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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.
Read our coverage of week one and week two.
Youth dominated the third and final weekend of the 8th Annual Panorama Europe Film Festival through an impressive collection from Europe – classic youth, youth in crisis, and youth in love. At the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) in Queens, with additional screenings on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at the Bohemian National Hall, seven features over May 20 - 23, most in New York premieres, showcased striving young generations in contemporary Greece, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, 1980’s Poland and Spain, then centuries back in Portugal. Each screening attracted enthusiastic audiences, with many who didn’t need the English subtitles.
The Festival climaxed amidst the fun hubbub all around MoMI of the "New York On Location" street fair set in cooperation with the adjacent Astoria Studios and the many labor unions whose members benefit from the increasing filmmaking jobs in NYC. Crowds risked real rain to watch demonstrations of fake rain and fire; stunt professionals (as in “Don’t do this at home!”) racing in car chases and falling from towers; make-up artists showing their tricks; and inside looks at those trailers which frequently take over parking spaces during all that movie and TV production in the great back lot that is the Big Apple.
MoMI offered free admission to its exhibits and screenings that Sunday, but fans of new international cinema coming to see the final day of Panorama Europe 2016 were busy discussing interpretations of earlier festival screenings. Two films that weekend were re-imaginings of classic European forms.
Silent MoMI is particularly known for showing contemporary Greek films, including co- hosting the annual New York City Greek Film Festival, a favorite for their Astoria neighborhood. Senior Curator David Schwartz announced the Museum will be presenting a retrospective of the films of Greek director Theo Angelopoulos (1935–2012) in July.
Schwartz introduced director Yorgos Gkikapeppas as an exemplar of Greece’s “New Wave”, with his two films both winning awards at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. Gkikapeppas explained that Silent, his second feature, is structured like a classic Greek tragedy with: prologue; parode; strophe; antistrophe; epode; episodes; and exode – some of these parts are specified on screen as chapter headings. Classic and modern Greek cultural references abound. The symbolic chorus is the silent central character – opera student Dido, the extraordinarily physically expressive Kika Georgious in the role written for her.
The noisy prologue is the May 1968 student protests, with crowds demanding more freedom. Dido anxiously emerges in the present with a suitcase, traveling across Europe to get home. “Part I – Cage”, she closes herself into an apartment with no electricity. She ignores the insistent phone, but, reluctantly, not the knock on the window. The young man there can’t be ignored: “Can you speak? Talk to me!” To use another term with Greek resonance – he’s quite charismatic, so lack of eros is not her problem. His concerned questions persist, from tender to frustrated shouts: “When did this happen? We should go to the doctor!”
“Part II – Branch” is flashbacks, first to her classes at a Vienna conservatory with a tyrannical teacher (“Dig deeper!”) who warns about the importance of her final soprano performance exam of “Dido’s Lament – Remember Me” aria from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. She coughs – and no song comes out. Her teacher seems even more upset: “You are one of the best! I can make it better – we’ll start over.” A doctor examines her vocal chords (in close up). Diagnosis: a mysterious case of hysterical aphonia (My Greek-sourced vocabulary is almost done).
She flees them all (Doesn’t every mortal in Greek myth try to flee the will of the gods?). Retreating to her family’s abandoned summer home, her childhood aspirations haunt her - large posters of Maria Callas stare down at her and her old piano, even as she attempts vocal exercises. Her past starts to intrude physically, as each member of her family pushes in, her older sister, her mother and father. Each at first brings succor, but ancient resentments soon pour out, against her, against each other, and against the demands of her art.
Their verbal clashes, room to room in this deserted mansion that today’s Greeks can no longer afford (redolent of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard), are as tense and exhausting as any epic battle, hardly leaving any time for the combatants, or the audience, to breathe. Inspired by John Cassavetes’ style, cinematographer Marianna Ellina follows them intimately as they inflict psychic thrusts and pain. Gkikapeppas sees this elite family as the modern equivalent of the royalty at the center of classic Greek plays, yet the wounds inflicted feel achingly personal for Dido.
The Maias: Scenes from Romantic Life (Os Maias - Cenas da Vida Romântica) With the passing of giants in Portuguese cinema, film director Manoel de Oliveira in 2015 and Cinémathèque director João Bénard da Costa in 2009 (as seen in this year’s First Look Festival at MoMI), director João Botelho is carrying on the tradition of keeping a light on his country’s artistic heritage for a wider audience, especially as four decades of dictatorship suppressed social criticism until 1974.
Botelho presented the free New York premiere in Manhattan I did not attend, but his raison d’etre to make this saga of 19th century elite families clearly comes out of his dedication to the Portuguese classic by José Maria de Eça de Queiróz (1845-1900). Ranked with Balzac and Tolstoy, this literary giant is less known to English-language readers. His 1875 The Crime of Father Amaro was adapted to film in 2002 by Mexican director Carlos Carrera, starring Gael García Bernal, and that book made available in an English edition. But The Maias, first published in 1888, was not translated into English until 2007. Portugal’s Nobel for Literature laureate José Saramago has called it the greatest book by his country’s greatest novelist, befitting this Masterpiece Theater kind of treatment, and there seems to be a four-part mini-series version that extends from this over two-hour film.
For all that slow seriousness, the heart of the story that Eça de Queiróz narrates is noble youth – headstrong, selfish, passionate, and idealistic, who are the hope of a future that is constantly being constrained by the past. At the center is Carlos da Maia (Graciano Dias), the scion of a great family, or at least of the great mansion of his grandfather Afonso (João Perry), who took him in after his parents’ scandalously dissolved marriage. By 1875, Carlos has admirably achieved a medical education, that he seems to even sometimes put to good use, though his best friend João da Ega (Pedro Inês) enjoys the notoriety his political writings generate more than any revolutionary ideas beyond living off his mother and married women lovers, even if he sometimes has to conveniently leave disapproving Lisbon for their country homes or world travels.
Carlos really comes to life when a mysterious countess comes to town and he falls head over heels in love. Botelho takes them beyond languid formally costumed days and undressing those many layers at nights. Even after the revelation of their linked ancestry, the Gilbert and Sullivan-esque coincidence boils over into a heedlessly discomfiting close-up passion, though there’s some symbolism about the incestuous ruling class.But more than Portuguese social history, the reason to see the film is the production design. The actors (and horse-drawn carriages) move through late 19th century Lisbon and country estates recreated in large-scale sets that are colorful and gorgeous, and dark interiors with oil paintings by João Queiroz. These stage sets have both a heightened theatricality and a transporting sense of time-travel.
Marshland (La isla mínima)
In the tradition of Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Marshland is a brilliant noir policier in a distinctive environment where the fraught political and economic circumstances hang over the solution to a shocking crime.
With the same creative team as the more commercial anti-corruption crusading cop flick Unit 7 (2012), director Alberto Rodríguez, screenwriter Rafael Cobos, and cinematographer Álex Catalán plunge deeper into the conservative backwater of Spain’s deep south in late 1980. The post-Franco dictatorship democracy is still rocky – there will be an attempted coup early the next year -- a local fiesta features a banner for the right-wing Fuerza Nueva, and the uniformed militia has more influence than the police department. But there’s also labor unrest in the rice paddy fields of Andalucía, that provide half of the country’s crop, with strikes threatening the opulent villas of the white-suited plantation owners. The employment situation for ambitious young people is bleak (a somber portend of the worse yet to come).
Into this social swamp comes Pedro (Raúl Arévalo), a punctilious detective demoted from Madrid for an insubordinate letter to the editor in a leftist newspaper. His orders from the local police chief are clear: find the missing teenage girl and get out. But everything is going wrong from the start of his investigation – his car breaks down so he loses his hotel reservation and he has to share the room with his gregarious, local, old-school assigned partner Juan (Javier Gutiérrez). Worse, the parents of the missing girl are too terrified at first to tell them much, let alone the sister who shortly goes missing, too.
There’s the classic older bad boyfriend who looks good to blame, as far as the mayor is blithely concerned, but when the first body is found, his alibi and modus operandi don’t match the planned viciousness the cops are sickened to document. Pedro keeps hunting and tying together clues, both physical evidence and coded tips from mysterious sources. While Juan is full of helpful local empathy, he is more apt to beat the truth out of a witness. Both are horrified to see a pattern of similar poor young women missing over the years, that no one wants to recognize, especially the higher ups in the town.
The crimes are as brutal as less classy movie serial killers. But the opportunities to play out violent psycho-sexual kinks are so rooted in the area’s class and gender power structure that their awfulness helps motivate the detectives to suspensefully challenge the hierarchy and determinedly try to save victims, at the extreme risk of their lives (the local priest is notably ineffectual about the truth). Adding to the gut-wrenching tension, Pedro and Juan also have to surmount each other as they learn about what each may or may not have done under Franco.
Winner of ten Spanish Academy's Goya Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing, Marshland is available in the U.S. on DVD and streaming platforms. But on small screens you may not appreciate the full vistas of day and night chases and confrontations along murky canals and narrow roads filmed above the Doñana National Park.
The Lure (Córki dancingu)
Born in the late 1970’s, the creators of The Lure look back fondly on the 1980’s through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia for their childhoods. But beloved children’s stories and pop songs get a bit of blood and gore when mashed-up into a horror spoof. With a nod to Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid, the animated opening with skulls in flooded caves shows debut feature director Agnieszka Smoczynska was more inspired by Homer than Disney when sibling sirens of the sea decide to come ashore (zs to my bias, Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid repeated on TV whenever I was home sick as a kid).
Promoted as Poland’s first musical, in Robert Bolesto’s very original script, sisters Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska) want to sing with a family band they see on the beach. Silver falls in love with the handsome young bass player (Jakub Gierszał), while Golden views the humans hypnotized by their seductive duets as fodder for her darker appetites. Brought on shore, their slimy fins dry out into legs, albeit with a few Barbie doll-like anatomical features when seen naked that make them intriguing to the band’s impresario, even before a splash of water can restore their bottom fins.
Gypsy’s burlesque “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” comes to an American mind, but Smoczynska and the very tuneful songwriting sisters Zuzanna and Barbara Wronski (of the band Ballady i Romanse) grew up accompanying their musician parents at the dance hall restaurants of Warsaw – clubs like where this was filmed just before demolition. (The Polish title means “The Daughters of the Dancing”). Their childhoods were full of watching the vodka-filled cross-section of Polish society enjoy magic tricks and cover versions of local and international hits (all the appealing cast members, many known for their work in renowned serious Polish dramas, do their own vocals). Now they are remembered as the only places with bright colors and erotic fantasy within the gray behind the fading Iron Curtain. Some critics call this style Communist kitsch, but it’s fun, in the way that Grease is a pastiche of 1950’s America.
While some Communist-era references go by an American viewer (like a joke about Bulgarian vacations), who could resist the musical numbers, as the sisters rise in popularity with ever more elaborate routines -- and corrupt capitalist exploitation. In addition to the misty meanderings that recall cinematographer Kuba Kijowski noir 2013 work in Floating Skyscrapers (Plynace wiezowce), The Lure won a Sundance Festival Special Jury Award for Unique Vision and Design earlier this year. There’s also a strong feminist theme of the sisters’ romantic choice between conformist female appearance vs. the sirens’ naturally dangerous supernatural female power. Silver’s traumatic more-than-cosmetic plastic surgery is almost as gruesome as Golden’s succubus-like cannibalism. For all the comic plays on genres, their search for love, maturity and each other is genuinely heartbreaking.
The Beat of Love (Utrip Ljubezni)
The Festival featured another winning musical with echoes of Grease, set in the hip hop scene of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Writer/director Boris Petkovic made the documentary In the Year of Hip Hop (V letu hip hopa) in 2010, so he’s presumably an expert on this pop genre that is new to New York.
The raucous opening rap “Welcome to Slovenia” behind the opening credits and graffiti run is by Zlatan Cordic- Zlatko, one of the most popular rap artists in the country. Here, he’s Zoki, the cap-turned-backwards, fist-bumping band mate of Bruno (Jernej Gasperin). Bruno would doubtless be called “the cute one”, while yet again he wins the free-style crown for the night to the cheers of fans in the crowded club. Their band is on its way to qualify for the big showdown competition that could mean a record contract. Shades of Eminem in 8 Mile, but, despite the resistance of a few older folks in the audience who probably complain about Hamilton too, is a whole lot sweeter and broadly appealing.
Also performing back-up to acts there is pretty violinist Nina (Judita Frankovic) (Has there ever been a fiddler at a rap club in the States?). She resists Bruno’s flirts until he proves he really is a free-lance masseur to soothe her aching shoulder. Over the next days, he wins her over in truly adorable declarations of love outside her conservatory of straight-laced (and middle class) classical musicians. An accidentally extended romantic date, with a song co-write, is followed by a misunderstanding that grows out of each making incorrect class presumptions about the other. Amidst a few lyrical references to their generation’s frustration with the country’s economic problems (not all the songs had English subtitles), there’s also a touch of social realism back story to their relationship. Nina practices hard to keep her scholarship so she won’t have to go back to Zagreb. Bruno is an underemployed college grad frustrated by the country’s stalled economy; he supports his elderly aunt and mentors an admiring young break dancer. Heck, he even convinces his ex-girlfriend to help him get Nina’s attention.
A continuing throw down with guys who look down at them (something about “southerners” vs. “northerners”) helps shake up Bruno’s broken heart depression, but leads to broken body parts (and a fun run through a clinic). He finally shows up for rehearsals in a makeshift studio to finish their demo recording for a manager they impressed at their last performance. What wins over Nina, the battle of the bands concert, and a broad audience, is the titular, absolutely irresistible, catchy number.
The Cleaner (Cistic)
Working at job to clean up after death has been played in movies for comedy in Christine Jeffs’ Sunshine Cleaning (2008) and in TV’s Spotless to cover up crimes. In writer/director Peter Bebjak’s third film (the earlier features were not seen in the U. S.), what starts out as another depressingly gray Eastern European allegory of rapacious capitalism profiting from the death of communism, turns into a touching and exciting cry for freedom from anomie that could be hopeful or futile.
Tomáš (Noël Czuczor, in a scarily absorbing performance) is tightly controlled young man, who maintains a rigid, isolated existence amidst the Soviet-era apartment blocks in Slovak’s capital city Bratislava. He picks up free-lance jobs methodically scrubbing apartments after deaths, while the occupants are at the funeral, and eats in his living space the same simple meals bought at the same shop, with barely a response to the flirty cashier Kristína (Rebeka Poláková), usually while fielding repetitive phone calls from his mother (Éva Bándor). Furiously pedaling on his bike in his hoodie sweatshirt, he can’t always avoid bullies, but when he’s attacked, he ferociously strikes like a tight spring unwound.
Only very gradually are his back story and fantasies revealed. Sometimes the cleaning brings on flashbacks of his childhood, exacerbated by visits to his mother, who seems to think he can clean up the violence that haunts their past (especially with bargain fabric softener). As he socks away his earnings, he weaves a vicarious life in the nice places he cleans up. If the clients are out of town, he stays and snoops (and sometimes takes souvenirs). Not only does he sometimes barely get out before the residents return, he more and more becomes a silent voyeur on their lives and relationships (not that he tells his shrink at his required appointments).
His observations take a different step when he starts following Kristína, because his protective curiosity is piqued by the domineering, pony-tailed man in her life, Adam (Kamil Kollárik). He not only searches their apartment for clues to their relationship, he hides and watches – from right under her bed, night after night. He (and the audience) begin to realize that she’s a prisoner of her family’s past with Adam, like Tomáš and his mother. The encounters Adam forces Kristína into get more and more bruising, and Tomáš instinctively reacts.
Even after this violent rescue, Tomáš coming out from under the now helpless Kristína’s bed initiates a surprisingly sweet and tender period of mutual healing. It is a strange, yet lovely, oasis that Adam’s gambling debts soon threaten. In virtual silence with rising tension, Tomáš risks everything on a trap for revenge that could lead to a hopeful future – he even smiles. Cynics and optimists will have different interpretations if he succeeds, but all will be riveted.
The Summer of Sangaile (Sangailes vasara)
The Festival brought back to New York Lithuania’s beautiful entry for the Foreign Language Academy Award after its theatrical run last year and winning the Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema – Dramatic Directing Award for Alantė Kavaïtė.
Not only does the film introduce wider audiences to the Lithuanian extreme sport of aerobatics and the popularity of air shows (as in rural America too), the female adolescent love story feels sensuously fresh. Staying at her family’s country home, seventeen-year-old Sangaile (Julija Steponaityte) flies head over heels into two passions. Though she’d been afraid both of heights and fully exploring her sexuality, she gains the confidence to be able to choose between fulfilling her dream of becoming a stunt pilot and a new fashionably dressed local lover Auste (Aistė Diržiūtė).
While the film is available on streaming platforms and on DVD from Strand Releasing, the big screen showing at MoMI allowed for full appreciation of the beauty of Dominique Colin’s gorgeous cinematography that swirls with youthful passion and optimism.
(See the first week of coverage HERE)
The second weekend of the 8th Annual Panorama Europe Film Festival featured recent festival hits from corners of Eastern Europe not usually seen on screen in New York City, with two directors adding background insight. From the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI), in Astoria, Queens, with additional screenings on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at the Bohemian National Hall, six features over May 13 - 15, traveled with immersive realism for their New York premieres through Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Kosovo, and back in time to West Germany and from Belgium to Russia,. Native speakers particularly enjoyed seeing their homelands on screen, and helped guide reactions for those in the keen audiences dependent on the English subtitles.
At MoMI, director Slávesk Horák charmingly described the writing and production process of his mature first feature, after 20 years filming inanimate objects and models for commercials. In a process drawn from life much like how Edward Burns’s debuted The Brothers McMullen in 1995, Horák not only returned to film in his native town in Moravia, in northeast Czech Republic, but to the house he grew up in, using what are still his parents’ garden, workshop and vineyard – and he co-stars, too. Unlike so many first-timers whose autobiographical scripts are nostalgic coming of age/youthful initiation stories, this son actually listened to his mother and her entertaining stories from her career as a visiting nurse. Then he re-created her as his central character.
Vlasta (Alena Mihulová, in this role that revived her long career, when her Best Actress Award at Karlovy Vary Festival first brought this film attention) does not let rain nor car trouble, late buses, endangered frogs, nor barking dogs and locked doors stay her from her appointment rounds with colorful patients. Whether her eccentric regulars are diabetic, senile, obese, or immobile, she literally goes the extra mile or hour to cheerfully help them and their families. When she gets home, her second shift starts for her old-fashioned husband Láda (Boleslav Polívka, a long time comic star in Czech films, including the international 2000 success Divided We Fall, but here he’s telling Horák’s dad’s jokes and wearing his dad’s clothes). Deep in his man-cave, he has no idea how, or inclination, to do domestic chores. Vlasta keeps up the same protectiveness long distance with her daughter in Prague, and pretty much overwhelms her on a rare visit home with her new fiancé (Horák himself).
Vlasta is shook out of her rut, and the film out of just the quaint small town genre, when an accident leads to a health crisis, and she starts exploring changes to her lifestyle. As encouraged by a patient’s daughter Hanácková (Tatiana Vilhelmová), her awkward dance class leads down the road to the alternative medicine of imperious self-help guru Miriam (Zuzana Kronerova). Amidst adoring acolytes, Vlasta hopefully tries every instruction. Veering from humorous to wacky to peaceful, through meditation, positive thoughts, bright colors, and slaps, her search for physical and spiritual healing includes slapstick in a grave and lust over broken slivovitz (plum brandy) bottles. The Czech Republic’s submission to the Academy Awards, Home Care ends with a wedding, but the people stick with you.
Hungarian writer/director Lili Horváth slyly toys with Eastern European cinematic conventions from the past by opening with a policeman questioning sullen teenage Maja, and then a bureaucrat asking intrusive questions to fill out forms. But in further developing the life choices of the girl since Horváth’s 2009 short film Sun Stroke, there have been some changes in the bleak outskirts of Budapest. By the time the film circles back to that opening interrogation, her answers seem more complex. Poverty is entrenched, but there may be some hope.
Maja is now played by newcomer Kinga Vecsei as realistically as if this is a documentary about her own life. Her impatience (and theft) while cleaning up a community center in a public housing development has a purpose. She’s not just being cynically rude or criminal – she’s on deadline to catch a train by visiting hours so she can spend her 19th birthday with her four-year-old son Kristian at his orphanage. The tough administrator, seeing how he has become mute with her and more responsive to staffers than her, suggests she apply for custody.
Can this Wednesday’s Child full of woe get to be a mother? Back at her bare home, she cheers herself up playing a musical birthday card signed “Mother”. In the morning, while she’s asking the local kids (who all seem to have developmental disabilities) if they’ve seen her baby daddy Krisz, her neighbor suggests she can get money from the community center.
The new project there is why the middle-aged social worker János (Szabolcs Thuróczy) was interviewing potential participants. Under strict qualification rules, he is initiating an experiment in entrepreneurship through a micro-loan cooperative. Dealing with his own reclamation, he sees potential in Maja, and though she presumes that can only involve sex (which does get messy), she glimpses a different future – if she could set up a laundry service. Surprisingly, she reveals experience running the laundry at the same orphanage where her son is now. Taking on this responsibility makes her positively grow and glow.
But this past hangs over her in the large, violent person of Krisz (charismatic Zsolt Antal) as she goes through the application process and endeavors to follow the requirements. More than just a stereotyped abuser, Krisz is still trapped in the aggression and corruption that protected Maja since their shared time in the orphanage. (And tempts her back to buy Kristian’s birthday presents.) Shades of a political allegory, suspense builds if the volatile Krisz can adapt, or if Maja can be strong enough to stick to the progressive community direction inspired by János and her son. I’m surprised many of the international festivals, including where the film won awards, describe this as a portrait of a couple. Horváth, in her debut feature, brilliantly keeps Maja as her fulcrum, and Vecsei’s performance rises to the heart breaking challenge.
Hipster artisanal brewers have nothing on Eric Maria Strom who blends spirits that are both potent liquids and soulful time travel. In director Damir Čučić’s 40th film, his third of feature-length, he used ten different filming techniques to recreate the atmosphere of Strom’s villa in northern Croatia where the so-called “alchemist” brewed and recorded all the sounds around him.
Through Strom’s audio diary narration, dated on screen in the 2000’s, the barely glimpsed sound engineer (portrayed/reenacted by Mario Haber with a gray-haired ponytail) retells family lore. Franciscan friars visited his grandfather and taught him how to make brandy, and for the next forty years, the family faithfully followed their process to distill fruit liqueur in the basement (notoriously illegal). The camera follows as he carefully goes through the procedures and operates the antique alcohol distiller. Silhouetted against the window views of the changing seasons, he talks serial harvests of different crops, and which berries he prefers at what temperatures.
Classical music fills the room when he’s alone, and he switches to jazzy tunes when the doorbell rings, bringing in convivial company to sample his brandies. Other sounds that go on in his house are what he calls the “choir” of alcohol fermentation. But as the steam fills the room, and the bubbles of fermentation fill the screen, the smells and tastes seem to bring on the past in Proustian flashes. A dazzling selection of images is quickly projected on surfaces as layers of old photographs and home movies, sometimes prompting identifications and memories, but mostly as a ghostly mise en scène of the generations of people who have lived in that house before.
While this creative, experimental “documentary” brought to Panorama Europe a touch of MoMI’s annual First Look Festival partnership with FIDMarseille (Festival du Internationale Documentaire), where this film was shown, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is all an elaborate fiction. It is curious that the only information on the internet about this character is from the film’s own publicity– not a single obituary appeared after what is said to be his tragic death in Summer 2014. Whether hoax or fact about the alternative identity of the director’s long time collaborator, this is a uniquely-aged blend of audio and visual through time.
Kosovo's Ambassador to the U.S. Vlora Çitaku gave a rousing patriotic welcome to this second film from his country to participate in Panorama Europe, the country’s biggest production, award winner at Karlovy Vary and other international festivals, and its entry to the Academy Awards. He prevailed upon Kosovo-born director Visar Morina to tape an introduction to this New York premiere of his first feature from his home in Germany, where he went to film school and is working on his next script, that he hopes will take less than the eight years for Babai (Father). Morina wanted the audience to know the film is set in “a very special place” of the early 1990’s, before war with Serbia erupted at the end of the decade. But certainly the non-Kosovars in the audience were drawn into the tensely involving story as seeming very current about economic difficulties pushing families into risky migration to Germany, as Morina’s family did more easily when he was 15.
Filmed all through from the perspective of ten-year-old Nori (Val Maloku), alternating with tight close-ups on him, the wider economic and social issues all come down to him staying with his father Gezim (Astrit Kabashi), since his mother left. They are eking out some income by selling cigarettes (what Americans would call “loosies”). But the money has to go to the traditionally domineering uncle in exchange for squeezing them in with his own family, who have been scraping together money for his reluctant son’s arranged marriage (Kosovars in the audience chuckled at the verisimilitude of repetitive social rituals performed regardless of personal tensions).
Gezim wants to use the wedding distraction as cover for his get-away to accompany a friend to Germany. Nori is desperate to not be separated and will do anything to follow him – throwing himself in front of a bus, theft, and blackmail are just his audacious local tricks to set off on a very challenging odyssey. His negotiating acumen (let alone his penchant for vengeance) is cleverly awesome with Gezim’s friend’s blonde sexy wife Valentina (Adriana Matoshi) to convince her to pose as his mother to smugglers. Their mutual need creates an uneasy alliance through different transports and a confusingly frightening maritime flight.
Unlike any heartwarming Hollywood movie where characters miraculously transform, the calculating Valentina dumps the boy as soon as she’s reunited with her equally conniving partner, who repeats the ritualized expressions of welcome but rejects ethnic loyalty. Nori’s dreams of a fond reunion are foiled by Gezim’s desperation to hang onto his place in a crowded, tightly regulated refugee hostel. Cinematographer Matteo Cocco’s hand-held camera (in a very different style from the previous week’s Anna) picks up the contrast of casual normal play of citizens’ fathers and sons in the background to add poignancy.
Even in a strange country Nori has more wits than his father, who is nearing emotional defeat and is ready to drown his sorrows in booze. In an astounding role reversal for a father and son made terrifically credible by young Maloku’s towering debut performance, Nori is sure he has the strength to carry them both-- as long as they stay together. Big-time producers noticed Maloku, too – he just finished doing Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife with Jessica Chastain and Daniel Brühl, which Focus will release at the end of this year.
Two films in the festival looked further back to the bad old days in the 20th Century of European disunity.
Belgian director Jan Bultheel has been successfully using animation in commercials and children’s television series for 20 years and was looking for an artistic challenge to be his first feature, in both technology and a complex story for grown-ups. With the latest in motion capture (mo-cap) developed for video games, he could keep the focus on the voices of expressive international actors who re-animate “The Forgotten of the Great War”, certainly forgotten to those outside Belgium. The Autos-Canons-Mitrailleuses (ACM) was the first, elite armored car division established by King Albert in 1914, who sent its 400 soldiers from the muddy trenches of the Western Front, across the Bering Sea to the Czar’s service on the Eastern Front, through the Russian Revolution (earning them the titular sobriquet for cockroach, an idiom for feeling depressed), across the continent to China, Japan, on to the U.S. for propaganda parades, and back to Belgium in time for the armistice, the flu epidemic of 1918, and facing a traumatized Europe.
While archival photographs during the final credits show Bultheel’s historical inspirations, he drew out the most distinctive characters with fictional depth, romance, political commentary, and humor in writing the script, designing the line-drawn graphic style, directing the voice actors, editing and staging the scenes, guiding the animation team, and texturing all the models and sets.
Central is the powerful figure of Jean Mordant (voiced by Wim Willaert, based on the real Constant Le Marin) who is crowned World Wrestling Champion in Buenos Aires in 1914, only to learn of the German invasion and soldiers’ gang rape of his beloved teen daughter Mimi back home in Flanders. Hell bent for vengeance, spurred on even more when he learns she’s pregnant, he sails home and enlists his erudite coach Victor (Sebastien Dewaele), his young radicalized nephew Guido (voiced by Maarten Thomas Ketels, based on the real Communist Julien Lahaut), and a stranded compatriot Edouard Coppenolle (Benoît Gob).
Like a character in a James Hilton period adventure, Jean narrates his experiences in letters to his daughter that he crumples in frustration (For the audience, the animated maps help too). The grueling stalemate in France is familiar and quickly dispatched for an eyewitness look at Russian battles and Bolshevik violence that is thrilling and full of horrifying revenge, while the ebullient Guido is excited by workers’ solidarity (and discovering brothels). When the Russian nurse Jelena Dimitrieva Doctorow (Dinara Drukarova) first patches them up (when possible), translates, then joins them in fleeing the chaos on a bartered train across the continent, romance blooms (Warning: brief frontal cartoon nudity). Amidst the colorful exotica of Chinese rickshaws, Mongolian yerts, and the panoply of stars over the Pacific, thoughtful political discussions continue. Jelena is rejuvenated by American optimism and opportunity for immigrants, where even in Spring 1918 the war is still all about flag-waving. Jean, however, gets more and more cynical and can only hope his return home to his family can reconcile all he, his generation, and Europe as a whole have been through. At this time history, that’s a happy ending.
Lars Kraume's film is the third fictionalized version in three years of how a heroic German prosecutor fought the East and West German judicial bureaucracies full to get Nazi war criminals into court in the 1960’s – especially in daring to go around them to facilitate Israel’s capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann, and then, in Frankfurt, to try those who ran the Auschwitz extermination camp. This version just won more German Film (Lola) Awards (six) than Giulio Ricciarell’s nominated Labyrinth Of Lies (Im Labyrinth Des Schweigens) did last year. The New York premiere at MoMI previewed the Cohen Media Group release in the U.S. beginning August 19, for formal review.
The earlier internationally distributed film quite oddly and inaccurately reduced Fritz Bauer’s role in these legal adventures to a distant office in order to focus instead on a fictional young attorney’s consciousness-raising about German culpability in crimes against humanity and the following twenty-year silence since the Allies’ Nuremberg Trials. Though Kraume's film mostly follows the charismatic and fervent believer in the dignity of man, it, too, gets sidelined by another young fictional attorney’s consciousness-raising. Here it’s his sexual orientation (and the gay underground) in order to stress that Nazi laws were still on the books and were being adjudicated by former Nazis, particularly “Paragraph 175” that criminalized homosexual acts -- which stayed in the German legal code until 1994. The link to Bauer is his homosexuality (and the degree to which a police report of a bathroom incident is accepted as evidence), as if being a Jewish, Socialist, ex-political prisoner returned from exile abroad wasn’t enough to have him out of sync with those who never really left power (Countries like the U.S. and England had and enforced equally homophobic laws at this time as well).
Stephan Wagner’s The General (Die Akte General) --as in Attorney General-- broadcast on German public television this past February, included Bauer’s homosexuality in passing, but emphasized the wider political restrictions that limited his prosecutions in Germany, particularly the ex-Nazis in high government positions. This third version was shown in New York at the Goethe-Institut’s accompanying, and very usefully insightful, series “Enemy Territory – Fritz Bauer and Postwar Germany”, inspired by Bauer’s famous quote “When I leave my office, I'm entering enemy territory”. The series also featured other films that included Bauer himself on screen, among the few German films that touched on the self-examination he insisted on for German society: Murderers Among Us (Die Mörder Sind Unter Uns), directed by Wolfgang Staudte (1946); Yesterday Girl (Abschied Von Gestern – Anita G.), by “New Wave” director Alexander Kluge (1966) in a youthful perspective; and the documentary Fritz Bauer - Death By Installments (Tod Auf Raten), directed by Ilona Ziok (2010), comprised of extensive interviews with his friends and colleagues (including Thomas Harlan, the Nazi-hunting son of the director of the most notorious anti-Semitic Nazi film). Compared to the other films, the documentary also included the longest excerpts from a famous 1964 TV program where Bauer was questioned by young Germans about their democratic future, and became an inspiration for the 1968 protests against the old establishment that he just lived long enough to see, before dying under mysterious circumstances. It took almost until the next century for the state and federal governments to recognize and honor Bauer’s unique leadership by funding an academic institute in Frankfurt that studies and educates on the history and impact of the Holocaust and other National Socialist mass crimes. So many of the films in the festival this year have shown the importance of not taking democracy for granted!
Next – overview of the third weekend of Panorama Europe 2016.
To learn more, go to: http://www.movingimage.us/programs/2016/05/06/detail/panorama-europe-2016/
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