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Adventurous and avant-garde cinema just visited my home borough of Queens at the 6th Annual First Look Festival of the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI). Intriguing short and longer American and international films from almost 20 countries were showcased. Programmed by MoMI’s Chief Curator David Schwartz, the two weekends in wintry January brought many of the filmmakers for their New York premieres, some from the French summer film festival now known as the Festival International de Cinéma Marseille, the 27th FIDMarseille, along with the Festival Director Jean-Pierre Rehm. "The Feed" selections reflected its original focus on experimental documentaries/documentary-like, that were set off by compelling new works by masters and creative debuts.
Re-staging Reality & Toggling Between Reality and Fiction
Between Fences (Bein gderot)In two films, powerless people’s experiences are theatrically re-enacted to bring attention to their political invisibility. Through Between Fences (Bein gderot), Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi, who explored his Arab roots as the son of Mizrahi immigrants with an Israeli Arab in Once I Entered a Garden (Nichnasti pa'am lagan) (2012), movingly documents the efforts of theater director Chen Alon (who is active in the “forgiveness projects” as seen in the recent documentary Disturbing The Peace) to reach out to African migrants caught in the No Man’s Land of making it to Israel. The two artists hope to both break the tedium of endless imprisonment through a theater workshop and get word out to liberal Israelis about their risky treks from oppressive Eritrea and war-torn Sudan into limbo immigration status. Their approach is based on Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed that now creates interactive theater in communities “facing oppression” in over 70 countries. Language and cultural barriers have to be broached, and trust established for the Africans to confide their stories while not risking their (usually unsuccessful) asylum claims.
But that’s easy compared to the constant interference of the Israeli authorities in the migrants’ situation. Pressured by international and domestic politics to stop just turning African “infiltrators” back into the desert, the government has rounded up several thousand illegal migrants into the prison service’s desolate Holot (Sands) Detention Center in the Negev, as their court cases grind on to determine if they are refugees. (The Africans’ frame of reference is to call it a refugee camp.) Frustrated at their lack of rights and resolution, the migrants stage demonstrations and speak out forcefully on the lousy conditions. The theater director encourages them to comically imitate their racist and peremptory guards, then to instruct Israeli women volunteers to act out those roles for performance. Interstitial scrolls update the confusing external news about frustrating Supreme Court orders for release of those held for over a year who can’t be repatriated, but sometimes the migrants get rounded up again if they end up homeless in Tel Aviv. Despite the necessarily disjointed narrative of shifting participants and doubts if the theatrical project can be completed, Mograbi humanistically captures each man’s individual personality by convincing them they do have supportive allies in a country that used to have an idealistic image for ingathering refugees. The documentary was released theatrically in France this month as Entre Les Frontières. With its immediate relevance, it should be seen further; Torch Films is handling non-theatrical distribution. I was sorry that the festival’s conflicting film schedule meant I had to miss German director Philip Scheffner’s Havari, another film that looks at the refugee crisis, by boat.
Silêncio French painter Christophe Bisson began making socially conscious documentary portraits in 2008. Silêncio recalls the look of Andy Guérif’s Maestà at last year’s Festival in re-enacting an art historical classic. He sets homeless men and women of the advocacy organization The Voices of Silence in several formal tableaux vivants within the shadows of dark rooms in a ruined palace in Porto, Portugal. Perhaps the problem was confusing subtitles, but the disappearing audience could not tell if their recitations were personal experiences or literary excerpts. What was evidently supposed to be a humanizing portrait seemed like an European intellectual exercise.
Animals Under Anaesthesia: Speculations on the Dreamlife of Beasts Filmmaking (and life) partners Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky have been collaborating at the intersection of fiction and non-fiction films for a decade, since art school. Self-professed “big animal lovers”, their production company is Pigeon Projects and their fiction feature Francine (2012) was set in a pet shop – where they first filmed an anesthetized cat. Their striking looking 14-minute short focuses on animals when they look from the outside at their most restricted, but presumably are at their most free in their interior lives. The viewpoints creatively shift between the excruciating documentary realism of veterinary operating rooms to the thoughts of a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and a pig, in case you’ve wondered about how to prepare swine for surgery. (All the vet staff are very caring.) Through the pets’ distorted lenses at their eyes level, they free associate sights and sounds as the anesthetic takes hold. More like Denis Côté’s Bestiary (2012) than last year’s cartoon The Secret Life of Pets. The directors described it in the Q & A as: “anthropomorphizing, absurdity, pseudo-science, and horror”.
Out ThereDirector Takehiro Ito distinctively explores the impact of American culture on Tokyo and Taiwan through fact and fiction, memory and future, nostalgia and millennial hipness, color and black-and white, in a dizzying array of cinematographic styles. What started out as a documentary about the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang morphed into a collaboration with neophyte actor Chun Chih Ma to see his native Taiwan through his and his family’s eyes, then return to Tokyo to enact a fictional romance with a pretty young woman named Ayako (played by Ayu Kitaura). Sound complicated? The long prologue is the audition where the director tries to explain this concept to the young man while eliciting his personal background and philosophical attitudes to shape the story. His anxious producer certainly doesn’t buy into the vague ideas.
In oral history particularly relevant with Taiwan back in the news, Ma interviews his parents, apparently for the first time, about their childhoods on the island after their family had left the mainland at the end of the Chinese civil war. In the 1950’s, Americans had a dominating presence replacing Japan’s occupation. His mother, in tight close-ups, enthuses about her adolescence spent hanging around an American Army base full of modern facilities, rock ‘n’ roll, and Hollywood movies. Many family and friends couldn’t wait to emigrate, and his parents remind Ma, with fraught emotion, how a relative convinced them to leave him in America for school. They draw out his hesitant confession about his unhappiness there. His father speaks sorrowfully about how different their post 9/11 visit was, in a country now suspicious of foreigners, particularly non-white ones. Their contrasting relationships with the U.S. are still in mind in a surprisingly powerful tour of the now abandoned, neglected, and leaking base in what looks like the middle of downtown Taipei, in the slow-gliding architectural cinematography style of Heinz Emigholz. This also makes a strong visual statement about America’s changing foreign policy priorities from the 20th to 21st centuries.
Shifting between these images of Taipei, the director’s native Tokyo looks like it could be restless Ma’s fictional future, in contrast to Japan’s real economic stagnation. Even mostly in retro black-and-white with electronica score and little story-line, it is a place where he can rollerblade fast and freely at night, stroll down narrow streets into the suddenly colorful bright lights of downtown. He takes out his ear buds long enough to meet a pretty girl on a picturesque bridge to walk the seashore together. But like seemingly everything else in his life, that’s left unresolved in more alluring visual symbols than substance.
Reichstag 9/11 and Other New Films by Ken Jacobs
Legendary experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs is a frequent and welcome guest at the First Look Festival. Continuing to be inspired by his downtown Manhattan neighborhood, he brings his latest short films that demonstrate how the spry octogenarian, over a sixty year career, not just explores new technology, but bends it to his artistic eye. Now that he feels more assured communicating his choices on new digital software through his filmmaker daughter Nisi on the computer, he could finally channel 15 years of sorrow, rage and political protest about the attacks on the World Trade Center down the block from his home and the wars that resulted, with a different technique than his earlier autobiographical, longer video documentary Circling Zero: We See Absence (2002) of his return home on 9/15.
Seen in its U.S. premiere, Reichstag 9/11 is the first abstract avant-garde film that brought me to tears with its emotional wallop and may be the most beautiful and impactful visual art piece/film to come out of the attack. Too many other artists these days just appropriate free content online or “found footage” and claim their re-edit is somehow significant added value. In 38 minutes (thankfully silent, at his director son Azalel’s recommendation), Jacobs takes chronological stills and video he selected from the internet of one of the most photographed modern tragedies, including images that news and documentaries tend to sensitively shy from since, such as zoomed close-ups of the outline of the plane on the side of the North Tower and the jumping victims, then the reactions of the first responders, and then ashy dust enveloping the streets. (All “the murder” his daughter witnessed close-up that day, as he described in the Q & A.) Each set piece dissolves into paint-like splashes of color, first dominated by the bright blue of the sky that morning, then gradually with more and more red, that the audience can’t help but react to like lurid blood because he wanted “America to feel its own pain”. One need not subscribe to his conspiracy theories of “the new Pearl Harbor” in the startling title (blaming neo-conservatives for instigating war) to be impacted by the intersections of documentary-like footage and abstract expressionistic brush strokes show what he called “a sublime horror”, compared to “people now coming from all over the world to shop there”. I call it a masterpiece. Considerably more upbeat, his other shorts showed his delight at continuing to explore his downtown neighborhood and subway with his wife Flo and his unjustly obsolete Fuji 3-D camera, which he carries with him everywhere to create 3D movement in 2D, edited into repeating rhythms: Windbreaker (2016, 6 mins., World premiere); Cyclops Observes the Celestial Bodies (2016, 16 mins. U.S. premiere); and Popeye Sees 3-D (2014, 22 mins. NY premiere). Considering his joy at seeing his films on such a big screen, Jacobs will present additional new shorts in the Museum of Modern Art’s Documentary Fortnight in February.
On Resistance : International Avant-Garde Films & Videos
Guest Curator Mónica Savirón again presented a program of a dozen new and rare short experimental shorts from around the world, many in North American premieres; some about the varied media techniques, some about aesthetics, some about a subject, though the overall theme was not clear at all. Two of the most impressive were documentary interpretations. Peruvian director Diego Lama’s From False to Legal in One Take (De falso a legal en una toma) ironically juxtaposes a depressed low-income neighborhood in Lima down the long street of Jirόn Azangaro to the incongruously colonial Palace of Justice that hugely looms over it. The camera on a drone is appropriately accompanied by LaMonte Young’s four-note droning score. Prospector shows the impact her Montana base and local students have had on artist Talena Sanders, who attended the Festival. She contrasted the irony of historically colonial and more contemporary racist stereotyped images and recordings of those whom Americans both call “Indians” – South Asians and Native Americans. Less translatable to an American audience (and anyone dependent on subtitles) was Mexican filmmaker Annalisa D. Quagliata’s Misters—Without Blame (Ñores—sin señalar). Looking like an angry political tribute to those killed protesting government-sanctioned violence, the montage of issues were drowned out by the ironic use of the song “Veracruz”. German artist
Ute Aurand’s Sakura, Sakura, from her tour of Japan, also got lost in cultural translation. Elderly women handcrafting colorful embroidery cherry blossoms reflect the country’s centuries of obsession, but the contrast or connection with the black-and-white focus on one woman is not clear. Much like young children can’t distinguish between reality and their nightmares, Spanish artist Pere Ginard projects the looks and sounds of This Bogeyman in shadows from expired Super-8 film and found footage paired with manipulated sounds that are just intelligible enough to be spookily tantalizing. I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns these images into one of his illustrated books, but not for bed-time reading. In complete contrast, Inside the Inside (L’en-Dedans) is just simply breathtaking beautiful. A posthumous 16mm print made from French artist Philippe Cote’s pinhole camera piece demonstrates how the division of white light into colors can be perceived as more art than science.
After the Storm
So Real It Could Be Nonfiction
Opening Night celebrated the New York premiere of Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest, and most frankly autobiographical, exploration of adult children adjusting to their parents’ mortality. Originally a documentarian, he has described: “This is a story that takes an intimate look at…people the way they really are.” All the characters are realistically flawed in emotional ways we don’t usually see in restrained Japanese art-cinema. The central son/ex-husband/father Shinoda Ryota (Abe Hiroshi) is a once promising, award-winning novelistwith severe writer’s block who now uses his storytelling talents in his day job at a detective agency to spin blackmail scenarios for his spying targets. His commissions could go to his exasperated ex-wife Shiraishi Kyoko (Maki Yoko) for child support to get visits with their young son, but he is in the grip of long scenes of a bad gambling habit, betting on dog races and almost anything when he should be working. He’s a charming, handsome louse.
While Kore-eda’s affectionate and more sentimental Still Walking (2008) faced the last years of his relationship with his father, his elderly mother is portrayed as pushy and interfering by Kiki Kilin, an award-winning actress in her fifth, clearly comfortable collaboration with the director (so it’s too bad she’s not included in any of the publicity stills). For verisimilitude to his memories, he returned to his mother’s run-down apartment development with its abandoned playground (we would call it a NORC – a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community) to film in a tiny apartment just like his hers. Shoehorned together during a typhoon into her apartment that trendy hipsters would call a “micro-unit”, in the best, extended sequences, she aggressively manipulates the estranged couple, dotes on her grandson, snares her daughter-in-law, and shocks her son with frank criticism and rejection of his late father and the annoying traits he shares, which jar oddly with her matriarchal advice: “A stew needs time for the flavors to sink in- so do people,” Though there are key artifacts common to Japanese families that will be unfamiliar to Americans, the nostalgia for childhood experiences and the personalities are universal. Film Movement will release After the Storm March 17 in NYC, March 31 in CA, with further dates around the U.S.
Also shown the first Festival weekend, Colombian writer/director Camila Rodriguez Triana set a nonprofessional, elderly cast so realistically in a retirement home for the indigent that some viewers think it’s a documentary. Within this very specific setting resonant with aging and loneliness, a finely layered story gradually reveals connections around the portly Libardo. While other residents stare at telenovelas, he steadfastly makes brooms by hand to earn a few hoarded coins, with his sweetheart Alba by his side. (The actors share their characters’ first names, but I have no information if they are the inspiration in any way.)
Debut feature cinematographer Juan David Velásquez’s camerawork is key to establishing their context. Even in absence the mis en scène constantly envelopes the residents: the still camera again and again takes in a silent scene of grieving relatives watching an orderly efficiently strip another empty bed, fold up the clothes and mattress, then remove the name plate. The camera also frequently wanders through the separate men’s and women’s wards in the tropical heat that leaves the residents in languid siestas on their cots. Yet their individuality is set off by romantic sounds – each plays a different genre of past popular music pouring from their old transistor radios into their ears.
Libardo wants so much to get enough cash for a private hotel room with Alba that he interrupts these patterns to plead for money from an apprehensive younger woman in a small waiting room. In several meetings across a wide table, they haltingly reveal their connection through confessions of anger and despair during years apart that may leave you in tears. (At the FID world premiere, this was the favorite selection of the films sent to prisoners.) In fulfilling different kinds of love, each provides a touching lesson in not making assumptions about people’s experiences from appearances, and by how Libardo satisfactorily resolves his relationships with these women.
Kate Plays Christine
Film is art all by itself, yes. But at Sundance this year, a number of films show art in front of and behind the camera, particularly in documentaries. They run the gamut from capturing the lives of photographers and plastic artists to singers, actors and more.
Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine was the winner of the Jury Award for Writing. Kate Lyn Sheil portrays Christine Chubbuck, a local Florida TV personality who committed suicide live on air. Sheil approaches Chubbuck as a role for which she prepares in depth. We not only get an insider glimpse at the acting process, but also view an examination of the real story that surrounds the 42 year old tragedy.
Greene’s interest in the acting process extends to his 2014 film Actress, following Brandy Burre’s attempts to jump start her acting career after putting it on hold to start a family. As with the current film, Greene pulls back the curtain on more than an artist’s process, but on societal norms and conventions that hold us back from the truth.
Swedish visual artist Sara Jordenö made her feature documentary debut at this year's Sundance. Kiki combines artistic vision with social concerns. She spotlights a new generation of voguers in New York. Fun to watch and not too referential to Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston's 1991 documentary that introduced the term to an unenglightened audience. The voguing and dancing here are the gateway to the real lives of LGBT youth of color today.
Journalist Ron Suskind discovers that Disney animation is the only way to connect with his autistic son Owen. It seems a strange premise for a film, but Life, Animated uses this "quirk" to bring us into the life of Owen, as he grows up and struggles to connect with his parents. The cartoons take Owen from a space only he knows into a relationship, not just with his family, but with the world at large. Director Roger Ross Williams won the U.S. Documentary Directing Award at the festival.
In Uncle Howard, director Aaron Brookner sets out to find a lost film on William S. Burroughs that was made by his late uncle, director Howard Brookner who died of AIDS in 1989 at age 35. That film, Burroughs: The Movie, was a critical success. He interviews other artists who worked with Howard, and in the process examines New York culture of a certain era, as well as the artistic mind of a life cut short.
Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Gui-Qiang was directed by Kevin Macdonald and produced by Wendi Deng, ex-wife of Rupert Murdoch. The film follows this artist, best known for his work on the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, as he attempts to create a massive celestial sculpture using fireworks, his material of choice. Cai lives in New York, but is influenced by contemporary Japanese art. As he looks for financial support, the question arises: how does an established artist continue to challenge himself?
Sonita,directed by Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. Who knew someone like Sonita existed? A young woman rapper in Iran, she gathers all her strength to make it, raging through her music against the injustices in her country as well as her own family, who want to marry her off. A portrait of the artist as a young woman and then some.
You can’t make this stuff up: Film director Shin Sang-ok and his leading lady (in work and in life), actress Choi Eun-hee were the toast of South Korea until they were kidnapped by North Korea and forced to work on a film project which is the brain child of dictator cinemaniac Kim Jong-il. According to The Lovers and the Despot directed by Robert Cannan and Ross Adam, this is what happens when art, love and megalomania collide!
Film Hawk, directed by JJ Garvine and Tai Parquet, is a love letter to the father of independent cinema, Bob Hawk. Saying he is a consultant is understating the matter by miles. He is the nurturer and champion of indie films and discovered the likes of Kevin Smith and Ed Burns. The filmmakers had a treasure trove of interview subjects, because who wouldn’t want to talk about Bob, who still is a vibrant presence in the indie scene.
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato is a direct look at the work of the controversial photographer through interviews of those closest to him. Although the Congress/National Endowment for the Arts battle that his work was a part of started a generation ago, his work still stands – and so does the NEA. This is not a searing X-ray of the iconoclast, but a quiet look at some of the people that helped Mapplethorpe become Mapplethorpe.
In addition to searing social issue nonfiction, filmmaker Liz Garbus has made documentaries about artists, including Marilyn Monroe and Nina Simone. With Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper, Garbus crafts a film about an artist with a huge family burden: Gloria Vanderbilt truly seemed to suffer from the privileged life she led, but beyond a short acting career – and a fashion entrepreneur with those famous jeans – she created art for herself and others and in the end seems to have made art out of her life. Which we can only wish for all of us, to be honest.
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