Making Room for the Real

Making Room for the Real

A dispatch from this year’s mostly virtual New York Film Festival. 

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The halal cart operator at 65th Street and Broadway used to get a lot of business from me in late September and early October, even though his fare, to be candid, was less than superb. (“How is that even possible?” passersby have heard me ask. “You ran out of falafel?”) But this year, with the New York Film Festival being presented online and at drive-in screenings, I had no need to sit on the steps of Alice Tully Hall gulping cheap meals between shows, and I missed my guy (may he survive these hard times). I missed even the heartburn and the crush in the lobby, the chairs that jiggle when someone shifts weight five seats down, and the smartphones that are never turned off. I missed old faces, conversations on the fly, and the hope, when the hall goes dark, that the next thing to spring into view will be a revelation. I missed feeding myself on films.

Displacement and loss were built into NYFF this year; and so it seems fitting that the selection that moved me the most, out of those I had time to stream at home, was Chloé Zhao’s quasi-fictional, quasi-documentary road trip to nowhere, Nomadland.

Zhao found her subject in Jessica Bruder’s book of the same title, which reports on older Americans who cannot subsist on their Social Security benefits and have lost their fixed abodes and so choose to travel the Great Plains and West in vans and campers, resting in RV grounds and the more congenial parking lots and picking up seasonal work along the way. In the movie version, Frances McDormand does not star as one of these people. Zhao has no desire to make her, or anyone, shine brighter than the shifting community of nomads or stand out from the texture of the landscape—shown in twilight and mist much of the time, but always changing and always enthralling. Nor does McDormand betray a shred of the self-regard that usually goes with a lead performance. Hair cropped short and plastered flat to her head, the lines around her eyes and mouth exposed to the light without embarrassment, McDormand listens as much as she talks, watches as much as she takes action, in the role of Fern, a widow whose town of Empire, Nev., became an empty shell after its sole employer, US Gypsum, pulled out. Zhao prefers to observe such abandonment rather than comment on it—except late in the film, when she articulates Bruder’s sociological themes with maybe a little too much punch.

She’s also inclined to let viewers decide for themselves that they care about the characters, rather than prod their sympathy with a plot. An understated drama do es gradually emerge, about a tentative attraction between Fern and another wanderer (the ever-reliable David Strathairn). For the most part, though, Nomadland captures you in the simplest and most difficult way possible: by catching you up in the rhythms of its people’s lives, the fullness of their existence (focused at one moment on plastic buckets of excrement, at the next on the night sky), and above all the interactions between McDormand and a cast of real nomads, bearing the indelible faces and voices they took years to earn. These people have no place to call their own, and yet they made Nomadland the most inhabited film in the festival.

The NYFF slate has a history of making room for fiction films that incorporate the real, and documentaries that play out with the fluidity of fiction. (Think of the work of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami or the Hoop Dreams team. Think of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Agnès Varda.) Such hybridity was especially prominent this year—for example in I Carry You With Me, Heidi Ewing’s first narrative feature, made without her documentary codirector, Rachel Grady. It’s the story of life partners Iván and Gerardo, undocumented immigrants from Mexico who today, in middle age, run a successful restaurant in New York City and are longtime friends of Ewing. You see them as they are now, in unscripted moments at work and at home; and in extended sequences shot in Mexico, intercut with the present-day scenes like long, contrasting flashbacks, you see the actors Armando Espitia and Christian Vásquez re-create the lives of Iván and Gerardo as young men, clandestinely falling in love, deciding to take their chances in the US (first one, then the other), and struggling once they’re in New York to rise out of abject poverty. More than once during their hardest years, Iván and Gerardo say to each other, “They hate us here,” a galling judgment that continues to linger in the present day, with its punitive immigration policies. But hope, not despair, turns out to be Ewing’s theme. For all the sadness at the heart of the story she’s composed, love conquers all—and the young Iván turns out to be justified when he tells Gerardo that America makes room for talent.

Hope and love surviving against all odds is also the theme of the festival’s outstanding not-quite-documentary feature by Garrett Bradley, Time. A title that’s cunning in its brevity: she means “time to be served,” as in the 60 years without parole in Louisiana’s Angola penitentiary to which Robert Richardson was sentenced in 1999 for a desperate, botched armed robbery, but also “time passing,” as in the years of family life without husband and father that Rob’s devoted wife, Fox Rich, painstakingly recorded on videocassettes so he might see his children grow up. The videos also condense a kind of growing up for Fox over some 20 years, as she matures from an ebullient and love-struck young woman into the triple identity of a tough, poised entrepreneur with a used-car business, a motivational speaker advocating for criminal justice reform, and a tireless fighter for Rob’s release from prison.

Fox has a personality big enough to burst most documentaries, so Bradley wisely does not try to contain her. She combines material from Fox’s videos, to which she was granted access, with exquisite present-day black-and-white footage and a soundtrack of remarkable vintage piano music by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, creating a free-flowing montage that moves in response to emotion rather than the calendar. Grasping for comparisons, I might liken Time to RaMell Ross’s already-classic Hale County This Morning, This Evening as an impressionistic immersion into Black life in the South, or to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood as a daring humanistic experiment in making duration a subject in itself. But Bradley is her own artist. The big finale she’s devised for Time—cathartic, imaginative, almost shockingly intimate—makes something ecstatic out of the social justice documentary, while establishing her as one of the festival’s new standard-bearers.

One of the world’s already recognized standard-bearers, Gianfranco Rosi (Sacro GRA, Fire at Sea), returned to the festival this year with his astonishing Notturno, an almost handmade film for which he recorded the images and sound himself, traveling for three years among Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, and Yazidis on the war-ravaged borders of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Kurdistan. It’s a film of aftermaths. You witness only what remains from battle: black-draped women mourning in a now-empty citadel where their sons died, children making drawings for a teacher-therapist about the terrors of the Islamic State, patients in a psychiatric hospital rehearsing a play about war, a unit of Peshmerga women scanning the horizon, jump-suited former ISIS fighters crammed into a cell, a boy going out to the roadside each dawn to be hired as a day laborer for hunters (or poachers) so he can bring home a few coins for his mother and sisters. In the film’s no-time, these scenes, many of them recurring, don’t unfold so much as take place, filtering into Rosi’s disconcertingly elegiac landscapes of low horizon lines and muted light. He makes Notturno almost too pretty—but since he lacks the confidence in human resilience that infuses the work of some other NYFF directors, pretty is as much solace as he can give.

As for Steve McQueen: this year’s festival was all in for him, selecting three of the films in his made-for-BBC Small Axe series about London’s West Indian community from the 1960s to the 1980s. I caught two: the festival’s opening-night feature, Lovers Rock, about blossoming romance at a house party on Ladbroke Road, and Mangrove, based on the true story of a restaurant in Notting Hill that became a rallying place for its neighborhood and a target of relentless police violence. Neither of these films is a disaster, like McQueen’s earlier festival selection Shame or his barely competent gangster picture Widows. Neither rises above pretty good.

As the less ambitious of the two, coming in at just over an hour’s running time, Lovers Rock is also the better. Following Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) to the house party she crashes, where she catches the attention of smooth-talking Franklyn (Micheal Ward), McQueen is content to spend much of his time roaming through people packed into close quarters (with no space to back up, the camera can show little more than body parts) as they dance to the DJ’s anthology of early ’80s soul hits. The effect, though attenuated and far from novel, is steadily engaging. It’s also preferable to the moments of drama that McQueen has felt obligated to sprinkle throughout, each laboriously foreshadowed and then thuddingly achieved.

Mangrove is the greater disappointment, as the full-length picture addressing a more urgent subject. To be clear, there are many good reasons to revisit an episode of Black resistance to police repression in the late 1960s and early ’70s. But there are also many approaches to making historical films. In Polonius mode, I could list the sub-genres as spectacular, romantic, melodramatic, satirical, fantastical, counterfactual, crypto-contemporary, or (in combination) The Scarlet Empress. McQueen, unfortunately, pursues none of these, defaulting to the didactic. Why he thinks somebody elected him to be teacher I can’t say, but he has treated the exchanges of dialogue in Mangrove, and even the physiognomies of his chosen cast, as so many blackboards on which to print his lessons. In case you miss a block-lettered point, he pushes the actors to convert it into telegraphy. (In the role of a Black Panther leader, the usually electric Letitia Wright is forced to signal a moment of despair by wrinkling her chin up and down for half the scene, as if she were a 5-year-old trying not to bawl.) To compensate for this pedestrianism, or perhaps assert his claim to being a galleries-and-museums artist, McQueen then diverts your attention with showy but arbitrary shots: an overturned restaurant colander rolling endlessly on the floor, cigarette smoke pouring and pouring out of a man’s nostrils, the out-of-focus belly of a prisoner bumping back and forth against the lens. Considering that McQueen concludes this mishmash with a 40-minute trial sequence complete with heroic speeches, it’s clear that he hopes to be rousing—and I’m sure plenty of people will go along with being roused. When audiences want to stand up and cheer, almost nothing will stop them. Permit me to keep my seat.

And permit me to mention, in passing, two relevant but contrasting festival selections: Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance and David Dufresne’s The Monopoly of Violence. The first, another hybrid of fiction and documentary, follows the exhilarating and frustrating course of young Julian (Eric Lockley), who has received the bequest of his grandmother’s house cum Black liberationist bookstore in Philadelphia and is converting it, perhaps a bit ingenuously, into a radical collective, encouraged by his maybe girlfriend, Gwen (Nozipho Mclean). Made under the influence of Godard’s La Chinoise, a poster for which hangs on the kitchen wall, The Inheritance features lectures and testimonies from Black revolutionaries of the recent past (including veterans of MOVE), which Asili collages into the often amusing flailings of his fictitious collective.

Offering a perspective on an uprising outside the US—the yellow vest movement in France—The Monopoly of Violence confronts selected protesters, social scientists, and historians with large-scale video images of clashes with the police, eliciting the viewers’ readings of exactly what happened and how the dynamic of legitimate versus illegitimate violence has played out between the state and the public. Because it’s French, The Monopoly of Violence is roughly twice as theoretical as any English-language documentary would be, and twice as eloquent. It demotes McQueen’s lessons to kindergarten level.

Since I don’t want to make it seem as if this year’s festival had no regard for pure fiction, let me give thanks for Isabella, which as Matías Piñeiro’s latest foray into Shakespearean themes and the truth of playacting is as pure as it gets. This time, Piñeiro imagines that a self-serious Buenos Aires troupe is preparing to produce Measure for Measure. Mariel (María Villar), pregnant, broke, and perpetually blocked in her career, may or may not want to play the lead, may or may not trust the brother who is embedded in the troupe, and may or may not feel rivaled by her friend Luciana (Agustina Muñoz), who already seems to have landed the role. It’s all very labile and multilayered, and despite that is as fresh as the breeze.

Congratulations as well to Chaitanya Tamhane (Court) for his second feature, The Disciple, a subtly mordant tale about willing subjugation, generation after generation, in the world of Indian classical music. Making his film debut, the open-faced, watchful Aditya Modak plays 20-ish Sharad, twice oppressed as the son of an obsessively failed musician and the apprentice of a master singer who supposedly is too ascetic to accept worldly success. Making Sharad’s situation all the worse, he’s living in contemporary Mumbai. As a decade and more grinds on, Sharad’s persistence looks less and less admirable and more and more like holy foolishness, until at last he comes to a stop before modernity itself: the image of a blond model, her lips parted, who beckons to him in slow motion from a row of video billboards.

Two cheers for the flesh and one more for commercialism! The New York Film Festival serves neither of those masters, of course; but despite its high-mindedness, it has once again paid them their due, mixing pleasure with social conscience in its selections, and just a tad of low fun with intellection. I’m as satisfied as I can be, for now—but next year at the halal cart.

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