FESTIVAL: Focus on the Filmmaker: New Directors/New Films Showcases Impressive Debuts From Home and Abroad
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 04.09.02) -- The best thing about the New Directors/New Films series (which wrapped at New York's Museum of Modern Art over the weekend) is that it raises the profile of small, worthy first or second-time efforts that are often lost at bigger festivals. New Directors levels the playing field. Whether Swedish road movie, Korean art drama, or American documentary, each of the 22 selected features are treated with the kind of respect and attention that other festivals like Sundance or Cannes only bestow on a star-studded competition or high-profile auteur film. There may be no glitzy after-parties, ravenous paparazzi or even a red carpet at New Directors, but there are a couple of things you'll find more important to a filmmaker just starting out: a New York Times review and the prestige of screening at the Museum of Modern Art. (Take note, however, that next year's New Directors will not be held at the Museum, because the venue is moving to Queens during a major reconstruction project. Still, prestige won't be in short supply if the screenings end up at Lincoln Center, a likely alternative venue, and the locale of big sister fest, the New York Film Festival.)
"Some overlooked films get a breath of new life at New Directors," commented Michael Robinson, producer of "The Slaughter Rule," Alex and Andrew Smith's delicate portrait of a conflicted young man (Ryan Gosling) in rural Montana, which is currently being sought by two small distributors. At Sundance, Robinson explains, audiences and acquisitions execs were expecting the film's football plot to resemble some Hollywood-styled "Varsity Blues." "Even though we were constantly trying to reinforce that it was not that kind of movie, they were expecting something different," he said. "I think New Directors is more filmmaker-driven than Sundance," continued Robinson, "and I think Sundance should model itself after that."
"I like the fact that there's not a lot of festival-hallway feeling; it's just the screening, the discussion and some meetings," noted Israeli filmmaker Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, who returned to New Directors this year -- his favorite festival, he says -- with "The Inner Tour," a riveting look at Palestinians on a three-day bus tour through Israel. Alexandrowicz's equally fascinating debut film "Martin" appeared at New Directors in 2000.
"The Inner Tour," like many of this year's best selections, finds strength in a mix of fiction and realism. While no doubt a documentary, the film employs a style that is acutely structured and storytelling that is profoundly emotional. And Indiewood couldn't find a more compelling group of characters, with every Palestinian tourist sharing a tale of family members imprisoned, dead, or displaced. The film's most memorable moments occur as the group goes out in the Israeli capital of Tel Aviv ("I never imagined I would walk among the Jews," one of them says): a young man dances at a nightclub, trying to connect with his Israeli neighbors, while another man, once imprisoned by the Israeli state, takes a taxi ride to the site where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Alexandrowicz, who acknowledges his interest in subverting standard documentary techniques, intercuts his subjects' experiences in Tel Aviv, creating suspense, narrative shifts, and eventually, an intriguing pay-off.
With its link to current events, "The Inner Tour" was an obvious sellout at New Directors. But for Alexandrowicz, he is straying away from such topicality for his next project: a narrative feature, not about Middle East politics, but about an African tourist "who falls in love with the Israeli capitalistic system." Hopefully, we can see this new director's latest work at New Directors next year. (He is currently seeking finishing funds.)
Alongside "The Inner Tour," this year's other hits, according to ticket sales, were expected favorites such as American titles, "Real Women Have Curves," "The Slaughter Rule," and the devastating documentary "Daughter from Danang," as well as the droll French comedy "My Wife is an Actress," Inuit epic "The Fast Runner," Albania's surprise audience pleaser "Tirana Year Zero," and another Israeli film, "Late Marriage," an aesthetic highlight of New Directors and recently acquired for U.S. distribution by fledgling outfit Magnolia Pictures.
In another nod to nonfiction, Georgian-born feature director Dover Kosashvili cast his own mother as the formidable leader of a family determined to marry off their bachelor-son in "Late Marriage." The members of the family -- many of them non-actors, bloated with food and rancor, feel as palpably real as the pain on the faces of the protagonist and the woman to whom he can't commit. If Alexandrowicz and Kosashvili are any indication, Israel may be on the brink of a new cinema wave amidst the mire of conflict.
Another region of the world that made its inaugural mark at New Directors -- and the world -- is Igloolik. A small island in the Canadian Arctic, Igloolik is the home of Isuma Productions, a collective-style independent production company that created Cannes Camera d'Or winner, "The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)," the first feature ever shot in the Inuktitut language. Again, combining real-life elements (much of the cast are non-actors from the region) and a story based on local legend, "The Fast Runner" boils down to your standard love triangle rivalries, but gets played out against the majestic expanses of the Arctic tundra and the wonderment of early Inuit culture. "The Fast Runner" outgrows its ethnographic impulse in the first reel, quickly transforming into an enthralling fable of survival and forgiveness. Distributor Lot 47 was surely rejoicing when the all-important New York Times review declared the film "a masterpiece." "It is, by any standard, an extraordinary film," wrote A. O. Scott, "a work of narrative sweep and visual beauty that honors the history of the art form even as it extends its perspective."
With much warmer -- but no less significant -- environs, Zaïda Ghorab-Volta's directorial debut "Jeunesse Doree" takes viewers to southern France where two 18-year-old girls set out on the road, taking pictures of "buildings in the middle of nowhere." Along the way, Ghorab-Volta captures glimpses of real lives in and around the housing projects, from Arab kids to bohemian lumberjacks. Blending documentary and fiction, the film avoids coming-of-age cliché and never gives into the constraints of narrative expectation. While the same can't be said for Polish-born director Przemyslaw Reut's "Paradox Lake," this Sundance competition entry still fascinates with its depictions of the inner lives of autistic youth. A documentary about the film's pivotal figure, Jessica, a 12-year-old autistic girl who loves wordplay, is definitely in order.
New Directors/New Films 2002 received other shots of documentary realism: Dogme entries "Truly Human," an enjoyable amalgam of previous Dogme films "Idiots" and "Mifune" where a boy unfamiliar with social rules invades the world and upsets the status quo, and "Kira's Reason - A Love Story," the story of a woman under the influence of a nervous breakdown, both continue the realist Dogme tradition with mixed results. Swedish entry "The New Country," made from a TV series scripted by "Together"'s Lukas Moodysson, which uses handheld cameras (too much) and real settings, is technically not a Dogme film, but it could have been. Indian director Murali Nair's second feature "A Dog's Day" breathes with local color. And Ulrich Seidl's "Dog Days" feels like some horrible episode of "Austria's Sickest Home Videos," as when a nut-job hitches rides from people in a supermarket parking lot and then tortures them with trivia and insults.
In addition to promising feature debuts by Spanish director Achero Manas ("El Bola") and Korean filmmaker Jeong Jae-eun ("Take Care of My Cat"), the festival's nominal selection of short films (only four) also showed off some rising talents: Orlando Mesquita's humorous "The Ball" (from Mozambique), Maya Dreifuss's psychological story of sister rivalry and suicide "Wax Hurts" (another Israeli entry), and two films particularly adept at capturing present times: Australian Sarah Watt's "Living with Happiness," a smart animated story about a young mother who envisions disaster at every turn (e.g. planes falling from the sky, getting hit by a semi, baby drowning in the bath), and "Site," a seven-minute short photographed by Open City Films' Jason Kliot, which shows closeups of the multitide of faces and expressions -- horrified, shocked, saddened, confused, crying -- on September 11.