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.
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”.
Director 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.