Cinema of the USA


In comparison to its documentary and animation counterparts, the slate of nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Films cuts a sorry figure. Racism, patriarchy, ableism are formidable villains embraced for their dramatic potential, turned into reliable strawmen and dutifully slain for liberal edification.

The least contentious of the nominees, Martin Strange-Hansen’s On My Mind (2021) contains no villains as such. There is certainly a greedy bar owner (Ole Gorter Boisen) who tries to palm off expensive whisky on our protagonist Henrik (Rasmus Hammerich), but even he redeems himself at the end. The bulk of the film is a single scene at the bar where Henrik tries to convince the owner and his wife (Camilla Bendix) to turn on the karaoke set so he can sing Elvis Presley’s Always on My Mind for his wife — a song that, he says, makes the soul fly. And he only has fifteen minutes to do it. The film’s strong point is this theatrical integrity of time and place, thanks to which it is able to set up fine passages of tension.

The time pressure also creates a mystery around Henrik, who is something of a poet. He is not a great singer, but the song has a great deal of meaning for him. In the film’s opening scene, he is seen breathing heavily at the window, his exhalation creating fog on the pane. He later makes a lyrical observation about it. Henrik’s existential outlook, combined with the information that he is on borrowed time, invites the supposition that he is on death row, but the mystery is resolved differently. Compared to the critical bite that the other nominees have, however, On My Mind is practically harmless.

Towering far above its competitors is Kristen Dávila’s Please Hold (2020), a Kafkaesque parable of a man arrested without charge and faced with a lifetime in prison. The tale is timeless, but the setting is an unspecified future in which automation reigns supreme. On his way to work, Mateo (Erick Lopez) is arrested by a police drone and sent to a detention facility run by a private company called Correcticorp. There are no human personnel at the complex, with everything from catering to legal services carried out through voice-commanded AI systems, all of it charged to the prisoner’s bank account.

The film may present a dystopian fantasy, but its projections are based on questions around technology and industry that are all very current: the removal of the human element from value judgment, the commercialization of personal time, the judicial fallout of machine errors, the romanticization of hand-made objects and the conception of legal process as service. These are philosophical ideas that you might find on The Guardian’s science pages, and the success of the film lies in synthesizing them into an alarming vision of the future.

Please Hold works as well as it does because it pitches this cautionary tale about technology — software, hardware, beware! — as a dark comedy rather than drama. Mateo struggles with the computer in his cell to find a lawyer to help him, but his mounting frustration cannot be taken out on the computer screen, for it is his only chance at freedom. On his prison walls, he scribbles what may be the final words of many of us when trapped in such a future: “read the fine print.”

The Long Goodbye (2020), starring Riz Ahmed, was made as an accompaniment to the actor’s album of the same name. It is understandable then that the film’s thrust is less dramaturgical than musical. Directed by Aneil Karia, it begins with scenes from a middle-class desi household in suburban Britain. An extended family prepares for a wedding: girls gossip as they put on mehndi, a couple is playing a quiz game, Riz is learning some dance moves from a nephew, blocking his father’s view of the TV. Such episodes of curated chaos, marked by accumulating friction between characters, are familiar to us from the films of Gurinder Chadha or Mira Nair.

But The Long Goodbye shifts gears when assorted armed men, clad in black, storm the house. “It’s happening,” Riz shouts, as if this invasion were long coming. It would be no spoiler to say that the family is dragged to the streets and shot as neighbours watch the horror from behind their windows. The film breaks away from its realistic description as Riz, having survived the massacre, begins a monologue in verse. His rap, a number called Where You From, speaks of his complicated identity as a brown Briton. This is slam poetry made film and the lyrics are the kind that make Twitter go into a tizz. Viewer mileage, though, would depend on their appreciation for lines like “Yeah I make my own space in this business of Britishness / Your question’s just limiting, it’s based on appearances.”

Tadeusz Łysiak’s The Dress (2020) and Maria Brendle’s Ala Kachuu – Take and Run (2020) are products of arthouse melodrama at its high academic stage. Both films offer non-normative subjects as points of identification — a working-class woman of short stature in the former, a young woman from rural Kyrgyzstan in the latter — and make us see the problems that they face because of their identity. The style is naturalistic, the filmic expression restrained and the meaning largely presented through symbolism. Cinema, in this scheme of things, becomes what the critic Roger Ebert called “empathy-generating machine.”

Even so, The Dress comes across as a rather cruel work. Protagonist Julia (Anna Dzieduszycka) is a small person who performs room service at a small-town hotel in Poland. A frustrated virgin, she makes up for her inexperience with world-weary chain-smoking. There’s another compensation at work: as someone who has lost the genetic lottery, Julia spends all her free time playing slot machines at the local bar. She faces discrimination and bigotry every day, but chooses to stay in the town and “teach people a lesson.” Her desperation results in a funny scene of flirtation where she dares an interested truck driver to take the next step.

Except for one shot of her walking with the trucker, Łysiak films Julia mostly at eye level or in isolated shots such that we don’t see how short she really is. Her periodic conversations with an older colleague (Dorota Pomykala) are a welcome relief from her disappointments. But the film keeps insisting that Julia is an incomplete woman, doomed to look yearningly at perfect feminine bodies or vent that she’d rather be a “normal woman.” It takes her through one insult after another, as though these were the only experiences available to her.

The longest of the nominees, Ala Kachuu furnishes its main character a little more manoeuvring space, but its distortions are equally telling. Sezim (Alina Turdumamatova) is an aspiring young woman from a traditional rural family. She wants to continue her studies in the city, but her parents want to marry her off. She flees the village and takes up with Aksana (Madina Talipbekova), another single young woman whose rejection of tradition has brought disrepute to her family back home. In the city, Sezim is kidnapped by a band of men and forced into marriage. Worse, her parents accept this union and abandon her to fate.

Ala Kachuu demonstrates the perils of bringing an unreflective Western perspective to bear upon non-Western phenomena that it doesn’t have the necessary intellectual wherewithal to grapple with. Picking an extreme case within the practice of bride kidnapping, the film takes the easy out way by dramatizing the struggle of an modern-thinking individual against reactionary upholders of tradition. The film may bring more attention to the bride lifting, but what it does first is to reinforce its prospective audience’s ideas of itself and the world.

 

[First published at News9]

Disability in sport, homelessness, school bullying and war-induced displacement are some of the themes of the films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) this year. All five works showcase the capacity of individuals to overcome adverse circumstances.

More importantly, these films attest to an increasing willingness on the part of documentary filmmakers to incorporate fictional methods, to dramatize their material in collaboration with their subjects. Whether this impulse stems from a concern to compete with fiction films for the viewer’s attention or from a confidence in the authenticity of their narratives remains to be seen. But on the evidence of some of these shorts, we may be witnessing the evolution of a Netflix documentary aesthetic.

The Queen of Basketball (2021) is a relatively conventional biographical sketch about Lusia Harris, an icon of women’s basketball in the US and the only woman to be drafted by the men’s NBA. Harris, who passed away in January, was the tenth of eleven children in a family of sharecroppers in the state of Mississippi. Towering at 6’3”, she was part of the college team at Delta State University that won three consecutive national championships.

As a poor Black woman in the Deep South, and one who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder later in life, Harris has evidently had to overcome several disadvantages. Where a feature length documentary would have furnished more context, The Queen of Basketball touches upon these aspects of her identity only in passing. Interspersing interviews with Harris with archival clips of her games, director Ben Proudfoot focuses instead on her individual accomplishment.

Some of the sports footage is rousingly scored to Vivaldi, but Proudfoot multiplies the cuts for no apparent reason other than to impart some pace to the film. That Harris’ statements are constantly interrupted by edits may owe to issues of articulation, but when key passages of play are also broken into multiple shots, it takes something away from their power.

Basketball is often promoted as a way out of poverty for Black children, but Harris’ case illustrates a telling counter-example: as there was no women’s NBA at the time, Harris struggled to make a living, had to give up playing in order to raise a family. The film ends on the note that all her children are highly educated today, two of them holding doctorates. Does she have regrets about her shortened career?  “Maybe the world would have known my name had I continued playing. But I didn’t, so I don’t speculate,” she smiles.

Audible (2021), in contrast, is a sports biography in the present. At its centre Amaree, a football player representing the Maryland School for the Deaf. Directed by Matt Ogens, the film follows Amaree through his senior year, his relationship with his family and friends and the intense training that he and his teammates undergo after a scarring defeat. As a hearing-impaired team, Amaree and co. are certainly disadvantaged in the field in some ways, but as their coach says, it also helps them cut out the noise from outside.

An undiscerning viewer could mistake Audible for an underdog sports drama, thanks to its slick finish with stroboscopic lighting effects, slow-motion sequences and impressive sports photography. There is a pointed fictional quality to the scenes featuring Amaree’s conversations with his girlfriend and his estranged father. Interviews with Amaree and his friends are interestingly presented in sign language, without voiceover and with subtitles, which makes the film’s sound design choices more transparent. On the other hand, Amaree’s father’s speeches at the church aren’t accompanied by any on-screen sign language, prompting the question of whether the film was conceived only for the hearing.

There is lingering doubt as to what future awaits Amaree and his mates after school, when they have to go out into the world without the protection of their community. Sensitive to discrimination, however, the youngsters seem more accepting of racial and sexual differences, more determined to prove themselves equal. From the looks of it, the kids are alright.

The future is also in contention in Three Songs for Benazir (2021), the only nominee not set in the US. The film is a human-interest story that follows Shaista and his wife Benazir, a young couple internally displaced by the war in Afghanistan and interned in a refugee camp in Kabul. Shaista is faced with the option of either joining the national army or going to work in the poppy fields. The former would earn him a respectable living, but at the risk of antagonizing the Taliban, who still seem to hold sway over the refugees’ lives. Harvesting opium, on the other hand, would pose the risk of addiction and of coming under the influence of the Taliban.

Members of Shaista’s family refuse to sign his enlistment form, and his conversations with them comprise the most absorbing moments of the film. Shaista’s father tells him that, because he doesn’t have an education, someone would steal his “machine gun and satellite.” Shaista’s brothers are a little more convincing, pointing to his pregnant wife who might be widowed. Hovering over these exchanges is the US presence in the form of a surveillance balloon, an eye just as omniscient as the Taliban with their ears to the ground.

On the margins of it all is Benazir herself, a silent witness but also a moving force. Over the course of the film, shot over many years, we see her transform from a giggly girl slapping her husband’s arm to a taciturn woman covering her face in front of the camera. In the end, when she comes with her two boys to a rehab centre that Shaista has been admitted to, we perceive the toll of time on her face just as much as on her husband’s emaciated body.

Like Shaista and Benazir, some of the participants of Lead Me Home (2021) are hopeful despite their bleak circumstances. Shot in the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle between 2017 and 2020, the film explores the problem of homelessness in the West Coast. Directors Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk offer a composite if clouded picture of the phenomenon, juxtaposing everyday scenes from the lives of homeless individuals with soundbites from NGOs, policy makers and citizens. Filmed seductively in tracking or drone shots, the cities themselves become a character, their streets and parks dotted with rows and rows of shanty settlements.

The list of interviewees spans genders, age groups, ethnicities, sexual orientations and marital status, and each one comes to the welfare services with a different set of expectations and problems. The most harrowing account is that of a single mother who, pregnant again by rape, tries to keep her children away from the streets. For someone not familiar with the relevant public policy, it is not always clear why certain participants come back to the streets after getting an apartment or why they can’t find jobs. More than any of the other nominees, this is the film that needed an elaborate, Frederick Wiseman treatment.

Unlike the other four works, When We Were Bullies (2021) is structured around an absence. When filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt contacted Richard Silberg for some voiceover work, he realized that they were both perpetrators in the same bullying incident at elementary school. Amazed at the coincidence, but also ashamed at his participation in the event, Rosenblatt set out on an investigation. He reached out to all his classmates in grade five involved in the act, asking them what they remember of the victim. With Silberg, he revisited the primal scene at his school after fifty years, trying to make sense of both the event and his response to it.

It’s a remarkably powerful idea, but also an extremely challenging one, poised on the fine line between introspection and self-absorption, where the search for justice and reconciliation can easily collapse into an exercise of guilt. Written like a New York Times feature article, Bullies is unfortunately far too focused on its own process to be able to see a way out of the dilemma.

But the film’s bigger problem is formal. To illustrate his lines, Rosenblatt repeatedly employs clips from old educational documentaries such that there is a short circuit between the individuals he speaks about and the figures on the screen. The long middle section of the film consists of a series of telephone recordings whose content is visualized by extended stop-motion animation of photo cut-outs. The filmmaker generously includes his primary school teacher’s prediction about his film-in-progress: “possibly very tedious to watch.”

 

[First published in News9]

Slavoj Žižek once argued to the effect that capitalism can only truly be actualized in a communist state like China. In Ascension (2020), nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, American filmmaker Jessica Kingdon travels to the country that she has roots in to test this hypothesis, as it were. Amassing footage from factories, markets, corporate offices, training seminars, recycling plants, business conferences and theme parks, Kingdon builds an experimental documentary that seeks to illustrate the march of the free market, Chinese style.

The film opens in a literal labour market where head-hunters from various companies recruit blue collar workers like hawkers selling wares. They announce the nature of the job (standing/sitting), wages offered, allowances and other curious requirements: no tattoos, no prison record, perfect vision, no metal implants in the body and maximum allowed height. Once the quorum is achieved, company buses ferry the new recruits to their respective dormitories and workplaces.

Shortly after this, we see vignettes of Taylorized labour from the food, textile and packaging industries: workers sort roasted ducks, jeans pants, plastic bottles or syringes, while elsewhere, they segregate incoming trash for recycling. The job is repetitive, but the procession of commodities on conveyor belts makes for alluring patterns. Soundbites present employees’ complaints with their bosses and their pay.

This section also contains the most extraordinary find of the film: a nearly all-woman shop floor that manufactures life-size sex dolls. The women are absorbed in work, either designing the dolls or instructing trainees on finer details. Their precision and skill make them look like gynaecologists or coroners; they measure the size of nipples, craft private parts, glaze the skin and fill cavities. They handle chemicals and high-temperature tools without gloves, and this scene of women exposing their real bodies to hazard in order to produce fantasy bodies makes for some uncanny images.

Half-an-hour into the film, the attention turns to the service industry, where neophytes in different domains are put through arduous, even inhuman training regimes. This is evident in the episode set in a company that supplies security personnel. Indistinguishable from an army boot camp, the firm’s induction programme humiliates recruits for their mistakes, makes them slap each other until they are sore and has them perform dangerous car stunts. But equally rigorous are the preparatory classes in the field of hospitality, where candidates are instructed on how many teeth to show when smiling or how high to raise the arms when going for a hug.

How is capitalism à la chinoise different from capitalism elsewhere? For one, it is complicated by forces external to the market, but not inimical to it. Ascension traces how the Chinese state’s emphasis on civic virtues combines with free market values to inculcate an economic morale in the citizens. Trainees pledge their “loyalty” to the company: “I will behave myself!  I will follow orders!” they declare marching. The Chinese dream — hard work guarantees success — is only the American dream in garb, but when laced with a dose of wounded nationalism, it can become a moral imperative.

Ascension, however, has greater ambitions and makes forays into the informal economy of freelancers and influencers — the subject of Shengze Zhu’s fine documentary Present.Perfect (2019). Streaming their lessons or everyday life simultaneously on different online portals using multiple smartphones, these young entrepreneurs use the same predatory language of their corporate counterparts: “knowledge that is monetized is useless” avows one personal branding guru; “influence or be influenced,” states another.

The film trains its guns finally on the consumers themselves: hordes of young college goers enjoying theme park rides, kiddies on a day out at the water world, gamers sealed to their seats playing Dota in internet cafes. We accompany an affluent family that at an upscale restaurant, served by the waiters we have just seen in training. They discuss European table manners, cutlery design, ski resorts and the trade war with US. It would seem that the elites are in some kind of self-training too, modifying their manners to imitate old world bourgeoisie.

Ascension contains some on-screen text and snatches of conversations between factory workers. But there are no voiceovers or talking head interviews with authorities to guide us through its narrative. It is indeed admirable that the film expects the audience to do the intellectual labour of accessing its meaning. But this comes at the cost of rigour.

Ascension is characterized by the bloat that often accompanies an overabundance of research material. Like American documentarian Lauren Greenfield, Kingdon has enviable access to scores of factory floors, corporate training programs and consumer forums — access whose details she does not care to reveal. Her film seems gripped by the anxiety of leaving anything out from the wealth of footage that must have come from this outing.

The result is a highly unwieldy film that goes everywhere and nowhere in particular. It isn’t that Ascension has no discursive framework, but that its material is so wide-ranging and scattershot that the film’s argument is generalized and its focus spread thin. Kingdon jumps not just across industries, factories, work sites and job descriptions, but also across economic activities and modes of being. The film’s vignettes are all connected by the single fact that the participants in them are embedded in the capitalist machinery. But then, who isn’t? Filmmakers perhaps. That Ascension is produced by MTV, a network known for shaping late-capitalist visual culture, is an irony that the film lets pass by.

It is to Kingdon’s credit that the film does not devolve into a freak show like Greenfield’s Generation Wealth (2018) or Sascha Schoeberl’s Mirror, Mirror on the Wall (2020), although the shot here of an automatic piano playing the Addams Family theme doesn’t exactly feel out of place. The filmmaker is also able to capture workers during their “down time”, breaking for lunch, taking a nap or watching videos at work.

These embellishments aside, the dominant note of Ascension, amplified by a nervous-making score, will only serve to reinforce the viewer’s prejudices: factories are dehumanizing places, the rich are fake and shallow, the service industry is a put-on, and the planet is drowning in our greed and glut. The film’s formal gambit, which has precedents in non-narrative works such as Godfrey Reggio Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Ron Fricke’s Baraka (1992), means that we barely get to know the opinions of the participants themselves on work, money and good living.

The concern that Ascension exhibits about the malaise of our times is obviously justified. But its diagnosis lacks the discipline and precision needed to advance the debate. There is a shot of a caged ostrich late in the film, sandwiched between sequences about video gamers and theme park visitors. Its purpose or emotional logic is unclear, and like much else in the film, it is washed away in the excess on display. Kingdon’s film needed just what its subjects do: a little bit of minimalism and abstinence.

 

[First published at News9]

I learnt a new term on social media this year (or maybe it was last year, who knows?): the Overton Window. Wikipedia defines it as “range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time.” By extension, it also designates the gamut of utterances that defines the limits of a discourse at a given point in time. As we sit aghast here in India watching this window slide to the right of the political spectrum—to a point that inclusion of conservative and extreme-right figures on televised debates constitutes diversity of opinion—the pandemic appears to have redrawn the old battle lines of film discourse. Forget the fight for celluloid over digital cinematography and projection. The old fogeys of today are those that think the theatrical experience means something, while the median of the Overton Window consists in debating what makes for good OTT content.

I don’t feel particularly compelled to take sides on this debate. As it happens, 2021 was the year that I did not go to the cinemas at all, and truth be told, it wasn’t entirely due to the health crisis. A number of other projects kept me busy in these twelve months, including the release of the hardcover version of my first book, and as it is, I find it increasingly hard to get excited about this or the other production. Except for the end-year binge that made this list possible, I must say I hardly saw films in 2021 and that includes older ones. I regret not being able to watch West Side Story, which had a run of less than a week in my city and was elbowed out by another Disney tentpole released on the same day. Who would have thought that the Overton Window now ranges from Spielberg to Spiderman? Anyway, here are my favourite films from this cursed year.

 

1. France (Bruno Dumont, France)

What comprises the blight of modern life? The reverse shot, answers Bruno Dumont in his scorching new dramedy about celebrity news reporter France, played by a dazzling Léa Seydoux, who cannot help but make it about herself in every story she does. Fresh off two films on Joan of Arc, Dumont gets his hands dirty with the profane world of modern media. And yet, it’s a spiritual tale that he tells. The filmmaker often quotes Péguy about the need to “stand up where one is.” That is what France does after she is subject to one moral crisis after another in her professional and personal life: rattled by a minor accident that she causes, France begins to see things “as they are”, subtracting herself from the reverse shot, but this grasping at saintliness doesn’t last long. She returns to her profession, not necessarily wiser but more authentic, and in doing so, reaches a state that may be seen as one of grace. It isn’t a media satire that France is after, but something all-pervasive, the simultaneous genuineness and falsity of our emotions faced with harrowing images of the world. Dumont’s film is daring, tasteless, compelling, overblown, contradictory and superbly stylized. Familiar but uncanny, it is everything you don’t want it to be.

 

2. Dear Chantal (Nicolás Pereda, Mexico)

An apartment evermore waiting to be occupied, letters responding to inquiries not heard, a voice never embodied in the image: Pereda’s five-minute short is a haunting, haunted tribute to the late Chantal Akerman that is structured around absence and substitution. We hear Pereda replying to fictitious queries by the Belgian filmmaker about renting out his sister’s apartment in Mexico City, and we see his sister readying the apartment, moving out paintings or clearing foliage from the skylight. In the film’s robust organization, Pereda, his sister and Akerman become mediums, connecting links in each other’s (after)lives: Pereda, unseen, serving as a middleman between the apartment owner and the impossible future tenant; his sister, unheard, taking the place of Akerman who will never feature in Pereda’s film; and Akerman herself, unseen and unheard, bringing the siblings together in a non-existent real estate deal. In an act of respect and love, Dear Chantal creates a physical space for Akerman to continue to exist, even if not in flesh and blood, just as No Home Movie, Akerman’s final work before her suicide in 2015, grappled with the physical absence of her recently deceased mother. The film imagines an alternate reality that brings Pereda and Akerman together not in artistic collaboration, but in the banal transactions of everyday living.

 

3. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Aleksandre Koberidze, Georgia)

How would Lubitsch do it? Well, if the old master were a contemporary filmmaker, ‘it’ would probably resemble Koberidze’s off-kilter, disarming romantic comedy about two lovers-to-be who work at a shop around the corner without recognizing each other all summer. What Do We See is obviously designed to please, but there is never a sense that it panders to its audience. Like the best storytellers, Koberidze knows that pleasure can be deepened by deferring gratification, and to this end, his film takes surprising excursions away from its central story, restarting at will and relegating its lead couple to the margin as though reposing faith in destiny to bring them together. This vast negative space of the narrative clarifies the larger objective of the film, which is to integrate its characters into the landscape of the ancient town of Kutuisi, whose faces and places, ebbs and flows, become the central subject. Pinning down the fable-like story on the voiceover allows the director to employ a complex, highly unusual visual syntax—that nevertheless derives from classical Hollywood cinema—without disorienting the viewer. The film involves magic, but Koberidze demonstrates that a towel flying through the frame can be as enrapturing as the most outlandish fairy tales.

 

4. Babi Yar. Context (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine)

The title says it all. Loznitsa’s new documentary represents a modulation of style for the filmmaker. Where his found footage work so far dropped the viewer into specific historical events in medias res, without much preparation, Babi Yar. Context offers a broader picture. With the help of archival material, but also uncharacteristic intertitles, the film details the events leading up to, and following, the Babi Yar Massacre of September 1941, where over 33,000 Jews were killed over two days in the eponymous ravine in Kiev. We see Ukrainian citizens welcoming the occupying Nazi forces with enthusiasm and collaborating in the persecution of their Jewish compatriots. In an illustration of the failure of archival, the massacre itself isn’t represented except in photographs of its aftermath. Loznitsa’s shocking film is a rousing J’accuse! directed at his nation, at the willingness of its citizens in enabling genocide, at the amnesia that allowed for the valley to be turned into an industrial dumping ground. Loznitsa’s newfound desire to contextualize his material should be construed less as a loss of faith in images to speak ‘for themselves’ than as a critical acknowledgement of their power to deceive. After all, the Red Army is welcomed with comparable pomp after they liberate Kiev, this formal continuity with the reception of the Nazis concealing a crisis of content.

 

5. Bellum – The Daemon of War (David Herdies, Georg Götmark, Sweden/Denmark)

The spectre of Harun Farocki hovers over Herdies and Götmark’s excellent documentary about war, technology and the production of images. A meditation on Western attitudes to armed conflict, Bellum unfolds as an anthology of three human interest stories: a Swedish engineer involved in designing an AI-powered military drone that will take autonomous decisions on bombing a perceived target, a war veteran in Nevada suffering from PTSD and having trouble reintegrating into civilian life, a photojournalist from the East Coast who covers the aftermath of the Afghan war. Well-meaning though these individuals might be, their lives and work are marked by a certain guilt surrounding the fact of war. This is evident in the case of the vet, but the photographer’s own activity may not be untouched by a liberal sense of culpability about her country’s interventions in Afghanistan. The engineer’s efforts to bypass the human factor of war, too, is an attempt to eradicate feelings of guilt about liquidating an enemy, which, the film’s narrator notes, is the only real restraining force in armed conflict. Bellum cogently points out the ways in which technology—of training, of intervention—increasingly eliminates human fallibility from the equation of war, for as Colonel Kurtz put it, “it’s judgment that defeats us.”

 

6. The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, USA)

I don’t know if Bruno Dumont and Paul Schrader saw each other’s films this year, but I’m certain they would both have much to say to one another. If First Reformed (2017) was the subtext, The Card Counter is the text, a film that is all surface. Where the earlier work stood out in the authenticity of its character and milieu, the new film aspires to an artificiality worthy of the casinos and bars it mostly unfolds in. Schrader tells the same Catholic story he has always been telling, that of God’s Lonely Man who is mired in mud but has his eyes on the skies. Oscar Isaac portrays William Tell, convict turned cardsharp who tries to save a younger man from self-destruction, but faced with divine indifference, decides to play God himself. Formally, Schrader doesn’t deviate from the Bresson-Ozu-Dreyer axis of the previous film—what Schrader rightly or otherwise called the Transcendental Style—and this reserve produces a productive friction between the film’s style and noir setting of the story. In that, The Card Counter is highly reminiscent of American Gigolo (1980), which is to say that, despite the references to Abu Ghraib, it is a work completely out of joint with the present. It is incredible this film even exists.

 

7. The Year Before the War (Dāvis Sīmanis, Latvia)

Even if we are done with the 20th century, suggests Sīmanis’ singular, absurd period comedy, the 20th century isn’t yet done with us. When Hans, an opportunistic doorman at a Riga hotel, is falsely implicated in a bombing, he flees the Latvian capital to shuttle from one European city to another. The Europe of 1913 that Hans traverses is less a real geography than an abstract zone of competing political currents. War is around the corner, and there are several groups trying to influence the course of history. Zealous ideologues seek to entice and co-opt him, subjecting him to what Louis Althusser called “interpellation.” All through, Hans fights hard to follow his own moral compass, flee subjecthood and retain his individuality. A historical picaresque, Sīmanis’ film is interested in the singularity of this particular juncture in Western history—a point at which fin de siècle optimism about technology and human rationality came crashing against the reality of trench warfare—where countless isms sought to impose their own vision on the world. It would seem that Sīmanis views Latvia of the early 20th century as something of an ideological waystation, an unstable intellectual field where free radicals like Hans couldn’t help but be neutralized. And that vision isn’t without contemporary resonance.

 

8. Mr. Bachmann and His Class (Maria Speth, Germany)

Maria Speth’s expansive documentary about a batch of preteen students, mostly of an immigrant background, in a public school in Stadtallendorf, Hessen, is a classroom film that achieves something special. Remaining with the children for almost its entire four-hour runtime allows it to individuate them, to look at them as independent beings with their own skills, desires and prejudices, just as their charismatic teacher-guide-philosopher Dieter Bachmann adopts a different approach to each of his pupils. For Bachmann, it would seem, whatever the students accomplish academically during the year is of secondary importance. He knows that he is dealing with a group with an inchoate sense of self: first as pre-adolescents, then as new immigrants. Consequently, he spends a great deal of effort in giving them a sense of community, creating a space where they can be themselves. At the same time, the classroom is a social laboratory where new ideas are introduced and the children brought to interrogate received opinion, all under Bachmann’s paternal authority. Speth insists on the particularity of these individuals and there is no sense that our star teacher is indicative of the schooling system in Germany at large. Bachmann is an exception, and in his exceptionalism lies a promise, a glimpse of how things could be.

 

9. Out of Sync (Juanjo Giménez, Spain)

It’s an ingenious, wholly cinematic premise: estranged from family and friends, a sound engineer spends her nights at her film studio until she starts to experience a lag between what she sees and what she hears. Juanjo Giménez’s absorbing psychological thriller riffs on this setup, weaving its implications into a coherent character study of a young woman out of sync with her life. The result contains some very amusing set pieces constructed around the delay between sound and image, but also one of the most sublime romantic scenes of all time, one that begins with rude abandonment and ends at a silent movie show. Marta Nieto is brilliant as the unnamed protagonist who withdraws into a shell and then reconnects with herself and the world. She brings a fierce independence to the character that nuances its vulnerability. Its claustrophobic premise notwithstanding, Out of Sync feels like a very open work, integrated gracefully with the urban landscape of beautiful Barcelona. Watching the film in 2021, when so much of real-world interaction has been rendered into digital images and sounds, using Bluetooth speakers with their own latency to boot, is an uncanny experience.

 

10. Shared Resources (Jordan Lord, USA)

Ambitious to a fault, American artist Jordan Lord’s new work is nearly unwatchable. Yet it bends the documentary form like few films this year. Shared Resources is a home movie made over a considerable period of time, presented in scrambled chronology. We learn that Lord’s father was a debt collector fired by his bank, that his health is deteriorating due to diabetes, that the family lost most of its possessions in the Hurricane Katrina and that they had to declare bankruptcy shortly after Lord’s acceptance into Columbia University. All this material is, however, offered not directly but with a voiceover by Lord and his parents describing the footage we see, as though intended for the visually challenged, and two sets of subtitles, colour-coded for diegetic and non-diegetic speech, seemingly oriented towards the hearing disabled. In having his parents comment on images from rather difficult episodes in their lives, the filmmaker gives them a power over what is represented. Through all this, Lord initiates an exploration of debt in all its forms and shapes: paternal debt towards children, filial debt towards parents, the debt of a documentary filmmaker towards their subjects, one’s debt to their own body, the fuzzy line between love and indebtedness. This is an American film with an Asian sensibility.

 

Special Mention: From Where They Stood (Christophe Cognet, France/Germany)

Favourite Films of

2020 • 2019 • 2015 • 2014 • 2013 • 2012 • 2011 • 2010 • 2009

It is in leaving the Lumière factory that the workers give themselves over to cinema, that they attain the status both of actresses and of future spectators. Moving away from work, they enter the enchanted world of entertainment. For the world of work is only weakly enchanted (enchanting), and unlikely to be enchanted in return by cinema, except in the form of a nightmare…

– Jean-Louis Comolli, Images Documentaires 24

On 22 March 1895, in the Rue de Rennes in Paris, inventor and industrialist Louis Lumière presented a private demo of a motion picture system he had devised with his elder brother Auguste. The device was called Cinématographe, and the 17-metre strip of celluloid used to show its working was titled Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon-Monplaisir. Lasting about fifty seconds when projected at a certain speed, it showed a mass of labourers, mostly women, leaving the Lumière facility at lunch hour from either side of two gateways. The audience at the demo, composed of businessman, researchers and photography enthusiasts, was very different from the people on screen, as most movie audiences would be in the coming decades. Traditionally considered the first ever motion picture, Lumière’s film bound labour and cinema together for eternity, the image of workers leaving the factory being a veritable birthmark for the medium.

What is less well-known, however, is that there were at least three versions of the film. In the first two iterations, the gates are already open, and the workers flood out from the first frame onwards. Even so, the factory is not emptied by the time the picture ends — that is, by the time the camera runs out of film. The culprit appears to be a horse buggy that takes time to come out of the facility. The third version premiered in the first commercial showing of Lumières’ films in the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris on 28 December, 1895. In it, the door opens only after the film has begun, and thanks to the absence of the buggy, the workers get out in time and the door is (almost) closed. Now considered the definitive version, this “first film” in the history of cinema, was in fact a remake of a remake.

Why did Louis Lumière make several versions of the film? One theory is that, since there were no internegatives in the film development process at the time, the original negative degraded with every new print made. The picture had to be therefore reshot onto a new negative so that fresh copies could be made for various screenings across the continent. Another hypothesis is that the Lumières didn’t like the quality of the picture and judged that the factory gates should close before the camera ran out of film. After all, a door opening and closing in the manner of a theatrical curtain had a certain spectacle about it that is missing in the first two versions, which drop us in medias res, so to speak.

Whatever the reason, it is believed that, after the first version of March 1895, the brothers summoned their workers for repeated takes, sometime in early summer. The planned day of reshoot falling on the Lord’s Day, the Lumières requested their employees to come to the factory after the Sunday mass to simulate the scene of workers leaving for lunch on a workday. As a result, in the second and third versions of the film, the participants’ hats and clothes are fancier, their mood more cheerful: one female employee mischievously tugs at the skirt of another just as they take leave from each other. The actors themselves seem wiser to the presence of the camera, more professional, so to speak. In comparison to its predecessors, the third film is on the whole more harmonious, less chaotic, the flow of workers out the gates more streamlined. Except for an implacable canine and his bicycle-bound master, who appear in all three versions, the play of chance in this definitive version is minimal.

It is not known whether the participants were paid for any of the versions, if not as the first actors of cinema, at least as workers doing overtime (on a Sunday to boot — France wouldn’t become officially secular until ten years later). At the time, there was no law in effect in France limiting the working hours. Labour unions were illegal in the country until 1884 and the General Confederation of Labour (La CGT), France’s first and largest confederation of labour unions was established only in September 1896, sometime between the private and the commercial screenings of Lumières’ film. On 1 May 1891, incited by Paul Lafargue (a son-in-law of Karl Marx’s), textile workers up north organized demonstrations in favour of the eight-hour work day. In the town of Fourmies, soldiers opened fire on the demonstrators, killing nine young people.

The protests were an emanation of the ferment across the Atlantic, where there was considerable labour unrest in the preceding decade. In May 1886, workers in Chicago rallied in favour of a universal adoption of the eight-hour work day, until then applicable to only certain sections of the American workforce. The rallies turned violent, a bomb exploded and several people died. Three years later, the Second International, adopted the 1st of May as the International Workers’ Day to commemorate the events in Chicago and to continue the campaign for the eight-hour work day. The demonstration at Fourmies was part of this campaign.

Much has changed in the nature of labour, its conditions and its screen representation in the century since Lumières’ film. Workers Leaving a Factory seems to possess a historical innocence that is impossible to recapture now. The men and women leaving the Lumière factory did so in an era of industrial optimism and ground-breaking scientific progress. It wasn’t until the First World War, and its technologized warfare, that this faith in scientific rationalism was seriously questioned. With Fordism rendering skilled labour ever more marginal and the Great Depression causing unprecedented levels of unemployment, industrial work could no longer be viewed the same way. The downbeat image of hunched, robotic workers changing shifts in an underground industrial-city in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) or the cut from a herd of sheep to contemporary workers leaving the subway in Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) altered the primal scene of Lumières’ film irrevocably.

For the centenary anniversary of Workers Leaving a Factory, German filmmaker Harun Farocki made a video work of the same name, which traces the cinematic genealogy of the “first film”. Analysing photographed images of workers at factory gates through the years, Farocki deems it “an image like an expression, which can be suited to many occasions”. His film views the area outside the factory as a dialectical space. For one, it is the place of direct confrontation between Labour and Capital: between picketers and guards, between strikers and the police. The factory gate becomes the membrane that separates work from workers, an economic system from its constituents. It is at the factory gate that Labour and Capital identify themselves by identifying the other

Farocki also regards this space as facilitating diverging definitions of the public and the private. On one hand, the factory entrance mashes private individuals into the mass being called workforce. It is for this reason that much of popular cinema centres on life outside work. In these films, narratives about individual lives begin once work is over and the impersonal, faceless workforce dissolves into separate somebodies. They replace the viewer’s leisure time with that of the characters, our problems with theirs and provide vicarious pleasures and catharses. “Whenever possible, film has moved hastily away from factories” says Farocki’s narrator, noting that in one hundred years of cinema, there have been more prisons and correctional facilities than factories and workers. It is indeed telling that mainstream cinema has shown itself better equipped to depict work when it is a form of punishment or a crime than when it is part of an everyday reality.

On the other hand, suggests Farocki’s film, the area in front of the factory gates is itself subject to competing notions of property and theft. While the territorial imperative of Capital defines this liminal space as the company’s private property, for the workers it becomes a public area of discussion, congregation and protest. “Where the first camera once first stood, there are now hundreds of thousands of surveillance cameras”, goes Farocki’s narrator, pointing out how cinema unwittingly became an instrument to safeguard Capital. The apparent innocence of Lumières’ film may, however, be fallacious too. With the camera cranked by Louis Lumière himself, and his employees dutifully hurrying out of the factory under his instructions, it could be argued that even the first film was a form of surveillance footage.

Surveying the factory gates is evidently in the interests of owners, but what happens when employees do the surveying? In the era of invisible labour — the rise of the class of knowledge workers, the erosion of the boundary between workplace and home, and the ceaseless digitization of all work in general — does it even matter if the factory gates are watched over? Some companies certainly think so. In his digital video Workers Leaving the Googleplex (2011), American artist Andrew Norman Wilson recounts the repercussions of filming and talking to workers leaving the “ScanOps” facility at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. These temp workers, responsible for digitizing printed matter for Google Books, are comprised chiefly of people of colour and don’t have the same rights as other contract employees at the firm. Wilson, himself a contract employee with the tech giant at the time, was sacked for violating the non-disclosure agreement even though his footage barely shows any worker leaving the building. If Lumières’ film has any lasting politico-cinematic lesson, it’s that bosses will always want to be the ones holding the camera.

[Originally published at Firstpost]

On 2nd October 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi went to the KSA embassy in Istanbul to obtain documents that would enable him marry his Turkish fiancée, who was waiting outside the building. He did not return. A noted critic of the Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman’s (MBS) policies, Khashoggi was choked to death in the conference room of the embassy. His body was dismembered and reportedly burnt in a barbecue pit over three days. In February this year, the White House declassified a report that stated in no uncertain terms that the grisly murder was carried out by intelligence agents acting under the express approval of the crown prince. US president Joe Biden has, however, refused to pass any sanction against MBS for the killing.

American filmmaker Bryan Fogel’s persuasive, pressing new documentary The Dissident, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year, sticks so closely to these hard facts that it seems it has no other ambition than to state them as they are. It’s a worthy goal, especially in view of all the hand-wringing that political leaders across the so-called free world have been engaged in over the matter. Torch-bearers of free speech like the UK and France have loudly decried the murder, but shown themselves unwilling to do anything that will impact their arms trade with Saudi Arabia. The Arab world predictably rallied behind the kingdom, while countries like India and Pakistan, far from condemning the killing, welcomed an investment-bearing MBS with red carpet in 2019. This bending of a country’s foundational values under a heavy purse recalls Groucho Marx’s quip: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them, I have others.

Fogel’s film synthesizes the testimonies of Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, his friends and colleagues at the Washington Post, the Turkish officials who discovered and publicized the murder and other Saudi dissidents exiled across the world, especially Montreal-based video blogger Omar Abdulaziz. In doing so, it offers us a picture of the journalist’s personal and political situation during the weeks leading up to his visit to the embassy and of the fallout of the assassination in the weeks after. We also get a glimpse into the scope of Saudi intelligence operations, from large-scale computer farms that troll dissidents and set the narrative on social media to investment in technology that infiltrates mobile gadgets of targets across the world, allegedly even that of MBS’s buddy Jeff Bezos.

The Dissident is not an analytical work; Fogel’s approach has little to do with either the meditative formalism of a Laura Poitras or the long-sighted storytelling of an Adam Curtis. He holds the viewer captive to the here and the now, and his film is largely an ‘operative’ text that seeks to convince and call to action. To this end, he uses all the means at his disposal to hold the viewer’s attention. Several stretches of The Dissident have the licked finish of an international thriller: spectacular drone images of megapolises dotted with skyscrapers, a musical score that ratches up the tension, and an accelerated style of editing that weaves different kinds of testimonies to create a sense of inevitability to the events. A description of warring IT-operations is animated literally as a colony of dissident bees taking on an army of Saudi flies.

You can’t deny that this method is effective. After all, the film (nearly) pulls off the impossible by making us root for Jeff Bezos. But there are stretches where this ends-over-means approach irks. It’s one thing to dramatize Abdulaziz’s media operations in Montreal, but to have a camera wistfully track away from Cengiz as she stands outside the Saudi embassy borders on distasteful. There are multiple moments where we don’t know if what we are looking at is fictional re-enactment or documentary footage, for instance the low-fi visuals of people talking in cafés that accompany audio recordings, or pictures supposedly from Saudi Arabia’s social media war-room — images that seem suspended in the realm of alternative facts. As the then-president Donald Trump said of Khashoggi’s killing, “Will anybody really know?”

The Dissident is so focused on excavating and arranging facts that it seems to have come into being on its own. And its mission is so obviously vital that it seems decadent to talk of its artistic construction. While its accent on raw detail renders the film almost a-thematic, there is a motif to be discerned: the gradual redrawing of the contours of political affiliation that can shift the ground one is standing on. The film lets us know that Khashoggi was not always a heretic; that he was, in fact, an insider in the House of Saud, who represented a happy face of the regime. Even when he was critical, we are told, he was seen as a well-meaning reformist who believed in MBS’s vision. But with his reactions to the Arab Spring and concomitant Saudi-sponsored counter-revolutions, it appears as though he would fall lower and lower in the eyes of the kingdom, even though he continued nurture the same love for his country.

The film regularly tells us that Khashoggi was targeted for his dissent, but it hardly probes into the material of that dissent. This is important. There is a valid argument to be made somewhere that reducing a complex journalist to a martyr for free speech is a liberal contrivance that neglects the breadth of his life’s work. But Fogel’s refusal to delve into the details of Khashoggi’s criticism of the crown prince is a wholly defensible stance. The Dissident is a film about principles for which any discussion about how Khashoggi may have ‘provoked’ the Saudi government is already a concession. For Fogel’s film, dissent is an end value in itself, worthy of being protected and celebrated irrespective of its content. As such, it wouldn’t want to have anything to do with realpolitik. It is, after all, international realpolitik that has deemed that pursuing justice for Khashoggi comes at too high an economic price.

[Originally published at Firstpost]

Is it possible to say anything about this world-historical year without some amount of preliminary hand-wringing? Culture writers, film critics included, appear to feel obliged to present their bona fides, to relativize their work in view of the pandemic and to pre-empt any accusations of frivolity. We are already masters at the art; it is, after all, a profession that hits you with the question of relevance every single day. The silver lining, if one can call it that, in this catastrophe that has touched every person on the planet may be that barely any other pursuit seems any more relevant. Here’s to all those who lost their lives to the virus, to those who have been fighting to save us, and to those who haven’t lost sight of causes for justice, peace and compassion amid the global health crisis.

The enormous impact of the pandemic on film production, distribution and exhibition has been obvious. Streaming giants, namely Netflix, Amazon and Disney, who have been successful at vertical integration in the past few years (and are poised to go even further), seem to be the biggest gainers from this disruption. Whatever their claim about increase in consumer choice, it seems to me that it hasn’t really resulted in a diversity of viewing patterns. (Consider, for instance, the Sight & Sound critics’ poll: the 2019 edition had a total of 353 films chosen by 100 contributors whereas the 2020 version has 353 films from 104 contributors—hardly a sign of a paradigm shift.) Given their subscription model, these firms have every incentive to pump more and more money into marketing and hog the discourse. If this annus horribilis has proved anything, it’s that publications are more than willing to bend over and serve as unaffiliated PR organs for these companies.

While the cancelling of film festivals across the world was unfortunate, it gave publications and critics an unprecedented opportunity to bypass traditional tastemakers and widen their horizons. Considering that so many organizations, by generosity or lack of choice, presented their programs online for international viewers for the first time, it was an invaluable chance for film journalists to let their readers know that there was good, smart, moving and entertaining work—old and new—available outside of subscription walls and subcultural echo chambers they have themselves helped create. To my limited knowledge, this opportunity was squandered. Publications, predictably, saw their task as giving readers “what they want” instead of elevating them.

My own viewing this year was dominated by older films. Thanks to torrent archives and illegal websites, which are seemingly the only platforms making any effort to save and make older work accessible, I had the privilege of seeing countless great works from across decades and across the globe. Watching dozens of films by William A. Wellman, Luc Moullet and Alfred Hitchcock, most of which are available for free online, remain especially fond memories (Waltzes from Vienna (1934) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) are top-drawer works!). I had great fun writing about some of them for my classical Hollywood column until it was scrapped in June.

Of the 130-odd new films I saw this year (of which three in theatres), I found no masterpieces, several accomplished works amidst a sea of middling-to-uninteresting efforts. (Shoutout to Malmkrog, Siberia and The Last City for plunging into territory conventionally considered bad taste and coming out trumps.) What I sense is that, thanks to cheap digital media, more and more independent and experimental filmmakers are simply documenting every aspect of their lives, amassing vast amounts of footage without any specific purpose in mind, and reusing them when a chance arises. With the production halt of 2020, I suspect this habit will only be more apparent in the coming months. While that is certainly a valid method of working, I can’t help but feel that so many films I saw this year came across like half-cooked soups, disparate material thrown together with the hope that it will all, somehow, result in poetry—one reason why works on this list, with their rigour, intelligence and feeling, stand out in my mind.

 

1. Hopper/Welles (Orson Welles, USA)

I’ve had no greater screen delight this year than watching two white dudes chat for two hours. Orson Welles and Dennis Hopper hole up in a dark room with half a dozen technicians to talk filmmaking, politics, religion, love, magic, news, television and literature while dutiful assistants scurry about readying one refill of liquor for them after another. Welles plays the Grand Inquisitor, pressing his timid interlocutor to state his artistic and political beliefs, conjuring theories to counter him and never allowing him a resting ground. We never see him, save for rare glimpses of his bellowing pin-striped trousers moving at the edge of the frame. As Hopper’s cinematic forefather, Welles looms large, appearing to be incarnating some kind of metaphysical force, orchestrating a Kafkaesque trial for the young man. What results is a stark power imbalance between the seen and the unseen, the subject and the author, the one who is recorded and the one who wields the camera. But the primary pleasure of the film lies in seeing two artists in a terribly absorbing conversation, grappling with the cinematic-aesthetic problems of their time. Going public after fifty years, Hopper/Welles is both a standalone film and an anniversary celebration. It hasn’t dated one bit.

 

2. Forensickness (Chloé Galibert-Laîné, France/Germany)

Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s funny, sharp and dizzyingly smart video work begins as a commentary on Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives (2017), a desktop film about the crowd-sourced investigation on Reddit following the Boston bombing of 2013. As the director breaks down Kennedy’s film, analysing its narrative construction and its tendency for geometric abstraction, she voluntarily gets caught in an ‘analytical frenzy’, not unlike the Redditors themselves. As Galibert-Laîné seamlessly chains one stream of thought after another, her film evolves into a meta-reflection on our relation to images and our compulsion to create meaning from visual material. If Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (2019) saw cinephilia as a self-made prison of images, Forensickness digs deeper, revealing the epistemological malaise that is the search for meaning that animates all cinephilic pursuit. Her film lays bare the adventures of the critical mind, throwing open not only its own making, but also the thoughts producing it. Forensickness may look like an object of pure play, the result of a filmmaker “seduced by her own jokes”, even a solipsistic game in the way it asserts the inescapability from these self-imposed maps of meaning, but this magnificent work is unmistakably insightful regarding the way we make sense of the world through images.

 

3. A Machine to Live In (Yoni Goldstein & Meredith Zielke, USA/Brazil)

What remains of the modernist dream of reshaping human societies from the ground up based on scientific, rationalist principles? Goldstein and Zielke’s ambitious, erudite and formally complex city symphony seeks to find out. Its subject is Brasilia, the artificially created capital of Brazil that architects Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa forged out of the wilderness in the late fifties. The imposing geometric forms of the city, expressly conceived in cosmic terms and perfected like Kubrickian monoliths from outer space, appear to have all but snuffed out human presence. Machine sees this city as an otherworldly geography unfit for human life, but also allowing the possibilities of imagining utopias, catholic cultists, freemasons, biker gangs and Esperanto evangelists all finding a home within Brasilia’s orbit. Employing heterogenous narrative modes, Goldstein and Zielke develop a visually striking portrait of a city that has come to resemble a religious monument in itself, demanding awestruck worship and constant maintenance by people who can’t afford to live here. Their Brasilia is either a place that inspires dreams of reimagining life or an abyss where dreams come to die. Even as it looks back at a moment in modern intellectual history, Machine evokes questions about the future, inviting us to reflect on the eternal human desire to play demiurge.

 

4. The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane, India)

Tamhane’s superb second film feels like home territory for him. Sharad, an apprentice Hindustani music singer, is not the greatest of talents, but imagines himself as part of a tradition, one that gives a structural meaning to his life. But, the promise of omnipresence and instant gratification of the modern world beckoning him, not only does he find himself unable to live up to the lofty ideals of his tradition, he’s also is gradually disabused of these ideals themselves. In a very direct manner, The Disciple zeroes in on a fundamental, civilizational sentiment that underpins artistic succession in the subcontinent: that of filial piety, as opposed to the parricidal narrative that informs the Western conception of self-realization. Even when his faith has been questioned, Sharad continues to serve his elderly teacher, caring for him till the final days, like icon worshippers who hold on to their idols even (and especially) when the meaning behind them is lost. Tamhane builds up gradually to this assault on Sharad’s worldview, with humour, suspense and a calculated formal reserve that redoubles the impact of the emotional violence. His film invites viewers to constantly process narrative information in order to access it, providing a rich dividend for the effort.

 

5. Unusual Summer (Kamal Aljafari, Palestine)

In Unusual Summer, Aljafari repurposes CCTV tapes that his father left behind after his death in 2015. The tapes are from the summer of 2006 and were used record the parking spot outside his home to see who’s been breaking the car window. Despite the dramatic promises of the CCTV aesthetic and the location of the house in the crime-ridden district of Ramla, what we get in this film are quotidian incidents, sightings of neighbours passing by, the picture of a town going about everyday business. Aljafari adds a sparse ambient soundtrack that imparts Tati-esque colour to the proceedings, with the passers-by on screen becoming veritable characters. This transformation of private surveillance footage into a session of window-watching and people-spotting produces a feeling of community and forges a relation of inheritance between the filmmaker and his father, the only two people to have seen these tapes. Supremely calming though it is, Unusual Summer is also seared by loss and mourning, the familiar faces, places, animals and trees that register like spectral presences on the lo-fi video having vanished in the intervening years following intrusions by the Israeli state. A minimalist gem that speaks to our now-amplified urge to reach out to others.

 

6. The Game of Shifting Mirrors (Amit Dutta, India)

Dutta’s richly dialectical new film draws out themes from Chitrashala and Finished/Unfinished (both 2015) and puts them in a stimulating new conversation. The first section, set in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum in Mumbai, jumps across artefacts from several centuries while a voiceover describes an encounter with tribal artists and paintings. This contrast between the linear time and historical narrative of the British-era museum and the mythical worldview underpinning ‘indigenous’ art is given a third dimension by the film’s latter section that showcases the 8th century rock-cut temples of Masrur. Like tribal art, the temple complex has a founding myth that departs from the rigorously documented secular accounts of archaeological practice. As the industrial working hours of the first section make way for a day-night cycle, we observe the complex’s sculptural reliefs that have been partially eroded by nature. The film’s evocative organization then embodies an ambivalence towards museological conservation: while modern museums salvage art from natural degradation for the benefit of posterity, they wrench objects out of their original context, severing them from the knowledge systems and traditions that gave birth to them. In its fruitful frictions, Game suggests that perhaps all preservation necessarily entails a loss.

 

7. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross, USA)

The Ross brothers’ new docuficion follows the last day of operation of The Roaring 20s, a downscale bar fictionally set in Las Vegas, at which a bevy of social castaways gather to mourn and celebrate. While all the actors play themselves, the filmmakers loosely fictionalize the scenario, giving direction to it with certain pertinent themes. Set against the backdrop of collapsing American businesses, Bloody Nose is a hymn for failure, a note of solidarity to what the American lexicon calls “losers”. The Roaring 20s is the opposite of everything one associates with the glitz and glamour of Sin City: it’s a floundering venture that is the negative image of the American Dream. For its regulars, however, the bar is something of an institution that provides them with a public (and, at times, private) space that has become scarce elsewhere and where they can be themselves. The film’s broader view of class is compounded by a specific generational perspective that refutes the idea that the young, the ‘millennials’, can’t make it because they don’t work hard enough. A film that hits the right moods without tipping over into condescension or miserabilism, Bloody Nose deserves all the plaudits it’s been getting.

 

8. Corporate Accountability (Jonathan Perel, Argentina)

Perel continues his exploration into Argentina’s military dictatorship by examining the role of large private corporations in enabling and carrying out state-sponsored pogroms against political dissidents of the junta. He photographs the company facilities as they are today while a brisk voiceover lists out how each firm helped military and security forces detain, torture and get rid of problematic workers in exchange for financial perks. The text, read out from an official 2015 report, is numbingly repetitious, and drives home the pervasiveness of these military-industrial operations. Perel’s decision to frame the sites through his car’s windshield creates a sense of illicit access, even though there is visibly little stopping him from going nearer the facilities. Some of the companies continue to operate under their own name, while some others have changed, with at least one site carrying a memorial sign for the injustice perpetrated there. Perel is, in effect, photographing the ur-filmic image of factory entrances, but all we see is a handful of vehicles leaving the gates. This eerie absence of human figures evokes the disappeared workers who, at some companies, were picked up at the entrance, a site, as Harun Farocki has demonstrated, of class dialectics. A tough nut, but wholly rewarding.

 

9. Film About a Father Who (Lynne Sachs, USA)

Lynne Sachs’ frank, morally messy documentary turns around her father, Ira Sachs Sr., a ‘hippie businessman’ whose unconventional living and constant womanizing comes down heavily upon his nine children, some of whom have known the existence of the others only after decades. Sachs weaves through footage shot over half a century in half a dozen formats and layers it carefully into a simple, direct account with a voiceover addressed at the audience. She takes what could’ve been a narrow family melodrama into much stickier territory. Her film isn’t a portrait of her father, but a meditation on relationships with this man as the connecting element. Sachs goes beyond all gut responses to her father’s behaviour—disappointment, rage, disgust—towards a complex human reality that can elicit only inchoate sentiments, as suggested by the film’s incomplete title. She isn’t filming people or their stories, but the spaces between people, and how these spaces are always mediated by the actions of others. Father’s wayward life, itself rooted perhaps in a traumatic childhood, profoundly shapes the way his children look at each other. Sachs’ film is ostensibly a massive unburdening project for her; that she has been able to draw out its broader implications is a significant accomplishment.

 

10. Victoria (Sofie Benoot, Isabelle Tollenaere & Liesbeth De Ceulaer, Belgium/USA)

As part of his work, Lashay T. Warren, a young family man from Los Angeles, is posted in Cal City, California, a town wrought in the fifties by a lone developer out of the Mojave Desert with the hope that it would become the next Los Angeles—a dream that didn’t come to fruition. Along with other men and women his age, Lashay is responsible for maintaining this ghost town by reclaiming its streets from nature and restoring some semblance of cartographic order. Victoria teases out various thematic layers from this singular scenario. On one level, it is an absurd tale about one of the many dead ends of capitalist enterprise, a kind of anti-Chinatown portrait of a Los Angeles that could’ve been. Lashay is like a worker repairing a remote outpost in space, marvelling at every sign of life in this almost otherworldly landscape. But he also resembles the American pioneers, whose diaries on their way to the West he emulates in the film’s voiceover. Ultimately, Victoria is a poignant, humanist document, in the vein of Killer of Sheep, about the dignity of a young Black man providing for his family, trying to graduate from high school, all the while fighting the gravity of Compton’s streets.

 

Special Mention: Red, White and Blue (Steve McQueen, UK)

 

Favourite Films of

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A Fish Swimming Upside Down (Eliza Petkova)

Philipp, an affluent, middle-aged widower (Henning Kober), marries young Andrea (Nina Schwabe) and installs her at his swanky house. Also living in the house is his son Martin (Theo Trebs), a young man who holds onto his mother’s photos and resents his father bringing home a new wife. Philipp is constantly away on business, and with little to do outside of her work with developmentally challenged children, Andrea languishes in the spacious house. It’s peak summer, and with the beautiful Andrea lounging around the swimming pool, you can be sure Martin isn’t going to end up calling her ‘mommy’. Petkova’s second feature is reminiscent of early works from the so-called Berlin School: stories about rich, white people suffering existential ennui presented in a clinical steel-and-glass style made of static shots or discreet camera movements and no music. This is a resolutely low-key work that limits itself to the love triangle at the centre. Like the outsider in Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), Andrea is a mysterious figure with no past whose love is boundless; everyone comes under her aura. But this inclusivity doesn’t sit well with Martin, who becomes blind with jealousy. The film moves along this unveiled Oedipal rage that takes many victims and eventually implodes. Petkova populates the film with several children’s games, presumably with a view to impact some psychological nuance to the relationships. She finely evokes the languid mood of summer afternoons, and is able to introduce a vital element of sensuality into the Berlin School style. But the rewards are minor: the film is so enamoured with its provocation that, minus the underlying myth, its characters become shadow beings outside of society and history.

The Metamorphosis of Birds (Catarina Vasconcelos)

Catarina Vasconcelos’ debut feature is a very easy film to like. There is, firstly, its spellbinding plastic beauty. Shot in 16mm, the film lovingly combines soft diffused lighting, oil-painting colour, richly detailed period objects into striking tableaux, often seeking to emulate Renaissance still life. Then there is its evocative voiceover, in which Vasconcelos details the life of her grandparents through poetically reimagined letters. Grandfather Henrique is at sea touring Portugal’s colonies while Grandmother Beatriz raises her many children alone. The exchange between them revolves firstly around, of course, the distance between them, and then the children, who haven’t seen their father for years. In Vasconcelos’ rarefied, romanticized re-conception, they become quasi-mythical figures—the absent Father, the suffering Mother—who come alive through the objects associated with them. The items chart the passing of the years, reflecting political changes: the fall of the empire, counterculture stirrings and the end of the Salazar regime. Jacinto, the filmmaker’s father, comes of age, discovering love and death. When Grandmother dies, and as the film’s focus shifts to Jacinto and the loss of his wife, the tone changes from yearning to mourning, and the narrative devolves into pure metaphor around a Tarkovskian desire to become one with nature, reprising symbols established earlier. On its face, Metamorphosis is a tribute to Vasconcelos’ father, one that preserves the memory of his parents and narrativizes his life for him, sharing the burden of bereavement in the process. The film recalls the work of Victor Erice and Sergei Paradjanov to some degree, especially in its capacity to create ravishing images out of personal history. It is evident that the film seeks to be a work of aching beauty, but there’s the lingering feeling that it does the aching for us.

Garage People (Natalija Yefimkina)

Natalija Yefimkina’s creative documentary centres on a small-town subculture in the far reaches of Russia. In a chain of garages located at a remove from their low-income homes, mostly middle-aged men spend their free time working on their passions. They have converted these tin-shed structures into a veritable ‘man cave’ serving various functions: carving workshop, metal foundry, scrap recycling yard, quail breeding facility, music room, even a WW2 cosplay warehouse. For these men on the fringes of Putin’s Russia, such privately-owned garages are a ‘third place’ away from their soul-crushing mining work and the strictures of domesticity, a space that helps create meaning to their lives. Like a primitive artist par excellence, Viktor has built four floors underneath his garage by digging with a shovel for over fifty years. He doesn’t know its purpose yet, but the digging has provided him with a purpose—a purpose that he inexplicably loses all of a sudden shortly before his demise. The whole town seems stuck in time, isolated from the rest of the world, save for a train that passes now and them. The younger folk hope to escape to greener pastures, while the older ones have found some sort of meaning between individual pursuit and communal life. Whether they are belting out a heavy metal number or getting into drunken brawls, director Yefimkina observes the garagists from a distance, synthesizing these vignettes along different thematic lines such as work, family, romance and community. Garage culture isn’t exactly news, but Yefimkina succeeds in infusing the film with a melancholy mood that is usually the reserve of fictional works. By imaginatively rearranging her material and slightly fictionalizing it, she has been able to convert it into an empathetic portrait of dead-end lives comparable to wistful snapshots of small-town America such as The Last Picture Show (1971) and Ham on Rye (2019).

Camagroga (Alfonso Amador)

Alfonso Amador’s absorbing documentary about the Horta of Valencia, said to be one of the most fertile corners of Europe, pivots around the Ramón family: farmer Antonio, his daughter Inma and her son Marc. Over one year, they grow, harvest, sort and ship tiger nuts to milk extraction facilities. There are highways and railway lines running adjacent to their land, which is under the threat of being invaded by commercial establishments and public infrastructure projects. Camagroga shuttles between two types of documentaries, at times uneasily: one that follows the lifecycle of a food commodity from production to consumption and one that observes life in a rural region under the throes of ‘globalization’. It complicates the former narrative further by intercutting it with shots of other crops being grown and processed, such that it’s not always clear at what stage of the cycle we are in. But what is most striking about the film is its rhythm. Director Amador cuts close. When there isn’t much movement within a shot, he lets it linger for no more than 3-5 seconds. This almost metronymic, Emigholz-like editing imparts a slightly frenetic pace to the film. As a result, we don’t get a sense of the rhythm of life in the region, in a way that we do from Shinsuke Ogawa’s A Japanese Village (1982), an important precursor to Camagroga. What is gained, however, is the knowledge of how labour intense the process is, involving manual intervention at all stages of production, with the only ‘dead times’ being Antonio and co. breaking for a sandwich or a cigarette while talking to the camera. It’s notable in this regard that Amador only shoots in daytime, that is to say work hours, keeping out all private aspects of his subjects’ lives. A tribute, then, to the labour of these folks whose faces seem as worked over by time as their land.

Forensickness (Chloé Galibert-Laîné)

Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s funny, sharp and dizzyingly smart video work is an antidote to the overdose of audiovisual soup that passes for essay film these days. Forensickness begins as a commentary on Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives (2017), a desktop film about the crowd-sourced investigation on Reddit following the Boston bombing of 2013. As the director breaks down Kennedy’s film, analysing its narrative construction and its tendency for geometric abstraction, she voluntarily gets caught in an ‘analytical frenzy’, not unlike the Redditors who ascribed meaning to every detail that caught their eye in photographs from the bombing site. As Galibert-Laîné seamlessly chains one stream of thought after another, her film evolves into a meta-reflection on our relation to images and our compulsion to create meaning from visual material. Even as she exposes how we live in an era of debunking that firmly believes that images conceal messages, she can’t help but point at similar motivations driving her interrogation. Every proposition, every experience of hers on the desktop is turned on itself and subject to interrogation. And it works perfectly because Forensickness is precisely about the need to meaningful synthesis of divergent experiences. If Frank Beauvais, in Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (2019), saw cinephilia as a self-made prison of images, Galibert-Laîné digs deeper, revealing the epistemological malaise that is the search for meaning that animates all cinephilic pursuit. Her film lays bare the adventures of the critical mind, throwing open not only its own making, but also the thoughts producing it. The film may look like an object of pure play, the result of a filmmaker “seduced by her own jokes”, even a solipsistic game in the way it asserts the inescapability from these self-imposed maps of meaning. But even as a snake eating its own tail, Forensickness is unmistakably insightful regarding the way we experience the world through images. If it isn’t the desktop film to end all desktop films, it’s hard to imagine what lies ahead for this form.

The American Sector (Pacho Velez, Courtney Stephens)

The American Sector takes up a subject matter that ships with a bundle of contained themes: scores of Berlin Wall fragments scattered across the United States. Anyone (like me) who has hunted for fragments of the Wall or even looked at the Wikipedia page of the location of the fragments must’ve had at least a faint thought about the implications of decontextualizing a historical object. Velez and Stephens’ film latches onto these incongruities, giving us a tour of Wall fragments installed in various public and private spaces including five-star hotels, movie studios, army bases, corporate retreats, hobbyist clubs, universities, museums and even the CIA HQ in Langley, Virginia. Shots of the fragments quietly towering over surroundings alien to it are sometimes mixed with soundbites by citizens and public officials about the provenance and the meaning of these monoliths. The filmmakers probe interviewees for what the Wall means to them, and we get fairly interesting and varied answers: a symbol for the abstract notion of freedom, a sign of hope for immigrants hoping for a better life, a reassurance for Black families that they are historically not alone, a token of cordial US-German political relations, a remembrance of a simpler time when the enemy was clear, even a container of religious truth serving as the backdrop for Christian passion plays. The overarching irony—the appropriation of foreign history to reinforce American exceptionalism—is echoed by two students at the University of Virginia, who see the amplified presence of the fragments in the campus, which has little relation to the Wall’s history in the first place, as an affront to the local history of slave labour that built the university. Thanks to its fertile subject, the film doesn’t have to sweat to bring these frictions to the surface. The American Sector accomplishes what it sets out to do, but it may have had been more rewarding had it been willing to stick its neck out and embrace a larger debate, especially at a moment where our discourse on monuments and their context is more fraught than ever.

Birds (Or How to Be One) (Babis Makridis)

Makridis’ peculiar third feature is inspired by Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds, but it exists between three narrative registers: a documentary about an ‘off’ production of the play by Nikos Karathanos and Onassis Stegi, a freewheeling screen adaptation of the play featuring the same actors in several exotic locales around the world and a poetic essay film about human beings’ relationship to their avian peers. Divided into nine thematic chapters answering the titular question, Birds teases out our eternal quest to emulate our feathered friends: the desire for flight, the yearning for lightness, the urge to escape gravity (literal and social), the impulse to rise to the skies through the construction skyscrapers, the fear of falling and the thrill we harness from it, the fantasy of crossing political borders, but also the need for community and for defending it against outsiders, manifesting ultimately through aerial warfare. Makridis does not emphasize or linger on these ideas, instead suggesting associations through fugitive but evocative images. It is the strength of his film that it does not attempt to ‘interpret’ or ‘modernize’ Aristophanes’ comedy. While it dips in and out of metaphor, Birds takes the outlandishness of the original premise at face value. As a result, the adaptation it offers is literal, one in which the human characters imitate bird cries and indeed audition to become birds, not unlike the two prospectors of Amit Dutta’s The Golden Bird (2011) who try to rise above the human form. In doing so, Birds offers another intriguing demonstration of the Greek taste for the absurd. (The equivalence between man and animal is, moreover, a significant motif in Lanthimos’ work.) This loose, opaque treatment produces results that are as funny as they are flummoxing.

This Is Paris Too (Lech Kowalski)

Kowalski’s freestyle documentary seeks to offer images of Paris not generally seen on screen: homeless immigrants on the outskirts of the city leading a nomadic, shadow existence under bridges, on abandoned sites and in urban interstices. It’s winter, and we watch them fight the cold with inadequate blankets and cheap anoraks, subsisting on community kitchen and standing huddled in the daytime without much to do. A few have built some form of shelter, but most just find a spot to sleep. We see them through the eyes of Ken Metoxen, a native American friend of the filmmaker’s, who wanders the breadth of the city on foot and in public transport. Sometimes Ken interacts with individuals such as Aman, an over-enthusiastic boxer from Afghanistan who cannot participate in ring fights because he lacks the necessary papers. The communication is awkward—Ken does not speak French; Aman doesn’t speak English—and is soon replaced by Aman fervently showing his boxing skills to a compliant Ken. The latter listens patiently as Aman pulls out his phone to show videos of Taliban bombings and tortures in Kabul. Ken empathizes with the suffering of the immigrants through a shared history of oppression. But Kowalski’s choice to refract these vignettes of Paris through a native American’s point of view has no theoretical underpinning. He simply wants to film Ken as a flaneur, experiencing (and revealing to us) a foreign city from an outsider perspective, which leads to an exceedingly long, final tracking shot on Ken spanning several blocks of Paris. Much of all this is impressionistic, and there’s very little that seems to have been thought through, the result coming across like outtakes from a larger project between Kowalski and Ken. In a surprising coda, the director discusses his experience as a child of immigrants to America and his relationship with Ken, who is revealed to be a cross-dresser—a gratuitous, inward-looking turn that hints at several unexplored possibilities.

The Last City (Heinz Emigholz)

Emigholz’s return to fiction opens with a reminiscence by the filmmaker about a dream city that keeps changing place and about people who keep changing shape. This personal statement gives way to five interconnected stories taking place in five different cities: a filmmaker and a weapons designer talk about war in the Israeli city of Beersheba; an elderly artist converses with his 30-year-old self in Athens, a mother finds contentment in her incestuous family in Berlin; in Hong Kong, a Chinese woman schools a Japanese woman on her country’s unspeakable war crimes; an art dealer and a cosmologist discuss the possibility of life outside earth in São Paulo. The Last City scans like a long pedagogical exercise demonstrating everything that shouldn’t be done in films: camera that is constantly canted and misaligned with the horizon, eyelines that never match, cuts that break the 180-degree rule, camera setups that keep changing, actors who play multiple roles of ethnicities different from their own, blatant discontinuities in makeup, costume and décor not just within scenes, but within a single line of dialogue. All this, of course, is part of the setup. Filming pieces of buildings through extreme angles, Emigholz is integrating the city space into the conversations. His ‘last city’ is an ever-changing, universal town that has been homogenized out of its history and identity, just like its people who seem to have no ethnic essence. A wild, entertaining speculative fiction, Emigholz’s film recalls Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) in the way its characters work on each other’s memory and history in fraught urban encounters. Only that there is neither Hiroshima nor any social taboo conditioning the encounters anymore. Edited in a brisk rhythm, The Last City is also a very funny work in the way it pokes fun at its own ridiculous, disparate premises, which are tied together in some sort of a logic-defying hyperreality.

Undine (Christian Petzold)

If, in Transit (2018), Petzold drew on American film noir to create fruitful frictions with his basic realist style, in Undine, reportedly the first of a new trilogy based on elemental beings, he leans on the legend of the eponymous water nymph whose curse it is that her human lover will meet his death if he is ever unfaithful to her. In Petzold’s version though, it is Undine (Paula Beer) who appears to be cursed, unable to break the tragic mould of the legend. Jilted by her boyfriend, Undine finds an ideal love almost immediately in Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver who seems to be as ethereal a creature as her, but fate plays a nasty hand. The film harks back to Yella (2007), firstly in its forked narrative in which the protagonist enters a new life just when everything closes in on her. More notably, like Yella, Undine transposes a supernatural reality onto the banal, hyperrealist surface of reunified Germany. Petzold offsets stretches of dead time showing characters doing everyday activities with evocative images of heightened intensity that signal the coexistence of a fantastic realm. Both Undine and Christoph experience each other as quasi-spectral beings, and because they take turns leading the narrative, we are never sure whose fantasy we are in. Petzold, moreover, imposes another layer of signification onto this composite: Undine is an urban historian dealing with the many narratives that impose themselves on Berlin. Professionally and personally, the past for her, as for Yella, is never dead and buried, but something to be always reckoned with. So the film offers a three-fold narrative, with the romantic story, the Undine legend and a political allegory finding echo in each other. If this layering allows Petzold a way to animate his clinical style with mystery, at times it also gives the impression that he is hedging his bets.

Glauber, Claro (César Meneghetti)

In 1975, Brazilian auteur Glauber Rocha made a film in Italy titled Claro in which he reimagined Rome as the historical centre of imperialism. Meneghetti’s documentary about the film—and about Rocha’s sojourn in Italy—assembles archival footage and interviews with surviving cast and crew members, film critics and the director’s Italian friends. The interviewees watch clips from Rocha’s film and recall how such and such scene was shot. The discussion blossoms outward to include the general social situation of the time: the cultural permissiveness that allowed Rocha and co. to live in apartments without paying rent, cohabit while blurring the boundary between friendship and love, and spike each other’s drinks before shoot. With interesting anecdotes about the Brazilian’s bluster and idiosyncrasy, the testimonies help locate Rocha within the intellectual landscape of Italy at the time. Throughout, Meneghetti cuts outdoor scenes from Rocha’s film with shots of the same places in current-day Rome, suggesting the demise of radical political dreams, but evoking certain continuities as well. Interestingly scored, these interludes also serve as spaces of reflection for the viewer, a respite from all the talking heads. In all, we get a sense of Rocha’s complex relationship to the European country: even as he was criticizing it as a ‘colonizing’ empire, the filmmaker saw in Italy a channel for distributing Cinema Novo works and, indirectly, a rampart against the growing authoritarianism back home. But there is hardly any rough edge to Rocha himself. His Latin American background gets little notice and he comes across as a mad prophet conjured into existence in Rome. Most collaborators describe him as an eccentric visionary who saw beyond his time, some others speak of their great love for him. But one piece of priceless archival clip at the end alone makes up for any deficiency: Rocha having a glorious public meltdown after the 1980 Venice Film Festival, where he destroys Louis Malle (‘second-rate filmmaker’), Cassavetes (‘commercial director under avant-garde garb’), Michel Ciment (‘takes American money’), Andrew Sarris (‘CIA-backed imperialist’) and other ‘Hitchcock lovers’.

Film About a Father Who (Lynne Sachs)

At first glance, Lynne Sachs’ latest documentary comes across as another iteration on the now all-too-common work of ‘personal archaeology’ in which filmmakers trace their roots through public and private archives, at times rending open the specific ways their unhappy families have been dysfunctional. Sachs, for one, employs home movies shot over half a century in half a dozen formats—8mm, 16mm, VHS, Hi8, Mini DV and digital—by herself, her father and her siblings, filmmakers Dana and Ira Sachs. The material turns around their father, Ira Sachs Sr., a ‘hippie businessman’ who sowed his wild oats across the world and virtually birthed a baseball team. Senior’s constant womanizing comes down heavily upon his children, some of whom have known the existence of the others only after decades, but also upon his mother, with whom he nevertheless shares a close but complicated relationship. Sachs weaves through years’ worth of footage and layers it carefully into a simple, direct account with a voiceover addressed at the audience. She takes what could’ve been a narrow family melodrama into much stickier territory. As she says, the film isn’t a portrait of her father, but a meditation on relationships with this man as the connecting element. Sachs and her siblings sit with their father, now infirm with age, and ask him to recollect episodes from the past. What do they expect? Confession? Reckoning? Simple testimony wrought from a gradually vanishing consciousness? Sachs goes beyond all gut responses to her father’s behaviour—disappointment, rage, disgust—towards a complex human reality that can elicit only inchoate sentiments, as suggested by the film’s incomplete title. She isn’t filming people or their stories, but the spaces between people, and how these spaces are always mediated by the actions of others. Senior’s wayward life, itself rooted perhaps in a traumatic childhood, profoundly shapes the way his children look at each other. Two living room discussions are intercut as though they are unfolding in the same space, the only way the filmmaker is able to bridge these invisible branches of the family tree. Sachs’ film is ostensibly a massive unburdening project for her; that she has been able to draw out its broader implications is a significant accomplishment.

Judy Versus Capitalism (Mike Hoolboom)

Hoolboom’s hourlong documentary is a biography of Canadian feminist and activist Judy Rebick presented in the voice of the subject herself. Divided arbitrarily into six chapters—titled ‘weight’, ‘abortion’, ‘others’ etc.—it traces Rebick’s childhood, the influence of her father on her romantic life, her first activist interventions, her conscious decision to gain weight as a defence mechanism, her involvement in the pro-choice movement leading up the legalization of abortion in Canada, her mental disorder and its roots, and her continuing struggle for the cause of social justice. As the years progress, we see Rebick’s concern grow beyond feminism, gradually encompassing questions of mental health and Israel-Palestine, and we end up with a picture of resistance and activism as a way of life. The account is chronological, and Hoolboom lets Rebick’s words drive the narrative. He illustrates her words with photos and videos from her personal album or associated archival footage from the corresponding time periods. The film is at its most inspired when Rebick opens up about her dissociative identity disorder, about the way it serves as a protective shield against the trauma of childhood abuse. As she talks about her various alters, Hoolboom, whose Scrapbook (2015) constitutes one of the most resonating cinematic explorations of selfhood and the ego, cuts to a series of faces of different ethnicities, genders and ages—a witty, sideways association with Rebick’s activism that’s constantly bound up with the question of ‘others’ outside herself. But for the most part, Judy Versus Capitalism falls short of its inventive title and remains a conventional portrait. Because Rebick’s testimony is powerful and stands on its own, Hoolboom is (rightfully) obliged to respect it and let it take centre stage. As a result, there’s little here that couldn’t have been accomplished by a more academic documentary.

From Time to Time, I Burn (Carlos Segundo)

With his dazzling debut Slits (2019), Brazilian filmmaker Carlos Segundo initiated a meditation on the nature of the digital image, and its relation to reality, memory, loss and mourning, against a backdrop of flagrant social inequality. In From Time to Time, I Burn, he continues this interrogation into the ontology of images and the way they fundamentally alter reality. But this time, he approaches them from the other end of photographic history. The quantum physicist of Slits studying high-definition digital images makes way for an experimental photographer, Louise (Rubia Bernasci), who works with the most rudimentary of photographic devices: a pinhole camera that she exposes to orchestrated movement of human bodies for several minutes. Standing naked before the device, she enacts a pseudo-ritual of seduction with another model. With its aperture always open, the camera ‘combines’ these bodies in a process of chemical communion into an organic composite in which racial and gender distinctions don’t hold anymore. Louise, an Afro-Brazilian who takes care of her pious, ailing mother, experiences a kind of religious epiphany when one of her models whispers something into her ear. Like Slits, From Time to Time is an enigmatic film about a subjective experience with images, and its narrative feels like an abstracted version of a longer treatment. In a short introduction, in which he also expresses solidarity with artists resisting the current “political virus” in Brazil, Segundo cites the Holy Trinity as an inspiration for both works. The claim is as baffling as the new film, but one gets the sense that, for Segundo, there’s something fundamentally religious about image-making, particularly in the kind of transubstantiation it effects between reality and representation. It may be that Segundo is shrouding very concrete political ideas in quasi-religious mystery, which seems to be a foundational value in his films. His subsequent work will, no doubt, throw more light.

Marriage Story (Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli)

In its pared-down quality, Marriage Story seems to take off from the audiovisual abstraction that So Pretty (2019) ended with. This new short film does away with many of the narrative layers of the latter feature—community life, literary adaptation, political action. Even the carefully panning camera and exceptionally dense sound design of So Pretty give way to simpler formal elements. In fact, there are only three shots in the film, which may narratively be described as a rudimentary sketch of an afternoon session of sex between Rovinelli and her girlfriend Anika Kash. In the first, the filmmaker prepares coffee on a stove. In the second, she and Kash make love on the living room couch while, in the third, Kash sits on a chair reading out a text detailing a passionate sexual encounter with another woman. Bright red frames punctuate the film, and they constitute the entry and exit images as well. In every shot, a quotidian middle-class décor is subverted with elements that don’t typically belong there. The kitchen of the first scene is a picture of conventional piety and domesticity, complete with a religious painting on the wall. But Rovinelli has a slow stream of red light wash over the muted colours of the kitchen as though from a discotheque or a police siren. Combined with the sight of Rovinelli’s unconventional, naked body with its tattoos, breasts and dense armpit hair, the setting becomes something else. Similarly, in the third shot, we only see Kash’s ‘topless’, bare body on a chair, while a television set next to it projects the image of her head speaking the lines. Drawn from disparate sources, including the Song of Songs and writings by St. Theresa of Avila, the text conflates sacred and profane ecstasy in a manner that recalls Bernini’s St. Theresa. With all this, Rovinelli appears to be reintegrating what bourgeois religiosity keeps apart, i.e. the experiences of the spirit and the flesh.

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer)

Thank heavens for Werner Herzog, for he is one of the few remaining auteurs who still believe in the capacity of film for cosmic reflection, in whose work man is more than a moral-political creature. The visitors in Fireball are meteorites, i.e. rocks and dust formed millions of years ago in the far reaches of the universe that grace the earth. Herzog and British geologist Clive Oppenheimer go across the world in search of stories about these interstellar travellers—myths, legends, rituals, scientific accounts—even accompanying an Antarctic expedition for space rocks. They position these meteorites as objects alternatively of scientific research and around which the film’s human subjects create meaning: the rocks are rare minerals, but also existential tokens, like cave paintings, whose transhistorical origin relativizes our own lives. This bivalence could produce two different responses to the film. A viewer looking for a scientific investigation could be frustrated by the mystification Herzog’s methods bring, just as a viewer seeking philosophical edification could find the geological explanations wanting. While the film’s scientific orientation could arguably be ascribed to the influence of Oppenheimer, the manner in which it juxtaposes the absurd and the sublime is vintage Herzog. It’s the mark of the filmmaker’s strength and sophistication that he is able to identify both these potentials in his material without undercutting the value of either. Under his camera, the eccentric takes on a heroic aura just as the erudite acquires a touch of the ridiculous. Herzog shies away neither from Malick-like preciousness nor from Hollywood cynicism; he can break a solemn philosophical mood by joking that Bavarians like him are not made of stardust, but he can also provoke a tear or two with a cut from an aboriginal painting to a telescopic view of a meteorite crater. A borrowed shot of an explorer breaking down at a momentous discovery while the rear end of a busy team member occupies the background of the frame sums up the film’s all-accommodating generosity. Apt, considering the film’s theme is the twin role of meteorites as a destructive as well as a life-creating force.

Tenet (Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan is a fanatic who has been increasingly willing to throw himself under the bus for the sake of his truth. Interstellar (2014) left behind his fanboys, Dunkirk (2017) thumbed its nose at sacred filmmaking tenets, while this new film ventures into even more untested terrains. That he has gaged a $250 million project for his personal desire to revive cinemagoing in the middle of a pandemic, moreover, cannot be ignored while evaluating the film. The world’s most popular poet of time has, once again, conceived of an ingenious, impenetrable syuzhet in which narratives in forward and reverse chronology are woven together within the framework of a spectacular if old-fashioned Euro-thriller: a CIA operative (John David Washington) must thwart the efforts of a future generation that seeks to annihilate all past in order to preserve itself. This chronological mesh makes for some unwittingly funny, but eye-popping reverse motion sequences that descend directly from the Lumières’ self-constructing wall. What’s impressive about Tenet, and its predecessor, is the filmmaker’s unapologetic privileging of an abstract figure of style over grammatic or affective considerations: the ‘trans-temporal’ crosscutting in Dunkirk, reverse motion here. In a way, these are bold, formal experiments that, in their failure, throw light on the mechanisms of classical storytelling. Nolan, who has always taken care to place his characters’ emotional or moral predicament at the centre of his narrative contraptions, does away with it in Tenet, Washington’s unflappable protagonist being little more than a sexless, humourless cipher. Despite the overwhelming intensity of the exposition scenes, he has also seemingly let go of the need to tie up the logical loose ends of his hypothesis, letting the contradictions and loopholes remain as they are. While a more thoughtful story could’ve drawn out all the themes of the intriguing premise, it is notable that Nolan, who has been crusading to preserve and employ celluloid from within a media climate hostile to such backward-looking attitudes, chose to make Tenet the tale of a man who fights to preserve the past at the expense of the future.

Corporate Accountability (Jonathan Perel)

In Toponymy (2015), Perel pursued the traces of Argentina’s military dictatorship on its landscape, examining in essence the way governments inscribe preferred narratives onto geography. In the new film, he continues this exploration by looking at the role of large private corporations in enabling and carrying out state-sponsored pogroms against political dissidents of the junta. The structure is simple: in static shots from the dashboard of his car, Perel photographs the company facilities as they are today while a brisk voiceover lists out how each firm helped military and security forces detain, torture and get rid of problematic workers in exchange for financial perks. The text, read out from an official 2015 report, is numbingly repetitious, and drives home the pervasiveness of these military-industrial operations. Perel’s decision to frame the sites through his car’s windshield creates a sense of illicit access, even though there is visibly little stopping him from going nearer the facilities. Some of the companies continue to operate under their own name, while some others have changed, with at least one site carrying a memorial sign for the injustice perpetrated there. Perel is, in effect, photographing the ur-filmic image of factory entrances, but all we see is a handful of vehicles leaving the gates. This eerie absence of human figures evokes the disappeared workers who, at some companies, were picked up at the entrance, a site, as Farocki has demonstrated, of class dialectics. But Corporate Accountability also exhibits kinship to landscape films such as Too Early, Too Late (1981), Landscape Suicide (1986), and to the more recent Did Wolff von Amerongen Commit Bankruptcy Offenses? (2004) and Status and Terrain (2019). The question that Perel raises is this: how do you film criminal responsibility when you are removed in time and space from these acts, and when you can’t put a face on to the perpetrators? After all, corporations aren’t people and you can’t indict a logo. The filmmaker foregrounds this crisis of representation by emphasizing the primacy of the source report, which carries the burden not just of describing the crimes but of differentiating criminal accountability from mere complicity. Perel’s reading out of the report’s copyright page is thus bitterly ironic since adapting it is precisely what he cannot do.

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