Yet Again, New Directors/New Films Offers a Bounty of Possible Greats


Steven Spielberg was but 27 when his first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express, enjoyed its world premiere at the third edition of New Directors/New Films in 1974. James Benning and Mark Rappaport were both 35 when 11 x 14 and Local Color, two seminal early pictures, graced the festival three years later. Chantal Akerman brought Les Rendez-vous d’Anna to the eighth installment before her 28th birthday. Manoel de Oliveira was already in his seventies when Doomed Love arrived there in 1980, true — but then de Oliveira was just getting started. The programmers could hardly have known they were cultivating luminaries. That’s simply a benefit of the ethos: Favor interest over excellence, and excellence will come with time.

Nearly a half-century after its inception, New Directors/New Films seems no less committed to the promise of the vanguard. Nor is its pursuit of the new proving any less fruitful. I’ve surveyed the program for this paper three years in succession, and it’s never a slog. Why? Perhaps it’s that the least successful films among the ND/NF slate are reliably more intriguing — more original even in failure — than the lauded nonpareil of a more conservative fest. New Directors/New Films isn’t distinguished by unerring curatorial acumen. The festival aspires to err, or at least it accepts the risk happily. But in celebrating the unfamiliar, the program assures us of one thing: There’s no place here for mediocrity.

Kirsten Johnson is fifty years old. Cameraperson is only her second feature — and yet she might have more filmmaking experience than every other director on this year’s slate combined. As a cinematographer and camera operator, Johnson has been a fixture of American nonfiction cinema since 2001, working behind the scenes on major documentaries. The best-known — Fahrenheit 9/11, Derrida, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Citizenfour — attest to the range of her work as a collaborator. But nothing in Johnson’s filmography anticipates the style she’s adopted on her own.

Cameraperson is a memoir and a travelogue, and it often feels, with its global scope and quiet intelligence, like a companion to Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil — though the methodology is unique. Johnson has assembled her film from footage captured for but not used by others: establishing shots, interviews, landscape B-roll, discussions and discoveries left aside. Stitched together, this orphaned material tells two stories. One is autobiographical: It’s a portrait of a person whose job it is to direct our attention somewhere else. (And it’s remarkable how vividly Johnson’s largely unseen presence comes to be felt.) The other is about cinema itself. When we think about filmmaking, our thoughts are confined to a small part of the process — to what makes the cut. Cameraperson forces us to consider what gets left out.

Johnson’s travels whisk us from Afghanistan to Bosnia to Brooklyn to Nigeria. The ND/NF program is similarly far-flung. Two feature debuts — Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues, from China, and Raam Reddy’s Thithi, from India — offer not merely international dispatches but regional ones, from Guizhou and Karnataka. Both won awards last summer in Locarno and remind us that a national cinema may extend well beyond the borders of capital cities. Portuguese filmmaker Salomé Lamas goes even farther afield: Her ethnographic documentary Eldorado XXI takes us to the very inhospitable La Rinconada, in the Peruvian Andes, where miners toil nearly 17,000 feet above sea level. Lamas is working in such extreme conditions that life can barely be sustained there.

Elsewhere on the continent, the vaquejada rodeos of the Brazilian countryside form the bucolic setting of Neon Bull, which made much-discussed appearances in Venice and Toronto late last year. The acclaim it’s found seems mostly justified; this is a singular and lovely romance. The vaquejada is a curious sport in which cowboys aim to pull fleeing cattle to the ground by the tail. The heroes of the film are the motley bunch who tend to the livestock and together share a wholesome, if occasionally incestuous, familial bond. The director, Gabriel Mascaro, has a fine eye and a delicate touch. At just 31, he’s set to enjoy a retrospective at Lincoln Center next month.

Lucile Hadzihalilovic, meanwhile, continues in the direction of her outré debut, Innocence, and now presses, with Evolution, into even less familiar climes. The location is an unnamed and almost certainly unreal island, thickly spread with black Icelandic sands and beleaguered, at its rocky shores, with furious, boiling waves. In customary Hadzihalilovic fashion, an obscure mystery looms: This island, wherever it is, appears to be populated exclusively by middle-aged women and their adolescent boys, whose mother-son bonding would alarm any child psychologist. This is not a film to warm to. Hadzihalilovic, a specialist in body-horror, appreciates the close relation between fear and disgust. How intensely either feeling is aroused will depend on the resilience of your stomach.

ND/NF has no place for mediocrity.

Among the festival’s less fanciful environs: Philadelphia and Cincinnati. The former is the glamorous destination visited by Mike (Mike MacCherone), the endearing loser at the heart of Ted Fendt’s Short Stay. This delightful mid-length feature is a sort of anti-picaresque, teeming with novelistic regional detail but so drab and zestless that Philly’s tourism board ought to sue to have it suppressed. Mike himself is an antihero for the ages: ludicrously understated, so deadpan he may not even be aware of it, meandering from fortune to adversity with no perceptible change in affect. This is slacker cinema for people who can’t even be bothered to light a joint — in its own strange way a marvelous thing.

Cincinnati is the site of a great deal more action, particularly at the local community center where Toni (Royalty Hightower) spends her time after school in The Fits. Eleven-year-old Toni boxes with her older brother, and does so well, but soon finds herself drawn to the all-girls dance troupe practicing in the same gym. The director, Anna Rose Holmer, shoots both sports with a keen eye for the ways in which they overlap. Her subject is the body and the way it moves — whether with elegance, as when Hightower practices, or in a frenzy, as when an unexplained seizure epidemic strikes the dancing girls. Holmer proves adept with both horror and dance.

A vast running time typically portends the laborious trudge of “slow cinema,” but Happy Hour, an extraordinary 317-minute Japanese divorce drama by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, isn’t difficult or tedious at all. Hamaguchi makes economical use of his five-plus hours, enlarging details and elaborating on moments most films elide out of necessity. At the center is a quartet of middle-aged women (Rira Kawamura, Maiko Mihara, Hazuki Kikuchi, and Sachie Tanaka, who shared a well-deserved Best Actress prize at Locarno) whose friendship, as one of them endures a humiliating divorce trial in court, finds itself vigorously strained and torqued. Programming a film so defiantly uncommercial is precisely the kind of risk that New Directors/New Films should be praised for — and I suspect Hamaguchi’s is a name the festival will be boasting about in another 44 years.

New Directors/New Films
March 16–27, Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA