WORLD CINEMA REPORT: Keeping the Peace; New Directors Promotes Cross-Cultural Emerging Filmmakers
by Anthony Kaufman
As a corrective to American insularity and insensitivity, the 32nd New Directors/New Films film series -- running today through April 6 -- should be required viewing for our nation's leaders. This year's selection of movies focuses on Kurds in Iran, Palestinians in the West Bank, oppressed women in Africa, corrupt police in Brazil, and paranoia run amok in Israeli settlements, just to name a few topics. The annual New York cinema event presented by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, shows people from around the globe as neglected, dysfunctional, vulnerable, and not as mere collateral damage.
Hailing from 24 countries, this year's lineup is heavy with entries from the U.S., Italy, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe (two entries are from Slovenia!). France and Germany are conspicuously absent from the program, while faraway places such as Bangladesh ("The Clay Bird") and Chad ("Abouna") make valiant first showings. This year's film festival favorites such as Fernando Leon de Aranoa's "Mondays in the Sun," Adrian Caetano's "A Red Bear," and Lu Chuan's "The Missing Gun" also make appearances. However, a major oversight in this year's lineup is the lack of Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas's first feature "Japon," which was released in New York last week, thereby nixing a New Directors slot. Reygadas's Tarkovsky-esque wonder -- poetic, existential and deeply felt -- heralds the arrival of an important new director certainly worthy of the showcase.
The festival provides a snapshot of the rest of the world's emerging talents and the results are mixed. Festival opener and rousing crowd pleaser "Raising Victor Vargas" from Brooklynite Peter Sollett proves to be the most resonant narrative newcomer in the batch. Samuel Goldwyn will launch their Cannes 2002 acquisition off of this year's New Directors premiere: "Vargas" opens in theaters on Friday. (Other U.S. fiction entries include Todd Graff's "Camp" and Jim Simpson's "The Guys.")
Sollett's story of a young man's first love and comeuppance in New York's Lower East Side may be fiction, but the film's verite technique and improvisational style is indicative of the strongest new directors of 2003. Documentaries and documentary-like films proved the most memorable.
Among them is the world premiere of "My Architect," Louis Kahn's personal voyage to understand his illustrious (and wayward) architect father -- Louis Kahn -- who died mysteriously in Penn Station in 1974 and left behind three children from three different women. Poignant family revelations mix with architectural pondering as the young Kahn -- only 11 when his dad died -- travels from Philadelphia to Israel to Bangladesh to understand why Louis cared more for work than family. Though conventional and in need of trimming, the film has a solid foundation of narrative and emotion. (Paired with Lucia Small's recent "My Father, the Genius," the films could serve as a treatise on architects and their neglected offspring.)
New Directors' most outstanding documentary, Sundance sensation "Bus 174,"lives up to the hype. A riveting chronicle of a Rio de Janeiro bus hijacking horribly mishandled by the local police, the film intercuts live footage of the tense event with details of the hijacker's troubled background and interviews with survivors and special agents. Disturbingly, the crime is chronicled by dozens of TV cameras, offering director Jose Padilha (producer of award-winner "The Charcoal People") a myriad of angles rivaling any Hollywood thriller. HBO/Cinemax has scheduled a broadcast date for spring 2004; theatrical venues are still in the works.
While seemingly fiction, Gyorgy Palfi's "Hukkle" uses many documentary tropes. This Hungarian film school thesis project is a masterful gem that begins with close ups of hog's balls and worm-gobbling moles a la some episode of "Nature," and then slowly metamorphoses into an insidious small-town murder mystery. "Hukkle" -- which placed on indieWIRE's and the Village Voice's lists of top undistributed features of 2002 -- traveled somewhat under the radar at festivals from Toronto to Chicago, but with the prestigious New Directors slot and a requisite New York Times review, "Hukkle" may finally find a brave buyer.
A pair of political entries from the Middle East also traffic in nonfiction elements. Iranian director Fariborz Kamkari's brutal feature debut "Black Tape" is told from the point of view of a videocamera within the story (the movie's complete title is "The Videotape Fariborz Kamkari Found in the Garbage"). At times, the conceit borders on the impossible (not to mention difficult to watch) and the story of a beautiful Kurdish woman married to an ex-military tyrant with vehement anti-Kurdish beliefs appears farfetched. But Kamkari stays with it to the gruesome end, never relenting in the camera's disorienting handheld chaos and the characters' harrowing cruelties.
Also more sociological discourse than fictional drama is Rashid Masharawi's "Ticket to Jerusalem," which follows a Palestinian projectionist navigating endless checkpoints in order to bring movies to kids all over the West Bank -- and who dreams of screening in Jerusalem one day. Cowboy Pictures founder Noah Cowan's new company Global Film Initiative will distribute "Ticket" in the fall.
Aside from the U.S., no single country has more films in the program than Italy. The three Italian features -- Emanuele Crialese's "Respiro," Matteo Garrone's "The Embalmer," and Roberta Torre's "Angela" -- all have U.S. distribution and their fair share of merits: some stellar feral young faces aid Crialese's mystical island fable, Marco Onorato's dark and moody cinematography anchors the fatal attraction between an old taxidermist and his hunky assistant in "The Embalmer," and "Angela's" tale of a mob boss's wife has its inherently marketable assets. But does the trio mark a new wave? The jury is still out.
Another region of the world that could prove a creative goldmine is Central Asia. Tajikistan-born director Jamshed Usmonov's "Angel on the Right" is a formidable little drama about a bankrupt thug (who is also a film projectionist) and his dying mother that bodes well for the area. So much so, perhaps, that the Film Society will host a Central Asian Cinema series in May.
Also in May, Slovenian films will make a comeback after their New Directors premiere with the Brooklyn Academy of Music's New Films From Slovenia. If the New Directors selection is any indication, the Slovenian's play with palatable genre conventions may attract Western viewers. Maja Weiss's "Guardian of the Frontier" follows three sexy Slovenian girls down the River Kolpa in a tale of blurred sexual and national borders (with a little "Blair Witch" thrown in), and Stefan Arsenijevic's "(A)Torsion," the most assured narrative short film in the mostly lackluster shorts selection, condenses choral singing, the Yugoslavian war, a cow giving birth, and a love story into a tear-jerking 14-minute package that even Spielberg would envy.
But the most intriguing films in the series celebrate cultures, more foreign and faraway. And this may be the cinema's most important task, as of late. To borrow words from Global Film Initiative's website: "Even today, a powerful, authentic narrative can foster trust and respect between disparate cultures and mitigate the social and psychological impact of cultural prejudice." Peace through film? It's worth a shot.