Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix






---Directors Ken Jacobs (Reichstag 9/11) and César Vayssié (UFE) at MoMI’s 6th Annual First Look Festival, January 2017

Avant-garde reality comes to Queens

By Nora Lee Mandel

Adventurous and avant-garde cinema just visited my home borough of Queens at the 6th Annual First Look Festival of the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI). Intriguing short and longer American and international films from almost 20 countries were showcased. Programmed by MoMI’s Chief Curator David Schwartz, the two weekends in wintry January brought many of the filmmakers for their New York premieres, some from the French summer film festival now known as the Festival International de Cinéma Marseille, the 27th FIDMarseille, along with the Festival Director Jean-Pierre Rehm. "The Feed" selections reflected its original focus on experimental documentaries/documentary-like, that were set off by compelling new works by masters and creative debuts.

The festival films notably expanded the documentary genre:
Realistic fiction (with professional actors in After the Storm and non-professional cast in Sincerely);
Visual abstractions of reality (in striking new work by Ken Jacobs and international avant-garde shorts);
Toggling between fiction and reality (Animals Under Anaesthesia and Out There);
Re-staged reality (Between Fences and Silêncio);
and Looking at documentary subjects in marvelous new ways: people and places: (Territory; Boone; Balloonfest; A Model Family in a Model Home; two lives in Croatia; and, two especially for cinéphiles (Helmut Berger, Actor and How I Fell in Love with Eva Ras).

So Real It Could Be Nonfiction

After the Storm (Umi yori mo Mada Fukaku)


Opening Night celebrated the New York premiere of Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest, and most frankly autobiographical, exploration of adult children adjusting to their parents’ mortality. Originally a documentarian, he has described: “This is a story that takes an intimate look at…people the way they really are.” All the characters are realistically flawed in emotional ways we don’t usually see in restrained Japanese art-cinema. The central son/ex-husband/father Shinoda Ryota (Abe Hiroshi) is a once promising, award-winning novelist with severe writer’s block who now uses his storytelling talents in his day job at a detective agency to spin blackmail scenarios for his spying targets. His commissions could go to his exasperated ex-wife Shiraishi Kyoko (Maki Yoko) for child support to get visits with their young son, but he is in the grip of long scenes of a bad gambling habit, betting on dog races and almost anything when he should be working. He’s a charming, handsome louse.

While Kore-eda’s affectionate and more sentimental Still Walking (2008) faced the last years of his relationship with his father, his elderly mother is portrayed as pushy and interfering by Kiki Kilin, an award-winning actress in her fifth, clearly comfortable collaboration with the director (so it’s too bad she’s not included in any of the publicity stills). For verisimilitude to his memories, he returned to his mother’s run-down apartment development with its abandoned playground (we would call it a NORC – a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community) to film in a tiny apartment just like his hers. Shoehorned together during a typhoon into her apartment that trendy hipsters would call a “micro-unit”, in the best, extended sequences, she aggressively manipulates the estranged couple, dotes on her grandson, snares her daughter-in-law, and shocks her son with frank criticism and rejection of his late father and the annoying traits he shares, which jar oddly with her matriarchal advice: “A stew needs time for the flavors to sink in- so do people,” Though there are key artifacts common to Japanese families that will be unfamiliar to Americans, the nostalgia for childhood experiences and the personalities are universal. Film Movement will release After the Storm March 17 in NYC, March 31 in CA, with further dates around the U.S.

Sincerely (Atentamente)

Also shown the first Festival weekend, Colombian writer/director Camila Rodriguez Triana set a nonprofessional, elderly cast so realistically in a retirement home for the indigent that some viewers think it’s a documentary. Within this very specific setting resonant with aging and loneliness, a finely layered story gradually reveals connections around the portly Libardo. While other residents stare at telenovelas, he steadfastly makes brooms by hand to earn a few hoarded coins, with his sweetheart Alba by his side. (The actors share their characters’ first names, but I have no information if they are the inspiration in any way.)

Debut feature cinematographer Juan David Velásquez’s camerawork is key to establishing their context. Even in absence the mis en scène constantly envelopes the residents: the still camera again and again takes in a silent scene of grieving relatives watching an orderly efficiently strip another empty bed, fold up the clothes and mattress, then remove the name plate. The camera also frequently wanders through the separate men’s and women’s wards in the tropical heat that leaves the residents in languid siestas on their cots. Yet their individuality is set off by romantic sounds – each plays a different genre of past popular music pouring from their old transistor radios into their ears.

Libardo wants so much to get enough cash for a private hotel room with Alba that he interrupts these patterns to plead for money from an apprehensive younger woman in a small waiting room. In several meetings across a wide table, they haltingly reveal their connection through confessions of anger and despair during years apart that may leave you in tears. (At the FID world premiere, this was the favorite selection of the films sent to prisoners.) In fulfilling different kinds of love, each provides a touching lesson in not making assumptions about people’s experiences from appearances, and by how Libardo satisfactorily resolves his relationships with these women.

Visual reinterpretations of reality

Reichstag 9/11 and Other New Films by Ken Jacobs

Legendary experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs is a frequent and welcome guest at the First Look Festival. Continuing to be inspired by his downtown Manhattan neighborhood, he brings his latest short films that demonstrate how the spry octogenarian, over a sixty year career, not just explores new technology, but bends it to his artistic eye. Now that he feels more assured communicating his choices on new digital software through his filmmaker daughter Nisi on the computer, he could finally channel 15 years of sorrow, rage and political protest about the attacks on the World Trade Center down the block from his home and the wars that resulted, with a different technique than his earlier autobiographical, longer video documentary Circling Zero: We See Absence (2002) of his return home on 9/15.

Seen in its U.S. premiere, Reichstag 9/11 (above still) is the first abstract avant-garde film that brought me to tears with its emotional wallop and may be the most beautiful and impactful visual art piece/film to come out of the attack. Too many other artists these days just appropriate free content online or “found footage” and claim their re-edit is somehow significant added value. In 38 minutes (thankfully silent, at his director son Azalel’s recommendation), Jacobs takes chronological stills and video he selected from the internet of one of the most photographed modern tragedies, including images that news and documentaries tend to sensitively shy from since, such as zoomed close-ups of the outline of the plane on the side of the North Tower and the jumping victims, then the reactions of the first responders, and then ashy dust enveloping the streets. (All “the murder” his daughter witnessed close-up that day, as he described in the Q & A.) Each set piece dissolves into paint-like splashes of color, first dominated by the bright blue of the sky that morning, then gradually with more and more red, that the audience can’t help but react to like lurid blood because he wanted “America to feel its own pain”. One need not subscribe to his conspiracy theories of “the new Pearl Harbor” in the startling title (blaming neo-conservatives for instigating war) to be impacted by the intersections of documentary-like footage and abstract expressionistic brush strokes show what he called “a sublime horror”, compared to “people now coming from all over the world to shop there”. I call it a masterpiece.

Considerably more upbeat, his other shorts showed his delight at continuing to explore his downtown neighborhood and subway with his wife Flo and his unjustly obsolete Fuji 3-D camera, which he carries with him everywhere (see photo above at MoMI) to create 3D movement in 2D, edited into repeating rhythms: Windbreaker (2016, 6 mins., World premiere); Cyclops Observes the Celestial Bodies (2016, 16 mins. U.S. premiere); and Popeye Sees 3-D (2014, 22 mins. NY premiere). Jacobs’ perambulations around the city also provided the audio track for the 3-D Ulysses in the Subway, a collaboration with his wife Flo and digital artists Paul Kaiser and Marc Downie, that had its North American premiere at the Museum of Modern Art’s Documentary Fortnight in February (where Jacobs was still making suggestions for changes and improvements).

On Resistance: International Avant-Garde Films & Videos

Guest Curator Mónica Savirón again presented a program of a dozen new and rare short experimental shorts from around the world, many in North American premieres; some about the varied media techniques, some about aesthetics, some about a subject, though the overall theme was not clear at all. Two of the most impressive were documentary interpretations. Peruvian director Diego Lama’s From False to Legal in One Take (De falso a legal en una toma) ironically juxtaposes a depressed low-income neighborhood in Lima down the long street of Jirόn Azangaro to the incongruously colonial Palace of Justice that hugely looms over it. The camera on a drone is appropriately accompanied by LaMonte Young’s four-note droning score. Prospector shows the impact her Montana base and local students have had on artist Talena Sanders, who attended the Festival. She contrasted the irony of historically colonial and more contemporary racist stereotyped images and recordings of those whom Americans both call “Indians” – South Asians and Native Americans. Less translatable to an American audience (and anyone dependent on subtitles) was Mexican filmmaker Annalisa D. Quagliata’s Misters—Without Blame (Ñores—sin señalar). Looking like an angry political tribute to those killed protesting government-sanctioned violence, the montage of issues were drowned out by the ironic use of the song “Veracruz”. German artist Ute Aurand’s Sakura, Sakura (above), from her tour of Japan, also got lost in cultural translation. Elderly women handcrafting colorful embroidery cherry blossoms reflect the country’s centuries of obsession, but the contrast or connection with the black-and-white focus on one woman is not clear.


Much like young children can’t distinguish between reality and their nightmares, Spanish artist Pere Ginard projects the looks and sounds of This Bogeyman (above) in shadows from expired Super-8 film and found footage paired with manipulated sounds that are just intelligible enough to be spookily tantalizing. I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns these images into one of his illustrated books, but not for bed-time reading. In complete contrast, Inside the Inside (L’en-Dedans) is just simply breathtaking beautiful. A posthumous 16mm print made from French artist Philippe Cote’s pinhole camera piece demonstrates how the division of white light into colors can be perceived as more art than science.

Untitled
Austrian director Bjorn Kammerer returned from last year’s retrospective on the Opening Night with a new experimental piece that was another purely aesthetic visual experience. Light played through window blinds for four minutes of feeling the joy of the dancing sun.

Re-staged Reality

Between Fences (Bein gderot)

In two films, powerless people’s experiences are theatrically re-enacted to bring attention to their political invisibility. Through Between Fences (Bein gderot), Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi, who explored his Arab roots as the son of Mizrahi immigrants with an Israeli Arab in Once I Entered a Garden (Nichnasti pa'am lagan) in 2012, movingly documents the efforts of theater director Chen Alon (who is active in the “forgiveness projects” shown in Disturbing The Peace) to reach out to African migrants caught in the No Man’s Land of making it to Israel. The two artists hope to both break the tedium of endless imprisonment through a theater workshop and get word out to liberal Israelis about their risky treks from oppressive Eritrea and war-torn Sudan into limbo immigration status. Their approach is based on Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed that now creates interactive theater in communities “facing oppression” in over 70 countries. Language and cultural barriers have to be broached, and trust established for the Africans to confide their stories while not risking their (usually unsuccessful) asylum claims.

But that’s easy compared to the constant interference of the Israeli authorities in the migrants’ situation. Pressured by international and domestic politics to stop just turning African “infiltrators” back into the desert, the government has rounded up several thousand illegal migrants into the prison service’s desolate Holot (Sands) Detention Center in the Negev, as their court cases grind on to determine if they are refugees. (The Africans’ frame of reference is to call it a refugee camp.) Frustrated at their lack of rights and resolution, the migrants stage demonstrations and speak out forcefully on the lousy conditions. The theater director encourages them to comically imitate their racist and peremptory guards, then to instruct Israeli women volunteers to act out those roles for performance. Interstitial scrolls update the confusing external news about frustrating Supreme Court orders for release of those held for over a year who can’t be repatriated, but sometimes the migrants get rounded up again if they end up homeless in Tel Aviv.

Despite the necessarily disjointed narrative of shifting participants and doubts if the theatrical project can be completed, Mograbi humanistically captures each man’s individual personality by convincing them they do have supportive allies in a country that used to have an idealistic image for ingathering refugees. The documentary was released theatrically in France this month as Entre Les Frontières. With its immediate relevance, it should be seen further; Torch Films is handling non-theatrical distribution. I was sorry that the festival’s conflicting film schedule meant I had to miss German director Philip Scheffner’s Havarie, another film that looks at the refugee crisis, by boat.

Silêncio

French painter Christophe Bisson began making socially conscious documentary portraits in 2008. Silêncio recalls the look of Andy Guérif’s Maestà at last year’s Festival in re-enacting an art historical classic. He sets homeless men and women of the advocacy organization The Voices of Silence in several formal tableaux vivants within the shadows of dark rooms in a ruined palace in Porto, Portugal. Perhaps the problem was confusing subtitles, but the disappearing audience could not tell if their recitations were personal experiences or literary excerpts. What was evidently supposed to be a humanizing portrait seemed like an European intellectual exercise.

Toggling Between Reality and Fiction

Animals Under Anaesthesia: Speculations on the Dreamlife of Beasts

Filmmaking (and life) partners Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky (above at MoMI) have been collaborating at the intersection of fiction and non-fiction films for a decade, since art school. Self-professed “big animal lovers”, their production company is Pigeon Projects and their fiction feature Francine (2012) was set in a pet shop – where they first filmed an anesthetized cat. Their striking looking 14-minute short focuses on animals when they look from the outside at their most restricted, but presumably are at their most free in their interior lives. The viewpoints creatively shift between the excruciating documentary realism of veterinary operating rooms to the thoughts of a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and a pig, in case you’ve wondered about how to prepare swine for surgery. (All the vet staff are very caring.) Through the pets’ distorted lenses at their eyes level, they free associate sights and sounds as the anesthetic takes hold. More like Denis Côté’s Bestiary (2012) than last year’s cartoon The Secret Life of Pets. The directors described it in the Q & A as: “anthropomorphizing, absurdity, pseudo-science, and horror”.

Out There
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Director Takehiro Ito (above left, at MoMI) distinctively explores the impact of American culture on Tokyo and Taiwan through fact and fiction, memory and future, nostalgia and millennial hipness, color and black-and white, in a dizzying array of cinematographic styles. What started out as a documentary about the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang morphed into a collaboration with neophyte actor Chun Chih Ma (in the still and above right, at MoMI) to see his native Taiwan through his and his family’s eyes, then return to Tokyo to enact a fictional romance with a pretty young woman named Ayako (played by Ayu Kitaura). Sound complicated? The long prologue is the audition where the director tries to explain this concept to the young man while eliciting his personal background and philosophical attitudes to shape the story. His anxious producer certainly doesn’t buy into the vague ideas.

In oral history particularly relevant with Taiwan back in the news, Ma interviews his parents, apparently for the first time, about their childhoods on the island after their family had left the mainland at the end of the Chinese civil war. In the 1950’s, Americans had a dominating presence replacing Japan’s occupation. His mother, in tight close-ups, enthuses about her adolescence spent hanging around an American Army base full of modern facilities, rock ‘n’ roll, and Hollywood movies. Many family and friends couldn’t wait to emigrate, and his parents remind Ma, with fraught emotion, how a relative convinced them to leave him in America for school. They draw out his hesitant confession about his unhappiness there. His father speaks sorrowfully about how different their post 9/11 visit was, in a country now suspicious of foreigners, particularly non-white ones. Their contrasting relationships with the U.S. are still in mind in a surprisingly powerful tour of the now abandoned, neglected, and leaking base in what looks like the middle of downtown Taipei, in the slow-gliding architectural cinematography style of Heinz Emigholz. This also makes a strong visual statement about America’s changing foreign policy priorities from the 20th to 21st centuries.

Shifting between these images of Taipei, the director’s native Tokyo looks like it could be restless Ma’s fictional future, in contrast to Japan’s real economic stagnation. Even mostly in retro black-and-white with electronica score and little story-line, it is a place where he can rollerblade fast and freely at night, stroll down narrow streets into the suddenly colorful bright lights of downtown. He takes out his ear buds long enough to meet a pretty girl on a picturesque bridge to walk the seashore together. But like seemingly everything else in his life, that’s left unresolved in more alluring visual symbols than substance.

Documentary Subjects: Places and People

Territory (Territorio)

Director Alexandra Cuesta (above at MoMI) brought her first short, from a decade ago, and her recent film from FID. Recalling Yesterday (Recordando El Ayer) captured exuberant lives of Ecuadorian immigrants in Jackson Heights, nearby to the Museum’s Astoria location, in a nine minute, 16 mm, colorfully impressionistic portrait (in contrast to Frederick Weissman’s recent cinema verité that’s 40 times longer). The richness of their community only takes her seconds to establish, as friends and family greet each other, regular customers shop, and worshippers hurry to church services.

Cuesta brought her camera for her first return to film her native country, from her base at SUNY Binghamton, inspired by following the 1927 Ecuador: A Travel Journal of French artist/poet Henri Michaux. Her HD digital, hour-long film Territorio opens (and leaves) by a small boat, as he arrived, and proceeds to the most rural and isolated areas, from mountains to jungle to ocean, inside places of work, play, and dreaming. But Cuesta’s focus is still on the people, even in these beautiful locales, more intimately and intensely than just a National Geographic photo spread (and there’s no map).

In ever-present heat, the camera stares for extended vignettes at the old, the young, mothers, siblings, friends, market vendors, soccer players wait out a rain delay, and a man digs a well. Filming alone and catching the ambient sound where she was invited in, a few are looking at her, but most are busy watching something or someone else, whether a TV, teammates, a baby, cute boys, or customers. Eschewing the rigidity of avant-garde filmmakers who time their camera shots of locales, she lets the situations observed play out in suspense if there will be a climax. Usually there isn’t – just enjoy the people-watching. She stressed in her Q & A: ”I’m not exoticizing. It’s my country.” I appreciated the close looks at faces and their everyday context, but I didn’t perceive what she called “imaginary geographies”, but perhaps those were clearer when an accompanying art installation is included at other locales.

Boone
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Ever shop at a Farmers Market and think you’d just like to chuck the city and go work on an organic farm? I have cousins who’ve done that, and so did director Christopher LaMarca. But in following laconic Michael “Mookie” Moss to his family-owned Boone’s goat farm in southern Oregon with friends and committed agricultural activists, Dana Kristal and Zachary Jasper-Miller, he also brought his camera. His time investment as a farming apprentice set the ground work for knowing where and when to point his cameras to follow day by day (night by night) a year’s seasonal cycles of the hard labor and never-ending chores it takes to farm, with nothing re-staged, no re-takes, and very little explanatory dialogue. Sunrise to sundown, and many nights when the goats are in labor or a storm threatens, in the muck and the dirt. The audience feels as exhausted as they do, though we are spared the smells, but the ambient sounds plunge you in. LaMarca explained in the Q & A his goal was “for the camera to disappear”.

Inspired by the experiential approach of Lucien Castaing-Taylor at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, such as sheep ranchers in Sweetgrass (2009) and fishermen in Leviathan (2012) (rather than the recent cerebral intellectual approach of Tilda Swinton’s appreciation of “peasant” farming in The Seasons In Quincy: Four Portraits Of John Berger), the camera plunges into the daily chores of the farmers. From milking, planting and harvesting, always dealing with living nature, whether the trees or the goats and dogs. Though this is not a “how-to”/educational type film, we also get brief glimpses into crafting goat cheese manufacture, before loading the containers are loaded onto the truck for the farmers market.

The 75 minutes were whittled down from 500 hours of footage LaMarca sent off to editor/producer Katrina Taylor (who regularly advised on what was needed – both above at MoMI), and I would have liked to see more, even keeping in the same impressionistic style. No Farm-Aid PSA or advocacy fundraiser, a scroll at the end provides basic background information on the farm’s financial difficulties with some bare statements about the regulatory issues they faced in marketing non-pasteurized, organic goat cheese through their Siskiyou Crest Goat Dairy. While the documentary may be a bit too artsy and frank about animal life and death for young children (and chicken flicking, as my grandma used to call it), it is a usefully unromantic portrait for a general audience of the reality behind the locally-sourced agriculture movement. Grasshopper Films will release Boone in theaters after its festival run.

Balloonfest

Nathan Truesdell is a prominent documentary producer and cinematographer (We Always Lie To Strangers) and is active in the non-fiction community. But his new six-minute film isn’t getting into festivals, with Opening Night placement in First Look Fest, just from his connections or for mocking the inanity of local TV news with a montage of clips. His edit of video clips from Cleveland, OH in 1986 hilariously deflates Midwestern Rust Belt empty boosterism in the tale of what happened when the community over-enthusiastically tried a common publicity gimmick to beat a Guinness World Record for an uncommon activity – blowing up and releasing balloons.

A Model Family in a Model Home

Artist/filmmaker Zoe Beloff introduced her vividly educational and insightful 22 minute, 16 mm short with theatrical relish (above at MoMI). Part of a larger multi-media project with art installations and performance pieces, her whole work is detailed, with historical references, drawings, and photographs from international archives, in her beautifully illustrated new book A World Redrawn: Eisenstein and Brecht in Hollywood.

In a situation rich in irony, both Marxist Russian director Sergei Eisenstein in the 1930’s and German playwright Bertolt Brecht in the 1940’s were exiled in capitalist Los Angeles to work on movies, the engine of America’s dream factory for suburban development. Finding a marvelous selection of archival visual material to supplement her amusing puppets reading history, Zeloff’s film contrasts Brecht’s 1947 testimony before HUAC (The House Un-American Activities Committee), in clips plummily narrated by Eric Bentley, with the titular film scenario from his journals, based on a 1941 Life Magazine article “A Model Family in a Model Home”, about a competition-winning family on exhibit at the State Fair as “Ohio’s Typical Farm Family”. Even as she slips in newsreel images of what war-ravaged Europe looked like at this same time, she found additional photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt (then a Life staff photographer), as well as sunny home movies and ads in The Columbus Dispatch (above), to compare to promotional films that offered ups how rural America could have selected alternative homeownership, through the National Rural Electrical Cooperative or a company touting affordable pre-fab houses in Homes Unlimited. (Buckminster Fuller promoted this kind of technological solution, though she doesn’t include his “Dymaxion House” plans.)

In the “Fictitious Capital” conclusion, the view is of malled America, like in Jem Cohen’s Chain (2004) but with a visual emphasis on banks. The closing song “Supply and Demand” beginning “The people need homes. .”, based on Brecht’s The Measures Taken as updated by Hannah Temple, Beloff wonderfully makes the cinematic connection between this past and today’s housing finance crisis.

Portraits of Lives in Croatia

Two shorts were surprising and sympathetic glimpses at the lives of women young and old in Croatia. In just a half hour, documentarian Nebojsa Slijepcevic in Something About Life (Nesto o zivotu) (U.S. Premiere) is able to get us to begin to understand rebellious fourteen-year-old Ivana in a residence for juvenile delinquent girls. Even as the social workers try to get her involved in group activities like drumming, her family home may have been most of her problem.

With A Short Family Film (Kratki obiteljski film), Igor Bezinovic comes close to making fun of the genre, like Documentary Now does, where he and his documentary crew come to a village and the residents try to put their best foot forward, only to fall flat on their faces. Over 20 minutes, Marica chattily tours the crew around her house, but can’t help defending why she deserves to live there on parole -- as long as her former daughter-in-law stays away. As amusing as their family squabbles are, the director may be laughing at her, too.

Both of these shorts were re-shown in the Festival’s Film After Film shorts programs over the holiday weekend, giving more audiences an opportunity to see the excellent shorts selections.

Two For Cinéphiles

Helmut Berger, Actor

American art house movie fans may wonder: “Whatever happened to Helmut Berger?” Berger was the devilishly handsome star of Vittoria de Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) and muse/lover of Luchino Visconti, as seen in such films as The Damned from 1969 (that MoMI showed in 35mm the same day for those who had never seen him in his prime). Director Andreas Horvath said in the Q & A (above) that Austrians don’t wonder about their most famous movie star because he’s a regular on their TV, from talk shows to “reality” shows like I’m A Celebrity. . Get Me Out of Here! So Berger in his 70’s is used to playing a version of himself for cameras that he wants the public to see: an acerbic louche lush who name-drops glamorous designers (he did play the aged version of Saint Laurent in Bertrand Bonello’s recent bio-pic), air kisses European demi-royalty at film festivals, and slips out titillating gossip about actors and actresses he’s known, in many ways.

In unusual personal involvement, Horvath gets more and more frustrated from months and months of filming, until Berger provokes blow-ups with insults and stalling on substance amidst his wheedling demands for suitable glamorous hotel settings. Yet Horvath keeps tape rolling for audio and contextual revelations, especially Berger’s late-night telephone calls where he plans the scenes and structure of the documentary – which Horvath pretty much follows, shrugging that Berger was pretty much the director (including when masturbating for the camera).

But Horvath cleverly gets beyond that calculated reality TV image by restlessly poking around Berger’s pitiful living conditions in his late mother’s crumbling apartment where large signed photos of the likes of beautiful co-stars Romy Schneider look over half-empty booze glasses and boxes of pills. The camera follows Berger’s long-time housekeeper Viola Techt (the film is dedicated to her memory) as she systematically cleans up the mess and sympathetically talks on about his childhood with a difficult mother and his return to her in her last years. While Berger does not have a face to support Norma Desmond’s definition of a movie star, he does have a personality that fills the screen.
”Helmut Berger @HelmutBerger001 Feb 7 [2017 – Reply to] @NLM_MavensNest @MovingImageNYC You love it, this film with is produced without an agreement of Helmut Berger? cut drunken telefonecalls in.” Besides that I didn’t say I “love” the film, Horvath in the Q & A said Berger had seen the film and liked and approved it.


How I Fell in Love with Eva Ras (Kako Sam Se Zaljubio U Evu Ras/Como Me Apaixonei por Eva Ras)

The lengthy making-of discussion of the Helmut Berger doc was so illuminating that I unfortunately missed Serbian director Ognjen Glavonic’s Depth Two examination of a mass crime during the Balkans’ swar. But I did get to feel I saw the cinematic history of another part of the former Yugoslavia in director André Gil Mata’s debut feature, in its North American Premiere.

Sena may be an actual woman projectionist in Sarajevo so this film could be categorized with “So Real It Could Be Nonfiction”; septuagenarian Sena Mujanovic has appeared in documentaries about cinema and daily life in her native city. As this projectionist, she lives in a basement apartment of an old movie theater, timing around the movie schedule her meals, placid interactions with a tenant, the cashier, adult daughter, babysitting her young grandchild, and other visitors, with whom she shares traditional foods. The warmth of the projector even provides heat to dry her laundry hanging around it.

The presumably fictional context is the premise that this theater only shows a set of old movies, the same ones every day on the same schedule by the big clock, all films made about a girl growing up in that area, whose experience at that age parallels what Sena may have gone through for almost all of the existence of Yugoslavia, and since its dissolution. So the first film clips look to be from the Partisan Film genre during the 1960s/1970s about heroic locals defeating the Nazis. Several, but not all, feature the actress Eva Ras, evidently a favorite of Portuguse-born Gil Mata’s from much time spent in a movie theater like this one. (He seems to have that in common with old-movie loving directors like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino). Ras made a couple of films for director Dušan Makavejev that are included in the Criterion Collection (“Free Radical - Eclipse Series 18”). I recognized WR: Mysteries of the Organism, the 1971 political satire of Wilhem Reich’s theory of sexual repression applied to relations with the USSR, and Emir Kusturica’s When Father Was Away On Business (1985) about post-Stalinist Communism (because it starred Mira Fulan of Babylon 5). While I could tell from the credits that the selections were about from the 1960’s to the 1990’s, I was sorry I couldn’t note or find more specifics on the films, especially the ones about the civil war years.

While Sena muses that there is still an audience for these old movies, she is a practical woman living in the present and the light and noise from the big projector manages not to be drenched in sentimental nostalgia.


I regretted that the conflicting schedule this year caused me to miss other films in the series, especially ones where the filmmakers attended, including Toronto filmmaker Kazik Radwanksi bringing his second feature How Heavy This Hammer. I only gave up on one - César Vayssié’s over-long, over-intellectual French political satire UFE (Unfilmévénement) – and I lasted longer than most everyone else in the audience. John Wilson’s presentation of his New York shorts attracted a youthful sell-out crowd that wasn’t all friends and family. I did not have a chance to sample the Festival’s branching out into non-film offerings of audio experiments, virtual reality experiences, as well as a multiplayer video game. But I certainly look forward to the 7th Annual First Look Festival in January 2018.



A version of this review is posted at Film Festival Traveler:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four


2/4/2017; updated 3/3/2017





Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:


Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward and, since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.



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