The First Time Film Festival is a great place to catch the debuts of budding auteurs, so years down the road you can tell your friends you know about them before they were cool. More importantly, it provides the rare opportunity to see early offerings from filmmakers still in the embryonic stages of their careers. It’s easy cut down artists if their early work isn’t great — Kurosawa didn’t have his breakthrough, “Rashomon,” until he’d already made nine lesser efforts. The following films show great promise for their creators, and hopefully will spur successful careers.
“I Believe in Unicorns”
Directed by Leah Meyerhoff
“A self portrait should be raw, naked…no, wait, don’t bring in naked pictures of yourself. Unless that’s how you see yourself, but don’t tell your parents I said that.”
This, an assignment from a lackadaisical high school English teacher, can serve as the mantra for “I Believe in Unicorns.” Meyerhoff’s affecting film isn’t a total self-portrait, but it is rife with raw emotions filtered through fairy tale visuals. Davina (Natalia Dyer) spends her days wrapping vegetables in cellophane and her distant mother’s gnarly feet in old stockings. The young girl seeks solace in innocent fantasies that manifest as stop-motion hallucinations or surreal daydreams captured with vibrant colors and soft, diffused lighting. (Her fantasies resemble the arts and crafts she does in the seclusion of her bedroom.)
But when she meets Sterling (Peter Vack), whose grungy aesthetic and bad habits offer her reprieve from tedium, she confuses the Bad Boy for Prince Charming and lets him take her away to a worse place. Dyer gives a sensitive performance that vacillates between heart-swelling joy and heart-shattering sadness, and Meyerhoff provides the actress with space to breathe; notice the jovial look on her face as she decorates Sterling’s grunge-mobile with colorful beads and dinosaurs, while he tries to coerce a blow job from her. Like a Polaroid developing in real time, Meyerhoff’s film stylishly, yet earnestly captures a fleeting moment in a young girl’s life.
Directed by Shariff Korver
Sam (Nosdrin Dchar), a Dutch cop of Moroccano descent, is called in to arrest a wife-abusing scumbag late one evening. The scumbag spits on a female cop and Sam cracks his skull. Sam’s supervisor (Betty Schuurman), a mysterious and stern woman, likes his style, to Sam’s surprise, and offers him the chance to infiltrate a Moroccan drug-dealing family, an offer he gladly accepts. He’s always wanted to make a difference, and he’s a good cop — the problem is that Sam slowly becomes disillusioned with his superiors and finds himself unexpectedly accepted into his new family.
Dchar has one of those faces with the capacity to perfectly convey inner pain. It’s not a star-making role, and the narrative has some lulls, but Korver takes the material seriously and Dchar quietly slips into the role the way Sam slips into his role in his new family. Slow yet tense, Korver’s fiercely self-assured debut will satiate formalists with its sharp editing and subterranean cinematography. The use of color — the police offices are all earth tones while the gun range and drug farm glow an otherworldly green — and the innovative framing prove Korver is a talent to watch.
Directed by Naji Bechara, Jad Beiruty, Zeina Makki, Tarek Korkomaz, Christelle Ighniades, Maria Abdel Karim, Salim Haber
A brief but heavy film, helmed by seven different filmmakers, “Void (Waynon)” looks closely at the lives of six different women who have each lost a man to the Lebanese civil war. They all deal with their losses differently, some better than others, but each of them is waiting, in vain, for a dead man to come back.
Each section stands on its own, but they collectively exhume a ubiquitous feeling of sorrow, of a country replete with unhealed hearts and lingering traces of hope. One poignant section details an elderly couple who lost a son: She talks to an empty chair, reprimanding the no one sitting there to finish his dinner; He sits in the living room and remains silent, the white whiskers adorning his face suggesting an absence of will. We see an untouched plate at a dinner table; a guitar waiting to be played; the ethereal reflection of a mother’s face gleaming beside a photo of her son. She takes a figurine of Christ in her hands, holding it tensely, and raises it up, saying, “If you give me back my son, I’ll give you yours.” It’s a subtle and quietly painful section, and there are six others just as effective. Not an easy viewing experience, but one with deep resonance.
“One Eyed Girl”
Directed by Nick Matthews
Mark Leonard Winter plays Travis, a psychiatrist who recently lost a patient with whom he became quite close. He begins to self-medicate himself into oblivion. Enter Grace (Tilda Cobham-Hervey, excellent), a young girl handing out fliers on a train, telling Travis he doesn’t have to be in pain, he doesn’t have to be alone. With a clean, tight visual style that calls to mind ’90s-era David Fincher, Matthews shows a sure hand. A tense film that only occasionally drags, “One Eyed Girl” looks and sounds stellar (the varied score channels Chopin, Trent Reznor, and Howard Shore). Matthews has a keen eye, and DP Jody Muston helps protract the mood: flashback scenes are shown through a purplish filter, giving everything the look of a ubiquitous bruise. When Travis begins his descent into personal Hell, he wears a purple hoodie, as if he’s constantly enveloped by fetid memories. From its opening shot gliding over a gray, concrete city, all angles and lines, to its “Martha Marcy May Marlene”-like scenes of a rural, cultish safe home, this is an aesthetically-confident, gripping debut.
Directed by Jeremy Carr
Compared to the other films that screened at First Time Fest, Carr’s schizoid horror movie feels significantly smaller, more of a lo-fi effort — a genuine American indie. To tell his story of a New York City tour guide (James Moles) who begins to fall into the nasty void of his own mind, Carr utilizes myriad in-camera and editing tricks to sustain a disconcerting mood, from stroboscopic scenes of writhing cockroaches juxtaposed with terrified children and Moles’ voice slowed down and pleated in layers. The actor is well-cast as the awkward, lonely, affable tour guide who puts way too much effort into his job. He tries super hard at his job, and so does Carr, occasionally strewing a few too much horror triggers into some scenes. But even there, the director shows considerable skill, which bodes well for whatever he does next.