Making a living in a world of hurt: The best of the 2012 'New Directors/New Films' series
As international headlines bring news of structural unemployment and economic austerity, the fact that things are tough the world over is inescapable. How are folks getting by?
This year's selections in the annual New Directors/New Films series (March 21-April 1) provide a pretty potent picture of what one might call working-stiffery well beyond the comfy theaters at the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the event's co-presenters for 41 years now.
Though set in places that range from the claustrophobically urban to the rustically remote, the jobs people do are an integral part of the plotlines of various films, as sources of identity, fantasy, monotony, play and power. (Several components overlap in the most compelling cases.) As one might expect from a lineup of 28 features (one an excavated piece of wartime existentialism from a young Stanley Kubrick) and 12 shorts, skills and storytelling abilities vary. But given the budgetary constraints faced by most of New Directors' first or second-time filmmakers, the highs (five of them follow) are a mark of striving that dovetails neatly with what's onscreen.
Whether the time-honored road picture exhibits simplicity or complexity, at base it's about a path to some form of discovery. Argentine Pablo Giorgelli's Las Acacias, already a prizewinner at the Cannes Film Festival, is a simple film whose power far exceeds its austerity. Ruben (German De Silva), the main character, is a trucker who hauls lumber in lower South America. He's a creature of solitary habits who's willing to accept one passenger on his most recent excursion from Paraguay to Buenos Aires, but apparently not two—a woman (Hebe Duarte) is okay, but her newborn daughter (Nayra Calle Mamani), not so much. The arc of the trio's journey is mostly conveyed in the tight cabin of his truck, in the gestures and telling expressions of cautious strangers. From cinematography to casting, Giorgelli has calibrated the film so well that very little dialogue is needed to show how reluctance shifts to resignation, acceptance and eventually a chivalrous spark.
Austrian actor Karl Markovics moves behind the camera with Breathing (Atmen) to put a novel twist on the coming of age story. Though nineteen-year old juvenile-detention inmate Roman Kogler has served much of his sentence (he caused the death of a fellow orphan at age 14), he'll soon be out of options for parole unless he can impress the state by finding work. The only opportunity is at a municipal mortuary, where his past does not lead his co-workers—a gruff group that emotionlessly handles corpses—to roll out the welcome mat. The tale takes an even more personal turn when the body of a woman who shares his surname ends up in front of him. As Markovics's script allows Kogler his first real brushes with reflection about his past, cinematographer Martin Gschlacht's clean images put him in spaces (trains, a local IKEA) that find him envisioning life beyond confinement.
For someone who makes his living striking poses and flexing, Dennis, the professional bodybuilder at the center of Teddy Bear (10 Timer Til Paradis), Mads Matthiesen's first feature, is remarkably unassuming. At 38, he still lives at home with his Mom in a Copenhagen suburb that might as well be Lilliput. (Gyms are the only spaces that don't crowd his ultra-ripped bulk.) He's a sweetheart whose inability to find a sweetheart takes him to Pattaya, Thailand, a locale that promises Westerners sunny beaches and—in his mother's disapproving words—“sex tourism.” (Dennis' uncle, recently back with a bride, advises his nephew.) The idea of a behemoth in a land where the natives tend to be even more diminutive than Dennis's neighbors in Denmark is played for its comic futility, but Matthiesen ultimately charms us by having his muscular alien stick to what he knows. Lucky for the viewer, flexing has an audience everywhere.
The cameras in 5 Broken Cameras, a French-Palestinian DIY documentary, are manned by Emad Burnat, a family man in the Palestinian village of Bil'in who seems to have become a filmmaker out of a combination of necessity and listlessness. He documents his village's five-year unarmed struggle with the illegal expansion of neighboring Israeli settlements, a period that coincides with the birth of Gibreel, his youngest son. The footage, which captures Palestinian domesticity as well as confrontations with soldiers, arrests, and trips to the hospital, exceeds rawness. How Burnat and his Israeli collaborator Guy Davidi edited years of footage down into 90 tight minutes is sure to vex those who feel the filmmaker's version of Palestinian reality needs objectivity, but the bigger question may be about how to raise children in a place rife with conflict. Burnat sustains his own share of injuries as each camera is destroyed by the hazards of the endeavor, and yet seems compelled to continue, even in the face of disapproval from his wife.
Gimme The Loot, New York native Adam Leon's fun but mercurial caper film, places the viewer in a bit of an urban time warp. It follows its teenage graffiti couple from their gritty stomping grounds in the Bronx to considerably tonier areas of Manhattan, but were it not for references to Citi Field, you'd be forgiven for thinking Gimme The Loot took place in a more naïve time, the '80s, say. Malcolm and Sofia (Ty Hickson and Tashiana Washington) are non-stop trash-talkers who dream as big as adolescent graffiti artists can, but for all their hustle (he sells weed; she flips spray-cans boosted from a hardware store), their biggest asset turns out to be that they have each other. This point is brought home to Sofia repeatedly and Malcolm more stereotypically, when one of his more affluent weed customers flirts with him before changing spots later when her own friends show up. Such growing pains suggest that the filmmaker might be exorcising demons from his own past escapades.