Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

---Ken Jacobs at MoMI First Look Fest on 1/10/2016

The place to catch a premiere dose of cinéphilia

By Nora Lee Mandel

At the historic Kaufman Astoria Studios complex, where hundreds of silent and early sound era films were produced in my New York City home borough of Queens, the 5th Annual First Look Festival at the Museum of the Moving Image is an adventurous showcase for cinéphiles of almost 50 contemporary and influential international shorts and features, with many filmmakers in attendance each weekend in January.

Opening with the U.S. premiere of Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov's Venice Film Festival award-winner Francofonia, a rumination on the survival of the Louvre’s art during war that Music Box Films will release theatrically this spring, the uniting theme of the array of documentaries, portraits, experimental explorations, new restorations, and visual essays was the loose theme of artists’ self-conscious look at film as a medium.


Ken Jacobs: World Premieres of New Films
I Am the People (Je suis le peuple)
João Bénard da Costa—Others Will Love the Things I Have Loved (Outros amarão as coisas que eu amei)

Ken Jacobs: World Premieres of New Films

How thematically apropos that legendary avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs returned to MOMI to personally premiere new 3-D shorts and his meticulous restoration of his first film, Orchard Street, to the full 27 minute original version. Not seen since 1955, when what he described as an “arty intellectual” audience disparaged his cinema verité tour of the Lower East Side’s lively shopping district, he had been so discouraged that he had cut it down to a 12 minute short and never succeeded in reaching out to a musician for a score. Though it was silent, I was imagining the buzz of multi-lingual conversations and music by the Klezmatics, Steven Bernstein, or John Zorn to accompany this resonant look at crowded blocks on the cusp of change from a Jewish pedestrian space for selling a cornucopia of cheap goods to a car-destination for sentimental suburbanites seeking discounts.

Jacobs recalled filming over several months near his apartment, in rain and shine, with a heavy World War 2-era Bell & Howell camera – and stood up to demonstrate how he would make a movie of the Museum’s Astoria neighborhood, or in the theater itself: "There's films all around us!" His debut film captured one of the last push carts as relegated to rubbish removal and diverse walkers of all ages packed into sidewalks hemmed in by big cars. Just as much as he lovingly lingered on piled displays of colorful produce, clothes (“pants to order” says one sign), and tchotchkes, he also settled on faces -- of serious shoppers, of children, bemused watchers on the upper floors looking from on high over their laundry lines to the surging humanity– and lots of cats. Too often, commentators stereotype this view as just the old Jewish neighborhood, what with glimpses of knishes and the occasional Hassid, but this is a melting pot of bargain hunters. I did spot a couple of signs and stores still there today! Jacobs confessed to staging one repeated shot – of him kissing a young woman by a window. In a contemporary looking sequel, Jacobs last year went back to observe vestiges. He world premiered I’m Telling You, a 12 minute short of one old heckler crassly haranguing another in front of Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery about his dissatisfaction with the changes that have happened around him.

The octogenarian Jacobs was enthusiastic to an appreciative audience (including his nonagenarian colleague Jonas Mekas) about returning to his love of painting by making new 3-D films DIY “with this little Fuji” camera he bought on sale. But the manipulated images by computer-generated special effects can now be easily achieved with off-the-shelf software (and his editor daughter Niri’s programming assistance), both on the street and in his 19 minute subway trip The Lackadaisical Speed of Light, so that despite his iconic reputation as an experimental filmmaker, the looks veered toward gimmicks.

In contrast to these very urban experiences, his new Hydroelectric Dam was a mesmerizing 25 minutes in its 3-D world premiere as an intense immersion into raw nature. With occasional split screens and reverse flows, water and waves are a roaring force. My mind kept playing Woody Guthrie saluting the Grand Coulee Dam lines like "Your power is turning our darkness to dawn", let alone associations to the threat of breaking free to flood. But when the camera pulled back to drive away, this fearsome beast turned out to be contained under a bridge in the middle of Quebec.

I Am the People (Je suis le peuple)

It seemed like the whole world’s cameras were watching Egypt as Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign was overthrown in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammed Morsi was elected the next year, and then General Abd al-Fattah Al Sissi cemented a suppressive counter-revolution through 2014. But the media attention was on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, reflected in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square (Al Midan). Even “Arab Spring” profiles that included some rural folk, such as across six countries in The Trials of Spring, the activists had left for the main protest cities. The voices of the one-third of Egyptians who work on farms, the fellahin who used to be the backbone of the country’s economy, were not heard.

Not only does director Anna Roussillon provide an outlet for these voices, but hers is a unique longitudinal look because she was already embedded with hard-working Farraj and his family on their farm in the Nile Valley when the Egyptian revolution exploded in the city where she grew up, 435 miles to the north. Exchanging fond teases with them in the pastoral prologue, she was documenting their barely modernizing agricultural methods and social traditions slowly playing out against the backdrop of lush palm trees, flying ibises, and the ancient temples of Luxor in the distance. She would come to visit every few months and stay awhile, as he spent long days knee deep in mud in the hot sun and trying to repair an old irrigator, the female folk pounded flour into bread, and his kids did their school homework. (Who is in the extended family or are neighbors is a bit confusing.) Though Farraj had returned from a university education back to the land, he hopes for better for them, including his daughter. At night, they relax watching soccer and music videos on TV, through the periodic electrical black-outs. (The title comes from a song by his favorite actor/singer Oum Kalthoum.)

Farraj cynically has no great expectations when the government first disparagingly reports on the demonstrations in Tunisia, and his kids, significantly, see no potential connection to their daily lives. Though Roussillon claims she was just capturing what played out around her, she has a profound influence on him when she hands him her laptop with uncensored news from Cairo. Taking over the TV, he eagerly gets more and more involved in watching the satellite channels and enthusiastically buys bigger and better configured equipment. His elderly neighbor still believes the propaganda on the only channel he sees, and Farraj is sympathetic that the political turmoil is hurting the tourist trade the people of Luxor need. But as happy as he is by the birth of another child, he looks more excited at the novelty of a village pre-election parade that proves the revolutionary fervor extended to rural areas. Confessing how discouraged the farmers were by years of sham democracy, backed by the U.S. and Europe he pointedly notes, when no one bothered to vote yet corrupt local leaders would declare huge victories, he supports whoever is the least associated with the past government, which is the Muslim Brotherhood.

It just takes the image on TV of the general taking over to reinforce that Farraj’s cynicism was unfortunately well-founded, even before the satellite channels were shut down in 2013. Roussillon successfully crowdfunded to finance Farraj’s first trip out of the country in January to accompany her at screenings around Paris. I’m sure he appreciated getting some good news in this sad year for Egyptian politics. But, to appropriate an Arab image, Roussillon intimately convinces us that the genie of revolution will not easily be put back in the bottle, even far from the cities.

João Bénard da Costa—Others Will Love the Things I Have Loved (Outros amarão as coisas que eu amei)

The genie for director Manuel Mozos is his friend and colleague João Bénard da Costa, the long time director of the Portuguese Cinémathèque, who died in 2009. Unlike fond tributes to influential champions of film in other countries – France’s Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque (2004) and Celluloid Man (2012) about P.K. Nair, the founder of the National Film Archive of India – there are no famous talking heads or relatives recalling anecdotes to beautifully trace the making of a great cinéphile. His son João Pedro Bénard sonorously reads his father’s autobiographical writings “to lead you through images and memories.” The camera follows his early influences, described as intimate connections with a large home filled with family photographs and a museum full of portraits. What an unusual little boy whose favorite gift was a beloved book of medieval and Renaissance art prints redolent with symbols of the lives of saints. (Marie Losier’s preceding 19 minute colorful drag fantasy L’Oiseau de la nuit is set in some of the same Lisbon locales he trod for a more carnivale effect.)

Setting up a cinema club while teaching high school, João Bénard da Costa delighted in the power of the silver screen’s figures to be ghosts who could achieve immortality. Threaded throughout the ruminative biography are his favorite clips which Mozos re-watches in the Cinémathèque’s archives to emphasize the magic of the movies to defy reality – time in William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie (1948), faith in Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), love in Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and words in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner. Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) is held up as the epitome of perfection; the Museum included a showing of a 35mm print in the festival. There’s also visual references to filmmakers who were his contemporaries and sometime collaborators, the late Manoel de Oliveira and Raoul Ruiz.

Even as he is also seen living in the real world, with family snapshots from a long marriage and playful beach vacations with children and grandchildren, photos show him happily welcoming to Portugal the likes of Lauren Bacall, Catherine Deneuve, and Kirk Douglas. A montage of his monographs on auteurs and articles in such publications as the Cahiers du Cinéma, on Buñuel, Hitchcock, Ford, and Lang, places him alongside the most influential film critics of post-war Europe. Though his work is not easily available in English, this dreamy appreciation makes a wider circle of those similarly infected with cinéphilia aware of his influences, interpretations, and impact – just the sort of fans coming each weekend of the First Look Festival.


A version of this review with photographic stills is at Film Festival Traveler

First Look Festival 2016: Second Weekend
First Look Festival 2016: Third Weekend

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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