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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is  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.


New York: New Directors New Films 2021


Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the annual New Directors New Films festival (ND/NF) was held in New York from April 28 - May 8 with extended in-person screenings until May 1st at the Film at Lincoln Center (FLC) location.  The 2021 festival offered 27 features, 11 shorts, and 11 films in its retrospective line-up. The international feature program showcased productions from, Iran, South Korea, Spain, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Nigeria, Australia, Greece, Georgia, France, India, and Malta. Individual tickets for virtual rentals were  $12 ($9.60 for FLC members) and $17 ($12 for FLC members) for the In-Theater tickets.  The Virtual All-Access pass sold for $275 and was discounted to $220 for FLC members.

ND/NF has gained its well-deserved reputation by focusing on films that present significant artistically current productions and films whose directors and producers set new trends for innovative future film making. As articulated by La Frances Hui, Curator of Films at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  and Co-Chair of ND/NF,  “From intimate personal tales to political, meta physical and spiritual  inquiries the 50th edition embodies an inexhaustible curiosity and a fearless desire for adventure…they prove that cinema will continue to illuminate and inspire the way we live and make art.”

ND/NF was organized by MoMA’s  Department of Film and Film at Lincoln Center, FLC (formerly called the Film Society of Lincoln Center). ND/NF presented an online platform this year from April 16-28 with a free virtual retrospective of eleven films. These films were presented in the USA  by ND/NF during its first 50 years and directed by Wim Wenders, Humberto Solas, Chantal Ackerman, and others. Among the many directors who sometimes premiered their films at the annual ND/NF festival were Pedro Almodovar, Michael Haneke, Guillermo del Toro, Spike Lee, and Jia Zhangke.

Among the external sponsors of ND/NF this year were Chanel, American Airlines, New York State agencies, The New House Foundation, The Brown Foundation (Houston), numerus individuals, and the Association on Independent Commercial Producers.

Vinothraj P.S. directed the Tamil language  2020 production PEBBLES in his debut as director and writer and delivered a close to perfect brief film deserving of the Tiger Award as the best film at the Rotterdam film festival this year.  The brief and concise story takes place in Nadu, in southeastern India, a sun drenched landscape with scarce vegetation and few animals outside of the two small villages where some of the film takes place. The cinematography focuses on space and isolated landscapes,  precisely recorded in static long takes that closely resemble a documentarian’s approach. Interactions are restricted to a young boy named Velu and his alcoholic drifting father Ganapathy.  Ganapathy forces Velu to leave school to find his mother living in a different small village and to pressure her to rejoin him. There is no communication between them apart from the father’s verbal and physical abuse, and threats during their long walk home after Velu has torn up their bus tickets. Silence prevails and is reinforced by the superbly framed images of the dry and desolate landscape. The viewer can observe brief segments of the everyday life of the villagers, including Velu’s mother’s family members, and their scorn for his father. The film gains strength from the selection of Velu, a non-professional actor who was chosen because his background comes close to the family story of the director. Velu offers an authentic persuasive performance.

The  2020 Spanish film EL PLANETA, by  Amalia  Ulman, opened the ND/NF festival after its premiere at  Sundance. This first feature film in black and white by writer and director Ulman is a remarkable dark comedy on the economic decline and lifestyle of an apparent upper middle class family and their attempts to maintain the image and illusion of the life they used to have. The audience experiences the  compulsion of a mother and daughter living by themselves to manage the impression others have of them, reflecting a precarious attempt to maintain a self-image no longer supported by their formerly predictable financial status. Both principal characters, Leonore and Mafia, are  played by the director Amalia Ulman and her own  mother. Despite  her mother’s lack of acting background, both deliver an impressive performance that externalizes the double life they lead. In shops and restaurants, credit cards are used by the mother, payments are postponed, merchants are told that the husband will cover, and thefts are  used to cover up their newfound poverty. The mother frequently wears a fur coat from better times in the past. At home, they survive on  cookies,  have no electricity, and endure freezing rooms while the daughter makes her own dresses. Both realize that they are living in poverty but blame each other because neither have jobs. The mother is advised by a social worker that she is not entitled to any public support because there is no record that she ever worked. She is informed that she should check out homeless shelters but refuses to do so. The film ends with her pick up from her home by the police for shoplifting but she manages a graceful exit. The film was  shot in Gijon during a time with few people visible, boarded up shops readily apparent, and the decline of this once industrial city recorded in bleak images, providing an excellent visual frame for  socioeconomic degradation. EL PLANETA is an appealing production because it focuses on a topic rarely  covered, the impact of the economic descent of families from their taken for granted, relatively affluent middle class positions.

Jacqueline Lentzou directed the Greek-France 2001 coproduction MOON, 66 QUESTIONS, a film documenting the passage between daughter and father from silence to communication, won Best Film in this year’s  Berlinale  Encounters  competition.  Lentzou is known for numerous short films screened in important film festivals.  With MOON,66 QUESTIONS Lentzou  completed a complex feature film  as indicated in the  film’s subtitle,  “A film about love, movement, flow, (and the lack of them)”. The film is an assemblage of filmed segments from the childhood of Artemis and the life of her father Paris, made up of VHS, and camcorder biographical passages, voiceovers, reconstructed fragments of encounters with friends, scrapbook items, and recollections of painful moments Artemis experienced. There are several  longer sequences of her stiffly assembled family, with Paris and Artemis included, and claims of taking care of Paris’s accelerating conditions of multiple sclerosis and his progressing muteness. As his only daughter, Artemis joins Paris and becomes the caretaker.

The film is sequenced into four parts and visualized in tarot cards which introduce each part. The first  card shows a blindfolded woman holding two large swords and has no inscription, the second is entitled Strength with a woman pictured alongside a lion, the third card The World has a half nude woman surrounded by a woman’s head, an eagle, a bull, and lion, and the last is identified as The Magician, featuring a male. The cards seem to symbolize the transition of Artemis from a powerful but quiet person into someone gaining strength and eventual mastery. From the beginning, there is no emotional attachment between Artemis and Paris, as she notes early on “we never spoke, a communication problem”. Even when she was as a small child, Paris refused to respond to Artemis, but she wonders towards the end if his condition could improve if he were able to communicate. The family abhors any discussion of the cause of Paris’s multiple sclerosis. His mother claims that Paris’s problem was caused by the umbilical cord, 15 hours of labor and that “he did not want to come out”. It seems that there was no strong support from the family for Artemis, as the disputations with her indicate. But Paris is getting better. Given the physical closeness Artemis and Paris develop during the treatment, the obvious distance between the breaks down. While having dinner in a restaurant, there is rapprochement after she gives him a letter revealing a family secret.  Without looking at it he moves towards her for an embrace.

In her first feature debut FAYA DAYI  (2021, USA),  the  Mexican-Ethiopian filmmaker Jessica Beshire, who previously made short films about her  Ethiopian hometown Harar,  successfully combines her filmmaking approach with documentary and ethnocentric elements  to create a masterful multilevel portrait of her country. In her vaguely linear narrative, Beshire combines closeups, slow moving addictive black and white photography with comments respecting and dissecting symbolic and religious cognitive structures shared by the young and old. In her semi-spiritual journey, lyrical passages and beauty provide an important layer of experience, but other elements of the Ethiopian culture are covered too. One important part is the role and impact of the extensive growth and consumption of Khat, a stimulating psychoactive green leaf plant which has been part of the folklore and tradition of generations in  Ethiopian history. Khat supports meditation but also, as Beshire suggests, escaping everyday reality. Interwoven in her superb film is the fable of a man asked by God to discover the water of eternal life and his failure to do so. There is also the story of a young boy named Mohammed working in the Khat trade and his frustrating experience with a father apparently addicted to the drug. In his words, Khat kills the soul. Beshire also touches on the displacement of  traditional crops like coffee by Khat, the hopelessness of young people dreaming about leaving their country, the  ethnic and tribal group conflicts which have persisted in Ethiopia, generational tensions, and the role of tradition. Beshire avoids the commonly accepted linear narrative and as a result the audience is led into an immersion of her imagery and fragmentary stories. The audience must reflect on the perceived gaps and thus retain some themes of FAYA DAYI in their own minds after the film’s superb visual execution has ended.

This slightly modified  review of the FAYA DAYI  was first posted on March 13 in my second report of the 2021 Sundance festival.


Claus Mueller, New York




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