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2007 New York Film Festival post script

The New York Film Festival never attempted to provide an overview of the contemporary film scene, the sort of panorama offered by the New York Tribeca film festival, Toronto or other major international festivals, nor does the NYFF stand for the marketing frenzy for independents increasingly noted at Sundance. To the contrary, selecting about 28 or 29 films each year, the NYFF has identified over the last 20 years under Richard Pena’s direction innovative film makers challenging past filmmaking orientation with respect to form and content or bringing to our attention countries whose filmmakers deserve recognition. Among the well known discoveries were Pedro Almodovar and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the cinemas of Korea, China, and Argentine, Iran and as of late Romania.

Whereas the 2006 NYFF edition reflected an excellent postmodern selection celebrating women, surreal imagination, and films like David Lynch’ INLAND EMPIRE breaking formal and narrative conventions, in 2007 the festival did not provide discoveries yet reasserted its position as the eclectic center stage for US independent and international film makers. It experienced an increase in submission with more filmmakers and distributors trying to benefit from the recognition the fest and the customary New York Times reviews bestow and the market presence they promise. Certainly, other recognized fests, whether regional, national or international face surplus submissions well driven by the increase in films made by an ever growing number of film school graduates and facilitated by using often low cost production approaches.
We have the sponsor driven explosion of film festivals numbering several thousands worldwide with New York City alone featuring ten different concurrent film festivals in early November, the decline in art film houses and lower appeal of foreign language films. At the same time larger audience exposure is possible through new distribution technologies, the multi channel universe, the internet, netflix and other alternative diffusion models, and last but not least self distribution through video streaming, websites, etc. However, the confluence of all these factors has not resulted in a more profitable distribution of quality independent and international productions. To the contrary film festivals have become a separate market and most new films shown at numerous festivals have little chance of being picked up by distributors. A few of these films, five to be exact, may qualify for IFP’s annual Best Film Not Playing at a Theatre Near You at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

In this plethora of film festivals, productions, approaches, and technologies the New York Film Festival has probably gained more importance cutting through the image noise even though no new master trends or cutting edge film maker were presented this year. The festival also offered more side bars in addition to the traditional Views From the Avant Garde, like the homage to the Chinese Cathay studios and several retrospective screenings.
There were numerous superb features. Todd Haynes extraordinary biopic collage of Bob Dylan I’M NOT THERE presented the eccentric pop culture idol’s life and his various reincarnation played by six actors. The Coen brothers film NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the center piece of the festival, is a stunning and provocative adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel juxtaposing drug trafficking and killing in rural Texas near the Mexican border with law enforcement norms no longer fitting the chaos. The landscape photography is most impressive as is the acting in this cross over film, specifically Javier Bardem in the role of the ruthless killer and Tommy Lee Jones as the hapless sheriff. Sidney Lumet’s BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, is another cross over film that will appeal to cinephiles and movie goers alike. Lumet dissects in this story a suburban family turn apart by a crime in a melodramatic but superbly enacted story tainted with despair. 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS by Christian Mungiu is another revelation from Romania. The film features the dreary and depressing atmosphere of late eighties Romania as the backdrop to an equally disconcerting and graphically presented abortion in a run down hotel. The closing night film PERSEPOLIS by Marjana Strapi and Vincent Parroud is an animated semi-biographical film about growing up in Iran during the transition of the shah’s reign and the aftermath of the fundamentalist revolution. The black and white animation (without the customary computer generated blitz and gloss) appears simplistic at first but has the power of drawing the spectator into the story creating a sense of immediacy and providing clarity as seen through the eyes of a child and young woman. In a strange way the animation has the same effect as Kara Walker’s cut outs in the Whitney, inviting the viewer to complete the image, thus to think about what is not readily accessible. Among the highlights of the 2007 NYFF program is the stunning documentary USELESSS by Jia Zhnagke. Structured in three parts without narration or editorials, it juxtaposes hard labor in the Chinese garment industry with the creations of a Shanghai fashion designer and her adoration by her Paris audience. Ma Ke’s costumes are useless and the contrast between the Chinese laborers and the Paris opening could not be bigger. The documentary becomes powerful since it triggers reflection.

Claus Mueller, New York correspondent

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