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Plowing the Future


Serving as a kind of global rebuttal to the high-tech, profits-minded inbreeding of Hollywood, the 29th New Directors/New Films showcases entries from emerging or neglected artists. Their films are made with conviction, defiantly unfashionable and crudely forged, sometimes by necessity, and are here presented for a U.S. audience used to a sumptuous but often less than conceptually rigorous diet. Or, as contemporary Cuban troubadour would say, the films in this festival are “made by hand and without permission, plowing the future with old oxen.”


Running from March 24th through April 9th at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art — co-sponsoring the series with the Lincoln Center Film Society — New Directors/New Films is screening 35 works from 23 countries and five continents, from Peru, Egypt and Slovenia to Korea, Turkey, Mexico and Iran. In its first presentation of the new millennium, the 30-year-old festival is less a celebration than a cautious reflection, imagining the coming century filled with potential for change and fraught with familiar complications. The results are substantive and provocative, political and personal.


The Argentinean film, Hidden River (Rio Escondido), transforms a culture of secrecy — rooted in the shameful national history of the Disappeared — into family allegory. Director Mercedes Garcia Guevara uses the silent indifference of the landscape as a backdrop for the sad story of Ana (Paola Krum), a working mother afflicted with a pervasive and undefined anxiety. Living in Buenos Aires with her young son and absentee businessman spouse Luis (Pablo Cedron), Ana seems more resigned than fulfilled by her comfortable existence: she barely interacts with those around her, and what relationships she does have are dominated by what is left unsaid.


It seems that this chilling routine might continue to Ana’s grave (we never see Luis until far into the story, except as a voice on the phone making hasty, obligatory contact from some distant location), save for her discovery one day of a mysterious letter sent by an unknown woman to Luis’ office. At the center of this veiled past is Martin (Juan Palomino), a brother, incarcerated in the distant mountains, whose existence Luis has always concealed. Struck by Martin’s dignity, Ana attempts to research his alleged crime by poring over old newspapers in a library. A curious stranger sitting nearby questions her about what she is doing, and stuns her when he remarks, “You will find nothing there. Only dates, information, nothing more.”


The mysterious Martin embodies not only the Disappeared, but may also allude to director Guevara’s own public and mythic lineage, as kin to Ernesto “Che” Guevara, such that multiple identities are intertwined, familial and national, private and public. Ana is irrevocably drawn to Martin’s vulnerability, intensity, and lack of pretension, all of which offer a healing release from her disconnected existence back in Buenos Aires. It is as if Ana can breathe free for the first time in the clear, open spaces of Hidden River. Ana is faced with a choice, to risk her established place in society in order to embrace life and love fully.


Hidden River poses emotional fulfillment as the idealized antidote to the thwarted relationships among Argentineans, resulting from the country’s past military dictatorship. Guevara subtly suggests how ideology colors intimacy and oppression can dull and distort passion. Ultimately, her film is about one specific family, whose members live as strangers to one another, and also about the national family, whose members are victims of abandoned memory and lost origins.


An Affair Of Love (Une Liaison Pornographique), directed by Frederic Fonteyne, resuscitates human longing in the differently but likewise alienating setting of a Western metropolis, specifically Paris. Laconic and emotionally spare, An Affair Of Love begins with a nameless, estranged couple (Nathalie Baye and Sergi Lopez) recounting in separate interviews the history and of their failed romance. They speak to an unseen and unidentified individual off camera, and the film never reveals the purpose of the interviews. The effect is to distance viewers from the particulars of their affair, in much the same way as the lovers are distanced from one another throughout most of their relationship.


The affair begins when the woman places an ad in a porn magazine, in which she seeks a lover. When the two meet one afternoon in a cafe, we are struck not just by how ordinary, middle-aged, unerotic, and passive they appear to be, but also by how the banality of their verbal exchange, even as they are about to have sex at a nearby hotel. Afterwards, they meet in the same room several times, and the viewer is always left outside in the hallway as they close the door behind them. While we might imagine what goes on behind that door, we see only the routine activities of the hotel maid.


There are many aspects of the relationship that remain hidden to us. We never discover the woman’s initial fantasy, whatever inspired her to place the ad: she scolds the off camera confessor/us, “I won’t tell you, even if you tortured me.” But it soon becomes obvious that she was interested in impersonal sex, “pure desire” without emotional commitment. One of the conditions of the couple’s initial contact is that they make no mention of their personal lives, including their names. And at the end, their individual versions of the affair contain numerous discrepancies, including how long it lasted.


By film’s end, they part and fade back into the Parisian street crowds, just as they once emerged from them at the beginning of their encounter, intimating that anonymous urban existence has so permeated our sense of ourselves, that we are only comfortable with “love” that mirrors all other aspects of the formal, public lives we lead. And so, in both Hidden River and An Affair Of Love, the mechanics of personal interactions are dictated by social proprieties.

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