Diverse Standouts Emerge From Strong New Directors/New Films Selections
by Howard Feinstein
The 33rd edition of New Directors/New Films, MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's series that runs today through April 4, offers the finest selections in recent years. Especially not to be missed are a feature from Armenia and a short from Peru -- and these are just two of the standouts. The short is called "Porter" (I prefer the Spanish title, which translates to "Only a Porter"), and it's directed by New York-based Peruvian director Juan Alejandro Ramirez. (It plays with "Kounandi," a nice feature about village jealousy from Burkina Faso.) "Porter" feels like a documentary: A peasant, Chuqui Orozco, who makes his meager living carrying gringos' gear up and down the Andes mountains, tells us in voiceover his observations of those around him of higher rank in such a stratified society, as well as his acceptance of his lowly place in the hierarchy. Ramirez says he was inspired by stories he was told in southern Peru, but for greater veracity, he consolidates them and stages the shoot.
Hiner Saleem is a refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan, now living in France, who shot "Vodka Lemon" in Armenia. Not surprisingly, his protagonist is a Kurd, Hamo, a poor widower living in a snowy village. Two of his sons have moved away in an attempt to further their fortunes; only his drunken son Dilovan and his beloved granddaughter remain. During his daily visits to the cemetery where his wife is buried, Hamo meets, and begins an affair with, an even poorer widow, Nina. Hamo shleps into town to sell old wardrobes and his tv, while Nina sells a drink called vodka lemon in a roadside kiosk. An economic cloud hangs over the entire film, but Saleem's deft use of magical realism -- a bed and a piano glide along the icy road, horses fly through the frame -- adds an enchanting edge.
Three of the finest films have at their center fully-realized females. In fact, two of them are directed by women. Sabiha Sumar, a Pakistani filmmaker residing in Germany, sets her brilliant "Silent Waters" in the Pakistani Punjab in 1979, just as a nation under martial law is on the verge of becoming an Islamic state. Ayesha is a Muslim widow in the village of Charkhi who scrapes by on her husband's pension and earnings from teaching the Koran to young girls. Her 18-year-old son, Saleem, is a nice, well-behaved boy and the apple of her eye. Once he gets involved with some Muslim fundamentalists, however, he rejects his girlfriend and even turns away from his uncomprehending mother. We realize after occasional striking flashbacks that she had suffered somehow during the nasty 1947 partition that carved up India into Muslim-dominated Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India. At the time of the fighting, Sikhs and Muslims were forcing their single women to kill themselves to protect family honor, and those that got away were abducted. When Sikh pilgrims come to Charkhi for their annual pilgrimage, Ayesha's secret surfaces, with tragic consequences.
Given the general state of moviemaking in Western Europe, the Swiss film "Strong Shoulders" by the female director Ursula Meier is a revelation. Although it is formally cinematic, it was, surprisingly, made for television. Meier focuses on Sabine, a 15-year-old obsessive, ambitious runner who attends a special school for athletes. They are preparing for a major track-and-field meet. She does not get along with her coach, because he frustrates her desire to run with the boys. She has no qualms about using anyone, her girlfriends or a young runner named Rudi, to further her ambitions; she is left almost totally alone. Her self-absorption is so extreme that her action at the eagerly awaited event is so unexpected that you are left breathless.
In the Chilean film "B-Happy," 14-year-old Manuela becomes increasingly isolated. Director Gonzalo Justiniano emphasizes the point by surrounding every scene with a slow fade to black, a device that lovingly softens her youthful existential dilemma. That her ne'er-do-well father is in prison makes her the black sheep at her provincial school; only one handsome newcomer shows her any affection, and even that leads to a one-afternoon stand. Her mother dies. Her closeted brother leaves town. She goes to work for the same abusive grocer for whom her mom had worked. It's all too much, and she flees to the city, where she searches for her father and, out of money, becomes a streetwalker.
Some of the most astounding movies take place in the world's flashpoints. Jehane Noujaim's haunting documentary "Control Room," which deals with American control of the media during the invasion of Iraq and offers an inside look at the Arab TV broadcaster Al-Jazeera, has been written about extensively out of Sundance. The others are "Fuse," a fiction film from Bosnia, and "Checkpoint," an Israeli doc.
In "Fuse," director Pjer Zalica concocts a fluid political satire that captures the dark humor and sarcasm that is endemic in the Balkans. It's a given that the postwar mixture of Serbs, Muslims, and Croats is not going smoothly. In the film's Muslim town of Tesanj, the mayor calls for a major overhaul: Bill Clinton will be visiting. Not only does the town leader push what is mostly a fake rapprochement with a neighboring Serb town ("I need Serbs!"), but he also calls for an end to corruption. Smugglers and pimps must hide their wares, or at least turn them into something more palatable. Zalica foregrounds an elderly, deranged, retired police chief, one of whose sons died in the war, and another of his sons, a fireman. When the motorcade arrives, it is the old man who has the last word.
"Checkpoint," on the other hand, eschews humor. Filmmaker Yoav Shamir, a former Israeli soldier, shoots Israelis on duty at a variety of checkpoints in the Occupied Territories, both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. He also films the Palestinians who are at their mercy. Shamir's access is unbelievable. You see that most of the combatants are very young and very, very bored. Out of ennui, hubris, and racism-this is all in the film-you see them wield their power over the hapless travelers like a sword. "Let them wait," says one soldier. People, cars, and trucks often wait for hours, even in the rain and snow, just to get to their home cities or villages. One young man at the Kalandia-Ramallah main entrance tells Shamir, "All of Ramallah are animals: monkeys, dogs. We are human." Whether these checkpoints serve much of a purpose is arguable. As one waiting Palestinian says on camera, "Terrorists don't come through the roadblocks."