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There are two main sites of the New York Film Festival. On the northside of West 65th Street, in the Lincoln Square neighbourhood of Manhattan, is the 268-seat Walter Reade Theater, which sits above the street, accessible by stairs, an escalator, and a bridge that connects to the main campus of Lincoln Center. At street level, on the south side, is the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, which includes theatres, below street level, named after Francesca Beale (140 seats) and Howard Gilman (85 seats). My own experience at this year’s festival, the 61st edition, began in the smallest of these three theatres, on the first day of screenings held for press and industry workers. For 80 minutes, an intimate group watched Pierre Creton’s Un prince (A Prince, 2023), a visually rich and challenging work of homoerotic desire centred on a group of aging and aged horticulturalists. The moment the film ended, we were quickly led by festival staff to the Walter Reade Theater: up a ramp, through the doors, across the street, offered a choice between stairs and escalator, passed the standby line, and into the soon-to-be full Walter Reade for a showing of Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers (2023), a tale of grief, love, and romance between a pair of lonely men. While many will see and appreciate Creton’s film, which also played in the Quinzaine at Cannes and won the prize for Best French Film, thousands more will experience All of Us Strangers, distributed by Searchlight Pictures and fuelled by a pair of strong performances from stars Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott. Walking from A Prince to All of Us Strangers, and having the latter start within minutes of the former’s close, resulted in a collision that informed my experience of both films. The experimental filmmaking of Creton opened my mind in ways that allowed me to lean into the temporal ambiguities of Haigh’s work, itself challenging for a mainstream production. Weeks later, I realized the two films were inseparable in my head. As I talked with friends about the charged chemistry between Mescal and Scott, was I, in fact, remembering the sensation of watching the far greater, more explicit sex scenes of Creton? Did the intense empathy I felt for Scott’s character, Adam, make me feel closer to the purposefully more distant men of A Prince? The ways each film influenced the other in my mind are unquantifiable and unknowable, and a beautiful showcase of the carefully programmed conveyor belt of cinema that is the New York Film Festival. 

A Prince

A Prince screened as part of the festival’s Currents program, which, in the festival’s own words, aims to paint “a more complete picture of contemporary cinema with an emphasis on new and innovative forms and voices,” and complement the main slate, which features movies like All of Us Strangers.1 Films vary in length, scope, and, once they exit the festival circuit, reach. There are works by masters of the avant-garde, like James Benning’s Allensworth (2022), his portrait of a ghost town, once the first settlement run by Black Americans. Films of immediate historical significance, such as the final work by Jean-Luc Godard, Trailer of a Film That Will Never Exist: Phony Wars (2023), the remnants of the director’s never-to-be-finished last feature. And films that pick up distribution from major players, as is the case with Magnolia Pictures and The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed (2023), a hilarious, deeply personal film from writer-director-editor Joanna Arnow. Also, the film’s star, Arnow plays Ann, who is caught in the repetitions of her banal day job, a long-term BDSM hook-up situation with an older man, and spending time with her eccentric parents. The sex, the office small talk, and the family squabbles remain the constant markers of Ann’s world. With a mix of deadpan jokes and facial expressions, Arnow captures that very specific kind of self-aware, amused dread that comes with trying to navigate the world amidst feelings of stagnation. Programmed by Aily Nash, Rachael Rakes, and Tyler Wilson, and chaired by the festival’s artistic director, Dennis Lim, Currents features six programs of shorts, which, together with the feature films, offer not just a look at the varied works of moving image culture in our time, but also an opportunity for viewers of mainstream cinema to have their experience at the movies challenged and enriched. For even though many of these works will exhibit and exist outside of dominant cinematic structures, they are, in ways, both directly and indirectly in dialogue with films that play at commercial theatres, stream on major services, and market their way to awards. 

The Night Visitors

Among the standouts of this year’s program was Michael Gitlin’s feature film about moths, The Night Visitors. Making its international debut at the festival, The Night Visitors features the kind of beautiful close shots reminiscent of a work from, say, National Geographic, and the probing voiceover and editing of the essay film tradition. Gitlin begins with a montage showing various species of moth, revealing their myriad colours, textures, and limbs. There is an obvious pleasure in observing the moths, who through Gitlin’s lens look more like Pokémon or Muppets than actual creatures that populate the forests of North America. Gitlin, though, quickly disrupts this pleasure, bringing in not just his own thoughts of living with these creatures, but socioeconomic histories of moth breeding, for example, and the ways that biologists study the creatures as indicators of climate change. Thankfully, Gitlin tells these histories without avoiding the heavy-handedness that often comes with documentaries of a similar ilk. The unknowable consciousness of the moths becomes a mechanism through which Gitlin reflects on his (and our) own ways of seeing and knowing. The saying “like a moth to a flame,” is often used to describe a person obsessively drawn to someone without care or reason. In The Night Visitors, Gitlin tells us that biologists are not sure exactly why moths are attracted to light. But one theory, he explains, is that moths experience a kind of synesthesia, in which light becomes a pheromone, through which they communicate with one another, especially while mating. If true, Gitlin says, the phrase is “more than just a poetic fancy.” For Gitlin, this possibility, a by-product of an absence of knowledge, becomes a prism through which he reflects on our co-existence with moths, and thus the human psyche. 

Preceding a screening of Benning’s Allensworth were a pair of short films by Kevin Jerome Everson, each featuring original footage shot at the Ohio State Reformatory. The prison ceased operating in 1990, after a lawsuit brought by prisoners revealed the place’s notorious overcrowding and other inhumane practices. The lawsuit, Boyd v. Denton, is also the title of one of Everson’s films. The work condenses hours of footage into just a few minutes, featuring a rapid, layered montage of the camera moving through the prison. Natural light filters into the cells and hallways, providing contrast to the grain of the black and white image. We glimpse remnants of the prison’s past: beds, sinks, toilets, bars and locks. If the prison looks familiar, that is because it is not only a popular tourist site but has also been used in well-known films and television shows, including The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994). The second of Everson’s films shown bears the title, Air Force Two. In it, Everson’s hand-held camera makes its way up and down a hallway of cells. As the camera moves, a narrator (Lydia Marie Hicks), reads a scene from the script of Air Force One (Wolfgang Petersen, 1997), which stars Harrison Ford as the president of the United States. While the scene from the Hollywood film takes place at a prison in Moscow, it was in fact shot at the Ohio State Reformatory. In positioning his film as a kind of sequel to the action film, there is a humorous undertone but, as the film plays out, it takes on a more serious, meditative quality, leaving room for reflection on the production of Hollywood images, and the ways in which they are so deeply intwined with institutions, like the prison system, in ways that mask what we see. In Boyd v. Denton and Air Force Two, Everson succeeds in providing a way to experience this cultural history in two sharply different ways through editing, revealing histories hidden in plain sight.

Mast Del

The sound of the wind pulsates through Maryam Tafakory’s Mast-del (2023). Composed of layers of found and original footage, the film, like earlier works by Tafakory, including Irani Bag (2020) and Nazarbazi (2022), draws from a large corpus of Iranian cinema for a sensorial engagement with touch, memory, and the body. Mast-del is a remarkable blend of text (written by Tafakory) and image. The film begins with two women in bed, one recounting to the other an old date with a man at the cinema. The narration appears on screen as text, fading in and out with each new line. The images serve as a kind of adaptation and expansion of the text. Described by the filmmaker as a “a love song that would never pass through the censors,” Tafakory abstracts the image through zooms, repetitions, and tints. Through the abstraction comes a palpable intimacy, one that immerses us in the story that the film cannot fully show. Like the wind of Mast-del, the sound of heavy breath provides a striking layer to the sound of Intersections (Richard Tuohy, Dianna Barrie, 2022), which screened alongside Tafakory’s film in the group of shorts billed as “Close Encounters.” The Framptonesque work by Tuohy and Barrie is a rapid montage of footage filmed at an intersection. Accompanying the image is the sound from a group of people umming, ahhing, laughing, breathing, and uttering words that typically preface an interjection: “you know,” “but,” “and.” Intersecting shadows, bodies, cars, and bicycles recall the rhythms and scenes of the city film. But the soundtrack and hard cuts disrupt the pleasure we might otherwise get from such a film, instead bringing our attention to form and a focus on the structures of the collective. 

Dildotectónica

Dildotectónica (Dildotectonics), an incisive short from Tomás Paula Marques, begins with Rebeca Letras, an artisan in Portugal, who demonstrates processes to create ceramic dildos that challenge both the typical heteronormative designs, and the usual, chemical-heavy ways of manufacturing. We then learn the story of Josefa, who took refuge at a Catholic retreat during the Inquisition and was later prosecuted for a having a sexual relationship with another woman, Maria. The possession of a dildo became a crucial piece of evidence used during the trial. The inquisitors cited the dildo as evidence that “Josefa had a masculine sexual role.” This, along with rumours that Josefa had once lived as a man, caused Josefa to flee. Intercut with images of Rebeca’s work are re-enacted scenes of the relationship between Josefa and Maria, and the women who turned them over to the inquisitors. Rebeca tells us that the true events are not fully known, nor can the account, written by the inquisitors, be fully trusted. Marques’ montage and camerawork convey the porous nature of this story. It is not the facts that matter, but the ways in which the story gestures towards the taboo, manifest in societies even today. The cruel historical irony of the human experience is how often natural desires for pleasure are persecuted. In the film, Rebeca shares another irony: we would not know the story of Josefa had Maria not been captured by the inquisitors, and thus been forced to share. Marques’ film is not just a powerful reclaiming of this story, but one that reveals the ability of collective histories and memories to transcend space and time. 

The Fist

Ayo Akingbade’s The Fist (2022) takes as its setting the first Guinness brewery built outside of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Located in Ikeja, in the Lagos State of Nigeria, the operation opened in 1962. The popularity of Guinness in Africa stretches back to the 19th century when the company began shipping to British colonies. By the early 2000s, Guinness was one of the most popular drinks on the continent, making a large chunk of the brand’s sales.2 Akingbade’s film makes none of this context explicit. Instead, The Fist takes an engrossing fly-on-the-wall approach, focusing on the daily goings on of the brewery. Shot on 35mm, the film oscillates between images of human labour and automation. The colonial legacy of the beverage — and its popularity today — exists in between these moments and processes. The Fist deftly avoids any commodity fetishism — this is not a film to promote Guinness sales. Instead, Akingbade foregrounds the workers whose labour fuels the beverage’s popularity and history. In Dau:añcut // Moving Along Image (2023), director Adam Piron offers another exploration of colonial legacy. Set and recorded on a phone screen, the film traces an occurrence from 2014, when the filmmaker’s family noticed an image of a relative in his traditional Native American regalia had been tattooed on the arm of a soldier in Ukraine. The film features interviews with relatives, who marvel at the large, elaborate tattoo — “The first thing I thought was: it’s a beautiful tattoo. It was really well done.” — and discuss its problematic implications. In choosing the mobile phone documentary approach, Piron not only recreates the act of discovery, but a formal reflection on the global circulation of images. At one point, a relative says that, were the tattoo worn by a white person in the United States, for example, it would be more problematic. The distance and context make a difference. Through montages of social posts, screenshots, and military videos, Piron’s essayistic exploration raises significant questions about the nature of such image appropriation and its colonial roots. It succeeds in taking a truly personal, random moment, and expanding it out to reckon with some of the most crucial questions about the nature of the image in the digital age.

New York Film Festival
29 September – 15 October
https://www.filmlinc.org/nyff2023/

Endnotes

  1. FLC announces NYFF60 Currents selections”, Film at Lincoln Center, 18 August 2022
  2. For more on this history, see: Helen Thompson, “How Guinness Became an African Favorite,” Smithsonian, 17 March 2014.

About The Author

Will DiGravio is a critic, researcher, and video essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. His work related to videographic and found footage films includes hosting The Video Essay Podcast, writing a newsletter on the subject, and curating Recycled Screenings.

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