Araceli Lemos


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.

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

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.

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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