Film

The Best Films at the First Look Festival Reveal Futures That Didn’t Work Out

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Rare is the documentary that begins with subjects screaming at their director. “Make her turn the camera off!” a bitter peasant woman, living in a drought-ridden stretch of southern Egypt, says to her husband, Farraj, at the start of Anna Roussillon’s I Am the People. Later, the usually serene Farraj also snaps at the Beirut-born, Paris-educated filmmaker, alleging that she’s trying to impose her political views on the villagers.

But Roussillon, who recorded Farraj and company between the 2011 overthrow of longtime president Hosni Mubarak and, two years later, the fall of his successor Mohamed Morsi, is the least of this family’s worries. Morsi, the first democratically elected ruler of Egypt, promised a wave of justice, only to fall quickly into the same totalitarian structure he claimed to oppose. When the movie begins, Farraj, who initially supports Morsi, has to deal with power outages, water shortages, and meager food rations; by the end, life for Farraj is very much the same, except his cynicism now extends to politics.

Roussillon’s superb debut propagates a lingering, devastating theme at the Museum of the Moving Image’s fifth annual First Look Festival: that of communities and countries left imperiled by would-be game-changers.

Take Jonathan Perel’s wordless Toponymy, a disquieting glimpse at four eerily similar Argentinian towns established in the mid-1970s. Built and overseen by the military, under the guise of keeping citizens safe from underground guerrilla factions, the towns today are dilapidated and joyless; the statues commemorating generals are a constant reminder of the repression behind this rezoning. Perel’s static snapshots provoke dread and claustrophobia — especially when he travels outside the towns’ narrow perimeters to take in the area’s mountainous beauty. Background sounds of children at play and stray dogs barking provide the few sparks of optimism.

Even more galling is Carlos M. Quintela’s fiction-history hybrid The Project of the Century, examining Russia’s botched attempt, starting in 1976, to build a prominent nuclear reactor plant in a small Cuban city. The gradual fall of the Iron Curtain brought about this alliance’s demise some fifteen years later. Quintela, shooting in piercing black-and-white, has fashioned a raw, strident portrait of a onetime employee, presently living with his estranged, violent father and mopey son in the now desolate town. All abandoned by women, all destitute, all impotent, they begin the film clubbing at each other and end it embroiled in a literal dick-wagging contest.

But clearly, plenty of Cubans haven’t given up the fight for revolutionary change. The best documentary of the bunch, Léa Rinaldi’s This Is What It Is, follows the incisive Havana rap outfit Los Aldeanos, whose criticism of Castro excludes them from local music showcases. After a few well-received concerts abroad, it seems these painfully sincere artists will achieve some much-deserved success. But then they are treated, curiously, like Castro-loving traitors in Miami — and later become victims of a multinational sting. Vibrant and immersive from start to finish (at one point the director tapes her own arrest), this is essential viewing for anyone keen to learn about post-embargo Cuba-U.S. relations. (Also at the festival: two Rinaldi featurettes displaying Jim Jarmusch at work, chronicling his very laconic direction of, respectively, 2014’s vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive and 2009’s The Limits of Control. The latter doc is more memorable, chiefly for the sight of veteran John Hurt fumbling his lines.)

Philippe Grandrieux’s Meurtrière, a dimly lit, hour-long spectacle of writhing nude choreography, ends the festival on a fiendishly erotic — yet unnerving — note.

Also worth seeing (if rather aimless) are the two YouTube-clip-populated productions from Dominic Gagnon. Reacting to the “aren’t Eskimos cute?” condescension of Robert Flaherty’s 1922 silent Nanook of the North, Gagnon’s Of the North shows Inuit people vomiting, feeding raw sewage to unsuspecting walruses, and mauling an innocent dog. And in Pieces and Love All to Hell, American right-wing women teach us how to stockpile food, rifles, and medical kits for some Obama-occasioned Armageddon. Gagnon has argued that viewers can’t call this approach smug or superior if the subjects posted the clips themselves — even, that is, if he’s the one who saved them, compiled them, and presented them at highbrow festivals. Either way, you can’t dismiss these harrowing films as boring.

This Is What It Is is essential viewing for those curious about post-embargo Cuba.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for most of the festival’s short films. Still, the “Matter of Visibility” program is a must-see: playfully unsettling experiments with negative exposure, superimposed images, and booming sound effects, from female artists new and old (including the late, extraordinary Cara Morton and Chantal Akerman, and the rarely featured Lis Rhodes). Also notable is Ken Jacobs’s glorious restoration of his 1955 street-scene silent Orchard Street, as well as three new Jacobs films capturing a subway ride, a hydroelectric dam, and two elderly men in a public debate, all in mesmerizing 3-D. And Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson’s Abandoned Goods is a touching ode to the horribly mistreated, exquisitely talented painters who once occupied a British mental hospital.

In fact, this is a second — and somewhat less absorbing — topic prevalent among the First Look films: paintings and the folks who revere them. In João Bénard da Costa — Others Will Love the Things I Have Loved, we learn of the late Portuguese Film Museum director’s discovery of sensuality through Renaissance and church portraits and, later on, through Joan Crawford films like Johnny Guitar (also showing at the festival). Meanwhile, Andy Guérif’s clever Maestà is a 26-panel Duccio painting of the Crucifixion come to life; simultaneously, at different corners of the screen, we see Jesus captured, flayed, and reborn.

The festival’s opener happens to be the most ambitious — and best — film in this art-meditating-on-art category: Francofonia, by Aleksandr Sokurov of Russian Ark fame. Dense and disassociating, it meditates on why the Nazis mostly left the Louvre’s masterpieces alone — a grace they did not bestow on most other European landmarks. But it manages to stay rather light on its feet: The character of Napoleon’s whiny, self-serving ghost provides ample comic relief, not just for the film but for the whole festival.

First Look Festival

January 8–24, Museum of the Moving Image