Film

39th New York Film Festival

Lucas Hilderbrand

This year, the New York Film Festival had a special significance, as it marked the return to some sense of normalcy in the city, two weeks after the World Trade Center disaster.

39th New York Film Festival
September 28-October 14, 2001
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center

Without the paparazzi or prizes of the Cannes, Venice, Berlin, or Sundance film festivals -- or the spectrum of cinema on view at the one in Toronto -- the New York Film Festival is both a showcase for exciting new work and a prestigious marketing launch pad for the fall season’s art house releases. This year, however, the Festival had a special significance, as it marked the return to some sense of normalcy in New York, two weeks after the World Trade Center disaster. It also provided a welcome escape from the onslaught of U.S. flags and news stories about a seemingly never-ending mayoral primary election (which went into a Democratic run-off) and, even more foreboding, the first military strikes on Afghanistan.

But even inside this refuge from politics and the dregs of Hollywood's early fall releases, reality was unavoidable. One of the most stunning images of the Festival -- which would have been an innocuous transition shot a month earlier -- flashed onscreen in Todd Solondz's Storytelling: a from-New Jersey shot of lower Manhattan, with the Twin Towers intact and dwarfing everything else in the frame. A silent but perceptible shock hit the audience upon seeing the skyscrapers there, after witnessing the oft-repeated footage of collapsing rubble or just the vacant, smoking downtown skyline. After the screening, a member of the press asked Solondz if he was considering removing the shot from his film before its release (in early 2002). "I don't see any reason to rewrite history," he replied.

Also set in New York, Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums shows the city as it has never really existed. Shot on an unfamiliar block tucked away in Washington Heights, the film is Anderson's non-New Yorker valentine to the city and cosmopolitan characters who inhabit it. As delightfully quirky as -- and at times darker than -- his previous work (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore), the new film is a major step up in scale, but still incorporates some of his signature tricks, namely, building the film around British invasion-era songs and creating irrationally logical characters. Gene Hackman, Angelica Houston, Ben Stiller, and Gwyneth Paltrow are superbly cast as a family of washed-up geniuses, bolstered by sharp supporting cast members Luke Wilson, Danny Glover, and Bill Murray.

Representing the West Coast, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive is a cautionary tale about artistic compromise. Nearly "normal" for its first two thirds, the film finally embarks on a stunning and deliriously pleasurable Lynchian mindfuck. Additionally, its doppelganger girls are not simply lipstick lesbians but implant femmes with unnaturally perky curves and glamour lighting in each scene. The director was nearly as entertaining as the film during a post-screening press conference, as he coyly refused to explain any of the film's ideas or demystify any of its symbols.

A similarly allusive ode to place and displacement, What Time Is It There? (Taiwan) further validated Tsai Ming-Liang, the subject of a retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center earlier this year, as one of the most important emergent figures of contemporary world cinema. As with his previous work, the characters move in a nearly non-verbal modern world of urban isolation and missed interpersonal connections. In the film a woman mourns the death of her husband by staying cooped up in her apartment while her son becomes fixated with altering the time on every clock in Taipei because the girl who enchants him has ventured on a lonely journey to Paris. The sequences in the City of Lights have a lovely, melancholy tone that comes in part from their outsider's perspective and in part from Tsai's references to the French New Wave; Jean Pierre-Leaud appears in a cameo, and the film quotes liberally from Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows.

Perhaps the most faithfully audacious member of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard captures an enchanting vision of Paris in his latest work, In Praise of Love (Switzerland/France), featuring beautiful high-contrast black and white photography of the city and hotly colored digital video footage of the countryside. The ramblings about love, politics, and memory remain as impenetrable as one might expect from Godard, but his continued experimentation with medium and narrative form is certainly remarkable, compared to the relatively dismal state of his fellow Frenchmen's work.

French films made up a third of the programming at the festival this year, including Eric Rohmer's pro-aristocracy The Lady and the Duke and Jacques Rivette's trifle, Va Savoir. A backstage melodrama about neurotic artists and their romantic entanglements, Va Savoir focuses on mostly unlikable, self-involved actors, without providing any fresh ideas about love, or even sexual tension. Offering a much more playful take on the artist's romance, Youssef Chahine's French-Egyptian co-production, Silence, We’re Rolling, makes a silly, spirited show of its soap operatic fixations.

The finest of the French film bunch was Catherine Breillat's sensational Fat Girl, a bold and morbid take on adolescent female sexuality. Shockingly, Breillat identified herself a "puritan" in her own sexual life during a post-screening press conference. Sex was also a hot topic in Solondz's Storytelling, in which a young white student (Selma Blair) subjects herself to a humiliating seduction by her black professor (Robert Wisdom), apparently out of a sense of political correctness.

Not quite so gruesome as the other erotic tales but quite a bit more fun, Y Tu Mama Tambien (Mexico) marks director Alfonso Cuaron's return to his homeland with a rowdy road movie sex comedy after making Hollywood productions A Little Princess and Great Expectations. Two horny guys embark on a journey to a fictitious beach in the hopes of seducing the Spanish woman who is along for the ride. She suggests that they may be in love with each other, but after pleasantly entertaining the idea, they do not dare to speak that love's name. Another teenage girl does speak "lesbianese" in La Cienaga (Argentina), the most notable debut film at the festival. An assured first feature by Lucrecia Martel, the film has a fresh look and style largely absent among the works by established filmmakers.

Unlike many other international film festivals, or even the annual Lincoln Center/Museum of Modern Art co-sponsored New Directors New Films series, the New York Film Festival highlights predominantly "name" directors of international acclaim. And in 2001, the old guard certainly was accounted for: 92-year-old Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home (Portugal/France) and 81-year-old Rohmer's The Lady and the Duke; Shoshi Imamura's 20th film, Warm Water under a Red Bridge (Japan) and Youssef Chahine's 40th film, Silence We're Rolling.

These films were infinitely more original than any of the shorts that played before each program. Definitely the weak link in the festival line-up, the shorts -- notably Candy Kugel's Inbetweening America (US), Adam Stevens' Beautiful (New Zealand), and Geoff Dunbar's Tuesday (UK) -- were glossy, mediocre-at-best time-fillers. The only shorts with any vitality were performance-based, including Dayna and Gaelen Hanson's dance piece Measure (US) and Ola Simsonsson and Johannes Stjarne Nilsson's percussive Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers (Sweden). With so many aspiring filmmakers and festivals throughout the world focusing on short-form films and videos, the selections for the New York Festival were depressingly uninspired.

The shorts aside, the New York Film Fest's uniform classiness -- from high-profile premieres and directors' appearances to the Lincoln Center location on the Upper West Side -- offered a semblance of normalcy, as the festival went off without incident or scandal. This is certainly more than can be said of the process of getting to the Festival, as mass transit remains affected by the WTC attacks. The 1-2 subway line that services Lincoln Center (a jumbled reconfiguration of the 1-2-3-9 lines, following the WTC attacks) was the source of daily frustration for many filmgoers, as trains inevitably stalled, ran overcrowded, or went Express, without warning, skipping the Lincoln Center station altogether. The diverse collection of international work on view remained apart from such everyday hassles. And amid the now ubiquitous displays of U.S. patriotism and religion ("One nation under God," etc.), the Festival provided a welcome alternative flow of images and voices.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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