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by Howard Feinstein
March 29, 2006 10:18 AM
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New Directors/New Films Spotlights the Silver Lining

Shareeka Epps and Ryan Gosling in "Half Nelson," which is playing New Directors/New Films. Image courtesy Sundance Film Festival

It's a truisim that a creative, provocative surge in the arts accompanies national crises. Look at the "waves" that have emerged over the past 20 years in such countries as Argentina, China, Iran, and Mexico. Given that a significant majority of American independent films in recent years do not make the heart race, the unusually strong showing of U.S. movies in the 35th edition of New Directors/New Films -- a showcase of first- and second-time feature filmmakers which began March 22 and runs through April 2 --- is evidence of the societal rupture that's been building since a certain president took over. American films represent a higher proportion of works in ND/NF than usual. Something is right about the state of U.S. independents; something is rotten in the state of America.

[indieWIRE's iPOP section includes photos from this year's New Directors/New Films series in New York. Additional photos will be published as the event continues in Manhattan.]

Indeed, of the seven best films (out of 25) in the joint MoMA/Film Society of Lincoln Center festival, five are from the United States. (The other two: "In Bed" is from Chile, "13 Tzameti" from France.) Five! As a confirmed internationalist, I find that astounding. As far as breakdown theory goes, these movies reflect a major aesthetic advance as they address subjects indicative of a split society: drugs and racism ("Half Nelson"); the plight of immigrants post-9/11 ("Man Push Cart"); gay desire and homophobia ("Wild Tigers I Have Known"); the war in Iraq ("My Country, My Country"); and suburban dysfunction ("Twelve and Holding").

For readability, I have somewhat arbitrarily divided the top tier of ND/NF movies (including the foreign) into the doc/doc-feel group, one academics would claim are in the naturalistic Lumiere tradition, and those built upon a foundation of artifice, in the vein of the magician Melies.

The Artful

Gela Babluani, the director of the riveting "13 Tzameti," lives in France but grew up in Georgia (the country). Its protagonist is a young Georgian with the face of a cherub who inadvertently slides from a menial job in a dreary French coastal town into the maws of a twisted, amoral underworld. Recent news reports point to immigration as much of a problem there as in this country. Shot in black and white and Cinemascope, "13 Tzameti" is Hitchcockian not only in its suspense and noirish atmospherics but also in its tight, storyboarded structure. Wealthy Frenchmen bet on numbered losers who, standing in a circle and awaiting a signal, play Russian Roulette, their partially loaded guns aimed at one another. This is "Fight Club" and "Hostel" by way of "The Deer Hunter," a gallic Greek tragedy about testosterone run amok.

Matias Bize's sizzling "In Bed" follows an attractive young couple during a one-night stand in a cheesy Santiago motel room. The director makes the single set cinematic over the course of 90 minutes. With a probing camera, he deconstructs it and the dynamic between its two temporary inhabitants. He dispenses with our usual expectations in films with sex scenes: They make animal love (reviewers note: all pleasure, no guilt) in a hot precredit sequence, so that Bize can move on with a narrative about the complexity of human relationships. Their interaction becomes a microcosm of most longterm partnerships, hitting the ups, downs, and in-betweens. For veracity, Bize rehearsed his actors for a year and shot chronologically. This brief encounter has a natural rhythm, albeit condensed: crying, laughing, panting, yelling, feeling sated, feeling frustrated, manipulating, feeling vulnerable, controlling, losing control.

Cam Archer dots the jolting "Wild Tigers I Have Known" with avant-garde techniques such as pixillated slo-mo shots of tigers and multi-layered chatter: It's no surprise that the 24-year-old cites Brakhage and Altman as influences. By American standards, the film is transgressive, dealing with the same-sex urges of a barely pubescent 13-year-old. (It's a cousin to "Mysterious Skin" by Gregg Araki, also from California. Does its youth culture impact on gay movie subjects?) When he's excited, the boy's pants bulge in close-up; he masturbates incessantly, fantasizing about men. His crush on an older, handsome--and straight--outsider at school is heartbreaking. Yet admirably, the boy follows his heart, risking his pal's friendship by baring his soul and offering his body. It's more than a coincidence that Archer created this loving look at gay pain over frustrated relationships now, given the shadow of the politicized gay-marriage issue hovering overhead.

The Doc and Doc-like

"We are an occupied country with a puppet government," offers Dr. Riyadh, a Sunni MD and social activist in the midst of campaigning for the Baghdad Council in the January, 2005 election. A fascinating man to observe, he is also a jumping-off point for Laura Poitras in her model doc "My Country, My Country," her brave survey of American policy in Iraq. She is no slave to press briefings (although she does include a priceless one in which an American officer specifies our election interest less in Denmark than in "Joe Iraqi") and other, safer inside-the-Green-Zone activities. Working alone, she spends time in Iraqis' homes, even keeping her camera steady when rockets hit. Australian "contractors," hired by the American military to police the elections so that it wouldn't seem like the American military was policing the elections, speak openly to her. Kurds in Kurdistan tell her they welcome the Coalition, then proceed to trash all Arabs. Dense, fluid, substantial, it was a Sundance reject.

In Ramin Bahrani's "Man Push Cart," one of the most visually stunning movies of recent years, a former rock star from Pakistan ekes out a meager existence as a street vendor in midtown Manhattan. The shots of New York City life are original, and that's a rarity. We sometimes see the city in the cart's reflections, for example. Only guerrilla filmmaking can capture a man pushing--pulling, really--a cart in the middle of midtown traffic, a sisyphean task. This is one of the most visually dark movies I've ever seen, and the blackness sucks you onto another plane as it comments on the action. Bodies, lights, and windows in the near blackness reinforce the feeling of a parallel underground universe of (frequently interesting and well-educated) foreign-born laborers whose day begins and ends without sun. The vendor, a widower and an emotional shell, sells porn dvds on the side--whatever it takes to survive.

Both Ryan Gosling, as a crack-addicted white teacher and coach, and Shareeka Epps, playing a black junior high student on his team who finds him strung out in the john, deliver unforgettable performances in Ryan Fleck's superb "Half Nelson," co-written with Anna Boden. Skin color is incidental to the friendship that develops; caring is primary. Fleck captures the details of daily life in a rundown Brooklyn neighborhood as well as the moment-to-moment, chameleon-like existence of a progressive, intelligent substance abuser. He speaks to his class about dialectics with his eyes rolling around in his head. Needless to say, Fleck has doc--and political--experience.

The Gray Zone

In his daring "Twelve and Holding," based on Anthony S. Cipriano's screenplay, Michael Cuesta sustains the interest in intergenerational conflict and attraction he revealed in "L.I.E." A fat boy holds his sloppy mom hostage; a preteen girl strips for a construction worker; a kid whose brother has been killed in a fire seeks revenge to earn the love of his vindictive mother. Tension among the youngsters themselves is also palpable. The tone is dark, although satire lurks quietly between frames. The gifted Cuesta knows how to strike a delicate balance.

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