Battle Lines

Tony Pipolo on “Currents” at the New York Film Festival

Radu Jude, The Potemkimists, 2022, DCP, color, sound, 18 minutes. (Alexandru Dabija and Cristina Draghici.)

THE “CURENTS” SIDEBAR of the sixtieth-anniversary edition of the New York Film Festival offers fifteen features and more than thirty short works. We might begin with the inspired pairing of a program that includes one of each—Alain Gomis’s riveting Rewind & Play, preceded by Elisabeth Subrin’s cleverly conceived and executed short Maria Schneider, 1983. Since I generally avoid reading notes about movies before watching them, I fell right into Subrin’s trap. The video presents what I assumed was footage of a 1983 television interview with Schneider, followed by the same camera setup with two other actresses flawlessly aping “Schneider’s” manner and words and capturing her palpable reluctance to discuss her infamous, traumatizing scene with Marlon Brando in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972). As it happens, we are not watching Schneider at all, but three “interviews” contrived and conducted with three amazing actresses: Manal Issa, Aissa Maiga, and Isabel Sandoval. Issa’s physical resemblance to Schneider is so uncanny that placing her first was pure genius. But Subrin has more on her mind than trickery. Using the original 1983 interview as a kind of ur-text, Subrin mines Schneider’s harrowing experience on Tango’s set to make a statement about the treatment of so-called ingénues in the film industry especially when they are cast against mythlike figures such as Brando. What we take for copycatting gives way to slight shifts in manner and eventually revelations with actresses 2 and 3, until the latter openly declares that she was raped during the filming of Tango. Subrin has made a provocative, unnerving document, difficult to forget. But thanks to the persuasive performances of her trio, we are once again reminded to be wary of the ticklish nature of interviews.

Alain Gomis’s Rewind & Play is also built around an interview, this one with the formidable Thelonious Monk conducted in Paris by Henri Renaud for French television in December 1969. It was the end of Monk’s European tour, and you can feel his exhaustion. Gomis uses recently found footage of the actual interview and intercuts it, technical glitches and all, with Monk heroically trying to play the piano. The clumsy mess that ensues is offset by close-ups of Monk’s face, perspiration glistening on both eyelashes, pouring down his cheeks, and soaking shirt collar and jacket as he maintains a smile to cover his impatience with the callous interviewer and an inept television crew. Through it all, the piano sings; the hands soar; the endless sweat betrays the strain, but Monk labors on, a mesmerizing giant amid small fry.

Alain Gomis, Rewind & Play, 2022, color, sound, 65 minutes. Thelonious Monk.

As in recent years, “Currents” offers several features that could easily have been included in the documentary or main slate programs. One of the most impressive of these is The Unstable Object II, in which Daniel Eisenberg continues the ambitious project he began a few years ago to film factory workers in different parts of the world. Part two begins in a prosthetics factory in Duderstadt, Germany, where following the stages of producing artificial body parts is as eerily hypnotic as any sci-fi narrative, and far more instructive. Eisenberg’s camera is as precision-geared as the meticulously executed labor it follows. In one unusually long scene, we watch the delicate, step-by-step fashioning of a human finger as it uncannily seems to come to life through the coordination, sensitivity, and finesse befitting a work of art. Intentionally or not, there is a disconnect between the visual excitement the film generates here—and later on in glove- and jean-making factories in Millau, France, and Istanbul, respectively—and the repetitive, unvaried nature of the labor that workers are engaged in hour after hour, day after day.

Daniel Eisenberg, The Unstable Object II, 2022, DCP, color, sound, 203 minutes.

With only the faintest signs of action, let alone narrative, Ali Cherri’s The Dam impresses through its magnificently photographed landscapes of northern Sudan, where Maher (Maher Al Khair), an itinerant bricklayer, works by the Nile, yearning to be elsewhere. While his loneliness is never articulated, close-ups of his face cast against expansive yet confining vistas speak eloquently enough. Though we barely know what stirs within Maher, the final long shots of him swimming in a vast body of water suggest a fleeting promise of liberation or perhaps the real thing.

In addition to Maria Schneider, 1983, notable short works include Ute Aurand’s Renate, Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s 45th Parallel, and Radu Jude’s The Potemkimists. Aurand’s portrait of fellow filmmaker Renate Sami is as crisp in its execution as it is remarkably expressive. In images both carefully selected and deceptively simple, Aurand conjures the vibrant life of a woman whose openness to nature and strength of character are quietly evoked by the actions that make up her day. Whether at her computer, sewing a dress, reading from a German text, or sitting by a lake in the afternoon sun, all suggest a fullness of engagement with life that belies the film’s concise runtime. In the penultimate shot, Renate holds a single leaf as Aurand’s camera pans to the shadow of this gesture on an adjacent wall—a gentle but telling sign of the mortality that hangs over us all.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, 45th Parallel, 2022, DCP, color, sound, 15 minutes. Mahdi Fleifel.

45th Parallel and The Potemkinists are politically savvy films of contrasting moods. The first is an earnest monologue about a Victorian building that straddles the border of United States and Canada, and which has served as a library and an opera house since 1904. Standing inside on the exact line starkly dividing the countries—a stretch of black tape running across a quiet reading room—the speaker (filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel) recounts similar boundary lines that have provoked questions of legal and moral responsibility. Instances range from the 2010 fatal shooting of a young, unarmed Mexican by a US border patrolman to the prevalence of drone attacks in the Middle East. 

In Radu Jude’s The Potemkinists, a sly and artful commentary on the dubious alliance of art and politics, a sculptor (Cristina Draghici) and a member of the Romanian ministry of culture (Alexandru Dabija) visit a formidable monument. Set on a hilltop overlooking the Danube, the structure, resembling a modernist Winged Victory, was constructed in tribute to the Russian sailors’ 1905 revolt on the titular vessel of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Excerpts from the film are intercut with the minister’s lame attempts to assess the shape and size of the piece in relation to the event the 1925 film celebrates. The sculptor, planning her own tribute to the mutiny, nevertheless seems oblivious to Eisenstein and his revolutionary politics, and is unconvinced of the monument’s value and relevance to the present. Her musings speak to the fragile power of public artworks, while her ignorance of Eisenstein’s film points to the instability of memory and cinema itself.  

“Currents” runs as part of the 60th New York Film Festival from September 30 to October 16.