The 58th New York Film Festival, which took place September 17 to October 11, was inevitably unique in a year of disease and unrest. Taking place at drive-ins and online, NYFF did what was necessary to let the show go on despite uniformly unfortunate circumstances. With a smaller slate and the possibility for viewers from all around the country sitting on their own couches to participate, it was an adjustment for everyone. The community formation and camaraderie that are typical of the festival may have slightly suffered, but the Film at Lincoln Center team did what they could to maintain the festival’s excellent curatorial style along with events, talks, and other initiatives aimed at getting folks together in recognisable, if socially distant, ways. By all accounts, the drive-in screenings were a welcome replacement, and very few issues seemed to occur with the festival’s virtual screening system. If nothing else, it was a restorative experience in the middle of a tumultuous year to participate in the festival.
The Main Slate, which consisted of 25 films this year, was a mix of NYFF mainstays, relative newcomers, and industry elders. While Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand, had the most buzz coming hot off of a People’s Choice Award from TIFF, the centrepiece was threefold this year with three out of five entries from Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology. Lovers Rock was the Opening Night film, and what a way to kick things off. At barely more than an hour, it is a deeply sensual film focused on the ecstasy that arises from the collective jot and unity in a communal experience of bodies being in perpetual motion, sweat glistening, feet shuffling, music sublimely washing over it all. There’s little in the way of narrative, as it is more focused on maintaining a mood of warmth, support, love, and, most of all, rhythm. With each of the Small Axe films, it could be difficult to know how to assess it for we must ultimately wait until all five films are released on Amazon in the US (and BBC One in the UK) to gain a full picture of McQueen’s unique project. Still, Lovers Rock is eminently rousing on its own and a pleasure to watch, setting a harmonious tone for the festival from the jump.
Mangrove takes an altogether different approach, telling the true tale of a Trinidad-born café/restaurant owner in Notting Hill whose establishment is raided numerous times due to its West Indian clientele and association with Black activists. A protest and police brutality follow. The film, which ultimately turns into a gripping courtroom drama, is more conventional in its storytelling and formalism, but is nevertheless stirringly rendered, buoyed further by excellent and impassioned performances from Shaun Parkes as the café owner and Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones-LeCointe, a leader of the British Black Panther Movement and one of the “Mangrove Nine” who are arrested following the protest. Once the film does switch into the courtroom, it becomes clear how at least part of McQueen’s project in the anthology is to foreground how the past is always felt concurrently with the present, highlighting how the personal is political, yes, but also that this is an ongoing project of the self as well as the collective.
Red, White and Blue, the final Small Axe installment screened, ends up as the most conventional of the three, with another true story, this time about Leroy Logan and his decision to join the London Metropolitan Police Force in the 1980s, firmly against the wishes of his father, a victim of police brutality, and many in his community. John Boyega playing Logan is the film’s greatest achievement, a performance built on the actor’s insistent charisma, naivete, and growing resistance to a system he thought he could fix. The film is rather simple in its execution, though, as it hits the notes you expect it to while underlining the obvious moments and rarely exploring anything beyond. Still, it’s effective at arguing for the utterly futile nature of Logan’s mission — fixing a broken system from the inside won’t work, and in the end, the only option is starting over.
A number of films similarly addressed continuing discourses about race, justice, politics and history. MLK/FBI, directed by Sam Pollard, is an expertly-crafted documentary charting the many methods the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, used to surveil and antagonise Martin Luther King Jr. throughout the 1960s. While the broad outlines of the story will likely be familiar to most, being witness to the extent of the agency’s manipulations and sabotage is remarkable, particularly as it emphasises their interest in suppressing any form of dissent about them or the government they serve (though it becomes clear that the FBI really only serves itself). It’s infuriating to watch, and seems likely to persuade anyone watching of the FBI’s horrific history. And yet, several of the film’s interviewees spend some time acquiescing to certain revealed FBI documents about King’s personal misdeeds, refusing to characterise them as the obvious smear jobs they are — perhaps they simply cannot entirely remove themselves from the narrativized allure of the agency despite their career-long criticisms. Throw in a completely unnecessary cameo by former FBI director James Comey sadly opining on the dark history of his agency and you find yourself wishing the doc had stuck more closely to its incredible archival footage.
Far more impactful is Garrett Bradley’s monumentally moving documentary, Time. Combining home video and current-day footage, the film chronicles the 20-year mission of Fox Rich, a mother and prison abolitionist who fights for her husband to be released from jail while raising their children (six boys!) alone. Bradley employs simple but downright beautiful editing to make her points, relying on magnificent visual rhymes and symmetry to communicate the grief Rich feels and the determination she brings to her family and her cause. As a result, the chronology can become a bit confusing, but the point here is an affective throughline rather than one that closely follows the ebbs and flows of her husband’s case. Rich is a stunningly magnetic presence throughout, bringing home her commitment to righting the wrongs of a deeply discriminatory justice system alongside her all-abiding love for her family. You’re unlikely to see a more rousing documentary this year.
Other highlights of the Main Slate include Frederick Wiseman’s latest, City Hall, a four-and-a-half hour masterpiece about Boston’s municipal inner workings. Documentaries were well-represented in every program at the festival this year, and Wiseman is an elder statesman that only plays by his own rules. As ever, he is fiercely observant of institutions and their flaws, and this may be his most outwardly political film, as he follows Boston mayor Marty Walsh as the main character we see popping up again and again all over the city, but Wiseman’s real focus is on everyone else who keeps the wheels turning and tries to do some good every day within a bureaucracy built to stifle them. The result is by turns inspiring and defeating, and Wiseman seemingly wants us to hold both of those feelings at once to make palpable how systems of power complicate any individual’s goals. Tsai Ming-liang’s latest, Days, is an almost wordless (and purposefully subtitle-less) exercise in perfecting his own style. Each cut feels like a new beginning, building a singular rhythm that builds suspense into whatever will come next after each achingly long take. He combines his usual preoccupation with social disaffection and anomie with a more obvious foray into queer time and lonely souls. Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple is a heartbreaking rendering of a character’s artistic mediocrity, in this case within the classical Indian music tradition of Khayal, and how difficult it can be to come to terms with one’s own fate. Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings plays with oral traditions and bodily re-enactments, spiritual possession and the unending power of storytelling, and how that power can be strengthened or transformed under certain circumstances — plus, Denis Lavant hangs out in the background with a chicken on his shoulder. Hong Sang-soo, who has had films in almost every NYFF over the past decade, returned with his latest collaboration with Kim Min-hee, The Woman Who Ran. Hong, as ever, has a structural idea in mind that he uses to force characters — newly, for Hong, lacking the liberation of alcohol (even with several textual references to this) — to confront shared histories and past slights, secrets and confessions, leading one to wonder whether what’s “natural” is really that at all. It’s not top-tier for him, but it’s yet another strong reminder that he is one of our most impressive filmmakers.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me in the Main Slate was Song Fang’s The Calming, which has the effect you’d expect from such a title. Carefully composed and on its own subtle rhythm, the film is a contemplative look at what it feels like to reorient yourself to the world around you under new circumstances (following a loss, for example), leading, one hopes, to a renewal in yourself and in your expression in the world. It’s a compliment for me to say that it would be a great film to fall asleep to. Fang’s previous film, Memories Look Like Me, played at NYFF50, and I’ll have to seek it out.
Some rearranging of slates took place this year, but Spotlight is intended to do just that. Here, we find a short film by Pedro Almodóvar starring a lone Tilda Swinton, The Human Voice, which is pleasant to look at and allows Swinton to go full theatre kid with her monologuing. There is also David Dufresne’s documentary The Monopoly of Violence, which chronicles France’s yellow vest protests against police brutality. What’s most effective here is Dufresne’s choice to have victims of police violence react to enlarged videos of their incidents in real time, unsubtly suggesting the power in images to make a difference, and you feel it, and yet we also know few changes have (so far) occurred as a result. Then there is Sofia Coppola’s latest, On the Rocks, which stars Rashida Jones and Bill Murray as a father and daughter duo investigating the possible infidelity of Jones’ husband. If you hear Coppola’s film described as “light and breezy,” that’s because it is, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t able to impart a signature melancholy to the proceedings, with many quick but sharp moments that sting and linger. Still, there’s something about it that feels precisely like an “Apple TV+ film event presented by Sofia Coppola,” but that might just be me projecting onto it more than anything.
The Currents slate is devoted to more experimental or less-placeable films, along with shorts, and it was a grab bag of variable quality. Some efforts, like Ricky D’Ambrose’s Object Lessons, or: What Happened Whitsunday and Nuria Giménez’s My Mexican Bretzel, take pointed approaches to fact and fiction not exactly to trick the audience but at least to problematise our assumptions about how these things can blur. Unfortunately, the impact is lessened by a lack of clarity in each vision or indeed any emotional commitment to their creations. On the other hand, Her Socialist Smile and The Inheritance both crib from well-known political works and styles but become entirely distinctive agitprop-adjacent cinema. Directed by Ephraim Asili, The Inheritance is a skillful homage to and repudiation of Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, and is both in conversation with that film’s approach to leftist politics while also critiquing its willingness to parody the efforts of the young activists involved. Here, we see the strains of collectivism and of communal living juxtaposed against a genuine curiosity and the slow work of building a movement, buoyed by art and culture as reinforcement rather than mere reference. Her Socialist Smile, directed by John Gianvito, is a gripping piece of media archeology on Helen Keller’s lesser-known socialist politics and activism, and how it was always inextricable from her advocacy for disability rights even if it often made people uncomfortable. Formally simple but effective, relying on Keller’s words (which stand on their own powerfully) and nature footage, Gianvito’s film is refreshingly attentive to textures applied to different senses, and has a galvanising insight into a figure many of us believe we already know.
Finally, the festival’s revivals section was lively, particularly Jia Zhang-ke’s early film Xiao Wu (1997) which charts a country’s uncomfortable move into capitalism and the attendant need to assimilate. Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) has never looked better (look out for a Criterion release soon), and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai (1998) is one of his most controlled films which nonetheless packs a tragedy-tinged punch. There is also an odd historical document, Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1971), in which Baldwin clashes with the director, Terence Dixon, who seems to have no plan for the film and instead plans to goad Baldwin into some kind of action. It’s bizarre to watch, as Baldwin gets understandably frustrated by this approach, and yet there is much to gain when Baldwin eventually begins imparting wisdom to younger Black youths in the city as a transient role model.
The festival may have been unlike any other, but there were certain advantages to the community coming together in this way. Accessibility, while still facing particular virtual challenges (not everyone always has the reliable internet connection necessary for such an event), was overcome in many contexts as folks were able to simply log in from home to experience it all. Discussions occurred over Zoom, on social media, over email, and through other platforms, a mix of what regularly happens during a festival and what doesn’t, but in a year of perpetually closed cinemas it was all-around recuperative to come together in these ways, finding our way into a collective oneness through our laptop screens and car windows.
New York Film Festival
September 17 – October 11, 2020
Festival website: https://www.filmlinc.org/nyff2020/