By Tristan Teshigahara Pollack
3/11/13 New Directors/New Films: Day 1
Matias Pineiro, a graduate from Universidad del cine (one of Argentina’s most prestigious universities), has a profound obsession with the uneventful. Although his films are replete with probing camera work, dialogue heavy sequences, convergences between theatre and film, and promiscuous diversions, his gifts as cinematic purveyor have been somewhat ignored by the festival circuit. In his realm, theatre is both source and subject. Shakespeare seems to be his most cherished source for film adaptation. With three feature films to his name, (El hombre robado, 2007; Todos mienten, 2009; Viola, 2012) and an omnibus film (Rosalinda, 2010) made in collaboration with James Benning and Denis Cote for the Jeonju Digital Project, his latest film Viola marks his second Shakespearean film. Almost devoid of plot – but layered with riddles – the film begins with the rehearsal of an all-female Shakespeare production of several plays: their chosen repertoire is a kaleidoscopic ferris wheel of sexual intrigue and philosophical revelations. Then the focus moves backstage, as the girls debate about the difference between ethical relationships and one’s worldview, obliterating the theatrical text for philosophical inquiry, which marks the first pivotal transition. The next half centers on the titular character, Viola (Maria Villar) who cycles around Buenos Aires selling packages of dvds (what appears to be bootlegged dvds) to several clients, including an actress from the theatre troupe. When Viola’s attempts to deliver the package to the actress (Agustina Munoz) are proven to be fruitless, a most beguiling thing occurs: a new ‘actor’ enters, as a consequence, a new story and a new role is suggested. The actress confesses that she can no longer carry out her role, acknowledging Viola’s stoicism, she propositions her to play her character (Viola) and Viola happily accepts. For Pineiro, a master of both structure and indeterminacy, masque is the password to this riddle.
3/12/13 New Directors/ New Films: Day 2
Anton’s Right Here (2012), by contrast, chronicles a much more destitute existence. Lyubov Arkus, the critic-turned-director, documents her indelible relationship with an autistic boy, Anton Kharitonov. Anton lives with his single mother, Rita Kharitonov, in a decrepit, old apartment. The ever-present camera seems to suggest this was once a home filled with unfaltering love and peace. Lyubov Arkus is an artist with good intentions, but like many documenteurs (and first-time directors) she falls prey to her motherly instincts – she gets too close to her subject. As with many documentary films, this one has an inciting incident. The director stumbled across a precocious piece of writing entitled “People,” the author of that piece was Anton. Arkus finally meets the introverted teenager, just before his mother is diagnosed with cancer. From that moment forward, the film plays out as an autobiographic record of one woman’s determined attempt to challenge the social stigma that is produced by a very bureaucratic government. From the outset, she declares to the audience “this is not a story about how I helped Anton, but it is a story about how I saw myself in him.” The director naively makes bold gestures without acknowledging and accepting the limitations of the documentary format. She is well aware of Anton’s poetic observations and abilities as an author of his own work, but she struggles to diminish her own voice from the narrative. Without a doubt, the most harrowing segment takes place when Anton’s recitation of “People” marks the final denouement. In a plaintive voice he states “People are kind, funny, sad, good, good, grateful, big men and small. Walk, run, jump, they say, look, listen. Women are good, talking, blond, fur, hot, beautiful, icy, small. There are still people without a mustache. People are renovating a house, barn. People will suffer. People paint, write. Forest. People are chopping wood, sawing, drowned. People still greet, talk, jump, run. People end. People are flying.”
For the third day of the Nd/Nf series I entered the cinema to view a very different film. Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013) is the much anticipated follow-up film to his 2004 debut Primer. Carruth stands apart from the recent burgeoning of sci-fi flicks in that he only seems to care about the genre on an aesthetic level. Neither of his two feature films follows the archetypal themes of apocalyptic future, cryptic pandemics, nuclear warfare and environmental disasters. His films are elliptical in structure, visually enthralling, scientifically abstract, and, more often than not, they place relationships to the core. Upstream Color is about a young woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz) who finds herself an involuntary victim to a hazardous experiment. After being robbed and forced to take a biologically altered worm, she is brainwashed to hand over all her life savings. Bereft, with little memory, she is saved by a bizarre man, Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who revives her by conducting a respiratory experiment with one of his farm pigs. She is then drawn to Jeff, who unbeknownst to her endured the same trauma as her. Shane Carruth is an American visionary who is unparalleled in cinematic audacity. With a degree in engineering, Carruth seems to treat the film medium just like a laboratory apparatus: he is less interested in scientific logic, instead, he exerts all of his energy on the arbitrariness of human life. Through the optic of an overly curious alchemist he nearly consolidates the disparate connections between the dangers of bioengineering, nature’s effect on people, irreversible time, human vulnerability and Thoreau’s Walden. If the film sounds like a hodgepodge of an overactive, cerebral mind that is because it is.
The artistic fickleness of documentary seems to be an unconscious motif of this year’s New Directors/New Films series. As a disciple of truth the director feels obligated to counterbalance his/her personal enlightenment with factual evidence. The ethics of documentary filmmaking have been acknowledged, questioned, re-modified but one question still looms large: how can one tell a story truthfully? This is a question that has been puzzling Sarah Polley for quite some time. Most of us remember Polley in her remarkable role as the young, cancer-ridden Ann in Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me (2003), or as director for the equally emotive Take This Waltz (2011). Stories We Tell (2012) is Sarah Polley’s first documentary feature (and her third feature film). As a mediator of her subjects, this time she focuses her lens on the most evocative subject to date, her family (more specifically her mother). The film begins as an investigation story: Polley begins to reminiscence her childhood, consequently she excavates a tainted shard of her family portrait: she feels the need to uncover the secrets of her extroverted mother. Playing out like a skipping record, she recalls the time when her siblings would tease her about her being the product of an extra-marital affair. Oddly enough, she discovers (as we discover) that this is nothing short from the truth. She employs a very Persian aesthetic, with each participant narrating their own interpretation of the story. Stories We Tell employs a typical docufiction style, which consists of recreated home movies, interviews with her relatives and family friends, photographs and a comical narration of Michael Polley’s (her surrogate father) memoir. The film posits that every version of the story holds some validity. Indeed, there is a very tender moment when Polley’s surrogate father saids in a rueful voice: “Amazing wasn’t it? How close we were to not having you.”
3/14/13 New Directors/New Films: Day 4
For the very last day of Nd/Nf, I sprinted my way from the Rockefeller center F train stop to catch the Shorts Program #3. This program consisted of three 20+ minute works from three young voices from around the globe. The first film, Chiralia (2013), by Santiago Gil is a beautiful tone poem balanced between the repercussions of memory and the transparency of time. The film starts with a young boy and his father on a camping trip to the German countryside. As they begin to swim in the lake, the father loses track of his son and panics as he searches for him to no avail. He beckons to the local villagers to help him find his son, providing them a picture. As the villagers decide to disperse, a young woman passes through. Without a trace of worry, she agrees to keep her eyes open for the little boy. After she reunites with her boyfriend by the campfire, she brings up the story of the little boy, which ensues into an argument on whether or not the boyfriend is overtly sensitive to trivial matters. The boyfriend, for some unusual reason conceals the fact that he too had a similar experience in his childhood. Unable to revive the romantic mood, the woman angrily goes to sleep as the man aimlessly walks toward the lake. A lone figure, he seems to be conjuring up his past. He is then greeted by an elderly woman who seems to understand his solitude, she acknowledges that he is not from town. He then proceeds to tell her of his pastoral visits to the lake. The second film A Cidade (2012), by Liliana Sulzbach, is a short documentary piece that concerns the small, resolute Itapua colony. Playing out like a trigger-happy slideshow, the film peeps into the lives of the elderly who have lived in this colony for the last fifty years; each cut averages about 12 seconds showcasing the most mundane activities. A woman washing up is compounded by a group of elderly people washing the floorboard of the local theatre; two elderly woman talk about their bedridden friend who is anemic, which is intercut with the men playing bacci ball. Sulzbach maps out a lost footnote of Brazilian history, but unfortunately her focus is too narrow, she documents the collective memories of Itapua, which consequently leaves each individual story incomplete. The final film of the program, Para Armar un Helicóptero (2012), is perhaps the most exciting film from the Shorts Program to debut at the Nd/Nf series. Isabel Acevedo’s Para Armar un Helicópterofocuses on an adolescent boy, Oliverio who copes with puberty while living in a building that has been taken over by immigrants from the countryside. In wake of the recent blackout Oliverio passes the time by cycling around the city with his dynamo light, playing computer games, despite the fact that whole city lacks stable electricity. When the imminent rainstorm renders the whole city into nocturnal refuge, Oliverio devises an ingenious plan to remedy the situation.