Diverse Standouts From Strong New Directors/New Films Selections

Indie Wire
March 24 2004

Diverse Standouts Emerge From Strong New Directors/New Films
Selections

by Howard Feinstein

A scene from Jim McKay’s “Everyday People,” which will open the 33rd
New Directors/New Films series.

The 33rd edition of New Directors/New Films, MoMA and the Film
Society of Lincoln Center’s series that runs today through April 4,
offers the finest selections in recent years. Especially not to be
missed are a feature from Armenia and a short from Peru — and these
are just two of the standouts. The short is called “Porter” (I prefer
the Spanish title, which translates to “Only a Porter”), and it’s
directed by New York-based Peruvian director Juan Alejandro Ramirez.
(It plays with “Kounandi,” a nice feature about village jealousy from
Burkina Faso.) “Porter” feels like a documentary: A peasant, Chuqui
Orozco, who makes his meager living carrying gringos’ gear up and
down the Andes mountains, tells us in voiceover his observations of
those around him of higher rank in such a stratified society, as well
as his acceptance of his lowly place in the hierarchy. Ramirez says
he was inspired by stories he was told in southern Peru, but for
greater veracity, he consolidates them and stages the shoot.

Hiner Saleem is a refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan, now living in France,
who shot “Vodka Lemon” in Armenia. Not surprisingly, his protagonist
is a Kurd, Hamo, a poor widower living in a snowy village. Two of his
sons have moved away in an attempt to further their fortunes; only
his drunken son Dilovan and his beloved granddaughter remain. During
his daily visits to the cemetery where his wife is buried, Hamo
meets, and begins an affair with, an even poorer widow, Nina. Hamo
shleps into town to sell old wardrobes and his tv, while Nina sells a
drink called vodka lemon in a roadside kiosk. An economic cloud hangs
over the entire film, but Saleem’s deft use of magical realism — a
bed and a piano glide along the icy road, horses fly through the
frame — adds an enchanting edge.

Three of the finest films have at their center fully-realized
females. In fact, two of them are directed by women. Sabiha Sumar, a
Pakistani filmmaker residing in Germany, sets her brilliant “Silent
Waters” in the Pakistani Punjab in 1979, just as a nation under
martial law is on the verge of becoming an Islamic state. Ayesha is a
Muslim widow in the village of Charkhi who scrapes by on her
husband’s pension and earnings from teaching the Koran to young
girls. Her 18-year-old son, Saleem, is a nice, well-behaved boy and
the apple of her eye. Once he gets involved with some Muslim
fundamentalists, however, he rejects his girlfriend and even turns
away from his uncomprehending mother. We realize after occasional
striking flashbacks that she had suffered somehow during the nasty
1947 partition that carved up India into Muslim-dominated Pakistan
and predominantly Hindu India. At the time of the fighting, Sikhs and
Muslims were forcing their single women to kill themselves to protect
family honor, and those that got away were abducted. When Sikh
pilgrims come to Charkhi for their annual pilgrimage, Ayesha’s secret
surfaces, with tragic consequences.

Given the general state of moviemaking in Western Europe, the Swiss
film “Strong Shoulders” by the female director Ursula Meier is a
revelation. Although it is formally cinematic, it was, surprisingly,
made for television. Meier focuses on Sabine, a 15-year-old
obsessive, ambitious runner who attends a special school for
athletes. They are preparing for a major track-and-field meet. She
does not get along with her coach, because he frustrates her desire
to run with the boys. She has no qualms about using anyone, her
girlfriends or a young runner named Rudi, to further her ambitions;
she is left almost totally alone. Her self-absorption is so extreme
that her action at the eagerly awaited event is so unexpected that
you are left breathless.

A scene from “Vodka Lemon” by Hiner Saleem, one of the standout
selections at the 33rd New Directors/New Films. Photo courtesy Film
Society of Lincoln Center.

In the Chilean film “B-Happy,” 14-year-old Manuela becomes
increasingly isolated. Director Gonzalo Justiniano emphasizes the
point by surrounding every scene with a slow fade to black, a device
that lovingly softens her youthful existential dilemma. That her
ne’er-do-well father is in prison makes her the black sheep at her
provincial school; only one handsome newcomer shows her any
affection, and even that leads to a one-afternoon stand. Her mother
dies. Her closeted brother leaves town. She goes to work for the same
abusive grocer for whom her mom had worked. It’s all too much, and
she flees to the city, where she searches for her father and, out of
money, becomes a streetwalker.

Some of the most astounding movies take place in the world’s
flashpoints. Jehane Noujaim’s haunting documentary “Control Room,”
which deals with American control of the media during the invasion of
Iraq and offers an inside look at the Arab TV broadcaster Al-Jazeera,
has been written about extensively out of Sundance. The others are
“Fuse,” a fiction film from Bosnia, and “Checkpoint,” an Israeli doc.

In “Fuse,” director Pjer Zalica concocts a fluid political satire
that captures the dark humor and sarcasm that is endemic in the
Balkans. It’s a given that the postwar mixture of Serbs, Muslims, and
Croats is not going smoothly. In the film’s Muslim town of Tesanj,
the mayor calls for a major overhaul: Bill Clinton will be visiting.
Not only does the town leader push what is mostly a fake
rapprochement with a neighboring Serb town (“I need Serbs!”), but he
also calls for an end to corruption. Smugglers and pimps must hide
their wares, or at least turn them into something more palatable.
Zalica foregrounds an elderly, deranged, retired police chief, one of
whose sons died in the war, and another of his sons, a fireman. When
the motorcade arrives, it is the old man who has the last word.

“Checkpoint,” on the other hand, eschews humor. Filmmaker Yoav
Shamir, a former Israeli soldier, shoots Israelis on duty at a
variety of checkpoints in the Occupied Territories, both the West
Bank and the Gaza Strip. He also films the Palestinians who are at
their mercy. Shamir’s access is unbelievable. You see that most of
the combatants are very young and very, very bored. Out of ennui,
hubris, and racism-this is all in the film-you see them wield their
power over the hapless travelers like a sword. “Let them wait,” says
one soldier. People, cars, and trucks often wait for hours, even in
the rain and snow, just to get to their home cities or villages. One
young man at the Kalandia-Ramallah main entrance tells Shamir, “All
of Ramallah are animals: monkeys, dogs. We are human.” Whether these
checkpoints serve much of a purpose is arguable. As one waiting
Palestinian says on camera, “Terrorists don’t come through the
roadblocks.”

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