Still from 'Faya Dayi'
Apr 28, 2021
Meet the Brooklyn filmmakers at the 50th New Directors/New Films Festival
Trans, queer, Black, and API filmmakers bring movies to the innovative film festival, which returns in-person this week
You can expect the New Directors/New Films festival to come around every spring like you expect the Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue. The festival has a track record of introducing new talent, like in 1974 when Steven Spielberg screened his first movie The Sugarland Express. But like the parade, last year’s festival was postponed due to the pandemic and eventually migrated online to preserve some normalcy in New York’s filmgoing community.
As New Yorkers are vaccinated and Covid restrictions are relaxed, the 50th anniversary of New Directors/New Films has the distinct honor of being New York’s first in-person film festival since the beginning of the pandemic. It kicks off today and runs through May 8 at Film at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.
Amalia Ulman’s film “El Planeta” opens the festival and she’s excited to show the film to a hometown audience. “I live in New York and all my friends (plus some members of the crew) are here and we will be able to finally celebrate,” says Ulman.
The line-up includes Tebogo Malebogo’s “Heaven Reaches Down to Earth,” about two men in the remote mountains of the Western Cape as they discover romantic feelings for one another. Other movies like Jane Schoenbrun’s “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” originated in Brooklyn.
“So much of my movie was conceived during long, aimless walks around Brooklyn—past the Victorian houses in my neighborhood in Ditmas Park, and on quiet paths through Prospect Park,” says Schoenbrun.
The Museum of Modern Art and Film at Lincoln Center co-host the annual event with in-person screenings at Walter Reade Theater. This year’s festival is a hybrid of in-person screenings and movies streaming at Lincoln Center’s virtual cinema.
Here is a rundown of the best Brooklyn films and filmmakers playing at the festival:
Director, Amalia Ulman
“El Planeta” is a comedy shot in black and white exploring contemporary poverty, female desire, and the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters. When a daughter is forced to return home after the death of her father, she reconnects with her eccentric mother who is hustling to maintain the semblance of their middle-class lifestyle in the face of an impending eviction. Over the course of the week, we watch as the daughter’s hopes are tested as she attempts to use her sexuality as a means of escape. Meanwhile the mother grifts her way to certain security—the care of a jail cell. “I couldn’t be happier to be the opening night film,” says Ulman. “We edited the film during the pandemic and ‘El Planeta’ didn’t get to have a real premiere at Sundance, so it’s going to be great to watch the film with an audience.”
“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”
Director, Jane Schoenbrun
A remarkable, rare combination of frightening and tender, Jane Schoenbrun’s accomplished narrative debut is a hypnotic and destabilizing tale of the fragility of online existence and the human capacity for change. Late on a cold night somewhere in the U.S., teenage Casey sits alone in her attic bedroom, scrolling the internet under the glow-in-the-dark stars and black-light posters that blanket the ceiling. She has finally decided to take the World’s Fair Challenge, an online role-playing horror game, and embrace the uncertainty it promises. After the initiation, she documents the changes that may or may not be happening to her, adding her experiences to the shuffle of online clips available for the world to see. As she begins to lose herself between dream and reality, a mysterious figure reaches out, claiming to see something special in her uploads. Schoenbrun was in Prospect Park when the title for the movie first popped into her head, “right by the weird muscle gym near the southwest entrance,” she says. “Getting lost daydreaming while walking around Brooklyn has become an indispensable part of my creative process.”
Director, Jessica Beshir
“‘Faya Dayi’ is a journey that was generated from a personal space,” says Ethiopian-Mexican filmmaker Jessica Beshir. When she was in the tenth grade, she was uprooted from Ethiopia, from her family and friends in Harar, to escape the violence and political turmoil of the Derg communist regime. She returned to make a film about Harar, its rural Oromo community of farmers, and the harvesting of the country’s most sought-after export (the euphoria-inducing khat plant). She has created something dreamlike: a film that uses light, texture, and sound to illuminate the spiritual lives of people whose experiences often become fodder for ripped-from-the-headlines tales of migration. Beshir is based in Brooklyn where she edited the film, which actually debuted at the virtual edition of Sundance earlier this year and receives its first live audience at New Directors/New Films. “Can you imagine, this will be the first time I see my own film outside of my computer screen,” says Beshir.
Director, Iva Radivojević
Belgrade-born artist Iva Radivojević’s film “Aleph” is a labyrinthine vision inspired by the writings of Jorge Luis Borges. The film is structured episodically and based around a fixed point in the universe. This spot is the ultimate panopticon, where characters can perfectly see each other’s point of view. The story travels to have various countries, ranging from Argentina to Greenland to South Africa “After filming in five continents, ten countries and over five years, it’s such a privilege and pleasure to be able to bring the film back home to New York and share it with our crew, collaborators, and dear friends,” says Radivojević.
“Heaven Reaches Down to Earth”
Director, Tebogo Malebogo
Narrated in vibrant, lyrical voiceover, “Heaven Reaches Down to Earth,” the third film from director Tebogo Malebogo, traces a transformative encounter between two friends, for whom a shared communion with the natural landscape catalyzes sensual and spiritual awakenings. Malebogo shot the film just as the pandemic reared its head in South Africa. A nationwide lockdown went into effect just two weeks after he wrapped production. “It is my hope that this film can act as a meditation on the isolation many of us have found ourselves in over the past year,”says Malebogo.
Director, Livia Huang
In this elliptical New York story, fragmented memories of a relationship are rendered poetically. The short features images of a lost love, narrated by a mother and daughter. The two examine their lives and if it’s possible to find happiness in a fractured world. Huang is especially thankful to be included in New Directors/New Films this year. “I think what makes it extra special is since we shot in New York, all my friends that worked on it get to celebrate it together too, which isn’t always possible with a short, even in normal circumstances,” says Huang.
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