As more prominent film festivals gear up for spring, a smaller though by no means slighter affair begins in New York. New Directors/New Films, curated by Museum of the Modern Art and Film Society of Lincoln Center, unfurls its carefully considered program of 27 features and 10 shorts, with its premise and draw on emerging voices in cinema. Indeed, the festival may very well be a last stop for filmmakers on the rise before they are introduced to wider audiences. ND/NF has brought us in the recent past Fort Buchanan and Diary of a Teenage Girl, and longer ago films by Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Chantal Akerman. Most of this year’s selection has premiered at festivals, many have been covered by this very site, and all are compelling. Here are several highlights.
With a narrative rooted loosely on Dante’s Divine Comedy, Zhao Liang’s documentary Behemoth depicts the environmental and human costs of coal and iron industry Inner Mongolia. No explanations or title screens are offered between transitioning images; the rusted hues—red, red desert, yellow ochre, umber burnt to a crisp—of caked earth; coils forged in a river of fire; dollops of green pasture scattered with goats and sheep. Work does not cease in the dark; a fleet of construction excavators and the music of metal machines grind on under the cover of night, lit softly with the glow of steam and dust. The obvious beauty of these images is bittersweet; we are gazing after all at what is now scorched earth, tilled by machinery and toiled over by humans, impoverished and exploited.
The migrant workers in Behemoth are spoken for by a narrator-bard who blankets us with his personal reflections in a dispassionately soothing voice. (Adapted from Dante’s text, these subtitles are affixed to the right hand portion of the screen, and broken into short phrases with first word capitalizations, positing themselves gently as capital “P” poetry.) There are also frequent depictions of a naked body at rest. Strewn about in various locations (usually in the less dangerous ones), it is captured in a fractured plane, resultant from the image being bounced off of a mirror carried on the back of a cough-addled miner, essentially our Virgil. He guides us on an elevator ride-like descent deep inside the iron works where a chugging bass denotes our arrival in Hell, as does the screen, which fills itself a solid persimmon color that morphs and abates as the workers come into view. There is a very real sense of fear of safety for the workers (and camera equipment) as Zhao brings us so close to the furnaces.
Later, we are whisked away to Purgatory of the hospital beds where men suffer respiratory diseases, and then to Heaven, represented by Ordos, one of numerous (and real) ghost cities unaccounted for throughout China. Freshly constructed buildings are unnervingly unoccupied and indicative of a city post-rapture, though this worker's paradise is not city post-civilization, but pre-.
Perhaps to recreate the lamentably skewed ratio of time spent at mines vs. elsewhere Liang doles out the scenes of the workers’ domestic lives scantly. He favors those displaying the consequences of their labor—the attempts to scour the graphite grit and grime, and the popping of blisters and callouses, acorn-sized and accompanied with a dispiriting hollow-knock sound. The poeticism at times, most vivid in the recurring anonymous nude human, tempers the indignation by rerouting sympathies toward the narrator/Zhao, stressing not the subjects but the self—a point argued against through Behemoth’s final credits, which are dedicated firstly to the names of specific migrant worker families. But in the end it’s the spent, kohl-smeared faces I’ll remember, the monumental landscapes and fiery furnace, and not the backside of an art-project nude.
Another documentary surveys the dying earth on a level both more personal and microcosmic in Tony Stone’s documentary Peter and the Farm. Garrulous and cranky, roughened and wizened, farmer Peter Dunning wears a snowy Santa Claus beard and bears not only physical resemblance to Robin Williams, but also exhibits the actor-comedian’s self-effacing humor and, as it is soon revealed, similar self-destructive tendencies. Alienated from his wives and children, Dunning remarkably and somewhat begrudgingly runs the entirety of Mile Hill Farm in Vermont. (There is a younger farmhand/intern at Mile Hill whose specific role is never fully explained.) Dunning is a complex character; laden with anger and regrets, yet continually trying to keep good spirits. Stone’s job is made fairly easy with a natural storyteller as a subject, one with a wealth of personal anecdotes including those about his hippie-inflected past as an artist and sculptor. However, the faint of heart and weak of stomach may waver. The film is outfitted with its share of farm chores, not always pretty: Sheep and coyotes, strung upside down; bovine pregnancy checkups; casual manure close-ups. The film has makings of a home video with crude montages of sunsets. Tony is often captured on the on the fly as if the filmmaker and cameraperson had trouble keeping up with him. Stone’s voice is often heard on camera, as he quells Dunning at his more hysterical moments or becomes the subject of his rhetorical questions. Dunning bullies the director with the same loving mischief as he does the animals, referred to in expletive-laden terms of endearment. He extols and curses in the same breath and makes us feel his heartbreak. His beleaguered past ebbs and flows, creeping in enough to let us know his family has left, but leaving out the sordid details. They’re not sorely missed; Peter is presence enough.
ND/NF also boasts a selection of films made by and starring women. Two that I happened to see opened the same way, with an extended close-up of a girl’s face, though each under very different circumstances. The first falls victim to a serial killer / rapist in Anita Rocha da Silveria's Mate-me por favor (Kill Me Please), set in the a wealthy neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro where the outdoors are overcast with wide multi-lane highways, a place suitable for driving, never walking. It is when the characters do strike out on foot that the trouble arises. As the list of the killer-rapist’s victims grows, so does the curiosity and fear of a quartet of 15 year-old girls, particularly Bia (Valentina Herszage) who finds herself clicking through a victim’s Facebook profile. Rocha da Silveira is interested less in ferreting out the perpetrator than she is exploring the effect on the girls' psyches and the interminable collision of sex and death, as burgeoning adolescent desires merge with murderous ones. She approximates their world through blasts of color and visual motifs: rosebuds pattern the bedding and marker-drawn hearts adorn pajamas; baby blue and hot pink are the colors of girls' gym t-shirts. Contrast this with the jazzy neons, whether signs and club lights or the lurid glow of a computer screen. The teeny bopper world is skewered with the macabre as routine school-daze locations are injected with eeriness. The gym houses a handball game fraught with tension; an extravagant 15th birthday party becomes a potential murder site; a bathroom stall mimics a confessional booth. There are more pronounced and jokey religious insinuations including a particularly wacky church service led by a teenager who, dolled-up like one of the Pink Ladies, reads from the holy book and then sings a disco-inflected tune imploring the teens to keep pure.
Mate-me por favor becomes muddled as Rocha da Silveira’s bold direction takes on too many elements, including a not-so-fully formed allusion to an underbelly caused by rapid modernization in the wealthy neighborhood and dream-like interludes, some of which involve what must be the most viscous corn syrup in existence. Better are the scenes in which the gridded moire patterns of victims’ photos, viewed on a computer screen, and later, images of Bia and others behind a wire fence neatly illustrate a prison, all a part of the director’s singular vision of adolescent dread.
Set mostly at a community recreation center in Cincinnati, The Fits is also a film in which something lurks beneath the surface. It opens on a close-up of 11-year-old tomboy Toni (the magnetic Royalty Hightower) diligently counting off her sit-ups. She ditches her routine boxing lessons from her older brother and joins the dance team of the fierce Lionesses who practice just across the hall. As in Mate-me por favor, this is another world absent of adults, and in it she and her brother keep late hours, doing the laundry, cleaning the floors to buffed perfection. The ensuing story is not one of tomboy versus dancer, as Toni neatly straddles both the masculine and feminine sports and impulses with ease and minimal teasing from her peers. Writer-director Anna Rose Holmer’s strength lies in capturing the small exchanges and back-and-forths that forge a friendship between Toni and the other new dancers. This quiet realism is interspersed with the hyper-stylized scenes of slow-motion and a hair-rising squeaky clarinet score as the older Lioness dancers soon fall victim one by one to inexplicable one-time seizures. As the story makes local news, a contaminated water supply is called into question but quickly nixed, perhaps nodding toward a certain type of horror movie. The culprit unveils itself to be less oblique and enigmatic than expected. A metaphor for entrance to female-specific adolescence (the boys are untouched), The Fits exhibits a rhythm all its own as unique and spirited as the girls' dancing.
“The stranger who comes home does not make himself at home but makes home itself strange."
—Rainer Maria Rilke
Rilke’s quote is befitting of Peter Latang (Jesse Wakeman, co-screenwriter), a 30-something financier who returns after many years to his childhood home to bury his grandmother in Donald Cried. Kris Avedisian’s feature film debut was borne out of his short film and recently premiered at SXSW—suitable grounds for what seems like a low-budget indie dramedy, and yet Avedisian turns out an endearing rendition of going home. In snowy Warwick, Rhode Island, without wallet and a functioning vehicle, Peter reluctantly seeks his neighbor and former best friend Donald, a classic A-list loser with a greasy mullet and bespectacled with wire rimmed glasses characteristic of a pedophile/lumberjack, or someone brought to life from an 80s photo album. The latter is probably an apt description of Donald, who, with his bedroom adorned with posters of metal bands and porn stars, wades around in arrested development. Avedisian proves himself a great comedic actor in his performance as Donald, undesirable and awkward yet charming. His monologues veer into absurd digressions pointing towards a childlike imagination. Because Donald is so over the top, the cringe-factor of awkward moments is mitigated slightly, allowing the scenes to open up into frequently hilarious moments as Donald wheedles Peter into a trip down memory lane. The film takes surprising turns, letting on that Peter was not a loser who outgrew and abandoned his friend, but was in fact a bully. Peter’s aversion to his hometown is rooted in its perpetual reminder of his douchedom—here gleaned in Wakeman’s limited performance of scowls ranging from smug to irritated. The small but deftly delivered detail gives pause and allows us to retune our understanding and sympathy toward Donald. Avedisian maintains an even hand in depicting this oddball friendship and skirts sentimentalism in what turns out to be an amusing film.
Avishai Sivan’s second feature Tikkun hails from Israel and immerses us in an ultra-Orthodox world through stark and tantalizing black and white photography and teasing images—slaughtered animals, people filmed from torso down, and many close-ups of knives that espouse alarm and anticipate violence. But the bloodshed of Tikkun is the more spiritual kind. The film’s austere and provocative look contrasts with the dramatic excitement absent from the film’s story—Tikkun’s conflict concerns the soul—and compensates at times for its ponderous pacing.
Model yeshiva student Chaim-Aaron slips and falls in the shower after a dizzy spell, caused by his self-imposed fast undoubtedly in combination with the recalled image of a pretty girl sighted earlier on the street. (There are close-ups of male and, later, female genitalia that will spark debate as to their necessity.) Initially pronounced dead by paramedics, Haim-Aaron is revived by his father and resurrected with a newfound skepticism as he wanders through Jerusalem’s Me’ a She’arim neighborhood like a zombie or dead man, which perhaps he believes he is. Sivan respectfully films the structured environment of a ritual reinforced community as we gain familiarity with the spaces, Haim-Aaron’s apartment, yeshiva, the baths, but not with Haim-Aaron’s mind, a purposely cloudy front. He can seem inert, as if in waking dream, even as he pushes the limits of what he can do—skipping his studies, hitching rides with strangers, visiting the requisite brothel—to test God....or the other way around. The word “tikkun” refers to a rectification in general terms or a soul’s chance to redeem itself before transitioning to the next world according to the Judaism. This knowledge may be helpful, or not. The film regrettably ends with retribution controversial and, yes, perhaps divine, but proves everything truly is black and white in this film with its wrathful and fearsome god.