No extreme makeover needed unless they set the terms. Self-actualizers so tough and driven they make Lara Croft and Edie Britt seem like pussycats, larger-than-life females drive the most original movies playing the second half of New Directors/New Films, which ends April 6.
Upfront: "Trouble the Water," the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner by Brooklyn's own Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, is one of the most fascinating documentaries I've ever seen. Serendipity is manna for documentarians. Lessin and Deal met Kim Roberts in Louisiana post-Katrina. Just after another project fell though, Roberts approached them in a shelter in Alexandria, where she and husband Scott had taken refuge. The hustling survivor of not only the hurricane but also of a no-respite life of New Orleans shame, the low-lying Lower Ninth Ward, Roberts picked up a camcorder as Katrina was approaching and recorded scenes that were for the filmmakers, and are for us, shockingly immediate. Lessin and Deal, the savvy, progressive producers of much of Michael Moore's TV and feature work, seized the opportunity and created a film not only around Robert's visual record but also around the charismatic young woman herself.
Roberts, who is African-American in a notoriously racist city, is an aspiring young rapper who embraces all aspects of her life, whether it be past drug dealing, slicing up her husband Scott's face, or committing herself to Christianity. Lessin and Deal follow her and the more low-key Scott while they revisit sites of tragic significance from the Katrina days, when broken levees flooded their neighborhood. Using Roberts's and archival footage, and shooting in 16 mm, the directors wisely opted for a nonlinear approach. The film ends with Roberts singing a rap song she wrote, a testament to fortitude and an openness that we can all learn from. "I've been picked up and let down but I bounce right back," she chants. "Come on and take a look and know that I'm amazing." We know, we know.
In Argentine director Lucia Puenzo's fine "XXY," Alex is an intersexed teen, someone with the genitalia of both sexes. She is a social construction: Her parents decided she should be a woman, dressed her as such, and provided her with hormones to deny her male side. Ines Efron is remarkable as Alex, whose rage stems not only from the negative feedback she gets from single gendered people but also from her own discomfort in the female role. Her well-meaning but misguided parents talk to all the wrong "experts," doctors, above all, without really understanding Alex's options. It takes a powerful encounter with a confused young man for her to fully understand that she is in charge of her body and her life. She recognizes that she even has the power to decide to keep things as they are, to accept the way she was born.
In the French film "La France," by Serge Bozon, Sylvie Testud's Camille is a young woman who passes herself off as a man in order to fight for her country in the First World War. Compared to Alex, this is a small charade, more "Imitation of Life" than "The Christine Jorgensen Story." Many have applauded this historical piece about war as a triumph of minimalism, its musical interludes as brilliant, but I was not particularly impressed. Part of it is Testud: The camera is too cruel to make us believe that Camille could be perceived as male by the other characters, mostly gruff soldiers. If they don't believe it, how can we? In the serviceable Korean movie "Epitaph," co-directed by Jung Bum-Sik and Junk Sik, a beautiful female surgeon is one of several hospital employees whose stories are intertwined in an atmosphere of finely executed genric horror cliches. Yet she is sometimes a male doctor, at other times an evil feminine spiritual force, an assassin, but one thing is for sure: She determines which guise she will don and when.
"Epitaph" is one of five features from Asia in this year's ND/NF. Its gorgeous chameleon of a physician is worlds apart from the warm, maternal heroine of Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza's "Foster Child." A woman of the slums who earns money as a foster mother becomes so attached to a cute little boy in her care that she does not want to hand it over to the wealthy American couple who are his adoptive parents. Mendoza, a hot property on the fest circuit, shoots in actual locations in a neo-realistic style, yet does not hold back on the affecting melodrama. (I prefer another film he made last year, "Slingshot, which is all moving camera and young thug action.) The foster mom's maternal tenderness is infectious.
A quiet, beautiful film that rewards the patient viewer, "Wonderful Town," by Thai director Aditya Assarat, is also laden with tenderness, one that is specifically Thai. Yet the gentle courtship and affair between a visiting architect and a woman running her family's run-down hotel in a beach resort destroyed by the 2004 tsunami is disrupted by a hateful, violent act all the more potent following the calm -- much like the way the tsunami had suddenly interrupted the quiet life of the town. In contrast, Japanese filmmaker Naoko Ogigami's quirky "Megane," the off-center compositions of which are both weird and stunning, is placid from beginning to end. An uptight urban schoolteacher goes solo to a remote seaside lodge for a holiday, not knowing that it is a New Age retreat. This bespectacled fish out of water (the film's title translates as "Glasses") slowly learns to appreciate the spiritual sphere.
Firmly rooted in the material world of the new China is British director Conrad Clark's "Soul Carriage," a visually lush but thin film shot in Mandarin. An avaricious boss convinces one of his poor migrant workers, a desperate man in debt, to deliver the corpse of an employee who died on the job to his family in another town. (The unethical company head convinces authorities to call it something other than an industrial accident.) In what becomes a road movie, the peasant, both frustrated and driven, encounters one difficulty after another on his quest to dispose of a byproduct of the country's late, accelerated adoption of a capitalism even more Darwinian than our own.
"Soul Carriage," "Foster Child," and "La France" are all films with obsessives occupying their centers. So are two less successful movies: "Correction," by Greek director Thanos Anastopoulos, and Lebanese-born filmmaker Danielle Arbid's "A Lost Man," a Lebanese/French production. In "Correction," a homeless ex-con stalks a woman and her young daughter. The political slant, that Greeks discriminate against foreigners, especially Albanians, is not enough to sustain the monotony. "A Lost Man" has the opposite problem: too much crammed into 97 minutes. Set mostly in Amman, the movie focuses on the friendship between a lost, partially amnesiac Lebanese man who had fled Beirut during the Civil War and a hyper French war photographer so neurotic that he clicks his camera at the most inappropriate moments, like during sex (tacky) or while someone is reacting to news of tragedy (tactless). He is far too overdetermined.
The most interesting of this batch is an American doc, "Slingshot Hip Hop," by Jackie Reem Salloum, who is of Palestinian descent, about a more collective obsession. A number of young Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel proper have become hooked on hip hop. They adapt the black American version to their own political reality. "Rap gives us oxygen," a practitioner explains. (One big hit is entitled "Who's the Terrorist?") Because of the Israeli occupation, group members from the three different areas are not allowed to cross "borders" and meet up, at least until they are granted a special dispensation for a concert in Ramallah. Salloum shoots in a frenetic handheld style that matches the subject matter.
"Soul Carriage," "Trouble the Water," and "Foster Child" all touch on economic disparity. The well-directed, multiple prize-winning Mexican film "La Zona," by Rodrigo Pla, sets up the dichotomy from the first shot, a fluid survey from a slum over the wall that separates it from a highly protected wealthy community. Three desperate teens from the wrong side of the tracks breach the barrier and commit a robbery that goes fatally wrong. The rich residents become a mob of vigilantes. They have an informal agreement with the cops that they serve as their own enforcers. A major problem with the film, however, is that we are expected to believe that one of the detectives is so on the up and up that he attempts to override the actions of these "entitled" people. In Mexico City? Astute colleagues who live there validate my suspicions.