Roundup


The word on the street is that the Ticinese town of Locarno, Switzerland, comes to life only during the international film festival before returning to general cultural dormancy. The high-profile event appears in August like a planetary body, absorbing the local infrastructure and economy into its orbit; businesses are decked in the festival’s trademark yellow-black leopard patterns, gymnasiums are turned into movie halls and publicity hoardings look to cinema for inspiration. It’s indeed hard to divine the nature of the town underneath this two-week masque.

The town, however, has its own ways of asserting its identity. If the festival dominates the visual landscape of Locarno, the soundtrack remains very much of the place. Motorbikes with infernal exhausts, Sisyphean workers dragging heavy trolleys up cobbled pathways and helicopters and ambulances zooming in and out of local hospitals are constant reminders of the presence of a thriving and often abrasive local life.

The helicopters and ambulances are also reminders of health and sickness, which Locarno, despite its paradisiacal landscape ashore the Lake Maggiore, seems animated by. It isn’t just in the fact of the pandemic, which belies the unmasked crowds in the town and the nation’s now-lenient health regulations. It is also in that Ticino is a pharmaceutical hub, a detail reflected in the proliferation of hoardings for drugs and health insurance.

Medicine, disease and death, as it happens, are also recurring elements in the films of Douglas Sirk, who received a monumental 43-film retrospective at the festival. Once an accomplished theatre director at the heart of the modernist movement in Germany, Sirk left for the United States in 1937 for a chequered career in Hollywood. It was in the 1950s, when he collaborated with Universal Pictures, that Sirk made the series of lush melodramas that he is most known today for.

Curated by Bernard Eisenschitz and Roberto Turigliatto, the retrospective allowed audiences to not just observe the evolution of Sirk as a film artist, but also find underexplored cross-currents between different phases of his career. As a result, the hard-edged mystery movies he made in the 1940s come across as containing the seeds of the later melodramas, just as the melodramas pick up disturbing undercurrents from the crime pictures. At the very least, the retrospective should prove instrumental in nuancing the existing critical line around Sirk as a maker of Technicolor weepies.

“As far as I am concerned, heaven is stingy,” Sirk once said. In Alexander Sokurov’s Fairytale, the marquee entry of the competition section of the festival, four political figures from the twentieth century try to see if they can get an entry into heaven. Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Churchill find themselves in a purgatory in this hypnotic if elusive work. They make petty quips about each other, encounter doppelgängers and reflect on the tragedies they have presided over. Drawing from both classical painting and AI-based imaging technology, Sokurov’s digital chamber drama is designed like a historical fever dream, only that the twentieth-century slumber isn’t over yet.

Fairytale beholds the world’s horrors from a melancholy, even amused distance, but the wounds are still raw in Jan Baumgartner’s The DNA of Dignity, a moving documentary about the work of forensic scientists involved in identifying victims buried in mass graves during the Balkan War. They excavate bones, assemble what remains of them into a skeleton, carry out DNA tests to ascertain identities and hand over the remains to grieving families, who haven’t had closure despite the end of the war. Baumgartner’s film is a fascinating picture of the how the abstractions of science eventually take form as human stories. Its success in finding the right tone and distance for a subject as grave and delicate.

“The war was first fought with bombs, since then it has become silent,” recalls one bereaving mother in The DNA of Dignity. The notion of war as a permanent condition, a state of mind courses through Azerbaijani filmmaker Hilal Baydarov’s Sermon to the Fish. A traumatized young soldier returns to his village after the war to see it empty and desolate. Baydarov weaves this premise into a spare landscape film in which spectacular vistas of barren countryside are punctuated by human figures prostrating or scrunched up, rarely showing their faces. The film’s greatest idea involves a photobombing dog.

Locarno’s own landscape is more modest. Hemmed in by mountains, the town comes across as intimate, almost claustrophobic. The festival venues are located a few minutes from each other, a fact that makes encounters with acquaintances and friends pleasurably inevitable. The steep, narrow lanes of the town that house countless restaurants all flow into the Piazza Grande, the massive open-air screen at the heart of the festival.

Film festivals like Locarno are, however, paradoxical things. As beacons of film culture, they are supposed to allow audiences to get a sense of cinema’s future and past. Yet the ideals of a festival often come crashing against everyday realities of participating in it. Subject to unending screenings and conversations, the mind wanders, the films bleed into one another, frequently losing context. The movies seek to take the viewer on journeys to far-flung worlds, existing and imagined, but the physical reality of spectatorship resists this easy transportation. The sweat on your back as you settle down into your seat, the fight to get a half-decent meal between screenings, the inexorable gravity of undone laundry all never fail to remind you of the here and the now.

Moreover, the glut of films can result in an audio-visual bulimia at loggerheads with the goals of a festival. The state of confused reflection that challenging films leave you in are, unfortunately, washed away in the stream of thoughts that the next work provokes.

And the Locarno film festival is known for its mix of traditional and challenging programming. If the films playing at the Piazza Grande draw non-cinephilic audiences from across the region, the works premiering in competition tend to be at the vanguard of cinematic innovation. Last year, the festival, in fact, dissolved “Moving Ahead”, a sidebar devoted to more experimental fare – a bold decision that may yet prove controversial. The result of the move was that this year’s Cineasti del Presenti, a section showcasing work from early-career filmmakers, was dominated by features that may have otherwise been relegated to the experimental segment.

As part of its Green Project, Locarno also designated a Green Leopard award in 2022, intending to honour one feature that “best reflects an environmental theme.” The recipient of the inaugural edition of this award was Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Matter Out of Place, a remarkable work tracing the journey of objects not native to the environment they are found in. Shot in about ten locations from around the world including Nepal and the Maldives, the film looks at the human-generated waste at various corners of the planet. Like much of Geyrhalter’s work, Matter has neither voiceover or interviews, with the viewer trusted with the task of navigating through the film’s implications.

Matter juxtaposes the work of waste management personnel from around the world, but it does not offer glib answers about their relationship. Geyrhalter insists that his films are not activist, rather documents for future archives about how humans lived in this particular point in history. Indeed, the images in his new film are clear and sharp, but they are productively ambivalent, suspending the viewer in both amazement and repulsion at mankind’s capacity to generate and manage vast amounts of garbage in the remotest stretches of the earth. Beauty and ugliness coexist in Matter Out of Place, which has the capacity to sharpen our ecological consciousness more thoroughly than most cine-pamphlets can. It’s an essential work.

 

[First published in Mint Lounge]

 

Crisis unites homes. If the pandemic has forced us to reassess the terms of our relationships, it has also perhaps sharpened our sensibility to the frailties of the body and the mind. That is, at least, the impression one gets from the recently concluded Visions du Réel documentary festival in Nyons. Several works that premiered at the event find expatriate filmmakers returning home, often obliged by aging and ailing parents, to capture less-than-flattering aspects of family life, elevating them into subjects worthy of cinematic consideration.

To be sure, there is nothing sordid about My Old Man, in which director Stephen Vit accompanies his successful salesman dad, Rudi, on his last business trip to China. Rudi works at a large multinational firm and is about to retire after 43 years of service. A Canadian by birth, he lives with his wife in a lush corner of Switzerland that one of his clients calls “paradise.” As a young man, though, he was a perennial globetrotter who always came home “smelling of airplanes and hotel rooms.” His retirement thus offers Stephen a chance to understand the remote figure of his childhood.

Rudi’s retired life, which his son documents on his yearly trips home, is the stuff of middle-class dreams: health, affluence, real estate, recreation. There is obviously some restlessness and boredom stemming from Rudi’s sudden loss of purpose and some discord with his wife born of his mean streak. There is also a degree of malaise in the couple’s (re)adjustment to life under a single roof after decades of virtual singledom. But the existential crisis and marital breakdown that Stephen forebodes, almost hopes for, never materializes. Yet, as his father watches old home movies on VHS tapes, something like the regret of lost years traverses his teary face. Rudi has become old.

When Peter Entell began documenting his father Max in Getting Old Stinks, the latter was already over seventy-five. An American settled in Switzerland, Peter filmed his father on his annual stateside trips over fifteen years until the old man’s death in the early 2000s. But the filmmaker didn’t revisit the footage until 2021, when he was sixty-seven years old himself, the age that senior Entell had his first cardiac arrest. For Peter, then, the film is something of a meditation on his own aging, and its title appears to reflect his feeling about the process.

The filmmaker assembles his material chronologically in a repeating structure. In each variation, we see Peter and his three elder siblings travel from all over the world to visit their father at an assisted living facility in California. The occasion is Max’s birthday and the family goes to lunch at a Chinese restaurant, gathering at the same table and ordering with the same waiter. They all wish the old man, read fortune cookie predictions and make jokes about it. After a few cordial hours back at the old-age home, they bid farewell. These variations are bridged together by old family photographs, with voiceover by Peter addressing the film to their absent mother who never had the chance to grow old.

Over the course of fifteen years, we see Max deteriorate from a sharp super-senior who trots out songs from memory to a frail figure who is hard put to recall his wife’s name. A favourite poem that he recites turns from a token of his charm to a test of his memory. The children, too, grow old, yet the jokes on the lunch table remain the same, becoming quainter with each passing year. A longitudinal study of the Entell family’s annual ritual, Getting Old Stinks is a poignant document about the ravages of time on human bonds.

When Humaira Bilkis, the director of Things I Could Never Tell My Mother, returned home to Dhaka after her studies in India, she found her once-liberal mother Khaleda transformed into a devout woman after a pilgrimage to Mecca. Where young Khaleda wanted her daughter to grow up to be a painter, she now repudiates images. She laments the fact that her daughter makes films, collects old photographs, stays out late and, most importantly, refuses to get married. It is left to the viewer’s imagination how she would react if she learnt that Humaira has a Hindu boyfriend in Calcutta with whom she has trysts in a friend’s apartment.

Khaleda’s constant sense of disappointment and maternal failure weighs heavily on Humaira. When the pandemic hits, the filmmaker is obliged to take care of her ailing parents, forced to live with all this corrosive emotional furniture. Her response? To film her life, to turn the overly familiar into something akin to a “text” that could afford her the necessary distance. It is telling that the relationship between mother and daughter is at its most cordial when Humaira is away on work in Japan and makes video calls to Khaleda, telling her of the freedom women that enjoy there.

All through, Humaira imagines her romance in terms of the love poems her mother wrote as a young woman. In turn, she narrativizes her mother’s life through the images of her film. In Things I Could Never Tell My Mother, art becomes a mediator in family life, the crutch using which individuals tolerate one another.

Filmmaker Wenqian Zhang’s mother is worried about her daughter’s future too in A Long Journey Home. Like Humaira, Wenqian has completed her film studies abroad and has now returned home to mainland China. Her mother’s worries and appeals notwithstanding, she doesn’t yet want to get married to her boyfriend (and co-producer), Yue Huang. She says she doesn’t believe all that much in marriage.

For good reason, since her own parents are an irreparably damaged couple. After a series of failed business ventures across the country, Wenqian’s father Bo is now a stay-at-home husband mistreated by pretty much everyone around. His wife belittles him at every opportunity, even hitting him at one point. His brother-in-law insults him for owing money. Even his parents-in-law, who live in the same house, use him to run errands. A pitiful figure, Bo seems the quintessential product of patriarchal pressures on men. The most tender scenes of the film feature Wenqian lending a sympathetic ear to the broken man, who is in turn more understanding of her feelings and aspirations than her excessively pragmatic mother.

Wenqian composes the film as a series of static shots, all of which are interesting in their studied composition and some of which are downright dazzling in their use of off-screen space. This formalist reserve allows her to describe the domestic space with fluency and provide us a glimpse into the relative affluence of the Zhangs.

Located at the farther end of the class spectrum, the family of Elvis A-Liang Lu, director of A Holy Family, is something you might imagine having seen in a Tsai Ming-Liang film. Laconic to a fault, his father is an incurable gambler who cannot keep away from the numbers racket even when he is dying of cancer. His mother is a perpetual sufferer who walks up and down the stairs to maintain the home shrine. His brother fashions himself as a spiritual medium, relaying concerns of paying customers to a pantheon of gods. On the side, he grows cash crops on a small patch of land subject to the vagaries of weather. The whole family seems to have surrendered its future to faith and luck, which are at times indistinguishable.

It is perhaps not surprising then that A-Liang left for Taiwan as a young man to determine his own life. His mother calls him home at the beginning of the film, broaching the subject of her death, audibly making him uncomfortable. Over the course of A Holy Family, A-Liang changes from a seemingly indifferent son to someone with pangs of guilt over ‘abandoning’ his family. Like with Humaira Bilkis, filmmaking here serves as an instrument of reconciliation with the family. A-Liang’s lot is unhappy in its own way, but his film is bracing in the way it transforms this unhappiness into a graceful portrait of a modest family playing with the cards it has been dealt.

[First published in 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]

The list of nominees for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film this year presents an eclectic slate. Spanning different genres, subject matters and styles, these works demonstrate that animation can sometimes deepen ideas and feelings in a way that live-action filmmaking cannot.

The Windshield Wiper (2021) is perhaps the most striking of the nominees in terms of animation technique, which here consists of 3D modelling over painted backgrounds. The gestures of the central character — a middle-aged man smoking in a corner of a café, lost in thoughts — are so precise and expressive that it is hard to believe that the film wasn’t rotoscoped out of a live-action film played by real actors. The impression of realism is accentuated by the ambient sound mix, which captures stray conversations in the café, as well as mock-cinematic devices like out-of-focus shots and cloud effects.

A painter by training, director Alberto Mielgo is nevertheless careful not to imitate photographic reality closely. To this end, he only picks out the salient features of his human characters and renders the play of light on their bodies in thick painterly strokes. There also appears to be some frame dropping, which takes the film further away from realism.

As the man in the café muses on what love is, Mielgo cuts to vignettes of unfulfilled romance: a young pair at a sunny beach staring at the sea in silence, a homeless man talking with a mannequin as though she were his old flame, a Japanese schoolgirl jumping off a high-rise in Tokyo, a man with a bouquet of roses in Berlin rushing for a planned date, two tattooed Tinder hopefuls in a supermarket who don’t realize that their match is standing next to them. At first, these scenes feel like the man’s reminiscences, but it turns out that they are just unconnected scenes connected by the theme of love and given the music video treatment.

Romance is also at the centre of the Anton Dyakov’s Boxballet (2020), in which a fading heavyweight boxer in Soviet Russia falls in love with a ballerina. Over their courtship, the two exchange personalities: visiting museums and dance halls, the pugilist discovers the softer side in him; the dancer, in turn, develops the inner strength to defy her sleazy trainer who offers her the lead role in his next production in exchange for sexual favours. It’s an unlikely romance between two characters whose careers are on the wane. Also on the wane is the USSR, whose history has a complex relationship with ballet. The film thus has an unusual political resonance: it is conceivable that the couple might not have existed in a different era.

While its setup recalls American film noir, Boxballet opts for an exaggerated cartoony style with caricatured characters, aquarelle colours, visible contours, charcoal-like shading and rapid cuts. Figures in the ballerina’s scenes are elongated to underscore her long legs and her flexibility, but also her frailty. The environment of the boxer, on the other hand, is characterized by an accent on volumes and solidity. He is a sack of potatoes compared to the ballerina’s carrot. This simple duality makes for some effective contrast and formal rhyming. His bulk attaches him to the ground while her litheness draws her towards the skies. Raising her hand to slap her trainer, the ballerina instead curls it to punch him on the nose.

Hugo Covarrubias’s Bestia (2021) is also a period narrative, one set in Chile during the Pinochet regime in which political dissidents were tortured and killed, often with the cooperation of private companies. The film is based on the ghastly life of Íngrid Olderöck, an executive in Pinochet’s intelligence agency, who allegedly used her dog to rape her detainees. Bestia begins by emphasizing Íngrid’s everyday life, her culinary habits, her relationship with her German shepherd and her commute to ‘work’. This quotidian reality becomes progressively unsettling as Íngrid murders abducted prisoners to upbeat music or has her pet perform sexual acts on her.

The corpulent Íngrid is modelled like a cracked china doll, with light bouncing off its glazed surface, to reflect the hollow, broken woman that she is, but also to underline her porcelain coldness. Her tiny, painted mouth hardly moves, but the film puts this impassivity to good effect. The lovingly designed décor, made of everyday material such as cardboard, wool or fur, aptly echoes the film’s central theme of the banality of evil.

Much more children friendly is Robin Robin (2021), an old-style Christmas movie about a bird that grows up among a family of mice, ill-suited to the business of stealing food from humans. It’s the only nominee that has the glossy finish of a Pixar production, with its dynamic ‘camera’ movements, hyper-sensitive character features and extremely detailed object textures. The voluptuousness of nature on display harks all the way back to Bambi (1942). The animals all have a fur that resembled pilled wool, conveying a feeling of warm domesticity.

With a runtime of just over thirty minutes, Robin Robin is also twice as long as the other nominees. The length helps the film pack four musical numbers penned by directors Dan Ojari and Michael Please. The best of these is a Tim Burton-esque sequence set in a tool shed and features a villainous cat taunting our hapless robin. As the cat bandies his victim across the shed, mechanical tools come to life in coordinated motion, turning into instruments of torture, just as the cat’s apparently consoling verses become threatening: “A robin or a mouse? After all, under the skin, you’re all the same.”

A cat is at the receiving end of violence in the fifth and the funniest nominee, Affairs of the Art (2021), made by British animators Joanna Quinn and Les Mills, who have been developing the lead character, Beryl, for over three decades now. A middle-aged housewife in a family of obsessives, Beryl recalls how monomania runs in her family. Her sister Beverly, a natural-born sadist and a precocious taxidermist, tortures small animals and is haunted by Lenin’s preserved body. Beverly’s obsession with death and decay perhaps comes from their grandmother, who would pickle any living thing that came her way. Beryl’s son Colin speaks only in Dutch and is possessed by railway signals. Beryl, for her part, is into art now, “drinking from the cup of creativity.” She makes her husband repeatedly come down the stairs naked in order to capture “the movement in between the moment of change.”

It’s the kind of neurotic bunch that you might find in films by Woody Allen or Wes Anderson. And the animation is appropriately nervous: the hand-drawn lines pile on top of one another, the colour fields exceed the lines, corrections are left visible, figures quiver with repressed energy. The writing and the voice acting are superb, and the animation matches it in its suppleness and expressivity. Motifs of aging, beauty, violence and death recur in different forms. But it is the manner in which Affairs of the Art treats patently morbid subjects with irreverent humour that stands out. It could be the winning film.

 

[First published at News9]

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.

Autofiction (Laida Lertxundi)

Autofiction, the first of Basque-origin artist Lertxundi’s films I’ve seen, opens with an establishment shot of a city skyline. A while later, we are on the sunlit roads of the metropolis, where a cavalcade of police motorbikes prepares for a rally. Cut to bodies of various unconscious women being dragged on concrete and loaded on to a truck. Before we can figure out what’s happening, we are presented with short testimonies of women talking about motherhood, abortion and loneliness, testimonies that are cut with vignettes from the MLK day parade in the city. The bright pastel colours that compose the studio the women are photographed in, combined with the big, yellow typeface of the title and the sunny outdoors, suggest a pastiche of cheerful Reaganite suburbia. At one point, a woman crawls out of her living room couch into her large, suburban backyard to settle into a foetal position under the sun. But what’s the connection? I presume that the crimes taking place in broad daylight, whose perpetrators we don’t see, tie metaphorically with the women’s accounts, in which post-maternal deracination, post-abortive disorientation and post-separation depression are all conceived in terms of personal choices and experiences, independent of structural forces conditioning them. By intercutting these testimonies with a civil rights rally, Lertxundi is restoring the political character to these personal experiences. At the end, a rectangular opening on a card frames parts of women’s bodies separately, hinting at the unity behind these fragments, just as Lertxundi evokes the socio-political unity shaping individual experiences. The title, moreover, implies that Lertxundi might be articulating details of her own life through these accounts, thereby scattering her subjectivity and rendering it interchangeable with those of the women she films.

Orphea (Alexander Kluge, Khavn)

In Orphea, 88-year-old Kluge and 47-year-old Khavn revive the Orpheus-Euridice myth as an avant garde punk musical. In this version, Orpheus becomes a woman named Orphea (Lilith Stangenberg) while Euridice is a man called Euridiko (Ian Madrigal) and the underworld itself is Manila at night time. The filmmakers treat the myth rather loosely, converting it into a string of ‘set pieces’, in which Orphea is either navigating one lair of degenerates after another or reading out lines of Ovid from a teleprompter, or belting out arias and folk tunes in half a dozen languages in front of a matte screen. Unlike Straub’s inconsolable one, Orpheus here seems to get along just fine without Euridice. The result resembles a blithe experimental video game produced by Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger. Through Orphea’s valiance but also her ultimate impotence, the filmmakers mount something of an elegy for the revolutionary potential of art. One of the suppositions is this: what if, despite Orpheus’ desires, Euridice didn’t want to be rescued? Orphea is regularly transported to wartime USSR, and mourns its countless dead, seeking, like the Soviet ‘biocosmists’, justice for the dead. Towards the end, the present also makes its way into the film in the form of border surveillance footage and refugee camps. The connections are often only suggestive, such as Orphea’s descent in the Lethe river invoking the sea route of contemporary migrants. Strangenberg appears in most every frame and is a hypnotic presence, and there is never a dull moment in the film. Kluge’s heterogenous style—on-screen texts, multiple sub-frames, stop-motion animation, declamatory text readings, archival photos and found footage—goes really well with the atmosphere of pure play. But it is literally a mixed bag where anything goes, so your mileage may vary.

Movie That Invites Pausing (Ken Jacobs)

Ken Jacobs’ film is dedicated to his teacher and abstract expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, whose legendary classes are part of almost every historical account of 20th century art. Hofmann’s painting and pedagogy emphasized the use of flat colour fields to generate the perception of depth, the impression of planes emerging or receding out of the canvas surface. Jacobs finds a filmic equivalent to this idea, producing the illusion of movement and dynamic colour without relying on pro-filmic reality. This is the setup: over the camera lens lies a fabric (or a translucent material) made of a hexagonal beehive pattern that gradually changes orientation over the course of the film. With what seems like a slightly mobile camera, Jacobs appears to photograph a liquid surface, first, and then some crystalline solids lit by stroboscopic light flashing at 120BPM (either that, or he has inserted these ‘black leaders’ artificially). At first, the result registers like the sight of a patterned gold foil slowly melting, but soon the hexagons vanish ‘underneath’ the liquid. Towards the end of the film, however, the fabric/material dominates the foreground, with the hexagons strongly asserting themselves with their dark borders. This receding and the emerging of the textured plane and the creation of new depths ties to what Hoffman called the ‘push and pull’ of the painting, the feeling of airiness that you get when you stare long enough at a Pollock, for instance. The strobing light also causes the hexagons to ripple like the liquid and ‘animates’ the surface into repetitive, gif-image like movements. More than pausing, which allows you to see various hues of gold and orange on the image, it’s speeding it up or slowing it down that the film tempts you to; playing it at 0.25x or 4x its speed illuminates its process better.

Inventing the Future (Isiah Medina)

Inventing the Future, Medina’s second feature, is adapted from a book of the same name by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. The text in question describes the limitations of the current ‘folk politics’ of the left and contrasts it with the long-term vision with which Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society conceived, disseminated and installed Neoliberalism into the ‘political common sense’ through universities and think tanks. An accelerationist outline for the future, it calls for a radical increase in automation that would result in fewer jobs, which, combined with a Universal Basic Income, could help reinvent newer forms of the self and the social. These rather weighty political ideas of the text are concentrated and tossed at us by the soundtrack—as read out by a girl who appears on screen from time to time—which Medina uses as a foundation for some extremely aggressive imagery. His blindingly rapid montage solders together what may be 25,000 shots in such a way that, in many stretches, we barely have time to register what we’re seeing. Even when a locus of anchoring images—crowds, people with phones, Lego blocks, the voiceover girl—constitute a set of identifiable visual motifs, the truculent editing forecloses any possible synthesis. Even the voiceover text, whose relative simplicity allows us to gather ourselves, is periodically chopped up and interrupted by an atonal piano melody or by another overlapping voiceover saying something else. Medina’s film appears to bear a mimetic relation to its source text in the sense that seeks cinematic correlatives to the ideas expressed. While the lightning-fast montage may be said to imitate the cognitive processes of the schizophrenic attention economy, the notion of UBI translates here to a universal access to image-making—thanks to ubiquitous cell phone cameras—which questions the need for new image production and shifts the burden of creative expression onto editing—a proto-Godardian idea. Conceptually strong though it may be, the punishing formal violence of Medina’s film makes it physically painful to watch.

IWOW: I Walk on Water (Khalik Allah)

While it continues and refines the street portraiture of Field Niggas (2015), Khalik “Danny” Allah’s IWOW also addresses the central moral-aesthetic issue weighing down on the earlier film, namely the filmmaker’s fraught relation to subjects whose consent in collaborating with him may not be wholly free and who, by dint of this power imbalance, run the risk of being commodified. As though in response to this problem posed by his obscured authorial position, Khalik places his self squarely at the centre of IWOW, where he claims to be nothing short of Jesus himself. This claim is, of course, tongue-in-cheek as Khalik confesses to having been inspired by the psychedelic mushrooms he keeps consuming. But it’s also a dramatic ruse that allows him to brashly interpret his work of ‘saving people’ in terms of Christian iconography and test it against the charity of his well-meaning family and friends, who are understandably concerned by his radical altruism. Khalik interrogates the limits of his own goodwill through his relation to Frenchie, an elderly Haitian street dweller with a speech impediment and a drug addiction, with whom he has worked over the past seven years. By his own admission, Khalik is a universalist who sees the same human essence binding everyone. To this end, his editing pattern disregards social hierarchies, cutting between extreme close-ups of outcasts and his friends and family in a manner that is often very provocative. Yet his focus is on the stories of those at the absolute bottom of the social ladder living on the streets of Harlem. The reason for this comes by way of an explosive monologue by one of his subjects, who describes the historical process behind the neighbourhood’s impoverishment and the real threat posed by gentrification; we then understand that the people Khalik films won’t be allowed to exist as they are once the district becomes ‘respectable’, i.e. the kind of place that will screen Khalik’s films and organize his exhibitions—a contradiction that the filmmaker reveals to be fully conscious of.

Sportin’ Life (Abel Ferrara)

Ferrara’s new documentary follows works by Daido Moriyama, Vanessa Beecroft, Bret Easton Ellis, Gaspar Noé and Wong Kar-wai as the sixth project commissioned by Saint Laurent as part of their project titled Self, which purportedly celebrates self-expression in the arts. Running for just over one hour, Sportin’ Life combines personal footage from Ferrara’s festival Q&As, media interviews, his concerts as a bass guitarist, television reports, internet videos, sessions from the US congress, Ferrara’s family photographs and clips from his own films. The interview excepts are quite direct and present Ferrara, invariably accompanied by his favourite lead man Willem Dafoe, talking about collaboration, making films with friends and family, and his approach to his craft. Interspersed with them are news reports about the Covid-19 crisis, Donald Trump’s feckless response to it and the mounting deaths in Italy and the US. It’s indeed striking how Ferrara is able to mould such pre-charged, disparate material into recognizable, personal imagery, with its references to Catholicism, its sense of being locked indoors, and the general end-of-days ambiance that pervades so much of his films. It’s as though the world has finally caught up with the dystopian fiction of 4:44 (2011), and so Dafoe gets to deliver his Dalai Lama-like monologue once again. On one level, Ferrara, holed up with his family in his apartment in Rome, is meditating on creation at the time of global destruction. The way he ironically superposes his concert music on low-fi footage of people dying drives home the idea of art’s impuissance in a more unequivocal manner than does Orphea. But the film is also Ferrara’s answer of sorts to public narratives about his oeuvre. In interviews and Q&As, we see journalists attach labels to his work—dark, radical, indie—that Ferrara doesn’t bother acknowledging. With this film, he appears to be simply ‘making his next move’ unmindful of the end game, i.e. responding to his immediate circumstances, remaining alert to the moment and, if we go by the equation ‘Pasolini=Dafoe=Ferrara’, making films as an existential coping mechanism. Towards the end of the film, however, Ferrara casts these sundry elements into a malevolent vision of the universe; the killing of George Floyd, the ensuing riots and violence are all stripped of their immediate, political meaning and shaped into a metaphysical picture of chaos. Maybe Ferrara is playing Nero more thoroughly than he imagines.

The Salt of Tears (Philippe Garrel)

A young man at a bus stop glimpses a girl across the road. She gives him directions, and they board a bus together. There’s a spark between them. They look at each other, making sure their eyes don’t meet. The girl has fallen in love, the man hopes for a sexual encounter that doesn’t happen. “I’ll never forget you”, he says before he leaves town. Weeks later, the girl sends him a card, pouring out her feelings for him. He reads it and locks it up in a drawer without a thought. It’s hard to describe The Salt of Tears, or any of Garrel’s recent films for that matter, without running the risk of making it sound like a bundle of French art movie clichés. These films are all resolutely focused on romantic and sexual entanglements between young, heterosexual people and the seemingly infinite range of emotions they sustain in the participants. Digital black and white cinematography, a voiceover articulating the protagonist’s predicament and a sweet piano score all attest to a grand decadence at work. But Garrel is able to infuse these abstract, almost archetypal character relationships with a vitality, thanks to the extremely controlled actor gestures that concentrate the whole emotional force of these relationships.

Luc (Logann Antuofermo), the young man, aspires to study carpentry on the wish of his father (a wonderful André Wilms), whom he loves and looks up to. Something of a skirt chaser and a jerk—wholly inadequate words, for Garrel is interested precisely in a detailed exploration of what these judgments and coinages mean—Luc abandons Jemila (Oulaya Amamra), the bus stop girl, because he is too cowardly to tell the truth to his current girlfriend Geneviève (Louise Chevillotte), who gets to bed with him right after they meet. He abandons Geneviève too and tells himself that he was never in love because his feelings for neither woman could overpower his professional ambition or his bond with his father. So despite being focused on the sex, Luc has a little of the tragic romantic, looking for love even though he believes that finding it with wreck all his current certainties in life. It’s a characteristically French type, also seen in Jean Paul Civeyrac’s Le Doux Amour des hommes (2002), in which a world-weary young man wants to experience a love so Deep that it will rescue him from his emotional tundra.

The strength of the writing is that it doesn’t categorise Luc’s relationships into love and sex, and instead lets them hover on a fuzzy zone between and around these poles. Why he continues to stay with Betsy (Souheila Yacoub), his third girlfriend with whose male colleague he shares a ménage à trois, is no more a mystery than why he chooses to leave Jemila and Geneviève. What is sure is that Luc destroys one life after another with his behaviour, leaving the kind of lifelong scars he himself is unconsciously wishing for. When he does find in Betsy the love he was looking for, he loses his ties with his father, as he expected and wanted, but also becomes vulnerable, beset by jealousy and helplessness. Nuances of character description aside, much of the film’s pleasures are on its surface: in the way actors look at or hold each other, in the calming interludes with Luc or his father working on pieces of wood. There is a dance scene at a disco with Luc and Betsy that is a thrilling number hinged on Betsy’s energetic, sensual movement around the floor. Someone watching The Salt of Tears without an idea of who made it might take it for the work of a 21-year old. That, I suspect, is both its strength and weakness.

Uppercase Print (Radu Jude)

Found footage filmmaking, especially the kind that seeks to perform an ideological interrogation of the past, and particularly of a socialist past, seems to have a special power to produce some astoundingly lazy works. The end of the Cold War has meant that younger audiences cannot relate to accounts of life in communist regimes except in an ironic, patronizing way. We get it: the politicians are conmen, the people sheep, the fashion corny and the media so crude and manipulative. Nothing that a video search wouldn’t throw up. To be sure, Uppercase Print isn’t wholly a found footage film. Adapted from a ‘documentary play’, Jude’s film intersperses archival footage from Romanian television shows and news reports of the early eighties with dramatizations of a police case file from the same period. The case involves pro-freedom messages written in chalk on the walls surrounding the party headquarters. The security office takes accurate measurements of the messages written in uppercase, analyses the handwriting and convicts a teenager in the locality. Jude employs a set of gigantic sound stages designed like a pie chart. He has his primly dressed actors utter lines from the report—charges against the teenager, testimonies by his family and friends, and records of the security personnel tailing him—in a declamatory manner staring at either the camera or each other. The boy confesses, but claims he was inspired by messages on Western radio, while his parents chide him and urge him to recant. His friends and teachers turn against him and his seemingly innocuous deed marks him for life (and beyond). All this dramatization goes in circles, and is pretty testing, and saps all our interest before it moves ahead narratively.

Some of the archival material is thematically linked to the case files, as when a graffiti about food shortage is cut to a TV report about new refrigerator models. But most seem to have been picked as quaint documents from the era: street interviews with traffic rule violators, Busby Berkeley-style musical numbers, televised cooking recipes, countless clips of children singing and as many of pageantry organized in honour of Nicolae Ceaușescu. With these assorted extracts, Jude may have been intending to give a picture of life in communist Romania comparable to what Harun Farocki did in How to Live in the German Federal Republic (1990). But, unfortunately, Uppercase Print doesn’t have necessary spirit of synthesis. The critique is hardly earned, and the film is even less instructive about life communist Romania than a broad comedy such as Tales from the Golden Age (2009).

To be fair, the juxtaposition of archival footage and the case files is interesting on paper. It taps into a fragility and paranoia underlying the functioning of the state which triumphalist propaganda tries to conceal: that the state perceives a boy’s zestful scribbling as a security threat is so absurdly out of step with the paeans to youth beamed across television sets. But there’s hardly anything here that hasn’t been explored already, and much more successfully, by the work of Andrei Ujică. For a film leaning so much on television footage, Uppercase Print intriguingly omits the televised struggles of the Romanian revolution itself. That’s because Jude’s film is less interested in TV as a medium than the messages its shows convey, among others the gradual incursion of capitalism into everyday life. To this end, the narrative makes a startling leap from 1985 to present day. As the camera pans across a cityscape in which large commercial banners cover drab, low-income housing, we hear the actors playing the security personnel justify their actions (of surveying and recruiting schoolchildren as informers), the implication being that these regime criminals have succeeded in blending into the anonymity of the new market economy. Nothing prepares us for this critical coup, though, and it’s a tedious journey by the time we arrive there.

Summer of 85 (François Ozon)

Whether Summer of 85 is in autobiographical in any way or not, I don’t know, but it certainly gives that impression. Adapted from the 1982 novel Dance on My Grave by British writer Aidan Chambers, the film tells the story of Alexis (Félix Lefebvre), a timid working-class teenager who finds love in a Jewish boy named David (Benjamin Voisin) after the latter rescues him from a boating accident. The year is 1985 and Alexis is 17, just about the age Ozon was at the time. When the film begins, he is in police custody, talking to us in a voiceover. As Ozon cuts between this gloomy present and the sunny few weeks preceding it, we are drawn into the mystery that looms over Alexis’s current situation and his relationship with David. We share Alexis’s confusion as David, aided by an excessively indulgent mother, seduces him, convinces him of their closeness and persuades him to work at his shop, even as David’s professor (Melvin Poupaud, the star of Ozon’s previous film, By the Grace of God (2018)) at school urges him to continue his literature studies. David seals Alexis’s trust by making a pact with him: the one who outlives the other will dance over the latter’s grave.

The ‘mystery’ itself is of no great interest; it’s Ozon’s highly cinema-aware way of unfurling it that holds the viewer’s attention. Ozon is evidently a cinephile, and while this sophistication weighed down heavily on the laborious Double Lover (2017), it treads rather lightly here. There are, firstly, the direct references to Joseph Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer (1959, which features two queer stars, not to mention gay icon Liz Taylor) in the film’s title, the poster in David’s bedroom, the plot elements of David’s mother ‘procuring’ boys for him and Alexis’s explaining the mystery through a therapeutic confession. Consciously or otherwise, Ozon also draws on several Hitckcockian elements here: a gay romance sealed by a pact (Rope, Strangers on a Train), the creepy, mollycoddling mother figure (Strangers on a Train, Psycho, Birds etc.), the beautiful sea cliff against which the action takes place (North by Northwest, Suspicion), a violent outburst at a fairground (Strangers on a Train, Stage Fright), an older teacher who solves the mystery (Rope), David’s remaking of the docile Alexis’s look (Vertigo) and Alexis’ obsession with exhuming David’s dead body (The Trouble with Harry, Vertigo). And the diminutive Alexis’s insecurity recalls Polanski’s reworking of Hitchcock. There’s a very morbid, very funny scene in a morgue involving a cross-dressed Alexis and David’s corpse that is something Hitch would’ve fondly approved of.

Like Hitchcock, Ozon seems to have precisely story-boarded his sequences to the last gesture, last glance, especially in the early stretch of the film, where the dynamic between Alexis, David and his mother is conveyed with great economy and efficacy. But Ozon is also trying to go beyond Hitchcockian mechanics to something more tender, less cynical. Once the film reveals its entire mystery about one hour in, it becomes something of a coming-of-age tale, turning its focus to Alexis’ heartbreak over David’s betrayal, his confusion with his sexual identity, his nuanced relationship to his blue-collar parents and his grief over David’s death, which was so far only a theoretical preoccupation for him and which is now seen as another betrayal. There is a good amount of nostalgia and a desire to imitate the ‘eighties aesthetic’ at work in the film, especially in its choice of costumes and colour composition, but Ozon’s sense of time and place, as always, is very sharp. Shot through what seems like a diffusion filter, the film captures the sights and sensations of summer in a memorable manner. Summer of 85 may be one of the few films set in the Normandy region that doesn’t provide a lugubrious image of the place. The muted colours and the low-income housing complexes, for once, don’t take on a moral quality. They simply are.

Genus Pan (Lav Diaz)

I haven’t followed Diaz’s work this decade as closely as I would’ve liked to. The few hours of The Halt (2019) that I saw at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival was very impressive in the way Diaz turns the film’s poverty of means into an advantage: the low-budget sci-fi atmosphere is so muted that it feels strangely contemporary. Clocking at 157 minutes—practically a short film by Diaz’s standards—Genus Pan is even more rudimentary in its production values. Three working-class men, Baldo (Nanding Josef), Paulo (Bart Guingona) and Andres (Don Melvin Boongaling), travel across the fictional island of Hugaw, returning from their temporary job. Baldo is mercenary and extracts commission money from the younger Andres, who wishes to save for his sister’s treatment. Paulo is a devout Catholic, and acts as a moderator between the other two, going so far as to reimburse Andres on behalf of Baldo. Not unlike the three characters in Stalker (1979), these men of different temperaments and beliefs wander about in a jungle where paranormal things may be happening. Hugaw, we learn, is a scarred land with several historical layers of oppression, violence and debauchery: once a trading post for intra-continental smugglers, it was successively colonized by the Spanish, the Japanese and the Americans. Today, it is ruled with an iron fist by a ruthless general who kills dissidents.

Diaz, as is his wont, is dealing in allegory, and we imagine that the island of Hugaw stands for all of Philippines. But there is also something universalist about Genus Pan, which is a reference to the undeveloped brain of the human animal. A radio broadcast tells us that many of us haven’t yet outgrown the traits of the chimpanzee. While parts of the film recall Hesus the Revolutionary (2002), the work that might be closest to this bitter, slightly misanthropic vision is Diaz’s Butterflies Have No Memories (2009), where too the political critique turns sour. The film changes rhythm once Andres comes back home to Hugaw to announce of the deaths of Baldo and Paulo. Paulo’s wife (Merly Bucong) and Baldo’s daughter (Diaz’s AD Hazel Orencio)—two of the most helpless creatures in all of Diaz’s cinema—suffer in silence, while one of the general’s slimy lackeys, Inngo (Joel Saracho in one of those sleazy roles that Diaz writes and casts so well), exploits them to exact personal revenge on Andres. The film is set days before Good Friday, and solemn processions of self-flagellating believers amplify the mournful ambience around Andres’s doomed fate. I’m certainly missing much of the social nuances of the story, especially concerning the tribes on the island, but I must add that Diaz himself abstracts much of the details, such as the Andres’ background as a dissident. It could be that these details were established in Diaz’s contribution to the omnibus film Journeys (2018) from which Genus Pan reportedly derives.

Diaz’s modus operandi is familiar: shooting almost exclusively outdoors, he plants his camera at such an angle that a deep field is carved out in the frame. There are no camera movements or musical accompaniments. Unlike The Halt, however, the deep space here remains largely static as the action unfolds in the foreground. Much of the visual interest lies in the specific ways actors enter and leave the frame or, in scenes where they don’t walk, remain scattered across it. Because Diaz shoots in vast open spaces, at times, we aren’t sure about the scale of things until the actors appear in the frame. As the film shifts to the village, the shades of the forest make way for stark sunlight; I get the impression that Diaz has deliberately overexposed his shots a little which gives a bleached out, slightly uncanny aura to human figures. There are two instances of flashback—a device I don’t recall in Diaz—including one which dramatizes a false testimony. Instances of violence are directed in a very offhand, amateurish way which, combined with the broad characterization of the general, gives the film an imperfect, agit-prop, ‘Third Cinema’ kind of quality. Finally, while the action is leisurely paced, the editing is functional, hinting at a desire to end shots quickly and move on. I think that it’s refinement at work.

Build the Wall (Joe Swanberg)

Why would Joe Swanberg, 39, feel the need to focus on the aging pangs of a fifty-year-old? Perhaps the precocious auteur, who had a body of work by the time he turned thirty, feels professionally, mentally much older than he actually is. Or perhaps forty is the new fifty. In any case, we are far from the interpersonal dynamics of Drinking Buddies (2015). Kent (Kent Osborne), who is the anchoring perspective of the film, is set in his ways. He is turning fifty, a fact he isn’t particularly fond of, and is having an old flame Sarah (Jane Adams) come over for his birthday. Unfortunately, another friend Kev (Kevin Bewersdorf) invites himself over at the same time, insisting that he will build the stone wall in Kent’s garden that he has long promised and that he will be as discreet as possible about it. Kent tries in vain to dissuade Kev because he has made romantic and work-related plans with Sarah that he doesn’t want to upset. But even Sarah occasions deviations from Kent’s routine; she gifts him a new vacuum cleaner he had made clear he doesn’t need. In a scene that’s literally a boner killer, he interrupts sex with Sarah only to get hung up on a shower curtain she keeps dislodging everyday. Kent’s mounting exasperation doesn’t derive as much from not ‘living in the moment’ as from the frustration of his wholly reasonable desire to keep his life simple and organized.

All of Kent’s expectations are thwarted: he falls out with Sarah, who ends up helping out Kev with the wall, around which a veritable community takes shape. The narrative partly hinges on the comic reversal that the over-serious, self-parodical, lone wolf Kev ends up forging a more wholesome relation with others than the sensitive, laid back Kent. But Swanberg doesn’t milk this scenario for its third-wheel comedy. (All the characteristically uncomfortable humour stems, instead, from Kent’s days out with Sarah.) He is rather interested in exploring the contours of romance at an age where you possibly expect to be accepted as you are. There is, equally, a simplification of form evident in the film, which runs for less than an hour. To be sure, scenes are still constructed around improvised acting and predominantly natural lighting, but there is an economy of exposition that feels positively mid-to-late career. With an exception of a pan shot here, a handheld shot there, most of the film unfolds in static shots, with the director occasionally drawing us in to the conversations using tighter setups. The more explicit flourishes, like cutting on sound cues, are muted by the overall austerity of the film. The film is set in a lush, wooded corner of Vermont and its meditative pace is redoubled by the natural expanse of the region. Swanberg also sets a series of formal counterpoints: intense, lone outdoor activities (wall building, axe throwing, woodcutting) that sublimate domestic frustrations, harsh sounds of sawing and stonework piercing the sylvan silence, and Kev’s DIY documentary sequences interspersed with Kent and Sarah’s fumbling. He perhaps forces the issue a little towards the end, but a shot of Kent in a jumpsuit sawing wood on his birthday is poignantly emblematic.

Coronation (Ai Weiwei)

A documentary on Wuhan’s COVID-19 outbreak made by Ai Weiwei: fair to expect that the artist’s iron fist will come down hard on China. It indeed does, but it’s the velvet glove that comes first. Coronation opens with overview shots of Wuhan’s impressive skyscrapers and advanced highways. Two people drive into the cordoned-off Hubei province and are interrogated by cops at the border. When they do manage to get in, the region registers like a ghost town from a modern horror movie, with no gas station open for hundreds of miles. They somehow make it to their home in Wuhan, only to find the fish in their aquarium dead. Ai constantly shuttles between such personal accounts of the lockdown and a macroscopic view of state-controlled healthcare and funeral activities in the province: treatment of patients on ventilators, extremely strict safety precautions followed at a hospital, song-and-dance exercises for patients that instruct them in best hygiene practices, construction of sprawling health facilities overnight, the equally rapid evacuation from the facility, package and delivery of the ashes of the cremated to the bereaved. A good part of the footage is slick, employing zany camera setups even in highly-restricted locations. Working from Cambridge, UK, Ai doesn’t reveal how he commissioned/obtained all this material (some of which were already circulating on the internet), nor does he get caught up with ethical questions such an approach raises. By all appearances, it’s a supremely efficient machinery that we witness in Wuhan. At times, Ai overlays these images with an 8-bit musical tune, as though to suggest the state’s video-game-like approach to problem solving. But the critique in these ‘macroscopic’ project remains muted as the sequences retain a Wiseman-like surface level neutrality.

The critical burden is, instead, placed on individual testimonies: a delivery man who is stuck in Hubei and is unable to return home, a lady who couldn’t see her father-in-law after he was diagnosed with the virus and died, patients at the hospital who claim they are being retained even after recovery just for image management purposes, a man who is prevented from collecting his father’s ashes without being accompanied by a ‘work unit’ in charge of his father’s case. A humorous sequence features an old woman, once a diligent middle-level executive in the Party, who fully trusts her government and refuses to consider information that might upset this faith. Earlier, workers at the hospital reception ask the cameraman to show only positive images of Hubei and to avoid emphasizing the outbreak. What emerges from this composite portrait is a sense that the source of China’s greatest strengths—executive efficacy, responsiveness, technological progress—is also the source of its more worrisome qualities—citizenry that lives in fear and denial, complete control over private data, an autonomous political will. Of course, none of this is news to anyone, but the personal testimonies introduce a grain of resistance that cuts down the stakes to human level. As the young man who is trying to recover his father’s ashes says, “one can’t just vanish silently in this world”.

A Shape of Things to Come (Lisa Malloy, J.P. Sniadecki)

Sundog (an inspiration for McConaughey’s Moondog in The Beach Bum?) is an elderly white recluse who lives somewhere near the Mexican border in a desert stretch of Arizona. He resides in his barely recognizable trailer, around which a tiny ecosystem has sprouted. Several cats live with Sundog, who also rears a battalion of pigs with great care. With his rifle, he hunts boars to feed himself and the cats. At one point, we see him catch toads, wash them and extract glue from their feet, which serves as smoking material once it’s dry. Save for a series of grunts and chortles, he doesn’t speak to the camera. At times, we see him calling someone, presumably his son, asking him to come over for a visit or pontificating on the state of things. This stilted exposition device, combined with the filmmakers’ decision not to be seen or to interact with Sundog, reveals a slight fictionalization at work. Like wildlife photographers, Malloy and Sniadecki are discreet, content in filming the old man in his routine. Almost exclusively, they photograph him in very tight shots such that we hardly get to see his immediate surroundings or even his actions. This, combined with the shallow visual field, inhibits our vision and produces a sense of unwelcome, suffocating intimacy. This way, the film dislodges Sundog from his environment while also avoiding picturesque images of the desert.

The film naturally calls to mind another fly-on-the-wall portrait of a recluse, Wang Bing’s Man with No Name (2009). But unlike Wang’s film, A Shape of Things to Come has little anthropological or philosophical inclination. Its attention is more on the human-interest story offered by the person of Sundog. Moreover, in contrast to the hermit in Wang’s film, Sundog is not a ‘primitive’, ‘naturally’ independent of human communities. He is, in fact, a sophisticate, an emissary from the countercultural movements of the seventies, who has deliberately removed himself from society. He wears jeans, has a mobile phone, drives a pickup truck, purchases books at the nearest shop from time to time, and listens to music on the radio. He even goes to the local concert, where he dances. He doesn’t need to be on his own; it’s a choice. Interspersed with vignettes from Sundog’s routine are images of military presence: A10s flying over the desert, border patrol presumably monitoring illegal migration, incongruent surveillance towers scanning the desert. Increasingly bothered by this ‘encroachment’, Sundog decides to take out a couple of towers with a powerful sniper rifle, and becomes something of an eco-terrorist in the process. As its title indicates, the film proposes Sundog’s story as one possible sign of things to come. I am not entirely sure if there’s any significant ideological inference to be made from Sundog’s actions. They could as easily represent a form of redneck libertarianism as much as a militant environmentalist consciousness. This is where the filmmakers’ refusal to intervene, either within the film or through a framing commentary, arguably hurts the work.

A Night at the Opera (Sergei Loznitsa)

The protean, prolific Sergei Loznitsa makes his documentaries using one of two kinds of material: original footage shot on location or archival footage. Considering his recent projects, I find that films fashioned out of Loznitsa’s own stock tend to be markedly superior to his found footage work. In both cases, the filmmaker assembles his sequences without any voiceover commentary and with hardly any on-screen text. The construction has a tendency to be deliberately diffuse, with shots of extended lengths furnishing very little narrative material at first glance. This approach turns out to be quite productive in the “original footage” films such as Maidan (2014) and Austerlitz (2016) because the impression of a synthesis at work is more evident. What is possibly also helpful is that what we see in these films doesn’t come with a received narrative, which means that the viewer is expected to do more work in negotiating with them. On the other hand, Loznitsa’s found footage projects, like The Event (2015) and State Funeral (2019), by the weight of their subject matter, greatly limit the number of ways the viewer could approach them. For instance, the latter film consists of a veritable onslaught of state-sponsored pageantry at Stalin’s funeral whose meaning is exhausted even before we are through with the film. There’s hardly any ‘justification’ of why one shot was selected over another or why the film lasts as long as it does. With Loznitsa vehemently refusing any discursive framework, the viewer is no more enlightened or surprised than at the beginning of the film, save perhaps an admiration for the enviable access that the filmmaker has to archival material.

I won’t push this objection too far, for it can be made to almost any found footage work. Moreover, The Event demonstrates why even such an approach can be illuminating in light of current global crises such as the one featured in Maidan. On the other hand, Loznitsa’s new archival work, A Night at the Opera, is another baffler. For just under twenty minutes, we see the who’s who of international politics and culture trickle into the Garnier Opera in Paris. The timeline can be roughly pegged at the late fifties, or the early sixties, but it isn’t clear whether the footage is of one single event or many. The VIPs arrive at the entrance, greeted by teeming fans, pose for the press and enter the opera. A few stray, intimate moments capture a smiling guard or little girls anxiously waiting with bouquets, but for the most part, it’s a high-society affair. After the national anthem, we see a telephoto sequence of a prima donna performing to great applause. As the film ends with images of the Parisian public celebrating on the road, I wondered what to make of it. The sole emotion the work evoked was the pathos inherent to all archival footage: a sense of death at work, all the pomp and power leading to the grave. Like those aristocrats in Russian Ark (2002), indulging in one last flourish before the fall, the top bananas at the gala affair seem ready to be culled by time. It’s a melancholy feeling, but it’s hard to deny that it’s also the product of laziness. With the absence of any knowledge about the Garnier Opera during the fifties or any accompanying text to ‘pin down’ the context, the material we see seems no more special than what you might find in the Agence France-Presse vault. That may not be Loznitsa’s problem. But then, maybe it is.

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