New York Film Festival: Plus ça change

by Megan Ratner

from Film Quarterly Fall 2013, Vol. 67, No. 1

In the wake of new leadership for the first time in twenty-five years, the New York Film Festival seemed more about consolidation than change. In 2012, Richard Peña stepped down as programming director of the festival, but he remains involved with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which produces the fest. His successor, Kent Jones, spent 1998–2009 as a staff member of the Film Society, serving seven terms on the NYFF selection committee.

Foolish, then, to think there would be much change, at least in this first year. What differences there were had more to do with presentation than content: with a brand-new app and more question-and-answer sessions, including, separately, Isabelle Huppert and Steve McQueen at the local Apple store, the NYFF made a bid to position itself as an event rather than merely a great chance to see movies at Lincoln Center. Much of this bid centers on the red carpet, an increasingly important aspect of the NYFF in the past few years. The NYFF has largely served as a preview of films destined to open in New York and Los Angeles within months, if not days, of the festival. To grant studio releases such as Captain Phillips, Her, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opening, closing, and centerpiece spots respectively suggests the triumph of corporate accommodation over a more demanding aesthetic. At least a portion of the selections are made with an eye to the admittedly nonstop fund-raising faced by the Film Society, but that is a fact of American cultural life.

Whatever Jones plans to do in the future, the 2013 edition was not about rocking the boat. The special section on late twentieth-century revivals and a month-long Godard retrospective signal a commitment to serious cinema, as does the laudable devotion to experimental film under the “Views from the Avant-Garde” umbrella. Additionally, according three sidebars to documentaries bodes well. Remarkable selections shared a focus on betrayal, arguably the key question in an age of rampant surveillance and diminishing privacy.

Catherine Breillat’s autobiographical Abuse of Weakness features Isabelle Huppert as Maud, a filmmaker whose apparently irrational behavior after a stroke results in financial ruin. In the first third of the film, Huppert registers every agonized humiliation and, especially, Maud’s bewilderment. Breillat’s austere yet off-kilter sets – as Maud staggers out of bed in the initial scene, for example, she topples over and ends up under a wooden chair – demonstrate that Maud’s struggle is as much about the newly dangerous world of familiar objects as it is about her reaction to partial paralysis. Effectively, the stroke remakes her. Always meticulous, Huppert is nearly unbearably precise, not least during the difficult rehabilitation. Once she resumes work, Maud spots Vilko (French rapper Kool Shen), a former criminal, hawking his book on television. Certain that he is right for her new film, they meet. Proprietary and appraising, Vilko deigns to participate, quickly becoming a fixture at her place. Before long, Maud writes him the first of many checks, “loans” in the hundreds of thousands of euros. Shen’s lithe muscularity is both a support and a threat, and also slightly comic in contrast to the petite Huppert.

Though there are of course sexual tensions, there is no sex: this is about power. At some level, Breillat makes clear, Maud knows exactly what is happening. Without any exposition to this effect, Breillat and Huppert convey their odd complicity in the “loan” exchanges: ultimately, even if she is giving Vilko money, Maud controls the purse. The script offers no answers and no justification. Perhaps, having been betrayed by her body, Maud can at least choose to be conned. “It was me. It wasn’t me,” Huppert says, in the final close-up, her expression simultaneously puzzled and certain. This scene alone ranks among Huppert’s very best, and the entire film is her tour de force.

Though Gloria presents more conventional delusions than Abuse of Weakness, Paulina García’s performance in the title role goes toe-to-toe with Huppert’s. Ready for romance in her late 50s, Gloria becomes involved with fellow-divorcé Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández). For much of the film, García weathers her life wearing the good-sport expression that contemporary society all but demands of women on the wrong side of 45. She serves as a form of understanding mirror for her grown children and her ex-husband, but it is Rodolfo who truly cheats her. Negotiating her fractured family in a mordant birthday party set piece, Gloria recognizes Rodolfo’s proclaimed openness and emotional bravery as merely wishful. Director and co-screenwriter Sebastián Lelio tailored the part for García in homage to the generation of Glorias, whose youth was darkened by Chile’s worst upheavals. But García’s performance makes no overt political statement; rather, her work serves as a dynamic reminder that masterful acting knows no age.

Strong female performances also contributed to the excellence of Agnieszka Holland’s Burning Bush. This mini-series focuses on attempts by the Czech government to stifle the reverberations set in motion by Jan Palach’s self-immolation in Prague on January 19, 1969. Palach saw no other way to manifest his distress at the general passivity following the Soviet crackdown in August 1968 than his own dreadful sacrifice.

Holland centers the story on Dagmar Burešová (Tatiana Pauhofová), a young lawyer sympathetic to the student movement. When the authorities cast Palach as a mentally troubled young man, manipulated by Western agents into an act he never intended, Palach’s mother and brother hire Burešová to sue a prominent party member for defamation. The secret police and those they have bullied make her case virtually impossible to bring, let alone be heard. Parallel stories of the difficulties suffered by Burešová’s physician husband, dismissed on a trumped-up charge, and her compromised colleague show how people were unrelentingly held fast in a vise of suspicion and collaboration.

The ensemble cast sustains the tension throughout, both individually and as a collective. The wonderfully detailed sets – including the workmen, likely informants, who never quite finish whatever it is they are doing outside Burešová’s office – and mod-inflected costumes contribute to the accuracy. Jaroslava Pokorná is striking as Palach’s mother, an unassuming woman keen only to defend the honor of her son. Holland’s pitch-perfect evocation of the country’s lurch into twenty years of relative passivity reveals a vibrant culture on the verge of defeat.

Jehane Noujaim’s The Square captures the revolutionary spirit in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Focusing on a band of representative protesters, Noujaim shows their sharp awareness not only of what is underway in Cairo, but how it plays on YouTube. Mubarak ran things for more than thirty years, clearly intending to hold the office until his death. When he finally steps down, on February 11, 2011, the protesters are nearly as stunned as he is; for the majority, there has simply been no other leader. Among Noujaim’s subjects is Khalid Abdalla, a British-Egyptian actor familiar from The Kite Runner (2007), whose Skype calls with his father, living in London exile since the 1970s, provide a sense of both hope and despair.

The older man counsels against assuming the ouster is more than symbolic. Abdalla also frequently talks with Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who embodies many of the complexities and conflicting loyalties that threaten to undermine real change in Egypt. The protests unite these men in unlikely solidarity, their friendship initially around a common enemy, later because they see that the injustices continue. And Ahmed Hassan, working-class and in his 20s, who notes that “for the first time in our lives, we couldn’t be silenced,” would otherwise have likely lived his entire life without encountering those he meets in Tahrir. The Square reveals the fragility of the agreements between the authorities and the protesters, their lives on hold while the governing powers (and the outside forces that have a stake, specifically the United States) hash things out. Through images and discussion but without narration, Noujaim conveys the murky position of the police and military, who may not actively foment division, but appear quite willing to let the situation devolve into feuding factions. When millions take to the streets in August 2013 in what is likely the largest protest seen anywhere or at any time in history, there is a credible sense that the marchers understand they are unlikely to benefit, but perhaps their children will. Noujaim’s reliance on various recording devices and her willingness to let the screen sometimes blur or go dark as a hand blocks her lens give The Square an exhilarating open-endedness: something has been stirred, something begun. Whether it is no more than an awakening remains unanswered, but Hassan notes that the break from the past is here to stay: Cairo children regularly divide into activists and police for a game of protest.


Among the footage not included in Shoah (1985) was Claude Lanzmann’s interview with Benjamin Murmelstein, the last president of the Jewish Council in Theresienstadt. (Terezín, a garrison town in then-Czechoslovakia, was an SS transit camp touted as a “model Jewish settlement.”) In his new film Last of the Unjust (Murmelstein’s description of himself), Lanzmann combines his 1975 conversation with Murmelstein, then living in exile in Rome, with site visits to Poland, Israel, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Trainloads of the elderly and infirm had been cynically lured to Theresienstadt, Hitler’s craven “gift” to the Jews, as a kind of retreat.

Charged with the often mutually exclusive tasks of maintaining the community and carrying out Nazi orders, Murmelstein assisted in propagandizing the “model ghetto,” thinking, “if the world knew about us, then the Nazis wouldn’t be able to get rid of us.” The only Jew allowed to sit next to Adolf Eichmann, Murmelstein was considered too untrustworthy to testify at his trial, yet as he tells Lanzmann, he knew the SS man to be far more than a functionary. Confronted by Lanzmann about his own “taste for power,” Murmelstein acknowledges it would be hypocritical to deny it; he genuinely believed he could do some good and consequently turned down a chance to emigrate. Did he act to save the ghetto or himself? “Both.” Lanzmann deftly draws out Murmelstein, revealing him as scholarly, witty, and urbane, personifying the erudite culture to which the Reich laid waste. Addressing the camera with his notes, Lanzmann’s lack of today’s ubiquitous on-camera persona and his sometimes droning voice emphasize the importance of his scrutiny: “Theresienstadt was human in appearance only. It was the worst kind of concentration camp, with blackmail, lies and naked violence.”

The slaveholders’ tagged property. (12 Years a Slave)

It’s a description easily applicable to the older, homegrown institution of American slavery. 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen and based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), traces the descent-by-kidnapping of a free Northerner into the slave-holding South. In flashbacks, Solomon is shown in his comfortable house in Saratoga, delighting in his wife and young children. Promised a hefty fee, he agrees to accompany two white promoters to Washington to play violin for their variety act. McQueen reveals only the alcohol-laced evening and the promoters’ return with Solomon to his hotel room, leaving you to picture the deal on your own.

Waking in darkness, his cuffs and leg-irons dragging on the slave pen floor, Ejiofor shows the anger, fear, and utter bafflement of suddenly being no longer who or what he was. Overnight, he is transformed from subject to object, from man to property. McQueen reminds you that slavery was not just exploitative work, but exploitation at every level. In the luridly shot swamplands where Solomon is shunted among plantations, nature itself appears pitted against him. Solomon then finds himself in the sights of slave owner Edward Epps (Michael Fassbender). Menacing and wretched, Epps is sexually obsessed with young Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and nearly equally obsessed with crushing Solomon. McQueen catches the arbitrariness that determined slave life, such as Solomon’s chance encounter, on an errand for Mrs. Epps, with a lynching party. Having strung up two young black men, the lynchers seem eager to add a third. Only the Epps ownership tag around Solomon’s neck spares him. McQueen also shows the intimacy of slavery, not only sexually, but in every aspect of life. Survival becomes a matter of stamina and smarts. There is even a static quality to the shot composition – occasionally, McQueen brings the action to a halt for tableaux that mimic photographs of the time, a reminder that these images were a record of assets, not portraits.

Fundamentally, 12 Years a Slave is about state-sanctioned criminality. It is not a description many Americans are used to applying to themselves, but as James Baldwin noted in the essay “A Fly in Buttermilk” in his 1985 collection The Price of the Ticket: “It is not an easy thing to be forced to reexamine a way of life and to speculate, in a personal way, on the general injustice.”

Surrounded by the detritus of occupation. (Omar)

Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar touches on the particular injustices of occupation that constitute life in a closed, doomed system. Here, too, as in The Last of the Unjust and 12 Years a Slave, thuggery and pettiness dominate daily life. Smitten, Omar (Adam Bakri) regularly scales a heavily guarded separation wall to court the beautiful Nadia (Leem Lubany) and ingratiate himself with her brother Tarek (Eyad Hourani). Running from the police down a maze of narrow alleyways, Omar seems as hemmed in as a laboratory rat. But once at Nadia’s house, he goofs around with his friends like any other twentysomething. Later, Omar, Tarek, and Amjad (Samer Bisharat) sit in abandoned car seats, planning to ambush a group of Israeli soldiers, satisfied if their action prevents “even one more day of occupation.” It’s one of several scenes set against the rubble to which so much of Palestine has been reduced, the ruined cityscape a supporting player in the film. The ambush results in the death of an Israeli soldier and Omar’s arrest and torture. With collaboration the only way out of a life sentence, Omar capitulates to Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), an Israeli agent. Omar’s attempt to limit his perfidy, like his careful courting of Nadia, is a struggle to find logic in an illogical situation. The first-rate performances and frantic pace make Omar deceptively watchable: it’s easy to see it as merely a well-made thriller. But Abu-Assad’s portrayal of a community striving simply to survive lingers long after Omar’s finale: the barbarity of occupation never lets up.

Portraits of ordinary mystery. (Manakamana)

Trust rather than betrayal lies at the heart of Manakamana, a documentary filmed entirely inside a Nepalese cable car. Co-directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez rode with numerous passengers as they traveled to and from the Hindu temple dedicated to Manakamana, the goddess of wish fulfillment. What was once a three-day pilgrimage each way has been reduced to a short ride, painless as a ski lift. Each segment consists of one approximately eleven-minute take, the filmmakers and equipment squeezed in with the subjects, all of them suspended over steep, jungled foothills. You begin to know the route, to anticipate the shudder at each tower, to recognize the groans of the bullwheel at the launch of each cabin. Passengers – some local, a few tourists, even a cartload of agitated goats – travel alone, in pairs, or groups of three. Each is left to cope with the camera as they choose: Spray and Velez pose no questions and provide no narration. Particularly effective are the long stretches of silence – in the case of a grandfather and grandson, the entire ride – that grant the subjects dignity and leave interpretation to the viewer.

At around midpoint, the filmmakers allow the screen to go black for quite some time, with the audio confined to what can be heard in the cable car terminus, but not explained in any way. Among the passengers, three older women tell the myths associated with the temple; an elderly mother and her daughter become children again as they carefully eat fast-melting ice creams; two wizened musicians speak for a while, then let their instruments take over as they improvise, completely connected while looking in different directions. The window against which each person is silhouetted becomes a frame, offering only so much of the world below, leaving you to piece together the rest. Despite its simple premise, Manakamana resonates long after the final blacked-out screen, the portraits memorable for their ordinary mystery and for the filmmakers’ preservation of the privacy of their subjects, shifting the onus of attentive observation to the viewer.

At its best, the NYFF makes exactly this demand of filmgoers, showing them something they likely did not know they wanted to see. It is what makes festivals exciting. And it has little or nothing to do with photo ops or marquee names, necessary as those are to reliable box office. A few even wilder detours from NYFF’s steady course would be most welcome.

Megan Ratner, an independent critic based in New York, has written for Film Comment, Cineaste, Frieze and other publications.