Thursday, May 7, 2009

Looking Back: New Films/New Directors at MoMA 2008

Reviews from New Directors/New Films...MOMA/Film Society

REEL DEAL: Movies That Matter 


 Each year between the end of Sundance and the beginning of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York 3 major film events sponsored by the Lincoln Center Film Society take place. Each highlights films from around the world that are programmed not for box office sales, but to present a survey of the best films screened at festivals around the world. FILM COMMENT PRESENTS is an aggressive program of challenging and usually transgressive films that FC writers programmed to confront popular taste and act subversively on the sensibility of the serous film going public.  NEW YORK AFRICAN FILM FESTIVAL is an international survey of new narrative features, classic restorations and history telling documentaries that highlight the reality of the contemporary Africa that contextualize pre and postcolonial history.  Most importantly is New Directors / New Films The Museum of Modern Art and The Film Society together program a survey of emerging and demanding cinema that sounds the clarion call For The Future Of Film. Not bound by a conventional definition of emerging, curators rather choose to bring to public view films of merit that otherwise would rarely have a chance to be seen  and to add the  possibility build of critical attention that can merit  further exhibition and heighten distribution interest.  New Directors/ New Films is the single most important film survey in North America.

This year's selection of 26 directors representing 17 countries seemed to be concentrating on globalization, immigrant issues, culture clash and the politics of personal and political change.  Among the highlights were three of my favorite films shown at Sundance this year:


1: FROZEN RIVER  Director: Courtney Hunt ( the slow moving Sundance Grand Jury winner that unpredictably won the praise of jury head Quentin Tarantino.  A low budget black and white narrative directed by Courtney Hunt is placed in around the upper New York/Canadian border  where hard times and recession have become a way of life for both citizens of New York State and tribal members of the Mohawk reservation.  Hunt's story follows a single low paid working mom (Melissa Leo) raising a teenage son as she struggles to make ends meet in their trailer park home and the survival at any means drama of a female Native American ex-prisoner (Misty Upham) who, like a nervous wolf, navigates the reservation border to stay one jump ahead of the law.  The desperate narrative and the stark landscape enmesh the two women in a mercenary endeavored motivate by self-interest and highlights their mutual mistrust and their ultimate female bonding to survive.  Well drawn over 40,  female characterization by the to lead actors illumine the quicksand of economic reality and how,  even among the poor, racism creates a false barrier of mistrust. Hunt weaves how the business of human trafficking of illegal workers using "safe zones" of Indian reservations and corrupt law enforcement officials and mines the difference between the post card fantasy of the United States and the realistic struggle compounded by  globalization and the will to survive.

2:MOMMA'S MAN  Director:   Azazel Jacobs 

( … the worst titled Indie film of the year captures the yearning to go home (literally) that a whole generation of 20-30 some-things are experiencing. Except home here is an artist loft owned by the real artist parents of the director playing the parents in this dramatic fiction that crosses reality and fantasy in a seamless way and shows how dysfunction is not always easily understood and adulthood is not simply a chronological based definition. The lost boy strangle hold on a married adult father freezes the  lead character (Matt Boren) in place on a solo visit to his parents Soho artist loft. Being unstuck becomes a challenge to parents , adult child and the wife and son left floundering in Berkeley California. A new look at the American family dynamic that centers on a very male fear of responsibility and the adolescent nostalgia for being taken care of while rebelling against authority.

3:  TROUBLE THE WATER:  Directors:  Tia Lessin and Carl Deal 

( is the best study yet of what is wrong in America today when greed and narcissism blinds most people to the horror of how the Bush administration fundamentally failed the people of New Orleans and the role it has played in changing the racial complexion of that city.  Finally, a film that treats the poor white and mostly Black residents of the lower ninth ward not simply as victims but as resilient survivors in the face of disaster. The two main principles actually become heroic in their grit and humanity as they face the reality that no one in government really cares about their and their extended family survival except themselves.  An accident of circumstances placed the directors outside the New Orleans sports stadium where people were seeking refuge from the storm and they had a  a chance encounter. Actually a persistent pitching of "We got the goods " from a would-be rap singer and her drug-dealing boyfriend,  Kim and Scott Roberts,. The "goods" turned out to be a pot of filmmaker gold: a camcorder documentation of what happened shot by Kim from the point of view of the people in one extended family caught in the eye of the storm. We follow this group  abandoned by the authorities and watch how  they used self reliance, resilience and compassion to survive. What follows  is a visual journey masterfully shot by pj ravel in the  Two Laws spirit that picks up where the camcorder left off and mines what lies beneath.   the authentic  American character emerges from under the garbage mound of greed and indifference that almost extinguishes the life that Katrina left standing in her wake,  And fortunately, the filmmakers choose not to use a Michael Moore I-am-the-picture-approach and let their subjects tell their own stories.

4: JAPAN JAPAN  Director : Lior Shamriz

is to me what ND/NF is all about; a very young Isralie director who from the very first frame:  a foregrounded,  semen filled condom being removed from still erect penis  while in the background a smiling young man gazes sets immediately the tone and visual language of the film . His is a risky look at how location saps imagination and a rejection of the ordinary compels a deep desire to move way from social tracking  expectation.. Tel Aviv is the setting . A city so intense with a political reality that a young person must uses anything to distract and find feeling that does not simply resonate the politics of the grandfathers. Here foreign pornography fills time not as an addiction but to dissipate the  anxiety of being where one does not want to be. Shamriz populates his film world with both the nice and awful people that could live next door to you anywhere  A sense of ordinary realism framed by a 21st new media aesthetic  in a low budget exposition that rivets attention with a resonate, universal youthful authenticity,.

Globalization fuels the creative imagination of two directors:

5: :  Lee Isaac Chung Munyurangabo 

A simple story of two teenage Rwandan boys one a Tutsi, the other a Hutu and how they build friendship despite the suspicions and antagonisms of their individual tribal communities. Each must face the reality of how do you move forward from an undeniable native holocaust, and move to the future while not being stuck in the reality of the past.  What is remarkable is that Chung, a Korean-American,   tells a story that resonates universally e.g., the Arab-Jewish dilemma or any neighborhood where gangs rather than tribes rupture society and victimize the entire community as old ritual play out to kill the future  

Where Chung succeeds: English director  Conrad Clark, in Soul Carriage failed. He looks at

  post –Mao China by literally traveling away from the Shanghai's hemorrhaging of western style construction  to the rural countryside. This is the exact opposite journey China's young people are making in their moved to urban centers.  He tells the story of the accidental death of construction worker on-site. The supervisor in order to avoid a time consuming investigation gives an order to a fellow worker who is a friend of the dead man The worker is ordered by the construction chief who wants to cover-up the death to return the body to the rural family in defiance of the quick burial that is the current law. What could have been and most certainly was intended to be a contrast in old and new traditions dissolves into a brightly colored almost post card perfect landscapes that fails to do tell the underlying story of how  Mao socialist revolution is being undermined by a consumer driven economy. With his first feature, Clark does show visual promise but Soul Carriage was more about geographical representation than crafted vision.

 6: Thanos Anastopoulos' Correction

An Athens based b&w contemporary telling of identity, belonging, vengeance and forgiveness echoes Classical Greek story telling. Using the visual language of cinema to create a mystery, he slowly reveals  a very contemporary tale of national identity and the fear of immigrants. With a minimal of dialogue, Anastopoulos creates a canvas of humanitythrough light and shadowing that ressonates  the  tradition  of early 20thcentury  Italian cinema. He  captures in faces the soul language expressive of great passion and dark emotion. Ostensibly an amends tale of a recently released prisoner, he challenges  the  viewer  to unravel the mystery of what happened and whose is at fault as a man and a women deal in essentially different with the same experience,  a moment of frenzy horror and the irrefutable and permanent aftermath. Stunning film-making that transcends specifics of location and resonates contemporary nomadic journey and the meaning of ethnic identity in a world made smaller buy globalization.

Danielle Arbid's A Lost Man 

is the most challenging film in this year's ND/NF. Challenging because of how it humanizes Arab men and women in a way that is rarely seen in Western  cinema today. The gaze is secular, female and Arab.Arbid bravely breaks taboo by showing Arab female prostitutes enjoying their sexual work. They reject any notion of victimization.  She also navigates the conflicting feelings these women have for both the Western man, here a French photographer who vampire-like (a post modern colonial gestalt) seeks to steal the soul of the Arab woman who he is having sex with by photographing them naked in the throws of sex intercourse. The Arab man feels himself an outsider even in his own community while realizing the essential value and ethical differences he has with the Parisian photographer who has hired him as a fixer. Despite thefilmmaker's publicly stated rejection of any political or gender agenda .. she says she says she "… is not interested in either politics or gender,", the film itself speaks the language of political domination, fundamentalist policing of gender and sexual activity, the politics of objectification  and the cause and effects of emotional and economical plunder. Danielle Arbid seems schooled in the sensuality of Henry Miller rather that the rejection of sentimentality of Anias Nin. An identity that Nin herself would see as her own self-description.

7: From Argentina comes Lucía Puenz's XXY 

the first narrative film to address Intersex. This word has replaced hermaphrodite as the politically correct descriptive language for a person born with both male and female sexual organs externally and internally. Usually one is more dominate than the other.  Puenzone-ups Boys Don't Cry, with a failed attempt to tell a very serious story of an intersex child whose parents have allowed it without any psychological or medical intervention to become a teenager with awakening sexual desire and a serious sex identity problem.. Desire that conflicts with the sex identify the body's confused message makes very real. Like Boys Don't Cry, Puenz sensationalizes the subject so an audience can distance itself from the frank reality of a body out of place in the world around it. Puenz actually uses all the emotional tools of thefaux serious,  middle-class tele-novella to present a creepy voyeuristic view of a potential suicide situation. She includes an almost obligatory sex scene where the supposed girl winds up mounting an unsuspecting teenage  boy who thought he was going to be the seducer. We watch as the boy realizes the girl he is lusting after is actually penetrating him.  Puenz accommodates the audience's desire for normalcy by casting a female yet androgynous actor (think TildaSwenton from the neck up) in the main role that visually conforms to a wide- hipped, narrow shouldered small-breasted 15-year girl.  While dropping hints that the girl is taking hormones to control more masculine features such as beard etc, it has not apparently effected the ability to become tumescent, Her demeanor and temperament seems more testosterone driven than not: belligerent,, aggressive and stubborn. Troubled as the child is about his identity, the parents and their friends, a physiologist and his social worker wife are almost silently apoplectic about it. The second couple's son is the boy who gets a sexual surprise from the girl with a penis. Subtle homophobia tinctures the whole father/son interplay. Caught in a no man/ no woman physical landscape the intersex child is left to fend for himself. Is she a boy, is he a girl?  the parents have avoided any medical interventions for establish the biological identify. Politically correct perhaps,  but spending time with the confused and angry child on the screen, it seems in the end just cruel. In the last frame, we see the teenager sitting alone staring  off into the ocean.  S/he is an island unto herself.. Titillating yes …but is a serous artful way,  … insightful no!

Its smart, voyeuristic decadence will find a success at the boxoffice.

And than there were a few safe choices on hot subject matter that failed to delivery when a more risky pick could have provoked an audience into passionate agitation:

Michelange Quay's Eat, for This Is My Body 

was an incomprehensible wet dream of insular poetic images and mind numbing lyricism th Kelly only the selection committee knows. Art Star and the Sudanese Twins became not only the most controversial Sundance documentary in 2008  but actually  had people leaving the theater in anger at the selfish audacity of a white Italian visual artist adoption scheme despite native political opposition against her acquiring the  twin black African boys. This real life first world desire  vs. third world values is stained with the Madonna adoption brouhaha.. Even when awarded a jury prize at Sundancethe presenter distant herself from the content of the film.

Lance Hammer's Ballast 

 a black drama written and directed by a white man using mostly unprofessional actors looked frame by frame like photo exhibition that was so subtle it almost disappears in its naturalism, The dialogue  for more than half the movie was not understandable  to an ear not familiar with the local dialect. It quickly wore my patience down.. In the almost tableau viviant replication of this colored man-scape, the women become brutes insensitive to the pain the men are burdened with  .. a  nice role reversal, but still in the end is dismissive of women.

Godfrey Cheshire's Moving Midway 

a sincere study of how race and property are still so intertwined in the New South revealed little that is not already know . His choice of making the central event the preservation of the family plantation home quickly  wore thin as it became apparent that the rules of patriarchy no matter how politely presented still are embedded in this one family. First-born male gets all the property and sell off part of the family land legacy allowing modern commercial industrialization to ravage the landscape and pollute the air. The profits allow  an actual  physical move of the old family plantation to new higher ground. The plantation and all that it represents in the master's landscape remains dominate. The almost cliché by now discovery that there is a whole arm of the family tree that is the results of slave owner sowing his seed in the wombs of his slaves is discreetly revealed but the question of reparations while spoken once is left to evaporate in the ether of nostalgic memory . Why this film was chosen over the Sundance competition documentary  

Katrina Browne Traces of the Slave Trade, A Story of the Deep North : 

Katrina Browne's  Traces of the Slave Trade, A Story of the Deep North set in the North's Bristol Rhode Island surprised me  me.  How generations have profited, even today,  from the financial gains  of their ancestors is the subject matter. Ms. Browne's examine ferrets out the true history of her family's wealth and how it is intertwined with  the deeps roots of slave trading in New England. Her attempt to make a historical documentary as a first step amends  by focusing on people as property raises serious questions about cupablity generations far removed in time from the actions of their ancestors.

Jim Fouratt is a pop cultural critic and engaged activist. His email is,  He syndicates to a private listserve his reel deal movie criticism.