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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.
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.
One way or another, all films are telling stories. Narrative features, sure, but also from strict documentary to, yes, experimental film. The beauty is in the tale, the art in the telling of the tale. At Sundance, one can take a number of films and find the creative storytelling aspects without and within.
Newtown directed by Kim Snyder is a heart wrenching and also rage inducing (for this writer) documentary about the families of the children and teachers killed at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012. There is too much sadness in the needless deaths of these children and their teachers. And one cannot even gauge the anger in the inability of Congress to stop the senseless gun violence. If the deaths of 20 six and seven year olds cannot move our lawmakers to action, we really are lost as a society.
Sian Heder’s Tallulah reunites Allison Janney and Ellen Page from 2007’s Juno. The story once again involves a baby, but this time there are many levels to the emotional lives of many characters. A disturbed Page takes a baby from its mother but the child’s mother is negligent. So in some ways Page’s character can’t be blamed. But she does take advantage of Janney’s emotional problems to try to construct a family, albeit not a real one.
Directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, Weiner is a testament (if that’s the correct word!) to the inability of certain psyches to reign in their libidos. At the very least. Though in the case of Anthony Weiner, he seems to have gone totally off the rails as he tries to recapture his political magic, making a run for mayor of New York. Some things really never change.
Wild is not the Reese Witherspoon film that has her hiking the trails of California. But there is an extremely feral aspect to this urban tale of loneliness and desire. Ania, a young office worker in a small German city, takes in a wolf she finds on the outskirts of town. An outsider who can’t seem to connect with family, coworkers or friends, Ania finds solace with the wild animal she lures into her apartment. The closer she gets to the wolf, the more her own life falls apart. Director Nicolette Krebitz makes a love story out of a transgressive subject, painting the story in neutral gray tones.
At the same time that Margaret discovers that the child she abandoned almost 20 years before has died, she takes in a neighborhood homeless boy. The two events mirror one another in Margaret’s psyche, if not in life. This is one downer of a film, but director Rebecca Daly has always had a quiet, subtle touch to her films, and Mammal is no exception. The story of Margaret’s past and present unfold side by side in an eloquent story of grief.
Inspired by community dancing troupes in Cincinnati, and making indie stars out of a couple of the members of a community dance team there, Anna Rose Holmer tackles coming of age specifics in The Fits – making the leap into almost-adulthood with the interior life that uses its “outside” voice. These young women see something amiss when other girls faint, swoon and collapse during practice. They may be afraid that something is wrong with them, but they are brave enough to find their way to the other side of the “fits.”
Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson has been helping to shape the narrative of dozens of social issue films, working with A-list documentary filmmakers such as Michael Moore and Laura Poitras. Here she directs Cameraperson, using her own footage from masterful non-fiction, including outtakes, to tell her own story, but she tells her family story as part of her work, and her work as part of the world family. A beautiful and moving work.
There are so many ways to tell stories on film, and Sundance gives a showcase to modes classic and neo. If the story is genuine and the filmmaker a good one, any style can move us and perhaps change us.
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