What follows is even stranger, more unsettling, more weirdly operatic than it sounds. Both Werner Herzog and Errol Morris admitted to being shaken by an early cut of the film and offered their services as executive producers—that alone should tell you all you need to know. The Act of Killing raises many questions about the ethical boundaries of documentary, the role of the director as puppeteer, and the possibilities of art-making as catharsis, all worth arguing over deep into the night. Even after seeing The Act of Killing twice—in its theatrical and longer director's cut (both will be screened at ND/NF)—I don't have a fully settled mind about it, except that it is essential viewing.
Along with Upstream Color, this year's love-it-or-hate-it Sundance brain-teaser from multihyphenate wunderkind Shane Carruth, Stories We Tell and The Act of Killing have U.S. distribution and confirmed release dates. Thus ND/NF remains most valuable as a showcase for deserving titles that won't be coming soon to a theater near anybody. They include Canadian director Kaz Radwanski's sandpaper-coarse comedy Tower, about a 34-year-old Toronto man (hangdog Derek Bogart) whose level of social awkwardness makes Ben Stiller's Greenberg character seem like Mr. Congeniality. Still living home and working part-time in his uncle’s construction business, Derek (also the character's name) spends his spare time inching along on a computer-animation project that his mother anoints "as good as Shrek," and making fumbling attempts to pick up women who seem as lonely and defeated as he does. A crowd-pleaser this isn't, but Radwanski has an eye for revealing human moments, ultimately earning a grudging sympathy for his misfit protagonist—a Sisyphus for the Asperger's era.
For sheer aesthetic brio, little in the ND/NF program can rival People's Park, in which directors Libbie D. Cohn and J.P. Sniadecki bring the Russian Ark approach—a single, continuous, 78-minute steadicam shot—to a public park in Chengdu, China. The shoot took place on a July afternoon in 2011, as children and parents, students and seniors strolled, exercised, sipped tea, danced—oh, how they dance. Some engage with Cohn and Sniadecki's camera as it winds its sinuous way through plazas, footpaths, and overlapping spheres of activity. Others blithely ignore it; still others seem not to even notice. At every turn People's Park captures something ineffable—everyday life transformed into cinema.
'New Directors/New Films'
Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA
Last but hardly least is Rengaine, a film from France unlike any other. The title roughly translates as "refrain," in the musical sense, which is fitting for a film that seems at once modern and mythic, like an oral epic that echoes across the ages. In outline, Rengaine recalls Romeo and Juliet, if Romeo were a young black actor trying to get a toehold in the French film industry and Juliet a North African Muslim with 40 (count 'em) brothers. The eldest brother, Slimane, has a face like cracked leather and a hunched posture that suggests the weight of tradition on his shoulders; he's determined that his sister, Sabrina (Sabrina Hamida), not marry outside of her religion—no matter that Slimane himself is in a long-term relationship with a white Jewish lounge singer. From there, Rengaine cuts across a vibrant, multicultural Paris, as Slimane tries to rally his brothers, while Dorcy (Stéphane Soo Mongo) navigates his own gantlet of dead-end auditions and intra-African prejudices.
Rengaine is the first narrative feature by Rachid Djaïdani, a novelist, actor, and former boxer who spent a decade preparing this no-budget film. The result crackles with the fire of necessity—a movie that seems to have poured out of its maker, that could no longer be contained. It is searing, honest, funny, and lyric—a rush of short, sharp scenes shot with a whirring handheld camera, and rhythmic dialogue that is at once conversational and poetic ("I'm dead already. Dying a second time won’t bother me"). Djaïdani ends Rengaine with an on-screen dedication: "Dear cinema, I love you." Judging from the evidence here, the feeling is entirely mutual.
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