Eternal Present

Tony Pipolo on Projections at the 57th New York Film Festival

Peggy Ahwesh, Kansas Atlas, 2019, four-channel HD video, color, sound, 14 minutes.

PROJECTIONS, now in its sixth year, remains the most eclectic sidebar of the annual New York Film Festival, now in its fifty-seventh year. While at first the series seemed to be the heir to Views from the Avant-Garde, Projections has increasingly embraced works that could easily be part of the main slate or other sidebars of the festival, in addition to films and videos by artists who were regularly presented at Views. Among the latter are Pat O’Neill, whose dazzling 35-mm Saugus Series (1974) was recently restored by the Academy Film Archive and the Film Foundation, and is being screened at this year’s Projections, and the late Jonathan Schwartz, whose lyrical reflections on nature are being celebrated with a program of seven short works.

As always, the shorter works in the series range widely and wildly. Tomonari Nishikawa’s Amusement Ride is one of the few purely formal exercises. From the perspective of a single, swaying passenger car of a Ferris wheel, the camera—through the shifting interlaced mesh of the steel structure—permits glimpses of the teeming activity on the ground, against which the mobile Ferris wheel seems to be the epitome of solidity and grace. Peggy Ahwesh adopts a very different aerial perspective Kansas Atlas, which comprises elegantly photographed long takes of Midwestern landscapes, whose benign serenity is belied by a voice-over quietly narrating the terrain’s checkered cultural and political history. There are two affecting Luke Fowler pieces. In Houses (for Margaret), his tribute to the Scottish filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait, shots of her various homes are accompanied by her reading aloud a poem that touches on the definition of belonging. Mum’s Cards, a portrait of the filmmaker’s mother, is as simple as it is ingenious. Eschewing talking heads, Fowler’s close-ups of dozens of handwritten notecards testify to his mother’s scholarly devotion and diligence as a sociologist. With Color-Blind, Ben Russell explores the colonialist history of the Marquesas Islands, where he interviews inhabitants and observes local artwork while the ghost of Paul Gauguin, whose later paintings reflected his infatuation with the region, is invoked throughout. George Clark’s Double Ghosts, an odd homage to an unfinished film by the great Raúl Ruiz, incorporates a discussion with Valeria Sarmiento, Ruiz’s widow.

Ben Russell, Color-Blind, 2019, color, sound, 30 minutes.

The ghostly, predawn CCTV images of Istanbul’s streets and buildings in Burak Çevik’s A Topography of Memory assume an eeriness in the amphitheater of the Elinor Bunin Monroe Center, where they are presented not as a video with a beginning and an end, but as an uninterrupted loop, which lends the initial parameters of the surveillance an air of omnipresence.

Few films this year, short or long, display the sheer exuberance of the bracing, exhilarating Black Bus Stop. In this nine-minute tour de force, codirectors Kevin Jerome Everson and Claudrena N. Harold transform a mundane location into an outdoor theater. Four young people, chatting noiselessly at a bus stop, are suddenly supplanted by a series of young men and women dancing and singing with unstinting gusto. Program notes inform us that the site was “an informal meeting ground for black students at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, in the 1980s and ’90s.” But even without this information, the film resonates with such personal and cultural conviction that even the framing and cutting within its spatial confines are charged with verve and an implacable force.

Kevin Jerome Everson and Claudrena N. Harold, Black Bus Stop, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 9 minutes.

While all the features in this year’s lineup are worthwhile, at least three are among the best films of the Fifty-Seventh New York Film Festival. The most audience-friendly of the batch is Éric Baudelaire’s Un Film Dramatique, a hopeful sign of the future of filmmaking, at least in France. For nearly two hours, we watch a multiethnic group of spunky adolescents, from the film group of Dora Maar Middle School in Saint-Denis, make a movie—a project followed by Baudelaire over four years. While they never quite decide whether they’re leaning toward documentary, comedy, or drama, and their project is not fully realized, their engagement is as infectious as the children are articulate, especially when they discuss the racism, violence, and politics of present-day France in the context of their own backgrounds. If we find ourselves smiling throughout, it is not prompted by what these precocious charmers are filming, but by their interactions, their openness, and their vibrant faces and voices. The director’s point seems to be that, beyond the project itself, its shared nature, allowing them to get to know and respect each other, is the ideal model for how people could and should overcome their differences and learn to coexist. While one prays that these eager personalities will not be discouraged by the corruption and cynicism around them as they mature, several already exhibit more rueful demeanors in parting shots a few years later. 

Éric Baudelaire, Un Film Dramatique, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 114 minutes.

Heimat Is a Space in Time is a more sobering experience. German director Thomas Heise wants to tell us the story of his family. It is a very long story, stretching from just before World War I, to the rise of Nazism, the Holocaust, World War II, the postwar split into East and West Germany, the economic revival of the 1950s, up to the present day. Born and educated in East Germany, where he studied film, made documentaries, and composed provocative radio pieces, Heise lived much of this history firsthand. The film is very long, and it is narrated throughout by the director, who reads documents and letters from those who died in the camps, and from his grandparents. This means that non-German speaking viewers will be reading subtitles for virtually each of the film’s 218 minutes. It’s a lot to take in, but well worth the effort. Though the film is largely made up of archival footage, photographs, shots of historically charged sites, and contemporary views of German cities, there is at least one fascinating conversation about Bertolt Brecht. Perhaps nothing in the film is more vivid or resonant, however, than its dominant visual motif: the recurring presence of long trains moving across the country’s landscapes. These black-and-white images leave such strong impressions that, as we watch an endless succession of newly manufactured German cars of the ’50s and ’60s being carried to parts of Europe and abroad, we cannot help but think of the similarly systematic and impersonal transportations to concentration camps. No comment is necessary.

Thomas Heise, Heimat Is a Space in Time, 2019, black-and-white, sound, 218 minutes.

Eloy Enciso Cachafeiro’s Longa noite (Endless Night) is also preoccupied with the course of and fallout from history. But while it chronicles the period of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, particularly in Galicia, the film’s look and form transcend time, embracing a cosmic vision of privilege and injustice, and of the perennial struggle between fascism and resistance. This classic note is struck immediately in the preface to the film’s three sections, the opening shots of which show a woman and a man standing and sitting on the stone steps of a church, bemoaning their present state and recalling a time when they were respected and loved. Though they are beggars, they are framed in the kind of stoic isolation characteristic of the films of Jean-Marie Straub, and are lent a stature befitting the figures of a Greek chorus. Pronouncing the conditions of the city and the themes that will occupy characters in the three “acts” that follow, their demeanor is aptly expressed later by the woman’s cry, “This is the worst world I know. There’s no fixing it.” The sentiment fits what follows. One episode is a satiric portrait of a typical politician, a mayoral candidate who dismisses another’s assertion that there is nothing around but misery by declaring that ,while the state may not be advanced in science and economics, no one has known hunger. This would come as a surprise to Luis Buñuel, who made a classic documentary about Spain titled Land Without Bread (1933). Not coincidentally, the film cuts from this blowhard on his soapbox to a huge portrait of Generalissimo Franco, hanging out in a bar where a group of privileged men speak indifferently of social injustice, blame God for creating poor people, assert that Galicians complain about everything, and praise their leader as the Savior of Spain. (Recently, the Spanish government announced its plan to exhume Franco’s body from the monumental mausoleum where it resides and rebury him in a modest grave.) The man in the bar who turns and leaves in disgust is one we meet earlier in the film, and again later as he visits a farm and hears the stories of those who faced death but survived the war years. While we learn that this figure is an escaped prisoner who can never return to his wife, child, and home, he functions as the wandering soul of the country, embodying its very heart and wounded pride. This is a rich, soul-stirring film, composed from various sources, acted (by amateurs) with conviction, and shot, largely at night, in dim shadows and fog through which the truths of history struggle to penetrate.

The Projections series opens October 3 as part of the 57th New York Film Festival and runs through October 6.