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New Directors New Films 2013

by Ela Bittencourt

Stories We Tell (Directed by Sarah Polley, 2012)

New Directors New Films (NDNF), a festival run jointly by Film Society at Lincoln Center and Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), has garnered positive attention this year as a counter-weight to the bigger and hipper Sundance and South By Southwest (SXSW). While some critics complain that the latter two embrace the mainstream, the NDNF remains eclectic, favoring artistic filmmaking.

Jiseul (2012), directed by O Muel, is one example of a film with a distinct authorial voice: An historical epic, shot in black and white and framed at times as a macabre folk tale, it captures the true story of an uprising of armed Korean civilians against their government in 1948. From the absurdist scenes that, through carefully juxtaposed images, draw parallels between an ignoble, stupid army commandant and a slaughtered pig sensuously dipped in an outdoor cauldron, to the long, ethnographic conversations amongst farmers hiding in a dark cave, featuring actors in an ensemble, and finally to the painterly vast winter landscapes, Jiseul gives ample evidence of O Muel’s background in theater and in fine arts. Even though the film’s final scenes borrow pathos from socialist kitsch, its visual power is undeniable, with some shots like a war photograph springing to life.

Jisuel (Directed by O Muel, 2012)

In Küf (The Mold, 2012), Turkish director Ali Aydin draws inspiration from Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Like Nuri Bilge Ceylan in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), Aydin slows down time to coax drama from infinitely small moments. Two Ceylan actors star in Aydin’s film: Ercan Kesal as Basri, a middle-aged epileptic rail track inspector, whose son disappeared in Istanbul 20 years earlier; and Muhammet Uzuner as Murat, a blasé provincial police chief, who comes across as a spokesman for the oppressors but takes pity on Basri and helps him resolve the case of his son’s disappearance. The two play the game of helpless but dogged citizen versus omnipotent functionary with the deflated sadness of Chekhov. There are rumblings of the empire – Turkey’s vastness, if no longer glory – in the passing trains. The character of Cemil, played by Tansu Biçer, is most Dostoevskian: a drunken apparatchik-nihilist, would-be rapist and blackmailer, who is nevertheless so lame he inspires pity when he tries to coerce Basri into concealing his carousing.

Küf (The Mold, directed by Ali Aydin, 2012)

Some may find Küf overly metaphysical: there is the ticking clock on Basri’s wall, the unending tracks and sepulchral tunnels. But the imagery is pared down by bleak humour: When Basri arrives at the morgue he is handed a wooden box that resembles a crate. Ugly and prosaic, the box serves as an anti-climactic incarnation of Basri’s crushed hopes.

Blue Caprice (2012), a debut by French-born director Alexander Moore, boasts a dense, gray palette, particularly in the long driving scenes, where the car shines in the heavy rain like a gleaming fetish. Similarly to light-boxes, the image conveys both darkness and luminosity: Perfect for a story about two drive-by shooters, whose vigilante sprees are fueled by a delusion so powerful it borders on spiritual. Based on facts, Blue Caprice features two stellar performances: Isaiah Washington as John, a man who adopts Lee, a young boy abandoned in the Caribbean, played by Tequan Richmond. Divorced and stripped of custodial rights to his own children, John brings Lee to America, a faded land of opportunity. Lee’s life on the fringes – no school or legal status – renders the story’s close-third-person point of view claustrophobic, as the mutual adoration between mentor and pupil slips into psychological abuse. While the film may raise questions of racial stereotyping, the inscrutable logic with which Lee is ensnarled by John’s psychosis extends the circle of victims to the young shooter. As thoughtless and cruel as Lee’s random shootings are, Moore also shows the injustice done to the boy: a poignant message as America debates its promiscuousness with guns but also its disproportionate numbers of incarcerated youth.

In Stories We Tell (2012), a film about filmmaking, Canadian director Sarah Polley dismantles her mis-en-scène to then put it back together. Polley plays herself as an anxious seeker-director constructing a docudrama: She stages her half-siblings and gives script directions to her adoptive father, who acts as her story’s narrator. Her ‘actors’ step in and out of character to comment on the discomforts and oddities of playing a role, particularly acting as if the divergent, at times ambiguous threads they weave about their private lives can neatly coalesce into a ‘plot.’

Polley’s narrative exercise has a serious purpose: She is on a quest to find her biological father, a purpose we discover halfway through the film, after she leads us down a few dead-end trails. Allowing mysteries to emerge and to multiply becomes part of the viewing pleasure. At other times, Polley’s stance tilts towards manipulative: After the early intoxication at finding each other, biological daughter and father, who turns out to be a playwright, butt heads over whose story gets to be told – their ‘authorial’ rights. Polley gets her way, but to some extent underplays the enduring folly, and lasting albeit doomed mutual attraction, of her mother’s extramarital affair. Nevertheless, one couldn’t ask for a more engaging, self-mocking tyrant than Polley, whose intelligence and wit are contagious.

Not all films featured at NDNF were as highly self-aware in their stylistic or narrative approaches. L’Intervalo (The Interval, 2012), directed by Leonardo Di Constanzo, is descended from a long line of films mining the criminal underworld, in this case the Italian mafia, for fictive material, viewed through a minutely observed social lens. More than Gomorrah (2008), the famous film by Matteo Garrone that L’Intervalo harks back to, it distils mafia group dynamics to a microcosm: The film’s action takes place in one day, during which a young boy Salvatore holds hostage a local girl, to prevent her from going out with a man from a feuding clan. Prisoner and guard, Salvatore and Veronica test and antagonize each other, only to finally appreciate how similarly trapped they are in an environment where, belied by the bustle of modest working-class domiciles, much in their young lives is beyond their control.

Die Welt (The World, directed by Alex Pitstra, 2012)

Die Welt (The World, 2012) is one of the films that voice discontent of the trans-national Generation Y that sees its dreams crushed in the wake of global instability. In the film, Dutch director Alex Pitstra mines his Tunisian roots, finding the country’s economy bankrupt, and its young people dispossessed, jobless and restless, after the Jasmine Revolution of 2011. From the witty opening scene, in which young man Abdallah breaks into a rant about Hollywood’s cultural brainwashing, to the grotesque finale that finds his escape attempt to the West thwarted, his raft inadvertently washed ashore back in Tunisia, there is much in this tart debut to celebrate. Part cinéma-verité chronicle of the vagaries and richness of life in an Arab country caught between an uncertain future and dying traditions, and part hurried, MTV-inflected montage, _Die Welt_’s unevenness may be one of the most refreshing aspects of this year’s NDNF. The fluidity and range of storytelling and editing within the picture demonstrates young filmmakers free of the strictures of style. Implicit in their choices seems to be the hope that audiences may embrace experimentation.

About the author

  • Ela Bittencourt's photo

    Ela Bittencourt is a writer, critic and translator. She reviews film regularly for The L Magazine, Slant Magazine, and Reverse Shot, and has also written on art and film for Guernica/A Magazine of Art & Politics, The Brooklyn Rail, and Bright Lights Film Journal. She divides her time between New York and São Paulo, Brazil.