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New York Film Festival 2013: Plus ça change

by Megan Ratner

 

Film Quarterly

Fall 2013

 

In the wake of new leadership for the first time in twenty-five

years, the New York Film Festival seemed more about

consolidation than change. In 2012, Richard Peña stepped

down as programming director of the festival, but he remains

involved with the Film Society of Lincoln Center,

which produces the fest. His successor, Kent Jones, spent

1998–2009 as a staff member of the Film Society, serving

seven terms on the NYFF selection committee.

 

Foolish, then, to think there would be much change, at

least in this first year. What differences there were had

more to do with presentation than content: with a brand new

app and more question-and-answer sessions, including,

separately, Isabelle Huppert and Steve McQueen at

the local Apple store, the NYFF made a bid to position

itself as an event rather than merely a great chance to see

movies at Lincoln Center. Much of this bid centers on the

red carpet, an increasingly important aspect of the NYFF

in the past few years. The NYFF has largely served as

a preview of films destined to open in New York and Los

Angeles within months, if not days, of the festival. To

grant studio releases such as Captain Phillips, Her, and The

Secret Life of Walter Mitty opening, closing, and centerpiece

spots respectively suggests the triumph of corporate

accommodation over a more demanding aesthetic. At least

a portion of the selections are made with an eye to the

admittedly nonstop fund-raising faced by the Film Society,

but that is a fact of American cultural life.

 

Whatever Jones plans to do in the future, the 2013

edition was not about rocking the boat. The special section

on late twentieth-century revivals and a month-long Godard

retrospective signal a commitment to serious cinema,

as does the laudable devotion to experimental film under

the ‘‘Views from the Avant-Garde’’ umbrella. Additionally,

according three sidebars to documentaries bodes well.

Remarkable selections shared a focus on betrayal, arguably

the key question in an age of rampant surveillance and

diminishing privacy.

 

Catherine Breillat’s autobiographical Abuse of Weakness

features Isabelle Huppert as Maud, a filmmaker whose

apparently irrational behavior after a stroke results in

financial ruin. In the first third of the film, Huppert registers

every agonized humiliation and, especially, Maud’s

bewilderment. Breillat’s austere yet off-kilter sets – as

Maud staggers out of bed in the initial scene, for example,

she topples over and ends up under a wooden chair – demonstrate

that Maud’s struggle is as much about the newly

dangerous world of familiar objects as it is about her reaction

to partial paralysis. Effectively, the stroke remakes

her. Always meticulous, Huppert is nearly unbearably precise,

not least during the difficult rehabilitation. Once she

resumes work, Maud spots Vilko (French rapper Kool

Shen), a former criminal, hawking his book on television.

Certain that he is right for her new film, they meet. Proprietary

and appraising, Vilko deigns to participate,

quickly becoming a fixture at her place. Before long, Maud

writes him the first of many checks, ‘‘loans’’ in the hundreds

of thousands of euros. Shen’s lithe muscularity is

both a support and a threat, and also slightly comic in

contrast to the petite Huppert.

 

Though there are of course sexual tensions, there is no

sex: this is about power. At some level, Breillat makes

clear, Maud knows exactly what is happening. Without

any exposition to this effect, Breillat and Huppert convey

their odd complicity in the ‘‘loan’’ exchanges: ultimately,

even if she is giving Vilko money, Maud controls the

purse. The script offers no answers and no justification.

Perhaps, having been betrayed by her body, Maud can at

least choose to be conned. ‘‘It was me. It wasn’t me,’’

Huppert says, in the final close-up, her expression simultaneously

puzzled and certain. This scene alone ranks

among Huppert’s very best, and the entire film is her

tour de force.

 

Though Gloria presents more conventional delusions

than Abuse of Weakness, Paulina García’s performance in

the title role goes toe-to-toe with Huppert’s. Ready for

romance in her late 50s, Gloria becomes involved with

fellow-divorcé Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández). For much of

the film, García weathers her life wearing the good-sport

expression that contemporary society all but demands of

women on the wrong side of 45. She serves as a form of

understanding mirror for her grown children and her ex-husband,

but it is Rodolfo who truly cheats her. Negotiating

her fractured family in a mordant birthday party set

piece, Gloria recognizes Rodolfo’s proclaimed openness

and emotional bravery as merely wishful. Director and

co-screenwriter Sebastián Lelio tailored the part for García

in homage to the generation of Glorias, whose youth was

darkened by Chile’s worst upheavals. But García’s performance

makes no overt political statement; rather, her work

serves as a dynamic reminder that masterful acting knows

no age.

 

Strong female performances also contributed to the

excellence of Agnieszka Holland’s Burning Bush. This

mini-series focuses on attempts by the Czech government

to stifle the reverberations set in motion by Jan Palach’s

self-immolation in Prague on January 19, 1969. Palach saw

no other way to manifest his distress at the general passivity

following the Soviet crackdown in August 1968 than

his own dreadful sacrifice.

 

Holland centers the story on Dagmar Burešová (Tatiana

Pauhofová), a young lawyer sympathetic to the student

movement. When the authorities cast Palach as a mentally

troubled young man, manipulated by Western agents into

an act he never intended, Palach’s mother and brother

hire Burešová to sue a prominent party member for

defamation. The secret police and those they have bullied

make her case virtually impossible to bring, let alone be

heard. Parallel stories of the difficulties suffered by

Burešová ’s physician husband, dismissed on a trumpedup

charge, and her compromised colleague show how people

were unrelentingly held fast in a vise of suspicion and

collaboration.

 

The ensemble cast sustains the tension throughout,

both individually and as a collective. The wonderfully

detailed sets – including the workmen, likely informants,

who never quite finish whatever it is they are doing outside

Burešová ’s office – and mod-inflected costumes contribute

to the accuracy. Jaroslava Pokorná is striking as

Palach’s mother, an unassuming woman keen only to

defend the honor of her son. Holland’s pitch-perfect

evocation of the country’s lurch into twenty years of

relative passivity reveals a vibrant culture on the verge

of defeat.

 

Jehane Noujaim’s The Square captures the revolutionary

spirit in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Focusing

on a band of representative protesters, Noujaim shows

their sharp awareness not only of what is underway in

Cairo, but how it plays on YouTube. Mubarak ran things

for more than thirty years, clearly intending to hold the

office until his death. When he finally steps down, on

February 11, 2011, the protesters are nearly as stunned

as he is; for the majority, there has simply been no other

leader. Among Noujaim’s subjects is Khalid Abdalla,

a British-Egyptian actor familiar from The Kite Runner

(2007), whose Skype calls with his father, living in London

exile since the 1970s, provide a sense of both hope and

despair.

 

The older man counsels against assuming the ouster

is more than symbolic. Abdalla also frequently talks with

Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood,

who embodies many of the complexities and conflicting

loyalties that threaten to undermine real change in Egypt.

The protests unite these men in unlikely solidarity, their

friendship initially around a common enemy, later because

they see that the injustices continue. And Ahmed Hassan,

working-class and in his 20s, who notes that ‘‘for the first

time in our lives, we couldn’t be silenced,’’ would otherwise

have likely lived his entire life without encountering

those he meets in Tahrir. The Square reveals the fragility of

the agreements between the authorities and the protesters,

their lives on hold while the governing powers (and the

outside forces that have a stake, specifically the United

States) hash things out. Through images and discussion

but without narration, Noujaim conveys the murky position

of the police and military, who may not actively

foment division, but appear quite willing to let the situation

devolve into feuding factions. When millions take to

the streets in August 2013 in what is likely the largest

protest seen anywhere or at any time in history, there is

a credible sense that the marchers understand they are

unlikely to benefit, but perhaps their children will. Noujaim’s

reliance on various recording devices and her willingness

to let the screen sometimes blur or go dark as

a hand blocks her lens give The Square an exhilarating

open-endedness: something has been stirred, something

begun. Whether it is no more than an awakening remains

unanswered, but Hassan notes that the break from the past

is here to stay: Cairo children regularly divide into activists

and police for a game of protest.

 

Among the footage not included in Shoah (1985) was

Claude Lanzmann’s interview with Benjamin Murmelstein,

the last president of the Jewish Council in Theresienstadt.

(Terezín, a garrison town in then-Czechoslovakia, was an

SS transit camp touted as a ‘‘model Jewish settlement.’’) In

his new film Last of the Unjust (Murmelstein’s description of

himself), Lanzmann combines his 1975 conversation with

Murmelstein, then living in exile in Rome, with site visits to

Poland, Israel, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Trainloads

of the elderly and infirm had been cynically lured to

Theresienstadt, Hitler’s craven ‘‘gift’’ to the Jews, as a kind

of retreat.

 

Charged with the often mutually exclusive tasks of

maintaining the community and carrying out Nazi orders,

Murmelstein assisted in propagandizing the ‘‘model

ghetto,’’ thinking, ‘‘if the world knew about us, then the

Nazis wouldn’t be able to get rid of us.’’ The only Jew

allowed to sit next to Adolf Eichmann, Murmelstein was

considered too untrustworthy to testify at his trial, yet as he

tells Lanzmann, he knew the SS man to be far more than

a functionary. Confronted by Lanzmann about his own

‘‘taste for power,’’ Murmelstein acknowledges it would

be hypocritical to deny it; he genuinely believed he could

do some good and consequently turned down a chance to

emigrate. Did he act to save the ghetto or himself? ‘‘Both.’’

Lanzmann deftly draws out Murmelstein, revealing him

as scholarly, witty, and urbane, personifying the erudite

culture to which the Reich laid waste. Addressing the

camera with his notes, Lanzmann’s lack of today’s

ubiquitous on-camera persona and his sometimes droning

voice emphasize the importance of his scrutiny: ‘‘Theresienstadt

was human in appearance only. It was the worst

kind of concentration camp, with blackmail, lies and

naked violence.’’

 

It’s a description easily applicable to the older, homegrown

institution of American slavery. 12 Years a Slave,

directed by Steve McQueen and based on the 1853 memoir

by Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), traces

the descent-by-kidnapping of a free Northerner into the

slave-holding South. In flashbacks, Solomon is shown in

his comfortable house in Saratoga, delighting in his wife

and young children. Promised a hefty fee, he agrees to

accompany two white promoters to Washington to play

violin for their variety act. McQueen reveals only the

alcohol-laced evening and the promoters’ return with Solomon

to his hotel room, leaving you to picture the deal on

your own.

 

Waking in darkness, his cuffs and leg-irons dragging

on the slave pen floor, Ejiofor shows the anger, fear, and

utter bafflement of suddenly being no longer who or what

he was. Overnight, he is transformed from subject to

object, from man to property. McQueen reminds you that

slavery was not just exploitative work, but exploitation at

every level. In the luridly shot swamplands where Solomon

is shunted among plantations, nature itself appears

pitted against him. Solomon then finds himself in the

sights of slave owner Edward Epps (Michael Fassbender).

Menacing and wretched, Epps is sexually obsessed with

young Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and nearly equally obsessed

with crushing Solomon. McQueen catches the arbitrariness

that determined slave life, such as Solomon’s

chance encounter, on an errand for Mrs. Epps, with

a lynching party. Having strung up two young black men,

the lynchers seem eager to add a third. Only the Epps

ownership tag around Solomon’s neck spares him.

McQueen also shows the intimacy of slavery, not only

sexually, but in every aspect of life. Survival becomes

a matter of stamina and smarts. There is even a static

quality to the shot composition – occasionally, McQueen

brings the action to a halt for tableaux that mimic photographs

of the time, a reminder that these images were

a record of assets, not portraits.

 

Fundamentally, 12 Years a Slave is about state-sanctioned

criminality. It is not a description many Americans are used

to applying to themselves, for, as James Baldwin noted in

the essay ‘‘A Fly in Buttermilk’’ in his 1985 collection The

Price of the Ticket: ‘‘It is not an easy thing to be forced to

reexamine a way of life and to speculate, in a personal way,

on the general injustice.’’

 

Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar touches on the particular injustices

of occupation that constitute life in a closed,

doomed system. Here, too, as in The Last of the Unjust and

12 Years a Slave, thuggery and pettiness dominate daily life.

Smitten, Omar (Adam Bakri) regularly scales a heavily

guarded separation wall to court the beautiful Nadia

(Leem Lubany) and ingratiate himself with her brother

Tarek (Eyad Hourani). Running from the police down

a maze of narrow alleyways, Omar seems as hemmed in

as a laboratory rat. But once at Nadia’s house, he goofs

around with his friends like any other twentysomething.

Later, Omar, Tarek, and Amjad (Samer Bisharat) sit in

abandoned car seats, planning to ambush a group of Israeli

soldiers, satisfied if their action prevents ‘‘even one more

day of occupation.’’ It’s one of several scenes set against the

rubble to which so much of Palestine has been reduced, the

ruined cityscape a supporting player in the film. The

ambush results in the death of an Israeli soldier and Omar’s

arrest and torture. With collaboration the only way out of

a life sentence, Omar capitulates to Rami (Waleed Zuaiter),

an Israeli agent. Omar’s attempt to limit his perfidy, like his

careful courting of Nadia, is a struggle to find logic in an

illogical situation. The first-rate performances and frantic

pace make Omar deceptively watchable: it’s easy to see it

as merely a well-made thriller. But Abu-Assad’s portrayal

of a community striving simply to survive lingers

long after Omar’s finale: the barbarity of occupation never

lets up.

 

Trust rather than betrayal lies at the heart of Manakamana,

a documentary filmed entirely inside a Nepalese

cable car. Co-directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

rode with numerous passengers as they traveled to and

from the Hindu temple dedicated to Manakamana, the

goddess of wish fulfillment. What was once a three-day

pilgrimage each way has been reduced to a short ride, painless

as a ski lift. Each segment consists of one approximately

eleven-minute take, the filmmakers and equipment

squeezed in with the subjects, all of them suspended over

steep, jungled foothills. You begin to know the route, to

anticipate the shudder at each tower, to recognize the groans

of the bullwheel at the launch of each cabin. Passengers –

some local, a few tourists, even a cartload of agitated goats –

travel alone, in pairs, or groups of three. Each is left to cope

with the camera as they choose: Spray and Velez pose no

questions and provide no narration. Particularly effective

are the long stretches of silence – in the case of a grandfather

and grandson, the entire ride – that grant the subjects dignity

and leave interpretation to the viewer.

 

At around midpoint, the filmmakers allow the screen to

go black for quite sometime, with the audio confined to what

can be heard in the cable car terminus, but not explained in

any way. Among the passengers, three older women tell the

myths associated with the temple; an elderly mother and her

daughter become children again as they carefully eat fast melting

ice creams; two wizened musicians speak for awhile,

then let their instruments take over as they improvise, completely

connected while looking in different directions. The

window against which each person is silhouetted becomes

a frame, offering only so much of the world below, leaving

you to piece together the rest. Despite its simple premise,

Manakamana resonates long after the final blacked-out

screen, the portraits memorable for their ordinary mystery

and for the filmmakers’ preservation of the privacy of their

subjects, shifting the onus of attentive observation to the

viewer.

 

At its best, the NYFF makes exactly this demand of filmgoers,

showing them something they likely did not know they

wanted to see. It is what makes festivals exciting. And it has

little or nothing to do with photo ops or marquee names,

necessary as those are to reliable box office. A few even wilder

detours from NYFF’s steady course would be most welcome.