New Directors/New Films 2013 - Critic's Choice

New Directors/New Films showcases emerging international cinema in New York from March 20-31, 2013.


Values clash in "A Hijacking." Photo by Magnus Nordenhof.
Values clash in "A Hijacking." Photo by Magnus Nordenhof.

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Senior film critic Kurt Brokaw is viewing the 42nd annual New Directors/New Films (all 22 features plus 17 shorts) and presents his critic’s choices below.

A Hijacking
(Tobias Lindholm. 2012. Denmark. 99 min.)

Piracy at sea is a torrid premise for a terrorist plot. Danish writer/director Tobias Lindholm’s sturdy A Hijacking is the first narrative drama to track the day-by-day negotiations (by phone and fax) between a Somali ringleader whose gang has seized a cargo ship and its crew of seven, and the calculating CEO and ship owner whose primary goal is paying the smallest ransom for the release of his ship and crew. Caught in the middle is the movie’s one truly sympathetic character—a young, married father and freighter’s cook—who becomes the go-between for the kidnappers and his boss, and who slowly falls apart during four months of captivity. The plot dynamics are heady and irresistible.

The opening scenes establish Peter (a fine Soren Malling) as a shrewd and cerebral master-of-the-world type who bargains down a Japanese exec from $16 to $14 million in purchasing some prized asset. Peter is tough on underlings and micro-manages his profitable shipping business. When his cargo vessel, bound for Mumbai, is boarded and commandeered in the Indian Ocean, he reluctantly hires a terrorist adviser, Connor (Gary Skjoldmose Porter) and offers to pay a paltry quarter-million for the safe return of his ship and crew. Connor approves. “Think with your heart and not your head, and you’re in trouble with pirates,” warns the crew cut terror expert.

The chief abductor Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), the one Somali who speaks English, laughs off that amount and threatens to kill all his prisoners for anything under $12 million dollars. This is when the frightened cook, Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek, affable and fragile), starts getting urged by Omar to persuade his boss to pay up, and A Hijacking begins massaging its central issue: What’s the value of seven lives? The pirate leader obviously thinks it’s a lot higher than the CEO’s estimated “market value” of his nuts-and-bolts ship.

Days pile up and food supplies shrink; the tensions between captives and captors increase, as does the impatience between Peter and his corporate board, who fear a mounting public relations disaster, which the standoff is provoking. (Not to mention the panic and despair of the crew’s families, who have no knowledge of how the CEO’s cash offers are incrementally inching up, while remaining millions below what Omar is demanding.) As the cook along with the captain and other crew weaken physically, our attention shifts to the buttoned-up Peter, whose resolve under crisis is also fraying. This is the heart of the film, and it’s undeniably affecting in ways we haven’t quite experienced in a terrorist setting on screen. The seven lives in peril aren’t exactly seen as a corporate liability, but for Peter and his board they’re becoming a troublesome nuisance that the CEO can’t seem to resolve.

On the ship’s reeking decks, goats brought onboard by the pirates are killed for food, and the crew breaks out fishing rods to try and catch a meal. The film director’s chosen ship, MV Rozen, was in fact one of scores of freighters hijacked in Indian Ocean waters in the last decade, and Lindstrom returned to those waters for filming. Porter, playing the terror expert, is in real-life exactly that, and adds an extra edge of authenticity. Lindholm’s picture bristles with surprises that will hold your full attention right to the closing credits.

A Hijacking will show March 22nd at 6:15 pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and March 24th at 6:30 pm at MoMA.

Soldate Jeannette (Soldier Jane)
(Daniel Hoesl. 2012. Austria. 79 min.)

Soldier Jane, don’t be afraid
Take your heart out of a shell,
Take your heart out of a shell,
Throw it away. –Beck

A Hijacking grows its class differences in a familiar corporate world filled entirely with older men. For an immersion in the female side of this coin, consider first-time director Daniel Hoesl’s polished gem of a wealthy woman’s slide into what we might call downward mobility. Fanni (Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg, as quietly assured and sophisticated as any woman on view in this festival) is trying on an elegant, conservative dress at a haute couture salon in Vienna where patrons rarely ask the price. Fanni carries her beautifully wrapped purchase out into the street—and tosses it into a sanitation truck crusher. Oh dear.

We view Fanni in a quick succession of arty, upscale, privileged settings: taking a custom message and facial…lunching with a fashionably handsome middle-age gentleman…drifting through her beautifully furnished apartment… sitting up in bed with that lunchtime companion…stomping through a martial arts class. Then falling asleep (and actually snoring!) in a cinema showing the scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 Vivra Sa Vie in which Anna Karina watches Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. The music underscoring and surrounding these scenes varies from Bettina Koster’s flashy techno-pop score to Franz Schubert’s “Die Tauschung.” These and Beck’s wistful lament are some of the influences powering this odd construct of a movie.

Fanni is visited by a team of frowning financial advisers who inform her she’s in arrears for three years of unpaid rent, that her landlord will be changing the locks on her apartment that afternoon, and all her possessions will be sold if some staggering sum of money isn’t immediately paid. Fanni shoos them away, cool as a cucumber, saying next to nothing. What is it with this dame?

She manages to wheedle a huge pile of remaining cash out of some bank, discovers her locks have indeed been changed, and boards a train. But she tells the conductor she has no money and is put off the train in a town outside Vienna. So Fanni drops her cell phone into the trash, walks into a car dealership, and buys a new car with cash. And drives and drives until she pulls over into a tall, mostly deserted sylvan forest. That night she builds a campfire and burns all her cash. Soldate Jeannette is turning into the prettiest, nuttiest fever dream you’ve experienced in ages.

Fanni takes a brief job in a slaughterhouse, of all places, on her transition down to a new way of life and home: a modern farm, where she’s given work by the family gathering eggs, sorting potatoes, feeding the pigs. Is it possible that Fanni, comfy and at ease in her Big-Ben-style overalls, looking a little like a countrified Martha Stewart, is finally “taking her heart out of its shell,” as Beck’s lyrics tease? Well, there’s the farmer’s young resident beauty, Anna (Christina Reichsthaler) who becomes her friend and appears to long for the life Fanni has fallen from. (We’ve spotted Anna before, briefly, at the Godard film and maybe in the karate class.) The soundtrack lyrics cocoon the two women with bromides like “chance keeps us safe” and “luck will guide you on your way.” Perhaps Fanni and Anna will soldier on down the road together, like an Austrian Thelma and Louise.

Hoesl walks a perilously thin line with his rejuvenation of Fanni. His film has a luxe-European sensibility that has all but disappeared from contemporary cinema, and this preserves and protects a feminist platform that in lesser hands could be ludicrous. We share the fantasy, just as that classic Chanel #5 ad by Ridley Scott once promised us. Soldate Jeannette is a confounding sleeper, exactly the kind of movie that can find a long-lasting niche with ladies-who-lunch in Lincoln Center’s nest of posh restaurants and cinemas.

Soldate Jeannette will show at 9 pm on March 23rd at Film Society of Lincoln Center and on March 25th at 6:15 pm at MoMA.

Sequin Raze
(Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. 2013. USA. 20 min.)

Fanni’s slow-fade to obscurity in Soldate Jeannette has its parallel in the statuesque blonde Jessica (Anna Camp), who is cast as the losing bride-to-be in the kind of television reality show you may have watched with curtains drawn so neighbors can’t spy on your viewing choices. Hurt, embarrassed, shattered when her potential Prince Charming chooses another drop-dead blonde to marry, Jessica stands there, ready for a meltdown as the camera mercilessly keeps rolling on her.

Enter one of the show’s key producers, a woman known as “the closer” (wearing jeans, tee, and hoodie, and chomping on a cold slice of pizza) who’s instantly dispatched by the director to pull Anna together for her closing interview, which losing contestants are contractually obligated to do. This world-weary pro, Rebecca (Ashley Williams) starts working away on poor Anna, who just wants to go home. “I’ve spent hours counting my eyebrows” laments Jessica, recalling the cultural vacuum she’s endured for days of rehearsal, as a camera holds tight on her in a sparkly, sequin dress.

Rebecca is the resident engineer in psychological empathy, and gently, coaxingly, she begins reminding Jessica of the story Jessica told the male contestant, that once-upon-a-time, Jessica's dad, who’s no longer alive, used to smooth her hair when she was a little girl and upset. That’s the “money shot” memory that Rebecca wants to pull out of this broken contestant. When Jessica resists, Rebecca halts their conversation to take a call from the director’s booth—it’s the show psychologist (the veteran Frances Conroy) who’s phoning in tips on how to reach Jessica, including the young woman’s bouts with bulimia, a suicide attempt, and hospitalization.

And so, little by little, Rebecca begins whoring herself out one more time to try and get a show contestant to bare her soul. Will she succeed? Does Jessica still weigh exactly 118 pounds as she did when she started this process? Will America come to love the loser as much as it does the beauty she lost to? There’s a fat cash bonus waiting for Rebecca from the director if she reels in the distressed and vulnerable Jessica.

Writer/director Shapiro shot Sequin Raze for $30,000 through American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women and with Kickstarter funding. Exquisitely photographed by Ava Berkofsky, it’s a biting, sometimes savage gem of the persuasion process anchored by the stellar performances of Camp and Williams. Shapiro, who spent several years working on a reality show in a job not unlike Rebecca’s, fully understands the dynamics of primetime yearning and suffering. Her intensely intimate film is up there with the 2012 short Curfew which The Independent discovered and saluted at last year’s Tribeca and New York Film Festivals, and which won an Oscar for its writer/director. It is that special, and Sarah Shapiro is a filmmaker of the first order.

Sequin Raze screens as part of Shorts Program 2 on March 30th at 1 pm at MoMA, and March 31st at 4 pm at FSLC.

Stampede
(Cyril Schäublin. 2012. Germany. 20 min.)

Rush hour in an underground subway station somewhere in Europe. Work-a-day crowds heading home—cards slide through turnstiles, a young man and woman realize they’ve left their tickets at the window, a same-sex couple lightly kiss, a boy of color and an older woman seem lost in their thoughts, a uniformed guard with his dog stroll about, a busker plays music on a keyboard, a rat scurries under a subway track. Everything appears normal.

But we note a bag on a platform floor. Then we hear an announcement that two subway lines are blocked due to construction, and buses will be provided. Annoyed calls are made on mobile phones. Then there’s a different kind of announcement: “There is an unattended bag on platform six that will be removed and may be destroyed.” (Have we ever heard this kind of announcement using the word “destroyed”?) On the wall of the station control office, different subway stops are lighted on a map, and one station begins to flash red. The dog is suddenly off leash and moving fast. A second guard begins running against the flow. People are looking up. Suddenly everyone turns and begins a frantic surge away from the bag. A stampede begins.

At which point writer/director Schäublin takes the sound out and slows everything way, way down. We begin to examine portraits of panic in extreme slow motion, in 2:35/1 CinemaScope framing. A liquid spills. A phone drops, its screen shattered. A shoe is upended and pressed against a face. People are tripping, falling, crying out silently. Dissolve… later, much later. The station is deserted, but newspapers, briefcases, shopping bags, mobile devices, and countless personal belongings litter the floors and escalators. The takeaway from one shaken commuter: “Nobody knows what happened.”

Schäublin is a 2012 graduate of the German Film and Television Academy, Berlin. He shot Stampede as part of his degree fulfillment in four Berlin stations plus London’s King Cross station. The stampede scenes were executed in a Berlin studio, with over 70 credited extras. This is a perplexing work, mesmerizing in its artistry of terror.

Stampede will be shown as part of Shorts Program 1 on March 23rd at 1 pm at FSLC and March 24th at 3 pm at MoMA.

Die Welt
(Alex Pitstra. 2012. The Netherlands. 80 min.)

In the first amusing minutes of Alex Pitstra’s discerning and engaging tale of Tunisians longing for a better life, we’re tight on Abdallah (a plaintive and appealing Abdelhamid Nawara). He’s the young clerk at the local DVD rental counter, and he’s trying to talk an unseen customer out of renting a well-known American action drama. “You should watch something from here, like Syriana,” scolds Abdallah, indicating the shop’s Mideast selections. He lectures his customer on the extravagant exaggeration of US films and the decadent lifestyles of Americans.

Abdallah’s not doing a rant; he’s carefully reasoning his way along a familiar litany of anti-capitalist arguments and complaints that wouldn’t be out of place at an Occupy Wall Street rally. Abdallah rattles on with a mix of envy and resentment at our materialistic culture, and we start wondering whether Quentin Tarantino similarly badgered his customers on his likes and dislikes when he was working in a video rental store.

Finally we cut to the renter, another 20-something guy who doesn’t look like the sharpest pencil in the box, and who’s been listening to all this in stoic silence. At last the customer speaks: “I want Transformers 2.”

Well, that says it. All our lives we’ve been turning to the movies to cue us to people and places we’ve never seen in person. Rossellini did it with Italian neo-realism, Satyajit Ray did it through India’s shift from a traditional land to a transitional society. For 42 years the New Directors/New Films festivals, curated by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, have carried the banner of showing us independently made narrative dramas and docs on what’s happening in far-away places with strange sounding names. Richard Pena’s sterling stewardship through a quarter century virtually guaranteed we’d be up to speed on what’s happening in downtown Addis Ababa.

The title Die Welt refers to how Abdallah’s dad, garage mechanic Hassan (Mohsen Ben Hassen, in real life the director’s father), views Europe, which the father secretly adores. Abdallah goes home that night to his extended family in a simple home on the outskirts of Tunis. It’s the summer of 2011, just before the country’s first free elections. Abdallah is one of the lucky people with a job (which he’ll shortly lose when the DVD store folds) in a community of rampant unemployment. Many have already left for Europe in makeshift rafts and containers, but Abdallah’s family seems stable and he’s kind to his grandmother and other relatives. His teenage sister wears an I-Love-Tunisia tee and dreams about owning a laptop.

Abdallah goes to a family member’s wedding at a seaside resort and dances with the considerably older Anna (Ilse Heus), a Dutch tourist who seems to be shopping for male company. We’re surprised and bemused when he sleeps with her and starts having nocturnal fantasies of living in a seaside European villa with Anna, a refrigerator full of Coca-Cola, and their pet goat. Writer/director Pitstra, who is of Dutch/Tunisian heritage, spins out this tale easily and naturally, fully in control of his story and mostly non-professional cast.

Abdallah makes a major life decision, which is yours to view. Significantly, it occurs just before Tunisia’s 2011 fall elections, in which the moderate Islamist Renaissance Party, or Ennahda, wins the popular vote. Abdallah learns that fact just as Die Welt ends and your curiosity kicks in about what’s happened since that election.

Here’s what’s happened: Kareem Fahim, a New York Times reporter, writes that the prime minister has announced a new cabinet, appointing independent figures to replace the ruling Islamist government, “in an effort to calm the worst political crisis since the country’s revolt two years ago.”

Die Welt is a movie to ponder and discuss, one of the unsung gems of this festival.

Die Welt will show March 26th at 6:15 pm at FSLC, and March 26th at 8:30 pm at MoMA.

Stories We Tell
(Sarah Polley. 2012. Canada. 108 min.)

It’s time to decide whether to call Sarah Polley the Alice Munro of contemporary filmmakers. Polley would surely dismiss such high praise. She might modestly agree to being described as “the Alice Munro of Canadian contemporary filmmakers.” But it’s the right moment to test out both designations, examining how each feels in print. If you’re a passionate reader of contemporary fiction as well as an ardent supporter of independent film, it’s possible you already have a preference.

On the strength of Polley’s superbly perceptive as well as artfully deceptive Stories We Tell, it’s clear that Polley, at 34, is catching up fast with Munro, 81, as a separate but equal master of how memory works in storytelling. Polley’s directorial debut, Away From Her (2006), was her largely faithful adaptation of Munro’s story The Bear Came Over The Mountain, published in the 2002 collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.

Away From Her showed the daily endgame of a 44-year marriage in which the wife (acted by Julie Christie), suffering from fading memory, is moved into an Alzheimer’s facility, and visited attentively by her university professor husband (acted by Gordon Pinsent). In the story the dutiful husband is a repeat adulterer; Polley’s screenplay adaptation, which won an Oscar nomination, mutes that flaw. It’s there, but not as sharply as in Munro’s story.

Stories We Tell is framed as a present-day memoir by Polley who interviews a host of family members and friends in a search for her true biological father. Talking-head close-ups are intercut with faded 8 mm “home movie” footage of her mother’s early life with her children, her husband, and, yes, her lover—Polley’s biological dad. But you need to be aware that this is, in part, an acted movie and not the true-life record it purports to be. It’s Sarah Polley’s life filtered through Sarah Polley’s sensibilities not just as a writer/director, but as a casting director as well.

What follows is not a spoiler but a clarifier, as the closing credits disclose three key cast members: Diane Polley, Sarah’s mom who was an actress and casting director herself, and who died from cancer when Sarah was 11, is acted by Rebecca Jenkins. Michael Polley, whom Sarah thought was her biographical dad until 2006, is acted as a younger man by Peter Evans. Harry Gulkin, an 84-year-old Montreal film executive (who produced Lies My Father Told Me, shown at the 1976 New York Jewish Film Festival) and confirmed through DNA matches as Sarah’s biological father, is acted as a young man by Alex Hatz.

The few critics who’ve written on this unique mash-up are divided in their responses; one alludes to a filmic “fabrication” but doesn’t reveal what it is, stating the “film’s impact is inversely proportional to the viewer’s degree of foreknowledge.” Another notes that Jenkins’ portrayal of Diane Polley “turns the woman who Sarah Polley evokes through tales from her extended family into a figure of drama—hardly real at all.”

Does it matter? With Polley’s two dads, probably not so much, as both Evans and Gulkin do a lot of their own heavy lifting and articulate their lives with Diane openly and with compassion, respect, and deep affection. Evans, a British-born actor, is jaunty and exceedingly gracious in accepting that his wife bore Sarah from an affair with another man. Gulkin is more drawn in and grumpy about acknowledging that he’s been fingered as the father of a Canadian celebrity he never had a hand in raising. “The story is about me and a woman who’s no longer here to tell her side of it,” is his pointed reservation, as he treads lightly on an affair that seems to have run several years.

One of Polley’s siblings urges the filmmaker to turn the camera on herself—to share her own feelings—but Polley won’t go there. She’s concentrating on pulling emotions out of family members and putting together a performance from the actress playing her mom. And so Stories We Tell becomes, at heart, a dissection of two aging men reconciling their lives with a deceased spouse and lover, along with a Greek chorus of distressed family and friends that one daughter has assembled.

When you stop to think about it, you may conclude it’s an artistic conceit that Diane is more of Jenkins’ creation—actually a re-creation—of the director’s mother, and our responses to her romantic relationships with both men are seen not in a true documentary context, but through Polley’s sensibilities and her viewfinder, shooting in 8 mm. (The clips are painstakingly “aged” to perfection—they look for all the world as genuine as the 8 mm footage assembled by Penny Lane for her doc Our Nixon, a historical look-back at the team that went down with the testy president—also featured in this year’s ND/NF.)

As performed by Jenkins, who’s frisky and buoyant, Diane Polley presents herself as a sassy, good-time girl who always looks ready to party and who sings the ironic tune “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with barroom gusto. She comes across like Gretchen Moll in The Notorious Betty Page—innocent yet lowdown fetching. “Diane was a flirt, but her heart belonged to Jack,” is one sibling’s bottom-line assessment of their mother. (Still another commentary on Diane’s faithfulness is seen through the testimony of yet a third possible dad, who’s excused from the plot when he offers to prove he wasn’t in Montreal during Diane’s two-month acting stint there, when she and Harry conceived Sarah.)

Through the years Alice Munro has been candid with interviewers about the fictional vs. true sources of her Canadian stories. She’s forthcoming about her tales in The View from Castle Rock and the last four stories in the new collection, Dear Life, being purely autobiographical. For a long time documentary films maintained a similar, disciplined ‘church/state’ relationship with dramatic narratives. We’ve seen that division shredded by reality shows, docudramas, movies “inspired by true events”, and now the cine-memoir.

Munro might point out that this started long ago in 20th century literature when world-class authors like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer created the true crime novels (In Cold Blood, The Executioner’s Song), using invented scenes between real people. Polley might point to Citizen Kane with its staged scenes of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, complete with carefully placed scratches in the film to heighten the illusion. In a way Polley is the latest practitioner of ancient cinematic subterfuge.

The difference is that we rarely trusted Orson Welles, the most wily of our screen magicians, but we want to trust Polley because she’s made this daring confessional and she’s fearlessly sitting there, meticulously directing Jack’s on-camera readings of her script, to get the best performance she can out of the man she’ll always call dad.

New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani once described Munro as the creator of “pictures that possess both the pain and immediacy of life, and the clean, hard radiance of art.” Maybe Sarah Polley already is the Alice Munro of contemporary filmmakers.

Stories We Tell shows March 29th at 6:15 pm at MoMA and March 30th at 12:30 pm at FSLC.

The full ND/NF schedule is here. Watch for critic’s choices from the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival: April 17-28, 2013.

Originally published March 14, 2013 with additions March 19th.