The World at Home: New Directors/New Films 2020
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The cloud in her room

COVID-19 brought two major changes to New Directors / New Films, the annual aspiring filmmaker showcase that showcases film together at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. Initially, the festival was moved from its usual March / April place to December. Second, of course, it went completely online. In ordinary years, ND / NF takes place in New York City's two posh movie theater locations, but in 2020, like almost every other communal cultural event that makes city life worthwhile, it has been reduced to a scattering of individual viewers blinking at theirs Home screens. Fortunately, the programming was of its usual high standard and offered a wealth of creative energy and courageous approaches to the medium. What follows is a report of six highlights.

Days of cannibalism

As always, the selection of the festival was admirably global: of 24 feature films only two came from the USA. Having been stuck at home since March, I was particularly grateful for films that featured reports from places far away. Teboho Edkins & # 39; fascinating documentary Days of Cannibalism is set in Lesotho, a small mountainous country in southern Africa where the rural population is exposed to a rapid influx of entrepreneurs and investors from mainland China. The natives are ranchers struggling to survive, while the newcomers own and operate wholesale stores and factories, and buy and expand in all directions. One way of life seems to end here, or at least to suffer, while another flourishes. Days of Cannibalism is a subtle, patiently observant film that is gentle in its pace and non-compelling in its rhetoric. But in the end it leaves a palpable sense of desperation and anger caused by the disruption of global capital.

Most of the ND / NF list comes from high profile festivals like Venice, Locarno and Sundance. The days of cannibalism had their world premiere in Berlin, as did the Austrian director Sandra Wollner's The Trouble with Being Born. Wollner's film bears the additional distinction of being pulled from a big party (Melbourne) after a journalist recruited two forensic psychologists to decipher it as child pornography. (One of them even took the time to watch part of the film before condemning it.) Non-gullible and non-literal-minded viewers will easily see that the film is nothing of the sort, although in fairness it can be understood a bit in the confusion of the Psychologists. The problem with childbirth is a serious work of art, but a cool joy to make the audience think it might be something else at first.

The problem with childbirth

In the early scenes, a middle-aged man locks himself up in a lake house with an expressive young girl who calls him "Papa", and the two share a closeness that is awkward from the start and gradually becomes alarming. (The spoiler-averse reader is advised to skip the rest of this paragraph.) But soon we discover that the girl is an AI android, and if she runs away halfway through the movie and is reprogrammed to be a companion Wollner's real theme is the elderly widow who longs for a long-lost sibling: the crazy forms that needs and desires take on. The girl adapts to her new identity like clay to a shape, shaping her personality and memories to fill the void in the old woman's heart. At best, the film is reminiscent of Cronenberg and Kubrick in its awe-inspiring intelligence, sleek and expressive visual design, and willingness to bring allegations of inhumanity to justice to find out what it means to be human.

One of the kinephile joys of ND / NF is seeing younger directors absorb and synthesize different styles of filmmaking. In Zheng Lu Xinyuan's debut film "The Cloud in Her Room", which won the main prize in Rotterdam, a college graduate returns to her hometown Hangzhou for the New Year celebrations. Mizu (Jin Jing) visits her divorced parents, ponders how Hangzhou has changed, and blows hot and cold on her relationship with her photographer friend. The story is about a young woman who tries to dispel her feelings and find out who she is. The shape of the film is also indefinite and is constantly changing. Zheng Lu pursues a free-running approach, in which everything is switched from moment to moment with an exciting promiscuity: strict, slow recordings in slow cinema, interviews with faux documentaries, breathtaking camera and editing effects. Some of the scenes may be dreams, flashbacks, or fantasies, but they are not clearly labeled as such and they have the same narrative weight as the "real" moments. It's all interrelated, chaotic but wonderful. This study of youthful aimlessness sometimes does not avoid a certain aimlessness, but I gladly forgive your longueurs. The cloud in her room is a breathtaking work of personal, poetic cinema.

A debut like Zheng Lu's gives the impression that the director might be going somewhere next. Toronto-based filmmaker Kazik Radwanski, although still a "new director", found his way early on and hasn't strayed from it. Radwanski's first Feature Tower was a standout part of ND / NF 2013, and its third, Anne at 13,000 feet, is even better, despite being almost the same. (I didn't see his second, How Heavy This Hammer.) Tower was about an introverted man in his thirties who snaked his way through hyper-elongated adolescence or an early-onset Middle Ages, while the title Anne (played by the more notable Deragh Campbell) is a woman in her twenties who is too extroverted for her own good, if at all – her eagerness to get close to people translates into neurotic neediness and unfailingly inappropriate behavior. In both films, a highly mobile handheld camera is embedded in the restless protagonists. Their unusually narrow framework brings us very close to them and leaves us there for the long term. We are immersed in their chaotic lives, their missed connections, and their fleeting moments of relief or escape. These films are studies of misery, but Radwanski instills a level of compassion and compassion in his characters that they cannot offer to others or to their own sad, stunted selves.

Killing two lovers

Robert Machoian's The Killing of Two Lovers, with its bloody title and unsettling opening image – a tormented young man pointing a gun at a sleeping couple – promises something it never quite delivers. But what this Utah-based indie delivers is more interesting than promised. The man lowers his gun and sneaks out a window. Then he runs down a snow-covered small town street until he reaches his own house. His name is David (Clayne Crawford), the wife is his wife Niki (Sepideh Moafi) and she and her four children live separately from David because she does not know whether she wants to stay married to him. David is apparently a kind, decent man, but the loss of his family has thrown him off balance. The threat of violence that starts the film and hums in the background, however, proves – without giving too much away – a kind of misdirection. Most of the time, The Killing of Two Lovers is a subdued and sensitive study of character and a moving portrait of a couple heading for an uncertain future.

The ingenious subversion of expectations also plays a role in Arun Karthick's Nasir. If you do a little research on the film before you see it, you will find that Nasir takes up the important issue of religious intolerance in Modi's India. But Karthick addresses the subject in a most unusual way: he ignores it for about 95% of the movie's running time. What he gives us is a casual day in the life of the title character, played by theater director Koumarane Valavane. Nasir wakes up, sees his wife on a trip, goes to work in a fabric shop, prays in a mosque, recites a poem to his colleagues, worries about money, helps close the shop, and makes his way home .

The detailed depiction of the everyday life of this Muslim Everyman in the film holds our attention, but here and there references to conflict creep into the corners of Nasir's world – the anti-Islamic remark of a blatant employee, the nationalist propaganda of the Hindus from a nearby PA system – And we lean forward and wait for the explosion. If so, it is devastating, appalling, but not entirely surprising in the final moments of the film, given that Karthick has been leading us there all along. Nasir's narrative strategy of underestimating his supposed subject is more than just a smart ploy. It reveals the real theme of the film: the inevitability of politics, shown here in its most despicable and destructive form. If most of the film can be seen as a tribute to the inner workings of ordinary individuals, its ending suggests the opposite: individual lives count for nothing before the seething mass of greater social forces swirl around them.

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