New York Film Festival 2017
SEPTEMBER 28 – OCTOBER 15, 2017
The Film Society of Lincoln Center,
New York, New York, US
Some films to see:
FRANCE/SENEGAL/BELGIUM/ GERMANY/ LEBANON, 2017
An ingenious, hard hitting, inventive, thoughtful and inviting film, Félicité, directed by Alain Gomis, is narratively about a woman’s search for money to pay for her teenager’s operation and the relationship that she builds with a man she becomes close to during this time. However, the film, perhaps more directly, is configured by Gomis’s use of sound. He repeatedly returns to the scenes of the Congolese Kasai Allstars’ 25 piece orchestra, and a choir, whose voluptuous high music and singing floats through the film as if it is the true structure that holds the story together. In interview Gomis, a Seneglese, born in Paris, stated that he wanted to use sound as almost an image itself, taking the view that “sound is the depth of the image.” He regards Jean Vigo as influential on his attempts to achieve this conceit but recognizes his greatest influence, whom he calls “the master,” as Djibil Dion Mambety, one of cinema’s most innovative directors. Much of the film is set in a small club, where Félicité sings until the shock of her son’s situation makes her virtually mute. Much of these scenes and those with the Kasai Allstars are lit in blue tonalities, as if the music and the blue hues are in sync. This repeats in the blue scarf, which Félicité wears more and more as she begins to come to terms with her son’s wounds. Gomis layers his film through color tones, wordless scenes, and musical imposition as much as through the core narrative story. New comer, Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu, who plays Félicité, is often on screen, often in close up, and is so compelling an actor that her absorbing presence seems to be another way that Gomis structures the film. Filmed in Kinshasa, the impoverished capital of the violent Congo, Félicité was made with a Congolese crew and actors. Though Gomis didn’t know the language, he didn’t take it as a liability rather he felt that the situation “opened his mind,” giving him more creative possibilities. This same openness appears in his conception of the film as a potential tool, a way to start a dialogue about living conditions because “you need a mirror to build society.”
A remarkable film, nuanced and individual, winner of the Berlinale’s Silver Bear and multiple recognitions by the African Movie Academy Awards. Alain Gomis is a filmmaker whose work is strong enough to influence cinema’s current ways of presenting a story.
TROUBLE NO MORE
Filmmaker Jennifer Lebeau shows a unique talent in approaching the difficulty of making a documentary about Bob Dylan’s work during the period (late 70s, early 80s) in which he, very publically, avowed new Christian faith. She makes the film extremely simple, using only three structures: grainy video footage of a Dylan concert in Canada’s Toronto and in Buffalo, in New York state, during a 1979-80 tour; close ups of actor Michael Shannon playing a minister sermonizing; the words of writer Luc Sante, who wrote the sermons. Shannon in interview described a southern childhood and familiarity with the faith of devout Christians, including in his family, and Sante spoke of intensive research into the sermons of an early 20th century African American preacher. Shannon’s lines are focused on specific Biblical declarations about attitudes and Lebeau films him in a church’s close quarters, in never exactly the same place, under stained glass windows, with toned down lighting. Shannon speaks in a low, persistent, insistent voice but the atmosphere is mellow as well as strenuous. Sante, a writer with a reputation for a clear, elegant use of words, in depth research and an ability to bring exciting ideas to old topics, wrote a strong, straight script, which acts as a bulwark in its homiletic adamancy that plays against the soft simplicity in which Shannon is filmed. Dylan’s footage, red toned, grainy, quick, and loud, stands out against these other parts, and in this way Lebeau gives the entire film to Dylan, standing back from putting too personal a mark of her own on it. She tries to approach the faith-dominated part of Dylan’s career not by explaining it but by only giving it a context and she leaves it to stand on its own, giving room for any other kind of interpretation of Dylan’s faith and music to follow. In this sense, Lebeau makes room for faith as a thing in itself, felt in many ways, and she sets up the film as virtually a parable form – plain, direct and made through juxtaposition.
An inventive film focusing, with strength and simplicity, on Dylan’s tour.
LET BRIGHT SUNSHINE IN
Claire Denis creates a seamless film that moves in and out of time sequence, following a series of encounters/ affairs by a woman, played with a captivating, almost palpable sense of being present by Juliette Binoche. Denis films her in multiple close ups and there is a symbiosis between actor and director that is very affective. Denis almost always uses a cut up approach to structuring her film’s narrative and here it is played out with supple ease as the film flows through Binoche’s various relationships. These are done, in lush tonal color, in simple vignettes, often as a conversation, in which the camera moves around the players. Binoche and the men are portrayed as uncertain about what they want and insecure about their real feelings, and all seem driven by a narcissistic immediacy but Binoche’s character, the film’s center, reveals discomfort and desire in a mix that also suggests that she questions herself. Denis often prefaces these encounters with information that colors how the scene is perceived, making the film a kind of Chinese puzzle, unclearly opening and closing in a series of meetings that never seem to finally close and, in fact, reopen. The film’s end, in which the credits appear while Gerald Depardieu speaks an almost interior monologue, is not a cap to the film but rather an open ending. During this sequence, it becomes even more difficult to read the action or to assess the truthfulness of the speakers but, by the finish, the film has made it comfortable to feel uncertain. A feat in itself!
A fascinating film, one of Denis’s best with one of Binoche’s best performances.
AGNES VARDA & JR
In Faces Places, artist JR, whose gigantic images of faces have a way of playing between the innocuous and the radically political, and filmmaker Agnes Varda create what seems to be a document of their travels together and their projects together, in which they learn from each other’s art. But the film becomes a mystery, at points, where it seems to be, instead, almost a total art piece, deliberately contrived to draw the audience in one direction only to become something else. In interview, both JR and Varda however reveal that many of the situations in the film are exactly what they appear to be and their interest in one another is based in a happiness of loving what art can do. In interview, Varda talked of needing, as a filmmaker, “to look at,” meaning to really use your eyes to see life and the film somehow presents this as a sub motif. The film keeps the viewer, oddly, off center. The end, in particular, where Varda and JR go to meet Varda’s old friend Jean-Luc Godard, is a strange moment, difficult to decipher, as that scene’s tone is so different from the film’s giddiness. The film is deceptively plain because it continues to reverberate long after its over.
Two artists of different generations stir the art pot in a fun and strangely solemn film.
FOUR SISTERS: THE HIPPOCRATIC OATH, BALUTY, NOAH’S ARC, THE MERRY FLEA
89 MIN, 64 MIN, 68 MIN, 52 MIN
These four films, filmed in the 1970s, are each hour-long individual interviews with four different women (not literally sisters but sisters in experience) who lived through internment in Nazi concentration camps. Claude Lanzmann films each person in a welcoming environment, such as a seaside or a room full of green plants. The interviews are piercing and riveting and also full of life as the combination of each woman’s energy and her ability to put her experience clearly into words is unique and this, as much as anything else, sets these interviews apart from others like them. The women are asked to recount their memories of their lives, from the 1930s leading up to their capture or ghettoization by the Germans, and how they and their families dealt with the terror, what happened during the incarceration, after liberation, and after their return to their homes or to a life in a new country. Lanzmann encourages each person to speak in great detail and somehow, as in all his films, the details in these stories are so intensely personal that the history comes alive and the way each woman speaks merges with what she says in such a way that the story, even if heard in other similar war stories, becomes distinct, clear, unforgettable.
Must see films.
Lanzmann’s four interviews are piercing, riveting, and full of energy of each woman.
Actor Vanessa Redgrave, who throughout her career has used her fame to speak out about political issues, made the documentary, Sea Sorrow, as a way highlight the Catch-22 situations in which refugees in today’s Europe are trapped. She compares the millions fleeing wars in the Middle East and North Africa to those who were displaced in World War II, drawing on her own experience as a child evacuated from London to the countryside (though these were very different circumstances). As a way to bracket the filming of the chaotic terrors of today’s refugees, Regrave returns to WWII references and actors reciting Shakespeare speeches. The title is taken from Prospero’s lines in “The Tempest,” when he explains to his daughter that when she was a baby he was forced into the sea in an unstable boat to escape from people trying to kill them both. In interview Redgrave showed a bitter attitude toward those who don’t stand up for the complexity and grief of the experience of displaced people. The film can be choppy but it proves Redgrave’s point that so much of activism is just in persistence and her film is another piece in that persistence.
A film about the treatment of Europe’s refugees today, using World War II and Shakespeare as points of departure.
THE STORY OF G.I. JOE
The New York Film Festival’s retrospective of Robert Mitchum’s films was a welcome side bar to the festival, replete with films that showcased Mitchum’s intense acting range. One of Mitchum’s most remembered roles is in William Wellman’s 1945 film, The Story of G.I. Joe, set in Italy during World War II. President Eisenhower (who was a general during the war) extolled The Story of G.I. Joe as “the greatest war picture I’ve ever seen” because he felt it was true to war’s reality. Based on journalist Ernie Pyle’s dispatches, which were the foundation of his Pulitzer prize winning book, The Story of G.I. Joe, as well as on the Pulitzer prize winning cartoons by Bill Mauldin, this film focuses on the emotional impact, through multiple incidences, of the war on the in-combat, on-the-ground enlisted man. Pyle focused on the real lives of the privates in combat and Mauldin specialized in that world, his funny drawings of real situations highlighting the privates’ experiences - in danger, hungry, sleep deprived, wet, uninformed, trudging and fighting through miserable terrains, and, at times, neglected or exploited by command. Some commanding officers tried to suppress the cartoons but it was impossible as Maudlin’s work was enormously popular among the corps and across the nation. Mitchum plays a lieutenant who leads his men through bombed out villages and landscapes. There is no dramatic build up to a central incident. The film moves with the movement of the men. Wellman, who began his career in the silent era, memorably directing the award winning Wings, shows the talent of a silent screen director in his use of silence, minimal dialogue, the close up and framing.
An extraordinary war film, made during WWII, realistic and stylized, which should be accessible to all (it’s an expensive DVD) and publicly screened often.