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ND/NF '08 | "Frozen River" to Open 37th New Directors/New Films; International Titles Abound

By Brian Brooks | Indiewire February 21, 2008 at 6:23AM

The 37th New Directors/New Films will open with Courtney Hunt's debut feature, "Frozen River," at The Museum of Modern Art, Wednesday, March 26. This year's edition includes 26 features and six shorts as well as an HBO Films roundtable. Starring Melissa Leo and Misty Upham in the story of two women who become unwilling partners in a perilous crime, "Frozen River" won the Grand Jury prize for dramatic feature at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival in January. Curated by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, ND/NF has long been considered a premier event spotlighting emerging talent. Other festival prize-winning titles joining this year's event include Cannes Camera d'Or winner "Jellyfish" by Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen as well as Lance Hammer's "Ballast," which took both the directors and cinematography nods for Lol Crawley at Sundance. Other Sundance titles include Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's exploration of post-Katrina New Orleans in "Trouble the Water" (best doc winner) and Daniel Robin's "my olympic summer" (best short). In all, work from 17 countries are on tap for the series taking place in New York March 26 - April 6.
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The 37th New Directors/New Films will open with Courtney Hunt's debut feature, "Frozen River," at The Museum of Modern Art, Wednesday, March 26. This year's edition includes 26 features and six shorts as well as an HBO Films roundtable. Starring Melissa Leo and Misty Upham in the story of two women who become unwilling partners in a perilous crime, "Frozen River" won the Grand Jury prize for dramatic feature at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival in January. Curated by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, ND/NF has long been considered a premier event spotlighting emerging talent. Other festival prize-winning titles joining this year's event include Cannes Camera d'Or winner "Jellyfish" by Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen as well as Lance Hammer's "Ballast," which took both the directors and cinematography nods for Lol Crawley at Sundance. Other Sundance titles include Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's exploration of post-Katrina New Orleans in "Trouble the Water" (best doc winner) and Daniel Robin's "my olympic summer" (best short). In all, work from 17 countries are on tap for the series taking place in New York March 26 - April 6.

The list of films screening in the 37th New Directors/New Films with descriptions provided by the event:
(information provided by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center)

"Frozen River," directed by Courtney Hunt (U.S.)
In awarding Courtney Hunt the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, Quentin Tarantino said of her debut feature, "It put my heart in a vise and proceeded to twist that vise until the last frame." That's pretty significant praise from a filmmaker whose work is as hyperbolic as Hunt's is restrained. But like her supporter, Hunt packs a wallop. Two women in upstate New York--one recently left with two sons to raise, the other a widow on the Mohawk reservation straddling the U.S./Canadian border--need money fast, and they become unlikely, uneasy and even unwilling partners in a perilous and illegal enterprise. In portraying women determined not go over the edge, Melissa Leo (Detective Howard in television's 'Homicide') and Misty Upham give exquisite, hard-edged and vulnerable performances. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

"Ballast," directed by Lance Hammer (U.S.)
A man's suicide irrevocably alters the already fraught relationship of three people in a rural Mississippi Delta township. First-time director Lance Hammer sensitively traces the innumerable ways one radical act affects life's larger issues and daily details for those left behind. Nonprofessionals all, the three main actors' nuanced performances accentuate the tentative ties that uneasily bind together a solitary bachelor, his brother's embittered ex-girlfriend and her troubled 12-year-old son. The slow-burn trajectory of this story gradually unfolds, anchored in psychological truth and the authenticity of locale. Improvising scenes with his actors, Hammer makes his debut with a strong emotional impact. His is a distinct and courageous new voice in American cinema. An IFC First Take release.

"Correction," directed by Thanos Anastopoulos (Greece)
Referencing Ulysses's mythic meandering and the contemporary realities of immigration, xenophobia and hooliganism, director Thanos Anastopoulos crafts a subtle yet haunting portrait of a broken man. Yorgos, released from prison, wanders Athens from the half-way house to places that seem familiar to him, yet remain as enigmatic as his past. A woman and her daughter are objects of his fascination, but it is unclear if they are his estranged family, strangers stalked by a predator or merely cohabitants of a conflict-ridden society. Winner or the Best Screenplay award at the 48th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, the film is a journey through urban chaos and decay that mirrors the brave inner search for national identity and responsibility.

"Eat, for This is My Body," directed by Michelange Quay (Haiti/France)
Michelange Quay's extraordinary first feature invites us to abandon the rules of traditional storytelling and embrace a poetic cinematic language uniquely his own, as was evident in his ferocious short "The Gospel Of The Creole Pig" (ND/NF 2004). This seductive and radical film begins with a breathtaking aerial traveling shot over a tropical island where nature's bounty vies with images of poverty and suffering. A woman with a huge belly undergoes a difficult birth; the sound of a rushing waterfall quells her plaintive cries. A voodoo ceremony erupts with fervor. A white woman serves an imaginary dinner to a group of black boys forced to reiterate "merci." Vibrant musical sequences give way to contemplative tableaux of sexual ambiguity. More than playing the race card, Quay reflects on the political and sexual politics of a country with a stormy past and an uncertain future in a film you are not likely to forget.

"Epitaph," directed by Jung Bum-Sik and Jung Sik (South Korea)
"K" horror rules, as powerfully evidenced by this sensational debut feature by South Korea's Jung Brothers. The impending demolition of a hospital conjures up memories of inexplicable events for one doctor. In the first episode, the doctor, then a young intern assigned to the morgue during 8. World War II, feels that a beautiful corpse is beckoning him to join her in the beyond. In the second, the sole survivor of a car crash can't shake the presence of those who perished. In the final episode, a man feels his overworked doctor wife is drifting away--but he's shocked to discover how far. Visually inventive and full of narrative twists and turns, "Epitaph" has more than enough chills for fans of the genre while offering a provocative meditation on the idea of haunting in recent Korean cinema. A TLA Releasing Release.

"Falling from Earth," directed by Chadi Zeneddine (Lebanon/France)
A true cinema poet, Chadi Zeneddine's poignantly surrealist debut film pays tribute to four lonely people trying to survive their own private wars in Beirut. These seamlessly woven chapters each reflect their own particular time and place. In 1958, a solitary little girl exchanges her world of toys and make-believe for a camera that captures the harsher reality outside. In 1975, a security official grieving over the loss of a loved one finds solace in the graffiti he reads and scrawls in a men's room. In 1982, a woman dances and weeps, waiting in vain for a missing lover. And in the present, Joussef has a magical encounter. Falling From Earth is a moving elegy for a lost homeland from a director whose talent and sensitivity imbue every frame.

"Foster Child," directed by Brillante Mendoza (Philippines)
International adoption has become international big business; every year, hundreds of thousands of children move from their native lands in the poor, developing world to what are assumed will be more advantageous homes far, far away. In the Philippines, John-John is a mischievous tyke who has been under the foster care of Thelma and her family for most of his three years. Hard-working and respected in her field, Thelma--Foster Mother of the Year, several times--must prepare John-John today to meet the American couple that is going to adopt him. Brillante Mendoza's heart-rending Foster Child is a powerful look at the end of the baby business cycle, and a cool and sober study that avoids sensationalism but never lets you forget the emotional toll the adoption business takes on all of these characters.

"La France," directed by Serge Bozon (France)
It's the fall of 1917 and war is raging across Europe. Far from the conflict, Camille spends her time awaiting news of her husband, who is at the front. One day she receives a note from him ending their relationship. Distraught, she disguises herself as a man and goes to the front to find him. On the way, she encounters a small band of soldiers as they trudge through a war-torn countryside that is a no man's land in more ways than one. Traveling in the shadows of the war, these soldiers add to the surreal quality of their trek by breaking into song and playing homemade folk instruments. Only as the men discover Camille's true identity does Camille realize the soldiers have secrets of their own. Director Serge Bozon, who won the Prix Jean Vigo for this first feature, has fashioned a truly original war film that has aspects of an eerie fairytale. With Sylvie Testud as Camille and Pascal Greggory as the leader of the rag tag regiment.

"Japan Japan," directed by Lior Shamriz (Israel)
A young man adrift and in search of stimulation leaves his small-town home and moves to the fertile sexual terrain of the big city. Director Lior Shamriz takes this age-old scenario and updates it for an era when the unimagined limits of adventurousness arrive and dissolve at light speed online. His hero, Imri, unable to concentrate on the frivolity of a pointless job, cruises cinemas for boys, chills with aspiring artists and surfs the Web for fantasies in foreign lands. Set in the ultimate 21st century cutting edge-city, Tel Aviv, Shamriz's film creates a post-exotic cinema where a war zone borders a metropolis, precision redirects to chaos, and subtle grace links to graphic pornography. "Japan Japan" is the fabricated land that, unlike a metaphor, delivers the real potential for instant escape from the familiar.

"Jellyfish," directed by Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen (Israel/France)
At Cannes last year "Jellyfish" stood out, winning the Camera d'Or for best debut feature. Co- directors Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen, each a celebrated Israeli writer, explore life in Tel Aviv, a densely populated metropolis where determining one's destiny is an illusion rather than a promise. Here the sea becomes a place of refuge, shelter and comfort for many--including Karen, a bride whose honeymoon is threatened when she breaks her leg at the wedding; Batya, into whose life comes a little girl who may or may not be real; and Joy, a Filipino caregiver who plays reconciler between estranged mother and daughter. Hapless and attractive, the characters try to make sense of what's happening to them but like jellyfish they keep floating on the whim of tides and currents, bemused but determined. A Zeitgeist Films Release.

"A Lost Man," directed by Danielle Arbid (Lebanon/France)
In the chaos of the Lebanese civil war, a man is seen running through the streets of Beirut. Twenty years later, his erotic encounter with a woman at a border crossing is captured on film by Thomas (Melvil Poupad), a French photographer who travels the globe in search of extreme experiences to document. Thomas and Fouad (British-Sudanese actor Alexander Siddig) strike up a friendship and embark on a sensual journey through the Middle East. Fouad, suffering a trauma, remembers nothing of the past, and Thomas tries to uncover the mystery of his missing life. In her second feature film, Danielle Arbid explores the sexual taboos of the Arab world, focusing on issues of memory and loss while creating a dynamic pas de deux that begs the question, who is really the lost man?

"Megane," directed by Naoko Ogigami (Japan)
Screenwriter/director Naoko Ogigami's third feature is a comedy as refreshing as shaved ice on a warm afternoon. A propeller ride away, where the sky is deep blue and the sandy beaches curve into the ocean, stands a unique seaside inn. Taeko, a serious young woman and the first client of spring, rolls in her gigantic suitcase, unaware that her needs will be minimal. She is greeted in a curious manner by the staff and is soon confounded by the customs, cuisine and general oddity of her hosts. Are they quite sane? Zen in spirit, gentle in plot, and absolutely cinematic in style, Megane offers the joys and delights of a Shangri-La with sushi on the side.

"Momma's Man," directed by Azazel Jacobs (U.S.)
The narcissism and inherent freedom of adolescence can have addictive properties. For Mikey, a thirty-something father of a newborn who works a nothing job, a moment of adolescent relapse becomes a rabbit-hole of immobility. Visiting his New York artist parents (portrayed with heart-breaking depth and impressive naturalism by director Azazel Jacobs's real-life parents, Ken and Flo) on a business trip away from his family in California, Mikey finds himself unable to leave his childhood home (the Jacobs' own downtown loft, a true character unto itself). His actions are not based in malice, though his indecisiveness and the natural, sweetly overbearing concern of his family cause him to spiral down a path of untruth and abandonment. Filled with wry humor and an authenticity that once defined independent film, "Momma's Man" is superbly crafted, funny, and utterly poignant.

"Moving Midway," directed by Godfrey Cheshire (U.S.)
New York-based film critic Godfrey Cheshire's richly observed documentary film about his colonial roots in the American South begins with the impending move of Midway, the old family plantation in Raleigh to a new location to make room for a shopping mall. This coincides with the news that Godfrey and his cousins are kin to the Hintons, an African-American branch of the family. What starts as an investigation of heritage and change develops into an eye-opening family drama. How will the anticipated upheaval affect the family "ghosts," principally Mary Hinton, eccentric former doyenne of Midway, not to mention Godfrey's delightfully patrician mother to whom the revelation of newly discovered black relatives is a source of astonishment and possible amusement? A thoroughly entertaining, informative, and stimulating film about the Southern plantation as both a symbol and a fading reality.

"Munyurangabo," directed by Lee Isaac Chung (U.S./Rwanda)
Set in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, Lee Isaac Chung's impressive debut feature is story of two young men--one a Tutsi, the other a Hutu--trying to create futures by putting their pasts behind them. For Munyurangabo, this means seeking justice for his parents, who were killed during the fighting. For his friend Sangwa, resolution might come once he's able to re-visit the lands he fled so long before. The two reach the home of Sangwa's parents, but the parents are scared of the intentions of their son's companion--after all, "Hutus and Tutsi are supposed to be enemies." Chung, a Korean-American, traveled to Rwanda with a small crew and a nine-page script outline. Working with the cast, he completed his script with their real experiences. The result is fresh, immediate and utterly authentic.

"Sleep Dealer," directed by Alex Rivera
Sometime in the not too distant future, big corporations control the water supply and international borders are truly airtight. In a Mexican village, Memo, a young man who loves to tinker with technology, hacks into the wrong system and finds himself in big trouble. When he runs off to a border town, he finds a job and a girl--but no guarantee of a happy ending. In his debut feature, director Alex Rivera creates a chilling scenario that is not so far-fetched. With the look and energy of a futuristic computer game, the film treats us to a world where migrant workers' nervous systems are plugged into a global network, allowing them to do menial jobs in the U.S. for the same low wages but without setting foot north of the border. A thriller of a ride that is a chilling indictment of global capitalism and a look at the lost promises of the world wide web.

"Slingshot Hip Hop," directed by Jackie Reem Salloum
While America's image abroad has been battered of late, its music remains a unifying force in global culture. New York filmmaker Jackie Reem Salloum's first feature documentary on Palestinian rap, is an exuberant mix of live-action and animation. Beginning in Lyd, Israel, where Tamer Nafar heard Tupac Shakur and, influenced by Shakur's protest lyrics and fierce rhythms, formed DAM, the first Palestinian hip hop group, the filmmaker travels to West Bank communities and to Gaza to record what, in spite of poverty and military checkpoints, DAM hath wrought. That includes PR (Palestinian Rapperz), whose members hope someday to meet fellow rappers outside the confinements of Gaza; and the female rapper Abeer and the group Arapeyat, who are redefining gender roles in their societies. "Slingshot Hip Hop" is a rousing testament to the power of music and the aspirations of youth.

"Soul Carriage," directed by Conrad Clark (China/UK) Desperately in need of cash, Xinren, a young worker at a Shanghai construction site, takes on the onerous task of returning the body of a co-worker who died on the job to his family. Nasty as the chore may be, it seems simple enough--but nothing is simple in a changing China. As Xinren works his way from the city to the countryside - in opposition to the direction most workers go for jobs - looking for someone, anyone, who will acknowledge the dead man, we witness his growing isolation, as his only companion is the body in the back of his van. First-time filmmaker Conrad Clark (who received the New Directors Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival) spent two years in China researching the country's shift towards urbanization and has created a daring work in which the environment is a major character. Beautifully shot, this story of modernity overtaking tradition serves as a metaphor for Chinese migrant workers searching for material - and spiritual - fulfillment.

"The Toe Tactic," directed by Emily Hubley (U.S.)
Mona Peek is a young woman engulfed by loss. Her father has passed away, her wallet disappears, and those around her are on their own. Through the nimble creativity of animator Emily Hubley, we discover a layered world of live action and illustrated images. Mona's life, her grieving and searching, and the lives of those in her neighborhood are manipulated by four capricious dogs playing a game of cards. Winsome newcomer Lily Rabe, joined by the voices of Eli Wallach, Marian Seldes, Andrea Martin and Mary Kay Place, melds with the animated forms that push, pull and caress the film's flesh-and-blood cohabitants through a journey of renewal. The unique kinetic flow of Hubley's remarkable feature debut is enhanced by the music of the equally innovative band, Yo La Tengo.

"Trouble the Water," directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (U.S.)
This astonishingly powerful documentary, at once horrifying and exhilarating, won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at this year's Sundance. Two weeks after Katrina made landfall, New York filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal flew to Louisiana to make a film about soldiers returning from Iraq who were now homeless. But the National Guard closed off access. Just when the filmmakers were ready to disband their crew, Kim and Scott Roberts, streetwise and indomitable, introduced themselves. Kim had bought a camcorder the day before the hurricane, and using it for the first time, she captured the devastation and its pathetic aftermath, including the selfless rescue of neighbors and the appalling failure of government. The strong center of "Trouble The Water," though, are the Roberts themselves who, says Deal, "survived all the storms of their lives not because they were lucky, but because they had intelligence, guts, and the kind of hope that is based in will rather than experience."

"Valse Sentimentale," directed by Constantina Voulgaris (Greece)
Constantina Voulgaris's first feature film is a delightful anomaly in contemporary cinema, sort of like a Cat Power song. Raw, earnest, melancholy, awkward in parts, razor sharp in others, it's lyrical, yet with an undercutting touch of offbeat humor. And more than anything it's unapologetically a girl's bedroom song, an utterly sincere home movie. Made with the ever- generous currency of a cast and crew of friends, and the ample downtime that Greek summer-in- the-city affords, when everybody else is sunning and hooking up out in the islands, it's a film about two exiles -- in Athens, in summer, in love. A sentimental dance between a girl and a boy who could be stuck in downtown any-ville, yearning to be with each other but too cool to dare, too chicken to admit it, too clumsy not to step on each other's Doc Martins, and too damn sentimental not to surrender, in the end, to that old-fashioned thing called love.

"Water Lilies," directed by Celine Sciamma (France)
Emphatically imagined from a female perspective, "Water Lilies" delves into the mysterious world of teenage girls. Marie (Pauline Acquart) is a lanky teenager content to hang out with Anne (Louise Blanchere), an awkward chubbette and her devoted slave, until blonde dazzler Floriane (Adele Haenel) captures Marie's interest and lures her into a murkier pool of desire and disenchantment. Celine Sciamma's precisely rendered first feature is devoid of adults and by design, boys appear only in relation to the female trio and the backdrop of synchronized swimming that is their daily summer activity. "Water Lilies" captures the dynamics of the girls' shifting relationships and brilliantly navigates a psychological terrain rarely if ever captured on film with this degree of honesty. While most cinematic examinations of teenage life are full of aimless conversation, this one plays like a thinking person's action film. A Koch Lorber Films Release.

"We Went to Wonderland," directed by Xiaolu Guo (U.K.)
A Chinese man who has lost his voice after an operation for cancer now communicates through the written word. Despite his age and frail health, he has always dreamed of visiting Europe. Now he and his delightfully pragmatic wife embark on a long awaited great adventure, first stopping at their daughter's home in England and continuing on to the Continent. There are some amusing encounters along the way, as well as some surprising revelations about the husband. In minute detail director Xiaolu Guo follows the couple on their adventure, with subtle digs at the consequences of globalization as well as capturing the confusion of the pair as they confront an alien culture for which they have few reference points.

"Wonderful Town," directed by Aditya Assarat (Thailand)
With an unerring feeling for lives on hold, director Aditya Assarat creates an atmosphere of guardedness, uneasiness, and mystery to highlight the story of two lonely people attempting a fragile emotional connection. The film's saturated colors reinforce the lifelessness of a location that suffered immensely during the tsunami three years ago. An architect from Bangkok pulls up to a motel in a near-ghost town of deserted streets and beaches. His obscured past finds symmetry in the repressed history of the girl he meets and pursues. Each is trying to discover how to give way and function in the present. This quiet narrative of suggestion and hushed emotions has an unexpected denouement that is as shocking as it is earned. A Kino International Release.

"XXY," directed by Lucia Puenzo (Argentina/Spain/France)
For just about everybody, slipping past adolescence means having to confront a number of choices and life decisions, but rarely any as monumental as the one facing Alex (Ines Efron). Born a hermaphrodite, Alex has been raised as a girl, but the moment has come when a decision must be on the surgery that will define her future. Some family friends come to visit Alex's family, bringing along their teenage son, Alvaro (Martin Piroyanski). Alex immediately feels some kind of attraction to the young man--adding yet another level of complexity to Alex's personal search for identity. Debut director Lucia Puenzo handles such potentially explosive material with extraordinary grace and tact, probing past the sensational outward appearances to uncover the rich, emotional core of this story. Efron and Piroyanski both give brave, deeply touching performances, and Ricardo Darin is superb as Alex's father, a man of logic and science trying to make sense of a situation for which reason offers few answers. A Film Movement Release.

"La Zona," directed by Rodrigo Pla (Spain/Mexico)
The privileged isolation of wealthy people in gated communities does little to insulate them from the dangers of a society where the gap between rich and poor increases with dizzying haste. As in a horror movie, the unnaturally perfect 'zona' is as much a character as the inhabitants, a premise filmmaker Rodrigo Pla exploits with impressive dramatic flair. After a robbery goes awry and one of the young robbers goes on the run inside the gates, vigilante justice and private contractors conspire to keep the police at bay. The disaffected, powerless teens on both sides forge a bond against the older generation's vulgar displays of wealth and entitlement. The pitch-perfect direction and well-honed script of this edge-of-the-seat suspense film provide a perfect backdrop for the three-dimensional characters.


Shorts:

"Cinema Mundial (1958-2007)": Carles Ascensio's featurette about a film theater in Madrid is seen through the eyes of projectionists and the theater's disillusioned owner. A collection of nostalgic images about the tactile joys of handling film become a passionate ode to cinema.

"The Wind's Stories": A young boy living with his family on a remote farm grasps the connection between nature and nurture in the course of a typical day in Javier Beltran Ramos's lyrical idyll in which only the sound of the wind punctuates the silence.

"Camels Drink Water": Nathalie Djurberg, a Berlin-based artist whose short animations are in many public and private collections, receives her New York theatrical premiere with this curious view of camels and liquids.

"my olympic summer": Daniel Robin's curiously resonant film about mothers, fathers and internal and exterior events won the Grand Jury Prize for Short Film at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

"Man": Two sisters--rivals and friends--bond in a dramatic encounter with a young man. Directed by Myna Joseph.

"Flotsam Jetsam": In 2005 an American nuclear submarine crashed into an uncharted underwater mountain in the Pacific Ocean. Two years later, artists Patty Chang and David Kelley constructed their own submarine and launched it in the Yangtse River in China, just below the Three Gorges Dam. With members of a Chinese opera troupe on board, the sub's journey becomes an imaginative performance exploring space, identity and memory.

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