First published in MUBI’s the Notebook on March 28, 2018
For a critic, the annual New Directors/New Films festival offers an opportunity not just for discovery, but also for introspection. Curated by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the festival’s spotlight on the emerging, as-yet-unheralded voices of world cinema invites a headlong dive into the selection with little advance knowledge or baggage. The results, although expectedly uneven, are often revelatory, prompting a re-examination of one’s traditional notions of film language and form.
This year’s ND/NF runs from March 28 to April 8, with a slate of 25 features culled from all over the globe. Some of the most remarkable entries in the line-up, including Khalik Allah’s Black Mother, Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still, and Kantemir Balegov’s Closeness have already been covered by the Notebook. Here are some more highlights.
The festival’s Closing Night selection, RaMell Ross’ Hale County This Morning, This Evening, is an avant-garde subversion of the historically colonialist practice of visual ethnography. While ethnographic films, usually helmed by a white or Western filmmaker, purport to capture and narrativize the lives and social realities of Other peoples, photographer-turned-documentarian Ross resists any such totalizing impulse. The exquisite images he collects from the lives of the Black residents of Hale County, Alabama—where he lived and worked for many years as a basketball coach and GED teacher—are willfully fleeting and disparate, privileging aesthetic and sensory beauty over narrative coherence. Hale County’s thesis might be encapsulated by one of its many irreverent, yet poetic intertitles: “How do we not frame someone?” How do we film a cinematically marginalized people while upending the illusion that their lives are knowable from a series of images?
This is partly achieved by Ross’ photographic fixation on the moment, as opposed to movement or teleological flow. Hale County does have a couple loosely discernible character threads: one follows Daniel, an earnest college basketball player, and the other centers on Quincy, an aspiring rapper and young father. However, even these are presented in the form of isolable moments connected to each other by a lyrical and associative—rather than causative—logic. A long, uninterrupted take follows Quincy’s toddler Kyrie as she runs back and forth, over and over again, across a small living room. A close-up of Daniel’s sweat dripping onto the floor cuts to a similar image of thick raindrops hitting concrete. A small, silvery moon suddenly appears above Kyrie’s shoulder as she soaps herself in a bathtub, and it stays there until the shot fades into the night sky.
Ross’ inventive play with light and sound elevates each of these moments from quotidian to quasi-spiritual, sometimes reminiscent of the oneiric style of executive producer Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Certain sequences alienate images from their accompanying audio, transforming something as mundane as a cotton field into a dissonant soundscape. Time-lapse videography defamiliarizes stereotypical images: observed over a long (and subsequently compressed) duration, seemingly aggressive locker room tussles between ballplayers are re-contextualized as playful pre-game banter. Even the more standard documentary elements of the film are impeccably stylized; when Daniel speaks into the camera about his aspirations and ambitions, he is shot in tight close-ups and lit in neon-purples and glistening pinks. This lush formalism has the effect of redirecting the viewer’s attention from the objects of the camera’s gaze to its modes of seeing, gesturing repeatedly towards Hale County’s central preoccupation with “framing” as both a filmic and a cultural exercise.
The one discordant note in the film is Ross’ inclusion of a clip of Bert Miller in blackface, clearly intended to further underscore Hale County as a corrective to historical representations of Black people. However, this obvious overemphasis on the film’s political function seems like a disservice to its subjects. With its transcendent imagery and eschewal of exposition and objectification, Hale County feels primarily like an art-object, capable of transporting viewers into a heightened realm of perceptive experience. The people and landscapes that populate it seem to have been chosen for the beauty they confer to the screen rather than as tools to make a statement, which is a rare luxury for people of color. Hale County is radical not just because it humanizes its African-American subjects, but also because it dares to aestheticize them.
Ricky D’Ambrose’s Brooklyn-set Notes on an Appearance is also invested in the formal qualities of still images and sparse, non-narrative moments, although to entirely different ends. Perhaps the most obviously “indie”-seeming film in the festival, Notes chronicles the disappearance of a young man with truly stringent minimalism, which, although born out of fiscal restrictions, perfects a deliberate style D’Ambrose has developed in acclaimed shorts such as Six Cents in the Pocket (2015) and Spiral Jetty (2017). (The director has also made several video interviews with filmmakers for the Notebook.) In Notes, he assembles deadpan performances and rigidly composed close-ups of hands, faces, food, and stationery into something resembling a story. David (Bingham Bryant), a recent graduate newly arrived in Brooklyn, starts assisting his roommate Todd (Keith Poulson) with research for a biography of a controversial theorist named Stephen Taubes. When David suddenly vanishes around halfway through the film, Todd and David’s girlfriend Madeline (Tallie Medel) try to find answers using the paper trail he leaves behind.
The paucity of expository detail in Notes—characters are filmed against placeless pastel backgrounds, and travel is indicated simply by the movement of a finger along a map of the New York subway—turns every image into a sign, offering temptingly bare, sunlit surfaces on which to project meaning. As such, the film has been interpreted in varying ways by critics: as a skewering of the hermetic world of academia, an allegory about young people contending with late capitalism, and an ode to the ever-changing scape of New York City. As the plurality of readings indicates, the one thing Notes is inarguably concerned with is the act of meaning-making. Before he disappears, David, charged with cataloguing random writings and videos of Taubes’ that no one knows what to make of, is instructed by the scholar’s estate to remove all incriminating details of his life from the biography. These tasks underscore the difficulty—and arbitrariness—of narrativization, later reinforced by Madeline’s and Todd’s efforts to make sense of the scraps and notes David leaves behind. The film seems to ask: can we fashion a narrative out of the stray remnants of someone’s life? Are things—objects, events, utterances—inherently linked by a causational order, or do they just exist, waiting for our hermeneutic work to fill the gaps? This conceit extends meta-fictionally to the structure of the film. Some of D’Ambrose’s more inspired DIY choices, such as the synecdochal use of a postcard image and found footage of the Milan cathedral to establish a foreign location, are Kuleshovian flourishes that highlight the role that the spectator plays in filmic construction.
Algerian filmmaker Karim Moussaoui’s debut feature Until the Birds Return is also concerned with the making of narratives; however, the film elevates this concern to the level of the nation and to the shaping of a national imaginary. At first glance, the film’s three loquacious, meandering stories—musings on human relationships in the style of Woody Allen or Hong Sang-soo—might seem too slight to support such a reading. But Algeria’s recent civil war—invoked most explicitly in the film’s third chapter—casts an unmistakable shadow, framing Until the Birds Return as a rumination on a people’s attempt at fashioning a collective present out of the still-fresh wounds of a bloody history. Considered in this light, the banal lives and preoccupations of the film’s characters feel almost radical, a necessary assertion of—and aspiration for—normalcy in a region still predominated by narratives of internecine chaos.
Guided by a wonderfully ambulatory storytelling impulse, Until the Birds Return traverses the country from north to south, offering a lateral survey of its landscapes as well as its diverse social classes. Each of the film’s three chapters features a character caught within a particular nexus of societal relations and faced with a distinctly temporal dilemma (as hinted at by the film’s anticipatory title.) In the first chapter, wealthy, middle-aged divorcee Mourad (Mohamed Djouhri) is plagued by guilt after failing to report a random act of violence he accidentally witnesses late one night. In the second part of the film, Mourad’s chauffeur Djalil (Mehdi Ramdani) drives Aicha (Hania Amar), the daughter of his devout and orthodox neighbor, across the country to the site of her wedding. An unexpected delay forces them to spend a day together and reckon with their secretive romantic history. In the film’s final chapter, a woman accuses soon-to-be-married neurologist Dahman (Hassan Kachach) of having been a silent bystander to her gang rape during the war, making him contend with a traumatic past he has painstakingly repressed.
These stories play out without a strict dramatic structure, often bleeding into one another (Dahman briefly crosses paths with Mourad in the third act) or going off into arbitrary detours that add rich, humane detail to Moussaoui’s portrait of modern-day Algeria. Some of these interludes are brief and discursive: After Aicha and Djalil pass through a pomegranate farm, the camera stays with the farmer and his son for a few moments as they debate the ethical validity of private property. Others are long and musical, such as a whimsical entr’acte in which a band of nomadic musicians appears out of nowhere and starts performing straight into the camera. These digressions create the impression of a narrative being written in real-time, emphasizing the in-flux, still-searching nature of contemporary Algeria’s self-identity and gesturing towards the expanse of untold stories that lies beyond the contours of the film’s plot.
Given the festival’s emphasis on envelope-pushing work by burgeoning filmmakers, more traditional genre fare is relatively rare at New Directors/New Films. Gustav Möller’s mystery-thriller The Guilty comes close; however, an ingenious structural gimmick bestows it with the same self-aware formalism that characterizes the more experimental entries in the line-up. When Swedish alarm dispatcher Asger Holm (a perfectly cast Jakob Cedergren), receives a distress call from a woman abducted by her ex-husband, he embarks on an obsessive, high-octane quest to track her down. However—and herein lies the twist—his pursuit is set entirely within the confines of the call center, allowing Möller to pare the narrative down to its most basic elements and deploy them with calculated precision.
It’s not an entirely unprecedented premise—films like Steven Knight’s Locke (2013) and Brad Anderson’s The Call (2013) have experimented with similar single-set conceits—but Möller’s careful manipulation of form and duration turns his lab-grown thriller into a gripping study of genre. Leveraging the plot’s dependency on phones, he builds tension using a simple, but addictive call-and-response structure: the brrr of Asger’s vibrating mobile and the red flash of his emergency hotline become Pavlovian jolts of suspense, punctuating the cop’s festering anticipation inside the dim, claustrophobic call center. Framed in extreme, shadowy close-ups, Asger’s face registers the snaking turns of the plot (relayed mostly via phone by an expressive voice cast) like a Richter scale, fluctuating erratically between furious, desperate, and deeply melancholic.
The Guilty’s primary pleasures—nail-biting tension, rug-pulling revelations, pathos-heavy stakes—are par for the genre’s course, but Möller also weaves in some surprisingly topical subtext about retributive justice and police brutality. Much of this has to do with Asger’s relentless and self-righteous tendency to disregard protocol and take matters into his own hands. The film slowly fills us in on his backstory, revealing this impulsiveness to be his tragic flaw: he is a former officer relegated to emergency dispatch after gratuitously shooting a young felon. As Asger gradually comes to terms with his mistakes, Möller and co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen achieve the delicate balance of affording him vulnerability and empathy, but not sympathy. Rather than allowing its flawed protagonist an arc of redemption, The Guilty brings him to a poignant reckoning.
If The Guilty doubles down on genre, distilling the thriller into a highly concentrated form, Good Manners goes audaciously in the opposite direction. Even as Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s rollicking second feature revels in the classic tropes of horror and fantasy, it bends them into other genres with a freewheeling playfulness. What starts as a slow-boiling social drama about two women from different ends of São Paolo’s class spectrum—the wealthy, white and pregnant Ana (Marjorie Estiano) and her newly-hired black maid Clara (Isabél Zuaa)—gradually segues into an intimate lesbian romance, and then transforms into a gory supernatural thriller. Clara observes that Ana sleepwalks in a trance every month during the full moon; on one of these nights, she watches her lover nonchalantly dismember and devour a street cat. Soon after, a baby werewolf claws its way out of Ana’s stomach, killing her in a surprisingly graphic fashion. But this is only the midpoint of the film: unable to abandon Ana’s monstrous infant, Clara takes it home and decides to raise it as a boy named Joel. The film moves forward seven years and morphs into its final incarnation, a coming-of-age film crossed with a creature feature.
All these tonal and stylistic variations—which also include musical interludes and a hand-painted flashback sequence—might sound haphazard, but Rojas and Dutra demonstrate a surprisingly easy-flowing, coherent aesthetic that feels both specific and eclectic. As the directors explained in an interview with Film Comment, their approach to filmmaking emerged as a response to the ways in which Brazilian movies are often lumped together under the label of “national cinema,” while Western cinema is afforded many specialized categories. The shape-shifting Good Manners collapses these dichotomies, combining a flair for pastiche with a strong, grounded sense of place. Each of the film’s sections is lovingly crafted as an homage to its cinematic forebears: the horror scenes employ deep shadows and moody blue-green colors à la the low-budget atmospherics of Jacques Tourneur; the musical sequences are set against matte backdrops that evoke studio-era Hollywood; and the parts that center on the boy werewolf feature the bright, pop colors and rhythmic montages of a Disney fairytale. But these movie-magic fantasies are firmly embedded within São Paolo’s sociocultural specificities and inequities, which Good Manners explores through the unique Otherness of each of its characters: the lonely but defiant Ana, shunned by her wealthy family for getting pregnant before her wedding; the impoverished yet resilient Carla, who fiercely protects her werewolf child from an intolerant world; and the feisty Joel, who struggles to reconcile his life as a young boy with a dark secret he barely comprehends. It’s not a groundbreaking conceit—after all, every good fantasy film is ultimately about the Other—but Good Manners pulls it off with a thrilling mix of style and heart increasingly rare in genre cinema.