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New directors, new films: a global view


The 34th edition of New Directors/New Films, one of New York’s film highlights, opened this past weekend, another sign of a long delayed Spring for a city that has suffered through one of its coldest winters in fifty years. Anticipation is high among the city’s intrepid film adventurers, not only for the films themselves, but for their (partial) presentation at the expensively refurbished Museum of Modern Art (which just opened in November after a sixty-million dollars overhaul).

The international showcase, which is co-presented by the Film Department of the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, will screen thirty works, from twenty-two countries. While the films all have unique stories and unique storytellers to tell them, they offer a unique global perspective sorely lacking from most newspaper and television reportage.

This is no small task during a period of political insularity, where television news is hobbled and access to alternate views are restricted to the Internet. Perhaps one of the great gifts that New Directors offers us is a reminder of how diverse, and how common, is the plight of human being across the planet.

The French, per usual, are very well represented, with six features and co-productions. Considering that New York audiences just experienced an embarrassment of riches with the RENDEZ VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA program at Lincoln Center (which featured new films from Andre Techine, Benoit Jacquot, Bertrand Tavernier, Yvon Attal and Claude Chabrol), one is continually amazed by the ferocity of interest of New Yorkers in the ways and wiles of les Francais.

The purely French films include Sequins, an emotional story of the connection between a trouble teenage girl and a grieving older woman who teaches her the transcendent value of work creating meaning in one’s life; Le Grand Voyage, a wonderfully rich story of a rebellious young Moslem’s transformation when he reluctantly accompanies his strict father on a pilgrimage to Mecca; They Came Back, a provocative work that uses elements of science fiction to reflect on contemporary issues; and L’Esquive, the surprise Cesar Award-winning tale set in the North African suburban ring around Paris.

French co-productions include Darwin’s Nightmare (with Austria and Belgium), a documentary portrait of globalization and its effect on local economies and ecologies of Tanzania) and series opener The Hero (a co-pro with Angola and Portugal), a deft and touching drama about the transition from war to peace in post-colonial Angola, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

While specific themes, other than the aggressive embracing of a global view, are hard to find among all the various films, it can be noted that many of the films deal with the problems of adolescence and the striving for young people to find a balance between tradition and modern life.

In the Bulgarian film Mila From Mars, a pregnant young woman flees an abusive relationship and ends up in a border town where the simple folk teach her valuable lessons of humility and compassion. Somersault, a remarkable first feature from Australian director Cate Shortland, is an evocative study of one girls’ difficult coming-of-age in an atmosphere of reckless sex and male manipulation. In Duck Season, the latest film from Mexico’s new wave, two teenage boys are adrift in an atmosphere of ennui and loneliness.

The Italians have always had a way of showing the pains of growing up, and the Italian film Certi Bambini, set on the mean streets of modern-day Naples, is another devastating film of great power in the classic Italian neo-realist tradition. In the Polish box office hit The Welts, an abused boy has trouble growing into a healthy man until he is able to forgive his autocratic father. In the Cuban documentary, Young Rebels, a group of young people, devoid of economic hope and revolutionary spirit, use local hip hop to express their lack of connection to their family, state and environment.

New Directors/New Films has a long tradition of showcasing “issue” dramas, films that take the viewer behind the scenes of the headlines, to foster a great human understanding of the multi-dimensionality of conflict and resolution.

In the Italian film Private, a Palestinian family whose home has been commandeered by the Israeli army, struggles with its sense of purpose and identity as the conflict literally comes home to roost.
In the revelatory American documentary, Our Brand Is Crisis, the backstage maneuvers of American political consultants in the re-election of Bolivia’s President is a telling admission of the promise and limitations of American-style democracy. America’s obsession with celebrity and exacting standards of success, serve as the backdrop for The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a riveting tale of one musician’s harrowing journey in the pursuit of fame in the music business.

Issues need not strictly be political in nature. Is there any more fascinating subject than the drama of human existence and the shared need to transcend the self and be of use in the community? These are the underlying themes of a number of human dramas, including such standout titles as Junebug, an American indie graced with a perfect cast (including Embeth Davidtz and Alessandro Nivola) and a witty script that explores the horror and rewards of family life; Live-In Maid, a story of social class conflict between two women set against the backdrop of the current economic and social crisis in Argentina; in the wickedly humorous Norwegian film Clorox, Ammonia and Coffee, a single mother tries to break free from her stultifying life and learns valuable lessons along the way.

The prolific Asian cinema is represented by the films Starlit High Noon (Japan), a highly original work about an angelic hit man with a double life; South of the Clouds (China), a profoundly moving film about generational and cultural divides in contemporary China; Two Great Sheep, Chinese director Liu Hao’s bittersweet fable of an old farmer in the Chinese countryside who receives a mysterious gift (from God?) of two great sheep.

And then there are the films that can’t be easily placed in any one slot, but stand on their own for their originality, creativity and singular vision. Kontroll, a visually stunning film from Hungary, is a slapstick tale of redemption set in the Budapest subway system. In Primo Amore, by Italian director Matteo Garrone, a modern-day Pygmalion tries to mold his all-too-human Galatea into the object of his desire, with untold complications and insights. And finally, in the outrageous comedy Agnes and His Brothers, a transsexual and his equally sexually confused brothers must come to a resolution of their family squabbles through the art of compromise and mutual respect.

The treasures are rich indeed, and visitors to the Museum of Modern Art or the Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center will be the chief beneficiaries. We are not isolated, the films tell us. We are not alone.

Sandy Mandelberger
Industry Editor


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