Movies are hard to see. That statement feels false, what with films all around you, available to stream at a keystroke. But distribution is a weird, half-hazard thing, a pseudo-science that pretends to know which products will sell and which not, a presumptive mind-reading of an imaginary audience that doesn’t get to choose for themselves. So many of the most challenging and strange films get left behind, mere rumors in festival reports and critic bull sessions. This is why festivals like the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look series are so essential. I don’t have the time or the expense account to travel to far-flung locales and sample the outer edges of film festival programs. This is what we pay programmers (not much) for! Now in its fourth year, First Look provides a necessary catch-up for the most challenging work from the previous year, stuff too bold or bizarre to reach screens otherwise. Chief curator David Schwarz and assistant film curator Aliza Ma teamed up with FIDMarseilles, a similarly provocative French festival, and organized a wide-ranging program of too-hot-for distributor films. There’s a vital verite document of the Syrian civil war (Our Terrible Country), a lyrical portrait of rural Brazil (August Winds), and a Persian language lesson that opens up a swathe of Iranian history (I For Iran).


The “biggest” titles on display were Aleksei German’s mud-choked sci-fi dirge Hard to be a God (which has distribution from Kino Lorber) and Amour Fou, a studied depiction of Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist’s suicide pact with his beloved Henriette Vogel, which premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. But I go to First Look for the small and impossible to see — and was stunned by Our Terrible Country (screening January 17th at 7pm), a portrait of Syrian dissident Yassin Haj Saleh and his fraught journey into exile. Yassin had been imprisoned from 1980 – 1996  by Hafez al-Assad’s regime for what Yassin described as his membership in a “communist pro-democracy group”. Filmmaker/photographer Ziad Homsi wanted to capture Yassin’s experience in Damascus during the uprising against Hafez’s son Bashar, a rumination from one of the beacons of the revolution. But the film turned into something much darker, as the civil war created a vacuum of power that ISIS came in to fill, dreams of revolution getting snuffed by Islamic extremism. It begins in the liberated city of Douma, some 10km northeast of Damascus’ city center. Yassin and his wife Samira fled there after Damascus became too dangerous.


Douma’s “liberation” is pyrrhic, a crumbling ghost town that threatens to fall to the regime at any moment. Yassin keeps up a good face, organizing street cleaning teams to remove rubble from the streets. But the locals are wary of this community organizing, and one neighbor expresses a demand that the volunteer women should cover their faces. With a divided populace, a dwindling energy supply and no end in sight to the war, Samira expresses an “anger that I could explode the universe with”. Homsi stays close to Yassin who decides to search for a route out of Douma and into Raqqa, his hometown in the north of Syria. As they travel side roads and through deserts, avoiding the blazing sun by laying underneath canvas sheets, Yassin learns that ISIS has taken over his city and kidnapped his brothers. He travels on anyway, knowing his wife is in constant danger in Douma, and knowing ISIS meets him at the end of his journey. Every step seems weighted with doom, and the populace loses hope. The righteous revolution has caused endless bloodshed and created a foothold for ISIS, what Yassin calls “the cancerous growth of the revolution.”  The country is tearing itself apart, and it begins to seep into the emotions of its people. The owner of a falafel joint breaks down when Yassin questions the amount he was charged for a hummus plate, taking the question as a grievous insult to his dignity. He yells and wails to all the customers at this indignity, but after he calms down he tells Homsi’s camera that, “Assad is merely an illusion. The disaster is inside us.”


Yassin escapes to Istanbul using his brother-in-law’s passport, ensuring his own safety, but leaving Homsi and his wife behind. There is no safe route outside of Douma anymore – Samira is trapped, her image seen only in the Skype calls Yassin can make before Samira loses the last of her electricity. These sequences are unbearably painful to watch. Soon all hope is lost. Homsi’s father is in prison, but is desperate to spirit his mother out of the country. He simply states, “People who want to live should get out.” He finds his way to Yassin in Istanbul, and they fall apart together. Our Terrible Country is an urgent document of despair from a stalled revolution.


I For Iran (Saturday, January 17th at 4:30) filters the 1979 Iranian revolution through a Persian language workbook. In this deceptively simple essay film, director Sanaz Azari sits in a classroom and has a teacher lecture her in the language on a blackboard. Azari was born in Iran, but raised in Belgium, and hopes to re-connect with her ancestral home through language. The teacher is another Iranian exile, a gray haired performer who shifts between nostalgia and sarcasm regarding their mutual lost home. Through simple language exercises fraught histories peek through, whether it’s the teacher’s cynical digression on the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani, or the sample sentences used, like “Dad doesn’t give bread, because there is no work.” The images created for post-Revolution children in the workbook become portals through which Azari envisions the country, it’s beauties and repressions both.


August Winds (Sunday, January 18th at 5:00) is another document of a place, though it is physical and tactile where I For Iran is cerebral, constructed in your head. An atmospheric portrait of the Northeastern Brazilian state of Alagoas, it uses narrative as an excuse to portray the lush atmosphere and monotonous day-to-day life of its inhabitants. Director Gabriel Mascaro is a documentarian at heart, though one who is hyper-aware of his privileged role in shaping the depiction of his subjects. In his documentary, Housemaids, he gave cameras to seven teenagers and asked to film their maids – he edited the footage after it was returned to him. In August Wind he takes more compositional control, using fixed camera compositions with narrowing vanishing points, whether it’s stream, lake or hallway. It opens with the camera on the back of a canoe, a bikini-clad local Shirley (Dondara de Morais) splayed out and listening to The Lewd’s punk anthem “Kill Yourself”. In suing Coca-Cola as a suntan lotion and blasting West Coast American punk, Shirley is looking for a way out of the traditional life of Alagoas, which is still dependent on the coconut harvest. She has a Nancy Drew interlude when her boyfriend finds a polished skull, buffed to a shine by the tides, and indicative of the tidal pull this town has on her, circling her and keeping her in place. The one envoy from the outside world, a young meteorologist studying wind patterns, seems to emerge and disappear with the waves, and may have washed up as a corpse. This hypnotic, repetitious work recapitulates many of the strategies of Lisandro Alonso, from its isolated locale, fixed camera set-ups, and slender death-drive narrative.

If you happen to be in the New York City area, you should gaze longingly at First Look, which gives screens to the screenless. And with Our Terrible Country, it is the only place to see one of the finest, and most vital documentaries of the year, poking its head under an ongoing human tragedy that retreats further into the back pages of the newspaper. Here’s hoping a distributor runs the numbers and decides to pick it up anyway.


January 14, 2014


Last week Manohla Dargis complained about the overwhelming glut of films released in New York City. The New York Times has a policy to review every new release, and in 2013 they published 900 reviews, seventy-five more than the year before. Worthwhile indies like Computer ChessThis is Martin Bonner and Museum Hours are subsumed in a flood of dreck, which rent out screens to fulfill contractual obligations before limping onto VOD. So vanity projects with deep pockets eat up theater space, rendering word-of-mouth success almost impossible, since most titles are forced out in a week. The day after Dargis’ complaint was published, the third annual “First Look” series kicked off at the Museum of the Moving Image (January 10 – 19), a program of forward-thinking work, almost none of which has distribution. These are the films left behind by the broken distribution system in the United States, a freewheeling mix of handcrafted oddities, personal essays, and deeply researched documentaries.

Even though it’s only in its third year, “First Look” has become one of my favorite yearly rituals, its cherry picking of the bleeding edge of world cinema innovation the kind of thing I’d otherwise read about with green-faced envy in a globe-trotting dispatch in Cinema Scope.  They alerted me to new films from old masters like Chantal Akerman (Almayer’s Folly) and Philippe Garrel (That Summer) as well as young talents like Goncalo Tocha (It’s the Earth Not the Moon), Jang Kun-jae (Sleepless Night) and the riches of Berlin School filmmakers Thomas Arslan and Christoph Hochhausler. They’ve continued in the celebration of the small this year, in a program populated with intensely personal visions made with a DIY spirit, from the opening night’s handmade childhood idyll Little Feet to the closing night whimsy of The Rendez-Vous of Deja Vous, a bit of strained screwball shot on the streets of Paris. Bereft of big name directors (aside from a Rohmer short), this year’s “First Look” encourages exploration – better to go in without program notes and hope for the shock of the new.


But let’s start with the old. Rohmer in Paris is a charmingly obsessive study of the New Wave director’s filmic ambulations around the city of lights. Director Richard Misek begins when Rohmer’s wanderings intersect with his own – Misek was unknowingly an extra in Rendezvous in Paris. He noticed himself crossing the screen while idly watching Rendezvous on TV, which then triggered his OCD, and he began mapping Rohmer’s characters as they wandered around Paris. The movie is a topographical map of these walks, layered on top of one another as if tracing the neural network of Rohmer’s mind. He also catalogues and inventories glances, staircases and doors, the first step toward an encyclopedia of Rohmer ephemera. Misek stumbles when he begins to interpret these repetitions – tracing them all back to the Spanish Quarter, and declaring that Rohmer was haunted by the New Wave and always trying to return to its bosom. This ignores how engaged Rohmer was with the present, in everything from fashion to music, and that if anything Rohmer’s films are suspended in an eternal “now” rather than looping in a return to his days at Cahiers. But this detracts little from the film’s multifarious pleasures, and the overwhelming need to re-watch his entire corpus from start to finish once you leave Misek’s headspace.


The other standout documentary is David Cairns and Paul Duane’s Natan, which re-inscribes the French-Romanian film impresario back into film history, after he was erased in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Natan was a pivotal figure in France’s transition from silent to sound filmmaking. Charles Pathé was skeptical of talkies, so Natan stepped in, became a partner in the company (rebranded Pathé-Natan), and produced some of the most spectacular films of the early French sound era, including Raymond Bernard’s Wooden Crosses (available in the Criterion Collection). He had rebuilt the French film industry following WWI, and his adaptability to new technologies kept it relevant and popular against the onslaught of Hollywood’s vast resources. But with the fall of France to Germany and the installation of the anti-Semitic Vichy regime, the Jewish Natan was subjected to a debilitating whisper campaign that insinuated he was an actor in pornographic films, a charge that has been repeated to this day, despite its virulent origins. He was stripped of his citizenship and sent to Auschwitz, where he died sometime in 1943. The Natan name was scrubbed from Pathé history, and his name is nowhere to be found at the sound studio he built. A work of barely suppressed rage that is also a fine piece of scholarship, it’s the rare talking head documentary that I’d recommend without reservations. You should also check out David Cairns’ movie blog, Shadowplay, which is unfailingly lively and intelligent.


The only director in the series that I had seen work from previously is the Quebecois director Denis Côté, whose dour black comedy Curling (2010) I had enjoyed a few years back. His new feature, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, is a more mysterious and withholding film, while retaining his off-kilter humor. It follows the post-prison life of Victoria (Pierette Robitaille), who moves in with her invalid uncle in a rural Canadian town, enduring the prying eyes of her probation officer while rekindling a relationship with her girlfriend Florence (Romane Bohringer). Florence has a past of her own, however, that shows up with a bloody vengeance. Unfurling like a fissured fable, Victoria uses her forest retreat to tame her insecurities and find whatever self she has left – but that self is invested in Florence, whose life is more out of a Richard Stark novel. In his droll, dreamy long takes Côté establishes that their love is in the past but not behind them, a curse they can’t rid themselves of, as dangerous as the psychotic gangster Jackie and her mute henchmen who’ve got a thing for breaking Flo’s limbs. It’s a love story and a death story which turn out to be the same thing.

There is much more to uncover at this year’s “First Look” showcase, including a history of the electronic Ondes Martenot instrument, Wavemakers, that I’m keen on seeing. But the pleasure of the series is going in blind and encountering the unexpected. Here’s to more surprises in First Looks to come.


January 1, 2013

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The beginning of the New Year means it’s time to catch up with the old. For the second year running the “First Look” series at the Museum of the Moving Image (January 4 – 13) provides an invaluable showcase for undistributed international cinema. Programmers Rachael Rakes, Dennis Lim and David Schwartz pluck adventurous work from festivals around the world, tracking developments in documentary form, the Berlin School, Korean indies and the continuing vibrancy of Portuguese film culture. In a clue as to the series’ disregard of commercial impulses, the series’ opening night film is Hors Satan, the latest by the divisive arthouse provocateur Bruno Dumont. Operating as a relatively youthful version of the New York Film Festival, First Look is an attempt to clue its audiences in to the possible future of the medium.

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If you’re looking for a crime flick alternative to Jack Reacher, you should seek out Thomas Arslan’s In the Shadows, a terse heist film worthy of both Jean-Pierre Melville  and Donald Westlake. Released in Germany in 2010, it has never been shown in the U.S. aside from sparse festival screenings. Arslan has been grouped in the “Berlin School” of filmmakers along with Christian Petzold and Angela Schanelec, as they all attended the German Film and Television Academy in the early 1990s under the tutelage of Hartmut Bitomsky and Harun Farocki (for more on the Berlin School read Marco Abel in Cineaste). Their style tends toward coolly observational reworkings of traditional genres, as last year’s “First Look” selection from the Berlin School, Christoph Hochhausler’s The City Below, rethought the corporate thriller. For In the Shadows, Arslan wrote an original script but is clearly channeling the stoic Melville hero from Le Samourai. The lead actor Misel Maticevic has more than a passing resemblance to Alain Delon, and plays a similar figure of blank professionalism. Known only as “Trojan”, Maticevic stalks through a glimmering Berlin of glass and chrome after being released from jail. Arslan often frames him in the corners of cafe windows, always watching and waiting for a lucrative gig to come his way. If the character is pure Melville the plot is straight from Westlake’s Parker novels, obsessed with the process of executing lucrative small time crimes. Trojan is constantly forming and reforming plans, covering for every contingency, sticking wedges of paper in hotel doors as a makeshift alarm systems and knifing through fights to leave as little evidence of his presence as possible. Arslan would be the ideal candidate to direct Jason Statham in the forthcoming Parker movie, but instead he’s moving on to recast another genre. This year Gold will premiere, his Klondike gold rush Western starring that brilliant blonde axiom of the Berlin School group, Nina Hoss (Barbara).

Another title for Jang Kun-jae’s Sleepless Night could be This is 30. A slender 65 minute reverie about a young married couple, this is a deceptively slight film that trembles with unspoken terrors. An unexceptional couple, the man a factory worker, the woman a yoga instructor, spend their days and nights together as one extended embrace. Actors Kim Soo-hyun and Kim Joo-ryeong ooze pheremonal attraction, each gaze and gentle graze positioned so they fit together like puzzle pieces.  The film uses the standard static camera/long take strategy of too many festival films, but these actors justify the strategy, their movements more than making up for the camera’s lack. The couple’s perennial youth must fade, however, and a hilariously picky post-dinner party argument introduces a fissure in their bond that both soon wish to ignore. The change is registered in their bodies, made clear in a final shot in which the wife looks at the husband, and he is looking at the stars.

Sleepless Night is so lived in, and such a reflection of my own life at this stage, that it feels like a documentary, whereas the actual documentaries on display are more composed and choreographed.  Inori is Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s follow-up to his gorgeous family drama on a Mexican coral reef Alamar, and it continues his ethnographic fascination with outsider communities. This time he follows a shrinking mountain village in Japan in which only the elderly remain. The school has turned into a walk-in clinic and the main occupation is decorating memorial shrines, with the residents seeming sanguine about the prospects of nature retaking their once bustling home. The film is a patient one that simply looks and listens, a recording of the dying light. The HD images are gorgeous, but I could have done without the overdetermined symbolism of one of the final shots – a woman’s face reflected in a ticking clock. Arraianos is Eloy Enciso’s more experimental take on the same material. He also filmed an aging community, this time on the Galicia-Portugal border. Along with documenting their traditional farming techniques and asking them to sing old folk songs, he has the villagers act out scenes from the play “The Forest” by Galician writer Jenaro Marinhas del Valle. These recitations in the forest and bars recalls the quotation heavy late works of Straub-Huillet, but with none of their wit.

One who could never be decried for his lack of wit is Thom Andersen, whose latest filmic essay Reconversion (Reconversao) examines the work of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura. It is an education and a delightful one. Andersen’s fastidious work goes project-by-project through Souto de Moura’s career, traveling to each site as it looks today, providing historical context along with liberal quotes from the highly quotable architect. Souto de Moura is obsessed with the concept of ruins, which he considers the “natural state of the work, a work that comes to an end.” The series excavates another ruin with Xavier (1991/2001), an independent feature started in 1991, completed in 2001, and rarely screened afterward. Director Manuel Mozos was a friend and mentor to director Miguel Gomes, whose miraculous Tabu continues to wend its way across the U.S., and Gomes returned the favor by programming a series of Mozos’ work at last year’s Viennale (Vienna Film Festival). A melancholy no-budget drama about being young and lost, it follows the title character (Pedro Hestnes) as he returns from the army to a life of short-term jobs and shorter-term relationships. Abandoned by his mentally absent mother as a child, Xavier’s impulse is to drift instead of connect. A supreme hangout movie, Mozos shoots on the streets of Lisbon as Xavier and his fuckup pals kill time in cafes and bars, waiting for their lives to begin.

The most indelible entries in the shorts program, Mati Diop’s Snow Canon and Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Eletrodomestica, convey a similar atmosphere of waiting, of the in-between moments that define lives. Diop, best known for acting in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, is also a born filmmaker (her uncle is the Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty). Snow Canon is a uniquely tactile coming-of-age film, set in a cabin in a French Alps resort. Structured around a pattern of inside/outside, a young girl stares idly at the mountaintops out her window, while building an erotic life inside her head. First it is a cute male babysitter, but he is replaced by an American girl, who suffers a breakup and leaves her emotionally raw. Connecting through dress-up and fantasy, the two build an erotic tension that is only made manifest when both step into the fresh air outside, and their dreams briefly come true. Mendonca Filho’s film is a dry run for his stunning debut feature Neighboring Sounds, a rhythmically cut day-in-the-life of a middle class housewife in Recife, Brazil. Satiric where Neighboring Sounds is more observational, Eletrodomestica shows a household that worships technology to the point of absurdity, using it to cook, clean, do homework, and even self-pleasure. The First Look series is nothing if not pleasurable, a refreshingly hype-free and forward-looking fest that has the added benefit of making you look smart when one of these immensely talented filmmakers makes the next festival hit.