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Claus Mueller


Claus Mueller is filmfestivals.com  Senior New York Correspondent

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene, professor at Hunter University, accredited member of the Foreign Press Center,  U.S. Department of State NY.


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New York: New Directors New Films 2020 at MoMA

 

In its  2020  hybrid format, New York Film Festival reached a national online audience  of 70,000  in addition to local  drive in viewers and retained its status as a show case for the most important contemporary films. The 49th edition of 3the New Directors / New Films (ND/NF) festival staged from   December 9-20  by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center (FLC) presented the perspective of how filmmakers from all over the world visualize current issues and the future. It offered 24 features and 10 short films over 12 days to a nationwide audience through the FLC virtual cinema platform. Filmmakers’ views were reflected in  many debut productions with stylistic and structural approaches negating the often-standard manner of linear film making and its narratives. Their work brought to the fore powerful, surreal, and dreamlike elements while often retaining the topical relevance of the themes selected. They forced viewers to consider intended or unintended conceptual gaps and engage in reflection. The visuals were frequently presented in a fragmented way reflecting the   chaotic and conflictual state of affairs in today’s societies where an anchor of certainty is often absent. As the poet  Yeats observed in his prescient poem written in 1919, The Second Coming, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ”. As articulated by La Frances Hui, MoMA’s curator of films and co-chair of  ND/NF, “We are excited to take our festival virtual and celebrate this class of new directors who embody the innovative and nimble spirit essential for invigoration.”  However, the online presentation of outstanding films will hardly revive theatrical distribution as I suggested half a year ago in my own Farewell to Movie Theatres*. The 2020 ND/NF edition continues the festival’s  focus on the international, with a selection of the best productions, often major award winners, from film festivals like Berlin, Locarno, Rotterdam, Sundance, and Venice.  

Collective,  Alexander Nanau, 2019, Romania

Collective is a masterpiece of documentary investigative reporting going beyond the customary documentation of state sponsored corruption and the failure to engage in corrective action. In an accidental fire in a Bucharest nightclub 27 people were killed and more than 40 perished afterwards from their injuries in hospitals due to medication provided that proved useless. Up to 95% of the disinfectants applied to the burns had been diluted to increase the profit of the vendors. Burn victims developed severe infections and died.  Journalists researching the disaster uncovered and documented widespread corruption in the state funded  hospital system, coverups by  politically appointed officials of the crimes, money laundering, violations of mandated medical care procedures Romania had to follow as a member of the European Union, obfuscation and denial of facts by medical executives and other professionals, and complete disregard by local pharmaceutical corporations of health considerations. Nanau  was able to track and document the work of journalists and that of  a new minister of health who wanted to  clear up the corrupt system but was hampered by the established network of vested interests preventing action. The National Liberal party retained power in an election despite it being the backbone of ongoing systemic corruption in the health system and  widespread media reporting about the health scandal and those responsible for it.

Atlantis,  Vaetiyn Vasyanovich, 2019, Ukraine

In 2025, one year after the end of a war between Ukraine and Russia, Sergy, a decommissioned Ukrainian soldier survives in the Eastern Ukrainian Donbass region which had been devastated by the war. He first works in a derelict steel mill but loses his job because of the mill’s closure. Sergy then finds work driving water trucks in a sector where the water supply has been totally polluted, and helps a foreign NGO agent in exhuming, identifying, and burying Ukrainian and Russian soldiers, as well as civilians, from mass graves. There is little human interaction or communication in the film, nor change in the actors’ presentation of their characters. The actors were cast in large part because of their actual war experiences. The precisely shot black and white cinematography drives Atlantis, with dystopian images of burned out factories, abandoned decrepit apartment buildings, and social isolation resultant from the lack of living people.  Sergy is barely alive, facing destruction and death all around him. As he says, he once had a future but sees no possible change or meaning  now.  Atlantis  is a compelling production, in part because Vasyanovich has stripped  Atlantis to bare bone essentials.

Identifying Features, Fernanda  Valadez, 2020, Mexico and Spain

This subdued but superb portrait of a mother, Magdalena, searching for her missing son who has left Mexico with his companion to migrate to the United States, presents a well-paced story with documentary overtones. Magdalena’s quest to find her son finds her overcoming all obstacles posed by officials declaring him dead despite no clear evidence and the conflict ridden conditions in the region she passes through near the border.  In his very impressive first feature, Valadez focuses on Magdalena’s  persistence in finding out what happened to her son rather than the crimes and civil chaos caused by drug trafficking and the failings of government efforts to protect the public. These features are prominent in many films about migration from Mexico but, though important, remain in the background of Identifying Features. Many migrants trying to reach the US perish before they ever reach the border. The audience accompanies Magdalena in her painstaking investigation retracing her son’s passage, and learns how corpses and possessions are  identified, how busloads of people are hijacked and killed while officials remain silent, how the disappearance of people and their fate  is commonly accepted, and how  areas close to the border, presumably controlled by drug cartels, are so dangerous that residents simply abandon them. Daniel, having been previously deported from the US, accompanies  Magdalena on the last stretch of her search, hoping to find his own loved ones,  his parents. But the childhood home is abandoned,  and armed militia chase Magdalena and Daniel away.  The feature has a surprise ending which logically fits with Valadez’s story of individuals dislocated by forces beyond their control.

Red Moon Tide, Lois Patiño, 2020, Spain

During 2020, Red Moon Tide had its word premiered in the Berlinale’s Forum section and has been shown at more than thirty other international film festivals, receiving ten rewards to date. The director Lois Patiño, who also wrote the script and did the cinematography. This feature is a brilliant exercise of film making driven by the power of visual images. As in some other ND/NF selections, dialogue and the spoken word play a minimal role, as do personal exchanges. Red Moon Tide explores a mystical universe and the fate of Rubio, a diver who rescues bodies of shipwrecked people.  In Patiño’s words, “ We move across a limbo in the film between life and death, between the imaginary and the real. Here the dead don’t leave, they stay with us, forming a bond between the living and the dead and preventing closure of mourning if there is no body”. Thus, “everybody is paralyzed, lost deep in their own minds.”  Before he set the film in a small Galician coast village, Patiño interviewed its people who suggested that “Here, the dead do not leave, they stay with us”.

In Red Moon Rising the village and its residents  seems to be frozen in time, providing little movement and even less communication. They are stationery and mute  compared to some errant animals and the constant changes of the tide.  A  voiceover provides a fragmentary narrative about loss and seems  looped.  Rubio’s disappearance in a supposed struggle with a sea monster has left the village in a limbo and arrested their passage of time.  Immured between life and death, the living and the deceased in the village are caught up in silent thoughts and the persistent mourning of Rubio. Three witches appear in this phantom world to solve the mystery.  Patiño transcends the border between the real, imagination, and the unconscious through meticulous compositions of frequently surreal images which have a stunning impact. They carry more weight and appeal than accounts of meanings would and leave it up to the audience to ascertain what they see . After all, in the state of mourning silence prevails over speech.

 

Claus Mueller, filmexchange@gmail.com   New York

*in filmfestivals.com  June 2020 and The Festival Beat

 

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