Mar 15, 2015

An Insider's Film Festival: New Directors/New Films

One of the standout documentaries at New Directors/New Films is Stevan Riley's Listen to Me Marlon.
Native New Yorkers pride themselves in never paying full price for anything—not clothing or theater or opera tickets—and in knowing where to discover a great performer, or to see the work of a future star of the art world. With the advent of the Internet, finding these venues has become easier for everyone, although bargains are harder to come by. The halcyon days of the New York City Opera, and dozens of Off Off Broadway productions, are past, but the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center have preserved one New York City insider event for film buffs, the annual New Directors/New Films festival. (For information and tickets:

ND/NF features art house cinema at its very best—a quirky, eclectic mix of films by young or newly minted filmmakers from around the world. While the $16 per screening “rack rate” may not appear to be a bargain, there are member rates, discounted student tickets and 4-movie package rates, as well as VIP tickets that include events and opening and closing night screenings. Both venues, Titus 1 at MoMA, and FSLC’s Walter Reade, are terrific theaters with stadium seating and good sound systems. From March 18th to the 26th, twenty-six features and sixteen shorts will screen at ND/NF by filmmakers who represent over a dozen countries including India, Israel, Japan, Georgia, Tunisia, Canada and the United States.

Nellina, one of the stars of an excellent documentary-narrative hybrid, Simone Rapisarda Casanova's The Creation of Meaning.
This is a still of Pacifico, the Tuscan shepherd at the center of The Creation of Meaning. In a quick shot of Pacifico's kitchen there is a snapshot of Nellina as a foal.

Now in its 44th year, ND/NF screens narrative and documentary films, and quite often, movies that meld these forms. This year’s hybrid is The Creation of Meaning, Simone Rapisarda Casanova’s delightfully contemplative tale of a Tuscan shepherd whose livelihood is threatened when his grazing meadows are included in an estate sale. From the sublime to the sanguineous, ND/NF’s horror films include Shim Sung-bo’s Haemoo, and Viktoria Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight, Mommy. Haemoo is not about the eponymous girl, but rather a psychopathic sea captain. Goodnight, Mommy, follows two boys who fear that their mother’s reconstruction surgery has altered more than her face. Sci-fi movies are also on ND/NF’s slate this year, including Kornél Mundruczó’s White God which, despite its glacial narrative, picked up the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, and Yohei Suzuki’s Ow, about a dark, hovering ball that hypnotizes everyone who gazes at it.

While ND/NF features an impressive number of women filmmakers, none of their movies are meaningful stories about women’s lives. Laura Citarella and Verónica Llinás’s fly-on-the-wall documentary, Dog Lady, is about a woman who lives rough, although we never learn why. Sarah Leonor’s The Great Man is a well-acted, but predictable story of  immigrants who hope to gain French citizenship by joining the Foreign Legion. Britni West’s Tired Moonlight meanders through the lives of Montana residents in search of something they cannot find among the ubiquitous goatherds, and Salomé Alexi’s Line of Credit reveals the effects of a new capitalist society on small business owners in the former Soviet state of Georgia. Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl is about a young woman who decides to have her first love affair with an older man, her mother’s boyfriend.

Nira stands ready to record the spoken poetry of her young student poet in Nadav Lapid's The Kindergarten Teacher.
Ironically, it is Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher that presents the best female hero of the festival. The eponymous educator becomes obsessed with her gifted student, a five year-old poet. In this allegorical tale, Nira strives to preserve her soul and that of a reluctant boy against a harsh world devoid of eloquence. Nañita (grandmother), the co-star of Oscar Ruiz Navia’s gentle coming-of-age movie, Los Hongos, runs a close second to Nira for female presence. Set in Cali, Colombia, the film follows a pair of teenage artists, but it is Navia’s skillful photography, excellent score, and picture and sound editing, that distinguishes it among ND/NF’s narrative features.
This still from Oscar Ruiz Navia's beautifully directed movie Los Hongos is of its two stars. A co-star, the grandmother of one of the boys, and a force of nature, nearly steals the film, but unfortunately, there is no shot of her among the press materials.
Charles Poekel’s Christmas, Again deserves an honorable mention for a holiday tale that eschews the usual sentimentality. It is about a young guy with a broken heart whose name is Noel. Stevan Riley’s Speak to Me Marlon is the standout documentary, based on a trove of audiotapes that Marlon Brando recorded in the course of his lifetime. (See my colleague Richard Porton’s interview with the filmmaker here: A delight for Brando fans, it is also a study in biographical documentary, a genre that too often lionizes its subjects. While Riley does some of that, he lets Marlon do all the talking.