reciprocal, but then Ezequiel realizes that he’s caught in a web of intrigue and lies much more extensive than the one he had to construct for himself.

Young Hunter is playfully shot like a thriller, until you realize that it may actually be one. The film is refreshing in that, while it recognizes the ravages of queer desire in a queerphobic world, it doesn’t focus on the suffering but on psychological solutions and practical strategies for sexual survival that are bound to seem familiar to any queer child who’s dared to evade repression and its many laws through queer creativity and savvy.

International Film Festival Rotterdam runs from January 22—February 2.

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Under the Radar 2020: The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, Not I, & More

Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder.

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The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes
Photo: Public Theater

Most of the plays I see in New York City are created by able-bodied, Anglophone playwrights. (More often than not they’re men, and more often than not they’re white.) For most New York theater critics, most of the time, “international” means “imported from London.” If it doesn’t, it probably means “directed by Ivo van Hove.” But at the Under the Radar Festival, the Public Theater’s 16-year-old annual international theatrical extravaganza, the thoughtfully curated program of new works blasts apart the predictable comfort of knowing what you’re getting yourself into.

Despite the relentless pace, marathoning in a festival setting like Under the Radar works against the critical impulse to get in and get out. Lingering in playing spaces beyond the curtain call to soak in the experience and seeking threads of connections between plays before cementing my verdict on any are rarer opportunities than I’d realized.

Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival—especially taking in shows at high quantity in quick succession—replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder. I haven’t adored every offering at this year’s festival, but, in each theater space, I’ve been keenly, refreshingly alert to my presence and my perspective as an audience member, to the ways in which I hear and watch and engage. I’ve looked sideways as well as dead ahead, and over the weekend, I saw two performances that required lengthy, committed conversations with the strangers sitting next to me. (And that’s especially valuable for critics, who sometimes need the reminder that other people’s opinions coexist alongside ours.)

This year’s lineup of plays has been particularly successful in making audiences acutely aware of themselves as a whole, as people who lug assumptions and anxieties and uncertainties into their seats. Take The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the first play I saw this season and the festival’s most rewarding in its complexity. Throughout its hour-long run time, I had occasionally taken note of a long strip of yellow tape at the front of the playing space. During the play, the four actors, all of whom are neurodivergent and play characters who are neurodivergent, frequently step up to that line to speak to the audience. I imagined the line as a necessary, neon beacon for the performers to find their way forward.

The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes

A scene from The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes. © The Public

Yet, in the final moments of the play, actor Simon Laherty (who also co-wrote the script with his castmates and other members of the Back to Back Theatre, an Australian company), tears the tape off the floor and exits. The gesture reads as a direct rebuke to the very ideas I’d been holding for the play’s duration: It seems to ask, ”Who are you to assume that the world of this play was built for its performers instead of for the characters they play? How can you, sitting there, decide what we, putting on a show for you up here, need in order to perform?” And I wondered, not for the first time: How did they read my mind?

Directed by Back to Back’s artistic director, Bruce Gladwin, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes stars four performers with disabilities playing characters (with their own first names) who host a sort of town hall meeting to educate the people in attendance about what it’s like to have a disability. The shared names between characters and actors are a red herring. These actors have disabilities, yes, but that doesn’t mean the characters with disabilities they play are them, any more than neurotypical roles match the neurotypical actors playing them. Again and again, through moves so subtle I’m not sure I didn’t imagine them, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes sets graceful, invisible traps for the audience’s assumptions about the capabilities of the performers and the distance between performer and character. And while I’m not entirely sure of the title’s meaning, it might have something to do with the play’s constant shadowy evasion of comforting resolutions: Never once is an audience member allowed to feel like they have mastered the art of empathy.

An early sequence seems deliberate in putting an audience on edge, as the long stretches of silence as actor Sarah Mainwaring prepares to speak made me wonder whether it was the actor or the character who had forgotten her lines. Was this discomforting silence performed or real? It’s part of the play, of course, just like most of neurotypical theater’s long pauses. But I feel sure that The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes anticipated my discomfort and my doubt. That dark cocktail of emotions following the clarifying moments—relieved admiration for the performers, guilt for the assumptions I had made, embarrassment that I had been caught feeling uneasy—stayed with me for the rest of the play’s rich hour.

In that regard, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes is very much about the audience, and there’s nimble, layered playfulness as the characters obsess around whether the imagined audience at the town hall meeting are understanding their message. And while some of the sections of the text work better than others (I’m not sure about the suggestion that everyone will be deemed disabled when artificial intelligence overtakes human thought), the actors also engage brilliantly with the supertitles, which are supposedly transcribed live at the meeting by Siri. Supertitles seem at first like a tool for us, the audience, to understand the performers’ speech. As Scott Price laments, “I have autism, and, unfortunately for me, I also have a thick Australian accent.” But the projected text also doubles as a symbol for the dehumanization of people on the spectrum. “You can tell we have disabilities as everything we say comes upon a screen,” Sarah notes with disdain. “The subtitling is offensive.”

This point of view leads to a heated argument about language and representation, with Scott claiming the label of disability: “I’m a disabled person here and I’m proud and I don’t want to weave my way around language.” But there’s no unified front in how these four characters perceive themselves and seek to be perceived.

Perhaps the play’s sharpest touch is that Michael and Scott talk down to Simon, describing him as “very childlike” and insinuating that he can’t understand what’s going on or fully participate in the meeting. Sarah calls them out on this (“You’re talking like Simon’s not even in the room”), and it’s not just an indictment of how individuals with disabilities can be dehumanized to their faces but also an illuminating glance into how internalized measures of normalcy have permeated the disability community. This quartet of characters doesn’t include heroes or victims or saints and the play relishes in catching the audience in the act of attaching such labels to the performers. It’s a play I want to see again in order to try again, to use what I’ve learned from my first encounter with Back to Back to do better the next time.

If The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes invites us to project imagined limitations on to the performers and then to watch those assumptions crumble, the creator of Samuel Beckett’s Not I at BRIC (the Brooklyn venue hosting this show) wants us to know exactly what to expect from the beginning. Yes, this is a performance—and an exhilarating one—of Beckett’s 15-minute, stream-of-consciousness monologue, first performed in 1972, but this production positions the piece at the center of a conversation with the performer, Jess Thom.

Thom, who’s best known in the U.K. for Touretteshero, an alter ego aimed at educating and spreading awareness of Tourette’s syndrome, has a number of repeating verbal tics that spark from her speech: Among the most frequent are “biscuit,” “sausage,” and “I love cats,” plus a few words and phrases that aren’t quite so “cute,” as Thom describes them. Unlike The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the sense of unpredictability here is shared by the performers. A few times throughout the day, Thom explains, she will lose control over her body and speech, and this possibility creates a space of “genuine jeopardy.”

Not I

A scene from Not I. © James Lyndsay

Such pre-show disclaimers are neither warnings nor apologies but a crucial aspect of Thom’s central work here: envisioning a truly inclusive performance space and then co-creating that space with her audience. There are no surprises in Not I. Thom explains, in detail, that her wheelchair will be lifted eight feet into the air atop a hydraulic lift; that only her mouth will be lit (as in all productions of Beckett’s monologue); that an ASL interpreter (the warmly expressive Lindsey D. Snyder) will sign every word of Beckett’s explosively high-velocity text, plus each unexpected tic along the way; that the post-performance experiences will include watching a video, discussing the monologue with a stranger, and participating in a Q&A.

The audience sits on padded benches and pillows on the floor, and Thom invites people to move and make noise during the piece as needed. An online guide to the performance even includes a sound map, alerting audience members to patches of loud noise, like applause and a section of the monologue featuring terrifying screams. With its shrieks and terrorizing, relentless intensity, Not I certainly defies expectations for the sorts of theater pieces that tend to offer relaxed, inclusive performances. But by reclaiming the character of Mouth through the lens of disability, Thom has made the jumbled thoughts of the character suddenly specific and, if not quite understandable, accessible through empathy.

Though Beckett meant for Not I to unnerve its auditors with its impenetrableness, Thom uses the text to grant entry into her own experiences of losing control over her own speech and movement. Thom’s tics remain present throughout the monologue, absorbed into the labyrinthine, spontaneous stitches of Mouth’s words. In fact, as Thom explained in the Q&A section, the tics actually multiply to fill the spaces between breakneck sections of monologue; the speed with which she articulates the text temporarily displaces her tics, “like a stone in water,” but they flow back in during Beckett’s indicated silences. “My version of silence,” Thom clarified, often sounds like eight or 10 “biscuits” in a row. If we can embrace and understand the charismatic, wisecracking Thom, we should be able to extend that compassion toward embracing and understanding her version of Mouth too.

After the performance of Beckett’s monologue, Thom sits on the floor as a short video about the making of this piece plays. In the video, Thom attributes her emergence as a performer to the exclusion and isolation she experiences as an audience member: on-stage seemed to be “the only seat in the house I wouldn’t be asked to leave.” And even as we hear her words, their truth immediately confirms itself: It’s only during this section of the performance—a few minutes in which Thom herself is not visible as she sits in the dark—that I reverted to experiencing Thom’s tics as disruption or interruption. At the exact moment I was nodding along with the video’s celebration of inclusive theatrical spaces, I was simultaneously sensing my own flashes of concern or maybe frustration or maybe fear that someone sitting beside me in the darkness was breaking the sacred rules of stillness and silence. With love and warmth and unvarying good humor, Thom manages to shine a glaring, pointed spotlight on our own limitations as compassionate stewards of the spaces we strive to co-inhabit. Then she asks us to look around the room and gives us the chance, right then and there, to change.

The limitations of the human intellect—and the human spirit—are put to the test in Grey Rock, an English-language commission by Palestinian playwright-director Amir Nizar Zuabi which premiered at La MaMa a year ago. Zuabi’s play, besides being performed in English, boasts an instantly recognizable form: It’s a family comedy, actually one of the funniest I’ve seen in a while, with a bittersweetness that calls to mind, in a very different geopolitical context, Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.

Grey Rock

A scene from Grey Rock. © Carlos Cardona

Lila (Fidaa Zaidan) is perplexed that her father, the widower Yusuf (Khalifa Natour), has suddenly started working out vigorously. Why the sudden focus on getting in shape? At first she thinks he’s seeing someone new—it’s been three years since her mother died—but that doesn’t explain why he’s also spending hours assembling mechanical parts in his shed with a brilliant young engineer, Fadel (Ivan Kevork Azazian). Yusuf’s plan, it turns out, is to build a rocket to the moon, a feat that will put Palestinian fortitude and ingenuity on the map.

It’s in Yusuf’s very insistence that his rocket-building is about humanity rather than political conflict that Zuabi’s play becomes, in fact, forcefully political. Much like The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes foretells the audience’s expectations of the performers’ failures, Grey Rock anticipates the need for viewers to see conflict and war in every image and line of dialogue with Palestine attached to it.

Israel is a reality in the world of Grey Rock, of course, and one which diminishes what some of these characters think they can become: Fadel describes the Israeli forces as “stop signs for the imagination” and Yusuf later tells Lila’s ill-matched fiancé Jawad (Alaa Shehada), “You have the occupation [as] your excuse for your lack of creativity.” But Zuabi seems less interested in using the play to protest the Israeli presence in Palestine than in advocating for a Palestinian uprising of imagination and creativity in the face of dehumanization. There’s an aspect of 21st-century fairy tale to Grey Rock’s structure and plot twists, but the play remains grounded enough to suggest real-world pathways forward for oppressed peoples to dream big. (The fact that these performers, who all identify as Palestinian, have overcome complex visa hurdles to perform in New York twice in the span of a year, is a dream realized already.) Except for the final scene (a tonal shift that doesn’t entirely pay off), Grey Rock keeps the darkness at bay. The Israeli occupying forces are a constant off-stage presence, an invisible menace that the characters must sometimes ignore in order to live and shape their own stories.

Most of the story careens through amusingly familiar tropes, but it’s a familiarity that seems to be there by design. I think I would have found Grey Rock just as absorbing in supertitled Arabic, but there’s something appealing in the transparency with which it draws us in. The play was written for English speakers, with the intention of exposing the ordinary vibrancy of quotidian Palestinian existence. Knowing some of the well-trodden arcs of the plot in advance narrows the space between Anglophone audiences and the world they encounter.

Zuabi is a far nimbler writer than director; the play’s magnetic energy only diminishes in its awkwardly staged moments of physical comedy and occasionally rudderless transitions between scenes. But his dialogue briskly fleshes out his five characters, who also include the village’s anxious imam (Motaz Malhees). There’s a particularly delightful rapport between Natour’s gruff stargazer and Azazian’s overeager yet tentative assistant.

Beyond the crisp comedy, the relationship between Yusuf and his beloved, aspiring daughter Lila feels almost operatic in its balance of tenderness and tumult: Lila harbors years of resentment that her father allowed himself to be jailed for anti-occupation propaganda, leaving her mother to raise Lila independently for five years. When Yusuf leaps to his feet jubilantly upon hearing that Lila’s broken off her engagement, and then tries to backtrack his demonstrativeness, it’s both hilarious and sweetly moving.

I’m not sure if Zuabi deliberately snuck in one particular idiom for this festival run: “I order things in small quantities so I go under the radar,” Yusuf says, explaining his rocket-in-progress to an ever-expanding community of supporters. But to go Under the Radar, the Public has ordered up a series of shows which are anything but small in their expansive commitment to transforming audiences, preparing them to be more perceptive, empathetic people, perhaps even in time for the next performance.

Under the Radar runs from January 8—19.

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The 10 Best Documentaries of 2019

The year’s best documenaries found the monstrous in the mundane, the epic in the everyday.

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The 10 Best Documentaries of 2019
Photo: TriceFilms

Lest we forget, 2019 saw the release of Avengers: Endgame, the bloated culmination of a franchise marked by needlessly convoluted storylines and an almost perverse overreliance on computer-generated spectacle. On the extreme opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, some of the best documentaries of the year were small-scale, intimate, articulate snapshots, often adventurous in form, of actual human perspectives and dilemmas—qualities that at least partly explain why the films are so easy to love.

Look no further than Chinese Portrait, which in any one of its brief observational shots of people living their everyday lives raises more thought-provoking ideas about the passage of time than Avengers: Endgame does in three hours. And Xiaoshuai Wang’s film wasn’t the only documentary this year to offer a hugely empathetic account of people’s relationship to their community. Both Khalik Allah’s Black Mother and Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka rejected portraying their subjects solely as victims of marginalization, presenting whirlwind celebrations of multifaceted people and their culture. And Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? powerfully expressed the profound levels of kindness and strength people display when fighting to make a difference in the civic life of their communities.

It wasn’t just the everyman who was the star of 2019’s best documentaries, but also influential cultural icons in singular late-career works. In the captivating and bittersweet career self-evaluation Varda by Agnès, the late, great Agnès Varda did something few filmmakers do: cap off a robust oeuvre on her own terms. And Rolling Thunder Revue, by rockumentarian extraordinaire Martin Scorsese, is notable not only for its playful mash-up of pop history and myth, but also for showing Bob Dylan, in both archival footage and present-day interviews, like we’ve never seen him before: loose, buoyant, and, believe it or not, actually looking like he’s having fun. As a gaudy new box-office king became anointed, 2019’s documentaries proved that the genre is more vital than ever for not just homing in on the monstrous in the mundane, but also the epic in the everyday. Wes Greene


The Silence of Others

10. The Silence of Others

Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar’s The Silence of Others is monumental for its clamorous sounding of an alarm. It reminds us, and we do need reminding, that the acts of horror committed by nation states are often followed by a convenient amnesia—a whitewashing of man’s brutality—where everyone agrees to be good citizens moving forward. But beyond its pedagogical function, the film helps us posit more philosophical questions of justice versus revenge, along with the endless transmission of trauma. From generation to generation, the ravages of Spain’s dictatorship are passed on like a cursed heirloom. The sadism of yesterday’s jackals becomes palpable through the accounts of their deeds, but their victims’ progeny, now close to death themselves, have rather modest wishes. Namely, getting official confirmation that their loved ones were murdered by the state. Or seeing what’s left of the bodies, even if from a distance. Diego Semerene


Rolling Thunder Revue

9. Rolling Thunder Revue

Throughout Rolling Thunder Revue, Martin Scorsese culls various images together to offer a startlingly intense vision of America as place that, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, essentially believes in nothing, following one demoralizing crisis after another. The film gradually collapses, mutating from a freeform document of the Rolling Thunder Revue into a series of essays and anecdotes, such as on the origin of Dylan’s Rubin Carter tribute “Hurricane.” The film attains a shaggy shapelessness that suggests the haze of travel, as Dylan and his cohorts push on, delving deeper into their micro worlds. The true shock of the documentary, however, is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage. All of the make-up and masks he wears—other allusions to reinvention, to the essential, simultaneously nourishing and damaging textures of pop culture—seem to liberate him. On this tour, Dylan performs quite a bit of material from Desire, and his singing is clear and urgent and stunningly divorced of his ironic parlor games; he’s connecting with these songs, using the revue concept to channel his canniest and most sincere instincts as an actor and storyteller. Chuck Bowen


What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

8. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Roberto Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant. Bowen


Varda by Agnès

7. Varda by Agnès

In Varda by Agnès, cinema is a form of thinking out loud that follows the trajectory of a spiderweb, unimpressed by the benefits of control and linearity. Detours, accidents, asides, footnotes, and marginalia are the core of Agnès Varda’s modus operandi. Hers is the zigzagging ethos of the flâneur, or the glaneur, re-signifying the mundane without calculation, surrendering control to life itself, as she wonders around various worlds—some inhabited by Godard, Birkin, and Deneuve, others by the anonymous folk who were Varda’s real muses. In her pedagogical scene we trace a genealogy of her oeuvre, but the filmography that serves as her PowerPoint slides, as it were, are more like rabbit holes than historical markers. They take us on a dreamlike expedition that reminds us of cinema’s political duty. That is, its ability to extract poetry from everyday life, to affect communities and restitute the value of rejected people and things. Most importantly, cinema for Varda was always a matter of mutual contamination, with the filmed object architecting the camera’s gaze too. Could there be a more urgent panacea for a culture steeped in overproduced imagery, synthetic drama and concept-less drivel? Semerene

Honeyland

6. Honeyland

Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s Honeyland pulses with vividly observed detail, offering a patient, intimate, and complex portrait of a disappearing way of life. Its subject is Atidze, an old Macedonian woman who lives with her even older mother in a remote village without paved roads, electricity, or running water. When we first see her, in a series of breathtaking landscape shots that open the film, she calmly ambles across a vast field, climbs up a hill, and then carefully edges across a narrow ridge before stopping in front of an unassuming rock face. There, she gingerly pulls away some of the stone to reveal the most vibrant, sumptuous honeycomb you’ve ever seen. Without straining to make a grand environmentalist statement, Honeyland manages to dramatize—simply, directly, and without sentimentalism or condescension—the importance of a holistic approach to agriculture. As the world continues to suffer ever-increasing mass die-offs of honeybee colonies, Stefanov and Kotevska’s film reminds us that there’s indeed a better way to interact with our planet—one rooted in patience, tradition, and a true respect for our surroundings. Keith Watson

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Los Cabos Film Festival 2019: Workforce, The Twentieth Century, Waves, & More

There was plenty of merit to the connections being made at Los Cabos between filmmakers and audiences.

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Los Cabos International Film Festival 2019
Photo: Lucia Films

Martin Scorsese recently sparked controversy by stating in an interview with Empire magazine that Marvel’s superhero movies, which have become indispensable moneymakers in a Hollywood system increasingly beset by pressures to build or renew popular tentpole franchises, are “not cinema.” The conventional wisdom in film marketing terms is that each new contribution to an already recognizable franchise requires such minimal effort at garnering public awareness compared to the type of cinematic ventures that Scorsese would argue, as he wrote in the New York Times in explanation of his interview comments, “enlarg[e] the sense of what was possible in the art form.” These more original offerings require ground-up campaigns for the attention of moviegoing audiences who are increasingly comfortable ignoring altogether the existence of films not actively targeting mass consumption.

The opening-night film of the eighth annual Los Cabos International Film Festival happened to be Scorsese’s highly anticipated epic crime drama The Irishman. The film is only being granted a minimal theatrical release in the U.S. before its arrival on Netflix on November 27, because, according to Scorsese, “most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures.” Robert De Niro, who stars in the film, was on hand in Cabo to walk the red carpet and represent a cinematic community founded on principles of “aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation,” in Scorsese’s own words. This was the kind of audience primed to appreciate his latest effort.

The audience was primed for greatness, even as oblivious vacationers guzzled tequila just outside on the streets and sidewalks of Cabo. When I told my seatmate on the plane about the screening of Scorsese’s film later that evening, she furrowed her brow in confusion. “I’m staying at the Hard Rock,” she said in explanation. And as I later walked from my own hotel toward the theater, I passed by countless tourists wielding Tecate tallboys and squinting behind cheap sunglasses who were no doubt completely unaware of the film festival taking place inside the giant mall at the north end of the downtown harbor. Many of them even wore T-shirts and tank tops that might easily have been emblazoned with the visages of Marvel characters.

As I drifted between the incessant buzz of the party atmosphere outside and the quiet engagement with contemporary filmmaking taking place within the theater throughout the festival, I couldn’t help but notice that several of the films that screened at Los Cabos seemed similarly concerned with liminal spaces between two very different worlds. The characters in these films learn to navigate the borderlands between class differences and racial divides, fleeting flirtations with freedom dashed by constant threats of persecution. These characters know their place, but even the brutal reality of their circumstances isn’t enough to prevent them from trying to get somewhere else. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Mexican filmmaker David Zonana’s mesmerizing Workforce, a tightly shot and richly layered film documenting the rise and fall of a group of construction workers in Mexico City who dare to dream beyond their otherwise meager means.

The film begins with the sudden death of Claudio, a member of a construction team putting the finishing touches on a swanky new house in a posh district of the city who falls from a rooftop in the opening shot. Workforce then quickly pivots and takes on the perspective of Claudio’s brother, Francisco (Luis Alberti), whose search for justice following his brother’s death becomes all-consuming and destructive. Claudio’s death has been deemed by officials to be caused by irresponsible alcohol consumption while on the job, even though Claudio had been a known teetotaler, and the wife (Jessica Galvez) and unborn child he’s left behind are thus denied compensation following the accident. And after the homeowner (Rodrigo Mendoza) waves him away from inside his fancy car when Francisco makes a plea for compassion, he becomes obsessed with the other man, following him through the streets and monitoring his every move. And after the homeowner’s mysterious death, which we learn about after witnessing Francisco surreptitiously enter his apartment building the night before, Francisco begins occupying the now dormant construction site as if it were his own home.

The shift between Francisco’s life in a tiny, rain-drenched apartment to his fresh start in the sprawling home that lays unclaimed in the wake of its owner’s death—complete with furniture still unwrapped, appliances yet to be installed—will ring familiar to those who’ve seen Parasite. Bong Joon-ho’s film operates in a more satirical and less tragic register than Zonana’s but still narrates the kind of violently enacted class mobility that lays bare the stark differences between the kinds of lives that are lived on either side of the poverty line.

Francisco eventually moves several members of his former construction team into the abandoned house, along with their families, in an effort to lay a more legitimate claim to its ownership. The film briefly soars with the ecstasy and sudden privilege that its characters feel as they inhabit a space representative of those from which they have historically been excluded. But problems quickly mount: the small indignities of overcrowding, persistent struggles over limited resources, cringe-inducing abuses of power on the part of those currently in control. And the final high-angle shot of the house, its inhabitants now expelled and powerless against the forces of the state, is notable for how the film has until then been heavily anchored at ground level, a powerful demonstration of the universal struggles of the Mexican working class.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, a Canadian film written and directed by Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, is another story of an invisible divide whose boundaries are nonetheless palpably felt. Two women from differing indigenous backgrounds, and from opposite sides of the class spectrum, are thrown together one late afternoon on the streets of Vancouver. A very pregnant Rosie (Violet Nelson) has fled her abusive lover’s apartment and is barefooted, bruised, and in obvious need of help when the lighter-skinned Aila (Tailfeathers) happens upon her and decides to shelter her. Aila has just had an IUD inserted earlier in the day, and the availability of advanced methods of conception is just one of the many marks of privilege that the film will subtly deploy. And the encounter between the two women is fairly straightforward from the start, but the subtext of their interactions is what gives the film its thematic weight and its staying power.

The differences between the women are played out with racial signifiers as well as those of relative affluence, and Hepburn and Tailfeathers make the bold formal decision to film their story in real time, by and large foregoing traditional scene structures and editing techniques and instead lingering in the quiet, interstitial moments between narrative transitions. The choice of indulging in the long take allows for moments of silence and digression as the audience infiltrates the scene as a third party. This uncomfortable intimacy is felt most acutely in a devastating, mostly silent shot late in the film of the interior of a taxi as Aila accompanies Rosie back to the apartment complex where her abusive lover awaits after Rosie has rejected a place in a women’s shelter, both of their faces in the frame as they quietly contemplate their very different futures.

The impending crisis of motherhood—urgent on Rosie’s part, delayed indefinitely on Aila’s—remains unspoken until that final taxi ride, in which both women tell the other that they believe they will be good mothers. And the city of Vancouver itself—and with it the ghost of Canada’s colonial past, specifically its systematic erasure of First Nations culture—haunts all of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, glimpsed mostly through car windows as it passes by unremarked upon while the film’s characters grapple silently with how the present has been irrevocably troubled by the past. The film demonstrates the power of simply inhabiting a tension and absorbing its complications, rather than demanding a resolution.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

An image from The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open. © Array

Another Canadian film, and the winner of the festival’s competition award, Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century is an alternate history of the rise to power of Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne). Funny and daringly experimental, the film’s overtly oddball aesthetic, redolent of Guy Maddin’s work, often feels borrowed from the silent era in terms of how particular objects take on greater significance because of their necessity to move along a narrative otherwise hindered by constraints, deliberate or not. And the plot unfolds erratically, difficult to synopsize due to its incredulity, as well as its reliance on a more than cursory knowledge of Canadian history for its most sophisticated jokes and cultural observations to be understood, as explained to me by a Canadian film critic on our way to the airport at the close of the festival. I may not have understood the film as cultural commentary, but I’ll never forget the ejaculating cactus.

Following the trend of delightfully strange films populating the festival slate is Greener Grass, written and directed by Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, who also star. The film is a color-saturated romp that presents a suburbia recognizable at first but then made bizarre by an accumulation of unexplained oddities that ultimately become understood as an ingenious form of worldbuilding. All of the adults, soccer moms and dads donning bright pastel outfits, wear braces. Everyone inexplicably drives golf carts. Characters make impulsive, culturally inappropriate decisions, such as in the catalyst to the film’s action when Jill (DeBoer) literally gives her baby away to her friend Madison (Luebbe), after Madison acknowledges, while sitting in the bleachers at an outdoor soccer game, how cute the infant happens to be.

Later, Jill’s only remaining child, the nerdy and bespectacled Julian (Julian Hilliard), frequently seen struggling with the traditional expectations of boyhood, falls into a swimming pool and emerges as a golden retriever. Jill’s subsequent psychological decline is mostly tied to her inability to accept her son’s new corporeal form, as well as her insistence that her infant daughter must be returned to her, despite her reluctance to offend Madison with the request. Meanwhile, a serial killer is on the loose. Greener Grass is a mash-up of genres—satire, mystery, dark comedy, horror—that may not ultimately cohere as deliberately as some viewers might have wished, but the feeling of witnessing something truly new and unique is as addictive as the swimming pool water that Jill’s husband, Nick (Nick Bennet), seemingly can’t stop drinking.

The American slate of films at Los Cabos includes Scorsese’s The Irishman among other likely Oscar contenders such as Noah Baumbach’s impeccably written and performed Marriage Story, Rupert Goold’s Judy, and Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. But Trey Edward Shults’s slick and stylish but ultimately detached Waves is a frustrating contribution. The film tracks the rise and fall of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a black high school athlete pushed toward success by a domineering father (Sterling K. Brown) who, in a scene definitely not written for a black audience, makes plain how the color of his skin predisposes him to a life spent working harder than everybody else for a seat at the same table. But after a series of setbacks, poor choices, and personal failures culminate in a desperate act of terrible violence on Tyler’s part, the second half of Waves investigates the aftermath of his abrupt downfall through the eyes of his family, focusing mostly on his younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), and her own journey toward some kind of peace after the family tragedy.

For all its intensely scored set pieces and dramatic camerawork, Shults’s attempt to stylize an interior life through a deliberate connection between form and content—while Tyler’s section is frenetic and loud, Emily’s is almost jarringly languid and muted—isn’t enough to deliver to the audience the kind of realization about family and responsibility to one another that the filmmaker seems at times so close to achieving. The possibility of transcending its aesthetic and arriving at any kind of epiphany is ultimately drowned out by a cinematic style more distracting than illuminating.

A more revelatory film about fathers, sons, and the lasting effects of our emotional wounds is Honey Boy, directed by Alma Har’el and written by Shia LaBeouf, in what’s clearly an autobiographical account of the actor’s childhood in Hollywood with an overbearing father whose profound influence still haunts him today. LaBeouf plays James, the now-sober father of a child actor, Otis (Noah Jupe), who stars in a popular television show while bearing the brunt of the erratic behaviors and sudden violence of a lifelong addict. The film centers in flashback on a period of time in which father and son lived together in a seedy and downtrodden hotel, the close quarters intensifying the seething undercurrent of resentment, jealousy, and yet still ever-present heartbreakingly rendered familial love that perseveres in spite of everything else.

The Twentieth Century

An image from The Twentieth Century. @ Oscilloscope

James ultimately passes down his own struggles to his son, who we see as an adult (Lucas Hedges, who also stars in Waves) in therapy reckoning with his childhood, his addiction, and his predilection toward other self-destructive behaviors. The film also explores the ways in which his traumas might have also served as reference points for his own obvious skill as an actor, artistic success inextricably linked here to emotional wounds that have clearly never properly healed. The relationship between James and Otis is marked by a tenderness undercut by rage, and Har’el’s careful staging of the power struggle between the two characters—a give and take based alternately on the currencies of masculinity and the literal exchange of money, as Otis’s earnings subsidize his father’s existence—is both compassionate and unflinching.

A film festival is always a hopeful affair, a chance to look into the future and see what awaits us as the contemporary film discourse continues to evolve. Unlike the flashy slate of American films that draws non-industry viewers to the theater, many of the entries at Los Cabos have yet to land wider distribution deals, and a festival like this one is a chance for these films to impress audiences enough to secure a position in a cinematic landscape where the “art house” or non-Marvel film will always struggle to keep up, as long as success continues to be measured by per-screen earnings and the numbers of views on popular streaming sites.

LaBeouf’s career—from his early success in the tentpole Transformers franchise to eventually writing and starring in a film as complex, poignant, and quietly ambitious as Honey Boy—is perhaps a worthwhile microcosm through which to demonstrate the shift in priorities that must take place in order for success to be redefined in terms that align with artistic merit rather than profit, personal connection rather than consensus. And there was plenty of merit to the connections being made at Los Cabos between filmmakers and audiences, a festival that continues to deliver quality international cinema to eager viewers who wander out of the theater each evening to join the throngs of partiers who might in daylight be clamoring for the next Marvel movie. Scorsese may mourn the diminishment of character-driven, risk-taking filmmaking in favor of easily digestible products that are “closer to theme parks than they are to movies,” but it’s still there if you know where to look.

The Los Cabos International Film Festival ran from November 13—17.

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