The First Look Festival at the Museum of the Moving Image, located in the New York borough of Queens, has historically showcased a brave program that puts attention primarily on experimental, outsider and newcomer art. For example, last year it showed Let the Summer Never Come Again, a 202-minute long Georgian film shot on a first generation cellphone camera, and Colo, Teresa Villaverde’s latest exploration on the Portuguese economic and moral crisis, alongside PROTOTYPE, Blake William’s truly experimental 3D feature debut. Now in its 8th edition, First Look has managed to double its bet in terms of discovering new alleyways in which to find where the cinema of the future might come from.
This is clear from the decisions made by Eric Hynes, MoMI curator, and David Schwartz, the festival founder, as the only films that might come from established filmmakers are the ones that are on the edges of the programming: opening with Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass (his Cannes-awarded film from last year) and closing with Claire Simon’s Young Solitude. The program is completed with another feature from both directors, who’ll be present to introduce their films, Simon’s 1998 documentary Récréations and Loznitsa’s companion piece to the opening film, The Trial.
But most of the filmmakers that appear in this year’s festival are either on their first or second feature, or they haven’t even made one yet, as the majority of the films that will play are short subjects that manage to create a true viewfinder in terms of how the feature filmmakers of the future are honing their skills or perfecting their style in lieu of longer or more ambitious work.
The clearest example of the festival’s point of view is the focus on the short films directed by Sophy Romvari. This young Canadian filmmaker has made a name of herself through the showing of her shorts in festivals like Toronto and True/False, as well as from their concentrated scope, intimate outlook and homemade feeling. The three shorts that are part of this series take place in apartments and feature Romvari herself in one way or another, but the ideas are simple enough for the short films to feel novel and fresh as they are.
In Grandma, her latest short, we are greeted with brief shots of different parts of an apartment: the balcony, the kitchen, the living room, as they are intervened by the appearance of the director’s hand, holding an old picture of that same place, but inhabited by her late grandmother. The 2-minute long film works because Romvari’s exploration of a place where part of her family lived is seen without nostalgia or tears, and the lining up of the picture with the background is not always perfect, allowing for a space in which the audience can explore the frame instead of replace it completely with the new information provided.
Pumpkin Movie, which originally was part of a Halloween-themed omnibus independent film, might be among the most blunt, enraging and illuminating feminist films of the last few years. Romvari is the protagonist as she starts another year of her Halloween tradition, in which she speaks with one of her best friends through Skype as each of them carves a face in a pumpkin while they talk about the latest experiences they’ve had with men. The credits show that the stories they tell each other are crowd-sourced from many women on the Internet, but they also double as horror tales from the world of toxic masculinity: ghosting, stalking, violence and menace are among the subjects that they tell, all of them sadly believable. It’s even possible to think that they’ve survived another year with men just to tell the stories the next scary Halloween Night.
Norman Norman, which premiered at TIFF last year, makes you appreciate the patience and eye that Romvari has for capturing emotions and reactions as mute as they are, even from non-human characters. Norman is an apartment dog, and we only see its actions (more like inaction) as her owner (Romvari, of whom we only see her arms and legs) investigates and explores the news of Barbra Streisand cloning her dog before it died. On Norman’s eyes we can see projected the lights of the YouTube videos and clips that her owner watches, as we notice more and more how old the dog truly is, all of this closing with an awful sound coming from Norman’s throat, a threat. With the shots of Norman, one can feel the care that Romvari feels for the dog, as well as the certain knowledge of its imminent demise, the desperate feeling that is transpired through the almost futuristic act done by Streisand.
First Look manages to give a screen for directors without features, like Romvari, as the distribution of short films in cinemas is still a problem. It's the same kind of problem that faces the distribution of Latin American cinema in the United States. While certainly worse outside of the New York area, of the whole slate of 2018 releases in theatres, both wide and single-screen, only 56 out of 1020 of them were produced in Ibero-American countries, and most of them were co-productions with countries like France or Switzerland. It’s only through festivals like these that films from Chile and Argentina can be seen more available, as is in the example of Benjamín Naishtat’s Rojo and Teresa Arredondo and Carlos Vásquez’s Las Cruces, a fiction and a documentary respectively, which showcase similar themes about repression and violence in times of political turmoil.
Rojo opens with a title card saying it takes place in the eve of the 1970s in rural Argentina and a fixed shot of a house being vandalized by what seems are common people (two men carry a TV, an old lady with a wheelbarrow filled with stuff that clearly doesn’t belong to her), and we won’t come to understand the power of that image until later in the film, when we then know that it’s a house that’s been abandoned by people that were politically persecuted. What follows is the story of Claudio, a lawyer who publicly shames a man who confronts him at a restaurant. Once Claudio leaves, the young man threatens to shoot him and his wife, only to then shoot himself in the neck. The young man lives, but Claudio decides to leave him to die in the middle of the desert. It is only much later that we find out who the man is, and the series of sequences that follow work as cyphers and metaphors that signal towards the complicity of the so-called civil society in crimes against human rights done by totalitarian governments.
Everything and everyone seems to be on the verge of violence: a man cleans his gun in a locker room while they speak about the inevitability of a coup, cowboys from the United States run around doing demonstrations for an audience, a magician makes a woman disappear, a man with an Uzi is part of a political committee, among others. The main centerpiece is a stylish eclipse sequence, in which everything is tinted red as if everyone were stained with blood. The movie is written with dialogue as foreboding as “they say bodies appear in the desert,” “the greater evil,” “no law, no God,” as if everyone were already preparing for years of horror and dehumanization, letting us know that people always prefer to think in terms of us versus them—anything more complex would be too tiring.
Also utilizing metaphoric yet potent imagery, Las Cruces is an experimental documentary surrounding the subject of the killing and disappearance of 19 paper-mill workers of the CMPC factory (Compañía Manufacturera de Papeles y Cartones, translated as Paper and Pulp Manufacturing Company) days after the September 11th 1973 military coup in Chile. With beautiful and haunting 16mm cinematography, the camera explores the places where these men lived and later died, using long takes and voice-over recordings from family members of those killed to read out the various court hearings and testimonies given by those who made the “official version” of what happened to the men, even contradicting and changing as time moves on. Until today, there’s still neither answer nor culprits regarding this crime against humanity.
Arredondo and Vásquez shoot empty fields, traveling trains and people bathing in the river. There’s a thought put behind these images, as the shots are similar to those from the cinema pioneers: trains arriving to stations, train travelogues filmed from the front of the engine, workers leaving the CMPC factory (which still operates to this day, and was in cahoots with the police and military to first apprehend and then summarily assassinate their own workers), utilizing a non-moving camera to capture these simple, beautiful and seemingly primitive images, which serve as a sort of white noise for the story that is being told to us to resonate. When the image of a mountain of wooden crosses, used to mark graves, finally appears, one understands the decision made by the directors of not having any contemporaneous testimony. We just see the documents, their reading, and the sorrow in a misty town in the south of Chile.
Speaking of documents being put on screen, the short film at First Look by Charlie Lyne, Lasting Marks, is just that. The elongated frame announces new media, as the frame is similar to those of videos shot on smartphones, but it’s absolutely the contrary: paperwork, newspaper clippings, printed out Word documents, all of them scanned to tell the story of one of the biggest crackdowns in the 1980s on “perverts” in the U.K., nicknamed “Operation Spanner”, which resulted in jail time for all the accused. The voice of one of the convicted guides us through his desires and then the process that had him ending up in jail, where he became a celebrity of sorts in the fight against homophobia and sexual freedom. Lyne uses the scanned documents throughout, but whenever the voice speaks of his feelings, or how he felt oppressed by the government, we see blank, crumbled pages of paper, as there’s no evidence—they had no voice, no venue to call these feelings out.
Screening with this short is Watching the Detectives, one of the strangest mixes between subject matter and the materials with which it’s made. It’s a silent 37-minute film shot on 16mm that is entirely comprised of comments and pictures that are on a computer, the film camera being pointed directly into the screen to capture a tale of the digital society running rampant. After the terrorist attack in the Boston Marathon, a group of people on Reddit starts to investigate the pictures available to find the culprit before the FBI. That delusion leads them to ruining peoples lives, due to unfounded accusations based on racial profiling. The film is intensely fascinating, even if lacking any sort of sound or movement, the “slideshow” style of presentation, as well as the grain from the film, give it enough tension for it to work. The phrases written in the thread manage to spark laughter, marveling at the delusion of grandeur of some of them: “do your homework,” “the FBI is going to contact you,” “he’ll think twice before becoming a terrorist,” among others. Or my personal favorite: “this entire subreddit was A REALLY FUCKING BAD IDEA THAT MADE THIS SHIT INEVITABLE”. Chris Kennedy's camera observes the intervened images and texts that construct a reality in the minds of gullible people, editing them in such a way that it feels as if we were watching fake news in the making, the birth of a lie.
Such inquiry is part of what makes First Look special, allowing audiences to marvel at artists constructing new ways of seeing, whether what we're seeing is reality or a very well thought out alternate truth.
First Look is running January 11–21, 2019 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.