NYFF 2020: Thoughts on the Currents Section

A major restructuring of the New York Film Festival took place in the last year. Prior years have included many sidebars in addition to the Main Slate of the festival (Projections, Shorts, Convergence, Documentaries). This year, a new curatorial selection committee and executive board organized the sidebars into a category labeled Currents. As members of the festival stated, the Currents sidebar is no less important than the Main Slate and it helps bring representation of the full year in cinema to the audiences. Currents totaled nearly as many films as the new Main Slate and consisted of new and returning directors. Because the festival mostly was an online festival this year, I decided to seek out more films from the Currents selection than those in the Main Slate, which had already secured distribution for regular release in the US.

The Currents selection had a wide array of films. Some of the titles were more political in substance (The Inheritance, Her Socialist Smile) while others were supercut films or those made of various clips (There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways of Showing a Man Getting on a Horse, My Mexican Bretzel, Her Name Was Europa). I was able to see every feature title in the selection this year, with the exception of Ouvertures. Some of these films left me unimpressed while others are great additions to the year in cinema.

Her Socialist Smile

One of the most inherently political films in Currents was Her Socialist Smile, directed by John Gianvito, which details the radical political life of American icon Helen Keller. Most people are only aware of Keller’s achievements of learning to read, write, and speak after she was born blind and deaf, but most probably do not know she was an ardent champion of socialist politics and gave numerous speeches against the dark side of capitalism. Gianvito uses voice recordings, speeches, journals, and documents to illustrate Keller’s political growth from a young adult to an aged woman. The collection of these documents and recordings into a film makes Her Socialist Smile invaluable material, but as a satisfying work of art, the film mostly falters.

The film becomes a hagiographic portrayal of Keller and her politics. Gianvito’s presentation of the text of her speeches and notes is an important and beneficial source, but he never presents any true critique of her beliefs. For instance, at one point Keller states she had left the Socialist Party because they were too pragmatic. Gianvito would have done better to make her not as perfect, maybe presenting her opinions as a contrast to the newly developing schools of right-wing economics (such as the Chicago or Austrian schools) which would have provided counterpoints to her opinions on the free market. Likewise she is never shown to be a deeply complex person since the film mostly focuses on her words and not her life.

In terms of presentation and form, the continual slides of text on screen and random shots of grass and other backdrops near her childhood home wear out their welcome fast. This, coupled with the length of the film, at a bloated one hour and forty minutes, wore me down. There’s much important footage in this runtime, but overall it may not be best presented in a feature film.

The Inheritance

Another film I found somewhat disappointing was Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance, the story of a group of young African Americans in Philadelphia who start a commune in the house of a recently passed grandmother. The first portion of the movie works very well with an intense though muted visual and aural palette that makes reference to Godard’s La Chinoise. Asili also uses a remarkable video of the radical natural law group MOVE and how the group dealt with the police and other government forces trying to shut them down. He also brings active MOVE members to the house to speak to the younger generation, and this content is very valuable.

After this, the film begins to stutter, becoming at times a maudlin story of the young characters bickering (at one point there is a silly discussion about whether or not to have shoes worn in the house). Asili doesn’t do much to engage with the viewer or bring out any depth in the house characters; they are never examined in any true way. Their politics are never challenged nor do the conflicts hold any water. A chalkboard in the house displays various quotes that differ from scene to scene. The text of the quotes is always written and shaped perfectly, as if a professional stenciled it. This is a disconnect with the political and social reality Asili wants to present. Overall, The Inheritance feels like a student film that is political but lacks any true thesis and a coherent structure.

The Year of the Discovery

A formal highlight of the Currents section was Luis López Carrasco’s The Year of the Discovery (El Año del Descubrimiento). Using a split screen format for the entirety of the film, López Carrasco interviews subjects who participated in the 1992 union strikes that occurred in Cartagena and La Union (in the region of Murcia, Spain). During this time, Spain embraced more economic liberalization as compared to the years of Franco’s regime, and many of the workers in Cartagena were negatively affected by the neoliberal policies. Spain also hosted the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and the world fair Seville Expo ‘92, creating a contrast to the struggle of the Murcians. This took place 500 years after Columbus reached the Americas, hence the title, The Year of the Discovery.

López Carrasco also interviews Murcians of younger generations and dissects how they feel about Spain’s regionalism, its role in the European Union, and other topics such as the military draft and the role of unions in today’s society. Many of the conversations enlighten and provide much insight to the time period, but some do drag on, and the film’s 3-hour-and-20-minute runtime does wear out its welcome. Much of the film works, but some parts do not because of its drawn-out conversations. Maybe having a deeper back knowledge of the events in Murcia in 1992 would help, but the major issue here may be the film’s repetitiveness and length.

The Plastic House

With a runtime of 46 minutes, Allison Chhorn’s The Plastic House borders between a mid-length featurette and a feature film in both its feel and texture. The subject matter is sparse; much of the film contains images and shots of a greenhouse that is consistently battered and damaged, while the plants enclosed grow, are harvested, and are planted anew. Chhorn also spends the beginning of the film ruminating on the lives of her parents. For these reasons, a majority of the film is a treatise on life and its cycles. Many of the shots are serenely beautiful and the film is very peaceful, but it remains a slight feature because of its paradoxically short length and its slim narrative structure.

The Tango of the Widower and the Distorting Mirror

Raul Ruiz passed away in 2011, but his widow Valeria Sarmiento has since restored and finished projects of his from various points in his career. She directed his final script, The Lines of Wellington, which played in the New York Film Festival a few years back, and she finished his uncompleted terrific film that was shot in 1990, The Wandering Soap Opera. With The Tango of the Widower and the Distorting Mirror, Sarmiento returned to an early point in his career before his first film was released. Effectively, at this moment, one could consider the picture to be Ruiz’s first and last film, at least until she discovers another one.

The film tells the story of a widower who mourns the recent death of his wife as he sees her ghost and shadows on a daily basis. Interestingly, as Ruiz’s widow, perhaps this film feels extra personal to Sarmiento, a reputable filmmaker in her own right, but still living in the shadow of her renowned husband. Having not seen any early films from Ruiz, this work feels very similar in style and tone to Bunuel’s Viridiana. Both feature cultural influences from Iberia, a similar black-and-white style, and dark humor. The film is short though, clocking in at just over an hour, and the last twenty minutes consist of earlier parts of the film played backwards, which adds to its darker quality. With a scattered plot and generally unfinished feel to the work, The Tango of the Widower and the Distorting Mirror does not satisfy but will remain an important note in a great director’s career.

There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways of Showing a Man Getting on a Horse

Winner of the longest-titled film of this edition of the festival is the newest work from Nicolás Zukerfeld. The first half of the film is supercut with various scenes from Raoul Walsh films edited together. While this fascinates and entertains, like many supercut films, it tends to lose focus for me when I’m not very knowledgeable about the material.

In the second half of the film, Zukerfeld studies and inquires into the origin of a quote that Walsh may or may not have said, “There are not thirty-six ways of showing a man getting on a horse.” While very academic in nature, this portion also remains comical in the lengths to which Zukerfeld will go to find the quote’s origin and also the way in which quotes can be changed over time in various publications and different languages. Overall the film still feels like an exercise in structure and research and probably will mean more to those who have knowledge or love for the films of Raoul Walsh.

Her Name Was Europa

Similar in comic tone and inquisitiveness to Zukerfeld’s film is Her Name Was Europa, directed by Anja Dornieden and Juan David Gonzalez Monroy. The documentary examines the history of the aurochs, a wild cow that has been extinct since the early 17th century, and researches the attempt to recreate the species through eugenics and cloning by various groups (which at one point included the Nazis). The directors have various artists create a physical statue of the aurochs through drawings and plasters. Important to note, much of this section of the film is beautifully and serenely shot in black and white.

Even with the inquisition into the aurochs, Her Name Was Europa is very much a film about making a film. The narration indicates that the directors are trying to make a documentary on the aurochs and a final section has the directors visiting indoor springs and deciding to go on vacation instead of finishing the part of the film that preceded it. This playful ending upends our expectations and leads to a lighthearted conclusion. With this meta-documentary structure, the film remains small in scope but becomes enjoyable and spry.

My Mexican Bretzel

My Mexican Bretzel surprised me the most of all the films I saw in the New York Film Festival. By creatively editing together hundreds of silent home videos that were found in her grandparents’ basement, director Nuria Giménez connects the film of her grandparents to the fictional story of Vivian Barrett and her husband Léon. With this inventive story structure, Giménez adds a narrative to the footage using subtitles, creating a fiction from the non-fiction and while doing so making the film and the emotions of its fictional characters feel undeniably authentic.

Giménez tells the story of Barrett and her travels to many tourist locations in Europe with her husband. The footage of these events, shown through the home video, remains ethnographically and historically important. There are scenes of the characters visiting Barcelona, which during the time was under Franco’s dictatorship, and there are many shots of buildings being erected and a city being developed. There’s even outstanding footage of the Sagrada Familia still in early stages of construction.

For much of the film, Barrett’s character relates her emotions and feelings toward her husband Léon and other men through the text that is provided on the screen. She catches Léon having an affair with another woman and she becomes very hurt, eventually forming a relationship with another man. Much of the film contemplates this loneliness and pain (there’s a scene where the characters visit the Hawaiian islands, yet they remain as lonely individual human islands). At times Giménez explores the possibilities of loving multiple people, and the burdens of heartache caused by societal conservatism (relating back to the images of authoritarian Spain). She delves deeper to poignantly dissect the temporality of life and the truth and lies of self-construction. None of the characters are real in the film, yet the images are real. At the end, there comes a major shock which brought me to tears, which confirmed My Mexican Bretzel as the major emotional film of the NYFF.