For over fifty years since its inception in the early 1970s, New Directors/New Films has served as a formidable platform for emerging voices in world cinema. Often a bolder, more daring cousin to the New York Film Festival, each spring its lineups offer globe-trotting samples of first and second independently produced features and shorts. It’s a small oasis one visits to glimpse the future of movies, one that’s been home to the early works of directors as disparate as Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Christopher Nolan, Wong Kar-wai, and Kelly Reichardt. In a strong edition, as this one was, its selection will sponge something of our zeitgeist and spotlight titles redefining and defying conventional genres.
One such example this year was Laurynas Bareiša’s Pilgrims, winner of the Orizzonti section at the Venice Film Festival. The film follows Paulius and Indre (Giedrius Kiela and Gabija Bargailaite), two thirty-somethings from Vilnius who travel to a small town near the capital hoping to uncover the mystery around the death of Matas, Paulius’ brother and Indre’s former boyfriend, who was tortured and brutally murdered there four years earlier. This is information one gleans and stitches together gradually; Bareiša, who also penned the script, is careful not to reveal too much too soon, and among the many perturbing charms of Pilgrims is the way clues and connections are parceled out parsimoniously, as if they were secrets themselves.
It takes a while to figure out who or what Paulius and Indre are after; who exactly Matas was to them; how and why he was killed. His death is discussed at length but never shown, and Pilgrims is all the more disquieting for it. Bareiša uses absence as a structuring principle, unfurling the plot by way of rumors and insinuations. Matas’ death is at once the film’s unresolved enigma and its epicenter; by refusing to make it visible and forcing us to picture it ourselves, to conjure our own version of the events, not only does Pilgrims make its central secret almost unbearably unnerving, it also makes us accomplices in its unearthing.
Paulius and Indre roam a town determined to keep mum about the tragedy (less a village than a tribe, with its strictly enforced omertà law). All they get from the few witnesses they interrogate along the way are evasive answers and veiled threats. Cinematographer Narvydas Naujalis frames the journey through a series of static long shots, the camera often probing from high angles, like CCTV footage. Dread encroaches on those beautiful images and their symmetries, but never undermines their composure; it’s as if the film itself was joining the town in threatening Paulius and Indre, a retaliation that hovers everywhere but never quite materializes. Pilgrims is an austere, chilling watch, yet it writhes with almost uncontainable outbursts of rage and grief.
A different kind of disappearance anchors Diễm Hà Lệ’s Children of the Mist. Winner of the Best Director Award at the Amsterdam International Documentary Festival (IDFA) last year, the film is a moving and very often unsettling portrait of a girl and the ancestral world she hails from. Shot in Vietnam’s mountainous, mist-shrouded north, it follows Di, a garrulous twelve-year-old living with her family in a remote village. Like most people in her vicinity, Di belongs to the Hmong, an ethnic minority whose matrimonial customs include a practice known as hai pu—literally “pull wife”—or bride kidnapping. Though formally illegal in Vietnam, the process is widespread among the Hmong, and encourages boys to kidnap underage girls without their consent, whereupon the girl’s family can either demand her release or accept the marriage, in exchange for cash and goods. At twelve, Di is, shockingly, old enough to be a potential prey, which accounts for the melancholia Children of the Mist is drenched in. Lệ spent over three years living and shooting with Di and her family, and the result is a staggeringly intimate ethnography, that rare documentary that understands the difference between shooting at and shooting with its subjects. It’s also the story of a friendship; to be watching Children of the Mist is, in a sense, to witness the bond between Di and Lệ grow stronger, and as the inevitable tragedy strikes, to be made painfully aware of the boundaries and ethical concerns the director must navigate while documenting a custom this devastating.
Another ND/NF standout to star a near teenage-only cast was Malena Solarz’s solo debut feature. Her Album for the Youth is, ostensibly, a work of fiction, but something in the naturalistic performances the Argentinian director coaxes from her young actors—and the fly-on-the-wall quality her long takes elicit—grace the images with the observational quality of a documentary. Which is why pegging Album as a coming of age feels somewhat restrictive. The film centers on two high school graduates, Sol (Irina Rausch) and Pedro (Santiago Canepari), as they figure out the next steps while basking in their post-exams bliss in summery Buenos Aires. Yet there are no huge revelations to signpost their transition into adulthood, no conventional dramatic arcs to cling onto. Everything about Album is resolutely low-key, the plot so ethereal the whole film unspools as a series of vignettes, of impressions. It’s a choice that drains the proceedings of dramatic momentum, and yet, slight as it may sometimes feel, Album manages to capture something of the aimlessness of the youth while eluding its genre trappings, washing over you like a summer afternoon.
Solarz’s is one of three South American features to screen at New Directors this year, a small contingent that also includes Juan Pablo González’s Dos Estaciones and Natalia López Gallardo’s Robe of Gems. Both set in Mexico and centered on women wrestling with forces beyond their control, the two films are nonetheless markedly different in tones and visuals. In Robe of Gems, López Gallardo’s tale of three women from different walks of life fighting against drug cartels feels indebted to the cinema of her husband Carlos Reygadas—whose films López Gallardo has worked on as editor, and who here serves as Robe’s co-producer. In her debut, writer-director López Gallardo favors direct emotional communication over narrativization: her film is rich with oneiric images and words, nightmares we see and others we hear about, gorgeously shot by Adrián Durazo and enriched by Thomas Becka’s sound design, drawing from nature—the insects sizzling in the fields, the distant roar of storms—for the ominous sonic backdrop. But the result is so stylized that the violence feels almost ornamental, even at its most shocking, and the dread Robe supposedly radiates never fully ignites.
The woman at the center of Juan Pablo González’s Dos Estaciones, by contrast, isn’t fighting drug cartels but foreign companies looking to take over her family business. A fifty-year-old with a butch haircut and an inscrutable, sphinx-like mien, Maria (Teresa Sánchez) runs the titular Dos Estaciones, a tequila factory struggling to stay afloat. Once a majestic Xanadu, the local village’s main source of income and pride, the estate is falling apart. A plague is decimating the agave fields, floods are ravaging the cellars, debts are rising, and rival US corporations are pressing Maria to sell. Dos Estaciones tells the story of an ineluctable demise, but the film isn’t a dirge. It abounds with sensorial pleasures: Gerardo Guerra’s widescreen cinematography captures the agave fields as a pointillist mirage and frames Maria’s downfall through a series of gorgeous tableaux vivants, while Aldonza Contreras’ sound design—in tune with both the noises billowing from the fields and the quiet whirring of the machines around the factory—turns the tequila-making into a strange kind of spell, an alchemist’s miracle.
But if the film manages to steer clear from anything treacly credit ultimately goes to Sánchez. González builds her a fortress of empathy and dignity; her turn is Dos Estaciones’ cornerstone and crowning glory. Impassible, stoic, and aloof, her Maria is a matriarch watching her kingdom crumble and her court flee. When a younger woman, Rafaela (Rafaela Fuentes), steps in as Maria’s assistant in exchange for food and shelter, the film hints at an unlikely romance. Maria is unmistakably smitten with her new employee but lacks the words to articulate her desire, and Dos Estaciones is so protective of her that González doesn’t make her longing any more explicit than she does, tiptoeing around Rafaela in a game of clumsy gestures and probing questions.
To the more impatient viewer, this obscurity around the finer details of Maria’s life—her backstory, her loneliness, the exact nature of her longing for Rafaela and whether this is at all reciprocated—can be alienating. But Dos Estaciones works without them, because spelling out those facts would only jeopardize the power of Sánchez’s understated performance as well as the subtlety of the script, penned by González, Ilana Coleman and Ana Isabel Fernández. Dos Estaciones is a wonderfully economical film, able to convey huge swaths of time and personal history through small moments and non-verbal exchanges. A giant, political campaign-type painting of Maria’s face glowering from her office wall tells us all we need to know about her delusions of grandeur. The near-imperceptible sigh she exhales as her longtime coiffeuse massages her scalp is its own micro-film, a whole lifetime compressed in a single sound.
González has a background in documentary, both as a director (his 2018 Caballerango chronicled life in a suicide-plagued rural town in the state of Jalisco, Maria’s own turf) and cinematographer. Dos Estaciones epitomizes a strain of docu-fiction hybrid that’s grown increasingly popular in the world of film festivals. Browsing through the “purer,” more traditional documentary fare at ND/NF this year, two of the edition’s standouts were archival docs, both of them committed to interrogate the meaning of their cinematic caches today. In Fire of Love, director Sara Dosa knits together a portrait of Katia and Maurice Krafft, two world-famous French volcanologists and lovers who roamed the planet through the 1970s and 1980s studying and filming eruptions up-close. Culled almost entirely out of their gargantuan and spell-binding 16mm archive, Fire of Love is at once a majestic tribute to the volcanoes themselves (here credited as members of the cast) and a passionate homage to the intrepid couple who devoted and eventually sacrificed their lives trying to unravel their mysteries. On June 3, 1991, the Kraffts were at the foothills of Japan’s Mount Unzen when this erupted, and the two, together with 39 others, burnt to death under a pyroclastic flow. Dosa telegraphs their horrific fate from the start. Co-written by the director with Shane Boris, Erin Casper, and Jocelyne Chaput, and narrated by Miranda July, Fire of Love kicks off on the eve of the tragedy, before rewinding to the day Katia and Maurice met in Paris and retracing their love story through the years, filling the gaps whenever their records so require. It’s a strategy that mirrors the film’s overall design: seesawing between cold facts and myths, Fire of Love straddles forensics and tabulations, science and religion.
Dosa turns the Kraffts’ odyssey into something otherworldly, almost spiritual. Hers is a film that’s equal parts fascinated by the sanctity of scientific research and the divine powers of the camera, and what can be conveyed through it. Watching Maurice and Katia waltz around craters, the lava erupting behind them and searing the frame red, one is reminded of one’s insignificance before Nature as much as the healing powers of all its beauty. In a film that’s both love and ghost story—a tale which, like Pilgrims, essentially orbits around a disappearance—the act of filming becomes a question of preservation, a life-expanding exercise. Filming, Sosa reminds us, is to rescue those images and authors from oblivion; her archival digging is a sort of conjuring. Late in Fire of Love, Maurice tells a reporter that he’s not a filmmaker: “I’m a wandering volcanologist who’s forced to film to keep on wandering.” But the footage we’re shown suggests otherwise, and Dosa spotlights shots that seem to widen and complicate the scope of the Krafft’s archives. A scene with cowboys galloping down the hills, hats in hand, like heroes from a Western—a reference Dosa doubles down on playing Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold”over it—is a wondrous example. Who did the Kraffts shoot that for, July ponders, and why?
Another doc to mine similar questions, if perhaps more illuminatingly than Dosa’s, is Sierra Pettengill’s Riotsville, USA, a multi-layered foray into American anti-racism stitched together through a wealth of archival footage from the late 1960s. The title alludes to the spectral, stage-like towns the US military built as training grounds for soldiers to test anti-unrest tactics—cities of cardboard buildings where recruits, some in uniforms and others dressed as “rioters,” reenacted protests before crowds of politicians and army top brass, who’d take lesson from those surreal pantomimes. Riotsville opens in one such ghost town, before zooming out to outline the other draconian measures taken against protesters and civil rights activists across the country, as well as the xenophobic discourse that fueled them. The result is a sprawling and deeply troubling look at a moment in time that seems couched in an uninterrupted present. It’s a history lesson that never feels didactic, and maintains a tone both rigorous and incendiary. Pettengill covers plenty: we’re treated to archival footage of the Kerner Commission, founded by Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of the unrests; a brief history of the Public Broadcast Laboratory, a PBS ancestor that sought to promote an unlikely dialogue between Black activists and police/army men; we watch tear gas manufacturers defend their products as “a social service”; and we witness countless protests, staged and real, sweeping across the country and triggering bloodier police brutality.
What’s crucial and radical about Riotsville, USA is that Pettengill doesn’t treat her archives as time capsules: hers isn’t (just) a genealogy of state violence, but that rare archive doc that seeks to bring its footage in conversation with the present. “What to make of those images now,” an invisible narrator (Charlene Modeste) ponders, “in the future they were meant to ensure?” Pettengill leaves the question unanswered. Yet her doc does warn us that its footage is the product of distinct, sometimes conflicting interests and perspectives, and that no single picture among the many shocking ones we’re shown could ever explain the whole decade and its tragic tug of war between revolution and repression. As with the finest films at this year’s New Directors / New Films, Riotsville, USA isn’t simply interested in ushering its surreal images to life, but to question our responsibility toward them—how we choose to see the past, and what we’ll do with all those memories.