Looking over the Frontier
It’s a pity that, at Sundance, we are so busy trying to discover the next hot feature that the wonderful offerings of the New Frontier section are not at the top of our priorities. A pity because the program of cutting edge films, performances and installations curated by Shari Frilot is bringing Sundance (that traditionally looks in the direction of the “edgy” part of the “industry”) on a par with international film festivals intent on exploring new cinematic écritures. A pity because, designed and produced by Jamie McMurry, the presentation of works in New Frontier was very user-friendly and easy to access this year, with two buildings at the bottom of Main Street devoted to it, and special efforts had been made to address the topography of Park City as well. On Swede Alley James Nares was presenting Street, a site-specific installation, superimposing images of New York City onto the ski-resort urban landscape, to music composed for acoustic guitar by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. A luminary of the No Wave super-8 movement in downtown New York (his Rome 78 has remained a classic) and a member of the epoch-making artist collective Colab in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the British-born Nares, who has since been pursuing a successful career as a painter and video artist, never severed his ties with the “alternative” music scene: during his No Wave days, he occasionally played with the punk bands James Chance and the Contortions and The Del-Byzanteens.
Another outdoor installation by the Klip Collective (in their third visit to Sundance) was made of a 4000-pixel wide projection of 3D images projected onto the façade of the historical (and a little quaint) Egyptian theatre on north Main, through a technique called “site-specific-projection mapping”. (The Philadelphia-based production shop, founded in 2003 by “visual scientist” Ricardo Rivera also used a two-dimensional version of the installation for this year’s Festival trailer). Different parts of the building’s architecture (the marquee, the faux Egyptian sculptures, the ticket booth) were inhabited by images from past festivals, as well as geometric/psychedelic projections.
The Egyptian also hosted the presentation of a New Frontier live event, which I was lucky enough to attend, the triple whammy multi-media performance of Miwa Matreyek, in her second visit to Sundance. (1) A collage artist and experimental animator by training, a designer/creator of exquisite visuals, as well as a performance artist (in addition to her solo work, she is also a member of the theatre collective Cloud Eye Control), Matreyek quietly unsettles what she calls “the slippery meeting point of cinema and theatre/performance” by projecting multiple layers of images and anchoring them in her physical presence on-stage. For aficionados of performance art around the world, her signature silhouette is well known: a full female body, clothed in a conservative dress, her hair tied up in a bun. A technical wizard, she skilfully creates a sound/visual texture in which the ontology of each image is clouded in ambiguity. What is really happening on stage? How is the live presence of the artist combined with video computer files? Is this shadow really she, or another projection? If she is really there, how does she manage to sync her movements with the flow of digital images? How many layers of images and “reality” are we being exposed to?
In Dreaming of Living Lucid (2007) mundane tasks (baking a pie, petting a cat, watering a plant, looking through a microscope, looking out through the window) are subsumed into increasingly complex metaphors. The body is scanned into psychedelic-looking skeletons. The small model of a city appears on stage. The second piece, Myth and Infrastructure (2010) borrows from a slew of legends about the creation of the world. Matreyek’s shadow spits out little human and animal figures. Sometimes, they climb a ladder to return to the comfort of her body. Similar to the interaction between Bunraku puppeteers and their puppets on stage, the artist’s relationship to her “creatures” is that of infinite tenderness. Her body, now split between an inside (the core from which images emanate) and an outside (the black shadow), merges with diffracted vistas: ground, trees, stars, birds flying, blue waters abounding with fish. Is she born out of the landscape like Venus, or the landscape born out of her, like the Goddess Mothers of early humanity? Kneeling down, she seems to be carrying the world on her back while floating under water. From the sea, a version of the urban model featured in Dreaming emerges, like the legendary city of Ys, and, inside, the apparently larger-than-life silhouette of the artist roams and bends over the buildings with curious attention.
This World Made Itself (2013), her most ambitious piece so far, goes further in poetically investigating the origin of the world, which is also the origin of cinema. Her silhouette emerges from a field aflame – maybe the site of a volcano, or the primordial fire from which the Garden of Eden was born; we hear the crackling of the flames. The scene, with its orange/ochre/purple tones, is intense. There is serenity in these images: Matreyek seems to be bathing in a sea of flames with the same bemused sensuality as when she was swimming under water in the earlier piece. Yet they also provoke horrifying free associations, recalling the countless bodies of women deemed to the fire on accusation of witchcraft – or visions of a war-ravaged landscape. This is, perhaps, Matreyek’s greatest gift. While the synchronisation of her performances is obviously worked to the second, she wilfully unsettles our desire for fixed meanings. The relationship between the different layers and the different portions of the spectacle, its “compositing” in time and space, is constantly shifting, gone with the flow of time, tirelessly morphed and reconfigured into the magical kingdom whose key she detains.
The Sea of Hybridity
Back in the quest for the hottest feature of the year, one first looks at the films in competition, while keeping an eye on the premieres Sadly, I missed the film that won the Grand Prize, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, but managed to catch two of the hottest tickets du jour, starting with the US competition film, Dear White People. First-time director Justin Simien, with a background in publicity, marketing and digital content creation, has a knack for self-promotion; a trailer for the film and its provocative title had become viral on the Internet (which was crucial, since it helped him raise money through Indigogo), generating hoopla and expectations. The film is indeed a lot of fun, with beautiful young people throwing sassy one-liners at one another, a neo-black screwball comedy addressing issues of race in addition to gender; it aims at tackling a serious issue: the evolving fault lines that divide American society according to class and race, and how they are affecting a new generation of middle-class college students. Part of the inspiration comes from a few real-life incidents, black-faced or caricatured African American-themed parties in upscale colleges (UCSD, Dartmouth) that upset black students and made the news. In the rarefied atmosphere of a chic Ivy League campus, where the President is white and the Dean of students black, identity politics is the rage and everybody is under the sway of Samantha White’s radio program, “Dear White People”. A media art student, who turns a white-faced revision of Birth of a Nation for her filmmaking fundamentals class, Sam (Tessa Thompson) wants to prevent fellow black students from “drowning in a sea of white”, and keep fellow white students on her toes with blunt common sense advices such as “dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.”
Arrives Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), smart, bookish, nerdish, sporting an unfashionable Afro, and gay to boot, but his writing talents have him recruited for the white satirical paper on campus. Lionel has no interest in identity politics, but everybody around him seems to have a specific idea of what it means to be black or white. Not white or African American, mind you, for “the term African American is borderline racist. Are you too worried about political correctness to say ‘black’?” Bitchy, ambitious blue-eyed queen Coco (Teyonah Parris), who would rather wear the wrong shade of lipstick than admit she’s from the South side of Chicago, wears an attractive weave (or, conversely, a long blond wig) and is miffed that Sam’s radio show gets way more hits than her blog. Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the ambitious golden boy, son of the Dean of students, breaks up with Sam to date the daughter of the President, who talks of his big black cock to turn him on. There are racists, insensitive white boys and non-racist sensitive ones – like the one who sleeps with Sam.
Simien treads a fine line, his dialogue replete with sharp repartees that usually hit their marks, and mimic well the status of language among upscale students – such as the endearing habit of explaining too much about what they think or talk politics as they are getting ready to have sex. In Sam and Lionel, both drawn through fantastic performances, Simien designed complex, multifaceted hybrid characters that have to learn out to navigate in treacherous waters. Lionel’s status as an outsider is given from the outset, pitting him against these people who seem to know too much what they are, and we rout for his cool detachment from the human comedy around him. Tessa gives Sam an opacity that goes beyond the way her part is written, as we have to wait until the end of the film to find out whom she was really addressing when coining her radio show “Dear White People”. Simien played the card of irreverence, a joyful, cathartic identification of young black audiences to the dialogue, and sprinkled it with sitcom situations (President and Dean of Students interacting through the sex lives of their children), while he had the material for real drama. Tragic mulattas of the past passed for white and struggled to escape from their black mothers’ hands when arriving at school. Hyphenated young women of the present embrace black identity and hide the presence of a white parent in their lives. Simien turns Sam and Lionel into the pillars of his carefully crafted architecture, whose pièce de resistance is the infamous black-faced Halloween party, which makes everybody uncomfortable, hot and bothered, but allows Coco, as she is walking away, to dramatically declare “White people want to be like us, and they get to be for a night. I’m not going to go into the street and protest for a fucking Halloween party.”
Simien gets very close to what is the juice of the situation: the desire, tinged with fear, for the other; the prevalence of hybridity in American society (which does not preclude racism); the role a new black bourgeoisie can play. His satire, albeit intelligent, and witty, remains skin-deep – but, in the “sea” of white-on-white movies that make up Hollywood and the indie scene, the sheer presence of Dear White People, due in part to the efforts of producer Effie Brown, is quite an achievement, and I am eager to see what Simien will do next.
At the other end of the spectrum, so to speak, the second hottest ticket, a Premiere, was White Bird in a Blizzard, Gregg Araki’s eleventh feature since Three Bewildered People in the Night (1987). A generation away from Simien, Araki, who was born in California to a Japanese American family, has produced an oeuvre that successfully refuses the trope of identity politics – be they racial or sexual. His career started at the apex of the Asian American media movement, yet he never played this card, and his protagonists come from all corners of the US melting pot. While The Living End (1992) and Totally Fucked Up (1993) were major achievements of the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s, he broke the conventional expectations thrown upon him and coined an always-arresting array of gay-themed and non-gay plots. All his features have been screened at Sundance, yet, since The Doom Generation (1995) he has had working relationships with French companies such as UGC, Why Not Productions and Wild Bunch.
Araki usually writes his own screenplays, but when he adapts a novel, it’s always with an original twist. In Mysterious Skin (2004) he turned Scott Heim’s novel into pure Araki vintage of (male) adolescent angst and alluring mischief. For White Bird in a Blizzard, his masterful adaptation of Laura Kasischke’s novel of the same title, (2) opens the gates to the subtleties of (young) female psychology, while a novel narrative twist brings the plot back to the territory of (queer) male desire. The film is structured around an unexplained absence: one day the heroine’s mother, Eve, walked away without even leaving a goodbye note. Played by the incandescent Eva Green – the seductress in Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003) and the Bond girl in Casino Royale (2006) – Eve is a compendium of mid-1980s post The Female Mystique suburban neuroses, too smart and too eccentric for the boring life she leads, who questions day in and day out what possessed her to fall in love, years ago, with a man as unexciting as her husband, Brock (Christopher Meloni); faced with the vacuum of her life, she becomes mean and competitive with her own confused teenage daughter, Kat (Shailene Woodley, a former child actor brought to fame with Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, 2011). Then, in a whiff, she’s gone. No warning sign, no explanation, no packed belongings, no clue. The investigation leads nowhere. Did she elope with a lover? Leave her old life behind? Was murdered? The film starts with Kat stating the raw fact of her mother’s disappearance, then proceeds through a series of flash-backs, flash-forwards, dreams, projections – with a recurring shot of Kat in a blizzard, searching for her mother’s body under the snow. As these fragments unfold, the narrative progresses. Kat and Brock learn how to live together, “afterwards”; Kat grows up, becomes a sexually attractive woman and moves away from amateurish trysts with the not-so-smart boy next door to the serious seduction of a well-endowed older man (Thomas Jane) – who, being a cop, is a paragon of masculinity; and being a cop in a small town, was once in charge of the investigation… but this still leads to nowhere. Then Kat goes to college, returns home for a visit, maybe ready to let go. But this is a Greg Araki movie, one of his very best – the forces of darkness are close to us, in the apparently safe haven of the familiar. Araki reveals what was lurking behind the apparent provocation of his earlier work – an ethical project that subjects the twists, turns and foibles of American life to a critical, yet generous gaze. The kids will walk free – but they have inherited from the world built by their parents, and it’s their responsibility now to build one on their own.
Men Lost at Sea
Another Sundance regular, Ira Sachs (The Delta, 1996; Forty Shades of Blue, 2005; Keep the Lights On, 2012) was also present in the Premieres section with what may be his best film, Love is Strange. Ben (John Lithgow), a respected but not commercially successful painter, and George (Alfred Molina), a music teacher, have lived together for forty years in their cramped little New York’s Upper West Side apartment. Their enduring love story makes them their relatives’ and friends’ favourite uncles. When gay marriage becomes legal, they decide to have a ceremony and exchange vows. However, George teaches in a catholic school, and, as soon as news of the wedding reaches his employers, he loses his job. They can’t afford the apartment anymore, and have to find a place to live. Real estate is skyrocketing so, at their age, they must seek “temporary shelter” in different people’s apartments, being separated for the first time.
Served by a first-rate supporting cast – Darren Burrows as Ben’s nephew, Marisa Tomei as his wife, Charlie Tahan as their son – Love is Strange shows the two men cornered in living situations not of their choosing (sharing a bedroom with a confused and angry teenage boy, sitting on the couch that is your bed in the midst of a noisy party given by a couple of friendly gay cops) – and then criss-crossing Brooklyn and Manhattan on foot and by subway for a chance to see each other, or to sit at a bar that reminds them of a happier time. With an intimate knowledge of New York, Sachs weaves details of the city in the texture of the two men’s everyday lives, their longing, their sense of loss, their quest to retain their dignity as well as this je-ne-sais-quoi that had made them funny, creative, original and attracted to each other.
Also a Premiere, Little Accidents is Sara Colangelo’s first feature – an expansion of the short of the same title she had shown at Sundance in 2010. A small town in the Appalachian is reeling from the aftermath of a coal-mining accident that took the lives of ten miners. Did the executive in charge, Bill Doyle (Josh Lucas), bypass some elementary safety rules for the sake of efficiency? What will the sole survivor of the tragedy, Amos Jenkins (Boyd Holbrook), say at the investigation? As tension mounts, young Owen (Jacob Tofland) learns to swallow his pain and live with his mother (Chloe Sevigny) and brother James (who has Down syndrome) after his father’s death in the mine. At an outing in the neighbouring woods, he gets into a fight with the arrogant TJ Doyle, and accidentally kills him. He hides the body, severely coaches James about what not to say, and then keeps quiet about the accident. Doyle and his wife Diana (Elizabeth Banks) are devastated; even though the entire town organises a search party for the missing TJ, nothing turns up. Diana’s world unravels, especially since she starts suspecting her husband of wrong-doing and questioning her privileges and lifestyle as the wife of a mining executive.
Colangelo redraws the relationships toward new configurations. Diana and Amos embark on a secret affair. Suffocating with his secret, afraid that he may be found out at any minute, Owen becomes friends with Amos and gets hired to do small jobs for Diana – becoming a confident to her, and eventually being given, as she struggles to cope with her grief, the bicycle of the boy he has killed.
Shown in competition, Kat Candler’s Hellion also started as a short nurtured into a feature by the Sundance community. After a number of accomplished shorts since 2000, Austin-based Candler had directed a first feature, Jumping Off Bridges (2006) that was already about a teenage boy dealing with his mother’s death. In Hellion, this death has not been properly acknowledged nor grieved by her husband, blue-collar Hollis Wilson (Aaron Paul), who finds some form of solace in a flight forward – on-and-off abandoning his two sons, Jacob (Josh Wiggins) and Wes. Candler is, admittedly, interested in representing the rites, body language and ethical dilemmas of masculinity. Hollis is a man who has given up. Deprived of a role model, but filled with unlimited energy, Jacob struggles to find his bearings, using heavy metal music, his passion for motocross and, eventually violent behaviour and delinquency as outlets. Concerned social services put the boys in the custody of their aunt Pam (Juliet Lewis), but this only increases Jacob’s rage. Kandler’s direction is a mix of faux-vérité (informed by her first-hand knowledge of Port Arthur, a port town in Southern Texas, beautifully rendered in the film) and a sure hand at directing actors, especially the young performers.
The first feature of cinematographer/producer/organiser of experimental film collectives/short film director Jeff Preiss leaves the comfort zone of his New York base for Low Down, a moody exploration of unsung lives in Los Angeles. Preiss’s DP, Christopher Blauvet (who received the Cinematography Award) shoots the city of Angels as a collections of unkempt corners, decaying buildings, streets that you can still cross on foot to go and buy a cart of milk – a city haunted by the traces of a life gone by. Legendary, yet “obscure” in terms of the mainstream, Joe Albany (1924-88) was one of the few white jazz pianists to have worked with Charlie Parker. He also played with Miles Davis, Benny Carter, Warne Marsh, Lester Young, Red Callender, Chico Hamilton and Irving Ashby. Not pretending to be a biopic, Low Down presents him in the 1970s, as he was battling heroin addiction, getting arrested or fleeing to Europe, through the eyes of his daughter Amy, whose book of memoirs (3) inspired Preiss. Served by elegant performances (John Hawkes as Joe, Elle Fanning as Amy, Glenn Close as Joe’s mother), Low Down is a love story between father and daughter, fraught with heartbreak, separation, misunderstanding and disappointment. The dimly lit interiors, cramped and cluttered rooms, back alleys and dives are more evocative of the heroine’s memories than of “the real life” of Joe Albany.
Preiss and his team took special care to identify the buildings in which Amy was living as a child and young woman, as she is making her way through the fascinating and dangerous Wonderland of adults. The always-wonderful Peter Dinklage plays the white rabbit for her, opening the doors of his enchanted world, for a few minutes of fragile happiness. Amy’s wanderings take her to more unsavoury places – the porn theatre where Dinklage works, the drug dealers’ pads, the forlorn bar where she has a devastating meeting with her absentee, alcoholic mother (Lena Headey), the downtown street where a man offers money just to get a glimpse at one of her breasts (more for showing the two of them).
If anything, eschewing psychology, proceeding more through impressionistic touches and free-floating (musical) associations than “narrative development”, Low Down evokes a lifestyle, an urban atmosphere, the patina of memory, the allure of times gone by. The “mood” is captured by a superb soundtrack – that ranges from Albany’s actual recordings to performances by Thelonius Monk and Max Roach, to operatic arias – as well as Preiss’s decision to shoot the film in super-16, a bold and effective move in a sea of digital images.
How (not) to drown in mumblecore
Films are screened in DCP at Sundance, but a return to analogue made its way through another unexpected corner of the cinematic landscape, mumblecore auteurs. For Happy Christmas, Joe Swanberg, (in)famous for turning out a succession of cheaply-made, quickly shot, PowerBook-edited features (no less than 15 since his 2005 debut, Kissing on the Mouth), realising that he “hadn’t shot on celluloid since film school”, decided to use 16mm. Swanberg has been a champion of the DIY production/distribution mode of filmmaking, selling DVDs on his website and sprinkling his films with self-reflexive representations of his creative process: he steps in front of the camera, and then back behind it when cumulating the part of actor-director, leaves the computer on the kitchen table when making a sandwich or a latte etc… Drinking Buddies (2013), which made quite a splash at South by Southwest last year, was distributed by Magnolia and Sony Pictures, which gave him access to a larger budget. Happy Christmas came to Sundance with a distribution deal from Magnolia and Paramount, which may also explain why shooting on 16mm was possible.
Tame for a Swanberg picture (not much sex or nudity), the film still retains some endearing mumblecore traits: accuracy of dialogue; naturalistic, semi-improvised performances; the fraught relationships (sexual, parasexual, familial, emotional) between thirty-something folks now moving closer to the impending deadline of forty. The stakes are no longer the same as when you had just graduated and were living in a pad with roommates; responsibility comes with age, a fact Swanberg (who plays Jeff) gracefully acknowledges by casting Baby Swanberg as his character’s two-year old son.
Some, however, would like to cling to a prolonged teenagehood forever, such as Jenny, Jeff’s younger sister with a drinking problem, who arrives to crash with the couple and play nanny during the holiday season – to mixed results. Others, such as Jeff’s wife Kelly, never dreamt that a romance and marriage with a cutting-edge creative artist would stick them into the homemaker role of their mother’s generation. In earlier works, Swanberg had proven a sensitive director of actresses (following his method, they also contribute to the writing, which means that we’ve had a number of films with highly credible female characters), and Happy Christmas is at its best when depicting the evolving relationship between Jenny and Kelly. The former is an edgy, selfish, confused alcoholic who can’t seem to find her way out of a paper bag, passes out at parties and almost sets the house on fire, but Anna Kendrick (who was Jill, Luke’s fiancée and Kate’s de facto rival in Drinking Buddies) endows her with a touching vulnerability and a complex, albeit awkward attraction for friend-of-the-family/musician/pot dealer Kevin (Mark Webber). Kelly is at first suspicious and resentful of her annoying sister-in-law, but strikes an unexpected bond with her that may well unlock her writer’s block. By casting Melanie Lynskey in Kelly’s part, Swanberg demonstrates a witty knowledge of film history: at 16 she was revealed playing with/against Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson’s homage to the dark intricacies of female relationships, Heavenly Creatures (1994).
A welcome anomaly in Swanberg’s work, celluloid is actually not a novelty for mumblecore auteurs. The man rumoured to have coined the term, Andrew Bujalski, shot all his work on film from Funny Ha Ha (2002) on – until last year’s Computer Chess, recorded on vintage 1970 video stock (to better reflect the historical aspect of the piece), which was another way to remain in the analogue realm. Alex Ross Perry, who was showing his third feature, Listen Up Philip, is adamant: “I am a filmmaker, not a videomaker. I shoot on film” (in super-16 in this case). Switching back to colour after the elegant black and white of The Color Wheel (2011), Listen Up Philip was for me the most intelligent, original, intricate and best-directed narrative film of Sundance this year. Like the title character, Philip, a talented-but-misanthropic novelist, Ross Perry does everything he shouldn’t be doing: designing one of the most obnoxious, misogynist, A1 asshole protagonists of recent cinema; making him disappear during one third of the film; tying up episodes across time and space with a voiceover narration by Eric Bogosian (who knows a thing or two about annoying an audience); shooting scenes with an improvised feel while holding a film magazine… and it works!
The difference between Philip’s life, which is a genial mess (genius on the side of writing, mess on every other count) and Ross Perry’s film is that the former is alone in his struggle to impose his idiosyncrasies onto the world (isn’t the plight of any writer?), while the latter was cunning enough, lucky enough, patient enough, or artistically seductive enough, to put together a great ensemble of collaborators. Jason Schwartzman, an alum of the Wes Anderson School of Filmmaking (similarly off-the-beaten track and fascinating), shines as Philip, while Elisabeth Moss is remarkable in the part of Ashley, the-blonde-photographer-live-in-girlfriend – whose protracted process of letting her affection for Philip go is given its own special section of the film, in a bold narrative turn. The coup was to invite British stage and screen legend Jonathan Pryce to play Ike Zimmerman, a successful novelist patterned after Philip Roth, and whom Philip admires. Ike has brought his aversion to the world of regular human beings to heightened levels by shutting himself up in his country retreat, occasionally receiving the visit of other curmudgeons. As Philip’s refusal to contribute to the publicity of his second book greatly aggravates his publisher, praise from Ike and an invitation to stay in his house to be able to “write in peace” prompt him to leave right away, jeopardising his relationship to Ashley.
Neither Ike nor Philip, as much as they would like to, manage to completely shun the presence of women. Ike’s daughter, Melanie (Krysten Ritter) shows up announced in the house and is quite upset at seeing Philip there. Tension mounts but mercifully does not end up in bed (this is not a Lynn Shelton movie). Philip has a catastrophic run-in with a former girlfriend, Nancy (a lovely, albeit short, turn by Kate Lyn Sheil); through Ike’s connections, he ends up teaching creative writing for a semester in an East Coast college, where, angry at being displaced as “the youngest faculty”, his French colleague Yvette (Joséphine de la Baume) endeavours to make his life as miserable as possible. When Philip returns to New York, nobody waits for him anymore. Initiating a tentative sexual relationship with Yvette was a way to have peace on campus – and things start getting much better – but this does not really work either. Philip will be re-invited to teach, he will write another book, maybe many more like his successful mentor, fed by his acerbic look on life and his contempt for other human beings, especially of the female gender. Rarely has a narcissistic, unsecure male artist’s creative process been dissected with such accuracy. This is the world we live in.
Listen Up Philip, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, was presented in the Next section devoted to up-and-coming directors, but ultimately it was not a bad place to be as it contained some of Sundance’s most exciting films, starting with Appropriate Behavior, by New York-based Iranian American director Désirée Akhavian, who also plays the main role, obviously patterned on her own experience: this required both charisma and guts. Shirin, a self-described bisexual woman, after months of great sex and cohabitation with her butch girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), experiences a painful break-up. As the story of the relationship and its aftermath is recounted in flashbacks, it seems that Maxine’s main reproaches was Shirin’s inability/unwillingness to come out to her liberal upper-middle class Iranian parents. Left to her own devices, Shirin decides to (re)explore her apparent bisexuality, and tries again to speak to Mom (Anh Duong) – a comical anti-climax, for, obsessed with the upcoming marriage of her successful son (Arian Moayed), Mom simply does not hear what is being told to her.
The only thing left to Shirin – in addition to teaching filmmaking to a class of bratty five year-old more interested in fart jokes than in making images – is to listen to her own body, and here also the messages are slightly confusing. The wittiest – and bravest – moment shows Shirin’s trying to make the best of a ménage à trois into which she fell by accident. She was picked up by the man, who is a total jerk and can’t stand her, but develops an attraction for the woman – while being aware that she is only the third wheel in the couple’s games.
A showcase for two wonderful actresses, Madeleine Olnek’s The Foxy Merkins attempts to recreate the goofy magic of her first feature, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2011). The overweight-but-adorable slightly off-kilter butch Margaret (Lisa Haas) tries her (hard) luck at being a lesbian hooker, and meets savvy straight woman Jo (Jackie Monahan), who is an experienced hand in the business (“gay for pay” as they used to say in hard core circles). None of these women have a pot to piss in, literally, so they sleep (and hide their booze) in Grand Central Station’s ladies room. After a series of hit-and-miss encounters, Margaret remains a hopeless queer romantic and Jo a dyed-in-the-wool straight seductress. Definitely a counter-cultural piece, The Foxy Merkins is simply delightful. Who said women – and lesbians – had no sense of humour?
The Best of Next Award was presented to Imperial Dreams, the first feature of UCLA graduate Malik Vitthal, shot in Watts, the black neighbourhood of Los Angeles made famous by the 1960s riots. With the highest population density of population in Los Angeles, the area is still one of the poorest, but the ethnic balance is now heavily tipped in favour of the Latinos – 61% against 37% black people. It is, however, among the black community that Vitthal locates his story, wanting to empower those who struggle when the odds are stacked against them. Bambi (British actor John Boyega) leaves jail after 28 months for assault; his girlfriend Samaara (Keke Palmer) is in jail on an unrelated charge, and he has to pick up the pieces of his life to play a part in his four year-old son’s life.
Bambi’s problems start when he reconnects with his uncle Shrimp (Glenn Plummer), who has been sheltering his son, Day, and his alcoholic mother, Tanya (Kellita Smith). In exchange, Shrimp expects Bambi to drive “stuff” across state lines for him – which would have devastating consequences if he were caught. Bambi ends up homeless, sleeping in his car with Day, trying to maintain a façade of normalcy for the social workers and prospective employers. With such devastating premises, Vitthal pulls out a small miracle, rooted in his graceful hand in blending the performances of professional actors and people from the community.
Another remarkable film was War Story, Mark Jackson’s second feature, in which Catherine Keener delivers an extraordinary performance as Lee, a US war photographer who comes to hide in a small Sicilian albergo (inn) to hide the pain she cannot talk about: her lover and partner, another war photographer, was shot point-blank in front of her. Barely speaking, Lee expresses her trauma through bizarre rituals, such as reorganising the furniture and forbidding the maid to clean her room. When she tries to reach out, it’s another way of filtering her past experience. “I know you”, she tells a young Libyan woman, Hafsia (Hafsia Herzi), met by accident. “Why do you think you know me?” replies, defiantly, Hafsia, a boat refugee who is desperately trying to get an abortion from the Sicilian clinic. “Because I photographed you”, says Lee. It is not clear whether Hafsia is indeed the woman Lee shot crying by the blood-drenched body of a man, or if she just looks like her. It does not matter, actually. The albergo management is upset at Lee associating with a dark-skinned illegal immigrant. The two women will attempt to cross the frontier together. But, if you can’t help yourself, can you really help another human being? War Story poses the question, does not answer it, but powerfully delineates the contours of what we call grief.
The sea of archival material
There was, as every year, a bit of overlap between Sundance’s and PAFF’s programs, most notably two documentaries investigating black history. In Freedom Summer (caught as Sundance premiere), Stanley Nelson expands the work done in his previous archival documentary, Freedom Riders (2010), investigating the following chapter of the Civil Rights Movement. In the summer of 1964, under the aegis of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), thousand of young white volunteers came to Mississippi to encourage black citizens to register to vote. Three civil rights workers were killed in the process, and many black people, while receiving them politely, declined to follow suit. Trying to register to vote at the time was exposing oneself to painful humiliation and harassment, the risk of losing one’s job or house, even being lynched. Then a woman called Fannie Lou Hamer joined the movement. The youngest child of a poor family of 20 children, Hamer had picked cotton in white people’s plantations since she was 13. She had been harassed, persecuted and beaten up. She went to register for vote singing religious hymns. She was the real thing, and her charisma galvanised the cause. Robert Moses of the SNCC recruited her, and she was one of the delegates of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that went to the Democratic Convention in the summer of 1964 to protest against an all-white delegation. As in Freedom Riders, Nelson brings to light conveniently ignored facts about how little democratic politicians really cared about the civil rights movements. He excavates previously unseen footage, such as Hamer’s address at the Democratic Convention that Lyndon Johnson had made sure would not been broadcast on TV in its entirety.
At PAFF I watched what had been one of Sundance’s thought-provoking New Frontier entries, Thomas Allen Harris’s Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People – an exhilarating approach to the history of representation. Exhilarating not only through the sheer accumulation of documents, and Harris’s obvious joy at leafing through hundreds of stills by African American photographers such as James VanDerZee (1886-1983), Gordon Parks (1912-2006), Roy De Carvava (1919-2009), Clarissa Sligh (born 1939), Anthony Barboza (born 1944), Deborah Willis (born 1948), Carrie Mae Weems (born 1953), Lyle Ashton Harris (born 1965), and a bevy of others, famous or anonymous. (4) Exhilarating because of the way Harris structures this information, carefully inserting himself in the process. It starts with the question of suture: what does it means to be black and not finding accurate images of oneself in the history of representation? It also starts with a father: what does it mean to have had a father who would never take pictures of the family, a father who eventually disappeared? So the question of the suture, self-representation, the reverse gaze is, on the one hand, embedded in the history of institutionalised racism – images of minstrelsy, of happy Negroes eating watermelons, unbearable records of lynching and torture, the destroyed face of Emmett Till in his casket… On the other hand it is also embedded in the history of the black family: why is the image of a certain “mannish” auntie missing from the photo album? What will it take on the part of African American female photographers to produce images of women in which they will recognise themselves?
Inspired by Deborah Willis’s landmark book, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present (5), Harris presents the spectators with a plethora of material triggering a re-evaluation of the visual history of the United States, as well as what we thought we understood about race, gender and sexuality. It may seem “a little too much” for one film, but Through a Lens Darkly is only 90 minute long. Harris has worked more than five years on the film and it shows. There is no fat; the connections he draws are rigorous, intellectually challenging, and astonishingly moving.
PAFF: African Images
PAFF had opened on a (slight) whiff of controversy with Of Good Report by South African director Jahmil X. T. Qubeka, which had been originally banned from the Durban Film Festival – although the decision was later reversed. (6) A black and white stylistic experiment inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho and early David Lynch, Qubeka’s third feature revolves around the character of a rural school teacher, Parker Sithole (Mothusi Magano) who does not say a word during the entire 110 minutes it takes the plot to unfold, following unorthodox routes, such as ellipses, repetitions, dream sequences and a couple of false endings. A self-trained filmmaker (he “learnt on movie sets”) Qubeka is a genuine maverick in the South African cinematic landscape where the majority of directors are still white and realism is in the cards. There is no denying that his enthusiasm is contagious. His intent was to tackle post-apartheid violence within the black community, the persistence of patriarchal repression, the lack of teachers in the countryside and the prevalence of teen pregnancy. Still, if you don’t address issues of sexual politics, they are going to address you, and the narration, which involves the gruesome murder and dismemberment of a teenage girl, was enough to make some people uncomfortable. In the Q&A, Petronella Tshuma, the young actress playing Nolitha, sided with the definition of her character on-screen (“she is at the age when young girls play with their sexuality, and test it by seducing older men in whom they see power and security”) yet acknowledged having a hard time seeing the scenes of her dismemberment. Still the film won the Best Feature Film at PAFF, and Qubeka has signed to direct a romantic comedy in the US for the New York-based independent production/distribution company D Street Media.
On the other hand, My Zaphira (Moi Zaphira)’s no less remarkable stylistic experimentation delves into the complex psyche of one extraordinary, unlikely heroine. Apolline Traoré, who studied filmmaking at Emerson College in Boston, worked on a number of independent films in the US before returning to her native Burkina Faso. Moi Zaphira is the fifth film she shot there. The image is black and white, composited with areas of colour: the heroine (Mariama Ouédraogo), is fascinated by glossy fashion magazines, and has decided, against all odds – like Anna Magnani in Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima (1951) – that her daughter would become a fashion model. She lives in “Lazy People’s Village”, as people in the area call it, for the chieftain and his cronies have decided to stop tilling the land in order to benefit from food supplies from international aid organisation (the political satire is clear here). In her vision, this village, where, as a widow, she has no future, is black and white, while the magazines her brother-in-law sends her are vibrant patches of colour. The origin of Zaphira’s stubbornness is alluded to towards the last third of the film (she was a survivor of a tribal massacre), but she is one hell of a cinematic heroine. Even though her dream may be totally wrong, she pursues it with all her might, fighting harrowing obstacles along the way – from her victimisation by her in-laws to harassment by the men in the village to her lack of economic status.
The most interesting development takes place when Zaphira has to take her daughter, who has a fever, to a neighbouring mining town to see a doctor. She has no money for the medicine. A friendly prostitute offers to introduce her to the secret of her trade. Resisting at first, Zaphira, tartly dressed and made up (in a moment of comic relief), entices a miner, but can’t go through with the deal. Surprisingly, the man gives her money for her daughter’s medicine. Yet, the experience has given her a new idea: these miners have money! Women are forbidden to enter the mine because they are supposed to bring bad luck. So Zaphira cuts her hair, bandages her breasts, dons male clothes, pretends to be mute to hide the softness of her voice and starts working with the guys – a surprising twist in a film filled with unexpected moments, admirably carried by Mariama Ouédraogo, who won the Best Actress Award at the latest Ouagadougou Film Festival.
The female condition, female bonding and a great performance by a lead actress were also at stake in the Nollywood film B for Boy, Chika Anadu’s first feature. A Nigerian middle-class urban couple, Amaka (Uche Nwadili) and Nonso (Nonso Odogwu), have a playful, loving marriage, and are the proud parents of a little girl. Amaka, a successful producer, is almost 40, but she is expecting her second child. Gradually, the pressure mounts as Nonso, under his traditional mother’s admonition, (re)discovers he is part of the Igbo people, the only surviving male heir of his father, and, as such, must beget a son. If Amaka, suddenly the object of hostility and even physical violence from some women in Nonso’s home village, is not up to the task, then Nonso’s mother has already found a second bride for him.
Anadu’s command of the cinematic language is powerful and subtle, framing tightly on Amaka’s face and profile, occasionally showing her distorted body and the deception she feels forced to be involved in. It is on Uche Nwadili’s face that the drama unfolds, as she finds foes and allies in other women met in her increasingly desperate quest. I wasn’t sure at first if I wanted to see B for Boy, as the quantitatively enormous output of video films produced in Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry, includes a number of forgettable fares, but I am glad I did. With B for Boy, a true filmmaker is born, and a splendid actress is given a well-written part in which to express her talent.
Sundance Film Festival
16-26 January 2014
Festival website: http://www.sundance.org/festival/
PanAfrican Film & Arts Festival
6-17 February 2014
Festival website: http://www.paff.org
- Disclaimer: Miwa Matreyek is a graduate from the California Institute of the Arts, where I have been a faculty since 1992. However, she graduated in 2007 from a different program (Experimental Animation) than the one I teach in (Film and Video) and never took classes with me, even though I was quite aware of her work in her last year as a student, since Dreaming of Lucid Living, the piece that made her famous, was her MFA thesis.
- Laura Kasischke, White Bird in a Blizzard, Hyperion, New York, 1999.
- A. J. J. Albany, Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood, Tin House/Bloomsberry, New York & London, 2003.
- The New Frontier building also included an installation by Harris, Digital Diaspora Family Reunion, which shared a data base of 6,500 family photographs gathered in through social networks in five different cities, outlining another way at looking at the importance of photography in the retelling of the African American experience.
- Deborah Willis, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present, W. W. Norton Company, New York, 2002.
- See Georg Szalai, “South African Film Board Clears Jahmil XT Qubeka’s ‘Of Good Report’ After Appeal”, The Hollywood Reporter, 27 July 2013, accessed 4 March 2014.