April 28, 2021 • Amy Taubin on the 50th New Directors/New Films
IN THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY EDITION of New Directors/New Films, the hippies pull more weight than the politicos, to borrow a ’60s dichotomy. There is a lot of journeying in these films—too much of it for my taste—couched as quests for spiritual enlightenment, or undertaken to discover the unity in all things, or to let go of the traumas of the past by, well, I’m not sure what means. ND/NF, which is jointly curated by programmers from the Museum of Modern Art and Film at Lincoln Center, is devoted to first and second independently produced features by directors from an ever-expanding world cinema. Because this is a major anniversary, this year’s ND/NF also includes a retrospective of eleven films from its rich history. Seize the opportunity to view early work, now digitized, from such acclaimed directors as Charles Burnett, Humberto Solás, Christopher Nolan, Chantal Akerman, and Lee Chang-dong, and also from a few who remain less known than they should be, such as the Indian master Mani Kaul and the Trinidadian Horace Ové, whose 1986 Playing Away is essential viewing for today’s conversation about Black and multicultural filmmaking in Britain. Nolan’s first feature, 1998’s Following, had been rejected by Sundance and received only a cinematography prize at that festival’s poor relation Slamdance when it was snatched up by ND/NF. Akerman’s 1978 Les rendez-vous d’Anna, the follow-up to her 1975 masterwork Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is a disconcerting film à clef in which the central character comes out to her mother about her first lesbian affair while lying next to her in a hotel room’s narrow double bed. When people ask why it is important that women direct films, this scene is the first that comes to my mind.
Terrific as it is to have this mini-retrospective, it casts a pall of disappointment over many of the movies I viewed in ND/NF’s current slate. I need to say that I’ve only seen about half of the twenty-seven features and those in less than optimum conditions (a year of nothing but streaming dulls the eye, mind, and emotions) but I can recommend only four of them to you. They are the festival’s opening night choice, Amalia Ulman’s El Planeta (already reviewed here by Gilda Williams when it played at Sundance); Swiss director Andreas Fontana’s Azor; German director Jonas Bak’s Wood and Water; and Ethiopian-Mexican documentarian Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi, a haunting documentary-fiction fusion set in the khat-growing highlands of Ethiopia, where the hallucinogenic plant is the basis of the economy and allows some respite from the political turmoil and periodic ethnic cleansing from which the filmmaker escaped when she was a child. The young men who harvest the khat speak in voice-over of their longing to escape to Europe, but for almost all of them, the journey is too costly and many of them would rather stay in their own country than become outsiders in another. They are Sufi Muslims, and although some of their imams claim that khat is the path to enlightenment, it seems more often to lead to madness or stoner passivity. The movie is dark, shot in a shallow-focused black-and-white where boys, men, their mothers and girlfriends are seen as ghostly silhouettes, lost in the mist. The ephemeral beauty of the images is brutal because beauty has no currency here.Jessica Beshir, Faya Dayi 2021, DCP, black-and-white, sound, 120 minutes.
Of El Planeta, I will only add that its director, who also plays the central character, a grifter living in a seaside backwater in Spain and whose partner in crime is her mother (played by the Ulman’s actual mother) has a bold sense of film time and of the comedy of layered identity, and that El Planeta puts Miranda July’s overrated grifter semi-satire Kazillionaire, by unavoidable comparison, in the shallow grave it deserves.
Set in Buenos Aires in the mid-1970s, when the junta is terrorizing Argentina, disappearing a helpless opposition, and seizing the property of wealthy and poor alike, Fontana’s Azor is a restrained but nerve-wracking political thriller that is also a damning critique of the role that Swiss banks played in supporting a murderous dictatorship and caring for its plunder. Fontana’s direction of the entire cast is unfailing; his attention to period detail and character behavior calls attention to narrative tensions rather than being an end itself, and his political analysis of Switzerland’s self-congratulatory neutrality could not be more brutal. (I can’t wait to see Azor again when Mubi releases it in a few months.)Jonas Bak, Wood and Water, 2021, 16 mm, color, sound, 79 minutes.
In Bak’s Wood and Water, Anke, a sixty-year-old widow, newly retired from a clerical job at her small-town church in Germany’s Black Forest region, decides on impulse to visit her son, who lives in Hong Kong and has been offering excuses about why he hasn’t come home in three years. Anke is played by the filmmaker’s mother, and her unfussy manner and the clarity of mind she projects are some of the film’s assets. The other is Bak’s decision to shoot on celluloid. The images, the forest—the natural world where the film begins and ends—and the thronged, high-rise-lined, neon-lit Hong Kong streets, have a richness and presence—should I say reality?—that many of the festival’s other travelogue-shaped films lack, belonging instead to some undifferentiated digital world, no matter where they venture. Anke’s son has some reason to be absent when she arrives in Hong Kong, and the concierge at his apartment house has gone home, so she takes a shared room at a nearby hotel. In the other bed is a young woman who is leaving the next day. Hong Kong is a place that she has loved and that she knows will be gone very soon. The demonstrations, she explains, take place quite near Anke’s son’s apartment. The son never appears, and for the next few days Anke wanders around, exploring a city that is nothing like the glamorized Hong Kong of Wong Kar-wai or of Hong Kong gangster movies. The streets are crowded, people walk fast but are never rude or unkind. Occasionally, she gets close to a massive demonstration, but usually, she hears the protesters at a distance or glimpses them from the window of her son’s apartment. For Anke, to have ventured into a place that is totally unlike anything she’s known is liberating, but the film is suffused with melancholy because we know that liberation is the opposite of what is in store for Hong Kong, and that this modest but beautifully shot and edited film contains some of the last images of daily life in a free Hong Kong that we’ll ever see.