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Tribeca 2015. Searching and Drifting

Some of the finest films at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival were about movement.
Aferim!
This year, Tribeca moved back home, swapping out the East Village’s AMC Loew’s 7 for the venue they once used, the nearly invisible Regal Battery Park Stadium 11 as one of the festival’s main theater locations.  Whether it is coincidence or just one of the festival’s grand themes, the finest films I saw were about movement.  Characters search high and low for someone or something.  While carrying strange cargo, they journey to the West, to the East, wherever, going from point A to point B.  If not travelling, then characters are stuck, stranded, or even trapped in a spot, but desiring to move, move, move. 
There’s a whole lotta riding and talking going on in Radu Jude’s Aferim!  Shot on black-and-white film (Kodak Double-X), the film is set in 1855 Wallachia, a time in which the Romani people had subhuman status, being slaves to landowning Boyars, among others.  Aferim!—an Ottoman Turkish expression for “bravo!”—follows a constable and his teenage son as they ride on horseback across Romanian lowlands, flatlands, and woodlands, tracking down a gypsy who fled from his master. 
Editing is minimal as Jude maintains a long take, long shot aesthetic that doesn’t announce its duration as say, Albert Serra or Lisandro Alonso’s work.  This may be due to the fact that Jude fills silence with an abundance of dialogue.  It’s a steady stream taken from a mixture of historical texts, so you hear lovely sayings like: “Don’t scream like a frog in a snake’s mouth.”  Or: “In the ass of the humble, the devil sits cross-legged.”  Flowing, the dialogue is like a parallel track to the image.
If Aferim! balances word and image, director David Oelhoffen achieves a sweet mix of sound and image, thanks in no small part to composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.  Aside from the Tindersticks, for me, they are the most exciting musicians working on soundtracks today, and Far From Men may be one of their best yet.  It doesn’t overwhelm the images.  There’s less aggression and fewer vocals in this score than in their music for The Proposition or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  Droning forlornly, it’s a somber score, muted even, becoming more assertive as the film progresses.  By no means a supplement, Cave and Ellis’ score is an integral component to the film, giving Far From Men part of its sense of being both epic and small at the same time. 
As with Jauja, once again, our man Viggo is in the wild.  In this adaptation of the Albert Camus short story, L’hôte, Mortensen plays Daru, a schoolteacher in 1955 Algeria isolated in the Atlas Mountains, transporting an Arab prisoner, Mohamed, to his execution in the nearby town of Tinguit.  Daru and Mohamed are honorable men in a society torn up and apart by war.  As they trek through the Sahara Desert, the weather, to say the least, does not cooperate.  Rain, sand, fog: they experience it all.  Whether captured by the French Army or Algerian guerillas, they endure.  Daru sacrifices his vocation, his security to save a man.  Amid warring factions the most important thing is survival.  With Camus’ themes of cosmic absurdity and The Law, Far From Men is a film that would excite Delmer Daves.  He would probably get a kick of its formal strategy too: creative variations of two shots with Daru and Mohamed.         
The small army of directors on In Transit (Lynn True, Nelson Walker III, David Usui, Benjamin Wu, and Albert Maysles) toy with a documentary convention while also adhering to it: the talking head.  The film begins with a shot of woods seen blurring by through a passenger window accompanied by a voiceover.  The following shot connects the voice to the head as he talks about getting out of Mississippi, leaving his job without notifying his boss, and heading to Portland.  A cut to a master shot reveals the man talking not to the camera, but with a woman in the seat behind him.
The filmmakers never use this gambit again, but instead, integrate the talking head shots into this observational documentary about passengers on Amtrak’s Empire Builder train looking to improve their lives in another place, in another space.  The film has an insular quality as it covers the train’s route, one of the busiest in the U.S.  Sure, the film strays from the train, shooting various stations the Empire Builder blows by, but it always comes back to the train.  It comes back to the people working on it and riding in it.  It shows people in sleeper cars, dining cars, and coach cars.  And who are these people?  A pregnant woman three days overdue chats with a photographer as she travels home; a train conductor who always wanted to work on trains ever since he grew up in Rugby, North Dakota; a troubled man has a heart-to-heart talk with another who met Martin Luther King Jr.; and a little boy shares his way of making friends.
In Transit has a go-west-young-man romanticism, and plenty of humanism, as the film observes all these people, and more, sharing their hopes and fears, dreams and expectations.  It rarely comes off as maudlin because of the filmmakers’ restraint and distance to the subjects, never pausing for too long on a person, but shuttling between different people and different spaces within and without the train.
The main character in Stranded in Canton pursued his dream, and look where that got him—stuck in China.  Lebrun, a Congolese farmer, jumps at an opportunity to become a businessman. He orders from China T-shirts supporting the re-election of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s President, Joseph Kabila (who’s actually up for re-election in November 2016, that’s if he changes the country’s constitution, which he might do.) in the hopes of selling them in Kinshasa.  Due to production delays, Lebrun goes to China.  For months on end, he’s stuck in the country with debts piling up for storage costs.  The elections long over, Lebrun alters the yellow shirt with Kabila in a suit.  Now it’s anti-Kabila with “fuck” and “shit” all over it, and a red “X” over the Congolese president.  The shirts don’t sell.
Although there are documentary elements (namely the actors use their actual names and play versions of themselves), Måns Månsson, who’s also the DP, shoots in an art house idiom for his film about entrepreneurial sub-Saharan Africans moving to China.  Lebrun is just one of many affected in the continuing economic and political relations between Africa and China.
The film begins with an overhead shot of a blue, foggy, semi-recognizable Canton.  The camera pans ever so slightly to reveal Labrun looking at the city from his hotel window, sweat dripping from his face.  Acting as a refrain, this overhead view of the city recurs throughout the film, a constant reminder that Lebrun is stuck.  Clutching a black bag, he wears a pink and baby blue polo.  It’s the only clothes he has.
Månsson shoots in extreme close-ups with shallow focus.  He also pulls back to reveal a macro-view of the city.  Månsson’s lighting—ethereal, pungent, neon colors—evokes Christopher Doyle’s work, especially with Wong Kar-wai or Jim Jarmusch.  It’s not for nothing that the film title is an homage to a William Eggleston video.  The guy has an eye for the pictorial.
Just as the camera hovers over Canton in Månsson’s film, so too does it look down on Ferentari at the beginning of Alexander Nanau’s Toto and His Sisters.  We see blanched, decrepit housing projects reaching for the sky in one of Bucharest’s toughest and poorest neighborhoods.  In one of these projects, in a dingy, trash and clothes-strewn hovel of an apartment live 10-year-old Toto and his sisters—Andreea (14) and Ana (17).  They’re waiting for their mom to come home in the coming weeks.  She’s serving a prison sentence for drug trafficking.  Meanwhile, the children’s home is a drug den with young people, along with Ana, shooting smack as Toto tries to sleep and Andreea flees to a friend’s house.  Toto and Andreea decide to move into an orphanage while Ana is on and off drugs, in and out of jail. 
Nanau drops you into his documentary.  There’s little to no narrative signposting.  It’s strictly observational with bits of footage supplied by Andreea’s video diaries and Bucharest’s drug task force during a raid.  Nanau and George Cregg’s editing is sharp.  Pausing isn’t the game.  Sometimes this tactic is a bit too blunt, but it’s on the mark when channeling the rhythm of the children’s daily lives—sleepless nights in a drug den, groggy days at a children’s club, acclimating to an orphanage.  The film builds to an ending that is abrupt and deservedly ambiguous, leaving one—that one being me—stunned while leaving the theater.  Toto and His Sisters’ emotions, however, border on mawkishness that’s alleviated by Nanau’s depiction of a close-knit family that both loves and cripples.
Despite a change in theater venues, Tribeca is still stuck in transit.  Its identity is semi-formed.  A pair of clichés continues to hold true.  First, Tribeca is an industry festival.  On one occasion, while waiting in line for a film, I was asked to fill out a survey about the festival’s various sponsors.  And second, the documentaries at Tribeca are better than the narrative films, although I saw just as many good narrative films as documentaries.  Good, not great.  Though far bigger, the quality of films—with the exception of Zachary Treitz’s Men Go To Battle—is significantly less than those programmed at the august New York Film Festival.  Hopefully, in the following years, Tribeca can shape up and straighten out their image, and find a place where they need to be—a destination.

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