New York Film Festival 2014
The Film Society of Lincoln Center
September 26 - October 12
New York, NY
Some Films To See:
Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait
Dir: Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan
Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait is an extreme and remarkable anti-war piece on the war in Syria. This is a modern day J’accuse, Abel Gance’s polemical film of 1919 which railed against the horrors of World War I, or, as one viewer described it, Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait is a “Guernica that moves,” referring to Picasso’s famous 1937 painting of a town’s destruction in the Spanish Civil War. All of the film’s parts point to humanity and all of its parts point to inhumanity. Though classified as a documentary, the film is in some sense out of the Essay Film genre. But in many ways, it leaves both genres and acts as an unprecedented combination of personal rendering about destruction as seen by two Syrian filmmakers, Ossama Mohammed (Box of Light ; Stars in Broad-Day Light ), and documentarian Wiam Simav Bedirxan (whose work has been shown but, for safety, under an assumed name). They met online in a dialogue about the Syrian war and Mohammed’s film. As Mohammed had left Syria and was unable to return, Bedirxan offered to take over and send him footage. They began a collaboration so interwoven that the title, “silvered water,” is the translation of Bedirxan’s Kurdish name.
This is both a contemplation on what a film is and a stark exposé of the wrecking of Syria - its people, its country, its daily life. The film drives the audience into brutality almost immediately in repeatedly showing, as a kind of structuring device, anonymous footage of soldiers torturing fighters, young protestors, and civilians. This is set into images taken with a hand held camera as filmmakers, separately walk through various streets, some in Paris, but most in the virtually pulverized landscape of the city of Homs. These scenes are punctuated by explicative narrations that are austere and abstract as well as literary and personal. The film’s sound track, by Noma Omran, adds uniquely to the film’s depth by using mechanical and ambient noises and low voiced Arabic singing of long held notes.
Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait records the two filmmakers’ experiences over a period of about 2 years, breaking up the film into segments that mirror how time is perceived. Beginning with day counts, Sunday, Monday etc, it evolves into weeks, then years, as the war continues and the destruction is so intense there is little left in the experience of living but being alive. The change in directorial eye, from Mohammed to Bedirxan, is also a change in atmosphere as Bedirxan moves through places that are very dangerous and filled with death. Though often empty streets, demolished buildings or city spaces, the space, with the immediate possibility of violence, has a constant feeling of action. Though the film is focused on the Assad atrocities, it becomes a rendition of the total civil war and of war itself. The film continues to open its scope and its structure even as the material world closes down. Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait somehow conveys excoriating violence, rage, hate, helplessness, and terror as well as the extreme attachments to a life lived, to a sense of place and home and to a love of living beings.
This unique war documentary is at once horribly brutal and realistically personal, haphazard and highly constructed, idiosyncratically beautiful and conventionally lyrical. A must see film.
Dir: Yann Demange
The film’s title, ’71, refers to 1971, the year of the film’s story. It is set in Northern Ireland, during, at that point, an already decades long brutal war, euphemistically called “The Troubles” by the British even to this day. The war was not only a direct conflict between the British and the Northern Irish however but was one of complicated factions that fought each other under the rubric of Protestant or Catholic, of which the IRA (Irish Republican Army) was the major name but only one of many parts. Through his research, director Yann Demange discovered how “dirty and how convoluted” the war was and that it was like all such wars, in that, as he described it, it was “messy” and without definition. In ’71 he builds a warring world and sustains it but the hate that occurs in these factionalized and equivocal civil and occupation wars is as material a weapon as any other, a hate visible in the current 2014 wars and, for all its intensity, the hate that’s expressed in ’71 among the characters could have been far stronger.
’71 takes place in one night and follows a newly recruited wounded British soldier, played by Jack O’Connell, who has been left behind by his troop in a Catholic neighborhood and who is hunted by the IRA and others and must rely on strangers to help him. The zone he is in, on the Falls Road in Belfast, a street that divided poor neighborhoods of Protestants and Catholics, was emblematic of the worst civil conflict and occupying army abuses. Specifically a ground zero, the Falls Road remained in the news for decades to come. Demange is an outsider to these conflicts on many fronts but an insider in some respects. French born, with an Algerian father and French mother, he moved with his family to the UK when he was young. In his interview after the NYFF screening, he said that the way he identified with the British occupation of Northern Ireland was through the French colonial occupation in Algeria, which had been his father’s experience. He referenced a few films - particularly Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers [France/Algiers1966], Bloody Sunday [Paul Greengrass, UK, 2002] and Hunger [Steve McQueen, UK, 2008] but didn’t mention the work of Alan Clarke [Elephant, 1989] or Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out. The latter has a similar narrative to ‘71 but in Reed’s 1947 film, it is a wounded IRA-like leader (played by James Mason) who staggers through a single night in a dangerous city looking for escape and relying on people to help him, all of whose motives are complex and self serving.
Demange handles the film like a thriller. There is minimal dialogue and it is shot expressionistically such that the film is framed by open deserted streets, yellow or blackened lighting, running chases (of men chasing men), quick lethal violence and stretches of silence. Demange referred to this pattern as “vital” in creating a rhythm where he countered violence with silence. His purpose was to never try and “up the ante” on previous action because it would only create competition between scenes and would not serve the film. This mix of an underlying but purposeful philosophical understanding of violence and good story telling makes this film a standout.
This film is very well conceived, a tight thriller set in war in Northern Ireland. Its subject of city war, occupation and splintered factions is relevant today and that alone makes it worth seeing.
Dir: Lisandro Alonso
Argentina/Denmark/France/Mexico/USA/ Germany/Brazil, 2014
Jajua, by Argentinean director, Lisandro Alonso, is a series of set pieces in which there is a conventional plot thread of a Danish contractor, played by Viggo Mortensen, searching for a missing daughter in 19th century Argentina. But this thread unravels quickly as the film takes increasingly strange, unexplained turns. Alonso centers the film with two devices – realism and surrealism. The first is rendered by maintaining a realistic sense of the desolate Argentinean landscape where the workers are stationed – and the second is rendered through a structure of vignettes, photographed with luscious starkness, that act as small set pieces, as if little narratives in themselves. There is racism-homophobia in the back-story of a murderous Indian and there are clichés in the theme of lecherous men and sexual women but Alonso creates a world that is as much about the way a narrative links together as it is about the world he depicts. He creates a film that explores how cinema can make those links work on many levels in which the viewer is drawn in and estranged at once.
Strong and visual, this film constructs an unusual story around ideas about history, perception and narrative.
This documentary is a wonderful accomplishment – making its subject, hockey, potentially a niche one, both gripping and likeable. The film takes the story of the Red Army, the Soviet Union’s phenomenal 1980s hockey team, and makes it charming, unnerving, and informative. It reveals the international political and corporate web behind the success and demise of the once unstoppable Red Army team, which dazzled fans and viewers with complex, balletic maneuvers on the ice. The film shows how national identity, in general, is core to sports and portrays how the USSR, needing a strong national identity after the degradations of WWII, evoked it obsessively through sports from the 1950s on.
Polsky was once himself hockey player and is a friend of one of the main Red Army players, Slava Fetisov. Polsky builds the film around contemporary interviews with Fetisov who, after years in the Red Army team, played for the NHL, and eventually returned to Russia to become the Russian Sports Minister in the early 2000s. Fetisov, charismatic and down to earth, conveys, in his attitude, some of the film’s key themes – perseverance, the concept of teamwork as “creativity” and of learning a skill by understanding the skill found in other mediums.
Polsky makes his subject relevant to almost any viewer- a feat in itself - and the film will appeal to everyone.
In Timbuktu, the Malian city is slowly dominated by Sharia-minded, armed men. They crush customs such as dancing, singing, and smoking and undermine traditions such as marriage rules by the imposition of draconian laws and punishments. In order to both portray the penetration of fundamentalism in North Africa and make the film a general observation on what any violent infiltration is like, Sissako deliberately simplified the film, shaping it around small scenes of these censoring incidents with a sub-narrative of a desert family who are drawn into a Sharia trial through a murder. Sissako, in the NYFF press interview, described this simplicity as the most effective way to complicate the easy definition of such a Sharia infiltration. As he put it- “Jihad is just like us. Maybe that’s their real danger. Every person has humanity and when he loses it, something happens.”
This parable film, though rendered more conventionally, reflects similar giant themes that Sissako portrayed so well in Bamako (2006), that is: a court case, eclectic groups of people effected directly by imposed law, and the customs in daily life. But in Timbuktu, he creates a far larger palette by filming the central murder in a wide shot frame so that the people become tiny parts of a huge natural world. The scene is almost at the center of the film and has a haunting penetration of its own.
Sissako’s film is a valuable perspective on both cinema and politics.
A film to see.