Roundup


Ottha Seruppu Size 7 (“Single Slipper Size 7”, 2019, R. Parthiban)

The claim that it’s a single-actor film is indeed a falsity, a gimmick. Sure, we see only one actor on screen (Parthiban himself), but we hear a dozen more on the soundtrack. Worse, it takes pains not to show any other actor even in scenes not featuring Parthiban. So the camera would look away from implied actors, whose exchanges we nevertheless hear. In its minimalist story that could’ve perhaps worked just as well without the conceit, a detained serial killer, interrogated by three or four high-level police officers, confesses liberally to his crimes, but walks out scot free. To avoid the monotony of looking at him speaking for a hundred minutes, actor-director-writer Parthiban cycles through a range of zany camera angles, playing with scales of objects at different distances from the camera. The framing is now partial, now distorted. Parthiban walks in and out of the view of the camera, both the film’s and of the one in the police station recording his testimony. For a major part of its runtime, we share the perspective of the police officers and never once that of Parthiban. This renders him less a character we identify with than a purely external being performing for the camera(s). On the other hand, in a theatrical gesture, we hear the voices that he hears in his head, which invites us to understand his psychology and also serves to insist that he’s not faking his way through the interrogation. I think the end result remains largely stage-bound, with concomitant light and sound effects. Be that as it may, there’s much pleasure to be had in watching the actor get so much manoeuvring space to showboat his unique personality. He forges a quintessential Parthiban character in his serial killer, a Socratic figure whose modesty, piety and powerlessness belie his wit, wisdom and wile. This fusing of Parthiban’s real life identity, his work as a writer and an actor turns him into an all-round film entertainer not unlike Jackie Chan or Takeshi Kitano.

 

Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu (“Wheatish Complexion, Average Build”, 2016, Hemanth M Rao)

Rao’s debut effort wedges together two stories. In the first, a 66-year-old Alzheimer’s patient, Venkob (Anant Nag), strays away from the home he’s admitted in, prompting his caretaker (Sruthi Hariharan) and his estranged, corporate rat of a son (Rakshit Shetty) to go look for him. In the second, two henchmen trying to hide a dead body end up taking shelter with Venkob at the home of a middle-class family. The twinning of stories has two advantages. First, it doubles as a showreel for Rao, who could demonstrate to future producers that he can handle a romantic melodrama as well as a crime thriller. (It apparently worked; his next was a police procedural produced by Puneeth Rajkumar’s new house.) But it also helps balance the film, which is otherwise a bland family drama or a tepid thriller developed in the broadest strokes possible. The characters are all are well-worn types with little inflection. The callousness of Venkob’s son, especially, is drummed up to an unsustainable pitch. It predictably breaks down with Venkob’s disappearance, and the character mellows down. As he searches for his father, he also discovers through oral testimonies his private habits, his romantic past, and his community influence, and realizes that his father wasn’t as generic and boring as the titular missing-person description suggests. In the process, he owns up to his own past, finding his roots and narrativizing his own life. Most of the search takes place through montages and song sequences, and the film itself is overly chopped up, far from the appreciable economy of Kavaludaari. If it’s still moving, it’s largely thanks to Anant Nag, who plays it light, not invoking every characteristic of Alzheimer’s patients. His essential simplicity bestows his character a basic dignity despite the ill-treatment meted-out to it by the script.

 

Taramani (2017, Ram)

Pray you don’t meet director Ram at a dinner. He is the kind of character who can’t pass the salt without giving you a five-minute lecture on the politics behind it. He might not be one to step inside pubs or to work at a call centre, but that doesn’t prevent him from pontificating with great authority on their social dynamics. A gay man in a hetero marriage? Ram knows exactly how he feels. A cuckolded husband? You got it. An adulterous North Indian housewife? Ram’s got you covered. The word pedantic doesn’t begin to describe this type. In Taramani, possibly the most reprehensible Tamil film of the past few years, this personality is given free rein as the director plays the wise prophet in an obnoxious, smart-ass voiceover. As he holds forth about the evils of globalization, employing preciously symbolic CGI birds realistically brought to life by an offshore VFX company, the viewer pictures a smug individual who has figured it all. The film’s ostensible story centres on the relation between a liberal, westernized, conveniently Anglo-Indian single mother (Andrea Jeremiah) and a nondescript, upwardly-mobile, resentful man (Vasanth Ravi). If the film sets their perspectives in parallel early on, it soon tilts the balance to establish a grand theory about the inadequate Indian male grappling with the sexual revolution of the past twenty years. Ram’s hand of judgment falls heavily on (straight) men—fair enough—but he proves himself utterly incapable of acknowledging the basic dignity of women without making martyrs out of them, without surrounding them with countless failed models of masculinity. This strategy also serves to acquit the filmmaker, who incriminates these broken men to conceal his own misogyny. The pat conservatism of a film like Maalai Nerathu Mayakkam, which deals with the same subject, is more honest than the pretend progressiveness of this sham. Taramani is a shameless piece of intellectual fraud.

 

Angamaly Diaries (2017, Lijo Jose Pellissery)

Angamaly Diaries is about gangs of young men from respectable social backgrounds flirting with lawlessness. The testosterone accumulates from frame one and, in an escalation of macho one-upmanship, blows up on their faces. There are shades of City of God here, but Pellissery doesn’t judge the community (on the contrary) and offers no higher moral ground. Instead, the filmmaker is paying tribute to the Christian-majority town of Angamaly in Kerala, whose meat trade and beef- and pork-dominated cuisine become primary motifs of the film. Diaries has formally very little to do with Pellissery’s next two films. While Ee.Ma.Yau and Jallikattu are explosives with a long fuse, building up to a crescendo through long, snake-like passages, Diaries is a serial firecracker proceeding at a breakneck pace from the get-go. Several episodes in the film have an average shot length of less than a second, the rapid edits and camera movements reflecting in their aggression the violence of the milieu portrayed. I was reminded on futurist-cubist superpositions in the way Pellissery chops up even brief actions into unrecognizable bits and stitches them back together to produce an impression rather than coherently describe events. So unlike in the later films, editing is the primary motive force and the creator of meaning here. Diaries is also decidedly a more commercial film, with its voiceover and music that reins in the otherwise chaotic proceedings, and without any of the philosophical pretensions of its successors. But if the film makes for such a crowd pleaser, it’s largely thanks to Pellissery’s work with his actors. His film is flooded with colourful characters, all of them played by debutant non-professionals. Even so, a majority of these actors leave a strong impression. The reason for this, I think, is that, in contrast to the use of non-professionals in other films in this roundup, the mostly male performances here are all set at a very high pitch, and they register with us principally through the actors’ physicality and bluster. To use the food metaphor so pervasive in the film, it’s like dousing all your dishes in the same spicy sauce. Leaves you excited one way or another.  

 

C/o Kancharapalem (2018, Venkatesh Maha)

The popular success of C/o Kancharapalem speaks to both the strengths and shortcomings of streaming giants like Netflix. On one hand, the fact that a modest, independent production such as this has found a sizeable audience speaks to the platform’s curatorial power and appetite for risk. But it also testifies to how easily public taste can be shaped. C/o Kancharapalem is practically a student film—a telefilm at best—whose natural home so far might have been Youtube or Sunday afternoon television. But it’s position on Netflix alongside super-productions, prestige pictures and auteur cinema does disservice to both the film and its more competent peers. The film interweaves four short stories, each involving a forbidden romance and all of them set in the titular neighbourhood of Vizag in India’s east coast. The female characters in all four stories hail from a conservative, caste-marked, patriarchal setup, which they are courageous enough to break out of through an affection for the other. This turns out to be an affront to family honour for the men gatekeeping their lives and leads to invariably sad consequences. Then there’s the question of religion, either as faith or practice, which modulates the four love stories. As can be guessed from that synopsis, the film pursues the parallels closely, even mechanically, resulting in an emphasis on the overarching concept (think Griffith’s Intolerance) at the expense of detail and texture. It cuts between the stories rather arbitrarily, sometimes forgetting an arc or two altogether for considerable stretches of time. This produces a curiously uneven emotional profile in which tensions in some sections are resolved while others remain. The film is, of course, not without endearing moments, especially in scenes involving the older pairs, but the actors are asked to do much more than they are capable of and the algorithmic quality of the scenario saps all surprise.

 

Merku Thodarchi Malai (“Western Ghats”, 2018, Lenin Bharathi)

Aka Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind. For most of its runtime, Merku Thodarchi Malai is a low-key portrait of a specific-geographic location: the ghat section on the frontier between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Nature, of course, is indifferent to state boundaries, and most of the people we see co-habit within a continuum of languages, customs, beliefs and worldviews. We witness life and work in the mountainous region through the eyes of porter Rangasamy (Antony). We get a sense of the local economy, the trade routes, the inhabitants’ relaxed attitude to money, and the near-total lack of a desire for profit. Business is important only so far as it sustains life. There are accidents and there’s a bit of drama, but for most part, Lenin develops a static, existential picture of lives lived at the mercy of nature, which knows nothing of human needs and sorrows. And then comes the coup de grace: a series of events that wrecks the film down in order to build it anew. Troublesome emotions like greed and wrath take on monstrous proportions through politics and come down on the region like an avalanche. Lenin rapidly, but rigorously, sketches the consequences of the breakdown of an agrarian society tenuously held from collapse by labour unions. GMO firms, land mafia, modern machinery and development projects quickly follow, corrupting the ecosystem beyond recognition. The filmmaker lingers on a shot of a shopkeeper noting down what Rangasamy owes him in a ledger—the incipient notion of debt marking the arrival of new economic relations. Like in Happy as Lazzaro, the brute force of modernity brings in newer forms of bonded labour. The community dissolves, and with it its faith and solidarity, forcing even its non-contributing members to take up jobs in the new economy. The last half hour of the film turns our perspective inside out, forcing us to recognize the landscape now as a bearer of grief at the mercy of a human order. Merku Thodarchi Malai is that rare film which is political without being sentimental. There’s a murder that happens, but it’s presented purely as an existential reaction devoid of moral connotations. Lenin concludes with an absurdist wallop in which a uniformed Rangasamy is hired to guard his own unfenced land—now a private property housing a windmill—and protect the free winds from… what exactly? As Lenin’s drone camera flies farther and farther backwards, we see all the surrounding plots of land—each one bearing a tragedy perhaps—occupied by more windmills, those shiny white icons of clean, green progress now looking like gravestones. If you want to know what Marxist cinema looks like today, this is the preeminent film for your consideration.

Gantumoote (“Baggage”, 2019, Roopa Rao)

That a coming-of-age tale told from a girl’s point of view seems exceedingly fresh partly points to cinema’s conditioning of the audience to the primacy of the male gaze. Rao’s film is the hidden half of a story we are intimately familiar with: a lively, popular boy loses his way in life because of his romance. Rao filters the story entirely through the perspective of her protagonist Meera (Teju Belawadi, daughter of filmmaker Prakash Belawadi), in whose voiceover the film unfolds. At times superfluous and overpowering, the anachronistic voiceover oscillates between the adult Meera, trying to make rational sense of her experience, and her teen self, living life as it presents itself, and nevertheless provides fruitful tensions with the image. From the outset, Rao portrays the movie buff Meera as someone who likes to see (the interaction of screen and spectator has generally been the prerogative of male cinephiles). Through countless shot-reverse shot constructions, she makes the viewer share Meera’s awakening of desire. All through, the emphasis is on Meera’s autonomy, her right to be alone, to want alone, to suffer alone. Rao plays off specific gestures (Meera pulling her boyfriend by his shirt sleeves, his preventing her from biting her nails) against a series of moods (the anxious wait for first kiss in monsoon, the languid summer vacation), specific memories of Meera’s against her lack of knowledge of events beyond her purview. Even when it goes in and out of student film territory, Gantumoote is carried forth by Belawadi’s incredible turn. Her frame drooping in harmony with her eyebrows, she looks over the shoulders, hers or her beloved’s, her eyes conveying her inner life with the directness of subtitles. She is an instant star.

 

Ee.Ma.Yau (“R.I.P”, 2018, Lijo Jose Pellissery)

Ee.Ma.Yau deepens the suspicion I had watching Jallikattu: that Pellissery works like a painter. First comes the underlying structure; in this case, the social machinery of a small-town Christian community that springs into action following the death of a member. Overseen by a trusted friend of the deceased’s son, a doctor, a priest, a policeman, an undertaker, a printer, a coffin maker, a gravedigger and a music band galvanize around the dead alcoholic. Overlaid on this impersonal societal analysis, like colours on a drawing, are human emotions and characteristics: desire (of an man wishing a grand farewell to his dead father), malice (of a man who is bent on arousing suspicion around death), self-righteousness (of a priest who makes it his mission to complicate things), greed (of a coffin maker trying to sell an expensive unit), generosity (of a friend willing to abase himself to alleviate his friend’s suffering) and compassion (of a rival battered by the dead man). Like Jallikattu, this is a film about how these individual qualities overwhelm and destroy the community from within, turning a complex collective calculus to see off a man with civility into a spectacle of uncivility. Despite the (sometimes unwatchable) sordidness of the happenings, the stress is on the basic dignity of individuals. Pellissery’s characteristic, long Steadicam shots bridge indoors and outdoors, connecting the perspectives of characters that were only pieces in a communal mosaic before the death. The uniformly caffeinated performances are pitched above everyday realism, but below cartoonishness. While his work on the image is still strong—the floodlight-bathed coastal town has a distinct character—Pellissery has no qualms dealing in the abstract or being literal-minded: a blunt coda resumes the film’s philosophical motivations. A potent shot of cheap liquor you don’t want to try again.

 

Suttu Pidikka Utharavu (“Shoot at Sight”, 2019, Ramprakash Rayappa)

An unmitigated disaster. All it takes is five minutes to figure that this is the work of a bona fide hack. It’s the director’s third film and he’s apparently never heard of a tripod. One could say that Rayappa really puts the motion in motion picture. Three men (or four, who cares, certainly not the filmmaker) rob a bank and hole up in a cramped residential colony of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. A hot-headed officer (Mysskin, paying his bills) is on their heels. It so happens that a group of terrorists are hatching a bombing plot in an apartment in the same colony. The specificity of location suggests that the writer-director has a personal connection to it. But all we learn about the area is that it’s overridden by ostentatious and treacherous North Indians, and so the good policemen of Tamil Nadu are obliged to carry out a clean-up job. A big twist at the end is intended to overhaul our understanding of the events. The director is clearly aware that he’s been cheating his audience so far, and tries to cover his tracks with no avail. The result is a cheap prank in the vein of The Usual Suspects. There’s a monumentally irritating constable character whose stupidity is amped up solely for the big twist to work. The sole point of interest is the final reveal montage: in maybe fifty shots in three or so minutes, we get to hear the whole backstory—an indication of Tamil film audience’s increasing capacity to absorb a great volume of sudden information, a capacity thoroughly abused here.

 

Kavaludaari (“Crossroads”, 2019, Hemanth M Rao)

A valuable archaeological find was robbed and the family of the archaeologist murdered in 1977 at the peak of emergency—the original moment of the Indian public’s disenchantment with politics and its practitioners. The case, thought to be a stub, is pursued by a traffic policeman (Rishi) after 40 years when unidentified bones of three individuals are found during a road-widening project. The cop collaborates with the original officer who investigated the case (Anant Nag) to complete the puzzle. Co-writer of Andhadhun, Rao renders the idea of the police officer living with his case literally, as the people involved in the murder materialize in his apartment with post-production effects. The film starts out as a more ambitious portrait of men and their obsessions, problematizing the investigators themselves, but eventually settles on a traditional whodunit arc. Rao loads the narrative with information after information, plot thread after plot thread, whether they serve to enrich it or not, whether they are indispensable or not. The surfeit of information in itself—mimicking the cognitive experience of navigating today’s mass and social media—sustains a feeling of mystery and importance. The film is generally a couple of steps ahead of the audience, but imagines it is taking them along. In a crucial montage, the suspense is taken to an artificial crescendo through an intercutting between three different spaces. It’s supposed to create an anticipation about the identity of the killer, but what it does instead is produce an anxiety that something grave is underfoot. This mechanistic approach to thrill aside, Rao exhibits an admirable economy of exposition. Several sequences are constructed out of the fewest possible shots, the camera craning across space to furnish additional details. There’s a charming shot of the two investigators waiting in a car in which Anant Nag tries to trap a CGI fly as Rishi observes with amusement from the back seat.

 

Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (“Evidence and Eyewitness”, 2017, Dileesh Pothan)

Having eloped, Prasad and Sreeja (Suraj Venjaramoodu and Nimisha Sajayan) are on their way to the north of Kerala when Sreeja’s matrimonial gold chain is stolen by a criminal (an ostentatiously self-effacing Fahadh Faasil) who swallows it when caught red-handed. The trio ends up at the police station of a tiny town to sort out the issue. It’s an open-and-shut case with no information withheld from the audience, and the film rejects novelistic suspense and epistemological mysteries. The director keeps riffing in scenes set in the police station by weaving in peripheral incidents of petty crime, which increases tension by delaying plot progression. This allows him to mix contrasting tones to great effect, visually (as in the shot of the devastated wife sitting next to colourful balloons), narratively (the triviality of the crime set against the seriousness of consequences) and conceptually (the sanctity of a marriage having to pass through a thief’s rectum). In an unusual characterization, he describes the police force as a rather transparent establishment where information trickles up and down with ease. The cops get comfortable with the plaintiffs on a first name basis, while the latter grow familiar with all the policemen. More sharply, the film spirals out of the story of small-time felony to weave a quasi-philosophical picture of individuals caught up in the whirlpool of impersonal institutional imperatives. The film’s Rashomon-like network of perspectives are centripetally held by the act of stealing a gold chain. The husband (seeking the stolen valuable), the wife (seeking honour and justice), the criminal (seeking liberty), the constable who lets him escape (seeking a closure to the case) are acting on a constant drive for self-preservation, but they are also capable of tremendous, sporadic grace. The equivalence between Prasad and the criminal—echo of another Kurosawa, Stray Dog—is perhaps overly stressed, but it doesn’t take away from the considerable accomplishment of this film.

 

Kirumi (“Germ”, 2015, Anucharan)

Anucharan wrote, edited and directed this debut feature. Kathir (Kathir) is an unemployed young man, offended by the disdain of his friends and family for his predicament. When he gets an opportunity to work for the police as one of their black-market mercenaries—employed to gather information, collect bribes and rough up suspects—he sees a way out of his impasse. He makes quick progress, soaring up the preferential ladder until he becomes too big for his shoes. There’s very little feeling for milieu here. We don’t get a sense of Kathir’s social situation. He seems to glide in and out of lower-middle class domesticity, rubbing shoulders with an unmarked pair of financially struggling friends, an underground police informer (Charlie, playing the kind of decent everyman that so well suits him), politically-enabled gambling lynchpins and, later, higher-up police officers. What it lacks in nuance and local colour, Kirumi makes up for with a smart structure. Taking the titular microbe as analogy, it sketches the tragedy of a disruptive agent that infects the corrupt body of the police institution—kept from total collapse by internal rivalries and mutual suspicions—only to end up strengthening its immunity and be rejected. Kathir is presented as someone resenting his lack of power and esteem, and his short-lived ambitiousness a product of his power trip. His horniness is regularly invoked, I suppose, as a reference to his compensatory, self-destructive masculinity. The filmmaking is cranked up for effect and the emotional peaks are somewhat misplaced. But the ending, with its perversely welcome cynicism in the mould of Chinatown, is refreshingly anti-climactic, understated and conceptually at home.

Frances Ferguson (Bob Byington)

Was it Beauty that killed the beauty? Frances Ferguson (Kaley Wheless) is pretty, and that is her problem. Byington’s “story of a woman cast adrift in the Midwest” follows the sin, punishment and redemption of Fran, a substitute teacher in a high-school in North Platte, Nebraska. Twenty-five years of age, Fran is going through a failed marriage to a sleazy, loafing husband. Sexual frustration and a mistaken replacement lead to an infatuation with one of the students. In vein of pornographic tales, she arranges to meet the boy secretly, tries to seduce him at a laundromat with a pathetic cheerleader costume (for the “Cougars”) and hooks up with him at the motel. She is promptly arrested, tried for abuse of authority to sexually exploit minors and incarcerated. Frances Ferguson outlines her parole life in detail, structuring it through different penal procedures Fran has to follow: probation debriefing, compulsory group therapy, behavioural counselling, community service, supervised visitation of her daughter, probation exit interview and even voluntary group therapy sessions. Life outside the prison turns out to be even more distressing, uninvited attention for her looks now compounded with the notoriety of being a sex offender. All through the ordeal, the question that arises is whether Fran’s good looks are responsible for her trouble as for the townsfolk’s vivid memory and negative perception of her. Her warden wonders why female sex offenders are invariably pretty. When she tells her therapist that she hardly had authority at the school to abuse, he retorts that beauty is a kind of authority.

The story is recounted by a humorous, at times tendentious, male narrator (Nick Offerman), whose personality constantly comes in way of his objectivity. He contradicts Fran, who also gets to narrate the story from time to time (“joie de vivre”, he corrects Fran who is trying to fake her way through a French class). He inserts his own opinion on the proceedings and acts as a Greek chorus for Fran’s impending tragedy (“Was this breaking the law”? he asks at every turn of Fran’s). The narrator calls to mind Listen Up Philip, but one that’s less world-wise and serious about himself. Byington avoids traditional shot-reverse shot constructions, preferring to build conversations out of separate close ups; the scene of Fran’s interrogation by two police officers is particularly well-edited. He employs an 8-bit video game-like music cue, and a camera that goes out of focus to bid farewell to characters, to funny ends. The sound-bridges and the on-screen texts introducing characters and situations sometimes recall sitcoms, but the comic sense here is much more subtle. It’s still characteristic American sarcasm at work, but Byington pares down the exchanges, cutting away the excess fat that usually burdens American comedies with an insufferable smugness: when the prison cab driver asks Fran to use regular cabs as they are cheaper, she only asks him: “the next time I’m released from prison?”, dropping out the obligatory “sure” at the end. Wheless’ blank-stare performance, accompanied by internal screams, is the visual correlative of this muted comic strategy.

Immortal (Ksenia Okhapkina)

The only contextualizing text of Ksenia Okhapkina’s Immortal speaks of the gulags that were built to industrialize the arctic stretches of Russia. When the camps were opened after Stalin’s death, we’re told, the prisoners stayed back in the town. It’s a telling detail, whether you choose to see it a gesture of helplessness or the product of Pavlovian indoctrination. This three-line title card has more insight to offer than the film that follows. Okhapkina’s 60-minute film presents impressionistic vignettes from one of these erstwhile gulags, a mining town in the arctic still bearing the visual signatures of the Soviet era: image and quotes by Lenin plastered on walls, alongside posters of other Russian heroes. It would seem that it wasn’t just the people who stayed back, but the ideology too. Immortal examines this persistence of ideology in two spaces. In the first, a group of girls are being trained at a ballet school. The instructor asks them to exert themselves and fall in line with others. This exigence, as well as the ballet music, overflows into the second space: a military camp mostly for boys and young men. We see different groups of children and youth being trained for various competences: instruction in training assault rifles, mission simulations, marching drills, shooting practice, screening of nationalistic videos about Soviet kamikaze pilots with promises of concomitant greatness. The boys are insulted by the instructors over looks and behaviour, punished for minor mistakes and questioned over their origin.

The synchronization of military drill to ballet music and the marshalling of soldier bodies into harmonious movement, filmed here in disorienting closeups, brings to mind Beau Travail. Both the ballet (?) and the military camp, it’s revealed, are preparations for an enlistment ceremony on Russia’s Fatherland’s Heroes Day. The show, and the oath, anthem and photography session that follow, seem remnants of Soviet pageantry. Okhapkina pads these two narrative strands with repeated imagery from the town: the spectral to-and-fro of freight trains carrying mined material, hooded miners knocking about in the snow, buses that convey the youth from their house to the camp and back, the dingy corridors of the apartments where they live, a worker using a blowtorch to melt ice off a national monument, an empty factory and the barbed wire fence around it, and so on. The deserted public spaces seem to belong to a ghost town, or a place with no sense of freedom and life. A lone dog barks in the snow, until its fur is covered with frost, forcing it to find shelter. Faces of young men and women are intercut with drawings of heroes, which themselves are intercut with shots of tombstones and cradles, suggesting individualities hollowed out by state apparatuses. Immortal is unquestionably successful in evoking a despairing mood, but it also feels like an exercise in shooting fish in a barrel. Curiously, the film is at its weakest when dealing with concrete events such as the ballet class and the drill—who’d ever suspect a military camp to be a space of ideological indoctrination? I can imagine the material better suited for a book of photos or illustrated poems.

For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts)

Whatever Russia Today or Al Jazeera will have you believe, whatever you think of American deep state’s collusion with Islamist fundamentalism, whatever objections are raised about the funding of “rebel” reporters, the brute facts regarding For Sama are there for everyone to see: Waad Al-Kateab stayed back with her doctor husband Hamza in rebel-controlled east Aleppo, delivered a baby and lived through the worst months of Putin-backed state bombing of her district. She kept filming, even when the bombings were at her doorstep, even when bodies piled up at the makeshift hospital that she had made home. Edited and telecast this year on British television, For Sama is a record of Al-Kateab’s life between the first student protests in 2012 to her eventual emigration in December 2016. It is presented as a filmed letter to her baby, Sama, to explain her parents’ decision to stay back in east Aleppo despite the impossible conditions of living, despite the inevitability of defeat. Filmmaking here becomes an existential cry against an order of things that would rather not hear these voices. The regime denied that the student protests were going on, says Al-Kateab, filming was the only way to show otherwise. For Al-Kateab, it becomes increasingly important to film as the military makes advances into east Aleppo, reducing the rebels to a few square kilometres. Filming, she says, gives her a reason to believe.

“Silence makes you feel that the city is dead”, notes the filmmaker when she finally leaves the city. Indeed, the incredible shock of For Sama stems from the extraordinary disconnect between image and sound, between the visual illusion of normalcy and the constant noise of shelling. So much so that even Sama doesn’t react to the explosions. The film is an inexhaustible series of harrowing sights—a mother carrying her dead son wrapped in plastic, a baby resuscitated from the clutches of stillbirth, a pan shot from a dead child to Sama in the operating room, Waad and Hamza singing to calm Sama down as they sneak back into their district, a young boy talking about his missing friends, two hospital attendants warming themselves over the shell that has pierced the building—whose horror is redoubled by the facts of normal life punctuating them: a wedding, Sama’s birth and antics, reunions with other families who are staying back, everyday school, painting sessions, a persimmon fruit as a gift, Waad’s repeated declarations of love to Hamza. To be sure, Al-Kateab makes only a passing mention of the extremists running her city, and we don’t get a clearer idea of what’s holding them back from leaving this nightmare, except their faith in revolution. In a sense, it is problematic that For Sama excises politics out of its narrative, rendering it an account of the extraordinary bravery of people fighting an abstract force of annihilation. On the other hand, it’s a deeply disturbing reminder that peace is not a stable condition interruptions to which are wars, but a fleeting, fragile state that can be swept away overnight.

The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)

The story of Prometheus, with its democratic challenge to the keepers of the fire, represents a metatext of Western modernity, but its tragic vision also dovetails with the Christian worldview. Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse reinterprets this pagan myth, infusing it with a stark (anti-)Catholic flavour. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe play lighthouse keepers, Winslow and Wake respectively, posted on a remote, deserted island for a month. Wake the boss has Winslow do all the menial chores on the island, while he reserves the lofty task of maintaining the light on the tower. The bearded Wake, who is indeed a walking parody of a seaman, delivers long, literary monologues in sailorspeak, even when he’s only ordering Winslow to wipe the floor or cursing him for not liking his cooking. He pulls rank over Winslow every time he can, at times gaslighting his subordinate and weaponizing his original sin, which Winslow confesses during a night of drunken revelry. With mounting isolation, sexual frustration and a possibility that his stay on the island will be permanent, Winslow starts to lose it, abetted in no small part by alcohol. Soon, the pair bickers like the seagulls hovering above the island. The Lighthouse is set in no particular place or time, and it’s deliberately set at a register far above ordinary realism. This lack of particularity, combined with the simplicity of the outline, give the film a horror fable-like texture. This ethereal quality is countered by a grimy realism of mise en scène. Scenes of violence and physical degradation are visceral and the film features every bodily emanation possible.

There’s another reason that The Lighthouse floats unmoored to history. It’s evidently a very cinema-aware work, echoing if not quoting a range of films from the Expressionist classics to Ingmar Bergman and Bela Tarr. Its memorable monochrome cinematography, with geometric movements of the camera, looming shadows and an ominous atmosphere, its boxy aspect ratio, its actors staring back at the camera, and its use of medium and ‘American’ shots all make it feel familiar without locating it within a specific cinematic tradition or time period. That said, it is to Eggers’ credit that, despite the evocations, the film never feels like a pastiche. The Lighthouse employs horror movie tropes in its foreboding sound and visual design, but it doesn’t go where traditional horror films go. In fact, the stakes as well as the outcome of the premise, that the two men are going to go stir crazy, is clear right at the outset. The disintegration that does happen is played out with ample dose of comedy: Wake’s farts echoed with the sirens of the lighthouse, his towering self-seriousness that must inevitably mask a sense of uselessness, and Winslow’s eventual outburst when he blows his superior’s cover. Dafoe and Pattinson are fascinating to look at, especially in their very physical scenes with homoerotic undertones, but the film itself feels like a slight cinephilic sortie.

Walden (Daniel Zimmermann)

In the first shot of Austrian artist Daniel Zimmermann’s Walden, a camera pans from left to right in the middle of a forest. It’s still and quiet, and it isn’t until minutes into the shot that we have the first human presence. A lumbering activity is underway and we hear the hum of a chainsaw in the distance. Around the eighth minute of the shot, amid cries of timber, a tree falls, its tip just a few feet from the camera. When the camera completes full circle, the view has changed so much that we aren’t sure whether it’s the same spot the camera started at. Human action on the environment is what Walden is about, traces as it does the conversion of the fallen tree into planks and its transportation over rail, road and sea to a forest location in Brazil. Walden tangentially fits into a tradition of narrative documentaries that purport to demonstrate the workings of a globalized economy by focusing on the provenance of specific consumer goods. While its cross-continental movement is still enabled by international trade, the timber here isn’t following the regular route of imported goods. As the film’s supporting text points out, the path of the planks in Walden is the reverse of the usual trajectory of goods in a global economy. The film never reveals the mystery of why a consignment of sawn wood must move from Austria to a tribal region in the Amazon.

This refusal to explain can partly be understood by the fact that Walden also inscribes itself into another tradition. Constructed out of thirteen 360-degree pan shots of about eight minutes each, it has a direct kinship to structural films such as those of James Benning. It’s especially reminiscent of Benning’s RR in its emphasis on movement of goods described in predetermined cinematic formulae. The structure raises the questions: why 360-degree pan shots and why nine minutes? I think there are no extra-cinematic explanations to these choices and that these are foundational parameters—arbitrary givens of the problem—that are to be taken for what they are. Besides, the shots don’t exactly complete full circle, most stop at three-fourths. The duration, too, ranges from seven to nine minutes. While Zimmermann’s camera moves at a constant pace, it gives the illusion of slowing down or speeding up depending on the movement that happens along the sweep of the camera. The moving timber makes its presence in every shot either at the beginning or the end, but the milieu it’s moving through—whether it’s a scenic port city in Brazil or a tribal village in the woods—is of equal interest. The film starts and ends in the stillness and silence of the jungle while its middle section consists of constant movement, just as it begins and closes deep within the woods, with its central passages having to do with modern facets of civilization. Zimmermann’s camera always seems to be at the right place and time to capture the most interesting action in the vicinity. This aspect reinforces its pre-determined structure over its documentary aspects.

The Whalebone Box (Andrew Kötting)

For those who have seen any of Kötting’s work, the confounding associations of The Whalebone Box shouldn’t come as a total curveball. The sixty-year-old Kötting makes playful experimental films featuring friends and family that work off English folklore and geography. A frequent protagonist is his daughter Eden, an artist herself, who was born with Joubert Syndrome. Eden is both the narrator and the inspiration for this new film. Two dominant narrative strands emerge from the audiovisual thicket of The Whalebone Box. In the first, we see Eden dressed as a May Queen, seated in a forest on a fauteuil holding a hunting rifle and peering through binoculars. She is admittedly looking for a whale to hunt down. We also see her at a museum and, more frequently, in bed. Subtitles express her thoughts and dreams, which are about a box made of whalebone, an artefact she recreates in cardboard. The second narrative strand is actually about the legendary whalebone box, which was reportedly created by sculptor Steve Dilworth on the Scottish island of Harris thirty years ago. The island, we are told, is now afflicted with an unknown epidemic and the box might hold a cure. So Kötting, the writer Iain Sinclair and the photographer Anonymous Bosch set out with the box on a journey from London to the north. They stop at places of mythological import to “charge the box” with curative energy. Several shots of the film show the box on the dashboard of the group’s car or Sinclair lugging it around the English landscape. Interspersed with this journey is monochrome clips of children playing and recreating pagan myths.

Now, how much of this myth is fabricated, we don’t know (I suspect all of it is); Kötting’s rough-hewn home movie aesthetic imparts a found-footage like authenticity to it. But what is evident is that The Whalebone Box is partly a wish fulfilment project in which Kötting fashions a film after his daughter’s dreamlike fiction. He departs from the basic idea of a mysterious whalebone box and weaves in all the references that it evokes. There’s Moby Dick, for instance, which had already made its appearance in Kötting’s earlier work. The filmmaker expands on the MacGuffin with soundbites from Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, also about a box with deadly powers, and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Other references include Pandora’s box, the black box of airplanes and Schrödinger’s box containing the cat, which here stands for the whale simultaneously in “a state of being on land and returning to ocean”. The artefact the trio carries is at times swapped with Eden’s cardboard version, making clear the playful, recreative intention behind the project. Shooting in 16mm, Kötting employs an amateur film style with handheld camera and washed out colours. He quotes titles from Philip Hoare’s book Leviathan and has poems read on the soundtrack. At times, he overlays recorded speech over the same words captured on location, imparting an oneiric rhythm and texture to the film.

So Pretty (Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli)

Four gender-fluid youth spend their days in a shared apartment in Manhattan. They cook, have sex, paint protest posters, make music, organize reading sessions in the park and discuss communism. Trans filmmaker Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli’s So Pretty presents the life of these young, queer folk as a self-sufficient world. Considering that we see it through the eyes of its participants and their friends, there’s no outsider gaze against which these lives are to be assessed. The camera often follows them walking the sidewalks of New York, this liberating gesture being a given. Their protests and the police crackdown of these protests are only suggested and remain in the periphery. Grafted on the documentary record of this everyday routine are details from the eponymous novel by German writer Ronald M. Schernika. So Pretty isn’t as much an adaptation as a dialogue with the novel. The actors of the film take turns reading passages from the book to each other. The film dramatizes what they read sometimes. Tonia, the “character” played by Rovinelli, is in fact in the process of translating the book and discusses with Franz (Thomas Love) on whether a particular word needs to be translated negatively as “coupledom” or positively as “togetherness”. At first, it appears that Paul (Edem Dela-Seshie) and Erika (Rachika Samarth) are a stable, “trans heterosexual” couple, but it soon becomes apparent that there’s no point boxing the desires of these characters. They make out and sleep with each other in every combination, their interlaced bodies on bed being a punctuating visual of the film.

Rather than the representational politics or particulars of the adaptation, it’s the film’s formal strategies that struck me the most. Rovinelli’s camera pans and tracks in extremely slow motion across the rooms, producing tableaux of people in ordinary interactions. In a remarkable early shot, six characters sit in the dining room making small talk in pairs. Some of them are off the frame, and their voices are mixed so that they vie equally for our attention. Like in a Robert Altman shot, there’s no central point of focus, and our ears and eyes shuttle from one pair to another, without every settling on any of them. In the following scene Franz and Tonia make their bed. Their heads out of the frame, our focus oscillates between the two across the vast negative space of the bed. I presume this asymmetrical manner of framing has a theoretical underpinning, but it’s also a visceral choice. Tonia suffers a heartbreak with Franz, but this never becomes a dramatic element. A long shot presents the two, now in a different apartment Tonia has taken up, cooking, doing dishes and eating in the kitchen, the tense, wordless atmosphere signalling the straining relationship. The film’s measured pace is further diluted as the relationship buckles and even more so when the police arrests Erika. The characters split up in two groups and the ambience becomes mournful. Towards the end, the film becomes a pure light-and-sound performance played against Erika’s music that mixes melody and atonality. In other words, a sustained mood piece.

Mother (Kristof Bilsen)

The Baan Kamlangchay centre in Chiang-May, Thailand, is a home run by a Swiss national for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, dementia and related ailments. It shelters fourteen patients from German-speaking countries and employs three local caregivers. The film begins with the anguished thoughts of one of them. Pomm is separated from her husband and gets to visit her three children only occasionally. She works two jobs to pay back her debt and secure a future for her children. Bilsen’s film too juggles two narrative arcs. In the first, we follow Pomm’s routine: her comfortable rapport with her nonagenarian patient Elizabeth, her visits to her mother and children living several hours away, her interactions with her employer, her account of her father’s depression and eventual suicide, her mourning over Elizabeth’s passing, and articulations of her anxiety about her old age and her guilt over ignoring her mother. Running parallel to Pomm’s life is Maya’s in Switzerland. Maya is 57 years old and suffers from Alzheimer’s. After much deliberation and concern, her husband and daughters have decided to admit her to Baan Kamlangchay. They speak about the prejudice associated with sending your loved one to a home. Indeed, Maya’s family couldn’t be more loving. We see her daughters take her for daily walks, doing her hair and nails, preparing her move to Thailand, packing her medicines and clothes, and generally being there for Maya. Bilsen cuts between Pomm and Maya before they meet in reality, and when they do, he reinforces their almost predestined bond through a closed shot-reverse shot-reaction shot triad at the home.

Mother is evidently about caregiving and maternal affection, but it’s a detailed study in the cultural differences involved in familial bonds. Pomm is moved when she meets her mother after a while. She tells the camera that she wants to hug her, but wouldn’t dare to, given her cultural norms. On the other hand, we see Maya’s family expressing their love through embraces and kisses. Maya’s relation to her pre-teen children, in contrast, is much more intimate and physical than what Western parents would exhibit towards their adolescents. Bilsen intercuts between the two families to illustrate different verbal and non-verbal expressions of affection. Now, as an employee at the home, Pomm has to be much more physical with her Western patients, who are maternal figures to her, than she is with her own mother. This evocation of the effects of global capital on the most personal of relationships is what gives Mother its intellectual foundation. The very fact of the home being in Thailand, and not in expensive Switzerland, points to the economic underpinnings of the caregiving industry. Pomm discusses shifts and holidays with her boss, who calls his patients customers. But she is also genuinely caring of her patients. Mother doesn’t state that either capital or caregiving trumps the other. It merely throws light on newer forms of a labour that’s always been side-lined, and the contradictions that these new forms produce. Pomm reflects on the good fortune of her patients to be able to pay for the care, which she herself won’t be able to afford for her mother. In Marxist terms, Pomm is alienated from her own service, even when it doesn’t involve any means of production. What would happen to her, Pomm wonders, when she is old? Would her kids provide her the same care? If they move to Switzerland, perhaps.

Bitter Chestnut (Gurvinder Singh)

If cinema could substitute for voyages, it will look something like Gurvinder Singh’s Bitter Chestnut. The film immerses the viewer deep into the sights and sounds of an unnamed village in one of the valleys in Himachal Pradesh, where Gurvinder then lived and worked. The immersion is so total that the film could serve as a comprehensive catalogue of the way of life in the valley. Gurvinder is so fascinated with the textures of the place that the need to impose a fictional narrative on it becomes not just a secondary concern, but a hindrance at several points in the film. Bitter Chestnut is brimming with anthropological facts; the food, architecture, attire, language, occupations and rituals of the community become such important details that the film abandons its putative story half an hour in to become a full-blown documentary, resuming its narrative only much later. We are made privy to a baby’s first shower, the woman-only drunken revelry that follows, an oral history of fire hazard in the village, men and women daubing colour on each other during Holi, a newly-made cupboard moved through a celebrating crowd, not to mention elaborate scenes of the 17-year old protagonist, Kishan (Kishan Katwal), cooking. Even when the film introduces fiction, there’s no drama, Kishan’s low-key anxiety never snowballing into a conflict. Kishan’s family, around which the film revolves, leads a tough life sustained by a variety of occupations—hunting, carpentry, horse rearing, dairy farming, spinning—in addition to Kishan’s father’s and brother’s stints as labourers in the city from time to time. It’s an austere, pragmatic life, only occasionally given to festivals and faith.

Sporting a hoodie and sneakers, Kishan, like the community at large, is facing the slings of modernity. He makes pizzas at a restaurant (Gurvinder’s own, called Cloud Door, in homage to his mentor Mani Kaul) run by an outsider for international tourists. It’s a dead-end job, especially depressing considering that Kishan’s peers are leaving the valley for greener pastures in Delhi. His uncertain desire to move out is counterbalanced by the immediate economic and emotional needs of his family. It’s a modern predicament that goes against the time-worn mores of the valley. It’s also a narrative that hovers untethered over the documentary pleasures of Gurvinder’s film. Bitter Chestnut rests uneasily between two modes: the purity of the world at hand holds Gurvinder back from fictionalizing it too much, while the fiction prevents him from breaking the fourth wall, something which could have made for a richer work. Gurvinder works with simple camera and lighting setups, allowing large chunk of the scenes to unfold in the master shot itself. The participants are all non-actors from the valley playing their real selves. Their reticence before the camera shows when they are made to enact predetermined exchanges, while scenes of them celebrating or performing are more spontaneous. It is, however, the spellbinding (if at times touristy) Kangra district itself, spanning winter and springtime, that is the true protagonist of the film. Along with Amit Dutta’s films, Bitter Chestnut constitutes a distinct cinema of the region. I do nevertheless wonder if this is the kind of film the creator of Alms for a Blind Horse would ideally like to be making.

Status and Terrain (Ute Adamczewski)

Ute Adamczewski’s excellent debut feature Status and Terrain begins with shots of homes, public structures and castles in the Saxony region of Germany. An archival text, spoken on the voiceover, tells us that the region was home to the labour movement of 1933, the backbone of the National Socialists (“Hitler belongs to the Elbe”, states one citation). It was the year that opponents to Nazism, especially Communists, were detained in “protective custody” under the Decree for the Protection of People and State. And it’s these youth clubs and castles that served as preliminary concentration camps for the detainees. And so Status and Terrain establishes its modus operandi early on. All through the film, we will be shown buildings, monuments and public spaces in current-day Saxony, captured in the mournful hues of winter. Read on the soundtrack are documents—official notices from the government, bureaucratic communication between state organs, diary entries and memoirs of the persecuted, prisoner release forms and surveillance reports—related to the structure under consideration: a shut-down notice to a cafeteria that has become a hotbed of subversion, a plea by the wife of a political prisoner assuring her husband’s recantation, an ordinance asking camp detainees to pay two reichsmarks every day for their own detention, a letter from traders around the Sachsenburg camp requesting the state to source supplies from them, a Soviet announcement declaring that Jews shouldn’t be considered the primary Nazi victims, and other such extraordinary communications.

In the film’s dialectical organization, the tumultuous past described on the soundtrack seems to belie the calm image of the present. But, as the description of more recent events are read out, it becomes clear that the present, rather than representing a rupture with the history, bears witness to continuing violence and fascism. This manner of tracing historical trauma in the visible signs of the present isn’t new. In that, Status and Terrain shares DNA with works like James Benning’s Landscape Suicide, John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind and, closer home, Nicolas Rey’s differently, Molussia and Thomas Heise’s Heimat is a Space in Time. But the present in Adamczewski’s film doesn’t just bear the weight of history, it is an active battleground of ideologies. In the eighty years of German history that Status and Terrain shuttles across, we see that different narratives contest for the same geographical space. After the war, an association of the persecuted wrote a letter to Soviet authorities asking them not to execute Nazis in the same space that Jews were. Antifa and pro-DDR graffiti are as visible as ultra-right-wing imperial flags. A WWI memorial was turned into a fascist monument in 1933, an anti-fascist monument in 1963, a symbol of German unity in 1990 and is now being run over by a supermarket. Like in Alex Gerbaulet’s Shift, all sediments of history over a place seem to be active at the same time, vying for dominance. Adamczewski’s gently roving camera picks up an encapsulating detail: celebratory plaques for great German composers embossed on the ceiling of a castle that was converted to a concentration camp.

The Cordillera of Dreams (Patricio Guzmán)

A return to the permanence of nature might be symptomatic of the desire of old age to distance itself from worldly affairs. But when Patricio Guzmán returned to the Atacama Desert in Nostalgia for the Light, it was to get back to the political past, both personal and national. The approach was reinforced in The Pearl Button, the vast Chilean coast being the subject of Guzmán’s dive into history. The Cordillera of Dreams completes the trilogy, the filmmaker now turning to the Cordillera, the stretch of the Andes mountain range that isolates Santiago from the rest of the world, as the object of his interrogation. “I was busy trying to change society”, says the filmmaker in his characteristically meditative voiceover, “that I was never interested in the Andes; I now see it as a gateway to understanding Chile”. The film is punctuated by awe-inducing helicopter shots of the snow-covered Cordillera, its rocky surfaces and barren, infinite valleys. Woven around these heart-stopping images are interviews with Santiago’s culturati—two sculptors, a singer, a writer and a volcanologist—who discuss the significance of the Andes: the mountains as a watchful mother, a carrier of scents, a muse for artists, a veritable coast that turns the country into an island. For Guzmán, however, the Cordillera stands as a silent witness to the nation’s hidden past. It’s as though the mountains are keeping a secret from me, he says in all sincerity, a secret that might be the coup d’état of 1973.

While a personal work like its predecessors, The Cordillera of Dreams however ventures deep into sentimental territory. The sight of the mountains, admits Guzmán, makes him want to go back to his childhood in this city that nevertheless “greets him with indifference”.  He films the houses and streets he lived in, talks about the making of The Battle of Chile, his detention by the military and his subsequent flight to Europe. He confesses his desire to begin anew and rediscover the life he had left behind. Even in Europe, he says, he’s always been making films about Chile. He seeks to understand this gravitational pull that the country exerts on him through the figure of another filmmaker who did stay back. Pablo Salas is a documentarian who has been recording political happenings around him for 37 years. His personal archive of video tapes and hard drives fills his entire office, and they serve as the suppressed record of Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship. Guzmán and Salas discuss their work and politics at length: the challenges of filming protests, the tyranny of the dictatorship, the ruthless neoliberalist revision of Chilean economy, the inequality and rampant privatization of resources, and so on. Guzmán is wholly admirative of Salas, the man he wasn’t, and speaks of the filmmaker’s large archive as the memory of what was hidden. His own film, though, feels like an obligatory extension of Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button. Part of the reason for the slide is that the Andes remains only a picturesque background to the investigation. Now and then, Guzmán does relate the mountains to history, as with the idea that the rocks from them were used for paving the streets of Santiago, which saw the boots of the military and blood of the protestors. These connections, though, remain far and few, unlike the tightly knit associations of the previous two remarkable works.

143 Sahara Street (Hassen Ferhani)

In a bright, panoramic shot of a desert, a microscopic figure on the left side moves slowly towards a rudimentary structure on the right. The figure is that of Malika, a rotund, elderly woman who lives and runs a shop on a highway just outside the town of El Menia, Algeria, in the Sahara. Malika lives with her cat Mimi and her joint, possessing the absurd address of the title, serves as a refreshment point for bikers and motorists passing by. Malika is an unusual woman, not just in that she’s an old woman running the shop independently, but also in that she’s unmarried, doesn’t have kids and prefers to stay away from her extended family. Her independence needs no extenuating context: when a client talks about newly legislated women’s rights, she lashes out, “I don’t need any rights”. Malika likes music and dance, hates religious hypocrisy and claims she can’t stand other women. The building she inhabits is spare and contains two rooms: a kitchen and a dining area for clients. There’s a fridge but no electricity. Living far from civilization, Malika, whom one visitor aptly christens “the gatekeeper of the void”, listens to whatever the radio can pick up. A petrol station-cum-restaurant is cropping up next door, potentially eating into her revenue. Malika, though, is unfazed, convinced that the new venture will shut shop in two weeks.

Outside of the occasional accident in the vicinity, Malika’s only entertainment and source of interaction is with the people who stop by at her place for tea, bread, cigarettes or soda. The characters are colourful enough: a Polish woman biking across two continents, a group of young men who mount a musical performance for Malika, a couple of imams from Algiers, immigrant workers who have come to Algeria for better prospects, a man looking for his lost brother whom Malika suspects of being a charlatan. Director Ferhani captures all this interaction in simple, front-on shots from a tripod. Inspired by the Sahara, his compositions are strongly horizontal, the desert constantly framed by the edges of doors and windows like a landscape painting. Over the course of the film, we are made intimately familiar as much with the building as with Malika. The various walls of the house against or through which we see Malika are later stitched together with a circular tracking shot around the house. Ferhani does not dissimulate his presence and regularly interacts with both Malika and her clients from behind the camera. Less than a hundred in number, the long shots of the film encapsulate the rhythm of the place, recording action in real time without ellipses. Despite its apparent modesty, there’s a philosophical undercurrent to Ferhani’s film. When Malika is by herself, the passing of time is all the more palpable, her mortality looming large. The infinite space of the desert, devoid of other human presence, invites an interrogation of the meaning of freedom, and whether or not one would trade it for the security of a community.

Ridge (John Skoog)

Swedish filmmaker John Skoog’s debut is set in his native Skåne County in the south of the country. Ridge revolves around a dairy farm in the countryside, but doesn’t follow a familiar narrative line. What we get is a mosaic of scenes from the vicinity of the farm involving men, animals and machines in isolation or in interaction: foreign workers from Poland arriving by ferry to the farm, a local supervisor walking them through the routines, harvest machines working on the fields, cows being milked by robots, residents collecting snails at night with flashlights, a migrant worker writing a musical greeting card to someone back home, two children playing a farm simulator game, a largely mute girl corralling cows that have broken free, a flea market suggested through a tracking shot of a stall with objects, fully costumed hunters entering cane fields, a cat in the house being thrown out, a picnic of young people in which one passes out, a machine cutting trees all alone in the dark, a burning car, a disco party and so on. There are a handful of protagonists that emerge, characters and locations that appear in multiple scenes, but there’s no sense of progress or causality across them. These documentary shards of information are, instead, loosely held together by the sensation of northern midsummer and the generally upbeat and mischievous feeling that goes with it.

Skoog, consequently, emphasizes the ambience. His smooth tracking shots glide over fields and pastures at golden hour. His meticulous sound design, which regularly drowns out human voice, mixes electronic music, machine drones and natural sounds. Despite not being about individuals or even humans per se, Skoog’s work with actors is noteworthy. An improvised scene with a Polish youth receiving a haircut becomes an impromptu lesson on immigrant behaviour and cultural differences, which then turns into a bullying session. The film opens with a voiceover recounting the legend of two cows that go wild; the two cows will make their appearance at the end. The work thus blends personal experience, folklore, fictional and documentary passages without favouring any of them. To some extent, Ridge recalls Koyaanisqatsi in its weaving of human, mechanical, animal and natural presences into a larger tapestry of life in a particular region. But Skoog’s film is vehemently anti-didactic, refuses as it does even the basic enticements of a narrative. On the other hand, it’s a work full of surface pleasures, especially Zbroniec-Zajt’s twilight cinematography. The result is a beguiling if befuddling portrait of migrant experience in the vein of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another (Jessica Sarah Rinland)

Jessica Rinland’s unusually titled film (and unusually presented in two aspect ratios, 1.33 and 1.85) is also an unusual museum documentary. It begins with an on-screen text that muses on the relation of a replica to the original, tracing the parentage of painted animals to real animals, which themselves are DNA replicas of original specimen. The film opens with a replica too. A researcher-curator has a replica produced of an elephant tusk. She unpacks it carefully from its container, sucking out the flour-like powder protecting it. We will remain with this replica for a large part of the film, as the curator cleans it, has it broken with a hammer for an unspecified reason and glues back the broken pieces again for an unknown reason. Interspersed between these actions are other allied activities at the museum restoration section. What makes Rinland’s film go against the grain is that it refuses to give any context for the actions we witness. The activities we see are, in fact, undertakings at different museums across the world, but we don’t know that until the final credits. We assume that it’s the same cast replica of the ivory being processed, but we are in fact observing several artefacts, real and replicas. This destabilizing erasure of the boundary between real and fake also makes the viewer suspicious of the film’s apparently documentary nature.

Rinland is no Frederick Wiseman, her interest is not in the politics of art objects and institutions. If her patient observation of restoration activity recalls Harun Farocki’s work, the patently anti-explanatory bent of her film couldn’t be more different. Unlike traditional museum documentaries, Those That Resemble provides no supplementary information, no detail on the nature or history of the artefacts, the institutions sheltering and handling them. Rinland’s camera is relentlessly trained on hands performing a range of tasks: brushing casts, turning book pages, kneading dough to secure the casts, removing layers of packing material, chipping stones, drawing graphs and measurements, fixing ivory-lined boxes, cutting sponge into blocks that are then used to prime a tusk, laser cleaning a piece of ivory and so on. These activities take on a hypnotic quality in their zen-like focus on objective-bound activities; they are also very pleasurable to the obsessive-compulsive part of the brain trying to complete patterns. Large stretches of the film unfold like unbox therapy or five-minute craft videos, underscoring the care and precision with which the artefacts are handled. Recalling the cinematography of Claire Denis and Claire Mathon, Rinland’s camera exhibits a curious material fetish, fixated as it is on various textures natural and artificial. I was also reminded of Mani Kaul’s Mind of Clay at many points.

America (Garrett Bradley)

America opens with one of its many references that go over my head: a photo of black entertainer Bert Williams, who becomes a springboard for the film’s critical reflection on the visual history of black performers and entertainers. Stills and extracts from silent films featuring Afro-American actors are excerpted over ambient noise from the present. This archival material is intertwined with fictional passages shot in strongly monochrome 35mm: a black woman in post-Civil war South walks by cane fields and strips a white man wrapped in a long white cloth. The cloth flies over the field, becomes a plaything for a group of kids. It’s then trampled over by a unit of black Union cavalrymen, before being appropriated by them as a flag. The film’s dreamlike central section features even more disconnected vignettes: a boy scout group from Louisiana two of whose members play with telephone cables, a baptism filmed in split compositions, a table fan in the open, rotating doors, women skating, a couple dancing, disco lights, a knife falling and men with musical instruments staring at the camera. These seemingly unrelated glimpses of 20th century (Louisianian?) black experience, however, converge as the focus shifts to professional entertainment.

Louisiana-based Bradley, it appears, is interrogating the history of black representation as consumed and internalized by black viewers. Clips from silent films show Afro-American performers in exaggerated blackface caricaturing black life for a predominantly white audience, whether they are bumbling in a barroom dance or romancing on a merry-go-round. Bradley provides corrective recreations in the present, black performers executing graceful movements, gestures and actions in their respective fields. Bradley’s telescoped look at the history of black representation is sometimes quotational, as with the familiar image of athletes and baseball players, and sometimes revisionist, like as when we see an Afro-American orchestra conductor or a female aviator—images of black cultural contribution we aren’t regularly exposed to. The schema becomes apparent in a scene, filmed in tracking shots and canted angles, which recreates the Last Supper with black Jesus and apostles. The performers striking tableaux in America, in contrast to their predecessors, are black entertainers playing as and for themselves. In its exploration of the place of black figures in popular visual culture, America is a companion work to Ja’Tovia M. Gary’s The Giverny Document, in which the marked absence of black bodies in the Western artistic canon is juxtaposed with the safety of black women in public spaces. If less ambitious or polemical, Bradley’s film is more attuned to cinema history and, with its baroque compositions, superpositions and sharp chiaroscuro images, is also formally alive.

Present.Perfect. (Shengze Zhu)

Present.Perfect. is about China’s live streaming craze, which witnessed a regular user base of 422 million in 2017. To explore this phenomenon, Zhu has reportedly sifted through 800 hours of streamed footage and fashioned a film of two hours. The first section of her film is democratic and presents a mosaic of video clips. The selection predominantly consists of uniformly young men and women in blue collar jobs telecasting their everyday routine: wrecking buildings, transporting bags, running a pig farm, cutting trees, welding, digging ditches, and so on. One host offers “agritainment” to “rich city folks” through his organic farming sessions. Curiously resembling regular, festival-level contemplative cinema, this genre of streaming transforms boring jobs into spectacles enjoyed by people around the country. And Zhu’s non-hierarchical assembly of these clips offers something akin to the crowdsourced documentary Life in a Day, the cumulation of several idiosyncratic users functioning as a kind of collective portrait of young China. What we perceive is an entire country entertaining and being entertained by each other, a massive service economy masquerading as entertainment industry. As one host puts it, while streaming a cockroach carcass being raided by ants, “I’ll talk about whatever you want to hear”.

While this process of constantly turning private life into a public spectacle might appear worrisome, we see liberative strands emerge. In this snapshot of how a nation looks at itself, we observe how individuals, especially the most disenfranchised, build a self-image. Queer users and sex workers seem to have found a relatively safe space to express their voice or ply their trade. The terminally lonely find community, the terminally bored get entertainment, and those anonymized by assembly line work recuperate a sense of individuality through their devoted viewership: shooting with a selfie camera, they literally position themselves at the centre of a world that otherwise consigns them to the margins. In the longish title card, we are told about the popularity of the medium, but also the government’s measures to shut down channels telecasting unlawful content, such as violence and self-harm. This dialectic between private aspiration and state control, however, vanishes when the film abandons its sampling approach to focus on five particular hosts: a burn survivor who preaches against god, a single mother working at a undergarment factory, a street dancer with an awkward style, a mendicant with severely disfigured limbs and a factory worker suffering from a sexual maturity disorder which makes him look like a boy. The interest wanes—and the insight vanishes—as the film devolves into a freak show of sorts. On the other hand, as the film’s witty title indicates, Present.Perfect. demonstrates that live streaming profoundly transforms the nature of cinema as we understand it. The ‘cinema of the past’, based on recording reality and later transmitting it, makes way for a cinema in the present, viewed at the same time it’s made. The real-time exchange facilitated by the platform paradoxically takes cinema closer to its origins, turning it into a kind of low-grade, interactive vaudeville. How long before the corporates jump in?

Height of the Wave (Park Jung-bum)

In Park Jung-bum’s Height of the Wave, a cop Yeon-soo (Lee Seung-yeon) is posted to an island village. She’s going through a divorce and finalizing her settlements through a lawyer. On the island with her is her teenage daughter, who is evidently upset at not only the divorce, but also the isolation unwillingly imposed on her. Yeon-soo is doesn’t speak much and holds the world at a sceptical distance. She’s also depressed. On her first day, she visits the village dentist for some anti-depressants. The mayor of the village is also present at the clinic, and he complements the officer on her shampoo when he invites her to a welcome party. At the party, Yeon-soo notices two young men cajoling a woman, Yea-eun (Lee Yeon-hee), and whisking her away into the dark. The officer follows them, not sure if it’s romance, coercion or prostitution she’s witnessing. The threesome gives enough clues for Yeon-soo to suspect the latter and she pursues the case: Yea-eun forced into underage prostitution by her guardians with full knowledge of the village council. This spells bad news for the mayor, who’s trying to make the island a special destination for tourists. He gathers the stakeholders of the village—all men—to derail the investigation.

Park’s film is a story of three women: Yeon-soo, who experiences sexism at all levels of society despite the power vested in her, Yea-eun, an abject victim who has been groomed into a life of abuse, and Yeon-soo’s daughter, who’s dealing with her own deracination. Save for a dim-witted young boy with rudimentary conscience, every man in the village is guiltier than the other, seems to have his own reason. Yea-eun’s uncle and guardian, who is courageous enough to challenge the mayor in his plans for the island, remains a silent accomplice in his niece’s prostitution. Like the child in Loveless, Yea-eun runs away into the woods and the entire village goes up the hills to look for her. But it’s Dogville that’s a more relevant touchstone here. In Park’s disturbing, cynical view, it takes a village to abuse a child. His idea of this village, whose children kill ants in a vicarious fear of outsiders, is a place close to nature both in its austere beauty and murderous violence. On the other hand, we never get to understand Yeon-soo’s grief outside of her divorce. Her peculiar gestures—burying a toaster her ex-husband gifted her daughter, opening and closing doors constantly in wait for her missing daughter, kneeling in the woods crying—reinforce her suffering without explaining them. Outside of a few long shots of high physicality, the film mostly runs on auto-pilot with a gawking shoulder camera. The cold winds, the muted colour and the faded anoraks suggest a sullen atmosphere, but the hills, beaches and jungles aren’t put to particularly interesting use.

Earth (Nikolaus Geyrhalter)

Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Earth begins with an announcement that “humankind is the most decisive geological factor of our time” going by the volume of top soil our kind displaces every day. Geyrhalter charts these massive changes effected to the surface of the earth at seven sites across two continents: large-scale sand mining in California to make way for new townships, the construction of a 22-kilometer long tunnel through the mountains between Austria and Italy, strip mining for coal in Gyöngyös, Hungary, extraction from a marble quarry in Carrara, Italy, the dynamiting of mountains for copper ore in Minas de Riotinto, Spain, damage control of nuclear waste stored in underground salt mines in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, and open pit oil mining in a First Nations reservation in Fort McKay, Canada. Geyrhalter’s MO throughout the film is the same. A drone shot of the site from an extreme height introduces each section. Shots of men at work are interspersed with interviews with them. The filmmaker questions them about their work, its end use, its physical and moral limits, their feelings towards their job, the impact of their work on the environment, and the ethical quandaries, if any. There are patterns in the answers too. The men and women recognize that their activity might be harmful to the environment, but they declare that it’s their job, that someone else will do it if not them, that we can’t help but continue if we want to progress.

Geyrhalter captures breath-taking images of the mining sites, images that seem otherworldly in their desolate beauty. The geometric forms of the Carrara marble quarry or the vast craters of the Gyöngyös mines make for awe-inducing spectacle comparable to those in Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death. But Geyrhalter’s perspective is not Marxist; his focus is not on the workers or their alienation from their work. The mostly male interviewees, in fact, assert their passion for their job, the adrenaline rush it induces. Where the emphasis lies, instead, is in mankind’s incredible constructive capacity as well as its ultimate frailty, the two in constant conversation with each other. Looking at the gargantuan mining sites with huge moving parts, one wonders at their construction, but also at the fact that any of the ant-like workers in the vicinity could be killed were a tiny part of the facility to fall on him. Geyrhalter’s film pits man’s massive machines against the earth, which here takes on a human quality. One interviewee talks of the mountain’s virginity, another laments the hurting of “Mother Earth”. The serial explosives that are used to clear the way produce ripples on the land surface, making it look like human convulsions. Geyrhalter, who has produced and directed dozens of documentaries, doesn’t swap out nuance for quick judgment, though his sympathies are evident in his choices. He gets enviable access to private sites, which is perhaps why the last segment in Fort McKay, where he has no permission, sticks out, spells out as it does the film’s themes and proclivities.

Endless Night (Eloy Enciso)

I watched Galician filmmaker Eloy Enciso’s Endless Night in a state of anxiety. My mind was awash with news from the anti-CAA protests all over India and the brutal police response to the protestors. Given its story about a fascist regime’s crackdown of dissidents, the poisonous nationalism of those in power and the apathy of those on the right side of the government, the film should have spoken to me at this moment. But it was the opposite that happened. Enciso deliberately strips the narrative—set during and after the Spanish Civil War—of its particularities in order to impart a universal, contemporary significance. He takes an admirable, Pedro Costa-like distance from the political, which keeps the viewer at a critical distance. I could, however, not get rid of the feeling that, despite its unique stylistic choices, Enciso is leaning back on established arthouse shibboleths, both formal and narrative, to evoke pre-determined responses from the viewer. And I wholly accept the possibility that this suspicion of mine could be the product of the gap between the urgency of the situation around me and the film’s meditative treatment of a similar subject. In other words, I can’t be objective about this film. But then, what is one ever objective about?

I also suspect the structure of Endless Night is derived from the opera; an opera reimagined as a Sharunas Bartas elegy for the Spanish Republic. Divided into three acts, the film begins with an overture in which two mendicants, presumably acting as a Greek chorus, talk about the changing times. In the first act, we are introduced to various figures in the village: Falangist businessmen, relatives of resistance fighters, a mayoral candidate of the village and the powerful of the region who discuss the state of things over a game of cards. In the second, we get testimonies by those who were incarcerated or persecuted. Much like in Seven Years in May, a woman by the fire recounts her prison experience in a long shot. “Though you may forget, the body keeps its own memory of the torment”, says another. A soldier in the Franco army confesses his true sentiments. In the third act, the resistance fighter who has been the loose connecting thread of the narrative wanders the jungles, seemingly being pursued. As the camera focuses on his hands and feet moving over rocks and leaves, letters of the incarcerated are read in the voiceover—it’s not clear whether the film is conflating two time lines of the “protagonist” or creating a mosaic of dissident experiences. Endless Night becomes increasingly sparse in terms of action and dialogue, coming almost to a standstill in the final passages where the hero strikes pensive poses in artfully lit night time shots. In the first two acts, Enciso obsessively avoids shots with more than one actor, his compositions presenting profiles or three-quarter medium shots of performers interacting with off-screen characters. These stretches evoke John Ford and Manoel de Oliveira in equal measure, while Straub becomes a reference point in the third act.

Bird Island (Sergio da Costa, Maya Kosa)

It is perhaps owing to the same anxiety that I found watching Bird Island a supremely relaxing experience. Shot charmingly in 16mm in academy ratio, the film is a loosely fictionalized documentary set in a bird shelter, somewhere near the Geneva airport I’m told. Antonin is a young man who has been posted at the shelter as part of his rehabilitation programme following a long period of ailments and surgeries. At the facility, he assists Paul, who is responsible for breeding mice to feed the birds at the shelter, which arrive there presumably after being dazed or disoriented at the airport. Also present at the site are veterinarian Emilie, first-aid giver Sandra and keeper Iwan. We follow the work of the shelter’s staff in measured, long shots sewn together by Antonin’s voiceover: Emilie operating on injured birds of prey, Sandra reintroducing the operated birds into a life in the wild, Paul teaching Antonin the nitty-gritty of breeding mice and killing them. Antonin is reticent and timid at first, and his integration into the small community of the shelter parallels the reintegration of the injured birds into the wild. “Some birds prefer security to freedom”, observes Antonin about one feathered friend that decides to stay back at the shelter—a comment equally true of the humans here.

Bird Island considers with equanimity the violence inherent in human and natural processes. The mice are bred to be killed, but their meat saves the lives of the injured birds. The dazed birds, themselves, are collateral damage of technology and progress, which are also what enable the shelter. Birds are trained to hunt mice before being set free, but some of the escaped rats attack the birds fatally. This adiabatic exchange within nature, the cycle of hurting and healing, is signalled by the closing images of the film’s two halves. In the first, a heat map left behind a dead mouse on a tissue paper slowly vanishes. In the second—the last image of the film—we see the dazed owl, now cured, in similar infrared imagery, flying away. These serious themes, however, never come in the way of the film’s essentially calming quality. Bird Island is, at heart, about a helpful, soft-spoken, decent community that accepts its members as they are. The members like each other’s presence and are indulgent towards each other’s failings. They don’t discuss past or future, or anything outside of work. “Paul is like a chosen one”, notes Antonin, “he poses no questions about his work.” This utopian quality of accepting birds and people as they come, and letting them go if they want to, is in stark contrast to real communities, which are predicated on shared history and shared future. Everything about Bird Island is clean and simple: the soft-lit compositions, the spare dialogue, the sporadic flute melody that forms the only soundtrack, the narrative sparsity and the acting, which here is just being. And this Rohmerian clarity and simplicity calms your nerves about the state of the world—which is what the subject of the film is.

Seven Years in May (Affonso Uchoa)

Brazilian helmer Affonso Uchoa’s forty-minute Seven Years in May contains only four scenes. In the first, a man walks long on the road at night. In the following scene, a group of young men chance upon a box with police uniforms and weapons. They change into these clothes and go out on a raid. They pick up a young man, who we learn is Rafael dos Santos Rocha (playing himself). They rough him up and ask him to reveal where a particular stock of drugs is in his house. Rafael denies that he has any, which prompts the young men to drag the man along with them into the dark. The third and the longest scene of the film is predominantly a monologue. Rafael sits by the fire, recounting the night the police brutalized him in search of drugs. He describes his life thereafter: going on the run, substance abuse, getting cheated, wandering the streets, going to a village to sell drugs, a second double-crossing and finally a return home. It’s clear from the vividness of the description that the trauma is fresh in his mind even though it happened seven years ago. He won’t forget their faces, he says; if he did, what they did to him will be complete. A cut reveals a listener—also a non-white man—who says that every story he hears seems to reflect his own. He declares that, though he believes in an eye for an eye, it’s better “for us and for everyone” to move on.

If one didn’t look at the credits or press notes, it’s hard to guess that Uchoa is mixing fictional and documentary modes here. Rafael, portraying himself, is presumably drawing from his own life for his monologue, which is much more polished and articulate than a spontaneous rendition would be. The second scene, then, is a reconstruction of Rafael’s real-life experiences, which raises the ethical question: why put Rafael through the harrowing situation again? Whether this recreation of violence is itself a form of violence or a therapeutic remedy is possibly only for Rafael to know. What is clear is that Uchoa is building a scaffolding in which power dynamics are presented as a product of role playing. The proposition that a bunch of possibly disenfranchised youth become aggressors by just donning police uniform finds its response in the fourth scene of the film: a white man in police uniform commands a group of about hundred non-white men and women. He utters one of two words—‘alive’ or ‘dead’—to which the men and women must respond by standing up or squatting. Those that react wrongly are ‘out’ of the game. The last man standing turns out to be Rafael, and he refuses to ‘die’ even when the instructor repeatedly commands him to. As a political statement, it’s laughably schematic, but as an instance of curative theatre, it’s at home in the film. Seven Years in May is an odd film that appears to be constantly shifting its axes of operation. Familiarity with the filmmaker’s earlier work would perhaps throw more light.

Farewell to the Night (André Téchiné)

Muriel (Catherine Deneuve) runs a horse ranch in the southwest of France near the Spanish border. When her grandson, Alex (Kacey Mottet-Klein) arrives for a long-pending visit, she discovers that he has converted to Islam and has been radicalized by one of the farmhands, Lila (Oulaya Amamra). We learn this before Muriel does. When Alex meets Lila for the first time, they go out to the lake. She wears a burkini to get into the water, he remains on shore. They embrace, but never kiss. Their interaction and their attitude towards others follow the halal code. He refuses to greet-kiss another man, she refuses to serve men in the old age home she works at. He turns down alcohol and cigarettes, she refuses to uncover her sleeve at work. In collusion with another young radical, the pair plan to fly to Syria to ‘the front’, but are faced with money problems. They decide to steal money from ‘the kuffar’ Muriel, an act Lila justifies as ‘not haram’. Like any liberal-minded film worth its salt, Farewell to the Night ‘explains’ Islamic radicalism to us. The film unfolds over the first five days of spring in 2015. Local elections are underway and, we are told, the National Front is on the ascendant. It’s a soundbite intended to both hint at the other side of the divide and ‘explain’ increasing radicalism.

Lila rails about the rotten society that consigns old people to retirement homes, and she is genuinely compassionate towards the people she serves. On the other hand, the Caucasian Alex, still affectionate towards his grandmother, is sure neither about his sexuality nor about his new mission. Téchiné’s film psychoanalyses the radicals and professes its good faith by throwing in two “good Muslims”, including a Daesh renegade who tries to dissuade Alex in vain. As a portrayal of racial and religious divides in France, Farewell to the Night is a rather unexceptional. But the seventy-five-year-old filmmaker seems to be making a distinction between generational and cultural shifts rather than racial or religious. The world Muriel represents, in harmony with nature and with people of all stripes, is far removed from the polarized present. She is surrounded by children learning riding, and the first thing she does when she realizes she has lost Alex for good is to stop by a highway to watch boys and girls play football. Lila stays with a lonely old man who longs for company, while the foyer is a veritable refuge of those fading away. At one point, Téchiné cuts between the meeting of the stern radicals and a celebration at Muriel’s with wine and dance to indicate two different conceptions of community and culture. His ever-moving camera captures the landscape, vegetation and infrastructure of the region with an aim to please. Deneuve huffs and puffs her way through the ranch, but is all surface. Her purported devastation over her grandson’s fate and her guilt over her ultimate decisions don’t really register. There is, however, a great shot of her taking a swig.

The House (Mali Arun)

In an unnamed part of France, presumably in Occitanie, lies a massive spa retreat: a 22-room renaissance structure from the 17th century once visited by the likes of Voltaire and Casanova. Mali Arun’s film doesn’t give any more detail and simply calls the building ‘La Maison’. The House opens with a fade in from the structure’s original plan to its current decrepit state. Arun’s camera surveys the decaying façade and decrepit interiors of the house, a seeming repository of the debris of European culture: portraits, musical instruments and other objets d’art amassed carelessly in unused rooms and workshops. The attention soon shifts to the residents of this modern “ark”, as the filmmaker calls it: a constantly changing commune of white men, women and children galvanized around the permanent figure of a certain sexagenarian called Jacques. Arun’s voiceover tells us that the spring running through the site was exploited by Nestlé till the seventies, and that when the company left, they filled the water source with concrete to maintain their monopoly. Jacques and co. make plans of renovating the house as per the original plan. They draft monthly goals for their reconstruction project. They call a water diviner to retrace and restore the stream. However, the group, and Jacques in particular, seems to spend most of its time doing everything else.

Arun’s film is interested less in the history of the building or the personalities of the residents, who get to do little more than pose for closeups. It’s more concerned with the building as a space of memory and experience than as a physical presence. Arun’s emphasis is on the way of life of the inhabitants. We see them cutting trees, making music, cooking, discussing and debating, calling relatives on phone, playing with water, moving pianos, rehearing plays, raising bees and, if time permits, working a bit on the house. Despite Jacques’ central status, there’s no hierarchy within the commune, nor is there any binding faith or vice defining them. At best, they exhibit a faint decadence in their epicurean life of wine and music. For the most part, we see them in the all-purpose workshop-turned-piano room, fine-tuning the instruments, practicing pieces and preparing for recitals. There’s a bit of talk about administration, maintenance and financial problems, but nothing that disrupts the character of the place. As the description above suggests, The House is very loosely organized to give a sense of an ambiance. Even though Arun divides the film into seasons of the year in what seems like a last-minute effort, this lack of a structuring element collapses the distance between the filmmaker—who is part of the commune and is pregnant during the making of the film—and her subject. The outcome is a sentimental work, no doubt successful in certain aspects, that asks us to accept it without furnishing a justification as to why we must.

Slits (Carlos Segundo)

Carlos Segundo’s explosive horror-sci-fi hybrid is a high-concept work that draws ideas from quantum mechanics to explore themes of loss, grief and memory. Catarina (Roberta Rangel) is a physicist studying the quantum properties of light. She’s European, but works as a visiting scientist in the city of Natal in Eastern Brazil. In her supplementary research, she makes ‘sound-photos’ to analyse the “displacement of light caused by sound of matter”. For that, she first captures wide shots of ordinary scenes in Natal—digital footage with direct sound. She then ‘dives’ into a particular point on the image—zoom-ins of several thousand orders that abstracts the image—and listens to the ‘noise’ emanating from it. These dives enable her, like the sound engineer of Blow Out, to see with her ears, enter another space-time and listen to stories from another place and period: a kind of synaesthesia that breaks down the barriers between light and sound, visible and invisible, past and present. Shot in crisp, high-definition digital video, Slits is a bracing meditation on the nature of the medium. It finds an expression in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle of the contradictions inherent in the digital image: the tug of war between details and stability, between richness of palette and noise. Like the zoom of Michael Snow’s Wavelength, Catarina’s dives reveal stories to her, accounts that belie the banality of the image.

The same uncertainly becomes an expression of Catarina’s existence as well. Through the course of the film, we learn that Catarina has had a stable, privileged life with too many options and no crises whatsoever. She is apolitical, doesn’t know the troubled history of the region and doesn’t even participate in the university strike. Her only student, a fisherman, speaks of the need to initiate movements instead of expecting predictable results. Catarina has come to Natal, historically a region of passage, at a moment when natives are trying to leave the place. We also learn that she has become estranged from her husband in France following the loss of their baby daughter. In a sense, Catarina is fleeing Europe, her past and her reality for another dimension. Like the protagonist of The Invention of Morel, she finds refuge in a world of abstract images and sounds. And like Scotty of Vertigo (referenced here) and Laura of Don’t Look Now, she seeks to make sense of her tragedy through a process of reconstruction and interpretation. Her closest cinematic relative is, however, the gamer of Chris Marker’s Level Five, who too loses grip on the present in a quest to reconstruct the past. In the last shot of Marker’s film, the gamer zooms into a video image of herself to a point of obscurity, enacting the same instabilities besieging Catarina: observing reality from too close, she loses sight of it, just like how the extreme telephoto of the painted portrait at her home becomes one with the image of the sea. Catarina’s observations are coloured by her own subject position, and starting off from scientific premises, she ends up with results that can only be unscientific, unobservable and unrepeatable. As she tells her husband who urges her to move on from her mourning, time for some is chronological, for others its chronic.

Sunrise with Sea Monsters (Myles Painter)

At the beginning of Glasgow-based Myles Painter’s Sunrise with Sea Monsters, a laptop fails to save files on a LaCie hard disk drive. The dysfunctional drive goes rogue, leaving home, roaming the city streets, visiting museums, discos, cafes and pubs, and traveling around the country from beaches and mountains to jungles and caves. The “eye” of the device—a blue light—blinks all through this odyssey, suggesting a sentient being. Painter ponders on the sleek form of the HDD, reflecting on its “sculptural volume”. As the drive travels the countryside, it indeed assumes a mythical, monument-like quality evocative of the Stonehenge monoliths. But the journey, in fact, is a record of the filmmaker’s various travels with his partner (both of whom we never see). By substituting the HDD for himself in his travelogues, Painter is drawing attention to the function of recording media as physical manifestations of human memory and experience. The drive, in particular, also signals the disjunction that digital media herald in this age-old phenomenon. While photos and films have an indexical relation to the reality they remember, digital media transpose physical reality into another one that can only be understood by species with specific intelligence and capability—a significant risk if the objective is to leave traces for extra-terrestrial or far-future societies.

Though firmly on the side of analogue (the film is shot in 16mm), Painter is curious about digital media and reflects on the spatial (both in terms of size and capacity) and temporal limits of HDDs. The itinerant drive of Painter’s proto-picaresque film gives a lie to the wisdom that we live in the era of dematerialization: the device seems to have a real social existence, with everyone around it giving it resting space but ignoring its presence, just like they would for a stranger. On the film’s soundtrack is a mix of synth music, monologues about the nature of data, the filmmaker’s conversations with his girlfriend and his Skype interviews with scientists, engineers, cinematographers and philosophers. The interviewees touch upon various topics related to the challenge of information archival and storage, and the quest for a limitless, everlasting storage medium. One scientist talks about the intense energy demand that the internet places, threatening our “digital legacy”. Another expert talks about his project of recording the achievements of human civilization on clay tablets stored in Austrian salt mines for intelligent societies in the future. Other researchers discuss data storage in 5D memory crystals and even DNAs. Running through the interviews is the theme of mankind’s obsession with survival and longevity. Sunrise lists a truckload of lofty ideas, but seems to be short of ideas itself. It’s narratively sparse and doesn’t go anywhere in particular. Its humorous, Peter Greenaway-like structuralism soon gives way to monotony, with the images being solely supported by the expert comments on the soundtrack. It would perhaps be more rewarding as a multi-channel installation.

Burning Cane (Phillip Youmans)

The title of Phillip Youmans’ first feature, Burning Cane, is a literal reference to the sugarcane fields set ablaze in the film, but it offers echoes of two other figures: Citizen Kane and the biblical Cain. Like Orson Welles’ ground-breaking film, Burning Cane was made by its author at an impressively young age: seventeen. Like Kane, it presents its story through a range of unusual visual devices: extreme, Wyler-like compositions in deep space, lenses that conversely collapse depth, low-light digital cinematography and canted angles. In one shot, Youmans films a telephone conversation with the speaker in deep space and with the speaker’s son colouring a book in the foreground. In a strongly diagonal shot redolent of Tsai Ming-Liang, a man in the foreground watches a television playing The Jungle Book in the background. A woman obscured in the background passes an object to the man in the foreground, facing away from us, with the distance between them seeming to vanish all of a sudden. These devices, however, don’t exactly come across as gimmicks. Rather, they seem like emanations of a new way of filming the world already familiar to us through cell phone aesthetic. Case in point, the dark shots with a large negative space, which don’t feel like unstable compositions as much as footage taken on the sly with a phone camera. Filming through door gaps and closed curtains, Youmans superimposes a highly contemporary, on-your-face aesthetic on a rather novelistic, classical narrative.

In the first of the film’s three threads, an old woman, Helen (Karen Kaia Livers), speaks about her dog suffering from a skin condition. She talks about various remedies her community members suggest. Set against images of her everyday life, the voiceover, constructed of repeating structures as in poetry, lends Helen a legendary presence. Much like Vitalina Varela in Pedro Costa’s film, she is the lynchpin of this small-town black community whose men are disintegrating into apathy and despair. The town pastor, Tillman (Wendell Pierce in a riveting performance), delivers stirring sermons, but suffers from a lack of faith himself and takes to the bottle. Helen’s son Daniel (Dominique McClellan) is a ne’er-do-well who has lost his job and stays at home with his pre-teen son. Not only does he drink himself to sickness, he also beats up his wife and makes his son drink. Youmans doesn’t really milk the possibilities of this miserabilist scenario; in fact, he elides quite a bit of melodrama and domestic violence. Nevertheless, the script remains rather thin and generic, the characters more abstractions than reflections of real human beings. The cane fields of Louisiana, slicing the frame horizontally and imparting a sense of being closed-in even outdoors, are a welcome change of scenery as are the specific details on the community radio.

Greener Grass (Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe)

Or Just White People Stuff. Adapted from a 2015 short film of the same name, which DeBoer and Luebbe wrote and Paul Briganti directed, the feature-length Greener Grass holds your attention for just as long. What is amusing and funny enough in the short is diluted to over ninety trying minutes, with the two lead actresses also directing this time around. A suburban housewife, Jill (DeBoer), finds her life unravelling after she gifts her new-born to her BFF Lisa (Luebbe). Her elder son becomes a dog, she divorces her husband during a bowling game, her husband leaves, her friend moves into her house, she is rejected from her perfect white community and becomes homeless. The film is a series of absurd sketches about suburban anxiety and conformism. All the characters wear braces over their straight teeth. Jill and Lisa get their husbands mixed up. They become competitive about their children. Jill’s nerdy son doesn’t fit her idea of an ideal child and her stress over him sticking out turns him, as it were, into a well-behaved dog. Jill’s incurable obsession with being nice and winning the approval of her equally neurotic friends ends up alienating her from them. There’s also a serial killer plot shoed in.

The filmmakers underline the superficiality of this life with a candy-coloured palette dominated by artificial-looking primary colours, diffusion filters and a fully daylit cinematography. Like its overused retro aesthetic, Greener Grass trades in ideas about suburban middle-class life already part of the cinematic imaginary. In fact, the film works less as a critique of these values and more as a parody of classical critiques of these values. Make no mistake, this film shares little with David Lynch or Tim Burton and placing it in their tradition would mistake pastiche for vision. The writers cook up one oddity after another, most of which are designed to kindle specific responses. Character reactions are calculatedly mismatched—indifference to big events and overreaction to petty ones. The principle is wholly that of Magritte’s: ordinary elements arranged in implausible configurations. The directors use classical musical cues to elevate banal moments. It recalls Lanthimos, but he employs it for neutral moments whose status as neutral moments is thrown into question by the music. Its use here, on the other hand, is comparable to opera in advertisements. The plot scans as a spoof of women’s pictures à la Sirk or Haynes, but the film is divested of the critical form of those accomplished melodramas. The result is hollow, but not without a handful of successful moments, shots and turns of dialogue.

Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina)

Where Greener Grass commodifies absurdity for routine pleasures, Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye instils the same material with a sense of genuine wonder. The story unfolds, again, in small-town America and follows several groups of teenagers preparing for prom night (?) at a local restaurant-turned-dance floor. The film uses a retro aesthetic similar to Greener Grass: bright yellow Windsor typeface, upbeat music, diffusion filters and backlighting that impart a dreamy, Vilmos Zsigmond-esque glaze. Being a suburban movie, it, too, is focused on the surface of things: boys and girls sprucing themselves up in front of the mirror, McMansions, automobiles, well-kept lawns and yards. But unlike the other film, there’s something lived-in about the details here, the brand names, clothing styles and décor. The first half of the film builds up to the prom night in a mosaic-like fashion, piecing together various groups of teenagers arriving at the venue, Monty’s. There’s a conversation in a schoolyard that’s presented in bits, underscoring that the film isn’t interested in inhabiting this world as much as glimpsing it from a distant perspective. What works so well in the film is that Taormina infuses the banality of this universe with an understated spiritualism. Three primly-dressed girls wander deserted streets and parks like the three graces. One of them reads a postcard from her sister living elsewhere, and they wonder about the mystery of adulthood. As they walk, there’s a tracking shot of the trees, bridging the otherworldly to the ordinariness of this world.

Taormina focuses on the minor rituals of this teen community, rituals that assume a religious flavour. Through the vaguely oriental musical score, he superimposes an international consciousness on this small-town isolation without condescension. The first half culminates in a slow-dance sequence that turns into a veritable spiritual communion. An Ozuvian montage of night-time suburbia signals the film’s shift to its second movement. Night falls and the tone becomes darker, almost funereal. A listless barbecue follows in which disengaged adults engage in silent card games. A group of disaffected, college-age youth knocks about the town in their car. The communion of the first half is replaced by an undefined void at the heart of the community. Like The Last Picture Show, Ham on Rye is a portrait of those who stayed back, of lives in stasis. Taormina’s film is, however, shot through not with a bittersweet nostalgia, but a mournful anxiety about having been left behind. A girl calls out in vain to her two absent friends while another boy cries out in the vicinity. As she sits alone in a park full of toddlers, who no doubt will traverse the same alleys of life, the film whittles itself down to her perspective. Like in Bresson’s L’Argent, Ham on Rye appears to intertwine two time periods, the contemporary cohabiting with the past. I was equally reminded of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films, especially Goodbye South Goodbye, in its depiction of youth without youth. But Taormina’s approach is the diametric opposite of Hou’s master-shot style: a framing that focuses on hands performing gestures, an odd decoupage that arranges closeups in faint spatial relations (there’s a very funny edit of a plastic pig being tossed away), attention to minor details of the mise en scène and transitions dominated by fades, wipes and superpositions. A strong, promising work.

That Which Does Not Kill (Alexe Poukine)

That Which Does Not Kill does not label itself beforehand, nor does it reveal its modus operandi right away. What it does offer is a series of talking heads, men and women, young and old, black and white, straight and queer, in intimate, homely décor, captured in simple, shallow-focus camera setups. In the first interview, a very soft-spoken girl of about twenty describes her memory of an assault: a man forces himself on her, yet she goes back to his house and they sleep together, and again a third time. The girl is soon revealed to be an actor and her testimony, a text given to her by the filmmaker for preparation. This text serves as a foundation for the rest of the film and the interviewees, all of them actors, narrate details from it as though from personal experience. The women interviewees speak from the perspective of the girl while the two men in the film stand in the shoes of the aggressor. We never know what part of their testimonies comes verbatim from the text, what is imagined and what is a direct expression of the actors’ own experience. Some of them evoke very specific memories, like particular colours or sounds, and some others break down. They step out of character at times to talk to the filmmaker behind the camera, but even so the boundaries are blurred. We aren’t quite sure where the text ends and personal memories of trauma begins.

At the heart of the text is the conundrum of why the girl responded positively to the man’s advances, why she went back to his house after the assault, and why she slept with him a third time. The question baffles the actors at first too, but getting into their role and approaching it through the prism of their personal experience, they understand her actions as a way of returning to a primal scene in order to set a derailed life straight. They characterize this as a shift from feeling shame (of being a victim) to identifying guilt (on the part of the aggressor). The testimonial text, consequently, moves from being a site of mistrust to a space for trust and solidarity. In doing so, the film probes the limits of empathy, conceiving it as a quality that’s not innate, but learned through performance and an active task of interpretation and imagination. An unmistakably post-MeToo film, That Which Does Not Kill problematizes the sureties surrounding sexual violence and trauma. It invokes involuntary excitation, proposes voluntary bondage as a reversal of powerlessness and acknowledges the inevitable contradictions in the memory of trauma, while also asserting the impossibility of forgetting such a corporeal experience. These are issues already part of the discourse, and perhaps the film breaks no new ground there, but it deserves credit for the way it frames the question of public response to survivor testimonies.

Movements of a Nearby Mountain (Sebastian Brameshuber)

Cliff (Clifford Agu) has an eye for old cars. He lives and works alone in an abandoned warehouse in the outskirts of a mining town somewhere in Austria. Like a hunter disembowelling his prey, he dismantles turn of the century models in his warehouse, selling refurbished units for cut rate to local customers or shipping spare parts to Nigeria. Sebastian Brameshuber follows Cliff’s life over several months, observing him working at length, cooking, fetching water, washing clothes, bargaining with customers, chatting with a Nigerian friend of his and driving into town to spot old cars to place his visiting card in. Cliff’s customers are invariably immigrants from Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary or Romania. Neither Cliff or his clientele speaks proper German, and communication happens through a mixture of broken German, English and sign language. While Cliff’s warehouse lies in the penumbra of modern European Union, the shipment of spare parts from Germany to Africa traces a reverse movement of goods in globalized economy. Cliff’s is a life on the margins of capital, in the shadow of the wealth inequality that enables a thriving automobile black market. Even so, he says to his friend that things aren’t as good as they were ten years ago when he moved to this country, and reflects on the possibility of returning to Nigeria to ply taxies.

            Movements of a Nearby Mountain recalls Wang Bing’s Man with No Name in the disengaged manner in which it describes a life in solitude. Like Wang’s modern caveman, Cliff leads a very functional life revolving around business and sustenance. His only social life is in the conversations, perhaps imagined, he has with his Nigerian friend, with whom he observes the paintball arena opposite his warehouse. But unlike the man with no name, he seems to be free of aesthetic or sexual needs, outside of a comment about a pretty girl here or a song hummed there. He feeds a cat in the facility and shaves, but that’s all the outward-oriented gesture we see. More than Wang’s, it’s Flaherty’s Nanook that serves as a reference point here. Brameshuber, however, is confident that Cliff’s situation is self-explanatory and needs no description or context. Though there’s no interaction of the subject with the camera, his film is clearly collaborative and fictionalized, as is evidenced by the decoupage in which Cliff walks into spaces in which the camera is already setup. Besides, the filmmaker has Cliff narrate a legend about the region in which a water sprite promises the inhabitants an endless supply of iron ore in the surrounding mountains. Whether or not the promise was true, Cliff’s dwindling prospects seem to suggest a glass ceiling on the ladder to prosperity.

No Data Plan

No Data Plan (Miko Revereza)

Miko Revereza’s No Data Plan opens with the shot of a train pulling in to a station. The large crowd waiting for this trans-American Amtrak train is mostly coloured. Texts, written from the filmmaker’s perspective, appear on screen. We are told that Revereza’s mother has two phone lines, one without a data plan, in order to steer clear of immigration authorities. We learn that Revereza has been living in the US without papers and is bound to be shipped back to the Philippines if arrested. The entirety of No Data Plan consists of Revereza’s journey on this train over the next two days, even though we never know why he’s undertaking it. The “narrative” unfolds on two fronts. The images are resolutely anti-picturesque, anti-expository. Revereza focuses on the textures of the train: used trays, ketchup sachets, candy bars, sweaters, sunshine and shadows, promotional posters, seat covers, the space under the dining table, assorted luggage, dirty windows and the logos on them. He gets down at every station, filming passing trains or people waiting to receive visitors. There are bits of ambient dialogue captured, and Revereza makes a couple of phone calls and talks for a bit, but there’s no interaction with any of the other passengers. The focus is not on the bounty of the American landscape or the cross-section of the American population on the train, but on the banality of the transit, on Revereza’s disaffected drifting across states in anxiety about the border patrol showing up for an ID check.

The on-screen text, on the other hand, tells the story of the filmmaker’s mother: her past as an immigrant housewife with no life outside home, her affair with a taxi driver, her eloping with him to Nebraska with Revereza’s knowledge, and her current life on the road. The text and the images work dialectically, producing a portrait of (paperless) immigrant life. Like Revereza’s noteworthy short film, Disintegration 93-96, No Data Plan is a film about losing one’s roots, and Revereza’s seemingly purposeless transit scans as the fallout of a disintegrating family. Other obvious points of departure are J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry and Albert Maysles’ In Transit. But the thrust of Revereza’s less sensual, less sociological film—a low-key elegy for a paradise lost—is existential. There’s always the risk of exhibitionism when a filmmaker plants himself so firmly at the centre of his work as Revereza does here. This looming authorial presence in No Data Plan, however, is closer to Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film than, say, Kim Ki-Duk’s Arirang. Revereza’s decision to document his life as an illegal alien, to upload it onto social media and make films out of it is a choice that serves to assert a selfhood that official documents deny.

Searching Eva (Pia Hellenthal)

When Searching Eva opens, we hear ASMR-like reading of chatroom messages about sex, abuse and guilt: some of them grateful and appreciative, some others judgmental. The voice is that of the addressee, Eva. She looks twenty-something, but that’s about everything we can determine about her, for Eva defies definition: she is nothing fixed. Eva has a widely followed online presence, which serves as a rallying point for people feeling alienated from social, sexual norms. On the voiceover—presumably addressed to her followers—Eva recounts events from her life: modelling at the age of 13, her neglectful parents, her sexual exploitation by boys and old men alike, her part time sex work, her desires and diary entries. These chat sessions, seen on screen from time to time, alternate with intimate vignettes from her life: Eva in the shower or in bed with men or women, running free on the subway, moving houses, drifting from one European city to another, going to parties or taking drugs. The generally affectionate images are in contrast with the sordid details of her life. Eva spends time back in Italy with her mother, who takes pictures for her Instagram. She has a warm dinner with her father and his new family. The contradiction makes us wonder whether what we hear in the voiceover is the truth.

The answer is immaterial since, for Eva, identity is malleable, self-determined and entirely arbitrary; a prison to be escaped. Throughout Searching Eva is a suspension of the distinction between performing and being. Eva believes that you are what you pretend to be. She hails from a working-class background, but rejects the idea of fixed work or career, choosing to engage in an activity that will help her survive as long as possible without worrying about money, namely sex work. This sex work is just another facet of what she is, not something that defines her. Looking for apartments, she casually tells one of the current occupants that she’s a sex worker, to her interlocutor’s total disbelief. She services men as part of her work, but sleeps with women “in real life”. In her thorough rejection of biologically, socially determined identities, she inspires her followers (in remote European towns) who feel trapped and suffocated by their body, their sexuality, their past, their environment, their work. The film too never quite fits into the traditional documentary mould. Though leading a transparent, publicized life, Eva is continuously aware of the camera’s presence and sends our voyeuristic gaze back to us. But despite its stark self-reflexivity and multi-mode exposition, Searching Eva doesn’t forestall the feeling that it takes some self-congratulatory pleasure about its own open-mindedness, that if Tumblr had a movie version, this would be it.

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