The World Viewed: New Directors on Their New Films, Part II

new directors-new films-person to person[This is the second part of a two-part collection of statements from filmmakers represented in the series New Directors/New Films, which continues through March 25 at MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Read Part I here.]

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Brooklyn-based Dustin Guy Defa’s Closing Night film Person to Person gathers a cast including Michael Cera, Philip Baker Hall, and Abbi Jacobson for a charming character-based ensemble comedy about a wide swath of New Yorkers who cross paths during the course of several hours. Defa says, “I made a short film called Person to Person (2014) with my friend Bene Coopersmith and wanted to work together again. All these different characters started to flow into my head, and I realized that I would love to make a movie with as many different kinds of New Yorkers as I could. I got excited by the idea of assembling a group of people who you normally wouldn’t see together and became interested in thinking about how they could connect—what desires they have to connect with each other, as well as how they go about making their connections. The film marks a natural ending for me to a long period of making short films—there are a lot of thematic and tonal similarities between them and Person to Person, and you could say that the feature accumulates a lot of ideas that have been floating around. I don’t know where my films are going next, but I can’t wait to find out and start writing again.”

new directors-new films-arabia

Brazilian filmmakers João Dumans and Affonso Uchôa’s lyrical Arábia narrates in flashback the life of an imaginative Minas Gerais-based worker named Cristiano (played by Aristides de Sousa), whose memoirs are posthumously found handwritten in a notebook by a young man visiting his home. Uchôa says, on behalf of both directors, “We wanted to tell a common story in an epic way. To us, people like Cristiano are the heroes of our time. Poverty has always been a recurring theme in Brazilian cinema, but—primarily in recent years, with films like City of God (2002) and Elite Squad (2007)—it’s been presented in unfortunate fashion. In these films, the whole experience of living in a slum is reduced to violence. Nobody loves, thinks, or dreams in these films of anything except for having a gun. We wanted to move in another direction, without once avoiding reality or the need to provide social commentary. When we wrote Arábia’s script, we took as reference the work of writers like João Antônio, Oswaldo França Júnior, and Graciliano Ramos, all of whom made a point of writing in sympathy with Brazilians who were leading marginalized and anonymous lives. The idea came to us to detail such a life within a story found inside a notebook, but with a crucial difference from past efforts: Here, the story would be told by someone who had lived it himself.”

new directors-new films-strong island

Long Island-born transgender director Yance Ford’s personal documentary Strong Island takes the 1992 murder of the filmmaker’s brother as a starting point to share the history of his close-knit African-American family, whose members’ bonds have been repeatedly threatened but not destroyed by their society. Ford says, “I decided to make Strong Island once the silence that I had been living in became impossible to bear. I realized that I had no reason to wait any longer—the story wasn’t going to change. I balanced my role as a director with my relationship to the film’s story (which, I believe, belongs in the larger discussion of racial justice in America and brings historical context to current cases) by collapsing all pretense of physical distance. I shot my character in extreme close-up, giving the film only one present tense. The ‘now’ is the only kind of instance that matters in Strong Island, resulting in raw, angry, clear, uncomfortable moments—all of which, to me, ring true. The film invites the audience into the life of the Ford family, but that family could also be thousands of others. I’m interested in making immersive cinema that is meant to be experienced rather than watched, work that pulls apart the DNA of conventional narrative to reveal the messy, complicated stuff that life is made of.”

new directors-new films-autumnautumn

South Korean Jang Woo-jin’s delicate sophomore feature Autumn, Autumn tells two stories about three people—a young man and two older folks who initially appear to form a couple—whose paths cross during a journey taken to the northern tourist-frequented city of Chuncheon. Jang says, “Chuncheon is my hometown. Once, on a train ride there from Seoul, I overheard a suspicious middle-aged couple’s conversation about friends who had wanted to leave their hometown after gaining employment. I thus came up with Autumn, Autumn’s two stories, which I wanted to tell in the same space, but at different times. I cast non-professional actors and actresses and demanded nothing from them, instead preferring to observe. I looked to learn how they had lived—what they’d studied, how their first loves and married lives had gone—and then combined their stories with others I’d heard from people I know. I tried to maintain a discreet distance, without being too far or too close, and sought to depict feelings belonging to ordinary moments. The young man Ji-hyeon (Woo Ji-hyeon) is suffering from the agony of youth, for instance, but he’ll be OK as time passes. I find traveling to be similar to filmmaking—no matter our planning, we’ll encounter new things, even in places to which we’ve been before. And I am a person who loves to travel.”

new directors-new films-AsWithoutSoWithin

Mexican filmmaker Manuela De Laborde’s short As Without So Within (which will screen on 35mm) gleefully employs a variety of different-colored sculptures to speculate on what it is we look for when we go out to the movies. Laborde says, “As Without So Within helped me think about the different ways in which we can relate to materials and to objects. It continues my interests in abstraction, placement, and scale while offering a complexity that came through me allowing myself to let subjective choices pile up. The film was my thesis at CalArts [The California Institute of the Arts], and it first came into my head on a plane ride to Los Angeles from my home in Mexico. I remembered specific films, texts, and thoughts, got the main thesis in mind, left the plane, went to Santa Clarita, bought plaster, and continued for two years afterwards. I’m moving now in the directions of expanded cinema and installation, with material that possesses less of a need to explain itself and is more confident simply to be. Less didactic, perhaps more idiosyncratic, perhaps with a little more thrill.”

new directors-new films-sexy durga

Indian director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Tiger Award-winning third feature Sexy Durga tells the tale of a couple kidnapped by monstrous young men on the same night that their village pays homage to a goddess that shares the young woman’s name. Sasidharan says, “I was searching for reasons behind the heartless violence in my society, where it comes from and why we are unable to correct the mindset behind it. The infamous Nirbhaya gang rape in Delhi in 2012 led me to think about violence against women—a violence in which I sometimes unknowingly take part, alongside other men that behave violently towards women with the pretext of helping them. I eventually began to relate our devotional rituals, celebrations, and sacrifices with the violent essence of our patriarchal society. From there, I could find rhythm in everything—rituals, sacrifices, devotions, even the cruel molestation of a woman on the street. Individuals are the basic units of society, and in works of art, they serve as representative characters. A work of art serves as a mirror in which society can see its true face; the more the realistic the mirror is, the clearer and less distorted will be the image.”

new directors-new films-the dreamed path

The great German filmmaker Angela Schanelec is little-known in the US, despite making films for over twenty-five years. Her seventh feature, The Dreamed Path, tells intertwining love stories in Germany and in Greece thirty years apart that hold between them a sense of human sympathy. Schanelec says, “I was reading Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques (1955) and thinking about my past as a theater actress. In an associative way, the idea of a couple emerged, with an anthropologist unable to understand his actress partner. I was also preoccupied with the influx of homeless people in the bourgeois German quarter in which I live. Some of them I meet daily, like neighbors, but they remain foreign bodies to me, as though offering a mute challenge or accusation. I thus invented a character that lives on the street, was once loved, is the same age as the anthropologist, and is glimpsed each day by the scientist upon looking out his window. After making my film Orly (2010), for several reasons, I felt the wish to restart. Now I wish to stay with unexplainable things, especially those that are naturally found within the course of daily life.”

new directors-new films-the last of us

Tunisian director Ala Eddine Slim’s first solo feature The Last of Us wordlessly follows a man (Jawhar Soudani) who has escaped from his homeland on a long journey taken towards Europe. Slim says, “The film is a fable about a lost body. The problem of so-called clandestine immigration by sea crossing has interested me ever since my first short film, The Fall (2007). There is an absurdity to people dying because of their imagined desire to be somewhere else (not necessarily better), and of governments not giving a damn about them, instead all practicing the same policy of partitioning spaces and people. I try to make images that parasitize the dominant landscape, within which I remain sensitive to the loneliness of human beings, regardless of their birth lands or homelands. The absence of spoken dialogue in The Last of Us highlights the other kinds of sounds in the film—those of vehicles, machines, electrical workings, with a particular attention paid to natural emissions such as wind, rain, birds, and reptiles that one does not see. Today’s cinema is too talky for me, and I prefer to linger on hidden sounds. In the end, silence is a sum of all sounds, except for those arising from our mouths.”

new directors-new films-thefutureperfect

Argentina-based German filmmaker Nele Wohlatz’s debut feature, The Future Perfect, will screen at ND/NF together with her short Three Sentences About Argentina. Both films good-naturedly showcase the process of learning a language, with the feature focusing on a Chinese teenager named Xiaobin (Zhang Xiaobin), newly arrived in Buenos Aires, who adapts partly by paying her own way through Spanish classes. Wohlatz says, “Xiaobin and I met in the language school in Buenos Aires where I was teaching German and she was studying Spanish. Language determines your thinking, and when you start to live in another language, you also have to reconstruct yourself and translate your thinking inside it. We used the Spanish classes as a structuring element to narrate Xiaobin’s process of settling into a new society—she hadn’t chosen to move to Argentina so much as to leave China, and had thus arrived in a metropolis with which she shared no history. Once there, she had had to create a new fiction for her own identity, which she was still doing when we met. The learning of a language has similarities to an actor’s learning of a role, which is perhaps why language classes are often filled with performative exercises. The Future Perfect shows Chinese immigrants trying out Spanish in a way that seems as though they are rehearsing and learning how to act it out. Xiaobin isn’t afraid of exploring new situations, nor of learning by doing. Perhaps this fearlessness is where her acting talent comes from.”

This article is dedicated to the memory of Jytte Jensen, a film programmer with a global outlook.

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