While it’s true that New York needs another film festival as much as Callista Gingrich needs another line of credit, it’s also true that, considering the current state of affairs, there has never been a greater need for adventurously programmed surveys of independent films. With the market for independent and international cinema shifting, drastically if not yet exclusively, to streamable formats, it’s at theatrically hosted festivals where worthwhile films can still be properly presented and showcased and where word of mouth can still lead to greater exposure. First Look, the inaugural edition of which runs from January 6 to 15 at the Museum of the Moving Image, embraces that mission in both name and execution. Rather than pad out its schedule with fest-friendly studio films on their way to a national theatrical rollout, First Look presents a highly selective slate of 13 features, 12 of which are receiving a New York premiere. And like Film Comment Selects, Lincoln Center’s eclectic survey of new and old scarcities, First Look promises to be less about red carpets and after-parties than serious cinema, full stop.
Judging from this year’s slate, First Look also already has a discernible identity. In each their own way, the invited filmmakers approach film as a terrain for formal dexterity. They hail from all over the world—representing 11 countries and four continents—but nationality seems well beside the point. These are films in which borders are crossed as a matter of course: An Italian filmmaker tails a hero of the Armenian avant-garde (The Silence of Peleshian), while a Belgian master conjures Malaysia in the Cambodian jungle (Almayer’s Folly); dramas resemble documentaries (Nana), and documentaries becomes objets d’art (Ocaso and It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve: Masao Adachi); a closely observed American indie erupts into a woozy thriller (Without), while a multigenerational home movie refuses to put an orienting frame around its loose family portrait (Papirosen). These are films that approach form as flexible and responsive, not as a genre to fulfill or a narrative shape to emulate.
Considering she has spent a career toggling between experimentation and narrative, documentary and fiction, it’s only fitting that this survey would open with the latest film from Chantal Akerman (best known for her epically attentive 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles). Any new offering from the sporadically productive and rarely distributed Akerman would be cause for celebration, but Almayer’s Folly merits that and more—it’s a major, mesmerizing, uncompromising work. Hers is a loose but surprisingly loyal adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel about a European trader who’s physically and psychically marooned in the Malaysian jungle while his mixed-race daughter gets boomeranged into and out of white society. The film adapts a colonialist story through postcolonial eyes yet, like Claire Denis’s White Material, allows for irreconcilable tragedies in every quarter. Come for the killer, cleverly encapsulating opening long take (featuring dance-choreographed karaoke, Dean Martin, fourth-wall-shattering torch-singing, and murder), then stay for a clinic in how the camera can convey and complicate meaning, not to mention emotion.
“Film is only visible once it is returned to the world of sensations,” opines Japanese filmmaker Masao Adachi in Philippe Grandrieux’s It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve: Masao Adachi. As a statement of how ideas are fashioned into cinema, it converses well with Akerman’s intellectually rigorous yet affecting film. Grandrieux might be too much of a fellow traveler to interrogate his subject’s conveniently abstract political convictions (he spent years as an international saboteur in the Japanese Red Army), but Adachi’s philosophy inspires the documentarian to play with his own imagery, over- and underexposing film and doting on the inscrutable Tokyo landscape. (Big bonus: Beauty screens with Palaces of Pity, a genuinely strange pan-historical fable about the cruelty of young womanhood, Portugal’s intolerant Inquisitional past, and the horror of grandmotherly mirth.) A less successful portrait-as-aesthetic appropriation, The Silence of Peleshian puts director Pietro Marcello in the unenviable position of honoring a subject—Armenian filmmaker Artavazd Peleshian—who allows himself to be filmed but refuses to speak, a daft ploy that serves Peleshian’s career-long project of “distance montage” better than it does Marcello’s opaque documentary.
Two doc/fiction hybrids, each by a first-time filmmaker, explore differing notions of the pastoral. Theo Court’s Ocaso bears a strong, impressive resemblance to the deliberately paced, densely textural films of Russian master Alexander Sokurov. Witnessing the daily tasks of an elderly caretaker in a beautifully decrepit Chilean farmhouse estate, Ocaso‘s every shot has the material and compositional integrity of a painting (great ones, at that: exteriors are Turners, interiors are Vermeers, and medium shots are Rembrandts), which serves to knowingly heroicize and objectify the old man. In Nana, Valerie Massadian intercuts unvarnished footage of farm life (feeding and slaughtering pigs) with the adventures of an adorable, precociously verbal four-year-old who spends an increasingly unsettling amount of time fending for herself in a French farmhouse. Each experiment benefits from its filmmaker’s uncertain attraction to the primitive milieu and from differing degrees of authorial intervention.
Two of the most formally straightforward films in the survey still manage to feel open-ended. Gonçalo Tocha’s It’s the Earth Not the Moon is a tirelessly engrossing three-hour documentary study of the Azoran island of Corvo. Basically a big rock in the middle of the Atlantic, the island is home to some 440 people, each of whom Tocha, along with his sidekick/soundman Didio Pestana, attempts to meet. Motivated by curiosity rather than predisposition, Tocha and Pestana have invaluable sets of eyes and ears, filming the lapping of the waves, the dancing at the disco, and the reminiscences of townspeople with equal amounts of enthusiasm. The running time proves crucial, as it gives the audience a chance to settle in and look around; before long, you start to feel the intimacy and claustrophobia of small-town living, with the same faces turning up at church and on the docks. Meanwhile, Philippe Garrel, the patron saint of doomed romanticism, mines suicidal heartbreak for filmic transcendence in That Summer. Chronicling the beginning of a friendship and the demise of a marriage, and pairing together the unsettlingly sensuous Louis Garrel and Monica Bellucci—two bounteous human horns of plenty—That Summer sticks to a proscribed season (and a tidy 95-minute running time) but shows life at its messiest, when productivity erupts into destruction, and love bleeds out of every pore. Pace Adachi, the world of sensations is more than visible for Garrel; it’s damned inescapable, eternal. Because even Garrel’s emotionally accessible films habitually struggle to find distribution, better to treat all of these First Look screenings as your best chance.