Bright Lights Film Journal

A Handful of Keepers: The 40th New Directors/New Films Festival

“Kudos to the Vegas for showing not only the grimness of hustling, but also the ordinariness. As Clemente dresses, his middle-aged, matronly partner puts on her reading glasses to count the cash.”

Although there were more misses than hits at the 40th New Directors/New Films Festival, the selection committee deserves high praise for its far-flung choices (from 27 countries). ND/NF makes a strong argument for festivals with a narrow focus, especially those that highlight new talent. By definition, the fest is generally low on the celebrity wattage, which these days, sadly, feels about as close to subversion as a film festival can get.

Organized by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the ND/NF has the excitement of a much larger festival, especially when, as the highly selective cull below shows, the result is excellence.

In Outbound, director and co-scripter Bogdan George Apetri follows prisoner Matilda (Ana Ularu) on a 24-hour leave to attend her mother’s funeral. Bidding a quick and bitter farewell to her mother, Matilda tries to call in old debts, collect her 8-year-old son and skip out of Romania before her furlough ends. On-screen for nearly the entire time, Ularu gives a vulnerably tough performance, her character the most likable among a group of unsavories, including her former lover (the excellently crooked Mimi Branescu) and her venal son (Timotei Duma). The bad-to-worse events never feel forced, and the script offers mercifully little back story. Outbound works largely because of Ularu. She conveys Matilda’s meager talent for straight life or even joy. Nearly always scowling, Matilda seems (and with reason) habitually on the defensive. Apetri’s verve and lively pacing are reminiscent of 13 Tzameti, and like that film Outbound wears its political commentary lightly. There’s little specifically Romanian, but much expressly contemporary, about Matilda’s doomed tale.

Things are less desperate in Memory Lane, though doom hovers nearby. Director and co-writer Mikhael Hers has a delicate touch, allowing this story of late-young adulthood to build slowly. Set during an August lull in the comfortable Parisian suburbs where Hers grew up, Memory Lane pivots on a very gradual love affair between Vincent (Thibault Vinçon) and Christelle (Dounia Sichov). They’re members of a band and part of a tight-knit group of friends on the verge of true — and inevitably alienating — adulthood. Though the group has center stage, Hers spends some time on Vincent’s middle-aged, single mother (Marie Rivière), who also finds herself at an emotional crossroads. Friendship rather than romance takes precedence, and Hers is very good at showing the strength in such bonds, the parallel world an affectionate group of friends can create. They joke and tease, but they’re careful with each other, too. Hers also knows how to shoot a love-scene with real intimacy and humor (a knack far too few seem to have mastered), Vincent and Christelle’s coupling as believable as the gold standard in Late Marriage. Juxtaposed with this is the collapse of Raphaël (Thomas Blanchard), unable to pull himself out of serious self-destruction despite the efforts of the group. With its intelligently attractive cast, relatively solvable problems, and suburban homogeneity, Memory Lane could seem like nothing more than a bout of premature nostalgia for simpler times. But Hers’s gauzy method reveals an almost bleak tale about the loneliness that lurks at any age and among even the best of friends.

Footage that lay dormant in the cellar of Swedish Television for 30 years, music and audio interviews make up Göran Hugo Olsson’s Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. Set up chronologically, the archival footage gives a refreshingly unironic, untweaked view of a group still greatly misunderstood in the States. Alongside footage of Panther leaders Stokley Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and Huey P. Newton are more quotidian reports on the Panthers’ school breakfast programs and health clinics, their political organization, and what it was they sought to change. The Swedish team were interested, curious, and sympathetic, their access seemingly wider than American media at the time. Particularly valuable is an extended conversation with Angela Davis on violence as a fact of young black life. Her comments provide a useful context for understanding how the movement arose from circumstance rather than theory and that the circumstances were far more homegrown than most Americans cared to admit. Additionally, Mixtape highlights the internationalism of the Panthers, their interest, as they became more organized, to align with similar parties elsewhere. In posing questions about America’s most fundamental political institutions and policies, the Panthers made heavies like Walter Annenberg uneasy. With Nixon in the White House and Reagan running California, the writing was on the wall as early as 1972. Unfortunately, the contemporary commentary Olsson chose largely shies away from analysis in favor of self-evidence and even occasional blandness. The film would have benefited with a lot less of Erykah Badu and a lot more of Kathleen Cleaver and Abiodun Oyewole. There’s also an extended excursion into TV Guide‘s campaign against “anti-American Sweden,” which was prompted by sympathetic reports on the Panthers. Mildly amusing and certainly reflective of a certain kind of anti-anti-American vigilance, the sequence feels like a swollen footnote. Flaws aside, though, Olsson does supply a needed historical record, absent the hysteria still prevalent when the American mainstream deals with the Panthers.

Natalia Almada’s documentary El Velador uses a lavish cemetery to show the grotesque damage done by Mexican drug trafficking. Almada follows Martin, a middle-aged night watchman at the Sinaloan cemetery, the only dialogue snatches of conversation and radio news. Martin patrols among the graves of many of Mexico’s biggest drug dealers. A worker envies the chandelier he’s installing in one of the many showy monuments, the mausoleums replete with miniature glassed-in patios and marble floors. Children play among the newly dug graves, and a fruit vendor does some business. The permanent residents are mostly under 30, some still in their teens, their final resting place a strange collection of miniaturized villas and palaces. As the sun sets, an all-night party gets underway, replete with gunfire. From sunset to sunrise, Almada captures the artificial order of the graveyard, its sterile calm the flipside to the mayhem too familiar from the evening news. By avoiding violent images and focusing instead on this lifeless monument to the glitter and baubles that money can buy, Almada makes a powerful statement about the underlying values that allow such a virulently remunerative business to flourish, taking a huge toll on the living and the dead.

On a much lighter note, Anne Sewitsky’s Happy, Happy centers on Kaia (Agnes Kittelsen), a resolutely happy housewife who lives, with Eirik (Joachim Rafaelson) and their school-age son, Theodor (Oskar Hernaes Brandsø), in the Norwegian backcountry. Their quiet lives change irrevocably with the arrival of their new renters, a city couple, Elisabeth and Sigve (Maibritt Saerens and Henrik Rafaelsen), and their Ethiopian adoptee, Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy). While Theodor teaches Noa how to play slave — “I can do anything. Even kill you.” — the adults find their own ways to misbehave. Rejected by Eirik as too unattractive for sex, Kaia is only too ready to fall into an affair with Sigve, though that’s only the first of many permutations these couples will try until they finally get things right. Each vignette is broken up by a male a capella quartet, whose musical counterpoints to the ridiculous action owe more than a little to Dennis Potter, though Sewitsky’s filmmaking is closer to Agnès Jaoui. Screenwriter Ragnhild Tronvoll is adept at the alpha posturing between men, and she’s even better at the peculiarly female gambit of fake support. Elisabeth, for example, appears to champion Maia’s dream of singing in the local chorus, all the while engineering her public humiliation. The actors all deserve high marks, but Kittelsen outdoes herself, showing Maia as ridiculous yet sympathetic — and relentlessly upbeat.

By far the most indelible feature was Daniel and Diego Vega’s Octubre. Set in one of Lima’s marginal neighborhoods, it concerns Clemente (Bruno Odar), a second-generation pawnbroker who works out of his austere flat. A sign advising “wait your turn” serves as decoration above the plain table where he makes his deals. Middle-aged Sofia (Gabriela Velásquez), deeply religious and hoping not to wind up alone, lives around the corner. If he’s lonely, Clemente heads for the seedy local tavern or the ratty local brothel. (Kudos to the Vegas for showing not only the grimness of hustling, but also the ordinariness. As Clemente dresses, his middle-aged, matronly partner puts on her reading glasses to count the cash.) When Clemente finds an infant in his apartment one day, allegedly his, he sets out to find the prostitute mother. Sofia quickly steps in, producing, nearly from thin air, a stroller and clothes for the baby. Combining the mystical October processions in honor of the Lord of the Miracles — in which Sofia, dressed in traditional purple, takes part — with squalid scenes of Clemente’s search, the Vegas present a story both starkly funny and touching. Though it’s not exactly like any one of his novels, the feel of the film reminded me of José Saramago. The Vegas have a similar ability to merge ordinary life with the bizarre, while neatly avoiding dreadful zaniness or cloying absurdity. This is a plain story in which extraordinary things happen, an improbable yet utterly believable tale of a man falling into family life. Octubre manages to ground itself in reality while suggesting, without any particular dogma, the deep mysteriousness of unromantic love.