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--- Valeria Golino, introduction and Q & A with MoMI’s Chief Curator David Schwartz at the Opening Night screening of Giuseppe M. Gaudin's Anna (Per amor vostro) in Panorama Europe 2016. (I got to vicariously enjoy Chef Turi's glutenous and dairy treats, courtesy of the Italian Cultural Institute, with EU delegates from 19 countries.)

Traveling from international film festivals to New York City in May 2016

By Nora Lee Mandel

The 8th Annual Panorama Europe came to my New York City home borough of Queens, at the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI), in Astoria, with additional screenings on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at the Bohemian National Hall. From May 6 through May 22, the slate was an impressive nineteen feature films, fiction and documentaries, including nine New York premieres and many filmmakers attending the screenings.

That’s 19 of the 28 member states of the European Union: Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Kosovo, Lithuania, Malta (its first film in international distribution!), The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain. While there were people in Queens who spoke the native languages of each of these countries among the enthusiastic audiences at MoMI (and I was impressed that the EU Deputy Delegate to the United Nations predicted the local multi-lingualism in his opening night remarks), films were shown with English subtitles.

Reflecting a broad range of European concerns past and present: there’s historical epics, even in animation, to the plight of Romani (Gypsy) children, the current crisis of refugees and migrants, and several focusing on women under extreme personal stress, caught in many different kinds of love from mothers to obsession to lesbian discovery, to hip hop. Comedy, mystery, drama – and there’s even a couple of horror flicks. As anticipated in my preview, I was impressed by: New York Premieres; films by Women Directors; and Documentaries.

My Overview Reviews of the First Week of Panorama Europe 2016 Opening Night

Anna (Per amor vostro)
Valeria Golino in ANNA (PER AMOR VOSTRO), Photo Courtesy of Patrizia Cafiero & Partners
Golino’s star power helped Gaudino just b-a-r-e-l-y cobble together the funding for his first fiction feature in over a decade. In the Q & A after the screening, the vivacious actress laughed how the "chaos" of the production was creative as well as financial, as cast and crew collaborated to unfold the story simultaneously on three levels within the head of her central character. Wife (of a brutish lout), mother (of three teens including a deaf boy), newly promoted (and constantly sexually harassed) cue card girl on a TV show, “Anna” doesn’t just express the passionate dialogue through quick shifts into three languages -- Italian, Neapolitan dialect, and signing (presumably Italian Sign Language). Channeling Fellini’s muse Giulietta Masina, her wide eyes sees three levels of reality in dizzying imagery. (And won her the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival.)

Anna is everywhere surrounded by the clamor of suffering from financial crises - lay-offs, evictions, her kids asking for money, and her husband’s usury, in the aftermath from banks leaving the city to even more nefarious lenders. All around Naples, from the sea to the volcano, her quotidian world is in black-and-white. Her psychological fears are in deep colors blown by loud threatening storms, and the winds of lust push her towards the seductive soap opera roué with a serious gambling problem. Spiritual symbols ricochet her from demons that turn her commuter bus into a water-logged Circle of Dante’s Hell, to folkloric Catholic rituals that lift her up as portraits of saints, sardonically rewarding her for her penitence and her bravery for finally breaking free of limbo. Cinematographer Matteo Cocco also photographed the pan-European travels of Babai in the festival.

All this stunning action is narrated in song by Epsilon Indi’s updated take on a traditional Neapolitan folk opera style, the kind of unique musical theater championed by John Turturro in Passione. The soundtrack is downloadable on Amazon, a hummable souvenir of a rousing cinematic experience.

Spartacus & Cassandra

Spartacus Ursu and Cassandra Dumitru in SPARTACUS & CASSANDRA, photo courtesy of MoMI
Presented by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy

What is it like to grow up Roma (aka Gypsy) today when their insular communities in Europe not only face entrenched discrimination, but their traditional traveling ways are now caught in the backlash against migrants? And what is their future?

Director Ioanis Nuguet’s strikingly intimate debut feature grew out of an idea to document Roma camps after French President Sarkozy delivered an anti-immigration speech in summer 2010 announcing they were about to be dismantled. I’ve seen their terrible conditions exacerbating dysfunctional families in depressing documentaries from Ukraine (in The Pied Piper Of Hützovina) to Romania (Toto and His Sisters and Our School (Scoala Noastra) at Tribeca Film Festival). But Nuguet got so immersed in their culture, that while recording positive traditions like weddings and christenings, over several years he learned their language and moved in to his own trailer in the camp. He befriended two young siblings who suggested he film their lives, even though they had never seen a movie.

Spartacus Ursu, at 13, and his ten year old sister Cassandra Dumitru participated in every aspect of the almost year and half filming. They enthusiastically followed suggestions to keep dream journals so their fantasies could be cinematically recreated in Super 8, grabbed Nuguet to come over when they were in the midst of confronting their non-French speaking alcoholic father and mentally distressed mother, and recorded the useful voice-overs during a year of editing. Composer Aurélie Ménétrieux’s evocative score re-mixes loops of actual sounds Nuguet recorded on the film.

The brother’s spare introduction sets the tone and intense close-ups: When I was one year old, I was already walking. At two, I was eating dirt. At three, my father was in prison. At four, I begged with my sister. At seven, I came to France. At eight I was stealing car radios. What changes their trajectory from stereotyped failure is the mysterious angel he met at age nine – Camille, a young independent circus artist whose performance and organizational skills attract children to her small Big Top in the middle of their compound and gives them a creative outlet to channel the stories of their lives. But when police scarily surround the caravans and the children are threatened with a foster home by a judge, she finds herself, at only 20, agreeing to take them in when their parents can’t acculturate to French strictures and angrily take off.

Cassandra blossoms with school and structure, but will she be able to resist the importuning of her weeping mother who insists she needs her daughter to sell dawn-picked flowers in the streets and to shield her from her violently abusive husband? Spartacus has great difficulty adjusting to school and his settled classmates, and the suspense builds if he can settle down. Just when the school, the police, the judge, and the parents all pile on with demands, the amazing Camille, even when financially strapped, packs them both off to a country idyll of swimming, climbing trees, and fixing up a derelict farmhouse into circus artists’ haven. A very French fresh air camp!

Left unsaid onscreen is that as the sole camera and microphone moved back for wider views of their changing context, is what Nuguet has said in interviews that he moved in with them. He has taken them along as the documentary has played on the festival circuit, starting by swimming in the Mediterranean when the film debuted at Cannes. Nuguet calls it their version of therapy; the audience witnesses profound empathy.

History’s Future

Dutch artist Fiona Tan showing how she was "traipsing thru Europe", at the Q & A, 5/7/2016
Presented by the Dutch Culture USA program by the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York

For almost 20 years, Fiona Tan has exhibited film and video installations in art museums and exhibition settings. Premiering at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), her debut feature opens in a theater, but at “The End” of a film with the audience leaving. Then it rewinds to see how Europe got to what she called "rolling catastrophes" since 2008. Like a rueful take on Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the ravages of war and capitalism are seen from the perspective of a victim/guide.

On a dark street, a man (the linguistically adept Irish actor Mark O’Halloran) is so viciously attacked, a la the dystopian future of A Clockwork Orange, such that when he awakes in a hospital in The Netherlands, he has amnesia. A woman identifying herself as his wife fetches him and brings him home to their comfortable middle class house. But when he ventures out, the sameness of suburbia confuses him, so he ends up attaching himself to another family. “Where am I?” turns into acceptance: “Does it matter?”

Going past “Have You Seen This Man?” posters, this “Missing Person” (MP) wanders, with slightly different neatness of appearance that changes how people perceive him in different places. He goes ever farther, through railroad stations and airports, taking advantage of those drivers at Arrivals Terminals holding up businessmen’s names for pick-up. Humorously, wherever he goes people seem to recognize him or “MP” is able to keep his conversations (in many languages) sufficiently vague and encouraging so that people think they’ve met before, a commentary on urban anomie and loneliness.

Tan shot film as she was location scouting, as well as using archival clips, of abandoned buildings, stalled construction projects, homeless migrants, blowing trash, and protesters battling riot police in the streets: Barcelona, Detroit, Dublin, Leipzig, London, Newcastle, Paris, as well as scenes from Greece and Japan around the Fukushima plant. She joked she lost count of the number of countries she traveled through; the languages in interchanges with “MP” are at least Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Portuguese, and Spanish, in bars, gardens, and a shopping mall.

Precisely written in elliptical dialogue, the script was shaped with help of British film critic Jonathan Romney, each encounter is a gem of a short film enlivened by a notable international cast. Besides “MP”s facility at picking up lonely women wherever he goes, the philosophical highlight is Denis Lavant as a blind French lottery ticket seller like a modern Diogenes. In Dublin, the taxi driver is Brian Gleeson, as redheaded and talented as his father Brendan and brother Domhnall. Not having worked with actors before other than for voice-overs, she said her biggest surprise was how helpful the actors were, especially in their willingness to try retakes in different way.

Surrounded by a metallic score emphasizing technological change, written and performed by Ray Harman, Leo Anemaet, and Michiel Weidner, a cacophony of visual images goes by: “MP” filling a storage unit with souvenirs; “Children in Spheres on Water” who reminded me of the climate change protests of The Yes Men Are Revolting; and Native American imitators (identified in the credits as “Hobby Indians”) teaching children the old ways. Frequent masterworks of art hark back to Europe’s past heights of civilization. Besides close-ups of the obvious allegories of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, she returns repeatedly to “Portrait of a Kleptomaniac” by Théodore Géricault, which was commissioned for the first mental hospital in Paris, until the amnesiac becomes him. Earlier this year, Tadhg O’Sullivan’s The Great Wall, at the Museum of Modern Art’s Documentary Fortnight, dealt with similar pan-European themes through architecture. Fiona Tan, for all the high-concept structure and intellectual imagery keeps her focus on the individual.

Though my Mother’s Day celebration detained me from seeing Estonia’s “retro horror” Ghost Mountaineer (Must alpinist), two outstanding films that Sunday, one documentary, the other a fictionalization of a true story, were moving and insightful portrayals of the people on two islands in the Mediterranean Sea, particularly the fishermen, who have been living for years on the front line of the migrant crisis as transit rules via land tightened.

Lampedusa in Winter (Lampedusa im Winter)

Co-Director of Photography Serafin Spitzer, at the Q & A, 5/8/2016, on emulating the films of Frederick Wiseman, whose In Jackson Heights had just been playing in the same theater at MoMI.
Presented by the Austrian Cultural Forum New York

Austrian director Jakob Brossmann first went to the Italian island of Lampedusa, about 127 miles south of Sicily and about 81 miles east of central Tunisia, when he was an art student in Vienna thinking of making a short film about the refugee experience in general, inspired by his own family's flight from the Holocaust, as explained in-person by just-as-young Co-Director of Photography Serafin Spitzer. Then he saw how the media flock there in the summer, like the tourists, and just briefly report on the huddled masses from Middle Eastern wars and African turmoil who survive the storms or the wretched refuse who don’t. He met charismatic environmental activist Giusi Nicolini, and when she became mayor, he determined to return with a small crew in the off-season. Arriving just as the inhabitants’ lifeline to the outside, a commercial ferry, burned down in front of them, their sharing in the mounting tribulations this caused helped win the locals’ trust over four months there for revealing cinema verité.

Coming off a long Coast Guard tour with young sailors tensely following reports of stranded boats (and relieved to not face another unfortunate rescue), he finds onshore people who are also dedicated to helping. Volunteer human rights lawyer Paola tears off the cemetery plaques put up by the previous mayor for “the Africans of black color” buried there to put up more considerate ones, and sympathetically advises the last group of hunger striking Eritreans protesting on the church steps that disfiguring their fingertips just delays their transfer off the island. Two gloved and masked scavengers picking through the detritus of lives in abandoned boats turn out to be curators of a museum of maritime tragedies so careful to be respectful that they seek out those who can translate letters and diaries.

But daily life struggles on without international attention or assistance. The local news and weather is reported by an upbeat D.J., and the very Friday Night Lights-like junior soccer team coach works hard to instill striving, cooperation, and good sportsmanship in his players, even when they face dominant opponents – a symbol of what the islanders go through in dealing with the Italian government bureaucracy, let alone the decisions of the European Union about refugee policies.

As the last of the summer refugee stragglers are taken away by airplane, pent-up tensions erupt over the ferry disruption. When the unresponsive private ferry company first lags in getting a replacement boat, then finally comes up with a small, rickety alternative, the fisherman lead a strike. Already incensed because an essential public transit function has been left to private incompetence, the rugged, long-time fishermen can’t get all their catch out to Sicily, just when their catch has already been limited by national and international government regulations. All the striations and personalities in the community play out before the camera, and the difficulties of community organizing. Negotiating with all sides, the mayor is a stirring example of responsive leadership within a crisis.

While winning awards at many European film festivals since premiering at Locarno, Brossmann was most proud to screen it in April for the European Parliament, after a heated panel discussion on the need for safe, legal migrant routes. When he comes to New York City to re-screen the film later this year, he hopes it will continue to raise consciousness about the issue, even as antipathy to migrants has risen in his home country.


Director Rebecca Cremona counting her goals achieved with her debut feature, at the Q & A, 5/8/2016
Presented by the Arts Council Malta New York

Rebecca Cremona incorporates Lampedusa while making a big splash in deftly crossing two real, dramatic tragedies in the Mediterranean: a Turkish vessel that was stranded by international indecision when the captain chose to rescue a boat load of Eritrean migrants, and a Maltese fishing family capsized from the titular boat in a storm waiting desperately for assistance. With an accessible touch of suspense and heart, she humanizes migrants while poignantly illustrating the ongoing impact on area fishermen and ships.

At MoMI, she told of learning how to best combine artistic vision, social significance, and audience appeal from masters filming in Malta – working as an assistant on Munich, interfacing between director Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, so she felt prepared to take on a politically and physically challenging production on land and sea. The Maltese native tells the first authentic Malta story on film, primarily in Maltese, featuring Maltese professional actors within an international cast, local people portraying their real activities (confirmed by a Maltese native sitting next to me), and crew who up to this had been secondary on big Hollywood movies where their island masqueraded as many other actual and fictional locales through history. (At least they left the largest water tank in the world she used to thrilling effect.)

Though the story of the fisherman was a well-known cause célèbre, she was able to spend a considerable time interviewing him to elicit a unique perspective in developing a broader script. Set within an intimate and colorful portrait of Maltese families, financial struggles, religious festivities, and mutual solidarity, Simon (played by Tunisian actor Lotfi Abdelli) brings along his father and ten year old son (yes, Adrian Farrugia as Theo pulls on heart strings) to risk finding a catch beyond the usual limits, helped by a hard-working Muslim immigrant from Mali (French actor Sékouba Doucouré). The plight of the merchant vessel is linked through Maltese officials who have to go on board, military liaison John (popular local comedian Chrysander Agius) and his best friend a doctor Alex (Mark Mifsud), whose reluctance and impatience are softened by a passenger translator (French actress Laura Kpegli). Nature, from the sun beating down on the exhausted migrants to the stormy waves rocking the desperate fishermen, ratchets up the tensions and anxieties, as humans struggle to cope – who will survive?

After playing in Malta for three months, and entered as Malta’s first submission to the Academy Awards, Simshar traveled to film festivals around the world, and is now available on many VOD platforms. But a small screen may diminish the view of this beautiful film by a director who seems ready to succeed Spielberg.


A version of this review is at Film Festival Traveler

My review of Panorama Europe 2016 2nd Weekend.

My review of Panorama Europe 2016 3rd 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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