AFI Fest 2021


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.

• •

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.

• •

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.

• •

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.

• •

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.

• •

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.

• •

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.

• •

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.

• •

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.

• •

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.

• •

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.

• •

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

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