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.
Director Alexandra Cuesta brought her first short, from a decade ago, and her recent film from FID. Recalling Yesterday (Recordando El Ayer) captured exuberant lives of Ecuadorian immigrants in Jackson Heights, nearby to the Museum’s Astoria location, in a nine minute, 16mm, colorfully impressionistic portrait (in contrast to Frederick Weissman’s cinema verité In Jackson Heights that’s 40 times longer). The richness of their community only takes her seconds to establish, as friends and family greet each other, regular customers shop, and worshippers hurry to church services.
Cuesta brought her camera for her first return to film her native country, from her base at SUNY Binghamton, inspired by following the 1927 Ecuador: A Travel Journal of French artist/poet Henri Michaux. Her HD digital, hour-long film Territorio opens (and leaves) by a small boat, as he arrived, and proceeds to the most rural and isolated areas, from mountains to jungle to ocean, inside places of work, play, and dreaming. But Cuesta’s focus is still on the people, even in these beautiful locales, more intimately and intensely than just a National Geographic photo spread (and there’s no map).
In ever-present heat, the camera stares for extended vignettes at the old, the young, mothers, siblings, friends, market vendors, soccer players wait out a rain delay, and a man digs a well. Filming alone and catching the ambient sound where she was invited in, a few are looking at her, but most are busy watching something or someone else, whether a TV, teammates, a baby, cute boys, or customers. Eschewing the rigidity of avant-garde filmmakers who time their camera shots of locales, she lets the situations observed play out in suspense if there will be a climax. Usually there isn’t – just enjoy the people-watching. She stressed in her Q & A: ”I’m not exoticizing. It’s my country.” I appreciated the close looks at faces and their everyday context, but I didn’t perceive what she called “imaginary geographies”, but perhaps those were clearer when an accompanying art installation is included at other locales.
Ever shop at a farmers market and think you’d just like to chuck the city and go work on an organic farm? I have cousins who’ve done that, and so did director Christopher LaMarca. But in following laconic Michael “Mookie” Moss to his family-owned Boone’s goat farm in southern Oregon with friends and committed agricultural activists, Dana Kristal and Zachary Jasper-Miller, he also brought his camera. His time investment as a farming apprentice set the ground work for knowing where and when to point his cameras to follow day by day (night by night) a year’s seasonal cycles of the hard labor and never-ending chores it takes to farm, with nothing re-staged, no re-takes, and very little explanatory dialogue. Sunrise to sundown, and many nights when the goats are in labor or a storm threatens, in the muck and the dirt. The audience feels as exhausted as they do, though we are spared the smells, but the ambient sounds plunge you in. LaMarca explained in the Q & A his goal was “for the camera to disappear”.
Inspired by the experiential approach of Lucien Castaing-Taylor at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, such as sheep ranchers Sweetgrass (2009) and fishermen in Leviathan (2012) (rather than the recent cerebral intellectual approach of Tilda Swinton’s appreciation of “peasant” farming in The Seasons In Quincy: Four Portraits Of John Berger), the camera plunges into the daily chores of the farmers. From milking, planting and harvesting, always dealing with living nature, whether the trees or the goats and dogs. Though this is not a “how-to”/educational type film, we also get brief glimpses into crafting goat cheese manufacture, before loading the containers are loaded onto the truck for the farmers market.
The 75 minutes were whittled down from 500 hours of footage LaMarca sent off to editor/producer Katrina Taylor (who regularly advised on what was needed), and I would have liked to see more, even keeping in the same impressionistic style. No Farm-Aid PSA or advocacy fundraiser, a scroll at the end provides basic background information on the farm’s financial difficulties with some bare statements about the regulatory issues they faced in marketing non-pasteurized, organic goat cheese through their Siskiyou Crest Goat Dairy. While the documentary may be a bit too artsy and frank about animal life and death for young children (and chicken flicking, as my grandma used to call it), it is a usefully unromantic portrait for a general audience of the reality behind the locally-sourced agriculture movement. Grasshopper Films will release Boone in theaters after its festival run.
Nathan Truesdell is a prominent documentary producer and cinematographer (We Always Lie To Strangers) and is active in the non-fiction community. But his new six-minute film isn’t getting into festivals, with Opening Night placement in First Look Fest, just from his connections or for mocking the inanity of local TV news with a montage of clips. His edit of video clips from Cleveland, OH in 1986 hilariously deflates Midwestern Rust Belt empty boosterism in the tale of what happened when the community over-enthusiastically tried a common publicity gimmick to beat a Guinness World Record for an uncommon activity – blowing up and releasing balloons.
A Model Family in a Model Home
Artist/filmmaker Zoe Beloff introduced her vividly educational and insightful 22 minute, 16 mm short with theatrical relish. Part of a larger multi-media project with art installations and performance pieces, her whole work is detailed, with historical references, drawings, and photographs from international archives, in her beautifully illustrated new book A World Re-drawn: Eisenstein and Brecht in Hollywood.
In a situation rich in irony, both Marxist Russian director Sergei Eisenstein in the 1930’s and German playwright Bertolt Brecht in the 1940’s were exiled in capitalist Los Angeles to work on movies, the engine of America’s dream factory for suburban development. Finding a marvelous selection of archival visual material to supplement her amusing puppets reading history, Beloff’s film contrasts Brecht’s 1947 testimony before HUAC (The House Un-American Activities Committee), in clips plummily narrated by Eric Bentley, with the titular film scenario from his journals, based on a 1941 Life Magazine article “A Model Family in a Model Home”, about a competition-winning family on exhibit at the State Fair as “Ohio’s Typical Farm Family”. Even as she slips in newsreel images of what war-ravaged Europe looked like at this same time, she found additional photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt (then a Life staff photographer), as well as sunny home movies and ads in The Columbus Dispatch, to compare to promotional films that offered ups how rural America could have selected alternative homeownership, through the National Rural Electrical Cooperative or a company touting affordable pre-fab houses in Homes Unlimited (Buckminster Fuller promoted this kind of technological solution, though she doesn’t include his “Dymaxion House” plans).
In the “Fictitious Capital” conclusion, the view is of malled America, like in Jem Cohen’s Chain (2004) but with a visual emphasis on banks. The closing song “Supply and Demand” beginning “The people need homes. .”, based on Brecht’s The Measures Taken as updated by Hannah Temple, Beloff wonderfully makes the cinematic connection between this past and today’s housing finance crisis.
Two Looks at Croatia
Two shorts were surprising and sympathetic glimpses at the lives of women young and old in Croatia. In just a half hour, documentarian Nebojsa Slijepcevic in Something About Life (Nesto o zivotu) (U.S. Premiere) is able to get us to begin to understand rebellious fourteen-year-old Ivana in a residence for juvenile delinquent girls. Even as the social workers try to get her involved in group activities like drumming, her family home may have been most of her problem.
With A Short Family Film (Kratki obiteljski film), Igor Bezinovic comes close to making fun of the genre, like the Documentary Now series does, where he and his documentary crew come to a village and the residents try to put their best foot forward, only to fall flat on their faces. Over 20 minutes, Marica chattily tours the crew around her house, but can’t help defending why she deserves to live there on parole -- as long as her former daughter-in-law stays away. As amusing as their family squabbles are, the director may be laughing at her, too.
Both of these shorts were re-shown in the Festival’s “Film After Film” shorts programs over the holiday weekend, giving more audiences an opportunity to see the excellent shorts selections.
Two For Cinéphiles
Helmut Berger, Actor
American art house movie fans may wonder: “Whatever happened to Helmut Berger?” Berger was the devilishly handsome star of Vittoria de Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) and muse/lover of Luchino Visconti, as seen in such films as The Damned from 1969 (that MoMI showed in 35mm the same day for those who had never seen him in his prime). Director Andreas Horvath said in the Q & A that Austrians don’t wonder about their most famous movie star because he’s a regular on their TV, from talk shows to “reality” shows like I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! So Berger in his 70’s is used to playing a version of himself for cameras that he wants the public to see: an acerbic louche lush who name-drops glamorous designers (he did play the aged version of Saint Laurent in Bertrand Bonello’s recent bio-pic), air kisses European demi-royalty at film festivals, and slips out titillating gossip about actors and actresses he’s known, in many ways.
In unusual personal involvement for his documentaries, Horvath gets more and more frustrated from months and months of filming, until Berger provokes blow-ups with insults and stalling on substance amidst his wheedling demands for suitable glamorous hotel settings. Yet Horvath keeps tape rolling for audio and contextual revelations, especially Berger’s late night telephone calls where he plans the scenes and structure of the documentary – which Horvath pretty much follows, shrugging that Berger was pretty much the director (including when masturbating for the camera).
But Horvath cleverly gets beyond that calculated reality TV image by restlessly poking around Berger’s pitiful living conditions in his late mother’s crumbling apartment where large signed photos of the likes of beautiful co-stars Romy Schneider look over half-empty booze glasses and boxes of pills. The camera follows Berger’s long-time housekeeper Viola Techt (the film is dedicated to her memory) as she systematically cleans up the mess and sympathetically talks on about his childhood with a difficult mother and his return to her in her last years. While Berger does not have a face to support Norma Desmond’s definition of a movie star, he does have a personality that fills the screen.
How I Fell in Love with Eva Ras (Kako Sam Se Zaljubio U Evu Ras/Como Me Apaixonei por Eva Ras)
The lengthy making-of discussion of the Helmut Berger doc was so illuminating that I unfortunately missed Serbian director Ognjen Glavonic’s Depth Two examination of a mass crime during the Balkans’ war. But I did get to feel I saw the cinematic history of another part of the former Yugoslavia in director André Gil Mata’s debut feature, in its North American Premiere.
Sena may be an actual woman projectionist in Sarajevo so this film could be categorized with “So Real It Could Be Nonfiction”; septuagenarian Sena Mujanovic has appeared in documentaries about cinema and daily life in her native city. As this projectionist, she lives in a basement apartment of an old movie theater, timing around the movie schedule her meals, placid interactions with a tenant, the cashier, adult daughter, babysitting her young grandchild, and other visitors, with whom she shares traditional foods. The warmth of the projector even provides heat to dry her laundry hanging around it.
The presumably fictional context is the premise that this theater only shows a set of old movies, the same ones every day on the same schedule by the big clock, all films made about a girl growing up in that area, whose experience at that age parallels what Sena may have gone through for almost all of the existence of Yugoslavia, and since its dissolution. So the first film clips look to be from the Partisan Film genre during the 1960s/1970s about heroic locals defeating the Nazis. Several, but not all, feature the actress Eva Ras, evidently a favorite of Portuguse-born Gil Mata’s from much time spent in a movie theater like this one. (He seems to have that in common with old-movie loving directors like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino). Ras made a couple of films for director Dušan Makavejev that are included in the Criterion Collection (“Free Radical - Eclipse Series 18”). I recognized WR: Mysteries of the Organism, the 1971 political satire of Wilhem Reich’s theory of sexual repression applied to relations with the USSR, and Emir Kusturica’s When Father Was Away On Business (1985) about post-Stalinist Communism (because it starred Mira Fulan later of Babylon 5). While I could tell from the credits that the selections were about from the 1960’s to the 1990’s, I was sorry I couldn’t note or find more specifics on the films, especially the ones about the civil war years.
While Sena muses that there is still an audience for these old movies, she is a practical woman living in the present and the light and noise from the big projector manages not to be drenched in sentimental nostalgia.
I regretted that the conflicting schedule this year caused me to miss other films in the series, especially ones where the filmmakers attended, including Toronto filmmaker Kazik Radwanksi bringing his second feature How Heavy This Hammer. I only gave up on one - César Vayssié’s over-long, over-intellectual French political satire UFE (Unfilmévénement) – and I lasted longer than most everyone else in the audience. John Wilson’s presentation of his New York shorts attracted a youthful sell-out crowd that wasn’t all friends and family. I did not have a chance to sample the Festival’s branching out into non-film offerings of audio experiments, virtual reality experiences, as well as a multiplayer video game.
I certainly look forward to reporting on the 7th Annual First Look Festival in January 2018.