New York Film Festival 2020: Gently Download the Stream

The third discussion of the feature films in the new Currents section of the New York Film Festival.
Michael Sicinski

As the New York Film Festival concludes its first fully socially distanced iteration, for which selected screenings at drive-ins in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx were supplemented by a nearly complete streaming slate, we’re left to wonder what comes next. I suspect few will disagree that having access to the festival online has been a positive, democratizing experience. At the same time, I don’t think anyone is particularly interested in a future without live, in-person film festivals. There is an existential joy that comes from gathering together, from being together. And when it is safe to do so, I think that rekindling those basic collective experiences will be a large part of reestablishing our sense of what being human means. 

And once they resume, film festivals will probably look a bit different. One of the intriguing things about this year’s NYFF is that, for most of its “attendees,” the designations between sections are wholly arbitrary. I thought about this, given the fact that the focus of my coverage has been on the Currents lineup. As I mentioned in my first report, this is the first year for Currents, and the NYFF team will obviously need some time to fully flesh out the section’s identity. But it’s particularly interesting that the unexpected new formal structure of an online NYFF—for which the categories of narrative and non-narrative cinema are reduced to list items in a drop-down menu—coincides historically with an ever-increasing overlap between narrative and non-narrative cinema itself.

If we consider feature films—comparing, as it were, apples to apples—I’ve seen a number of Currents films that I’d argue were better by far than most of the Main Slate. By the same token, I’ve seen a few amazing films from the Main Slate that speak across the sections in provocative ways. For instance, it’s highly productive to consider Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance in light of Steve McQueen’s impressive trio of Small Axe films. Not only does this provide an opportunity to juxtapose Black radicalism and the impact of racism within a British and American context. It also provides a contrastive study in aesthetic activism. Asili engages with the history of MOVE and their murder by the Philadelphia Police by envisioning a counter-public space, whereas McQueen, in Mangrove, recreates the specific history of such a space, the Mangrove Café, being virtually destroyed by London cops.

I was also incredibly moved by Time, Garrett Bradley’s documentary about prison abolitionist Fox Rich and her family’s 20-year battle to get her husband Robert Richardson paroled from the Louisiana Penitentiary. Bradley shows us rough video footage of the Rich and her kids living the life that Richardson is missing—first days of school, confirmations, recitals, graduations, along with completely banal moments like breakfast or driving around listening to the radio. But Time combines this material with cleaner, more controlled footage of Fox, as a mother, an activist, and a professional woman. The discrepancy is awkward at first. But eventually it makes perfect sense. The video footage is, in a way, made for an audience of one: Robert. The fact that we are seeing it at all is a gift. The rest of the film is composed, rhetorical, and deliberate, all the things that white culture doesn’t expect from “emotional” Black women.

Time is a title that could actually apply just as well to The Works and Days, and vice versa. A very different film in almost every way—an eight-hour, year-long study of the life of an elderly Japanese woman in Kyoto Prefecture—The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) is, like Time, an examination of how ordinary existence becomes infused with untold meaning due to the anguish of absence. Begun after the death of Tayoko’s husband, The Works and Days is a slow, painstaking recreation of the year of his terminal diagnosis and his death. In the midst of this eventual loss, we see Tayoko farm the couple’s land, make meals for friends and family, and we watch the sun come up and go down. And like Fox Rich, Tayoko Shiojiri is a stolid, determined woman defined by her strength and forbearance.

As it happens, The Works and Days only played NYFF 2020 hypothetically. I requested a review copy, only to discover later that the film was not made available for streaming. This probably makes sense. It is an experience best suited to a theater, where its enveloping rhythms can work most effectively. The NYFF website indicates that the festival will screen The Works and Days in a theater “when it is safe to do so.” This means that there are eight hours of NYFF 2020 that, as of now, are indefinitely suspended. Perhaps this provisional model—some films for streaming, others held back for the screening room—suggests what NYFF 2021 might look like. 

Until then, be careful, keep streaming, and in the words of Chris Wallace, wear the damn mask.

Her Name Was Europa (Anja Dornieden and Juan David González Monroy, Germany, 2020)

Here's a hypothesis. Just as Stan Brakhage was the defining figure in experimental film for a particular generation, and Hollis Frampton sort of became the dominant figure for the subsequent generation, we are going to look back at this period in avant-garde cinema and determine that, despite the obvious pluralism that characterizes our moment, a great deal of the dominant work in the field seems to coalesce around one figure: Harun Farocki.

Consider how many works are made in the essay-film mode today, and how many of them understand Farocki's institutional and historical inquiries into cinematic meaning to be fundamental to their aims. So many films today take Farocki as an axiom. You can't just analyze something. You have to analyze the way that cinematic discourse has constructed that object, and how social institutions have conditioned the availability of the object and its discourse. In a sense, Farocki is as close as the cinema came to producing its own Michel Foucault. 

The German duo of Donieden and González Monroy, who work collectively as OJOBOCA, have been working for a decade now, producing wry social documents pertaining to media history and the production of subject positions. Their latest film is an exceptional example of research cinema; it tackles a seemingly insignificant question or bizarre historical footnote, and follows it where it leads. In this case, the topic is the aurochs, an extinct ancestor of the cow that a Nazi zoologist, Lutz Heck, decided to recreate through "back-breeding," a selective eugenics process whereby lost traits would be reintroduced into the genetic line with the aim of reversing evolution to a primeval state.

What the OJOBOCA team discover is that a strain of aurochs survived the Allied bombing of Berlin, and Dutch geneticists kept them alive and continued breeding them. Using 16mm film and silent-film style intertitles (themselves markers of an "extinct" form of cinema), Donieden and González Monroy display the crisis at the heart of the modern zoo itself—a colonialist project that turns living things into display items. From there, it is not a big leap to constructing nature itself, preserving the dying and resurrecting the dead. As Her Name Was Europa makes abundantly clear, this is also the dream of cinema, which suggests that perhaps all of 20th century modernity has in fact been "death at work."

The Last City (Heinz Emigholz, Germany, 2020)

I wasn't really prepared for The Last City, which as far as I am concerned is Heinz Emigholz's "Hal Hartley film." Think about it. Much like Hartley's Flirt (1995) or The Girl From Monday (2005), The Last City is a highly stylized, semi-low budgeted, globetrotting film about characters who, to a large extent, are embodiments of ideas rather than psychologically rendered individuals. And, as in Flirt, or even certain mid-period Todd Solondz films (Palindromes [2005], Storytelling [2001]), there is an overt structure that ties all of the segments and performers together. It's a gas. 

If Streetscapes [Dialogue] (2017)  was a duet, and The Lobby (2020) a solo, this is a quintet in five distinct movements. Emigholz, always concerned with space and geography, embeds a puzzle-pun in the title. The "last city" does not imply finality so much as a previous location. Where am I this time? If it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium, et cetera. The Last City is in part a joke about creative geography and the cinema's ability to whisk us away to places far and wide, much like our dreams. (He addressed this quite theoretically in The Lobby, but this film, which might well be called "The Cinema," takes us right inside and shows us what raconteur Jon Erdman was going on about, as a post hoc prelude to the true-blue movie magic of this film.)

One of the actors is transferred from one segment to the next, with that previous segment being explained as that "character's" dream. So a single actor appears as two fairly different figures from one moment to the next, in two completely different locales. (The five cities: Be'er Sheva, Athens, Berlin, Hong Kong, and São Paolo.) Two of the defining aspects of the "dream work," according to Freud, are condensation and displacement. Condensation: lots of different ideas taking the form of a single figure. Displacement: one figure substituting for another. These are basic semiotic elements of narrative cinema as well.

For example, we often recall dreams and note "you were there, but it wasn't 'you'." This is a key principle of acting. So in segment two, a man (Erdman) wakes up next to his younger self (Young Sun Han). Next, that young man is sleeping with his brother (Laurean Wagner) with the full approval of his mother (Dorothy Ko). Next, the mother is an angry Chinese woman confronting a Japanese woman (Susanne Sachsse) about her nation's violent colonialist past. And so forth.

Not only is Emigholz's casting race-blind. He has actors performing roles that run specifically counter to their racial and ethnic identity. Now, within the politically correct practices of contemporary filmmaking, especially in Hollywood, such casting would be offensive. (This has as much to do with labor opportunities—depriving minority actors of available roles—as it does questions of ethnic mimicry.) But Emigholz seems to suggest that cinema, if it truly functions like a dream and is therefore an emanation of the unconscious, is lawless. It is not subject to our social strategies, and in fact can reveal the very fissures that perhaps require negotiation in waking life.

So let's be clear. Emigholz has made dozens of films exploring architecture. They were not dreams. They were as concrete and rational as you please. But if and when he broaches the question of fictional narrative, he is going to the heart of its very mechanisms. Emigholz understands that the simple act of believing in the presence of patently absent human beings, and investing them with lives and desires and relationships, is perverse. So The Last City narrativizes that perversity. Don't be fooled by the crisp compositions and constructivist editing. Heinz Emigholz is just as whacked out as Guy Maddin.

My Mexican Bretzel (Nuria Giménez, Spain)

As was the case with The Year of the Discovery (2020), My Mexican Bretzel purports to be a reexamination of a particular period of time based on the recorded material available to the filmmaker. It seems as though a dark corner of history is going to be productively illuminated. But as compared with The Year of the Discovery—which was at least based on historical fact, even if it fudged a lot of its documentary/interview material—My Mexican Bretzel has even less connection to the actual world.

Or to be more precise, filmmaker Nuria Giménez absorbs wholesale the tactile, Bazinian guarantee of lived reality that is part and parcel of old home movies, and turns it against the audience. By producing a skillful, almost seamless visual track comprised of her grandparents' edited amateur cinema (mostly shot by her grandfather Frank Lorang, and featuring her grandmother Ilse Ringier), Giménez claims to have discovered the films of another man, downed pilot-turned-industrialist Léon Barrett.

As a textual counterpoint to these images, Giménez gives us the (purely fictional) written diary of the wife, Vivian Barrett. One is immediately moved by the sad discrepancy between her words and what we see. Léon's cinematic perspective is acquisitive and domineering; Vivian's thoughts are poetic and introspective. She laments that her husband seems to be orchestrating their lives in order to film them. She, meanwhile, is experiencing an existence that is more and more passionate in inverse proportion to her failing connection with Léon.

But this disjuncture between what we see and what we are told is a red herring, a simple instigation of the Kuleshov effect. Apart from the obvious—we can be misled to think virtually anything about images, given the proper misdirection—what do we really learn from My Mexican Bretzel? If Giménez had just announced the work as fiction from the beginning, we ourselves might've taken part in the experiment, seeing how our desires might make us inclined to give ourselves over to the illusion. But without that awareness, My Mexican Bretzel feels less like a fiction-documentary hybrid and more like a hustle.

Ouvertures (The Living and the Dead Ensemble, Haiti / France / U.K., 2019)

The Martinican writer Édouard Glissant, whose play Monsieur Toussaint (1961) forms the core of this film, wrote of the "right to opacity." In his theoretical work Poetics of Relation (1990), Glissant explained that a subaltern aesthetics needed to claim for itself a space of incomprehensibility, untranslatability, or radical unfamiliarity to the outsider. This strategy could be not only subversive, but a means for subaltern subjects to communicate with one another without the prying eyes of the colonizer. For his or her part, the colonizing subject would experience the presumably unfamiliar experience of exclusion, as an aesthetic and philosophical problem. 

This is one way that I personally engaged with Ouvertures, a complicated and unruly film that explores the legacy of Haitian history, the colonial legacy, and the fragmented transmission of cultural meaning from one generation to the next. This film doesn't give an inch. It throws the viewer into the deep end, as we begin with a long, nearly silent mountain trek, the meaning of which only becomes apparent much later in the film. 

Later, we see the members of the Ensemble grappling with the text of Glissant's play, both materially—translating passages from French to Creole—and ideologically, as a couple of the performers articulate their frustration that the official history of the Haitian Revolution ignores the contributions of women. We observe rehearsals, blocking, direction, and then suddenly, the performance, but only about two minutes of it.

As this all should make quite clear, Ouvertures is overwhelmingly concerned with process, not product. And this continues throughout its unexpected conclusion, when it seems that the production of Glissant's play has conjured up ghosts from Haiti's past, and even resulted in two members of the Ensemble being possessed by Vodou spirits. The group decides they must take a remedy—all of them—to resolve this matter, which itself reveals divisions in the group. Some members align themselves more with Western medicine; others favor individualism over collective identity.

What is impressive about Ouvertures is the extent to which I, as a viewer, learned so much from what I did not understand, not only about the particulars of Haitian history, but about how to watch the film in the first place. Viewers more well-versed in the film's historical references and folkloric discourses will of course have many more access points than I did, which is precisely the point. The title, a pun on Louverture's name, also points to the Ensemble's aesthetic. Ouvertures is a continuing set of introductions—the film keeps reinventing itself—and it is also an opening, an offer.

The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) (Anders Edström and C.W. Winter, U.S. / Sweden / Japan / U.K., 2020)

There is an essential monumentality that is sealed into the very making of this film, fired like clay, such that it seems designed to flout the typical standards with which we evaluate cinematic objects. It is not just the daunting length of The Works and Days, although at eight hours, it is a film that asks its viewer to rearrange his or her daily routine in order to accommodate it. And unlike other such specimens—Llinás's La Flor (2018), or Miguel Gomes's Arabian Nights (2015)—Edström and Winter's grand opus does not offer hairpin turns or unexpected flights of fancy as a way to vary the long journey. Instead, The Works and Days asks us to attune ourselves to the more gradual rhythms of the seasons, and of growing old.

One of the things a viewer soon observes about the overall shape and movement of The Works and Days is that, in its astonishing expansiveness, it includes a great many cinematic forms. They don't function as obviously as the genre shifts in La Flor, but they are nevertheless there. At the beginning of each chapter of the film, for example, Edström and Winter ease us into the new section with an extended prelude that consists only of sound, slowly fading in. We see no image, so in a theatrical setting, we would be asked to listen to the sounds of the landscape in complete darkness. This is a gesture to which moviegoers are quite unaccustomed, but that might not seem so out of place in a museum or gallery. This is but one of the types of material that is presented under the eight-hour umbrella of The Works and Days. A lot of it is a landscape film. We see many shots of the Shiotani area in Kyoto Prefecture, a small valley town populated mostly by elderly citizens. We see distant shots of the mountains, and close-up shots of the grassy shoulder of the highway. And we see the parcel of land that surrounds the home of the film's main subject, Tayoko ("Tayo-chan"), as she methodically mows, tills, harvests, and maintains it.

So in this regard, the film is also a portrait of labor, the cycles of daily activity. We see Tayoko working outside, but also cooking, cleaning, accepting visitors, and—more and more as the film goes on—caring for her terminally ill husband Junji (played by Kaoru Iwahana). There are extended sequences of dialogue and conversation, such as an early moment when, after several drinks, a man describes his relief at passing the civil service exam on the third and final try, or in the seventh hour, when an elderly grump comes by to hold forth on why today's youth are soft because they don't slaughter their own meat. 

So within its broad expanse, as a single work of art, Edström and Winter's film encompasses avant-garde installation, landscape cinema, family portraiture, diary film, observational/sociological cinema, as well as a time capsule of this small corner of Kyoto Prefecture itself. From beginning to end, we see physical changes. Not only does Tayoko's home become less tidy and more cluttered, signifying the increased attention she must pay to Junji's health. We also observe the developments around her home. The highway gets busier. We see more electrical lines crisscrossing the mountains. The landscape is gradually accumulating various markers of technological development.

There are other parts of the film that are harder to parse. We see occasional still life images of objects wrapped in plastic, for example, and occasional piles of grass or other formalist inserts. In a film of this length, it's difficult to keep the appearance of such moments in mind to an extent that one could perceive a pattern in terms of their appearance. There are other moments in The Works and Days, mostly landscape montages, whose construction seems at odds with the sort of protracted film Winter and Edström are in fact making.

But this is really a minor concern. My primary qualm with The Works and Days is far more fundamental to the conception of the project. In the final hour, we see Junji's funeral, and the immediate aftermath of this death. It seems that this material was the first footage the directors shot. After this, they went back and created a fiction film based on the last year-plus of Tayoko's life with Junji, having Tayoko and all her friends and family members playing themselves.

An attentive viewer will discern certain discrepancies in the course of the film, things that will signal that we cannot be watching a documentary. For example, we see Tayoko walking down a hospital corridor, then get the perfect reverse-shot of her exiting the building. And quite a bit of footage in cars and on trains is too professional to have been shot on the fly. 

But what I don't understand is why Edström and Winter have chosen to construct their fiction film according to many of the genre principles of documentary—distant observation, unbroken shots, natural lighting, et cetera—while declining to make this decision overt. The fact that Shiojiri is reenacting the process of losing her husband (purportedly because she felt she was not sensitive enough to his needs in real life) is incredibly moving, and does not depend on audience deception for its emotive power. So I am left to conclude—I don't really want to, but I am sort of at a lack for another explanation—that the filmmakers suspected that only a belief in the essential reality of The Works and Days would elicit from viewers the investment necessary to engage with it. And this would suggest a broader social problem that I'm not prepared to broach at this time.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


NYFF 2020Festival CoverageGarrett BradleyAnja DorniedenJuan David Gonzalez MonroyHeinz EmigholzNuria GimenezThe Living and the Dead EnsembleAnders EdstromC.W. Winter
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.