Although this article will review only three of the offerings from the 2015 New Directors/New Films Festival, a yearly event co-produced by the Museum of Modern Art and Lincoln Center, I strongly urge New Yorkers to check the full schedule at http://newdirectors.org/. Those who appreciate my aesthetic and political judgment can rest assured that the festival will connect you with today’s filmmaking vanguard. The festival began last Wednesday and runs through Sunday. The three films considered in this article will be showing later this week and epitomize exactly what I am looking for in cinema. Combining politics with art, they are a reminder of what good filmmaking is all about in an age of declining standards.
“Line of Credit”, which plays at MOMA on Thursday at 8:45pm, is now the fourth film I have seen made by a Georgian director and proof once again that this beleaguered former Soviet republic is producing some leading edge films even if it is falling apart economically and socially.
Of course, it might be the case that there is an inversely proportional relationship between the economic health of a society and the quality of films, with the USA demonstrating that economic power is not conducive to making quality films. By the same token, a Georgian (or Palestinian or Kurdish, etc.) director feels a certain urgency about his country’s fate that rules out escapist fantasies.
Like the Dardenne brothers’ brilliant “Two Days, One Night”, “Line of Credit” is a film with a repeating motif from beginning to end. In their film, it is scene after scene in which the leading character, a woman factory worker, tries to persuade former fellow workers to forsake their yearly bonus in exchange for gettng her job back and escaping economic ruin.
In “Line of Credit”, we see Nino, an attractive fortyish woman played by Nino Kasradze who appears in every scene, on a non-stop search for money to keep a roof over her family’s head and creditors at bay. A series of bad investment decisions exacerbated by the war with separatists and the general economic collapse in Georgia have left her hanging by a thread. The film—literally—consists of her making trips to pawn shops or used jewelry stores, etc. where she is unloading one precious family possession or another in order to pay off a loan shark breathing down her neck, gas bills, her best friend’s cancer treatments, her daughter’s tuition at a private school (she can ill afford to begin with) and the like.
The “drama”, such as it is, is exactly that faced by other Georgians, Greeks, the Irish, Spaniards, and millions of Americans—namely how to survive in a world in which one is forced to live on credit. As grim as this sounds, the film is enlivened by sardonic wit of the kind that I have learned to appreciate in Georgian film. In one scene, a French tourist who has missed the tour bus in Tbilisi, stops in at Nino’s tiny bake shop that has been bereft of customers for months. To demonstrate the Georgian propensity for hospitality, she not only treats the Frenchman to free pastries but rushes home to bring back a bottle of Georgian brandy to accompany the pastries. Part of her motivation in doing so is to get drunk, a way to anesthetize herself against the stress brought on by financial insecurity.
In this scene, her waitress, who has joined in the festivities, recounts a national legend about Georgia’s place in the world. After God created Earth, he assigned various peoples territories but the Georgians forgot to show up at the ceremony since they were off somewhere having a party. When they finally came to meet with the deity, he told them that the lands had already been meted out. But since he loved the Georgians so much, he would give them his own land—namely the beautiful Georgia of today. The joke of course is that it is much more like hell.
In a very intelligent storytelling approach, director Salome Alexi decided to make Nino and her family people from the upper ranks of the middle class with absolutely no social consciousness. Their main desire is not to eliminate the system that has put them on the edge of the cliff but to restore their privileges, an impossibility given the realities of Georgian life. When Nino gets a second mortgage on her house, she uses part of the proceeds to buy a new pocketbook—the last thing on earth she needs but an apt symbol of the consumerism that seduces Georgians even today.
The film ends on the consequences of her supposed salvation—the second mortgage. The collapse of the mortgage loan industry in Georgia and the terrible social consequences led Salome Alexi to make this darkly comic and politically insightful film. Highly recommended.
Playing Saturday, 3:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center, “The Great Man” is a French film directed by Sarah Leonor that is both an examination of racist immigration policies—a theme also found in a number of the films shown at the Socially Relevant Film Festival—and the age-old personal drama of father-and-son relationships.
The film begins with Markov and Hamilton on patrol in Afghanistan as members of the French Foreign Legion. We learn from a voice-over that the two are best friends as well as brothers-in-arms for the past five years. Near a riverbank, the Taliban ambushes the two and Hamilton falls to the ground badly wounded. Markov chooses friendship over duty and piggybacks Hamilton to safety but only after leaving his weapon behind, a major offense in the French Foreign Legion, so much so that he is discharged without the benefit of achieving French citizenship—the only reason he ever enlisted to begin with.
We next see Markov in Paris where he has returned to civilian life. It turns out that he is a Chechen named Mourad Massaev and that he hopes to sink roots in France despite being undocumented. His first step toward normalcy is getting an apartment and picking up his ten-year-old son Khadji from the Chechen women who have been looking after him while Mourad was in the military. Khadji’s initial reaction to being reunited with dad is anger, a child’s natural reaction to being abandoned (his mother—a Russian—stayed behind.) Mourad explains to him that he had no choice. The war in Chechnya forced the family to break up and he wanted to make a new start.
Casting for Mourad and Khadji was just one among many strong elements of this powerful film with Surho Sugaipov, who fled Grozny in 1999, playing the father and Ramzan Idiev playing the son, a member of a family that escaped from Grozny five years later. Needless to say, the dialog between the two actors had a conviction wrought by a common lived experience.
After setting up a household in the new apartment, we find Khadji ensconced in a red pup tent in the middle of the living room floor—a canny maneuver by Mourad to give his son a sense of both having his own space and the possible benefits of having a veteran of the Foreign Legion for a father. Next on dad’s agenda is meeting up with Hamilton at a veteran’s hospital where he is undergoing physical therapy. Over dinner one night, Mourad tells Hamilton that he is having trouble finding work because he is not a French citizen. Since Hamilton knows that being a legionnaire veteran qualifies you for citizenship, he asks him why five years of service did not qualify. Obviously concerned that his friend would feel guilty for forcing him for leaving his weapon behind, Mourad replies that his service was apparently inadequate in French eyes without going into any further detail.
Hamilton has the solution. He gives Mourad his identity card that was issued to Michaël Hernandez, his real name. Like Mourad, “Hamilton” is also a stranger in a strange land. He is also a bit like Khadji, having been brought up by foster parents until he found his only true home—the Foreign Legion.
As fate would have it, Hamilton and Khadji come together in unforeseen and tragic circumstances. As a surrogate father, Hamilton is ill equipped to look after a ten-year-old boy especially since his only goal is to finish his physical therapy and get back into uniform. With a shared experience of being abandoned as children, Hamilton and Khadji would have the potential for bonding even if there are obstacles in their path, not the least of which is the cruelty of the French immigration authorities who are determined to send Khadji back to Grozny.
Sarah Leonor has made an exceptionally sensitive film demonstrating how sentiment differs from sentimentality, the stock in trade of Hollywood films exploiting father-and-son relationships such as Adam Sandler’s “That’s My Boy” or Mark Ruffalo’s “The Kids are All Right”. At the risk of sounding like the typical critic churning out hype, I’d say that comparison here is much more with Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid”, the gold standard for an adult looking after an abandoned child.
“Los Hongos” (fungi) is the first Colombian film I have seen. Directed and written by Oscar Ruiz Navia, it is a study of the underground graffiti artist scene in Cali. The two main characters are in their late teens, one from a white, middle-class family named Calvin (Jovan Alexis Marquinez); the other is his best friend Jovan (Jovan Alexis Marquinez), an Afro-Colombian from a poor family that fled the civil war raging in the countryside. To his peers in the graffiti community Jovan is better known as Ras Skate.
The lingering effects of “La Violencia” are present in Calvin’s world as well. When he joins his father at a local hangout, he observes him from afar arguing politics with his cronies about the upcoming mayoral campaign that he casts doubt on since both candidates are tied in to the ongoing civil wars. He reminds them that Karl Marx was right when he said that we had to rely on the power of the masses. Calvin’s grandmother also has memories of the decades long war since she used to hide a rebel from the death squads in her village.
For Jovan and Calvin’s generation, the Colombia civil war has little resonance. What matters most to them is the anarchy of the graffiti artists, the punk rockers, and underground radio broadcasters who constitute Cali’s pole of resistance. Getting their information from the Internet rather than Marxist pamphlets, the two young men are determined to paint a graffiti that incorporates a veiled woman they saw in Tahrir Square who said, “We are no longer afraid”. As such, they were benefiting from a benign globalization that connects graffiti artists in Cali with the young people who fought against the Mubarak dictatorship.
“Los Hongos” does not have much of a plot. The film is structured as a series of incidents where we see Jovan and Calvin doing what comes naturally: painting on a wall, going to a punk rock concert, hanging out with young women, smoking a joint, skateboarding, riding a bike, etc. Despite my strong preference for storytelling, I found the film altogether engaging because it showed me a side of Latin American reality I was utterly unfamiliar with. The film has an energy and flair that is commensurate with its theme. It plays 9:30pm at the MOMA on Saturday night.