Now in its 43nd year, the renowned New Directors/New Films festival, presented jointly by The Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, introduces New York audiences to the work of emerging or not-yet-established filmmakers from around the world. With a focus on diversity, original narratives, and outstanding direction, the programmers from MOMA and the Film Society selected features by innovative film makers from recent film festivals but also from individual submissions. 27 features and 13 shorts from 29 countries were selected. The widespread thematic range of the features and documentaries frequently crossing genres covered thrillers, comedies, race relations, political conflicts, social and sexual divisions as well as productions breaking the dividing lines of traditional and documentary film making such as, ‘A Spell to Ward off Darkness’, ‘20,000 Days on Earth’, and ‘We Come as Friends’.
Among my favorites films were, TRAP STREET, Vivian Qu (China, 2013): A surveyor’s assistant falls in love with a young women not realizing that she is employed by a secret government lab. His life is turned upside down when authorities suspect him of treason and he enters a Kafkaesque paranoid universe. Presumed guilty by the interrogators he does not know what the charges are. Qu presents a courageous perspective on an innocent being trapped and victimized by security services in contemporary China. Yet in her subdued narrative she avoids melodramatic accounts and follows the passage and reaction of the assistant surveyor. A SPELL TO WARD OFF THE DARKNESS, Ben Rivers & Ben Russel, (Estonia / France, 2013): A three part marvelously filmed voyage through a remote communal setting in Estonia recording young parents and their children at play, the protagonist Robert Lowe a musician spending time in the Finnish wilderness, to a sojourn in a Norwegian music hall with a black metal rock band. The three contexts of the film, the commune, isolation in nature, and the musical performance seem juxtaposed yet flow into each other and present the search of an individual for elements sustaining his identity. YOUTH, Tom Shoval, (Israel & Germany, 2013): An intriguing story of twin brothers trying to save their family’s home by kidnapping a girl from an affluent background for ransom and hiding her in an abandoned bomb shelter of their apartment building. They run into unexpected obstacles, the girls is from an orthodox background and on the Sabbath no one answers the kidnappers’ phone calls with ransom demands, her parents do not miss her since she always spends weekends with friends, funds from her credit card can only be drawn in a very small amount, and there is great pressure since the older brother has to return to his army post on Monday. We have an excellent psychological portrait of the brothers, their strained relation and the realistic depiction of a family under duress. A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, Ana Lily Amirpour (USA, 2014): This Iranian vampire movie with an original spell binding concept driving it is set in the bizarre and surreal underbelly of a fictional bad city inhabited by low level outsiders, petty criminals, drug addicts, and prostitutes. The female part time vampire is engaged in robbing her victims but also getting romantically involved with a young man trying to leave the area. A ditch filed with dead bodies shown several times mirrors the down beat mood of the story. Superbly photographed in contrasting black and white well composed shots, the film conveys nocturnal gloomy scenarios with its appealing few characters. WE COME AS FRIENDS, Hubert Sauper (France/Austria, 2014): A powerful witty yet depressing documentary style exploration of the new colonialism in Africa as shown through American missionaries, corporate interests and corrupt governments. Religious self-involved Texan preachers and their ignorant families try to save the natives with Jesus, seemingly naive UN workers stand by, and exploitative Chinese corporate managers complete the scene. The ‘natives’ receive clothing and are instructed with solar powered bibles while their indigenous mores are destroyed. Land is taken by unscrupulous investors from Asia and the West with the cooperation of local corrupt government officials. As noted by Sauper the South Sudan president recently requested the return of $4 billion stolen by his officials. The outsiders are grabbing the future of Africa and as the local saying goes “the moon belongs to the white man”. We Come As Friends is an impressive and convincing presentation of the problematic path carved today by outsiders for many Africans, certainly up to par with Sauper’s acclaimed 2004 documentary Darwin’s Nightmare. 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (UK, 2014): Playing subject and object in this experimental docu-fiction production the musician and actor Nick Cave narrates an imaginary day of his life offering a unique biopic on his artistic creativity and self-obsession. It consists in part of apparent deceptions, following the trajectory of his memory which may or may not be correct. The incorporation of documentary elements and personal episodes such as a therapy session has a compelling attraction, though the audience for the film may be mostly his fans. STORY OF MY DEATH, Albert Serra (Spain/France, 2013): Focusing on the legendary figures of Casanova and Dracula Serra offers over two and a half hours an unconventional interpretation. In the first part of the film an erudite, rational and philosophizing Casanova engages in carnal pleasures maintaining an upbeat presence while in the second part of the film the prince of darkness, Dracula a somber, quiet, emotion less yet grotesque romantic figure seduces and turns the three women of the rustic farm where Casanova is staying. A wolf pack kills Casanova’s servant at the end. Casanova is dying and Dracula well and alive. Serra makes full use of his cinematographic skills providing cryptic allegorical and surreal imagery in superbly staged 18th century candle-lit settings.
The 2014 edition of New Directors / New Films certainly delivers on its promise, the introduction of innovative ground breaking films to a discerning public.