Most film festival programmers will admit that you can't please everyone. At festivals large and small, the people responsible for the movies in their lineups smile at the podium and vouch for their choices, readily aware that the program's quality is anything but impeccable. However, New Directors/New Films doesn't face that problem; its very existence justifies the inclusion of flawed works, since the program is defined more by potential than perfection.
With 28 slots, ND/NF doesn't leave room for outright duds -- but there are plenty of fallible works. If something succeeds on a fundamental level, or leaves viewers feeling the filmmaker had the right idea despite missing the mark, a goal has been reached. There’s a sense of cinematic discovery because its presence in the series suggests there's more to come.
The deadpan Peruvian comedy "Octubre" is one such example. Directed by siblings Daniel and Diego Vega, the story follows antisocial loan shark Clemente, whose frequent dalliances with prostitutes eventually find him with an accidental child waiting on his doorstep. With help from a concerned client, Clemente takes the infant into his home and launches on a journey to find the mother.
The Vegas brothers rely heavily on lengthy pauses to draw out the humor of Clemente's introverted personality, so much so that they might as well send royalty checks to Jim Jarmusch. But they ably utilize Lima's stately urban exteriors to great effect, fleshing out Clemente's environment with a rigidity that resembles his humorless outlook. Maybe next time they can beef up the story as well.
The same can be said for "Winter Vacation," the winner of the Locarno Film Festival's Golden Leopard award. Chinese director Li Hongqi follows a handful of teenagers during their titular downtime in an uneventful industrial town. Utilizing a similarly understated approach with far less momentum, Li simply watches his characters sit around. Sometimes they talk about their lives and personal goals, sometimes they gaze into the distance.
A comical soundtrack often plays against the inaction, as if to externalize the liveliness the characters wish they could experience. Li views these frustrated youth with a delicacy that makes their bored clan look like an Eastern take on "Peanuts." However, with zero exposition over the course of 91 minutes, many of the bright spots in "Winter Vacation" are frozen by the lethargic pace.
"El Velador" presents another case where a tremendous accomplishment gives way to redundancy. Documentarian Natalia Almada follows a night watchman who spends his days overseeing a Mexican cemetery that keeps filling up with victims of gang violence. The trenchant overseer is a sad-eyed old man with a mysterious backstory and as he goes about his duties, Almada fills the soundtrack with media reports of the mounting violence gripping the country. Evocatively shot to contrast the cemetery's gorgeous, rustic architecture with the tragedy outside its walls, "El Velador" presents a fascinating vision of death without explicitly showing it. But since the portrait never builds to a conclusive point, it results in an incredibly solemn production with less to say than the topic implies.
None of these evaluations should suggest that there aren't phenomenal movies in this year's program. It's a festival that can of package imperfection rather than pretend it doesn't exist. It also provides a showcase for top-notch international features that would otherwise go unnoticed in American release. Among those ND/NF offerings I hadn't encountered elsewhere on the festival circuit, Romanian drama "Outbound" was my personal favorite.
One of the more enthralling Romanian films to play in these parts in some time, “Outbound” is also a neat genre exercise that could easily wind up in U.S. theaters (most likely in the form of an inferior remake). New York-based filmmaker Bogdan George Aperti follows a hardened young woman who’s serving jail time for a pithy crime and is released for a single day to attend her mother's funeral. Intent on tracking down her lost child and gathering enough money to hit the road, the fierce protagonist goes through a series of increasingly tense encounters that Aperti strings together with remarkable fluidity, generating a sense of real time. With one economically shot car crash and a gun that never gets loaded, Aperti does more with classic tools of suspense than virtually any mainstream American director working today. The movie is a trim exercise in the art of swift storytelling, which makes the anticipation for Aperti's next project that much greater.
Another great discovery that deserves more audiences is Mohamed Diab's "6, 7, 8," which revolves around three women fed up with the ubiquitous sexual harassment plaguing Egyptian society. Although obviously timely in light of that country's recent uprising, the movie is essentially apolitical, dovetailing into a police procedural when one of the women starts stabbing the men who harass her. Outside of its cultural context, the story also works as a universal tale of female rebellion against masculine oppression. Diab’s slick narrative will hold up when viewers return to it years later to see where he came from. And the same could be said for many of the ND/NF filmmakers in this year's diverse selection.
New Directors/New Films continues through Sunday at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.