By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 31, 2014 at 4:05PM
Reckoning With History
Another corrective to a deficiency in the commercial marketplace, Justin Simien's hilarious satire "Dear White People" focuses on the travails of several black characters at an Ivy League college littered with racial confusion and more than a little actual racism. Simien's characters speak with rapid-fire exchanges typical of a screwball comedy, but they're also littered with topical reference points and an overarching sense of yearning for everyone to get along in the throes of a national identity crisis. The genuine statement of the Obama Era, "Dear White People" eloquently captures a society in transition.
Albert Serra's "Story of My Death" also examines a shift of attitudes and ideas from a very different period. The Catalan director's nutty period piece begins as a straightforward look at the life of late 18th century rationalist Casanova before abruptly shifting into a portrait of 19th century romanticism with the arrival of Dracula. Serra's mystifying allegorical narrative has the transfixing quality of thumbing through history books and legend at the same time, suggesting that our perceptions of the world are shaped by an unseemly combination of both. Experimental directors Ben Rivers and Ben Russell take that possibility one step further with "A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness," a nearly wordless three-part odyssey that explores the experiences of a black metal band member from his time spent on a commune, in solitude, and finally onstage. This ceaselessly cryptic overview of various utopian ideals has a sustained meditative quality that's alive with the desire for personal satisfaction and confused about whether or not it can ever be achieved.
Truth, Fiction and Everything In Between
Much has been made about the boundaries between fiction and documentary cinema growing more and more porous as filmmakers disregard them in favor of inventing new approaches. To that end, the handful of titles that incorporated documentary elements at this year's New Directors/New Films series formed a cogent prologue to the Film Society's upcoming "Art of the Real" series, which magnifies this process even further. Even the sole "traditional" documentary in the New Directors lineup, the Syrian-produced "Return to Homs," has the aura of a next level accomplishment in documentary form, with its handheld digital camerawork shot in a literal war zone, containing footage that would've been virtually impossible to capture more than a decade ago.
The versatility of the documentary form has yielded a greater sensitivity to film form. Italian director Roberto Minervini's "Stop the Pounding Heart" begins as a plotless look at daily life among a family of Chrisian goat-farmers in rural Texas. But Minervini's quasi-fictional look at the exploits of the Carlson family slowly develops an emotional core by fixating on the perspective of confused teenager Sara, who plays herself as she grapples with questions of faith and responsibility. Less documentary than document, "Stop the Pounding Heart" provides a snapshot of the coming-of-age experience with a shocking amount of intimacy.
On a more outwardly ambitious scale, Jessica Oreck's "The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga" combines storybook imagery and accounts of a Slavic fairy tale with footage of contemporary Romania, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine and Russia to create a fascinating ruminative essay on the role of mythology in shaping national conciousness. The titular story represents primal fears that society as a whole may willfully repress even as it defines its boundaries. "Culture imagines an inherent advantage over the wild and builds high walls to keep it out," the narrator explains at one point. But "Baba Yaga" is shrewd enough to find a way in.
Also burrowing into places no traditional documentary can go: Ian Forsyth and Jane Pollard's "20,000 Days on Earth," a clever experimental riff on the life and art of musician Nick Cave that drifts through his creative consciousness more than it surveys the history of his career. The movie contains enough slick footage of his performances to prove that one could easily put together a Nick Cave concert documentary with little originality and it still might offer plenty of snazzy content.
But "20,000 Days on Earth" displays a far greater degree of innovation that makes it one of the most unique artist profiles to come along in ages. Reflecting on his process and the personal experiences that have defined his output, Cave is essentially cast as a character in the drama of his life: conversing with a therapist, talking with friends as he drives around town, sifting through his archives and hanging out in the studio, he's perpetually caught between self-analysis and artistic frenzies. The movie brilliantly epitomizes a state of awareness that Cave describes as "that place where imagination and reality intersect." To a largely satisfying degree, that description suited many of the selections from this year's New Directors/New Films, which had as much to say about the quality of filmmaking around the world at the moment as it did about the promising directions it may soon take.