The NYFF is Joyously Still Kicking

This year’s New York Film Festival may be mostly virtual, but the selections are as judicious and fascinating as ever

In covering this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, my colleague Stephen Garrett noted  how relatively slimmed down its amount of selections was this year from its usual overflowing cornucopia. Careful curation, however, has always been the charm of the New York Film Festival. In eschewing the competitive side of most other film festivals, NYFF serves simply as a survey of the film-festival scene throughout a given year, with selections from Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, and other such major festivals sitting alongside the occasional world premiere. Even in a mostly virtual format, made necessary thanks to COVID-19, this year is no different.

The Main Slate represents new films by some of the usual world-cinema suspects, like Asian filmmakers Jia Zhangke and Tsai Ming-liang and French veteran Philippe Garrel. And Pedro Almodóvar appears in the festival’s Spotlights section with a 30-minute English-language debut. But the lineup also includes a Sundance hit from an up-and-coming talent (Garrett Bradley’s documentary Time) and a film that is already building strong Oscar buzz after much-lauded premieres in Venice and Toronto (Chloé Zhao’s truly excellent Nomadland).

Opening NYFF this year was Lovers Rock, one of a series of feature-length films made by 12 Years a Slave Oscar winner Steve McQueen, soon to appear as an anthology series titled Small Axe on Amazon. (Two other entries, Mangrove and Red, White & Blue, are also featured in the Main Slate, with the former premiering this past weekend and the latter coming up later this week; the five-episode series will premiere on Amazon starting with Mangrove on November 20.)

Steve McQueen fest

Lovers Rock is as good a starting point as any to assess the highlights of the festival so far, because it represents, in one compact (68-minute) package, two of its major thematic and stylistic strains. Amid its free-flowing depiction of a house party in a West Indian neighborhood in London in the early 1980s, McQueen’s film obliquely comments on racial and gender-based tensions that seem timely in the wake of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements.

But while it’s easy to lament the state of our world right now, McQueen refuses to give into despair. Lovers Rock finds this usually dour, ultra-serious filmmaker in a celebratory mood, with McQueen’s roving camera finding an ethnic minority community embracing their identity without apology, and sustained blasts of reggae music temporarily keeping the evils of the world at bay. In its heartwarming chronicle of the stirrings of love between Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward) at the party, it’s easily the director’s most romantic work as well.

McQueen himself offers an example of the more explicitly political side of this year’s New York Film Festival crop with Mangrove, a much more conventional work after Lovers Rock. A dramatization of the case of the Mangrove Nine—Black British activists who the government tried and eventually acquitted of charges of inciting a riot during a protest of racist police violence in Notting Hill—the film carries a topical charge amid the protests that have erupted in the wake of the recent George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders here in the US. Not that this film needs any connections to modern-day unrest to make its outrage felt. This gripping docudrama works on its own terms, with its unsparing scenes of police brutality and an impassioned cast bringing it all to furious life.

Helen Keller, avant-garde Socialist

NYFF Politics is also at the forefront of Her Socialist Smile, a documentary about the oft-unexplored radical-progressive side of disabled pioneer Helen Keller that is part of the festival’s new Currents sidebar, featuring short and feature-length films with a more experimental bent than the Main Slate norm. “Experimental” is one way to describe the ways director John Gianvito attempts to not only chronicle Keller’s political side, but also imagine the world the way Keller herself might have experienced it in her own mind, shorn of the senses of sight and sound.

Thus, moments in which a voiceover narrator—poet Carolyn Forché, who, in a metacinematic twist, we occasionally see recording the voiceover in a sound studio in black-and-white—offers us the historical and biographical details of Keller’s turn toward socialism alternate with stretches in which Keller’s own words are silently presented as onscreen text which Gianvito invites us to read. Throughout, there are purely visual and aural sequences of nature captured around Helen Keller’s home in Alabama that, far from just being stimulating chunks of synesthesia, poetically suggest Keller’s own utopian vision of the world. Gianvito may present a clear point-of-view in Her Socialist Smile, but that doesn’t preclude the sheer surface pleasures of seeing an inventive visual artist try to come up with fresh ways to perceive and present the world around us.

Days of cooking dinner

A similar zeal underpins Days, the latest film from Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang. The narrative is so slender it barely exists: It’s basically about two lonely people, Kang (regular Tsai leading man Lee Kang-sheng) and Non (Anong Houngheunangsy) who connect intimately one evening in a hotel room. Until that moment, however, Days consists mostly of long, wordless scenes of both these characters simply living their own lives—Kang in a big house out in the countryside, Non in a small apartment in the city—much of it captured in Tsai’s familiar style of extreme long takes and fixed camera placements.

Your mileage will vary in whether you find such scenes hypnotic or just plain boring. At one point, Non basically spends about 15 minutes preparing his dinner, Tsai’s camera simply looking on, refusing to cut away. That’s hardly the stuff of high drama…unless you find the process of cooking to be meditative, in which case this scene suddenly transforms into an exalted view of an essential task most of us don’t even bother to think twice about. Days is full of such simple revelations, immersing us in the lives of these fairly unremarkable people until their moment of connection—one that they may never re-create, but which will nevertheless provide a memory to cherish as their lives flow on. If you get onto its Zen wavelength, Days has the power to inspire you to reflect anew on the ways you live your own lives.

Almodóvar in English
NYFF
Tilda Swinton in The Human Voice, directed by Pedro Almodóvar.

There’s nothing quite as profound in The Human Voice. Instead, Pedro Almodóvar’s short, a loose adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s famous one-woman play, simply offers the enlivening spectacle of an artist bringing his full imagination to bear on a filmed monodrama: Tilda Swinton raging, lamenting, and finally accepting the dissolution of a long-term romantic relationship. Swinton’s operatic performance is a tour de force in and of itself, but Almodóvar’s mise-en-scène is just as much of a sight to behold.

Primary colors abound in Antxón Gómez’s production design, with many of the paintings and sculptures in the background taking on psychologically expressive significance as Swinton’s aria marches gloriously on. Almodóvar even indulges in a metatheatrical gambit, with certain shots pulling back to expose the house as an immaculate set on a soundstage—a performer imprisoned by her own theatrical fantasies. Instead of the despair with which Cocteau’s play ends, however, Almodóvar caps it off with a fiery blast of empowerment that is wholly in keeping with his career-long empathy and affection for female characters.

You can’t fight City Hall
NYFF
Frederick Wiseman’s “City Hall,” part of this year’s New York Film Festival (NYFF).

See The Human Voice for exuberant cinematic and theatrical sparkle. See City Hall, however, for a trenchant analysis of the ways in which a local government tries, and sometimes fails, to keep a major metropolitan city running smoothly for its inhabitants. Boston is the setting for the latest documentary epic (four-and-a-half hours long) from nonfiction pioneer Frederick Wiseman—but as its title suggests, this isn’t one of Wiseman’s city symphonies (like his last picture, Monrovia, Indiana, or earlier films like Belfast, Maine and Aspen). Instead, it’s an exegesis of the strengths and limitations of Boston’s city government, one that, like Steve McQueen’s aforementioned two Small Axe films, seems keyed into topical concerns while trusting their audience to make such connections for themselves.

Social and racial disparities abound. Even as mayor Marty Walsh, who appears frequently throughout the film, publicly positions himself as progressive-minded and concerned about inclusion in a particularly divisive time in our nation’s history, Wiseman isn’t shy about presenting the more complicated realities behind the messaging. Towards the end of the film, Wiseman shows us, in typically unvarnished detail, a town hall meeting about a proposed cannabis dispensary in the poverty-stricken Dorchester neighborhood that becomes fraught with tension as its inhabitants challenge the owners and government officials on various societal inequities that their government has failed to address over the years. Though the officials naturally promise that their objections are being heard, one can’t help but wonder if that is just more posturing, their concerns fated to once again die on the vine up the bureaucratic ladder.

As is usual with Wiseman, though, such conclusions are left to the viewer to determine. His is not an activist style of documentary filmmaking; one could even call his consistent fly-on-the-wall approach serene in its observational detachment and wide-ranging curiosity. City Hall isn’t just about politics, though. Under Wiseman’s patient gaze, even the sight of a trash being crushed in the back of a garbage truck has a kind of revelatory power, reminding us of the kinds of mechanisms and institutions we take for granted as we carry on with our lives. Here’s hoping for more such quietly grand insights in the two more weeks left in this year’s New York Film Festival.

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Kenji Fujishima

Kenji Fujishima is a writer and editor based in New York City. He has previously written about film for publications including Village Voice, Slant Magazine, and Paste, and about theater for TheaterMania.

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