AFI Fest 2022

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Originally published on Ink 19 on November 9, 2022
by Lily and Generoso Fierro

For the past eight years, the arrival of November has always brought us immense excitement because AFI Fest has been guaranteed to showcase an impressive program of films representing many vital approaches to cinema across the world in that moment in time. As with last year’s iteration, AFI Fest 2022 had a slightly leaner lineup than the versions in pre-COVID-19 days, but this worked to the advantage of AFI Fest’s programmers, for the slate for this year’s festival was tightly focused and featured strong and bold works from both debut and well-established directors.

This year’s festival also showcased one of the strongest lineups of features from directors returning to AFI Fest in recent memory. Over this past week, a monumental list of filmmakers ranging from Albert Serra to Joanna Hogg to Alice Diop to Hong Sang-soo came back to the TCL theater screens on Hollywood Boulevard to present their newest works, and overall, AFI Fest 2022 offered attendees 125 titles split into eight sections this time around: 7 in Red Carpet Premieres, 6 in Special Screenings, 12 in Discovery, 12 in World Cinema, 12 in Documentary, 30 in Short Film Competition, 43 in AFI Conservatory and 3 in Guest Artistic Director Selections!

Faced with such an eclectic range of choices, we — as we always have in previous years — made a plan to spend most of AFI Fest taking in all that the World Cinema section had to offer, but, in the end, the outstanding documentary curation, which had an overwhelming amount of compelling titles that veered towards the experimental, vied for a good percentage of our viewing time! Regardless of genre, if there was a consistent theme that existed throughout most of the films that we favored at this year’s AFI Fest, it would be that of identity transformation in response to environments and/or consequential events, which feels all too appropriate in our rapidly changing world.

This year’s AFI Fest programming was particularly formidable, and below are our reviews of the ten features that we consider as essential watches, beginning with our favorite.

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Pacifiction / dir. Albert Serra

In the earliest scenes of Pacifiction, French Navy sailors land at a small harbor, and soon after, a disarmingly sickly, yet mesmerizing sky fills the screen. Immediately, we begin to suspect that we are somewhere in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of Jean Genet’s Querelle. But, as Pacifiction hones in on Monsieur De Roller (Benoît Magimel), a High Commissioner to French Polynesia, we start to detect echoes of Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon, setting in place the expectations of a story about a wayward colonial government representative long forgotten because of time, distance, and insignificance. However, throughout Pacifiction, Serra navigates away from any familiar narrative devices and continuously re-directs all of our attention to Monsieur De Roller, whose actions present a fascinating, morally ambiguous, and unsettlingly contemporary character. De Roller is not like the morally decrepit of the past. He’s not a hedonist. He’s not an ideologue. And, in fact, he maintains positive (though palpably fragile) relationships with most around him — so much so that he is someone that both Polynesian community leaders and French expats trust. But, De Roller is a deceptive, complex figure, and Serra allows us to study his actions and conversations to try to decipher his motivations. After we see stern, diplomatic, amiable, and pseudo-casual versions of De Roller through his interactions with others, we take notice of something consistent in his demeanor: control. Not that of a dictatorial kind, but rather control that comes from a keen understanding of the people around him and the ability to push and pull different strengths and tensions in order to maintain stability and peace for himself in his environment. De Roller’s attentive yet noticeably distant countenances in most settings reveal his lack of commitment to any particular cause, yet his words, particularly terms of negotiation, often acknowledge, address, and take some action on his conversational partner(s) concerns. De Roller doesn’t want to help people, but he does want to maintain his control over the systems he has mastered in his surroundings: positive outcomes are necessary, and acts of physical violence towards his fellow inhabitants are generally avoided because of their long-term consequences. This approach works perfectly for De Roller until an admiral (Marc Susini) arrives and continues to reappear in De Roller’s social circles while rumors of the return of nuclear testing spread, stirring up paranoia in De Roller as French military powers threaten the equilibrium he’s created for himself and remind him of his insignificance beyond the shores of French Polynesia. Pacifiction stands out as Albert Serra’s most approachable work to date, but despite the illusion of a narrative laden with images that evoke familiar motifs in fictions of the past, Pacifiction slyly uses known conventions to mislead you towards a grand ending or a climax that never happens. Instead, we enter a paradoxically hyper-real and hyper-fictionalized world that mirrors our own distortions of reality and see it through the hyperbolic, morally indifferent eyes of De Roller, who perfectly represents the collision of unsavory geopolitical histories, strategic diplomacy and conciliation, basic self-interest, and powers far beyond our grasp and perception, all of which are forces that underlie our own daily actions, even if we don’t want to be aware of them.

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Mato Seco em Chamas (Dry Ground Burning) / dirs. Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós

Back in the spring of 2018, we were extremely fortunate to catch a screening of Once There Was Brasilia (Era uma Vez Brasília) at Locarno in Los Angeles. That politically urgent, low-budget science fiction film, which was awarded a Special Mention in Locarno the previous year, was the first collaboration between director Adirley Queirós and his then cinematographer, Joana Pimenta. A top ten film for us in 2018, Queirós’s feature inventively blended tropes from dystopian sci-fi and post-apocalyptic cinema to deliver a poignant statement on contemporary Brazil from a futuristic world devoid of hope. With their new feature, Dry Ground Burning, Joana Pimenta has returned as the DP and, in addition, has joined Adirley Queirós as a co-director for an ambitious docu-fiction work that brings our filmmakers back to the beleaguered district of Ceilândia, the site of their aforementioned sci-fi film.

At the center of Pimenta and Queirós’s Dry Ground Burning are half-sisters Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado) and Léa (Léa Alves da Silva), leaders of a gang who sell purloined gasoline to bikers in their Sol Nascente favela, a community that has long given up on the promises and hopes of societal enrichment from governmental investment into the Brazilian infrastructure after the extraction of untold amounts of oil found in the country during the mid-2000s. As the sisters run gasoline with their all-female crew, we learn about the pervasive history and impact of crime and incarceration in their current lives and future. Timelines pause, reverse, and skip forward in Dry Ground Burning, but the oil rig and refinery remains as the emanating point for Chitara, Léa, and their teammate Andreia (Andreia Vieira), who together provide their neighborhood with gasoline while also supporting themselves and their families before splitting apart as the surrounding police state descends on them. From its early scenes, Dry Ground Burning is intentionally framed as a neo-western mixed with shades of City of God, but, as the film progresses, Pimenta and Queirós strip away any cinematic tropes and build the film’s strength not from typical action scenes, but from raw dialogues heard between the sisters and their gang and long takes of the women working at the rig and living outside of its gates, which humanize the overall feeling of desperation and survival in Sol Nascente in a way that slickly shot gunplay could never achieve. We spoke with co-director Joana Pimenta during this year’s AFI Fest, and that interview will be available here on Ink 19 in the coming weeks.

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De Humani Corporis Fabrica / dir. Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor

Unseen systems that generate outputs that we interact with, such as water purification or the conversion of gasoline into energy, continuously operate all around us. We understand some systems abstractly. But with others, we don’t even quite know their parts. The systems in our bodies fall into both of these categories, and for the longest time, we would only learn about them through ailments with clear, perceptible symptoms, and we rarely saw into the physiological culprits. Hospitals too are their own systems that we engage with when we need treatment for our bodies and minds, but unless we are (or intimately know) medical professionals, we rarely get to see how parts of the hospital system work and how operations are performed. In De Humani Corporis Fabrica, directors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor present images and sounds from studies of components of hospital and body systems far from perfection and provide us new, visceral, uncomfortable, and amazing views into both. In operating rooms, via laparoscopic cameras, we travel through unknown ducts and tubes to watch surgical graspers, scissors, and needles cut, repair, or remove tissues and organs. In labs, we see tumors prepared for microscopic study and the resulting psychedelic slices projected onto screens. In geriatric hallways, we see how our physical and mental faculties wear down with age. And, in the morgue, we see masses of bodies that have reached the end of their lifecycles. Mixed into these varying internal and external views of the human form, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor pipe in casual conversations throughout various hospital settings that reveal the less than ideal conditions doctors and nurses face with unsustainable case loads, staff reductions, and even surgical supply shortages. Yet, despite the feeling that everything inside the hospitals featured in De Humani Corporis Fabrica may be broken, the doctors and nurses manage to continue maintaining and fixing the human body and keeping the hospitals’ systems running, instilling in us wonder that our bodies work at all and awe in the fortitude and resilience of medical professionals who see our bodies at their lowest points every day.

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Trenque Lauquen / dir. Laura Citarella

At the center of the cosmos of Laura Citarella’s Trenque Lauquen is Laura (Laura Paredes), a woman who has gone missing. A botanist sent to Trenque Lauquen for a cataloging project that could cement her success as an academic, Laura has her own pulsating, shifting orbit that intersects with those of Rafael (Rafael Spregelburd), her boyfriend and academic partner in Buenos Aires, Ezequiel (Ezequiel Pierri), her institute assigned driver turned investigative partner in Trenque Lauquen, and Elisa (Elisa Carricajo), a brusque and mysterious local doctor. In the moments she shares with each of these main players, sometimes in person, other times through phone calls and voice messages, we as the audience learn more about the transformations that led up to Laura’s disappearance. In part one of the film, Citarella primarily focuses our attention on Laura, Rafael, and Ezequiel. Rafael and Ezequiel actively search for Laura by car, and as they ask for information from various shop owners and farmers along the roads, their chances of success look slim. Rafael and Ezequiel are both discreet in what they share about their own relationships with Laura, preventing them (and us) from piecing together a complete understanding of Laura. However, as Citarella takes us back in time to learn about the evolution of Ezequiel and Laura’s relationship through Laura’s discovery and compulsive excavation of letters written in the 1960s between two lovers (Carmen, a teacher in the town, and Paolo, the father of two of her students) and Ezequiel’s contributions to the investigation to understand who the lovers were and how their relationship fell apart, we begin to better understand Laura in the period before her disappearance. Upon discovering a letter between the lovers hidden in a book by Alexandra Kollontai, Laura abandons her plant cataloging project and instead spends all of her time voraciously combing through the Martín Fierro estate’s large donation to the Trenque Lauquen library to hunt for the rest of the letters hidden inside of the collection. As she attempts to piece together the letters’ timelines and portraits of their writers, she shares the knowledge with Ezequiel, and with his own connections to the history of Trenque Lauquen, he helps Laura connect Carmen and Paolo to their positions and statuses in the town. But, despite this expanded knowledge and Laura’s success in extracting the complete series of correspondence between Carmen and Paolo, the letters point towards a surprisingly unclear resolution, for, as they progressed in time, Carmen’s location became more ambiguous and eventually unknown.

As the second part of Trenque Lauquen opens, we learn about how Laura became intertwined with Elisa, beginning with the moment when she asked Laura for a sample of a short yellow flower. This simple request pulls Laura into a local event and its fallout — the discovery and presence of a half-human, half-amphibian child in Trenque Lauquen’s lake and Elisa and her partner Romina’s roles in becoming the child’s caretakers and secret guardians. When Laura finally brings a sample of the flowers to Elisa’s home, she gains partial entry into Elisa’s life. However, little is shared about the child and Elisa’s intentions for it, even as Elisa and Romina (Verónica Llinás) ask Laura for her assistance with growing plants and finding materials for something that Laura can only assume is a simulated habitat. Though Laura never gets to see the child/creature, she nevertheless works harmoniously alongside Elisa and Romina and develops a more collaborative spirit, allowing her to open up, receive, and accept what may come, regardless of how irrational or unexplainable it may be. So, when Elisa, Romina, and the child must flee and Laura receives instructions from Elisa explaining things to collect and meet up points, Laura complies, and as she works to fulfill Elisa’s requests, she is sharply aware of everything around her and absorbs it all. Trenque Lauquen doesn’t seek a solution to a mystery. Instead, it documents the awakenings and transformations caused by and within Laura, making her whereabouts far less important than her impact on the people and places she interacted with and their influence on her. We spoke with director Laura Citarella during AFI Fest 2022, and that interview will be available here on Ink 19 very soon.

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Piaffe / dir. Ann Oren

It is nearly impossible not to think of Bruce Robinson’s woefully forgotten 1989 black comedy, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, when watching Ann Oren’s debut feature, Piaffe. Arriving near the end of the single most commerce-obsessed decade in human history, Robinson’s film tells the story of Denis Bagley (Richard E. Grant), a highly successful advertising executive who develops a crisis of conscience when a pharmaceutical company tasks him with one too many boil cream campaigns. Fraught with ethical concerns, Denis feverishly proclaims his worries to his wife and friends about the inherent evil of the product he must promote and his desire to walk away from the endless barrage of adverts he’s inflicted on humanity. Unfortunately, an enormously fiendish boil, complete with eyes and a mouth, appears on Denis’s shoulder to guide him towards a different undesired outcome. In Piaffe, Eva (Simone Bucio), a reserved Foley artist charged with creating the sounds of a horse featured in an endorsement for the fittingly-named “Equili,” a mood-stabilizing medication, is the analog to Denis in How to Get Ahead in Advertising. When her early attempts at duplicating the animal’s sounds are rejected by the commercial’s director due to their perceived unnaturalness, Eva throws herself deeper into the project while also struggling to care for her non-binary sibling, Zara (Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau), who is hospitalized for an unknown condition. Now, as Eva is left with no other option but to successfully complete her Foley assignment, she visits a stable to get closer to her subject and takes that experience back into the sound studio where her uncanny embodiment of the horse’s mannerisms results in her own Denis-esque physical manifestation: a small tail, which emerges on her lower back. As Eva’s tail begins to grow longer, she draws the attention of botanist Dr. Novak (Sebastian Rudolph), who fetishizes her new appendage and seemingly integrates his research around fern roots (which he manipulates and binds) and ferns at gametophyte stage (which is of particular interest to him because it’s a time when ferns produce both sperm and eggs) into his sexual practice with Eva. The amorphous spaces between species, gender, and sexuality build and shift around Eva and disorient her as they push her in new directions. And, with each moment of transformation, we see Eva fall into a disquieting state where she has the approval and interest of people around her — something that she never had prior to her newly grown tail — but is now at their mercy more than ever before. In this hazardous territory, Eva, who was awkward, alone, and frightened at the beginning of Piaffe, becomes disaffected and aloof in an unsustainable persona that doesn’t feel like her own. With Piaffe, Oren effectively and insightfully nuances the core message of How to Get Ahead in Advertising for today’s generation, one that is equally bombarded with medicinal “cures” alongside a dizzying array of societal norms and transgressions, which together can potently convolute the concept of self.

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Walk Up / dir. Hong Sang-soo

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, our relation to the physical space that we inhabit and the reflection of that space back onto our lives has taken on a greater meaning than ever before. For director Hong Sang-soo’s 28th feature, he continues his recent shift to an even more threadbare filmmaking style and inserts his avatar into a four-story, multi-purpose building that takes him through a four-part narrative that allows us to gain a deeper insight into his despairs by utilizing each floor as an affecting stage to play against the women he encounters there. Starting on the first floor, Sang-soo stand in Byung-soo (Kwon Haehyo), a well-respected film director, travels with his estranged daughter, Jeongsu (Park Miso) to our emotional edifice to introduce her to Ms. Kim (Lee Hyeyoung), the landlord of the building, who Byung-soo hopes will offer some advice to his daughter before she embarks on her career in interior design, a field in which Ms. Kim has enjoyed some success. Given that the handsome, gray-haired Byung-soo is in the thick of a successful career and Ms. Kim is enamored with his fame, she not only offers Jeongsu an internship, but also gifts Byung-soo a free rooftop apartment to use as an office if he so desires. After some time passes, we find a more fragile Byung-soo drinking again in the second floor restaurant run by Sunhee (Song Sunmi), an equally fragile, but failed artist, who adores Byung-soo’s work and engages him in an earnest but awkward conversation that leads to their eventual coupling. By the time we get to the third floor, a COVID-compromised Byung-soo is cohabitating with Sunhee and both are cracking under the claustrophobic stagnation of their living situation and their failed careers. Eventually, Byung-soo makes it up to the fourth floor, and with that final space comes another woman and an even greater reveal into the director’s true self. With Walk Up, Hong once again masterfully jars us with uncomfortable human moments interjected into casual scenes and surrounds these moments with paced build ups and deflections that altogether underscore the frailty and humanness of his flawed characters. Much of the success of Hong’s signature technique in Walk Up can be attributed to the naturalistic performances throughout the film as well as Hong’s clever decision to entrap his characters in a set space that forces us to look as closely into their actions as we looked into our own while under lockdown.

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Cette Maison (This House) / dir. Miryam Charles

After the sudden loss of a loved one, there is an essential need within many of us to understand the why before we can imagine what could’ve been. For director Miryam Charles, the tragic loss of her cousin, Terra, who died under violent and mysterious circumstances at the age of fourteen in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 2008, is experienced in Cette Maison through a reconstruction, not of the crime, but of the trajectory of Terra in her real and imagined life via her family’s reactions to her passing and their connections to the physical spaces that they’ve existed in through their migrations years prior and since her passing. As an experiential process, Charles depicts the varying states of sadness, grief, and resignation through different visual motifs that recurrently pull us closer then away to emulate time against impact. When we witness the day that Terra is found dead, Charles recreates the moments as a formal stage play, complete with facades and direct lighting in a way that feels dramatic and intense but classical and familiar in appearance. Charles ages Terra through the performance of actress Schelby Jean-Baptiste, who is close to the age of Terra had she lived, and as Terra engages with her mother (Florence Blain Mbaye) in confrontational conversations, their communication evokes a bi-directional transference of spirit that manifests as a documentary of mourning, memory, and imagination which carries Terra’s spirit back and forth from Connecticut to Quebec to Haiti through her mother’s grief. These erratic shifts of location and storytelling style are juxtaposed with Charles’s use of grainy 16mm film and warm natural light, which imbue us with a sense that Terra’s death and her family’s inability to find a place of belonging are forever intertwined. We spoke with director Miryam Charles during this year’s festival, and that interview will be available here on Ink 19 soon.

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Saint Omer / dir. Alice Diop

Consistently throughout her career as a documentarian, director Alice Diop, the daughter of Senegalese parents, has explored the difficulties of assimilation for people of African descent in her native France by maintaining a close proximity to her subjects that feels urgent and factual, but never clinical or detached. Such a dynamic and personal approach to a subject so close to one’s own experience carries with it a dangerous propensity to sacrifice objectiveness for empathy, and it is the investigation of that precarious balance which stands at the core of Saint Omer, Diop’s first narrative feature as a director. Based on the 2016 court case of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese immigrant and graduate student in philosophy accused of drowning her 15-month-old daughter, Diop explores the connection between subject and storyteller through Rama (Kayije Kagame), a novelist of Senaglese descent, who attends the trial of defendant Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) with the hopes of adapting Coly’s alleged crime into a modern version of Medea.

As Saint Omer begins, Diop provides us with a snapshot of Rama lecturing a class on Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour and then shifts us back to her mother’s home, where she enjoys positive discussions with her white musician husband and supportive sisters, as well as some less comfortable moments with her mother at the dinner table. Once in the courtroom, Rama observes and studies Laurence, who remains remarkably stoic while the presiding white female judge sums up the allegations that she murdered her baby Elise. When Laurence is ultimately questioned as to why she committed this heinous crime, she reservedly responds that she hopes that the trial will unearth the reasons behind her actions. Just as the first day ends, Rama meets Laurence’s mother, who provides Rama with a view into Laurence’s background, which included a strict upbringing in a home where Laurence was told to only speak perfect French and to refrain from speaking Wolof. The next day, witnesses are called, one of whom is the father of baby Elise, Luc Dumontet (Xavier Maly), an older white man who testifies of the love he had for his child while more testimony establishes that Elise was born in secret and that Dumontet had no real feelings for Laurence. With each successive revelation in the case in Saint Omer, the symmetry and discrepancies that exist between Rama’s and Laurence’s backgrounds and capabilities are illuminated, and with every epiphany, Diop adeptly mirrors the fragile relationship between an empathetic creator and subject and the more perilous hazards of adapting that real connection into fiction.

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Rewind & Play / dir. Alain Gomis

It would be easy to dismiss the disastrous Thelonious Monk interview at the center of director Alain Gomis’s experimental and provocative new documentary as simply another example of an uninformed host so far out in the weeds that he embarrasses himself with every contrived, half-heartedly delivered question that inevitably falls flat. Easy indeed, except for the fact that the string of bland and clueless queries directed at one of most innovative figures in jazz history is not only being uttered by a personal acquaintance of Monk’s, but also one of France’s finest talents in the genre, Henri Renaud, a famed pianist and producer who recorded extensively with a who’s who of jazz luminaries, including artists such as Al Cohn, Zoot Simms, and Clifford Brown! Herein lies the great curiosity of Rewind & Play, but before we are allowed to witness the verbal minefield perpetrated on the set of the long-running television program, Jazz Portrait, we are lulled into a familiar music documentary setup that has Monk and his wife Nellie arriving in Paris and being whisked away into town for drinks at a cozy bar. The mood is cool in these early minutes, and in narrative terms, it feels like a safe place, but from the moment it leaves the smoke and libations and we see Monk planted piano side with searing studio spotlights bearing down on his face, we immediately sense all is not well. What follows for the remainder of the film is a barrage of awkward and inappropriate inquiries from Renaud that you would never expect to hear from a musician speaking to a fellow musician, much less a friend, and throughout these proceedings, Gomis cleverly chops together the questions and answers uttered during rehearsals into an absurd and redundant cacophony of bewildered looks and unpleasant reactions with the only salvations coming from Monk who is finally left alone to play “Round Midnight” and “Crepuscule with Nellie.” As Rewind & Play comes to a close, you have a perfectly articulated declaration of the struggles that arise from being avant-garde within a known form. If Monk’s friend, fellow musician, and jazz scholar, Henri Renaud, was genuinely puzzled as to why Monk languished in semi-obscurity for years, you can only cringe at the notion of how Monk was perceived by those of influence who existed outside of his inner circle.

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Le Pupille (The Pupils) / dir. Alice Rohrwacher

During our 2018 conversation after the AFI Fest screening of her feature, Happy as Lazzaro, director Alice Rohrwacher stressed the disparity between the religions that coexisted in her film: the historical religion of the Catholic Church, which primarily served in her film as a force of suppression over a group of anachronistic sharecroppers, and a religion of innocence, or the pure belief that human beings have in other human beings.

A comparable delineation of faith and religion comes into play again in Rohrwacher’s newest creation, Le Pupille, a sumptuously shot 16mm short set during the Second World War in the days leading up to Christmas in a sparse boarding school for girls. At the helm of this school is The Mother Superior (Alba Rohrwacher), who uses Catholicism as a method of control over her group of innocent subjects for power and profit, much like Happy as Lazzaro’s Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna did. As it is the holiday season, the money-making tool in Le Pupille takes the form of a Nativity play consisting of our perfectly-costumed seraphic students suspended by wires in the church to form a devotion-inspiring Renaissance painting of sorts. This living painting then becomes a service for the townspeople who offer what little food and lira they have to get these posed innocents to pray for whatever their patrons desire. Given that it is wartime, most villagers pray for the safe return of their loved ones, but when a well-to-do woman (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) offers the ultimate symbol of royal privilege during rationing — a perfectly made Zuppa Inglese — in exchange for prayers that will bring her scoundrel of a fiancé back to her, the Zuppa Inglese becomes a symbol of rebellion for one of the girls who was unfairly maligned prior to the Christmas Day dinner. Based on a letter composed by writer Elsa Morante as a Christmas greeting to a friend, Le Pupille simultaneously functions as a playful holiday watch while cleverly expanding on Rohrwacher’s thoughts regarding the true essence of human nature over organized morality. 

All films were screened at AFI Fest 2022. Many thanks and congratulations to AFI for another excellent year of cinema and conversations, and a special thanks to Johanna Calderón-Dakin, Senior Publicity Associate for AFI Fest, who made our festival coverage possible.

AFI Fest

Featured photo courtesy of AFI

The Tale of King Crab

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Originally published on Ink 19 on October 4, 2022

The Tale of King Crab
directed by Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis

For their first quasi-fictional feature, The Tale of King Crab (Re Granchio), directors Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis effectively draw structure from their documentarian roots and fuse it with Italian folklore to develop a cinematic language that invigorates and redefines the fairy tale for this generation.

This seemingly effortless ability to draw from Italian history and world cinema while expanding and contextualizing such inspirations for this era without overburdening narratives with references to recognizable archetypes, legends, and myths has, in fact, become a kind of a hallmark for this new generation of Italian filmmakers such as Pietro Marcello, Alice Rohrwacher, and Jonas Carpignano. And, like Carpignano’s Calabrian-set A Chiara (reviewed earlier this year), A Tale of King Crab is the final film of a geographical triptych that began in 2013 with Rigo de Righi and Zoppis’ short documentary, Belva Nera (Black Beast), which was followed by their feature-length doc, Il Solengo. Their triptych, however, is centered in the town of Vejano in the Tuscia province, and all three of their films’ narratives emanate from a group of the town’s elderly huntsmen regaling each other with lore by the fire of their lodge.

Fittingly, The Tale of King Crab opens with a shot of a glistening and placid body of water that is soon disrupted by a shirtless bearded man standing in mid-stream who reaches down to retrieve a golden lavaliere of ancient design which he holds up to the sun. We are then instantly transported from summer to winter and many years in the future to visit the same lodge of Belva Nera and Il Solengo where the dining hunters sing the verse, “The doctor’s son is half crazy. With fire and fury he did justice!”

The doctor’s son is Luciano (Gabriele Silli), whom the hunters say lived in either the late 19th or early 20th century. As one of the hunters extolls, “Vejano was a town of poor people and princes,” but our protagonist Luciano was somewhere in between, as his father’s position allowed him to subsist as the town drunkard who could brazenly despise the prince for closing off the pathway around the castle where the town’s shepherds once walked their sheep. As the oral exposition continues, we learn that Luciano committed some felony at the Feast of St. Orsio, and the hunters state the town’s long-held assertions that Luciano was either crazy, an aristocrat, or a saint. Depending on the storyteller, Luciano may be a folk hero, a criminal, or an embarrassment in his chapter of the oral legends of the town, but the hunters are quite confident in one fact about the mythical Luciano—he most certainly loved the drink.

For the most part, Luciano, similar to Mario de Marcella in Il Solengo, is content with remaining on the fringes of Vejano, and like Mario, his downfall is ultimately tied to the feelings that he has for a young woman. Here, Luciano has his eyes on Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the daughter of a fiercely overprotective sheep farmer (Severino Sperandio), but Luciano is reluctant to admit his true feelings to her directly. When Emma becomes angered at Luciano’s indifference towards her, he gives her his newly found pendant, and as they grow closer and share in their desire to leave the stale realities of their hometown, Emma’s father becomes more furious.

Concurrently, the prince begins to involve himself with Emma, going as far as to adorn her in the vestiges of the Virgin Mary during a religious festival. And this symbolic act provokes Luciano to express his hatred for the social, religious, and royal forces within Vejano that suppress people to remain in their expected places and roles with not only a sacrilege, but also the extreme act inherent in the title of the first part of The Tale of King Crab, “The Saint Orsio Misdeed.” Having finally gone too far, Luciano’s father must exile his son to Argentina, and with that banishment to a land far away from Vejano, our enclave of hunters, who return to the screen in a state of greater inebriation, must dig even deeper into their imaginations to determine a course for their village’s anti-hero.

The second half of the film places Luciano in a quasi-purgatorial state in Tierra del Fuego. Now sober, he is draped in clerical vestiges acquired from an arrow-punctured priest who, in exchange for a proper burial, offers Luciano a fortune in Incan gold. But to pinpoint the location of this cache, Luciano must turn to an unusual gold divining rod, the titular giant crab, a much less threatening beast than the panthers, jaguars, and vipers that occupied the minds of Vejano’s residents in Belva Nera and Il Solengo. With animals as allies in this distant and mysterious terrain, a group of gun-wielding pirates emerges as the key threat as they aim to plunder the very treasure that Luciano desperately hopes to discover for himself.

As the narrative of the second part of The Tale of King Crab develops, Luciano transcends his status as folk hero/anti-hero—the paradoxical embodiment of Vejano’s hopes and fears within the boundaries of the town—and becomes a legendary hero. Fortified by Rigo de Righi and Zoppis’ ability to draw from the films of Herzog and Nicolas Winding Refn that depict daring explorations into unknown lands, Luciano inhabits a world and a role grander than the ones from insular mythologies that have long been fabricated in Vejano, and he accomplishes feats of perseverance, ingenuity, courage, self-discovery, and redemption, foundational triumphs that make up heroic journeys across all time.

In the first chapter of The Tale of King Crab, we get to see the origins of Luciano as told through the hunters’ present iterations of his story with gaps and inconsistencies filled by Rigo de Righi and Zoppis’ understanding of the region, the lore, and Luciano’s fallibility as a human and as an outsider from the dominant classes of Vejano. But as the tale of Luciano moves away from the village, and the hunters’ accounts of his adventures become mere speculations at best, the directors create their own story of Luciano’s ascension into a saint, a figure who can inspire wonder, evoke catharsis, and elevate the hunters’ existence away from the provincial reality that they’ve always known. Together, these two parts of The Tale of King Crab present a unique kind of hybrid cinema that underscores the influence of reality on folklore while also embracing the imprecision and exaggerations of the human imagination and our time-tested fascination in characters who can transcend the challenges of their realities. This dual approach offers a distinctively fresh perspective on fairy tales, one in which Luciano is fundamentally human in his foibles and desires, but mythical in his ability to overcome his mistakes and shed away his fears and weaknesses. And thus, by the end of The Tale of King Crab, when Luciano does become a hero in a classical sense, he’s not too far out of reach from the hunters in Vejano, and he’s not out of reach from us, wherever we may be, as well.

The Tale of King Crab is being distributed in the US by Oscilloscope Laboratories and is currently available for streaming. Feature image courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

https://kingcrab.oscilloscope.net

Lily and Generoso Fierro

Hold Me Tight

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Originally published on Ink 19 on September 23, 2022

Hold Me Tight
directed by Mathieu Amalric

As the feminist movement gained global traction in the 1960s, cinema responded in kind by producing countless stories of women rejecting traditional familial and/or societal constructs. Beginning with films such as Alessandro Fallay’s Le altre from 1969, the subsequent decade would see a wide array of international works such as Agnès Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae, and Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career, motion pictures that suitably depicted the modern struggles of women trying to take on a leadership role at the workplace or simply rejecting the institution of marriage.

Although set in present day, Mathieu Amalric’s engrossing and perplexing new film, Hold Me Tight, opens with a shot of Clarisse (Vicky Krieps) sitting alone in her bed surrounded by anachronistic Polaroid photos, which she uses to play a Hūsker Dū-like memory game before belting out the words, “Let’s start again!” The film then cuts back to an idyllic farmhouse in the hours near dawn where we observe Clarisse writing her family a note, making breakfast for her kids, and then collecting her effects and throwing them into her astonishingly well-kept, late 1970s AMC Pacer. In embedding this opening scene with key cultural and period identifiers, Amalric quickly takes us back to the aforementioned era of feminist cinema, and to a subgenre of films that saw wives and mothers making the painful decision to abandon their families. However, unlike Kramer vs. Kramer’s Joanna, who walks out in the opening act, we are not entirely sure of Clarisse’s intentions as she makes her way out of town.

Upon discovering his wife’s disappearance, Marc (Arieh Worthaler), begins to care for his young children Paul (Sacha Ardilly) and Lucie (Anne-Sophie Bowen-Chatet), who painfully come to grips with what their mother has done. However, is this all actually happening? As we watch Clarisse, she visualizes what will be said by each member of her family about her exodus, but when her thoughts seemingly become exact actions, we enter a realm that intentionally blurs fact and fiction. Subsequently, when Clarisse drives to the snow-covered chalet where rescuers tell her that her family has disappeared in the aftermath of an avalanche and that they cannot begin to search for them until the spring thaw, we question whether this entire tragic incident is a delusion for Clarisse to relieve her guilt for shedding her future as a mother and wife, or if it is the true reality and her vision of leaving her family behind is a protective fantasy to avoid the trauma of losing her loved ones to a natural disaster. Clarisse returns to her empty home, and, while there, she refuses to directly confront the potential of a devastating outcome, opting instead to drum up her past, like the night when she met her husband. She also delves deeper into imagining how her family will progress without her, which further obscures the lines between reality and delusion while building two versions of Clarisse that serve as each other’s foil.

There is a symbiosis between denial, projection, and rationalization to the stages of grief that occur within and across Clarisse’s two states. As she initially pulls away from the grief-stricken present where she’s the only one left, she imagines a utopian outcome for those left behind in the present where she’s the abandoner. But as the spring approaches and the inevitable weighs on her mind, a more lucent, accurate perception emerges alongside a self-realization that her grand hopes and goals for them may have resulted in a less than perfect future for everyone.

While speaking at Film at Lincoln Center’s 27th edition of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, Amalric expressed his almost twenty-year-long admiration for Claudine Galea’s play, Je reviens de loin (I’ve Come a Long Way), which he adapted for his screenplay. “It is a play of inversions,” claims Amalric, “if you leave, you’re staying.” During that conversation, Amalric detailed his desire to work with Krieps after seeing her in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2017 film, Phantom Thread, and she is brilliant in her role here, especially considering that Amalric insisted that his actors see the dialog only on the day of shooting in order to keep the reactions fresh and urgent, which provide a magnetic energy that engages and guides the viewer throughout Hold Me Tight, despite much uncertainty around Clarisse’s reality and the truth of events.

Naturally, Clarisse’s instability represented in the version of herself that runs away from her domesticated life, unprovoked by any particular event or cause other than an unspoken feeling of malaise and discontent, evokes the images and mood of Barbara Loden’s revered 1970 film, Wanda, in which our titular character also cuts out on her family without any clear rhyme or reason. Though Amalric draws us onto this familiar narrative path, as soon as you settle and begin to think you’ve seen Clarisse before and have some reference pattern for her seemingly erratic behaviors, he cuts to an alternate Clarisse, who is not a mother escaping a home, but instead a home that she has lost. In providing this recurring juxtaposition throughout Hold Me Tight, Amalric gives us the privilege of feeling all of the conflicting and disorienting emotions and reactions surrounding the loss of Clarisse’s family, be it by tragedy or her own departure, and by the end of the film, as the state-switches fade away, we arrive with Clarisse to a new state of clarity stemming from acceptance—acceptance for all that has transpired and all that was imagined, and acceptance of a new future completely divergent from her recent past.

Hold Me Tight is currently in theaters nationally.

Hold Me Tight

Lily and Generoso Fierro

Memoria

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Originally published on Ink 19 on June 28, 2022

Memoria
directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

To be able to be free, you need to get yourself out of everything. You have to be outside your own experience. You shouldn’t see yourself as a subject or as an object of the experience. You have to be outside. You have to be an observer without the intention of being an observer. You, just aware of the awareness.

In Memoria, the book, we have the privilege of seeing into the nervous system—the multi-dimensional graph of stories, thoughts, places, concepts, histories, research, and images—that constructs the manifestation of Memoria the film. In the closing of an early section titled, “4 April 2017 Talk with Joseph,” the quote above appears, which perfectly articulates how the film itself is structured and how we, as the audience, in viewing it, depart from our own seats in dark theaters, from the psychological space between our reality and the film’s fiction, and arrive at a plane of existence connecting us to each other across time and space and beyond our normal range of perception and cognition.

Though its ability to allow us to transcend our reality and the world of the film itself is profound, Memoria’s core plot can be summarized in a few basic sentences. Jessica is awakened by a thunderous sound. At first, she thinks the sound is coming from outside of her, but soon she realizes it’s emanating from inside of her own head, and she gradually begins to understand it through her many interactions with others.

As a scientist herself (though she’s out of her typical domain here because she’s an orchidologist), Jessica initially takes an active, investigative measure to comprehend the sound. Naturally, given that it is something that only she can hear, she hopes to extract it for herself to review and study on demand. To accomplish the extraction, Jessica meets Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego), a sound engineer recommended by her brother-in-law, Juan (Daniel Giménez Cacho), and with Hernan, she attempts to replicate the sound as she perceives it. As she struggles to precisely describe what she’s hearing, Hernan compounds different sounds and processing techniques, and she quickly discovers that there may not be a well-defined ontology for the sound, or at least one that can be verbalized. However, Hernan manages to produce something that is quite close, but the near-reproduction doesn’t bring Jessica any closer to the sound’s origins, which may be more subterranean or more primordial than she previously believed.

Thus, as Memoria proceeds, Jessica’s process to understand the sound abandons any formal methodology and instead becomes more instinctive and subconsciously reactive as her interactions with the people and everything around her quietly direct her movements and her experiences. They take her to a park where Hernan shares the marriage of her sound with his own personal music and then to a warehouse where the two shop for fridges to preserve flowers. They point her to Agnes (Jeanne Balibar), an archaeologist studying remains from a construction site who shows Jessica the trepanned, ancient skull of a young girl. They drift her toward a practice room where an ensemble is casually performing in front of a small audience. They lure her to the countryside near Agnes’s excavation site where she meets an older version of Hernan (Elkin Díaz), who may or may not have lived an entirely different life. Jessica observes and listens, but she’s not trying to form any hypothesis, so as she moves from different spaces and interacts with the surrounding living and non-living things, her senses transform into deep awareness and open consciousness, both of which allow her to happen upon the extraterrestrial, otherworldly source of the sound.

We, as the audience, can try to be analytical about Jessica’s experiences as we see them on the screen and attempt to determine the relations between encounters, but the fluid, interconnected soundscapes of Memoria pull us away from such acts and coax us into a state where we can absorb all layers of the film at once without ever feeling the need to cognitively register each individual piece. And, here, in this entrancing, conductive state, we can connect to Jessica and ultimately our own present and past counterparts to distill what is fundamental in all of us: a desire to comprehend the unknown and our strategies to cope when the unknown remains beyond the reach of our senses.

In tandem, Memoria the book and film underscore how cinema is one of our strategies to accept and explore the unknowns of our individual and collective realities. Given that Memoria is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first feature film made outside of Thailand, both the book and film transmit Weerasethkul’s learnings, experiences, and reflections of a new, foreign environment. The book forms the foundational, mosaic textile that Weersethakul drapes into the exquisite, hypnotic moving sculpture that is the film, which reverberates with the lights and sounds of history and humanity and pulsates with a freedom of experience and expression, bringing us to a new height of cinematic and human awareness.

https://memoria.film

Lily and Generoso Fierro

A Chiara

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Originally published on Ink 19 on June 1, 2022

A Chiara
directed by Jonas Carpignano

Back in 2017, we sat down with director Jonas Carpignano shortly after the AFI Fest screening of A Ciambra, the second installment of his Calabrian triptych set in the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro. During that conversation, Carpignano eschewed the term “trilogy” for “triptych” in describing his series of features, which sees its conclusion with A Chiara, the winner of the Directors’ Fortnight Award at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. There is good reason for a clear delineation of terms here when describing Carpignano’s triptych of MediterraneaA Ciambra, and A Chiara. These films are, as the director stated in 2017, “tied together through overlapping characters and motifs, even less than narrative logic.” As with a triptych like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s BlueWhite, and Red, you can experience each film individually on its own merits, but it is their collective power that confirms the overarching significance of their unity.

With Gioia Tauro as a constant throughout, Carpignano’s triptych utilizes the familial motivations of its three central characters, who possess different ethnic and economic backgrounds, to examine how each character’s actions are conceived and received based on the varying degrees of acceptance from their own or surrounding community. In Mediterranea, we follow Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), who has made the perilous journey from Burkina Faso to Italy with the goal of finding any work that could help him send funds back to his family in Africa. Although he finds work in Gioia Tauro as a migrant laborer, he is not accepted by the bulk of the residents in his new environment, and his presence is often met with overt resistance or dubious opportunities for survival. In A Ciambra, Ayiva returns as the friend of Pio Amato, a young teen who is part of the Romani community in Calabria that is somewhat adjusted to life there, but is not fully accepted by the native Calabrians. As Pio and Ayiva have both been ostracized from the broader community due to their backgrounds, they become close friends, but when a dire situation arises within Pio’s family, the differences between the two friends overshadow their commonalities.

With A Chiara, Carpignano places a female in the lead for the first time in the form of 15-year-old Chiara (Swamy Rotolo), the middle daughter of upper-middle class parents Claudio (Claudio Rotolo) and Carmela (Carmela Fumo) Guerrasio. Chiara is a quintessential Gen Z Italian teen. As the film begins, she works out on a treadmill in a fashionable gym before readying herself for the lavish, but warm, festivities surrounding her elder sister Giulia’s (Grecia Rotolo) eighteenth birthday. At the party, Chiara makes it clear to her adoring father that she understands, and is content with, the quasi-normal family dynamic and order her parents have created, and she joyously dances and blissfully documents the celebration on her phone with the knowledge that her worldview is secure.

However, when Chiara steps out from the festivities and is confronted outside of the party venue by her cousin, who frowns upon on her smoking and rebellious attitude, Carpignano veers the viewer toward a classical coming of age film but shifts away from such a conceit when Chiara, later that evening, sees a firebomb destroy her father’s car in front of the family home. Her father soon becomes a fugitive for his connections to the ‘Ndrangheta, and Chiara is awakened from the fantasy that her family’s protection and her non-Roma, non-African ethnicity have afforded her up to this point in her young life.

With the grim news spreading to her school, Chiara is humiliated and flabbergasted by the realization that she has lived for so long without any knowledge of her father’s illicit activities. As she seeks to find the truth, she digs through her home and discovers her father’s abandoned hideout while virulently confronting her mother and her older sister, Giulia, about what they know. When their answers prove less than satisfying to Chiara, she embarks on a mission with a clue from Ayiva, whom she meets outside of her cousin’s café, that leads her to Ciambra, the center of the Roma community in Gioia Tauro and the neighborhood of the Amato family, whom we lived with in Carpignano’s previous entry of the triptych and whom we briefly see again in A Chiara. The residents of Ciambra, whom Chiara has looked down upon and even mistreated at times, express their familiarity with her father, bringing forth a revelation that further erodes the comfortable social gap that Chiara once believed existed between her and them.

As Chiara feels her social status and trust in her family dissipate with each new finding, she takes out her frustrations by committing a violent action against a Roma teen girl, resulting in a governmental order for Chiara to live with a wealthy family helmed by a pediatrician in Urbino, a walled city known as the birthplace of Raphael with a center declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Urbino symbolizes the pure essence of Renaissance Italy, and Gioia Tauro, the once planned industrial hub, exemplifies the country’s failure to modernize the south. Thus, despite her perceived level of “Italianness” over Ayiva and Pio’s respective communities, Chiara must now assume the role of immigrant in her own country as she departs the place of her birth, the place forever associated with the criminality of her family, and a place with a radically different culture and history than that of Urbino.

Essential to A Chiara’s profoundly unapologetic, determined mood, is Carpignano’s continued commitment to using non-professional actors who clearly understand the region depicted in his triptych. Swamy Rotolo, whose only other acting credit is a small role in A Ciambra, assuredly handles the task of playing a difficult, and at times unsympathetic, character with a fierce bravado offset by a palpable angst that pays homage to Monica Vitti’s performance in Red Desert. Whereas Vitti’s character’s naïveté and cloistered world shatters with her growing awareness of the poisons of industrialization led by her husband and lover, Chiara’s innocence disintegrates as she discovers the role her family plays in distributing drugs in the aftermath of failed industrialization.

However, Chiara dominates the screen, not landscapes of the aging portside waterfront nor portraits of the broken promises of 20th century modernity, and this tighter focus on Chiara draws you deeper into her questions, experiences, and decisions to complete the triptych’s connective notion of sacrifice and status. Ayiva sacrifices himself for the future of his family. Pio sacrifices his friendship with Ayiva for the sake of his familial ties, and Chiara sacrifices her family for the sake of her own future. What each character ultimately sacrifices becomes a representation of the vast difference in choices available for each based on their current socioeconomic status and how long they and their families have lived in Italy, and altogether, the three characters and their respective films illuminate how decades, even centuries, of history can collide in a single place in a single point in time through different communities and their perceived and true state of acclimation to contemporary Italy.

A Chiara is currently showing in limited theaters in the United States. Featured image courtesy of mk2 films.

neonrated.com • mk2films.com

Lily and Generoso Fierro

Best of Film 2021

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Originally published on Ink 19 on December 6, 2021
by Lily and Generoso Fierro

Joy. Resilience. Limitations. Isolation. Four words to describe cinema in 2021.

With the pandemic still in the foreground of life, the films we saw this year had a bittersweet quality to them. Some celebrated the survival of cinema. Others the joy of life. And others tested the limitations of film as a medium. But, all had a deep understanding of the dire realities within or surrounding the narratives and experiences on screen.

Our favorite films this year heightened the awareness of the loneliness and chaos of contemporary life and explored the many ways in which we try to deal with both. These films articulated our anxieties about the present and our fears about the future. Some showed how we try to assert control and fail. And one particularly embraced the relinquishing of control and celebrated the unpredictability of a surreal, irrational world.

In a time where news images have become paradoxically more powerful because they allow us to see reality when we are not allowed in it, but more trivial because we are primarily experiencing all of our lives through images on screens, the films that moved us were the ones that reflected on the power of the moving image and challenged the traditions, expectations, and restrictions of the form.

We should note that there are some films that are sadly absent from this list because we did not get the opportunity to see them. This includes Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s much heralded Memoria, Hong Sang-soo’s In Front of Your Face, Jonas Carpignano’s A Chiara, and Gaspar Noé’s Vortex. Regardless, our viewings in 2021 were most certainly still strong and as relevant to our rapidly changing times as they’ve ever been.

A special thanks goes out to the good folks at Acropolis Cinema, AFI Fest, Independent Film Festival Boston, the Brattle Theater, and the Coolidge Corner Theater for their exceptional programming efforts that provided us with an immense amount of joy and inspiration throughout this year. We ask you to please support these festivals, microcinemas, and independent theaters as they are essential to the growth and enlightenment of our communities.

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Malmkrog / Romania, Serbia / dir. Cristi Puiu

The moment Malmkrog ended, we took a deep breath as the words of the closing speech and fragments from the discursive, philosophical exchanges in the two hours plus prior faded down from the center of our minds, and we returned to reality. Immediately, we felt that we needed to read more and listen better, for Malmkrog is dense in its dialogue, composition, and ideas in a way that tests the limits of both cinema and cognition. But then, as the last reverberations of scenes pulsed in our thoughts, we understood: the world (and life) exists beyond the words, sounds, and images we ingest and digest in our confined spaces, and sometimes the world reacts to what we read and discuss (and vice versa), but more often than not, the world invades our thoughts and philosophies before we can ever come to any logical solution for the past and the future. Malmkrog is entirely contained on an estate in Transylvania near the beginning of the 20th century. Inside the opulent home, five aristocrats move about in clusters challenging and questioning each other’s opinions and projections on a variety of important topics, including war, Christianity, and the state of Europe. The five are waited on by servants who move in and out of frame throughout, and, for a few moments in the film, take over the screen, providing short breaths of relief away from the realm of theory that the aristocrats continuously explore throughout the film. Malmkrog appears bloated with intellectualism, so with its period setting, you may be deceived into believing that it is a merely pretentious exercise of philosophy and history. However, when your mind struggles to reconcile the images you see on screen, the subtitles you’re reading, and the tones in the voices you’re hearing, relish in the fact that you are seeing the growing pains of the cinematic form in front of you and know that from such discomfort comes change, which is in the room now and will be constant until the end.

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Diários de Otsoga (Tsugua Diaries) / Portugal / dirs. Miguel Gomes and Maureen Fazendeiro

COVID-19 remains at the top of our collective consciousness (and will likely remain there for years to come), so it is no surprise that it made its way into the films that premiered in 2021. Tsugua Diaries, on the surface, is about coping during the pandemic, but step away from the protocols of quarantine life—the masks, the cleaning and sterilization procedures, the testing protocols—and you’ll see a triumphant ode to the endurance of cinema. Told in reverse, Tsugua Diaries theoretically documents twenty-two days on the set of a film production in the late summer of 2020. In order to produce the film safely, everyone involved lives and works in a large country house and limits their exposure to the outside world as much as possible. The cast and crew have no choice but to live, work, and play together, and in turn, they become their own close-knit community. We see moments of life and play influencing and reacting to the film that the cast and crew are trying to make within Tsugua Diaries, and all of this is gloriously captured by the camera for Tsugua Diaries itself because, after all, everyone we ultimately see on screen is an actual member of the cast and crew playing themselves. Reality collides with fiction, and both fold on top of themselves and each other, to the point where the scenes that co-directors Miguel Gomes and Maureen Fazendeiro capture for the film within and the film that is Tsugua Diaries become simultaneously representative, symbolic, abstract, and expressive. This convergence is the affirmation of the purpose, joy, and strength of cinema, which, despite the rapid, disruptive changes of COVID-19, thrived on the home, set, and stage of Tsugua Diaries.

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Slow Machine / USA / dir. Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo

Films about members of the American artistic class can be unbearable, and the directors of Slow Machine, Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo, know it. So, instead of centering their film on a dead-eyed, overly aware, unsympathetic contemporary bohemian, they cast all eyes on Stephanie (Stephanie Hayes), a theater actress who may or may not intentionally place herself consistently in volatile situations and, consequently, is always on the edge of an adverse reaction. Early in the film, Stephanie tries to escape her claustrophobic living situation by going on a bender and stumbling along the sidewalks of Brooklyn. She passes out, and when she awakens, she’s in a studio apartment that could double as a panic or hostage room with Gerard (Scott Shepherd), a man who claims to be an intelligence agent with an affinity for experimental theater. The two begin a peculiar relationship of attraction and repulsion, and as Stephanie’s breakdown becomes more palpable, we begin to suspect that Gerard is a vehicle for the cultivation of her paranoia and instability, two characteristics that enable her to shape-shift and transform at any moment, whether she wants to or not. In stark contrast to the spaces where Stephanie and Gerard clash, we also see Stephanie in an idyllic artist compound in upstate New York helmed by Eleanor (Eleanor Friedberger). In the manicured spaces surrounded by musicians who are more interested in the sounds they create and tag football than the human condition, Stephanie attempts to re-center herself away from Gerard and the frenzy of the city. But, inevitably, when she must interact with the others, her erratic reactions resurface and push her to finally meltdown. Slow Machine at its heart asks, “What does it mean to be yourself, everyone, everything, and nothing?” And as Stephanie tries to find the answer, she treads into hazardous and destructive places, all of which drive the engine of great performances—the ones that are unnerving, striking, and soberingly human.

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Gûzen to sôzô (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy) / Japan / dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

When describing the ethos behind the triptych of films that became Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi stated that they are explorations of “coincidence and imagination.” As these occurrences and abilities play out in the lives of the characters contained in the three stories that comprise the film, the characters’ consequent improvisations and performances become the practical machines for Hamaguchi’s explorations, and it is this need to adapt and reply to situations, both contrived and spontaneous, that is the power behind Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. As we watch the female protagonists of each story assume a fabricated persona in response to an uncomfortable situation, we see how their role playing creates a method to better understand the people they’re engaging with, while simultaneously allowing them to step away from who they are to clearly see themselves. The transformative effect of impersonation plays out in the first segment of the film, “Magic (or Something Less Assuring),” through Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), a fashion model who must conceal her true self when she finds out that her best friend has fallen in love with her ex-boyfriend, whom she still has feelings for. In the second story, “Door Wide Open,” Nao (Katuski Mori) is coerced into taking on the part of a seducer in order to trap and embarrass an esteemed literature professor, and in the final story, “Any Day Now,” a lonely housewife named, Nana (Aoba Kawai), role plays as the long lost classmate of a woman named Moka (Fusako Urabe). Even though the women’s actions elicit a vast array of emotional reactions from us, including sadness, violent discomfort, and being overwhelmingly touched, we admire them for their righteous ability to neglect their desires for the sake of others and celebrate with them as they gain a greater insight into who they are and what they really want.

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Doraibu mai kâ (Drive My Car) / Japan / dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Though the images and sounds of movement through space and time are often the first things that come to mind when you’re thinking about cars, there’s something more fascinating about the gray area between public and private space when you’re inside of a vehicle. In Drive My Car, Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an actor and theater director, feels the safest in the driver’s seat of his red Saab 900. It’s where he can control his physical direction. It’s where he absorbs and recites the words of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. And, it’s where he has the deepest connection with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), whose voice reads out all the parts except for Uncle Vanya’s, leaving space for Kafuku to respond. Since the death of their child, Oto and Kafuku have remained loving and respectful towards one another, but they also keep each other at a distance: Oto has had multiple affairs, and Kafuku knows about them, but neither have ever spoken about the transgressions. After Oto’s sudden death, Kafuku drives to Hiroshima to direct a multi-lingual performance of Uncle Vanya at a theater festival. Upon arriving, he is immediately informed that he will not be allowed to drive the vehicle for the duration of his preparation of the production, and he’s assigned a driver: a taciturn young woman named Misaki (Tôko Miura). The car is Kafuku’s home, office, and crutch, and now, he must attempt to process his work as a director and his fears as an actor alongside his grief and his unresolved, conflicting feelings toward Oto, with another person along for the ride. As they drive, Kafuku continues to fill in the silences between Oto’s recitation of Uncle Vanya, and slowly both his and Misaki’s respective external shells begin to fall away and allow them to better connect with everything in the present and past around them. The red Saab is undoubtedly a symbol of Kafuku, but it also is a physical manifestation of our self-imposed separation from others as we attempt to direct our lives (and the possible self-isolation that may become habit due to the pandemic). However, as Drive My Car reminds us well, we can still find ways to share the space inside the car, and we can most certainly step outside of it too. And, we’ll be better artists, colleagues, friends, parents, children, and individuals when we do either, or better yet, both.

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Felkészülés meghatározatlan ideig tartó együttlétre (Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time) / Hungary / dir. Lili Horvát

At the center of Lili Horvát’s impressive debut feature is Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork), an Hungarian-born doctor in her 40s, who has been living in the States where she is a well respected leader at a prominent neurosurgery center. On the surface, everything is going well for Márta, but after decades of living abroad, she makes the abrupt decision to travel back to her native Hungary to rendezvous with a fellow countryman and neurosurgeon named János (Viktor Bodó), whom she met at an academic conference in New Jersey. Upon arriving in Budapest, Márta heads to the Liberty Bridge, the mutually agreed upon location of her scheduled tryst with János, but when she gets there, he is nowhere to be found. Márta responds to the snubbing by tracking János down for an answer, but when she confronts him, he has no idea who she is, and she falls unconscious. Distraught and confused, Márta decides to stay in Budapest and rents a shabby apartment with a view of the Liberty Bridge, reminding her of the failed reunion with János daily. She takes a position beneath her abilities at a dilapidated hospital in Budapest where János works, despite the warnings that she receives from an old colleague who assures her that her immense talents will be ignored by the patriarchal agenda of the surgical team there. Then, she sets out on investigating if she and János actually made a promise to meet again in Hungary and if she ever knew him at all. In her use of formal elements of romantic cinema to actualize her protagonist’s reawakening of cultural identity, Horvát imbues a constant ambiguity between inner and outer realities to externalize the disorienting cross-conscious states and cross-cultural spaces that Márta is trying to navigate. As we observe Márta excelling in her duties at the hospital where her skills are steadily gaining notice, the question becomes less about her being recognized by János, and more about whether her voice can finally be heard in her own homeland. Read Generoso’s full review of Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time here on Ink 19.

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A Night of Knowing Nothing / India / dir. Payal Kapadia

The act of performance can take on many forms, and in Payal Kapadia’s debut documentary feature, A Night of Knowing Nothing, we have the the pleasure of experiencing it in a multitude of ways, which altogether allow us to understand the complexity and ambiguities of being a filmmaker and student hoping to make the future a better place while entrenched in a period of political unrest. The film opens up with a striking, grainy, black-and-white shot of young people dancing. Instead of music, we hear the voice of a narrator reading letters found in a student hostel at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and we’re introduced to L, a student filmmaker, whose unsent letters to her lover become the sinew between the images and other sounds of A Night of Knowing Nothing. At first, L’s letters are focused on her despair that her lover has left her because of his family: she’s in a lower caste, and his family refuses to allow him to marry her. But, as L’s life continues, her letters begin to center on her reflections on the student protests happening in India in 2016, and her thoughts as she emerges as a political being start to overlay and bridge sounds and images from protests, found archival and mobile phone footage, and shared footage from Kapadia’s own friends at FTII. A Night of Knowing Nothing contracts and expands its visual scope and conceptual breadth throughout. Moments after we see a person in silence in a sparse room, we often see large groups joining together to protest the inequalities of Indian society. We hear audio from the protests and speeches from key representatives cross fade into L’s reflections on herself and her thoughts on Pasolini and Eisenstein. A Night of Knowing Nothing is like a living organism growing into consciousness, moving its attention fluidly inwards and outwards and learning throughout, and this progression emerges as a performance too, one that beautifully shows us what it means to develop into a more aware being. We spoke with director Payal Kapadia at AFI Fest 2021, and that conversation can be read here.

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Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream / France / dir. Frank Beauvais

A shining example of contemporary anxiety stoked by isolation and the consumption of images, Frank Beauvais’s film essay Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream assembles scenes from over four hundred fiction films that the director viewed during a six month period of seclusion in a village in Alsace around the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016. The film vacillates between therapeutic exercise and neurotic compulsion as Beauvais attempts to find comfort in cinema away from his struggles emanating from his split with his partner, his feelings of hopelessness to change the oppressive climate following the state of emergency after the November 2015 Paris attacks, and his relationships with his parents. However, no matter how much Beauvais attempts to immerse himself in the images of films, he remains aware of his distance from society, and thus the images recalled from his binge watching become reflective of his mindset. There are neither faces nor particularly iconic images in the scenes that serve as excerpts, reactions, and memories, so, as each film clip flashes on and off the screen, we see worlds often resembling our own appear, disappear, and re-emerge in alternate forms. Reality and fiction pass by, and we continue to watch alongside Beauvais while his voice elaborates on the experiences and anxieties that motivated his departure from Paris to the countryside and memories that return to him as he sits in front of the screen. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is the perfect pandemic film not made about the pandemic itself. In fact, it serves as a reminder that the alienation exacerbated by COVID-19 has been with us in our digital, post-truth era for years, and it’s most likely here to stay as images on screens of various sizes pull us away from our surroundings into smaller and smaller physical and psychological spaces.

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Titane / France, Belgium / dir. Julia Ducournau

The most formative event of Alexia’s childhood was a car accident: it led to the installation of a titanium plate in her skull and marked the moment when her trust shifted away from her father (who partially caused the accident when he turned around, while driving, to reprimand a very young Alexia because she was kicking the back of his seat) to machinery, specifically cars. As a result, adult Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) has little regard for other people, and her complete lack of humanity is on full display in frightening and absurd ways in the first act of Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winning Titane. When we see Alexia as an adult for the first time, she’s a wiry, intimidating dancer who writhes on top of muscle cars. She’s feral in the presence of others, be it other dancers or her parents, and she’s a serial killer who’s racking up victims. After killing a house full of people and setting her childhood home ablaze, Alexia takes on the identity of Adrien, a young boy who went missing years ago and would now be in his late teens. Much has been made about the scenes of gruesome body transformations and violence that occur up until this point in the film, but these are the least surprising parts of Titane. When Alexia meets Adrien’s father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a firefighting chief, he brings Alexia back to his station and attempts to integrate her into the family of men he’s created in the years since Adrien’s disappearance, placing Alexia in a space more masculine, yet more tender than she’s ever known. Though her aggressive tendencies come out from behind her disguise at first, Alexia’s guard begins to fall as she receives love and care from Vincent and as she sees his struggles to maintain his muscle-bound body. Gender notions and roles switch back and forth between Alexia and Vincent, but some return to their original states, and consequently, we end up seeing fundamental elements of Vincent’s and his men’s masculinity redeeming Alexia’s humanity, which is an unexpected, new territory for films about women told by women and for storytelling overall. Male brutality and abuse of power have been in the headlines and at the forefront of societal discourse for the past few years since the Me Too movement. Yet, with Titane, Ducournau presents the male form in the most honest, vulnerable, respectful, and loving way possible, and that is far bolder than any of the images and sounds of viscera that are luring in and shocking audiences.

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Mandibules (Mandibles) / France / dir. Quentin Dupieux

Upon its U.S. release earlier this year, I (Generoso) finally had the opportunity to review Quentin Dupieux’s 2018 phantasmagoric crime comedy, Au Poste! (Keep An Eye Out). In my review, I anointed Dupieux as the heir apparent to the great Bertrand Blier as Dupieux possesses the same surrealistic and audacious approach to comedy that Blier trademarked throughout his career. Back in March, after Dupieux’s feature Mandibles screened as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival through Films at Lincoln Center, the director described his new comedy as his first positive film with an elevator-pitch of “E.T. meets Dumb and Dumber,” but given my anointing of Dupieux, I of course saw Mandibles more as “E.T. meets Blier’s Les Valseuses (Going Places),” with infinitely less random sexual debauchery than Blier’s notorious masterpiece. Set around a small beach community in the South of France, Mandibles is a caper story centered on lifelong downtrodden friends in their 30s, Manu and Jean-Gab, who are portrayed to slack perfection by Grégoire Ludig and David Marsais, who are known in France mainly through their long-running sketch-comedy television program, Palmashow. As Mandibles opens, we find the homeless Manu comfortably asleep on the beach, where he is awakened by a friend who offers Manu a seemingly easy mission that could put 500 Euros into his empty pockets. Without the car deemed necessary for the job, Manu hotwires an old Mercedes and then corrals his friend, Jean-Gab, to do the deed. All is well until the pair hear a loud buzzing coming from their trunk, and after investigating, they discover a docile housefly that is the size of a three year old child. Only slightly spooked by this development, Jean-Gab doesn’t panic, and instead, he imagines a future where he and Manu train this fly to rob banks for them. Like our anti-heros in Going Places, Manu and Jean-Gab haphazardly roam the countryside and find women to offer them a bed, but they are less concerned about sex or wreaking havoc and more fixated on finding a place to train their buzzing partner in crime, now affectionately named Dominique. Mandibles does a lot in its lean 77 minute running time. It’s a very funny and oddly sweet surrealistic comedy that somehow manages to also address issues of class and privilege while never pulling you too far away from the strong friendship between Jean-Gab and Manu and their new buddy, Dominique. Generoso’s full review of Mandibles is available here on Ink 19.

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SUPPLEMENTAL LIST

Saint Maud / United Kingdom / dir. Rose Glass

In 2021, descents into sin are the norm, and ascents to sainthood are the exception. With her film Saint Maud, Rose Glass looks at why someone would strive for saintliness today and how they may get misguided in a life of rectitude. Maud has become a private hospice nurse after changing her name and leaving her previous life where the care of a patient went horribly wrong. She’s also become a devout Catholic attempting to be an ascetic, but when she takes on a new job caring for Amanda, a former dancer dying of cancer, Maud’s conception of faith gets rattled, and her interior state begins to crumble as remnants of her past behaviors resurface. Everything surrounding Amanda exists in stark contrast to Maud’s current beliefs. Amanda is a hedonist. She lives in a lavish home with dark jewel tones and rich textures everywhere—on the walls, the upholstery of the furniture, and the fabrics that drape Amanda’s failing body. Maud dresses in pallid tones, and her apartment is a bleak room with only a single bed, kitchen table, and a homemade altar to Christ on top of a set of drawers. During their initial encounters, Amanda and Maud grow towards each other, enough for Maud to share her relationship with God and invite Amanda to be a part of it. But as Amanda’s artistic past and lover Carol enter her home, the worldliness that Maud once tried to engage with, but now shuns is on parade in front of her, launching an obsessive mission to bring Amanda to the light that also forces her to confront her own earthly desires. Maud is undoubtedly a fanatic, but Glass shows us glimpses into Maud’s past promiscuity, loneliness, and traumas to allow us to completely understand how she arrived at this current life of extreme piousness. So when Maud’s faith get entangled with her mental instability, pushing her away from God, away from earth, and towards an abyss within herself, we sympathize with her because we can see how the sharp conflict between her noble motivations to be a nurse and a savior and her past experiences of failure and alienation distort her senses. Religious zealots are easy antagonists, and Maud’s approach to faith is subject to ridicule and horror, but thanks to Glass’s commitment to ensuring that we comprehend Maud’s life, motivations, and fragile state, the terror of Saint Maud lies in seeing Maud’s disintegration and standing by, as the audience, completely unable to help.

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Siberia / USA , Italy, Germany / dir. Abel Ferrara

During the middle of the lockdown last summer, I (Generoso) reviewed Tommaso. That film was Abel Ferrara’s first purely non-documentary feature since his 2014 triumph, Pasolini, where Ferrara inventively sidestepped all of the deep-seated traps of the biopic to form his sublime and personal piece on the slain poet/director of Teorema and Mamma Roma. Though Tommaso was formed as a hybrid-fiction film, many of its core elements depicting the artist’s conflicts between the creative process and the mundane were clearly drawn from Ferrara’s experiences in depicting Pasolini’s life at and away from his camera and desk. Willem Dafoe portrayed Tommaso, a film director living in Rome who is struggling to find balance between his addictive past, his shortcomings arising from being an older man with a young wife and child, and his pains in creating his newest work, Siberia, a film whose storyboards depict a sole male character confronting the frozen wasteland surrounding him. Whereas Tommaso becomes Ferrara’s stand-in for the frustrations of his day to day life in Rome, Siberia’s Clint (also played by Dafoe) serves as a guide through Ferrara’s inner psyche in tumult. In the actual version of Siberia, Clint is a keeper of a remote outpost in the eponymous wasteland who tends to his patrons, who speak to him in a language that he does not know, but somehow understands. These dreamlike communications build out as Clint travels from his establishment on a dog sled through the tundra, eventually finding the destinations of an African desert, snow-capped mountains, and the somewhat purgatorial deep recesses of the earth. Regardless of the journey’s end, Clint is mired by an Oedipal complex and the challenges of fading masculinity that mirror Tommaso’s late night excursions through the streets of Rome where he looks in vain for anything that might allow him deviate from his present or distance himself from his past. As for Abel Ferrara, Siberia evidences that he is keenly aware of how he can never evade his previously immoderate lifestyle and his filmography of obtuse genre cinema, but we understand that he will always continue to move forward, taking his past with him as part of wherever he goes next.

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Cryptozoo / USA / Dash Shaw

It’s been five years since Dash Shaw released his first feature, My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea, a collaboration between Shaw, who was the director and writer, and his wife, Jane Samborski, who was the animation director. The film accomplished a handmade, playful, and bold style indicative of Shaw’s comics that perfectly matched the whimsical plot. For their second feature, Cryptozoo, which premiered at the Berlinale in 2020 and the Sundance Film Festival in 2021, Shaw and Samborski expanded their scale and pushed their animation style and techniques to new heights in creating an astonishing kingdom which stretches reality into a fantastical, dystopian world. Set in the 1960s, Cryptozoo presents as its protagonist Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), a champion of cryptids, creatures that exist based on folklore, myths, and individual accounts, but have never been identified as known species by the scientific community. Lauren has committed her life to rescuing cryptids in trouble after a baku consumed her bad dreams as a child and has been the lead conservationist and veterinarian of the Cryptozoo, a sanctuary for cryptids funded by an eccentric heiress named Joan (Grace Zabriskie). However, the Cryptozoo, in its noble intentions to protect cryptids and raise awareness around the creatures, treads into the same shaky moral grounds that zoos face when trying to preserve endangered species while showcasing them in captivity in order to sustain and finance their conservation efforts. Like the Cryptozoo itself, the film traps the viewer in an era and setting where we know the outcome. Though the cryptids are fantastical by definition and in their visual design, their introductions within the Cryptozoo evoke less wonderment and more unease because we invariably know that the fate of the Cryptozoo will be grim based on the actual history of the environmental optimism and good intentions of the 1960s that came to nothing (and even sometimes to the malevolent) in the decades to come. In August of this year, we spoke with Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski about their influences and animation process for Cryptozoo.

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Les Sorcières de l’Orient (The Witches of the Orient ) / France / Julien Faraut

Constructed primarily from the perspectives of Major Leaguers who played for some of the Japanese professional ball clubs, Robert Whiting’s 1989 book, You Gotta Have Wa, offers readers a unique and fascinating view into the mindset and history of baseball in Japan. Through the players’ viewpoints combined with a retelling of stories drawn from Japanese baseball folklore, Whiting’s book effectively illustrates key differences between American and Japanese culture via the idiosyncratic ways that each nation handles the same sport. As we read the book, it becomes clear that although we approach the sports from different angles, the one major aspect of baseball that links the United States and Japan is how it has historically brought up our morale in desperate times. In the early 1960s, Japan was at a crossroads. Still dealing with the devastating aftermath of their defeat in World War Two, Japan was making incredible strides forward in rebuilding and industrial growth, but the country was still searching for a win that went beyond baseball and onto an international stage as a means of repairing some of the negative impact that the war inflicted on the nation’s cultural identity. It is at this critical point where we meet the heroes of Julien Faraut’s dynamic documentary The Witches of the Orient, the legendary women’s volleyball team Nichibo Kaizuka. The winners of a record 258 consecutive matches between 1961 and 1966, the Nichibo Kaizuka team was recruited from a pool of factory workers by the owners of a textile plant in the small town of Kaizuka, near Osaka. Coached by a combat veteran named Hirofumi Daimatsu, who justly earned the moniker “The Demon” due to his fanatical training techniques, these women worked their full shifts at their plant, and then subjected themselves to regular all-night sessions of the most physically demanding practices that would rival anything contained in the pages of You Gotta Have Wa. To construct his narrative that connects sport and national identity as Whiting’s book did decades earlier, Faraut provides abundant cultural context through archival footage while offering the direct testimonies of the surviving members of the Nichibo Kaizuka team who discuss their experiences leading up to and including their monumental gold medal triumph at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where the Nichibo Kaizuka won a tense match against a powerful Soviet squad only hours after the Japanese men fell short of a gold medal in judo. Much to his credit, Faraut’s blending of a rapid editing style, contemporary music, and vintage anime created to deify the Nichibo Kaizuka keeps the pace frenetic throughout as it builds towards the team’s Olympic win. As a result of Faraut’s sharp choices, The Witches of the Orient never treads into overly sentimental territories as he highlights the uniqueness of Japanese culture through the achievements of this group of hardworking women who sacrificed their personal lives to unite as a formidable team that gave their country a much needed victory.

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Les Olympiades, Paris 13e (Paris, 13th District) / France / dir. Jacques Audiard

Modern Love seems like an obvious alternate title for Paris, 13th District, but upon watching the film’s main characters’ intimate relationships, along with their communications with each other, start, intensify, stop, and begin elsewhere, a more appropriate secondary title is Modern Honesty. Adapted from short comics from Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying and Optic Nerve, director Jacques Audiard transplants Tomine’s sense of isolation despite being amongst people to Paris and adds in technology as a conduit and barrier between people who know each other in physically intimate ways. Emilie (Lucie Zhang) is a Sciences Po post-grad living in an apartment in a tower of Les Olympiades in the 13th arrondissement. Camille (Makita Samba) is a schoolteacher who responds to an ad for a room in Emilie’s apartment. The two immediately hook up and begin a roommates-with-benefits relationship until Emilie calls things off. Nora (Noémie Merlant) is a new graduate student in law at the Sorbonne. She’s excited to leave her former life in Burgundy for a more cosmopolitan Parisian one until she’s mistaken for the cam-girl Amber Sweet. Emilie, Camillie, and Nora’s lives crash, tangle, and separate, and at every intersection, each fail to share what’s really going on in their lives, histories, and communities even though there’s plenty of time shared in bed. Given such a conceit, Paris, 13th District may sound caricaturish, but in our modern era where texts, in-app messaging, and timed video chats have condensed our communication into hyper-concise, reactive phrases and images, which our characters often rely on to speak to one another in Paris, 13th District, director Jacques Audiard connects such a communication style to the way that people selectively compose their outward image and their consequent failure to build meaningful relationships. The characters of Paris, 13th District often substitute physical intimacy for self-honesty, and that isn’t a new idea, but Audiard, along with his co-screenwriters Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius, overlay it with modern brashness and disjointedness that permeate individual interactions, which together form a vital, sympathetic, and acute look at what it means to be a twenty- or thirty-something today.

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A Metamorfose dos Pássaros (The Metamorphosis of Birds) / Portugal / Catarina Vasconcelos

“Objects have their own secret lives.” This spoken statement resonates throughout The Metamorphosis of Birds as director Catarina Vasconcelos weaves together her pensive and beautiful feature debut by painstakingly focusing her camera on objects with the hope of creating the lost story of her grandparents, Beatriz and Henrique. Henrique was a naval officer who wrote impassioned letters to his wife, “Triz,” while on duty at sea. Triz passed at a young age, and as Henrique prepared for his own demise, he asked to have his love letters to Triz burned after he passed, leaving Catarina without any knowledge of the grandmother whom she never had the chance to meet. Sadly, Beatriz and Henrique’s son, Jacinto, Catarina’s father, also lost his wife at a fairly young age, and with Catarina and Jacinto mourning the passing of each other’s mothers, there comes a reconstruction of the story lost in the burnt letters by the individual memories evoked by the objects and living nature around them. As Catarina, Jacinto, and other family members narrate above the elegantly lensed images, we become witness to a poetic catharsis that the recollection of memories can provide, and similar to Payal Kapadia’s exceptional hybrid-documentary from this year, A Night of Knowing Nothing, we are given the rare pleasure of observing the change of personal perspectives within a filmmaker through their implementation of a unique process of investigation that organically evolves throughout their project.

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Atlantis / Ukraine / dir. Valentyn Vasyanovych

Set in the year 2025, Valentyn Vasyanovych’s dystopian feature, Atlantis has as its canvas the war-ravaged Eastern Ukraine landscape that we in the West only know through the images and reports emerging from the region after the 2014 Russian invasion, which displaced well over a million and a half residents from occupied Crimea and Donbas. At the film’s opening scene, Vasyanovych depicts a grim future for this area by holding us at a distance while watching two men dragging a third into a shallow grave for an execution by gunfire. Shot on infrared film, this already gruesome undertaking achieves an addition layer of dehumanization, which sets the stage for the introduction to our protagonist, a former soldier afflicted with PTSD named Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk), as he and a fellow soldier take target practice on human silhouettes made of metal. Without an active conflict to engage in, Sergiy and his comrade have found work at an American-run steel factory, but as it about to cease operations, Sergiy is forced to find new work as a truck driver delivering potable water to areas that no longer have access to due to pollution caused by years of war. On this job, Sergiy crosses paths with Katya (Liudmyla Bileka), a volunteer worker who has made it her mission to exhume the war dead with the goal of providing these victims with a proper burial. As Sergiy assists Katya with her endeavor, they grow closer, and in turn, he begins to see some glimmer of order and humanity in a place he once deemed as devoid of hope. Though Atlantis could easily drift into mawkishness, Vasyanovych and his camera skillfully adjust the distance by which we experience Sergiy’s shift in outlook, allowing just enough closeness to understand his situation but not enough to fully grasp his psychological state. In the end, we are certain that the decimated world where Sergiy lives will not change, but any small moment of contentment that he achieves in his small, controlled space will have to suffice for now.

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BEST REPERTORY FILM EXPERIENCE (TIED)

What Happened Was… 4K Restoration / USA / Tom Noonan

Universally praised upon its release in 1994, when it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival, What Happened Was… is the brainchild of Tom Noonan, who independently produced and directed the film from his screenplay adaptation of his own stage play. Similar to Louis Malle’s My Dinner With AndreWhat Happened Was… is a purely conversation-based feature that stars a cast of two: Noonan and stage actress and Hal Hartley regular Karen Sillas. Sillas and Noonan portray Jackie and Michael respectively. Jackie is an attractive and cautiously friendly administrative assistant in her 30s, while Michael is an snarky and ostentatious paralegal in his 40s, and both are employed by the same Manhattan law firm. The pair make a plan to meet up at Jackie’s apartment for a first date dinner, but unlike the free-flowing intellectual dining discourse in Malle’s classic, What Happened Was… provides the viewer with some of the most gratifyingly painful moments in American independent cinema history. At its awkward core, Jackie and Michael arrive at their date with misconceptions about each other based on the superficial workplace interactions between them. Evidenced by their early date repartee stumblings, Jackie sees Michael as a quirky scholar, while Michael’s frequently demeaning responses suggest that he views Jackie as nothing more than a pretty face. But, as the evening slogs through and the wine removes Jackie’s inhibitions, she feels confident enough to showcase her ample talents and express her true inner self, which, in turn, exposes Michael’s hubris and emotional and professional shortcomings. Sillas and Noonan are brilliant in What Happened Was…, but a significant amount of credit must also go to set decorator Andras Kanegson and production designer Daniel Ouellette, who created a space for Michael and Jackie that amplifies the loneliness and foreboding of their encounter into a dating house of horrors where the walls seemingly tighten around every misspoken word. Many thanks to O-Scope Pictures for their masterful 4K restoration of this seldom-seen, but essential work of cinema, which has gained an even greater relevance today due to our growing inability to openly communicate with one another face-to-face.

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De Quelques Événements Sans Signification (About Some Meaningless Events) / Morocco / dir. Mostafa Derkaoui

Featured image: Still from Malmkrog. Courtesy of Shellac

This vital 1975 work of docu-fiction was, for many years, thought to have been lost, but was recently discovered and presented at the Doc Fortnight 2021 festival hosted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A film-within-a-film, About Some Meaningless Events is set in Casablanca, primarily in a smoky dockside tavern where Derkaoui and a group of filmmakers flirt with women, discuss Marxism, and solicit on-camera opinions from patrons about the purpose of contemporary cinema in their country. Many of the interviewees state the need for film to be an important tool in highlighting relevant social issues, and as the conversations continue, the crew realizes that one of the men whom they spoke with may have actually killed his boss, a gangster who was pilfering his wages. Here, the film veers into crime genre, and the conversation between the filmmakers manifests into a discussion of their concerns about what they can capture on film, the complicitous nature of their actions, and the potential for retaliation they might incur from the forces in power. About Some Meaningless Events examines finding inspiration from reality or capturing it as the mission of filmmaking, while acknowledging how and why filmmakers can fall quite short of such an accomplishment. Remarkable in its structure and energy, but sadly ironic in its censorship by the Moroccan government, Derkaoui’s debut feature was banned in its home country shortly after it was screened in Paris. Thankfully, a negative of the film was discovered in the archives of Filmoteca De Catalunya in Barcelona, and the institution’s restoration re-introduced the world to this kinetic film that is exceptionally pertinent to current questions about the purpose of fiction and documentary filmmaking, especially in unstable times.

Featured image: Still from Malmkrog. Courtesy of Shellac


Araceli Lemos

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Originally published on Ink 19 on November 29, 2021
by Generoso Fierro

This year’s AFI Fest, which just wrapped up on November 14th, had many remarkable aspects, but the most notable was the impressive output from first-time feature film directors who showed there. In fact, in the seven years that Lily and I have covered the festival for Ink 19 and other outlets, we have never seen anything close to this number of compelling and diverse works created by young auteurs.

Shortly after AFI Fest wrapped, I spoke with director Araceli Lemos, whose provocative debut feature, Holy Emy, received a Special Mention Award earlier this year from the Jury for First Features at the Locarno Film Festival in the Cineasti dei Presenti section.

An emotionally complex film that defies normal classification, Holy Emy follows two close Filipina sisters, Teresa (Hasmine Killip) and Emy (Abigael Loma) as they struggle to find acceptance inside and outside of their ethnic community in Athens, Greece. With their mother forced to emigrate back to her native Philippines due to ominous reasons, Teresa and Emy suss out an existence on their own, and do so working at a neighborhood fish market where Teresa is secretly involved in a sexual relationship with a native Greek man named Argyris (Mihalis Siriopoulos). When Teresa becomes pregnant through Argyris, Emy’s body exhibits a physical manifestation of her own that relates to the mystical healing power that was the cause of the rift between the girls’ mother and Mrs. Christina (Eirini Inglesi), a wealthy Greek woman who seeks to use Emy for her inherited supernatural abilities.

Lemos’s film examines the exoticisization of ethnic groups as a troubling entry point of assimilation for immigrants through the character trajectories of Teresa and Emy. By utilizing sometimes extreme, visceral elements, we observe the sisters’ dramatic transformation of their bodies as a response to their exploitation, and as their forms take different paths, we gain deeper empathy for their predicament as outsiders.

During my conversation with Lemos, we discussed the inspiration for creating Holy Emy, her thoughts on the relationship between exoticization and assimilation, as well as her research process, which included interviewing members from the Filipino community in the neighborhood in Athens where she was living during the inception of the film. Lemos also shared her thoughts with me on the casting of veteran actress and Lav Diaz regular, Angeli Bayani, and actresses Hasmine Killip and Abigael Loma and the resultant collaborative process between the actresses themselves and with the non-professional actors who made up the predominance of the cast.

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Often, the sad truth is that the only way that some immigrant groups begin to assimilate into a new country is through their exoticization. Was this something that you had in mind when constructing the two different trajectories that Teresa and Emy take in your film?

This has always been my understanding with the Filipino community in Greece. When the Greeks try to engage with the Filipinos, on many occasions it is done in a limited way. In Holy Emy, this is not only expressed through Teresa’s relationship with Argyris, but also through Emy’s relationship with Mrs. Christina. For Emy and Teresa to feel like they can belong, it becomes a bit like a wall because, on the other side, these people only see these small parts of who they really are. In Teresa’s case, she is sexualized by Argyris. In Emy’s case, she is used by Miss Christina for her healing gift. So, I found it interesting that they were not accepted as a whole package, but as small fragments and only if they could be put into a box.

Teresa and Emy are very close in the film, but as they begin to distance themselves from each other, they each exhibit physical manifestations of the separation. These manifestations are seen in Teresa’s natural change during pregnancy and in Emy’s bloody tears. How did you and your co-screenwriter, Giulia Caruso, settle on such intense bodily changes as the expression of growing apart?

The idea was to catch these two young girls, who were raised together and have lived very similar lives, at the moment when their desires diverge. It starts with Teresa wanting to get a boyfriend and start a social life, which pushes Emy to also discover what she wants, and that forces her to realise that they don’t want the same things. For us, we found it a good narrative choice to embody this change in a more heightened way. In the case of Teresa, you see her body actually become bigger and different from Emy’s. And that change awakens in Emy a part of her that was dormant, the gift that she inherited from her mother that allows her to flourish and that pushes her to follow her path and destiny, but in a more bizarre and intense way than Teresa.

You made the decision to have Teresa and Emy’s mother appear only through their video calls throughout the film, and have the reasons behind her exile back to the Philippines remain mysterious and ominous. Can you talk about these choices?

I think that their mother is a kind of ghost in Emy’s and Teresa’s lives, as they both carry so much of her inside of them, but she is not physically there to guide them either. I found that to be a very important element of the story because I think that at the heart of most immigrant experiences is a carrying of aspects of their lineage and family inside of them to this new place, but because the cultural context is absent, and the family is not there to explain things, a disconnect forms between the things you carry and the place where you have landed. So, that is the main reason why we decided to not have the mom physically present, but I also liked that in the narrative itself the reason why she was not there was because she was a kind of mystical person who was too big for this reality.

There is one more aspect to the mother’s absence: she’s a warning to Emy. Like a looming threat of what could happen to her, the mother’s story is, in a sense, a warning to the girls to not fall into their mother’s footsteps and end up like her. Everyone around them has attempted to brainwash them about the terrible fate of their mother, and these stories came about due to these people never fully accepting their mother in the first place. Basically, the people around Emy and Teresa are using their own mother to say that if you do not conform, then you will suffer the same fate that has befallen her.

You’ve stated in articles that the Filipino community in Greece is very insular, but that you were able to connect with them through the Charismatic Catholic church that we see in the film. Was there ever a moment at the church when this well known mystical healing power that Emy exhibits in the film was ever openly discussed with you?

So, I went there as an observer mostly, and I was very welcomed as a guest by the congregation. I had many conversations with people there, and they all had a very diverse range of beliefs. There wasn’t a strict canon of beliefs in the church. Some people said to me that if someone has a gift, and they have been blessed by the church, then it is like doing the work of God. Other people said no and condemned the gift completely. Those same people would say that this is a way that believers are mislead, and these are works of the devil. Many were skeptical and doubted this power, and then a few would say that this gift is not part of the church, but that they’ve seen it happen and have people in their families who have this gift. So, empirically they shared with me these first-hand stories. In the end, I found that members of the Filipino community in Greece had very diverse opinions on the subject. The Greeks also have equally diverse opinions, but in general, many are skeptical.

When it comes to your experiences in that church, the thing that is a bit unclear to me is the chronology on how you and Giulia developed Holy Emy. Did you begin to formulate your screenplay with Giulia prior to your observations in the church or after?

Because I have been writing it for so many years, I have also lost track of the chronology. (laughs) I’ll say that I think that inspiration comes in waves. Sometimes you have a lot of ideas, and magically they all come together. I think that it all began with this short story about two sisters and how I found their relationship interesting because one of the sisters was acting jealous and feeling like she was being pushed away by the other sister when she became pregnant. I then had a desire to expand on that relationship by making the girls Filipino, primarily because I was living in the Filipino neighborhood in Athens, and I then went to the church and discovered this link between the spiritual and healing. That link intrigued me further, and so I ascribed that ability to Emy because it brought back memories from when I was younger and my mom was looking into alternative forms of medicine. So, I think that was the chronology, but, at the same time, I recently met an old teacher of mine who remembered that years ago I was working on a project that sounded similar to this, which had a different entry point that I had totally forgotten about. So, admittedly, I am a bit lost on the exact chronology of how this all came together. (laughs)

As far as casting, I know that the extras in your film are from the Filipino community, and that Abigael Loma, who plays Emy, is Greek-Filipino, but Hasmine Killip, who portrays Teresa, is not. How did you prepare Hasmine to understand the diaspora so that she could prepare for her role?

That was the nice thing about Abigael and Hasmine—the way they exchanged experiences and information with each other. As Hasmine was an experienced actress, she shared her thoughts on acting, which was important as Abigael did not have any on-screen acting experience before my film. Also, Abigael was very good at letting Hasmine know about the dynamics of being a Filipino in Greece. Because Hasmine took extra time and arrived in Greece two months before shooting to do rehearsals, she went around and asked Abigael as well as the other women who worked on the film questions that pertained to her role, such as how common or uncommon was it for someone in their community to date a Greek man?

Another benefit of putting Abigael and Hasmine together was how Abigael possesses this natural instinct to change the way that she spoke and how she acted a bit shy when she spoke to elder Greeks like Mrs. Christina in the film, but Hasmine didn’t have this attitude, and that was a good thing as I felt that the characters of Emy and Teresa should be more rebellious anyway because they were raised by a mom outside of the community, and so she would’ve taught them to be more independent and to think for themselves. The introduction of Hasmine’s attitude led me to encourage Abigael to lose a bit of her shyness when it came to her interactions with the Greeks as I realized it befitted her role more.

I love your selection of Angeli Bayani to play the role of Linda. Lav Diaz’s film, Norte, the End of History is one of my favorite films from the previous decade. In that film, Angeli is heartbreaking as Eliza, the wife of an innocent man who is sent to prison. What had you seen from Angeli’s previous work that convinced you that she was right for her role in Holy Emy?

I had seen Angeli in Lav Diaz’s work, but also in some short films. I saw her perform well in very different roles in a few films, so I appreciated that she had such a wide range. Also, she had a great deal of experience working with non-professional actors, which made her perfect for Holy Emy as she would have to be part of the community where everyone else was a non-professional actor. We spoke before she arrived, and she told me about her other experiences, and then I asked her if she had any notes for me about the script, and she admitted that she had no idea about what life was like for the Filipino diaspora in Greece, and that facet was a huge reason as to why she was interested in the project because, for her, it would be like a new world. I found that to be a very insightful note. I knew that Linda was a very demanding role, and I just didn’t feel right casting a non-professional in the part, so I found her to possess the perfect balance of having the right experience and comfort with the situation.

Lastly, I saw that AFI Fest listed Holy Emy as a horror film. When I saw Holy Emy, I somewhat sensed a nod to David Cronenberg’s film, Dead Ringers, which utilizes some body horror elements in a story where twin brother surgeons react adversely to changes in one another. I myself wouldn’t specifically categorize your film as horror, but were you and Giulia cautious about that classification when you began using body horror elements?

It has been a bit tricky because we certainly don’t want to create false expectations. We like the idea of playing with elements of suspense and blood motifs that usually exist in more violent or gory films, and reinterpreting these motifs in a predominantly female world. Because there is suspense and mystery here, I believe that there is an element of fear in a psychological sense, and that’s because this film is very much about this creature Emy, who the audience cannot be sure of. We are uncertain about what she is capable of, and consequently, we do not know whether or not we should be afraid of her. So, there is this sort of fear, but for me where it gets interesting is that Emy herself doesn’t know if we should be afraid of her, or even if she should be afraid of herself, and that takes it into the territory of psychological drama. So, since the story changes tone the more we get Emy to open her Pandora’s Box, the film becomes something else. Yes, it has been a challenge to classify this for sure.

I understand that there is that danger associated with genre cinema, being that if you are labeled as a horror director…

Yes! And that is why I haven’t labeled this as horror or thriller. I have tried to stay away from these classifications, but I could see how a festival could see the elements in Holy Emy and think of it as horror. For me, the film is just Holy Emy. (laughs)

Holy Emy had its North American premiere at AFI Fest 2021.

https://www.nonethelessproductions.com/holy-emy-1

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Featured photo courtesy of StudioBauhaus and Utopie Film.

Payal Kapadia

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Originally published on Ink19 on November 24, 2021
by Lily and Generoso Fierro

It was an honor to interview director Payal Kapadia during AFI Fest about her distinctive and powerful full-length film debut, A Night of Knowing Nothing. Earlier this year, Kapadia was the recipient of the Oeil d’or (Golden Eye) award for best documentary at the 74th Cannes Film Festival, which was a remarkable achievement for a first-time feature director, made even more impressive as her work was in competition for the prize against new offerings from legendary filmmakers: Todd Haynes (The Velvet Underground) and Marco Bellocchio (Marx Can Wait).

Set against the backdrop of the violent student protests that erupted at university campuses in India during the middle of the last decade, A Night of Knowing Nothing is driven by the voice of a narrator reading the found unsent fictionalized letters written by a female student, known only as L, to her lover who once actively engaged in the demonstrations, but ultimately was unwilling to defy his family who refused to allow him to marry a woman from a lower caste. As L’s words are read aloud over images shot by Kapadia and cinematographer, Renabir Das, along with scenes from found archival and mobile phone footage and shared footage from Kapadia’s own friends at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), we are compelled to consider the grey area between one’s participation in direct public action and the self-examination which ideally leads to personal and familial confrontations that are essential in enacting lasting societal change.

In our interview with Payal Kapadia, we discussed the origins of A Night of Knowing Nothing, as well as the director’s creative process working with co-writer Himanshu Prajapati, who helped create L’s letters. Kapadia also revealed the editing method that she and Ranabir Das implemented for fusing the narrated letters from L to align with the diverse sources of footage seen in the film and her thoughts on avoiding the cinematic romanticization of protest.

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Your film begins and ends with images of young people dancing, and throughout, there is a parallel between the performative nature of dance and protest. Was there a specific visual approach that you and your cinematographer, Renabir Das, aimed for when capturing bodies moving in space to some sort of rhythm, be it music or chants?

We didn’t actually keep it in mind while shooting. But I guess you are right, inherently, protest and dance have this similarity. Dance has a sense of abandonment, as does protest. It was perhaps decisions that we made while editing where we began to observe this. We wanted to talk about people in unity, coming together as a collective, and that idea resonated with these shots.

As we understand, when you and Ranabir began shooting your footage in 2016, it was originally to serve as a portrait of your friends at FTII, but otherwise you didn’t have a clear narrative structure at that time. Was there a particular interview or moment of protest that encouraged you to form your film in the way that it eventually came together?

It was not one particular moment, but rather the events that were taking place while we were shooting, even if we were not present there. Things were changing around us, and hence the film started changing too. But, one thing we had shot quite early on, and wanted to lead up to, was the speech at the end given by my friend, Harishankar. There were times we thought of letting it go…but kept coming back to it.

Harishankar’s speech is, in a way, the thesis of your film, so it makes sense that you continued to return to it. Where did it fall chronologically in yours and your friends’ experiences?

It was the starting point of the editing of the film. We shot and edited this sequence in 2017, which was when the student union election was taking place at FTII. This speech was given to the new students who were joining the film school. Harishankar was the outgoing president of the union, and he was talking about the responsibility of a student union. He was speaking about the political climate and how it was impossible to now be “apolitical,” and as filmmakers, we need to be conscious of how we make films. I think what he meant was a larger idea of the word “politics,” which comes from a collective action to bring about a more ethical society. What I like about his speech is that he does not polarize the discussion and alienate people, but instead tries to instil a sense of responsibility within every individual. Every individual action is a reflection on the collective, which is why we each need to be conscious of what we do and make.

Given the place of cinema in French culture, the May ‘68 riots have been extensively depicted through both narrative and documentary film. A few of these films, such as Phillipe Garrel’s, Regular Lovers (Les Amants réguliers), romanticize the moments before and after the events of May 1968. As you and you and your co-writer, Himanshu Prajapati, were writing L’s letters, which would become the primary voice of your film, how consciously did you want to avoid the romanticization of the events that were happening at the protests?

Both Himanshu and I were very much a part of the protests at the film schools, so it was something that we felt very strongly about while we were a part of it. But as the years passed, we had also become critical of some of the decisions we made or how we were thinking of things then. I guess that is also the process of growing up.

For both of us, it was the first big protest we had been involved in, and it was pretty overwhelming. So, we thought of the character also as someone who is not overtly political, but is sort of becoming more aware of things as time goes on. There is a romanticized fervor present especially in student protests. However, we didn’t want to romanticise the protests too much, especially through the eyes of the character. We wanted her to be there, experiencing things around her, and not always be entirely certain about things. It is ok, I think, to be vulnerable and honest and keep questioning the world you inhabit while also questioning yourself.

We understand that you and Himanshu wrote L’s letters while you edited the found footage and the footage that you and your friends shot. Was there ever a moment where you wrote a letter that you felt was integral to L’s voice and wanted to shoot something new to support it?

We arrived at the idea of the letters a bit later in the process of filmmaking. By the time we started thinking of them, a lot of the film was already shot. We did shoot a few things after we started to write the letters, keeping them in mind. But mostly, we went with the opposite approach—we would watch the rushes that we had shot or collected and discuss them, and then, think of possible letters that would work with the material. This way, the editing and letter writing happened simultaneously. Himanshu and I would write the letters and then propose them to Ranabir, who would edit them. Sometimes a letter worked, other times, it would not and would be rejected. Finally, we had a lot of unused letters too…This is why I like to call this a found footage film, because we only discovered the meaning within our footage as we edited it.

In regards to the reading of the letters, did Bhumisuta Das see any edited footage before she recorded her voicings, or did you want her to read the words separately from the rest of the film?

No, she watched the film. We watched sections many times with the complete sound design as it was important to understand the feelings those scenes were inherently creating.

By the end of the film, we have an understanding that cinema should not be a dogmatic political voice, but rather a view of society through the eyes of individuals, even if those experiences are not completely complementary to the political actions occurring. How did you approach blending personal perspectives with political rhetoric in order to provide a fuller context around the protests?

Indian society is very complicated with a lot of inequalities. Gender, caste, class, and religion all determine one’s identity and political position. Without talking about these, it is impossible to talk about protesting students. Rather than get into a long discussion about these elements, we tried to make them an inherent part of the form of the film.

The reference to Pasolini’s sympathy with police that you include in the film raises a common question about the effectiveness of student protests, and L’s disappointment in her lover refusing to confront his parents over the caste conflict underscores the discrepancy between intention and commitment. Is this a suggestion that protest can raise awareness, but real change occurs through the confrontation of societal issues ingrained in individual relationships?

Absolutely. I am very happy that you brought this up. This was the main reason to have these elements in the film. Can we really hope for political change without social change? People seem to think that people come to power out of the blue, but this is not true. Society festers certain ideas, and those ideas find form in a political figure. We need to acknowledge the inherent problems in the society and within ourselves, and only then will politics start to align itself to the change we hope to bring.

https://squareeyesfilm.com/features/anightofknowingnothing/

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Featured image: still from A Night of Knowing Nothing courtesy of AFI Fest.

AFI Fest 2021

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Originally published on Ink 19 on November 22, 2021
by Lily and Generoso Fierro

Thankfully this year, the festival triumphantly returned to the TCL Chinese Theatre and the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood from November 10th to the 14th and presented 115 titles in a program that represented works from fifty countries. Six World Premieres were screened at AFI this time around, as well as award-winning features from acclaimed auteurs Apichatpong Weerakethakul, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, and Joachim Trier. Back again were the Red Carpet Premieres which featured new offerings from legendary filmmakers Pedro Almodóvar and Jane Campion, and returning for its third year was the AFI Conservatory Showcase, a collection of short fiction films from the most recent graduates of the AFI Conservatory.

This year, as it has always been for us in years past at AFI Fest, we leaned heavily on the World Cinema section for our viewing and reviews. We were fortunate to have had the opportunity to catch and revel in new works from Céline Sciamma, Miguel Gomes, and Radu Muntean, while seeing some of the most outstanding first-time features that we have ever seen at AFI Fest, including a few efforts that made it into our favorites, which you’ll read about below.

As far as its overall presentation, AFI Fest 2021 was reminiscent of past iterations, but there were a few recurring motifs running through the AFI Fest program this year that we feel were clearly inspired by last year’s lockdown: we saw an uncommon amount of road films and more than a few features that touched upon the enduring power of cinema in the face of isolation.

We viewed an impressive array of features at this year’s AFI Fest, and below are our reviews of our essential films beginning with our favorite.

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Diários de Otsoga (Tsugua Diaries) / dir. Miguel Gomes and Maureen Fazendeiro

COVID-19 remains at the top of our collective consciousness (and will likely remain there for years to come), so it is no surprise that it made its way into the films that premiered in 2021. Tsugua Diaries, on the surface, is about coping during the pandemic, but step away from the protocols of quarantine life—the masks, the cleaning and sterilization procedures, the testing protocols—and you’ll see a triumphant ode to the endurance of cinema. Told in reverse, Tsugua Diaries theoretically documents twenty-two days on the set of a film production in the late summer of 2020. In order to produce the film safely, everyone involved lives and works in a large country house and limits their exposure to the outside world as much as possible. The cast and crew have no choice but to live, work, and play together, and in turn, they become their own close community. We see moments of life and play influencing and reacting to the film that the cast and crew are trying to make within Tsugua Diaries, and all of this is gloriously captured by the camera for Tsugua Diaries itself because, after all, everyone we ultimately see on screen is an actual member of the cast and crew playing themselves. Reality collides with fiction, and both fold on top of themselves and each other, to the point where the scenes that co-directors Miguel Gomes and Maureen Fazendeiro capture for the film within and the film that is Tsugua Diaries become simultaneously representative, symbolic, abstract, and expressive. This convergence is the affirmation of the purpose, joy, and strength of cinema, which, despite the rapid, disruptive changes of COVID-19, thrived on the home, set, and stage of Tsugua Diaries.

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Doraibu mai kâ (Drive My Car) / dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Though the images and sounds of movement through space and time are often the first things that come to mind when you’re thinking about cars, there’s something more fascinating about the gray area between public and private space when you’re inside of a vehicle. In fact, at this year’s AFI Fest, four of our favorite films demonstrated why this space between car interiors and surrounding exteriors should be examined. In Drive My Car, Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an actor and theater director, feels the safest in the driver’s seat of his red Saab 900. It’s where he can control his physical direction. It’s where he absorbs and recites the words of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. And, it’s where he has the deepest connection with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), whose voice reads out all the parts except for Uncle Vanya’s, leaving space for Kafuku to respond. Since the death of their child, Oto and Kafuku have remained loving and respectful towards one another, but they also keep each other at a distance: Oto has had multiple affairs, and Kafuku knows about them, but neither have ever spoken about the transgressions. After Oto’s sudden death, Kafuku drives to Hiroshima to direct a multi-lingual performance of Uncle Vanya at a theater festival. Upon arriving, he is immediately informed that he will not be allowed to drive the vehicle for the duration of his preparation of the production, and he’s assigned a driver: a taciturn young woman named Misaki (Tôko Miura). The car is Kafuku’s home, office, and crutch, and now, he must attempt to process his work as a director and his fears as an actor alongside his grief and his unresolved, conflicting feelings toward Oto, with another person along for the ride. As they drive, Kafuku continues to fill in the silences between Oto’s recitation of Uncle Vanya, and slowly both his and Misaki’s respective external shells begin to fall away and allow them to better connect with everything in the present and past around them. The red Saab is undoubtedly a symbol of Kafuku, but it also is a physical manifestation of our self-imposed separation from others as we attempt to direct our lives (and the possible self-isolation that may become habit due to the pandemic). However, as Drive My Car reminds us well, we can still find ways to share the space inside the car, and we can most certainly step outside of it too. And, we’ll be better artists, colleagues, friends, parents, children, and individuals when we do either, or better yet, both.

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A Night of Knowing Nothing / dir. Payal Kapadia

The act of performance can take on many forms, and in Payal Kapadia’s debut documentary feature, A Night of Knowing Nothing, we have the the pleasure of experiencing it in a multitude of ways, which altogether allow us to understand the complexity and ambiguities of being a filmmaker and student hoping to make the future a better place while entrenched in a period of political unrest. The film opens up with a striking, grainy, black-and-white shot of young people dancing. Instead of music, we hear the voice of a narrator reading letters found in a student hostel at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and we’re introduced to L, a student filmmaker, whose unsent letters to her lover become the sinew between the images and other sounds of A Night of Knowing Nothing. At first, L’s letters are focused on her despair that her lover has left her because of his family: she’s in a lower caste, and his family refuses to allow him to marry her. But, as L’s life continues, her letters begin to center on her reflections on the student protests happening in India in 2016, and her thoughts as she emerges as a political being overlay and bridge sounds and images from protests, found archival and mobile phone footage, and shared footage from Kapadia’s own friends at FTII. A Night of Knowing Nothing contracts and expands its visual scope and conceptual breadth throughout. Moments after we see a person in silence in a sparse room, we often see large groups joining together to protest the inequalities of Indian society. We hear audio from the protests and speeches from key representatives cross fade into L’s reflections on herself and her thoughts on Pasolini and Eisenstein. A Night of Knowing Nothing is like a living organism growing into consciousness, moving its attention fluidly inwards and outwards and learning throughout, and this progression emerges as a performance too, one that beautifully shows us what it means to develop into a more aware being. We spoke with director Payal Kapadia, and that conversation is forthcoming here on Ink 19.

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Les Olympiades, Paris 13e (Paris, 13th District) / dir. Jacques Audiard

Modern Love seems like an obvious alternate title for Paris, 13th District, but upon watching the film’s main characters’ intimate relationships, along with their communications with each other, start, intensify, stop, and begin elsewhere, a more appropriate secondary title is Modern Honesty. Adapted from short comics from Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying and Optic Nerve, director Jacques Audiard transplants Tomine’s sense of isolation despite being amongst people to Paris and adds in technology as a conduit and barrier between people who know each other in physically intimate ways. Emilie (Lucie Zhang) is a Sciences Po post-grad living in an apartment in a tower of Les Olympiades in the 13th arrondissement. Camille (Makita Samba) is a schoolteacher who responds to an ad for a room in Emilie’s apartment. The two immediately hook up and begin a roommates-with-benefits relationship until Emilie calls things off. Nora (Noémie Merlant) is a new graduate student in law at the Sorbonne. She’s excited to leave her former life in Burgundy for a more cosmopolitan Parisian one until she’s mistaken for the cam-girl Amber Sweet. Emilie, Camillie, and Nora’s lives crash, tangle, and separate, and at every intersection, each fail to share what’s really going on in their lives, histories, and communities even though there’s plenty of time shared in bed. Given such a conceit, Paris, 13th District may sound caricaturish, but in our modern era where texts, in-app messaging, and timed video chats have condensed our communication into hyper-concise, reactive phrases and images, which our characters often rely on to speak to one another in Paris, 13th District, director Jacques Audiard connects such a communication style to the way that people selectively compose their outward image and their consequent failure to build meaningful relationships. The characters of Paris, 13th District often substitute physical intimacy for self-honesty, and that isn’t a new idea, but Audiard, along with his co-screenwriters Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius, overlay it with modern brashness and disjointedness that permeate individual interactions, which together form a vital, sympathetic, and acute look at what it means to be a twenty- or thirty-something today.

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Ras vkhedavt, rodesac cas vukurebt? (What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?) / dir. Aleksandre Koberidze

As we process the tragedy and begin to accept the new normal of this last year and a half, filmmakers have responded in kind by creating works which offer a gutcheck of their art. In the case of Aleksandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky, he gives us a feature that uncovers the magical power that is inherent in the medium. At the beginning of this modern fairy tale set in the Georgian town of Kutaisi, we observe the chance first encounter between a pharmacist named Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze), and a talented soccer player named Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze). Later on that evening when Lisa and Giorgi enjoy a second fortuitous encounter, they make a date to meet up the next day, but as movie fate would have it, a curse has been placed on them—the pair will wake up the next morning not looking like themselves, and with this change of appearance, there also comes the removal of Lisa’s medical knowledge and Giorgi’s football talents. Now, with no ability to recognize one another and their original job skills stripped away, our lovers each descend on a small sports cafe where they each find jobs helping the owner out during the World Cup. The setup here might sound too enchanting, and maybe even a bit too sentimental, but it is the starting point that precipitates the strength of Koberidze’s film: the expansion of the story into the fantastical elements of the town and its inhabitants who cross paths with Lisa and Giorgi at one point or another. As we survey the activities of stray dogs on a mission, local tricksters, and strange bakers surrounding our cursed lovers, these odd elements all blend together because they are part of a cinematic kingdom that elevates Lisa and Giorgi’s curse of their brand-new day-to-day routines into a cosmos with bodies and objects that move harmoniously together.

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Agia Emy (Holy Emy) / dir. Araceli Lemos

For her impressive debut feature, Holy Emy, director Araceli Lemos adeptly utilizes body horror elements to examine exoticism as seen through the lives of two young Filpina sisters living in their small community in Athens, Greece. With their mother forced to emigrate back to their native Philippines, sisters Emy (Abigael Loma) and Teresa (Hasmine Kilip) are left to suss out an existence for themselves by working in a small fish market. As the pair struggle to assimilate in their city, they each are found to possess different purposes to the locals: Teresa becomes the target of affection of Argyris (Mihalis Siriopoulos), a Greek sailor who inadvertently falls for and impregnates Teresa, and Emy, who despite having been stricken with a supernatural phenomenon which causes her to tear blood, also possesses the much desired ability of being able to heal the sick with her touch. With a baby on the way, Teresa and Argyris begin to plan for the future, and Emy reluctantly moves away from her sister to live in the home of an affluent Greek woman who takes advantage of Emy by having her heal her wealthy friends and their children. By incorporating an erratic editing ethos, Araceli Lemos, and her co-editor, Raphaëlle Martin-Holger, keep the viewer in an uneasy state that allows the social commentary inherent in the narrative to be delivered under the horror genre framework, keeping the political message from ever being too overt and leaving plenty of space for personal interpretation. And although the editing style sometimes results in the introduction of characters who are never fully realized, the overall impact of the film’s chaotic structure is very effective. Teresa’s and Emy’s unease and alienation as they are exoticized by those around them gets under your skin, and you understand how such self-serving fascination with a marginalized culture can grate the strong bond between sisters who have relied on each other to survive. Generoso spoke with director Araceli Lemos, and that conversation is forthcoming here on Ink 19.

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Jaddeh Khaki (Hit the Road) / dir. Panah Panahi

During the post-screening conversation at this year’s AFI Fest with the director of Hit the Road, Panah Panahi, we finally understood why so many seminal post revolution Iranian films have transpired inside of automobiles. To paraphrase Panahi, as Iranian law requires women to wear a full hijab on the street, you gain the freedom of being able to film a woman’s face if she stays in the car, for filming can continue if the hijab happens to slips a bit. That piece of information has of course altered my thoughts on so many of the Iranian films that we love, from Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten to the 2015 film Taxi, which was directed Panah’s father, Jafar Panahi, who, in 2010, was issued a six-year prison sentence and a twenty-year ban on directing any movies for creating propaganda against the Iranian government. Given the hijab law and the fate of his father, it is no surprise that for his first feature, Panah created a road film which is as joyous and funny as it is condemnatory of the state of filmmaking in his own country. Hit the Road has four main nameless passengers: a curmudgeon of a father (Hassan Madjooni), a doting mother (Pantea Panahiha), and their two sons—one, a funny, overly vociferous and rambunctious adolescent (Rayan Sarlak), and the other, a sullen twenty-something who carries the weight of the world on his face (Amin Simiar). This family has a clandestine destination that Panahi purposefully obfuscates throughout the film, but in brief, the mission involves the eldest son’s disappearing act of sorts. Though the need for this young man’s exodus is unclear, we are free to assume that any of a myriad of crimes or misspoken thoughts most likely led to this decision. One doesn’t need to look any further than the fate of the Panah’s father to gather why less said the better. As our family drives through the countryside, they speak of Western cinema, both large and small works, whilst they listen to pre-Revolution Iranian music with glee, and that is how Hit the Road excels. The film ultimately reminds us that although we in the West feel that cinema is in retreat, it will always exist in the small moments and imagination beyond edict and virus.

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Întregalde / dir. Radu Muntean

Serendipitously, just a few weeks before AFI Fest, we caught one of the many pre-Hollywood gems from director Peter Weir that feels oddly prescient, a clever and somewhat amusing piece of social commentary wrapped up in a horror frame entitled, The Plumber. In this odd feature from Weir in 1979, you have an upper class Master’s student in anthropology researching African culture from the confines of her apartment being driven to panic by her exaggerations of every small transgression committed by an unmannered, yet affable plumber who arrives to fix her bathroom pipes. Though a few generations have gone by, Weir’s rarely seen film does function in a similar way that Radu Muntean’s new feature, Întregalde does, as both films deceptively operate as chillers while making hard statements directed at those with wealth who create their noble intentions from a safe distance, leaving them poorly equipped with the right tools once their “lessers” are standing in front of them. Întregalde follows a group of affluent inner city humanitarian aid workers who travel to the remote Transylvanian village of Întregalde to hand out zip tie-secured bags of junk food to the inhabitants there whom they believe cannot fend for themselves during the winter. All is well for our band of yuppie do-gooders as they take their massive Land Rover up mountain roads to find recipients of unneeded assistance, but their trip becomes derailed when they stumble upon a fragile and slightly deranged elderly man named Kente (Luca Sabin) who is in need of a ride to a more desolate and environmentally treacherous area of the countryside. After some squabbling, our aid workers decide to throw caution to the wind and give Kente a ride, but once their car becomes submerged in mud and their cell phones fall out of range, our group’s altruism begins to sour, and their true selves emerge. One of the central figures of the Romanian New Wave, Radu Muntean has created a seemingly slight film with Întregalde, but similar to the aforementioned work that his Australian New Wave counterpart created some forty plus years ago, it is a biting feature that further stresses the ever widening abyss between the image that we want to create for ourselves and the reality in front of us.

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Razzhimaya kulaki (Unclenching the Fists) / dir. Kira Kovalenko

Contemporarily set in Mizur, a mining village in the mountains of Russia’s North Ossetia, Kira Kovalenko’s second feature, Unclenching the Fists, grimly reminds us of the lingering damage left by the 2004 Beslan school siege, one of the largest terror attacks in Russian history, which left over 300 dead, the predominance of whom were children. Ada (Milana Aguzarova) is a young woman living with her father (Alik Karaev) and her emotionally needy brother Dakko (Khetag Bibilov) in a claustrophobic apartment in Mizur, which is where the family relocated to after Ada was severely wounded during the Beslan attacks. Though Ada survived the assault, she is in dire need of surgery outside of Mizur, but her ailing father keeps an overprotective stranglehold on her and refuses to allow her any moment of freedom. Her father forbids her to see men, and he even goes as far as to hide the key to their apartment and her passport. Left with no options, Ada’s entire existence outside of the home is spent working at a local grocery store where she dodges the amorous advances of Tamik (Arsen Khetagurov), a boy who evidences a lack of maturity similar to her brother Dakko. With few options, the only potential escape for Ada appears in the form of her brother Akim (Soslan Khugaev), who has returned home for a visit after somehow managing to evade the grip of their father. Though the dourness of the exposition of Unclenching the Fists sets expectations for an unrelentingly sorrowful film, Kovalenko and editor Mukharam Kabulova keep the viewer off-balance throughout with scenes that frantically jump past each other, which form a disquieting mood that amplifies the anguish emanating from Aguzarova’s bravura performance. The Grand Prix winner of the Un Certain Regard program at this year’s Cannes, Kira Kovalenko’s film follows a long line of works that detail a singular woman in a desperate situation struggling to simply suss out a basic existence. Every generation has produced an entry into this series, from Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, to the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta, to Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, and this valued cinematic tradition urgently brings home, through an empathetic and personal view, the disenfranchisement of women who typify the eras and places they represent.

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Petite Maman / dir. Céline Sciamma

It’s difficult to believe that it was twenty-five years ago when five-year-old actress, Victoire Thivisol picked up the Volpi Cup, which is awarded to the Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival. I (Generoso) felt then as I do now that the media attention on Thivisol’s age created a kind of novelty factor that overshadowed her heartbreaking performance in Ponette, where she portrayed a child who copes with the tragic loss of her mother. That film’s director, Jacques Doillon, boldly chose to examine how this preschool child worked out her sadness for her mother’s passing by showing Ponette’s limited contact with adults and by primarily observing her actions with other children and her conversations with her mother’s spirit. In Céline Sciamma’s, Petite Maman, we meet Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), a girl only slightly older than Ponette, but one who possesses an otherworldly air of composure when confronted with the death of her mother’s mom. We quickly gather that Nelly understands death and accepts its reality as she tries to comfort her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse), who is now tasked with clearing out the country home where she grew up. Once at her grandmother’s home with her mother and father, Nelly becomes curious about the small aspects of her mother’s childhood. She examines her mother’s workbooks from school and seeks to find the hut that her mother built as a child in the surrounding woods. When Nelly does finally stumble upon the enchanted pile of sticks and leaves from her mother’s stories, it is surprisingly in the process of being built by her mother as a child (Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine’s twin sister). While helping little Marion build the hut, Nelly and Marion grow close, and through their interactions together, Nelly can start to see her mother as someone other than her mother. Sciamma’s unique approach in allowing her young actors to communicate with each other has a natural feeling that is affecting without ever being maudlin. As Petite Maman plays out, you never think of the mechanics of the setup, or of the ages of the actors, as it magically transcends time while closing the generation gap between this mother and daughter.

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Vera andrron detin (Vera Dreams of the Sea) / dir. Kaltrina Krasniqi

Actress Teuta Ajdini Jegeni brilliantly portrays Vera, a middle-aged woman who works in present day Kosovo as a sign language interpreter. Having grown up during an era when women were not expected to have a career and as the daughter of a deaf woman, Vera’s ability to sign has remained as the only marketable skill that she gained from her upbringing. As the film begins, Vera is excited to learn that the small country home that she and her retired judge husband Fatmir (Xhevat Qorraj) have owned for many years is now worth a great deal of money as the mostly quiet farmland is in the path of a new highway. Thrilled with the possibility of retiring in style with their new found fortune, Vera excitedly explains the real estate deal to Fatmir who shockingly responds by taking his own life, leaving Vera grief-stricken and with many unanswered questions surrounding her husband’s decision. Sad but always practical, Vera immediately returns to work after the funeral while trying to find solace in her only child, Sara (Alketa Sylaj), a single mother who has been struggling to support her own daughter by working as a theater actress. Sara needs financial assistance, but Vera’s ability to help her daughter is quickly challenged by Ahmet (Astrit Kabashi), Fatmir’s down and out cousin, who visits Vera and informs her that Fatmir verbally promised to bequeath their country home to him and not her. Since Ahmet cannot provide any written proof to support his claim, Vera alone must investigate the truth for herself by visiting the country home in question, but by traveling to speak to the village elders in a rural community seemingly frozen in time, Vera comes face to face with the patriarchal world of her youth that has always refused to hear her voice. Working off a script by Doruntina Basha, first time feature film director Kaltrina Krasniqi gives us a compelling anti-hero in Vera, a woman, who for the sake of necessity, has had to compromise much of what she wanted for the sake of others, but is also someone who symbolizes the need to let future generations know the truth behind the sacrifices that have been made so that they can move forward evolve into what they want to be.

All films were screened at AFI Fest 2021. Many thanks to AFI for another spectacular year of cinema and conversations, and a special thanks to Johanna Calderón-Dakin, Senior Publicity Associate for AFI Fest, who made our festival coverage possible.

Featured photo courtesy of Rob Latour/AFI/Shutterstock

https://fest.afi.com

Alonso Ruizpalacios

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Originally published on Ink 19 on October 20th, 2021
by Generoso Fierro

Having greatly admired Alonso Ruizpalacios’ work since viewing his auspicious debut from 2014, Güeros, I knew that the day was forthcoming when the native Mexico City director would have to take on a more visceral approach to confront the unethical elements of his society that plagued the main characters of his first two feature films: the aforementioned Güeros and his highly-acclaimed follow-up, Museo.

A Cop Movie, Ruizpalacios’ third feature, which was nominated for Best Film at the Berlinale where it won the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution, sees the director not only abandoning temporal settings decades in the past—Güeros and Museo examine the institutionalized dysfunctions of previous eras in the ’90s and ’80s respectively—but also sees him incorporating a daring hybrid cinema approach that creates empathy for his characters, while he closely investigates the human costs of police corruption that is omnipresent in and around Mexico City.

As our film opens, we witness Teresa, a lone police officer who is patrolling her sector of Mexico City, being called to respond to an apartment where a woman is giving birth. Teresa arrives on-scene, but without an ambulance in sight, she wades through the bystanders amassed in front, and is questioned by them as to the absence of emergency personnel who had been called some time before. As Teresa is a veteran officer, she sadly knows full well that EMTs, who are in short supply and in high demand in Mexico City, will most likely not be arriving anytime soon. Still, she pleads with her dispatcher to send an ambulance, but receives no helpful reply, so she is forced to deliver the baby herself, a feat that Teresa executes bravely with her only pair of rubber gloves to grab the baby and children’s scissors that the expectant mother’s husband has on premise to cut the umbilical cord. It is a miraculous moment of valor, and when the mother’s state raises concern after the birth, Teresa has no choice but to call in a favor with her life partner, Montoya, a fellow officer, who normally has better luck in getting the dispatcher to do her sworn duty.

Through filmed recreations of Montoya’s and Teresa’s exploits on duty, which Ruizpalacios adeptly combines with direct to camera interviews with the pair, we gain knowledge of this couple, who, despite taking different paths that led them to their careers in enforcement, are still confronted with similar negative outcomes from their time on the job. We see these officers struggle in their interactions with a public who refuse to view them as anything but corrupt, even though it is made clear through Teresa’s and Montoya’s own testimony that it was never their intention to be complicit with the graft that is the hallmark of their department. Their fellow officers also provide no relief to their feelings of persecution either, as Teresa and Montoya must begrudgingly pay cash to them for the use of the very gear that is essential for them to do their jobs.

As A Cop Movie progresses with its erratic construction that purposefully keeps the viewer off balance, we become immersed into Teresa’s and Montoya’s turbulent world, and thus, we develop a great deal of sympathy for their situation. This is the case until the halfway point of the film, when Ruizpalacios makes an abrupt shift in the structure through the use of a surprising reveal—a reveal that makes us question the reality of what we have seen until that point, and potentially opens up preconceived notions that we may have about law enforcement in Mexico.

I was thrilled to have an in-depth conversation with Ruizpalacios about his new feature. We discussed his original motivations for making A Cop Movie, as well as his decision to incorporate a hybrid documentary approach and his unique methods for preparing his actors for their challenging roles.

Q (Generoso Fierro): I see a parallel between your previous feature, Museo, and A Cop Movie in that both films delve into the normalization of motivations and behavior that clash with society’s expectations and morality. In Museo, Benjamin and Juan are middle class, whereas Teresa and Montoya come from working poor families. After you made Museo, was it important for you to examine this societal issue from a different socioeconomic perspective with your next project?

A (Alonso Ruizpalacios) : Yes, it is a very interesting link, the one that you’re making here, Generoso, and I think that it’s probably there, but in a very subconscious way. I will say that the motivations for this project came from a different place, but then, of course, it ends up happening that once you’re doing something or even when you are finished doing something, you realize what was really behind your motivations. Also, I should say that at some point during filming, I realized that I am making another road movie in Mexico City (laughs). You know during this one moment, when we were shooting that patrol car around town, I thought to myself, “Shit, am I really doing this again? Why, why am I shooting people in cars in Mexico City!?” (laughs)

But for me, the starting point was to do something to address a kind of false hope of feeling useful somehow, as I don’t believe that cinema is useful at all, but that is also why I like it. I think that it gives us the illusion of somehow being able to do something that will be a useful tool, and so I did have that urge of wanting to create something useful at the end of the Peña Nieto period.

Peña Nieto, the former President, towards the end of his term was operating at an all-time high of impunity and corruption, so I wanted to make a movie that addressed that, and I got together with Elena [Fortes] and Daniela [Alatorre], my producers, to start thinking about some way to comment on this situation. So, it didn’t all start off as specifically being about the police force or about someone being in a lower sphere of the social ladder, but that kind of came together organically as we all began exploring the subject matter.

Q: I do feel that through the story of Teresa and Montoya in A Cop Movie, you do exemplify the absurdity of the corruption of the Peña Nieto period. I also believe that, although A Cop Movie exhibits you taking a different kind of approach than the ones you took with Güeros and Museo, you still have as central characters people who want to exact some kind of change in their lives, but who are all stymied because of the reality of a corrupt or unethical system in front of them. With Güeros, which is set in the late ’90s, and Museo which is set in the mid-80s, we have a chance to look back and judge in hindsight the negative effects of the venality of the past, but with A Cop Movie being contemporary, how do you view the corruption of the past eras that you explored with Güeros and Museo in terms of how they led to the institutionalized corruption that is present with the police in Mexico today?

A: That is an interesting question. For me, it is very sad to realize that corruption is still so pervasive and that it rules over Mexico. It is one of the biggest cancers in Mexico, and it is one of the main sources of all that is going wrong with our country, particularly, I mean, corruption combined with impunity. So, frustratingly, it has not been solved. That is the big wager with the current government in Mexico; they came in saying that they were going to fight corruption and that it is their main agenda. We’ll see what happens and if they have any success, but I don’t think that it has been fixed.

We discussed this issue a lot when we were developing this movie. This movie had a long period of gestation when we spoke with academics, very smart people who specialize in public order and public policy as well. We had some key advisors who accompanied us through the whole process of making the film. Even during the editing period, I was still having conversations with these advisors, three key people who work in police reform and public policy who assisted us along the way.

I remember one of these early conversations, we even went as far as discussing the foundations of Mexico. I remember asking an advisor, “Why is corruption so pervasive in Mexico, and why is it so much a part of our psyche?” His reply was very interesting. He said, “When Mexico was a Spanish colony, and the laws were dictated from Spain, the laws were made in Spain for how España, the colony of New Spain, was going to govern themselves. It was made by people who were not physically there—they were thousands of miles away. So, the legislators in New Spain had this saying between them: ‘We abide by the law, but we do not obey it.’” That was a common saying. And so, Ernesto López Portillo, who shared this with us, was serious when he said that this attitude comes from the foundation of Mexico. There is this huge distance between the law and what is achievable in reality. And I still think that is kind of the case. It is a very complex issue.

Q: As corruption is such an overarching dilemma in Mexico, it makes me wonder how some of the police cadets whom you interviewed for your film felt about how they could make any difference. And here, Alonso, I am particularly thinking of the one cadet in your film who stated that she joined up because of the tragic epidemic of femicide. Did any of the cadets, or the veteran officers whom you spoke with, express to you that the corruption which encumbers officers from doing their job effectively subsequently contributed to the rise of this particular crime?

A: That is a tough question, and there is most likely some relation, but the issue of femicide is again, a very complex problem. I think that a lot of the cadets whom we spoke to come in with a real desire to change things. That said, for many of them, it is frankly just a job, a way of making a living, and for others, it is a family tradition. But for a small number of the cops, it is a vocation. But in the end, you have this body of people who are undertrained, underpaid, and those factors are going to bring out all sorts of problems, but the femicide problem is beyond my comprehension and theirs. It is a tragedy, a sickness, and there are too many factors playing into it.

Q: Thinking about your process in creating A Cop Movie, I understand that you were originally approached by your producers to do a conventional documentary, but then you ultimately made the decision to utilize actors, even going as far as sending them to police academies and to patrol the streets, which ultimately created a work of hybrid cinema. What I found to be an interesting choice was that you waited until the middle of the film to show the audience that we are indeed watching actors portraying Teresa and Montoya. Can you talk about that decision?

A: The premise that we set out for ourselves was that we were going to find the form as we went along. We were not going to predetermine anything, and we were going to let the material tell us how it was going to be shot and how it was going to get shaped. And so, it was a very organic process of investigation for me, both thematically, because I was going to dive into something very foreign for me, and also formally. It was very freeing in that sense. I think that every decision was a solution for a particular problem.

Originally, we were not going to have actors portray the police officers. When we found Teresa and Montoya, our first instincts were to record them and somehow illustrate what was said, and then we thought, how are we going to illustrate all of these things that they are talking about that are very sensitive and impossible to capture on camera? All of these acts of corruption, their relationship with the public, the racism, it seemed impossible for me to capture all of that, so we are going to have to use fiction elements for this to work. Also, I have a soft spot for actors. I trained as an actor myself. I have a theater company. I am married to an actor, so the acting process has always fascinated me, and so, that is how the idea came to me, to make that a part of the movie. Why don’t we register that process, and that will be the audience’s process of getting to know the world that Teresa and Montoya are portraying.

So, finding the structure and doing that reveal in the middle of the movie was something that I wanted to give as a little shock to the audience to change lanes. There are really two stories in one: There is the story of Teresa and Montoya, and there is the story of Raúl and Mónica. There’s not one story, there are two stories, and Raúl’s and Mónica’s story is as important as Montoya’s and Teresa’s story.

Also, I thought that by that point in the movie people are going to be wondering, “What about everything that we know about the police? Where do I stand as a citizen and as a viewer with what you are showing me? I have all of these ideas about this, and they have not been addressed. The film has spent this whole time being empathetic to these characters, but what about my feeling of insecurity when I see a policeman? And what about my knowledge of corruption?” And so, I wanted to address all of this through the actors, and I thought that once we became engaged with Teresa and Montoya, it was going to be a good shift, and we were now going to address your problems with the police. I like this structure where this happens in the middle of the movie, as it switches lanes and abandons Teresa and Montoya, but then we circle back to them, and the stories reunite. And so, when you meet Teresa and Montoya after you’ve just been listening to their voices, I think that it comes as a surprise. To discover the structure along the way is a different process for me.

Q: As far as the preparation that Mónica and Raúl did for this role, did they listen to Teresa and Montoya’s dialog and then offer an emotional interpretation of what they heard, or were they directly reciting what was said to them?

A: The process was that we recorded Teresa and Montoya during interviews that took many days, and then we transcribed the interviews; we edited them; and then, we created a script, we meaning myself and a friend of mine named David Gaitán who is a playwright whom I worked with in the theater before. So, together we did the structure for what the actors were going to play, and while we were doing that, writing the script and deciding what we were going to shoot fictionally, the decision of always using the real voices was there. I knew that I never wanted to lose the voices of the real Teresa and Montoya, so then we cut the interviews into what was scripted, and we gave that to the actors, but we only gave them the sound. I didn’t want the actors to see the real Teresa and Montoya. They had no image, so they had to memorize by sound because I never wanted the actors to do an imitation of Teresa and Montoya. I wanted the actors to become them just with their voices. And so, they did the training first, and then they had two months to learn the lip sync. Raúl and Mónica worked their asses off, and they were pitch perfect.

So, they rehearsed, but they never saw the people whom they were portraying until the final day when we were shooting, and we brought Teresa and Montoya to the set where they met for the first time. We recorded that moment actually, and it was originally going to be part of the movie. But these things never turn out the way you think they will, because for me, I realized that that moment didn’t need to be seen.

A Cop Movie will be released globally through Netflix on November 5th, 2021.

https://www.netflix.com/ACopMovie

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Photo courtesy of Netflix.