Never mind Cannes in May: The Walter Reade’s Central Asia show, a fresh detonation of Pacific Rim pop at Anthology courtesy Subway Cinema, and (perhaps most of all) MOMA Gramercy’s excellent three-week Hubert Bals series are giving New York art houses a truly global feel. A key component of the Rotterdam Film Festival, the Hubert Bals Fund (named for the event’s late founder) dispenses about a million euros’ worth of completion grants to filmmakers from developing countries each year. Since its inception in 1988, it has provided financial assistance to some 400 projects from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe—a cross-section of which is on view at MOMA.
The 29-film program affords ample opportunity to divine trends in recent world cinema. The Chinese entries range from Chen Kaige’s mystical Fifth Generation staple Life on a String to less allegorical urban indies like The Postman and Suzhou River. Latin America is represented by the modest social realism of Pablo Trapero’s Crane World (from Argentina) and the grandiose existentialism of Carlos Reygadas’s Japón (from Mexico). There are parables of childhood and adolescence from African directors (Abderrahmane Sissako, Djibril Diop Mambéty), feminist works by directors from Islamic nations (Dariush Mehrjui, Moufida Tlaltli), and to make up for the relatively low international profile of Indian art film, a healthy subcontinental contingent in Mani Kaul (whose cryptic absurdist drama about class disparity, The Servant’s Shirt, gets a New York premiere), Buddhadeb Dasgupta, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan (also recipient of a BAM mini-retro this week).
Of the local premieres, Iranian director Ali-Reza Raissian’s The Deserted Station (based on a story idea by Abbas Kiarostami) stands the best chance of theatrical distribution. The urban/rural dynamics of many a Kiarostami scenario are in evidence: After their car breaks down in the desert, a childless Tehran couple (Nezam Manouchehri and Leila Hatami, who played the title role in Mehrjui’s Leila) seeks help at a dirt-poor village, where the wife becomes schoolteacher for a day. Though somewhat second-hand in its themes, it’s a limpidly photographed film, rich in telling detail (classroom hierarchies, marital sparring, village politics), and there’s a reflexive heartbreaker of a final scene—the narrative has trouble ending much the same way its protagonist has trouble saying goodbye.
Leaving is all too easy in the mordant comedy Occident, in which writer-director Christian Mungiu depicts his native Romania as a place where escape is the uppermost concern. In three overlapping stories, characters succumb or lose someone to the inexorable pull of the West: A newly jilted bride leaps into an arranged marriage that will get her at least as far as Italy; a young man who tried to float across the Danube during the Ceausescu regime finds his mode of transport—a blowup doll—returned to haunt him.
The highlight of the series is likely to be Wang Bing’s momentous Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, a nine-hour documentary saga shot over three years, recounting the industrial decline of the Tie Xi district in northeast China. Part 1, Rust, depicts the daily operations of the floundering factories. Part 3, Rails, turns to the region’s freight yards and train tracks. Part 2, Remnants, the only one available for preview, is a remarkable portrait of Rainbow Row, a working-class neighborhood a lot less cheerful than it sounds. Prowling through shabby homes and trash-piled dirt roads, the camera settles down for absorbing real-time blocks of teenage hanging-out; there’s a free-floating anxiety as Rainbow Row awaits demolition and its residents reluctantly prepare for “relocation.” Viewers who put in the overtime can expect handsome rewards: This verité supplement to Jia Zhangke’s neorealist masterworks could well be one of the year’s essential movies.
The centerpiece of the Pioneer’s “World Gone Wrong” series of political docs, Afghan Stories undertakes a pilgrimage in the aftermath of 9-11. Director Taran Davies accompanies his Afghan American friend Walied Osman to Afghanistan in the final days of Taliban control, stopping off first in Queens, then in Tajikistan for two very different glimpses of life in exile. In Afghanistan, the filmmakers remain in Northern Alliance territory, staying with an Islamic scholar and his soldier son in Faizabad, and journeying into the warlord-controlled hinterlands with an Afghan UN aid worker. Crudely made as it is, the documentary powerfully captures the clashing perspectives of those who stayed and those who left—the town elder who implores his countrymen to return and rebuild, the exiles who insist their presence would do no good, or claim that the solution is to “wipe out everything and start from scratch.”