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The Project of the Century
At the historic Kaufman Astoria Studios complex, where hundreds of silent and early sound era films were produced in my New York City home borough of Queens, the fifth annual First Look Festival at the Museum of the Moving Image is an adventurous showcase for cinéphiles of almost 50 contemporary and influential international shorts and features, with many filmmakers in attendance over the January weekends.
The second weekend focused on strikingly different ways to visualize the power of place through time. Three feature films from Latin America were co-presented by Cinema Tropical, including two from Cuba. French director Léa Rinaldi’s This Is What It Is was a portrait of hip-hop band Los Aldeanos, on stage and off in Havana. Other films went further into geography where outsiders have never been, or seen like this, and will never forget.
The Project of the Century (La obra del siglo)
Filmed primarily in retro black-and-white, director/co-writer Carlos Quintela illustratively places three generations of fictional macho men into a hulking environment frozen for a future that never came to pass. Interwoven with the emotional tensions of their stalled lives, the story of Electro-Nuclear City (ENC), in the central, ocean-front province of Cienfuegos, is extolled with footage culled from the discarded archives of the local television station Tele-Nuclear.
From the propaganda salutes to the achievements of Soviet technology (an ironic mirror image of our own broadcasts during the Cold War), the monumental jewel of U.S.S.R.-Cuban relations in the 1980’s was the importation and construction of the first nuclear power plant in the Caribbean, and of the towering planned community for workers needed to build and operate it. This drumbeat of great expectations hangs over the huge incomplete and mostly deserted remains, while the viewer can anticipate the Chernobyl accident, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the collapse of Cuba’s economy that it had subsidized. Instead of radiation, haz mat crews are fumigating against some unknown threat.
The men in the family apartment each represent an era, but are still (mostly) individuals. Like Fidel Castro, the earthy grandfather Otto (Mario Balmaseda) is the domineering patriarchal revolutionary generation that still remembers when the area was all sugar cane fields, but his concerns are now reduced to his beloved goldfish. His son Rafael (veteran Cuban actor Mario Guerra) should have been nearing comfortable retirement from his planned prestigious career as a Soviet-educated nuclear engineer. The most developed character (and the only one who still has some success with women), his years training in Russia are still the highlight of his life. Depressed and rationing the last of his mobile phone access to the outside world, the hunky prodigal grandson Leo (Leonardo Gascón) has boomeranged back after another failed school opportunity and romantic relationship.
Restlessly wandering abandoned turbines, Leo looks like one of the boxers the region is known to produce, as Quintela helpfully explained the context in his first Q & A in English at the New York premiere, after having accompanied the film to Florida and Eastern Europe (and its limited showings at home). While color footage of local boxing hero Robeisy Carrazana Ramirez winning a gold medal in the flyweight division at the 2012 London Summer Olympics glaringly inserting into his film as the rest of the world saw it, the local perspective seems inconclusively gray. But Cuba could market this locale for post-apocalypse movies.
In northwest Argentina, the post-apocalypse looks spookily benign. Director Jonathan Perel impressively combines techniques of the older generation of landscape documentary filmmakers -- the dispassionate architectural cinematography of Heinz Emigholz (like his Perret in France and Algeria in 2012 and 2006’s Schindler's Houses) with the passionate essays of Patricio Guzmán in Chile (like most recently with The Pearl Button) -- to track the forgotten physical evidence of the brutal 1970’s military dictatorship in rural Argentina.
With a title meaning the linguistic discipline that studies the etymological origin of place names, and a prologue of construction blueprints in the local archives, Perel silently proves that, like so many military conquerors across the Americas, the forced resettlement of indigenous peoples was the first step in quashing uprisings. He structures his solo-camera scenes as precisely as a social scientist. The prologue opens with ten shots of government documents in 1974 bureaucratically justifying “Operation Independence” to separate civilian cover from ERP guerrillas in the mountains. Then 58 shots of 15 seconds apiece examine the uniform blueprints of four towns for about 300 people each, 20 miles apart, varying only slightly by open valley geography.
Chapter 1 – “Welcome to Lieutenant Berdina Town” -- and through three more chapters each set of blueprints comes alive today. Each entrance arch, plaza, school, Catholic chapel, public building, soccer field with bleacher, and hierarchical-sized residences is unblinkingly stared at with the same 58 static shots of 15 seconds apiece. Shot by shot, town by town, street by street named for fallen soldiers, with memorial bust, religious statue, gazebo, stone planter, and dirt roads ending in agricultural fields hedged in by misty mountains. As a few cars and bicyclists ride by, kids play and life goes on, we can observe in these vestiges from the rise of the authoritarian regime what houses and yards have been individualized and what central structures and imperial decorations the residents have vandalized, left to rot, or re-purposed over the past 40 years.
In the Q & A after this U.S. premiere, Perel usefully explained the enigmatic epilogue – deep in the mountainous forest he moved with a hand-held camera through the grown-over traces of the original indigenous communities from which the families were uprooted. So even some livestock we saw in a town are a rebellion against the attempt to change their way of life. Previously only remembered through an academic footnote, even human rights groups were unaware of this upheaval and the complicit “donation” of property that made it possible.
As a former city planner, I saw a larger message of conformity than just the opening round of this “Dirty War”. These new towns looked a lot like the ideal communities touted in Ralph Steiner & Willard Van Dyke’s renowned short film The City, commissioned by the American Institute of Planners for the 1939 World’s Fair. That image inspired the Levittown-like 1950’s suburban subdivision of voluntarily re-settling urban veterans I grew up in where, I realized when my Girl Scout troop participated in the Memorial Day parade, our streets were named for those from the town who had died in World War II and the Korean War. The look of similar landscapes can be ironic.
The landscape of the past moves quickly into the present right in front of us through this short film that is a feast for the eyes, ears, and hearts of film lovers. North Carolina-based directors Kyle Andrew Bell and Jean-Jacques Martinod caught wind that drive-in movie theaters in the southern United States would be getting their last deliveries of 35mm film cans last summer before going digital. Racing thunder and lightning storms, they drove through the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Texas to capture deliveries of this last picture show. From the projection booth to the refreshment stand, there’s cars coming and going, and lots of people, including kids in the playground and restless teenage boys, plus creepy guys watching porn (yes- there’s glimpses of two of those such theaters). But more, there’s the redolent sounds of insects, rain, conversations, and equipment beautifully captured in the deep dark of the heat of a summer night. In the Q & A for this New York premiere, sound designer Jonathan Van Der Horst impressed the appreciative audience by assuring that these were all simultaneous ambient noises. You feel immersed in everything about the drive-in experience -- except the movie, but then I was always too much of a purist to see one there.
Jumping ahead, several other short films in the third and final weekend brought new approaches to see eye-filling landscapes.
Pawel and Wawel (Pawel i Wawel)
Polish director Krzysztof Kaczmarek brought a welcome sense of humor. In his Q & A for the New York premiere, he cheerfully admitted the genesis of his droll road movie: when he couldn't get funding to make a feature, he convinced the Polish Film Institute to sponsor his touring a Polish Film Festival collection -- in Iceland! So he documented (supplemented with some imaginings) his travel and adventures by ferry and road along the summer coast. There’s the landscape of beautiful and threatening nature of ocean, mountains, hot springs, and volcanic ash, the barely built environment of small towns, camp grounds, and sparsely-filled community centers. I was reminded of Michael Schorr’s Schultze Gets the Blues (2003) when the fauna included singing nuns, bearded beatboxers, exuberant eccentrics, and one devoted fan of Polish cinema. In fairness to the Icelanders, he said the “What’s the difference between Pawel and Wawel” festival was so popular in the capital of Reykjavík that his small crew only had a chance to film their fans briefly on a street corner.
Kaczmarek helped New Yorkers re-live his tour when he repeated his role of introducing a restoration of a gem of Polish post-war cinema -- and the only feature he said could stand re-watching at every stop. Certainly deserving to be seen by more, Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Night Train (1959) is a jazzy noir trip to the Baltic coast through the landscape of post-war Polish aesthetics and society. Filled with references to other films, from Alfred Hitchcock to Fritz Lang, consider it a gorgeously black-and-white precursor to Snowpiercer. Just inside a few of the first-class berths are a doctor who wants to be left alone (Leon Niemczyk, starring a few years later in Roman Polanski’s Knife In The Water), a curvaceous femme fatale (the director’s wife Lucyna Winnicka), a sleepless Holocaust survivor, and a murderer on the run who leads them all into a Bergman-esque morally ambiguous landscape.
Previewing the last weekend’s presentations from FIDMarseille, the French summer film festival’s director Jean-Pierre Rehm introduced two shorts which reveled in looking at two environments from opposite ends of the social and historical scale.
Italian director Pippo Delbono’s The Visit brought the priceless aged faces of Michael Lonsdale and Bobo into and through the great and ornate indoor and outdoor spaces of Versailles (That Bobo was born deaf and with microcephaly now has additional perspective). Through philosophical ruminations and wordless sounds, they each ironically puncture the Baroque legacy of the aristocracy with wigs, toys and visual jokes.
In Jet Lag, Spanish director Eloy Domínguez Serén visually considers who sees more of what happens at a gas station on the night shift – a tired, bored documentary crew or the automated security cameras? The answer got more and more abstract as the First Look Festival continued.
Kate Plays Christine
Documentaries can be found in every section of the Berlinale. This is an encouraging sign: here, as with other festivals such as Cannes, non-fiction is not ghettoized in its own arena. Of course, this only works if there is a wide selection of films. This year there was; herewith a sampling.
Playing in the Forum section, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine uses actor Kate Lyn Sheil to portray 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.
Award winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Going Clear) was one of several documentarians who had films in competition. Zero Days is an exploration of malware and cyberwarfare. His findings are confusing, to say the least, but that speaks to the complexity of a situation whose dangers we are only beginning to see, let alone understand. But very clear is the corruption that exists in both technology and political power.
It’s not often that a documentary filmmaker wins the top competition prize at a festival, but Gianfranco Rossi seems to be making a career out of it: His documentary film Sacro Gra won the Golden Lion at the Locarno Film Festival in 2013.
Three years later he repeats himself, taking home the Golden Bear (Berlin’s top award) for his stunning Competition entry, Fire at Sea. It’s a compelling look at the Italian island of Lampedusa, which anyone who’s been paying attention knows is landfall for thousands of refugees trying to escape the horrors of war. Many are fished from the sea, dead, while many more who survive the trip are ill or injured. The residents of the island do what needs to be done (particularly the local doctor), and witness the horror of the refugee situation up close.
Michael Moore was the first documentary filmmaker to win the Palme d’or at the 2004 Festival de Cannes, for his film Farenheit 9/11. This year he presented Where to Invade Next, a search for better ideas for American education, prison reform, health insurance and more that the U.S. could steal from European countries in the Berlinale Special section.
The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger is a “quadtych” of sorts, directed by four artists: Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth, Tilda Swinton and Bartek Dziadosz. Each director takes a different look at the British writer/painter/critic who lives in the French Alps. It's a dense film, but interesting in the shape it takes: four seasons, four directors.
Of particular interest is his relationship with Tilda Swinton - they go way back - what she's learned from him and how she sees and talks of art through his eyes is quite something, At one point Berger gives Swinton instructions on how to prepare and consume a tart or some such thing: it's a very personal seminar on the aesthetics of living! Not in any competitive section, the film is another special screening 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. The film’s position in the Panorama section must be a tribute to the auteurism of Burroughs.
These films run the gamut in terms of subject and style. Without dedicating a section to the form, the Berlinale puts documentaries on equal footing with narrative features.
A Quiet Passion
The term biopic doesn’t have a particularly good reputation. A poorly made narrative film of true events create a plastic non-reality that offers nothing of value from a perspective of aesthetics and storytelling. You end up with perhaps a Xerox of events. But there’s nothing to add and nothing to make the viewer think beyond that copy and then what’s the point?
A well-made fictional account of real historical events, on the other hand, can reveal history to a new audience. And a different take on the life of an artist can put a new spin on a life. Three films at the Berlinale focus on the lives of real people: a couple in the throes of war, and two artists who suffer for their craft within their own environment.
Screening in the the Berlinale special section is Miles Ahead. Directed by and starring Don Cheadle, it is a very jazzy film – and it should be, as it is about – you guessed it – the genius jazz trumpet player Miles Davis. In addition to acting and directing, Cheadle also co-wrote (with Steven Baigelman) the screenplay, which flips the biopic genre on its head.
Here’s where the genius of Don Cheadle meets that of Miles Davis: the story takes place during a period when Davis was dealing with drugs and not making new music. On top of that, the story is a fictional one, a “what could have been” tale of the legend dealing with mobsters, dirty music dealers and more. With Ewan McGregor as a fictional reporter along for the ride, it becomes a deep and rousing gangster flick. A brilliant move makes for a brilliant movie.
A Quiet Passion, is Terence Davies’ meditation on the life of American poet Emily Dickenson. Cynthia Nixon plays the poet with a quiet intensity and steeliness. Here is a rare example of artist merging with artist merging with artist to create yet another work of art. The film’s placement in the Berlinale special section is a good fit. Dickenson doesn’t need to be in competition with anyone.
Little is known about the life of Dickenson, yet Davies has created a beautiful storyline for her. Nixon is the perfect Dickenson: there is a stillness about her, and also a wicked (for the time) sense of humor, yet her Emily feels the wounds and pricks of life very deeply. Davies films many scenes as if they were still life paintings, adding to the quiet yet vibrant intensity of the film.
Alone in Berlin, directed by Vincent Perez, stars Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson as two German parents disillusioned with the Third Reich once their son dies in battle. Otto and Elise Hampel were a real couple during WWII. They were ordinary people who took whatever extraordinary measures they could because they found themselves in a horrific situation. The film, while fairly ordinary in terms of style, is moving in its depiction of what people are capable of doing when events call for activism. Shown in the Competition, Thompson and Gleeson’s performances are stellar, as is Daniel Brühl’s, as the investigator hot on their trail.
But how good a selection for the Berlinale was this film? English actors, speaking English, in the country and city where these events took place – and, at public screenings for sure, screened in front of a German, and German speaking, audience. Putting it in the competition may have done a disservice to the film and the filmmakers.
The city of Berlin has an immensely deep history; a film like Alone in Berlin could be an important addition to the art that digs into that history. But the film veers very closely to that Xerox effect. A city that symbolizes so much needs a film with a more profound artistic touch.
The last time I attended the Berlinale (aka Berlin International Film Festival) was in February of 1990, a mere three months after the Wall came down. It was also my first time in Berlin. As a child of the Cold War, it was a strange experience. Sirens made me feel as though I were in the middle of WWII. The eastern part of the city was cool, but dodgy.
This year I returned to Berlin and to the Berlinale for the first time in 26 years. And it was as if for the first time. It’s difficult to tell east from west, except for a long trail of small red bricks in the sidewalk that marks the original site of the Wall. But much of the city is totally universally commercial: all the same stores that you would see in any other city in the states and Western Europe. Excuse me: probably anywhere else in the world.
The festival has changed and grown as well. As with other international festivals, there are any number of sections that each focus on a particular kind of film, although the definitions at Berlin seem very flexible. I mean I really don’t see too much difference between the Panorama (“International auteur cinema for passionate audiences”) section and the Forum (official title, International Forum of New Cinema), wherein “young filmmakers test the boundaries of perception.”
Really, does James Schamus fall into the “auteur” category yet as a director? His film Indignation marks his feature film debut and plays in the Panorama section. Based on the Philip Roth novel and set in the middle of the last century, it recounts a young man’s experiences from his youth in Newark through his years at a strict rural college. Indignation is not so much a coming of age film and a growing up and growing away from home film.
As for young filmmakers testing boundaries, while Eugene Greene pushes boundaries in his films, I wouldn’t consider him young, either in age or filmography. Regardless, his latest film, Le fils de Joseph, with Mathieu Almaric, shows the lighter side of this auteur (yes, an auteur in the Forum section). Greene’s work is always very cerebral and while Le fils de Joseph is full of subtleties and thought-provoking moments, it also has a great amount of wit and charm to it, something that may bring the filmmaker more admirers, which he deserves.
Another not-new face in the Forum is Guillaume Nicloux. Nicloux’s last film The Valley played in Cannes’ competition and starred Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert as parents of a suicide who roam Death Valley at their son’s request beyond the grave. The End stars Depardieu (again) as a man wandering in the woods (at least) who loses his dog there and then loses his own way, in more ways than one.
But I digress. Sections have never been truly important except to steer filmgoers in general directions. For instance, Ira Sachs’ (Love is Strange, 2014) latest film, Little Men, plays in the Generation section. Generation includes films about children and young people but not necessarily only for young audiences. While the film stars known adult actors such as Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle and Alfred Molina (who also gave a stunning performance in Love is Strange), it is the friendship between two preteen boys, played by Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz that is the centerpiece of the film and the performances by these young men – boys, really – is outstanding.
The really big films are in the Competition. There has to be a competition; otherwise, there are no prizes to give out. Included in this year’s competition are some old hands. The Commune is directed by Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration, Submarino) and is loosely based on his own childhood. That is, growing up in the 70s he lived with his parents in communal experiment which allowed much freedom but also exposed many dangers.
Also in the competition, Mia Hansen Løve’s L’Avenir is a jewel of a film, and stands head above her last effort, Eden. Here, Isabelle Huppert plays a women dealing with everything life has to throw at her – not in a melodramatic way, but in an almost banal way. In a subtle but constantly forward-moving way, Huppert drags us along with her into the process of living. Huppert was robbed of the acting award, IMHO (it went to The Commune lead female actor Tryne Dyrholm). But director Hansen Løve was rewarded with the directing prize.
As it is with each section: living, breathing films that tell us new stories and old stories. And we hope that all filmmakers tell their stories in refreshing ways.
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