Don’t Miss These Experimental Works at the New York Film Festival

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The New York Film Festival launched its Currents program two years ago to highlight cinema’s vanguard trends. Although innovation isn’t evenly felt across its selections this year, the lineup still includes a good number of formally adventurous films, particularly among the shorts. Daïchi Saïto’s impressionistic earthearthearth, which we praised out of Rotterdam earlier this year, is part of the “Vibrant Matter” series, which includes two more texturally rich and rhythmic films: Fictions by Manuela de La Borde and Tonalli by the experimental collective Los Ingrávidos. 

Rhayne Vermette’s Ste. Anne (which we covered out of Toronto’s Wavelengths program not too long ago) and Kiro Russo’s El Gran Movimiento are among the great discoveries in this year’s Currents. Both focus on marginalized people and mix intimacy with nocturnal, spiritualist reverie. Where Vermette follows a close-knit Métis community, Russo works again with the non-professional actor Israel Hurtado. With a characteristically gritty lens, he depicts precariousness amidst Bolivia’s urban poor. 

From Tonalli (2021), dir. Los Ingrávidos

Filled with limpid light and stoic acceptance, Kyoshi Sugita’s Haruhara-san’s Recorder has the opposite vibe. But such calm is deceptive. After Sachi (Chika Araki) briefly meets the owner of the apartment she’s renting, she finds amongst his things a recorder. Not too much later, she learns of his death, which brings together both friends and strangers in a mournful ritual. Absence and presence complete each other with a gentle yet insistent resonance. A similar understated simplicity emanates from two shorts also made in Japan: Luise Donschen’s ELLE and Shun Ikezoe’s What is it that you said?. In ELLE, a woman confides in a stranger about missing her dog, which gave her an excuse to visit a local park. In Ikezoe’s palpably anguished take on social disconnect and grieving, a mosaic of alienated characters, death is just as haunting.

Longtime documentarian Claire Simon returns with the fiction/nonfiction hybrid I Want to Talk About Duras, starring the quietly vibrant Emmanuelle Devos as journalist Michèle Manceaux and Swann Arlaud as Yann Andréa, the much younger partner of famous French intellectual Margarite Duras. The film is a minimalist dramatization of the transcript of a 1982 interview between Manceaux and Andréa. Duras (mainly an invisible presence, but seen briefly in archival clips) is a riveting subject — bossy and possessive, disturbingly condescending about Andréa’s homosexuality, yet outré about her own sexual rapaciousness. The film is tantalizing both as a tale of possessive love and the embodiment of an unabashed (though anguished) literary crush. 

From All About My Sisters (2021), dir. Wang Qiong

Wang Qiong’s All About My Sisters is equally engaging. The documentary follows the director as she rekindles a relationship with her older sister Jin. When Wang was born in the ’90s, China’s one-child policy meant their parents couldn’t keep another child, so Jin was adopted by her maternal uncle. Jin and Qiong discover that while blood may be thicker than water, that doesn’t ensure a loving reconciliation. The two grew up in very different circumstances, Qiong a studious and sheltered urbanite and Jin a scrappy country girl. Their broken, sometimes bitter confessions coalesce into a portrait of a family shattered beyond healing.  

Jean-Gabriel Périot’s feature Returning to Reims and Virgil Vernier’s short Kindertotenlieder both make impressive use of found footage. Narrated by Adèle Haenel, Périot’s loose adaptation of a memoir by Didier Eribon looks back on the rising political awareness of the French working class, then asks what remains of that fervor today. It’s handsomely illustrated with numerous scenes from French cinema, including works by Godard, Marker, and Rouch and Morin. Meanwhile, Vernier, a rising experimental filmmaker, uses footage of the mass protests in France in 2005 to offer an urgent look at police brutality and working-class solidarity in the outer boroughs of Paris. The inclusion of these films in this year’s program alongside other urgent documentaries such as Just a Movement and Prism suggests an ambition that Currents keep abreast of not only formal but also the broader cultural and political pulse. 

From Returning to Reims (2021), dir. Jean-Gabriel Périot

The New York Film Festival runs September 24 through October 10 at various venues in New York. Other films in the Currents program which we previously have praised include Nature, A Night of Knowing Nothing, and A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces.

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