New Directors/New Films Celebrates 34th Year; Europe ‘Fertile’ with ‘Marginals’
by Howard Feinstein
The best way to summarize a festival comprised of 25 features and eight shorts is to first explain what it is not. Now in its thirty-fourth year, New Directors/New Films is a forum for emerging talent, an elastic parameter that includes filmmakers who may be known everywhere but on these shores. This begs the question: What differentiates ND/NF in the spring from the fall’s New York Film Festival? (The NYFF is sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, ND/NF co-sponsored by the Film Society and the Museum of Modern Art‘s Department of Film and Video).
According to the Film Society’s Richard Pena, the only member of both festival’s selection committees, “You could say that the NYFF has more freedom to choose, because we can take both works by established directors as well as first films, whereas ND/NF won’t show works by directors who have had more than two releases in New York. But I do think scheduling is probably the key factor in terms of films that could be shown in either program.”
That said, let’s move on to this edition of New Directors. The overall quality of the films ranks it as one of the best in recent history. The astonishing presence of five documentaries tells as much about the increasingly competent production of docs as it does about the open-mindedness of the six-member committee. After viewing almost of all of the selections, there is also no denying their predilection for films about those on the margins (Given space restraints, I’m going to write only about the most impressive works). The handsome young Taiwanese hit man in Japanese director Nakagawa Yosuke‘s excellent and poignant “Starlit High Noon” is the ultimate outsider. Following each successful assignment in Taipei, he lives an almost completely isolated existence, laying low in Okinawa for months on end. His apartment is surrounded by gardens, steps, a pool, and he has virtually no contact with anyone, until he falls for a shy local.
Europe proves to be fertile ground for marginals of all stripes. Two of the finest films in the festival, Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche‘s “Games of Love and Chance” (formerly L’Esquive) and Moroccan native Ismael Ferroukhi‘s “Le Grand Voyage,” focus on lower-class, second- or third-generation North Africans living in France. Set in the stark, sad projects that surround Paris, “Games of Love and Chance” follows a gaggle of angry, often competitive teens too uninspired to aspire to much. Kechiche ingeniously sets their slang-ridden squabbles against a precious production of an 18th-century Marivaux comedy performed in perfect French; the contrast is powerful.
The conflict in “Le Grand Voyage,” a funny and tragic road movie that begins in southern France and ends at the annual Hajj in Mecca, is more generational. The father, a nearly illiterate Moroccan immigrant, is old-fashioned and insistent on his patriarchal right of obedience, while the frustrated teenaged son, who is forced to drive him to Saudi Arabia, is first and foremost a liberated Frenchman. Director Ferroukhi makes the point that “the gulf between them is even wider because of their status as exiles.”
Set further north in Europe is an extraordinary first feature from Norway, Mona J. Hoel‘s delirious, propulsive (but badly named) “Clorox, Ammonia, and Coffee.” Hoel presents eccentric characters in a small Norwegian town in measured doses, then, with consummate skill, connects the dots. One mean old woman trades her prescribed opiates to teens in exchange for alcohol, but she finds redemption in love after an old friend finds her in a dumpster after a car has struck her and her walker. The young foreign worker who runs her neighborhood grocery (and accepts her racist abuse) ends up delivering the child of the old lady’s daughter-in-law, just after she has donned a wig and pulled a toy gun in an attempt to rob him. The daughter-in-law’s midwife misses out on the birth because she is in a hospital back closet making love to an older man on whom she’s been spying for months from her balcony window while he jumps up and down on a trampoline.
Several films in ND/NF put the institution of the family, real or reconstituted, under the microscope. Examples include Phil Morrison‘s North Carolina-set “Junebug” (one of the more accomplished Amer-indies in a while), Polish director Magdalena Piekorz‘s “The Welts,” and Zhu Wen‘s Chinese film, “South of the Clouds.” The most striking of all, however, is Argentine director Jorge Gaggero‘s “Live-in Maid,” starring the legendary Norma Aleandro as a wealthy woman whose fortunes have dissipated during the nation’s severe economic crisis. Divorced, nearly estranged from her émigré daughter, Aleandro is left with a nuclear unit of her and her live-in maid of 30 years (portrayed by real-life maid Norma Argentina). With architectural props and furniture, in a style reminiscent of ’50s Hollywood melodrama, Gaggero comments on the up-and-down relationship between the two women, who constantly bicker but can’t seem to get out of each other’s lives. Rarely have intimacy and economic hardship been so brilliantly intertwined.
The most dysfunctional family is that in German filmmaker Oskar Roehler‘s appealingly Fassbinderish “Agnes and His Brothers.” Three brothers become two plus a sister after Martin become Agnes. Abused as a child by their father, she is thrown out on the street by her boyfriend and wanders aimlessly. Brother Hans-Jorg works in a library where he follows pretty young female students into the bathroom and masturbates in the adjacent stall while they relieve themselves. He belongs to a sex addicts anonymous group, but manages to integrate his true self and his need for companionship after hooking up with a professional porn star. The most troubled sibling is, typically, the one deemed most successful by the bourgeois society in which they live. Werner is a wealthy Green Party politician whose home life is a nightmare: He is ignored by both his icy wife and their spoiled mama’s boy of a son, who humiliates his father by videotaping him during his most personal, humiliating acts. Not even bodily fluids and functions are sacred in this family.
Of the documentaries, if we may move back to the beginning, the strongest also deal with marginals, especially the dispossessed. In the fascinating “Young Rebels,” Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden penetrate the underground hip-hop scene in Cuba. Their access is remarkable. In a country where free speech as we know it is not the rule, they gain the trust of black hip-hop musicians who rant as much about their own government as they do the capitalist, commercial sellouts in American hip-hop (Def Jam being one). They have learned from American hip-hop that they are first and foremost blacks, Afro-Cubans, and they have appropriated their anti-establishment ethic. The best groups want nothing to do with the “Agency” that tries to bring their revolutionary music under a government umbrella.
The most potent of all is “Darwin’s Nightmare,” an unforgettable doc by the Austrian Hubert Sauper. In Tanzania, Sauper encounters an amazing example of the multiple downsides of globalization. Someone introduced the Nile perch into Lake Victoria 40 years ago, resulting in the huge fish not only decimating the world’s second largest lake’s ecosystem, but also managing to eat many of its young.
The threat of the lake becoming a huge sinkhole hovers overhead as much as the ubiquitous planes that are flown in by Russian pilots. They take filets of the giant fish back to white Europeans (with the encouragement of the EU), while the local, disenfranchised population falls victim to famine, dies from AIDS, turns to prostitution, and creates hordes of glue-sniffing street kids. The locals frequently subsist on the maggot-ridden carcasses of the filleted fish. Sauper’s coup is that he uncovers the connection between the planes and the wars that have sprung up all over Africa: They arrive not empty as the pilots first suggest but full of arms from Europe to supply military and paramilitary forces in several battle-scarred countries. But who cares? The Indian-run fish factories are flourishing, and that is all that matters to the outside world.