Some people direct, others... shoot? New Directors/New Films (March 26 - April 6), the annual collaboration between New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, highlights emerging talent--and the occasional lack of it. Which movies successfully integrate actors, location, editing, soundtrack, and mise-en-scene? Which are marred by comorbidities? It's a time to cull.
Some of the best movies from the first half of the festival (I'll write about part two next week) are textbook studies on achieving near perfection on a lower-than-low budget.
In her poignant doc "We Went to Wonderland," London-based Chinese director Xiaolu Guo gets a lot of mileage out of cheap alternative technology. She filmed with the video function of a digital photo camera. Israeli filmmaker Lior Shamriz, who made the brilliant, cutting-edge "Japan Japan," and New Yorker Lee Isaac Chung, whose moving, understated "Munyurangabo" has been touching festival audiences since Cannes, opted for inexpensive modes of production. Shamriz, whose shooting expenses totaled 200 euros (friends served as performers and crew), directed scenes as independent episodes without a script, a method more typical of low-cost documentaries than fiction features. For $40,000 Chung filmed in Rwanda with non-professional locals as actors and his Rwandan production students as crew. For his extraordinary revisionist sci-fi movie "Sleep Dealer," Brooklyn's Alex Rivera created the requisite f/x for a small sum--and they are worthy of the best of Hollywood.
A majority of the movies are made outside the dominant system in the country of origin. Independent filmmakers are by definition marginal, provoking rather than placating. It seems appropriate that many films in this edition of ND/NF focus on outsiders.
In "Japan Japan," Imri is a twentysomething gay man in Tel Aviv in crisis. Feeling an exile in his own society and sorely lacking in ambition, he creates the fantasy of a Japan where he could emigrate to and function fully. He learns that you take what you thought you'd left behind wherever you go. The film is experimental but accessible, with intentional non sequiturs forcing the viewer to fit the pieces together -- much as Imri must do.
Chung addresses the issue of reconciliation more than a decade after the Rwandan genocide in "Munyurangabo." Two teens, a Hutu and a Tutsi who have been living and working together in the Kigali market, head for the Tutsi's home village. He plans to kill a Hutu man to avenge his father's death in 1994. On the way they stop at the Hutu boy's farm. His father makes the Tutsi feel like a misfit and trashes him to his son.
In "Sleep Dealer," set in Mexico and shot in Spanish, a restless young man obsessed with new technology leaves his poverty stricken village for Tijuana, the "City of the Future." He searches obsessively for nodes, metal devices that penetrate the skin, allowing you to be plugged into a system that connects you with a bizarre global consciousness. Once he obtains them, he faces the downside of his dream. He becomes a sleep dealer, a factory worker who controls robots on the other side of the Rio Grande that do the manual labor done previously by Mexican workers, who are no longer allowed to enter the U.S. Rivera confronts the issue of immigration and questions the ethics of advanced technology, while clearly adoring its possibilities.
Lance Hammer's "Ballast" is a fine American indie. Lawrence, like almost all the characters played by a non-pro local, is a large black man so shattered by the death of his brother that he retreats inside himself. Life in the dirt poor Mississippi Delta is no treat to begin with. No one is able to yank him back into the real world until his brother's ex-wife and son come to stay. He emerges from his cocoon in order to steer the kid, who had been flirting with gangs and dope drops, in a more positive direction.
"Jellyfish," a lovely movie by Israeli filmmakers Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen, follows three different women who had attended the same wedding. The most overt alien is Joy, the Filipina servant of an elderly Jewish woman, a xenophobe who constantly belittles her. Joy doesn't speak Hebrew, and the only time she can communicate is the occasional phone call to her young son in the Philippines.
A couple of outsider films don't pass muster. In American director Azazel Jacobs's "Momma's Man," Mikey, a husband and father who has relocated to L.A., visits his parents in their downtown loft. Jacobs cast as Mikey's parents his own gifted folks, avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs and painter Flo Jacobs. Essentially playing themselves, they are the best part of the movie, which also captures their time-capsule abode, a rent-stabilized reminder of an artists' scene in Tribeca that no longer exists. Mikey is unable to leave their loft to return home, seemingly because he has regressed to a helpless childhood state. Yet this is not really developed, and the first hour of the film is boring and too self-conscious. In the last third, however, Jacobs focuses more on other characters, salvaging the enterprise. A yawner from beginning to end, Greek director Constantina Voulgaris's "Valse Sentimentale" tells the story of an off-beam guy and gal so caught up in their own lives that they are unable to cement a relationship.
In "We Went to Wonderland," Xiaolu Guo's intellectual father, who can't speak, and illiterate mother, who has logorrhea, leave China for the first time to visit their daughter in England. She films them as they wander about London and the continent. Dad is curious; mom just wants to return home. The director captures his subtle irritation and her peasant warmth.
Family is also at the center of New York-based journalist Godfrey Cheshire's "Moving Midway." He revisits the weekend retreat of his childhood, a North Carolina plantation which is about to be lifted and moved. Cheshire tracks down the offspring of one of his ancestors and a slave he owned, an NYU professor named Robert Hinton. Hinton, who made his way from the local town's projects to academia, would have made a unique subject for a film, but the legacy of mixed-race relationships dating from slavery has been written about and filmed many times. What is most interesting is Cheshire's analysis of the myth of the southern plantation. The style of the film is like a PBS doc--strange, given that he brings everything back to his profession of film critic.
Relationships between women
I love the storyline of American Courtney Hunt's "Frozen River." A smuggling team comprised of a white trailer mom and a Native American woman who lives in a camper on the nearby "res" brave the snow and ice-covered lake to deliver Asian immigrants from Canada into the U.S. I also adore great performances, such as the ones given here by Melissa Leo and Misty Upham. Unfortunately, Hunt's screenplay signals everything to the spectator's eyes and ears, and it is overloaded with symmetries. Worse, its form is superconventional. That's fine, but disturbing that it should win Sundance and open New Directors.
More daring is New Jerseyite Emily Hubley's "The Toe Tactic," which blends live footage and animated characters that are something of a digression in the protagonist's head. She has a tremendous rapport with a fascinating woman employer on a Sisyphean quest. But the script is thin--naturalistic scenes are no match for Hubley's hand-drawn animation--and the cryptic references confusing.
The connection between females in French director Celine Sciamma's "Water Lilies" is hardly one of equals, rather it is more from the Hegelian master/slave model. Sexually precocious Floriane, a gorgeous blonde teen, is a member of the synchronized swimming team in a sterile Paris suburb. Marie is gawky and younger and, horror of horrors, doesn't belong to the team. Floriane milks Marie's crush on her, casting the girl as her unofficial maid. Sciamma sharply observes the drawbacks of teen behavior. This is not the world of Miley Cyrus.
I never thought I'd see this category in ND/NF. The affected films are in French and set in former French colonies. Michaelange Quay's "Eat, for This Is My Body" is a melange of artful abstractions that are intended to signify Haiti, where the film is shot. The movie is so studied and trite that it reminds me of Sissy Spacek's stilted voiceover in "Badlands," a teen's wrong idea of what is supposed to be good and adult. Chadi Zeneddine's Lebanese film "Falling From Earth," much of which is set in a war zone, is similar in style but more egregious. Zeneddine uses mortar holes in stone walls as a framing device. That crosses the line between aesthetics and propriety.