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.