New York Film Festival Correspondences #3: Solo Voyages

The second feature by Song Fang, "The Calming," and "Beginning," the debut by the Georgian Dea Kulumbegashvili, are festival stand-outs.
Daniel Kasman

The Notebook is covering the NYFF with an on-going correspondence between critic Doug Dibbern and editor Daniel Kasman.

Above: The Calming.

Dear Doug,

I’m delighted you’ve already found films you’re excited about, even if that excitement is encountered in isolation. I find it heartening that for your first dispatch you’ve singled out two of the higher profile and piercing documentaries showing at the festival, which has made a strong effort to balance the more accessible side of documentary storytelling with the more experimental.

I also caught Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI, which I would put not unkindly in the former category. While greatly impressed by some of the digital restoration work exhibited by the film—the increasing look of stress, tension, and distraction on the face of Martin Luther King, Jr. as the film goes along is heartbreaking to follow—I was more underwhelmed than you.

To my mind, the power of the narrative Pollard is adapting from the book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis is that an American law enforcement institution shifted motivation from inquiring into subversive activities—however spurious and racially motivated—to a personal vendetta with the goal to ruin a man’s life. This is an argument, and I felt the genre of a film essay that pursued this argument incisively and extensively would be much more powerful than the ultimate form the film takes, which is a well-made but unsurprising historical recounting. The nuance of the FBI’s shift in focus, from one nominally safeguarding national security to one of criminal intervention, was the most striking observation in the picture, but one that it did not dwell on due to its need to tell a complete story. This particular story will always burn upon telling, and there is little doubt audiences will find it both disturbing and cathartic to hear again the facts that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were a deeply unethical antagonist to the civil rights movement. But I was left with the feeling the film had the capacity to cut even more deeply, and in its desire to take a more conventional storytelling approach, dulled its own rhetorical weaponry.

Watching MLK/FBI through a webpage on my laptop plugged into my projector, I no doubt missed the emotive group response such a film has the power to inspire—a response that can transform the reception of an artwork for a viewer. At home, with its main imagery being archival, I couldn’t resist the sensation that I was watching a normal documentary on television, something well-meaning but not far reaching. Restored archival images on the big, big screen can be transformative: Has some of the 16mm footage used by Pollard ever been seen in such high resolution, on such big screens? Its original audiences saw such images on televisions whose size many would scoff at today. We truly are seeing these images in previously unseen ways—a tremendously powerful fact. I wasn’t able to see MLK/FBI at one of the festival’s drive-in screenings, but if I had I have little doubt that my experience of the film would have been different.

This makes me wonder: We may be watching films at a film festival, but are we attending, or going to a film festival? I certainly felt like I was a part of something last week at the drive-in, with an effusive “crowd” of cars at Lovers Rock. This feeling at the drive-in might change with a more stony art-house film, or the kind of festival film that might prompt some booing or walk-outs. (The idea of an irate or exasperated “drive-out” by someone watching a film like Gunda makes me chuckle.) But most of the NYFF is taking place predominantly “virtually”: a weirdly throwback term that’s been reintroduced this year through the concept of a “virtual cinema,” which is a nice label on top of the very normal experience of renting movies digitally. Similarly, a “virtual” film festival is a collection of films that can be streamed through a centralized digital location. It is commendable that the NYFF, like many festivals since March, have been able to pivot with relative agility to offering a digital version of their selection and that the people who own the films have been open to such digital access. There is no doubt that when things return to relative normality, in terms of moviegoing, that a digital extension of many festivals will be inevitable, now that these institutions have been forced into this world of streaming.

But the danger of such perfunctory streaming alternatives is the increased flattening of the cinematic experience for audience members. You know I love celluloid, Doug, and while I bristle at the term nostalgic or fetishist in terms of my preference for watching movies projected on film rather than digitally, what is undebatable is that now that the normal theater experience is a digital one and the normal home-viewing experience is a digital one, the distance in audiovisual experience between these two activities has dramatically collapsed. Most festivals also project the majority of their films digitally, but the allure of the event is what distinguishes festivals from regular moviegoing: film premieres, audience access to stars and filmmakers, the discovery of unusual movies, and the communal buzz and energy that runs like a lighting between these high points. Once a festival moves to digital-only access, the danger is the same flattening of experience that happened to regular moviegoing in the face of the digital revolution: It’s no longer a special activity. So yes, this week I could use my computer on my couch to watch movies on the NYFF website; or I could watch movies on Netflix, or MUBI, or Le Cinéma Club, the San Francisco Cinematheque’s Crossroads festival, or Henri, the Cinémathèque française’s platform, or from files on my hard drive—what’s the difference between these activities? Each has some offering of new and/or rare and unique films to watch in our collective isolation.

As if to underscore the situation of the many home-viewers around the country—one upside of this virtual festival is that audiences no longer have to live in New York to watch the festival’s movies, though this may wreck later havoc with the programming of local events—the first image of the first film I saw virtually at the festival was of a digital projector booting up to show a film in a non-theatrical space. Already, here is a film that understands that cinema has in-part left movie theaters behind. As it started, I was concerned that I would be imminently distracted during the viewing: It was daytime in my home, and my curtains, which tried in vain to bring the room to an appropriate leave of cinema-like darkness, flapped in front of open windows; it was the middle of work day and my phone and office communications were non-stop.

Thankfully, these worries amounted to little, for I was put immediately under the film’s spell. The Calming, the second film by Chinese director Song Fang, who also was the star of Hou Hsou-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, was like a refreshing tonic or a much needed but forever put-off session of meditation. A serene, gentle, and faintly sorrowful film, it follows a few completely uneventful but nevertheless widely traveled days in the life of a filmmaker played by Qi Xi. Tall and lean, emanating great poise but emotional bruises, she goes from Tokyo, where a film of hers is showing in an installation, to a trip to the snowy mountains, then to China to move apartments and visit her aging parents, then to Hong Kong to her friends—married and new parents—and back again to China, all the while quietly observing the land passing around her. She admits early on to breaking up in a relationship, and we see her neither fully work nor fully relax, and instead, like Ingrid Bergman in Voyage to Italy, or countless characters in the movies of Eric Rohmer, we follow a peripatetic moment in a character’s life when the rooms they pass through, the land in which they wander, and even the qualities of the light seem to speak of qualities of doubt and spirit, quest and concern. Sublimely simple and pensive, nearly every image and cut is weighed just so, in order to underscore an existential query unspoken but deeply felt by this young woman. In one scene, no more or less special than any other, the woman adjusted the placement of a plant near her window. She looks at it, contemplating whether its location is harmonious to its environment, and pleasing to herself. In this shot, I saw not only the search of this character, but the action of the director, putting the utmost care into the most everyday things towards the goal of greater harmony.

Above: Beginning.

Beginning, the debut film of Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili, also follows the story of a woman lost in the world, only her world is much smaller and more prescribed. One of the most fulfilling experiences a moviegoer can have at a festival is encountering a new voice in cinema. This encounter produces an electricity and a hope: Cinema continues onward, on new paths. Kulumbegashvili definitely inspires that hope. Her film is, in fact, immediately startling: Its first shot, a long-take of the gradual gathering of a Bible study group, is interrupted by a firebombing. Kulumbegashvili holds the image and the scene uncomfortably long, as we watch the congregation struggle to extinguish flames and exit the building. The film’s second shot underscores the latent tension and unease that from here on permeates the small-town countryside of the film. Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), one of the group’s leaders, stands alone by a tree, and off-camera we continue to hear the fire roar. Did everyone escape? What happened between the first and second shot, and why is Yana so unruffled? As the fire burns into the night, and kids run to and fro from the blaze, a police detective (Kakha Kintsurashvil) observes the violence with a wry comment, and the camera’s focus on the flames goes blurry. What follows is an oblique drama of a woman’s isolation and subtle repression, and one composed, as this opening is, with a haunting unease.

Subsequent scenes lend exposition to this fraught event and its surprisingly off-kilter visualization. Yana, her husband, David (Rati Oneli, who wrote the film with Kulumbegashvili and is one of its producers), and their son are Jehovah’s Witnesses in the predominantly Orthodox Georgia, and whose presence in this town is being anonymously repulsed. We learn from David, who seems a passionate missionary, that this persecution is not uncommon, and in fact the couple and their young boy have been unrooted and traveling a great deal. This town, despite happening to be Yana’s childhood home, seems no different. The corrupt local police have no interest in pursuing the firebombing investigation, Yana feels unsafe in the streets, and she expresses the stifling nature of her husband’s vocation. The wider world for Yana appears to be her fellow church members. The woman’s unhappiness is definite but also ambiguous: Her commitment to her religion seems professional rather than personal, her allegiance to her patriarchal and conservative but devoted husband is frustrated, and she laments of having no time to be alone. In fact, two shots of Yana finding a moment to herself to recline at her dinner table, the evening swathing her in cosy evening light, evoke a restorative solitude that speaks beyond the screenplay’s tentative definition of the woman’s existential crisis. Beginning is gorgeously shot by Arseni Khachaturan in a 35mm palette of greatly subtle color, and Kulumbegashvili frames her actors mostly in medium-shot long takes, isolating the family in the community, and isolating Yana in her family.

This crisis is brought to a head when the detective visits Yana while her husband is away petitioning the church for new funds. The visit reveals another layer of another repressive structure: The insidious personal application of power to a vulnerable woman. The detective verbally rapes Yana, in a presage of further local violence and isolation. Both this brutal first scene and an even more horrendous one that follows is conjured in an unsettling use of suggestive off-camera space: Yana seems to sense the man’s presence before he shows up in two different instances. Kulumbegashvili’s long takes and precisely focused storytelling point of view, rather than give the film a dryness in its austerity, subtly lends a fantastical and spiritual side to Yana’s story, one which is emphasized by Beginning’s opening scene ominously telling the story of Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice his son. A brief episode of escape, when mother and son get off their city bus early to walk through the woods, is evoked in a long-held shot of Yana simply lying amid fallen leaves, the sound of the forest and the wind and her look of utter release a deep breath for her and the audience in an otherwise grim film. Visiting her mother and her younger sister, a teenage single mother, to find some feminine solace after her assault, and hearing of the sister’s single motherhood and her own mother’s impossibility for divorce, we see that for Yana the world for women is naught but dead-ends, thwarted hopes, and stymied freedom. David’s reference to her past profession as an actress and him saving her suggest another world and life that it nearly is impossible to imagine in the film’s stifling version of Yana’s existence. It is that evocation of her experience, more so than the film’s spartan screenplay, that is Beginning’s triumph.

A honed perspective, a careful consideration of texture and pacing, and the flash-points when a life touches grace and touches horror—these are done by Kulumbegashvili very well indeed. She is a director well-worth following into the future, and a real discovery at the festival. I hope you have similarly fulfilling encounters in the next few days.


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NYFFNYFF 2020Festival CoverageCorrespondencesSam PollardSong FangDea Kulumbegashvili
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