New Directors/New Films 2020: Program


Atlantis
Valentyn Vasyanovych, Ukraine, 2019, 106m
Ukrainian with English subtitles
A debut of remarkable formal precision, Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Atlantis is an urgent yet highly controlled dispatch from the wartorn Donbass in Eastern Ukraine. Set five years into the future, this all-too-real dystopia uses a series of distanced, compositionally rigorous frames to follow Sergiy, a Ukrainian soldier suffering from PTSD as he tries to restart his life amidst these scourged, uninhabitable lands. Rather than foreground the in-the-moment battle between Russia and Ukraine, Vasyanovych instead powerfully depicts the inevitable aftermath, marked by economic and ecological degradation. Yet somehow, through a new volunteer job exhuming the dead, Sergiy finds an unexpected path back to humanity.

Boys State
Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, USA, 2020, 109m
The sensational winner of the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is a wildly entertaining and continually revealing immersion into a week-long annual program in which a thousand Texas high school seniors gather for an elaborate mock exercise: building their own state government. Filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine closely track the escalating tensions that arise within a particularly riveting gubernatorial race, training their cameras on unforgettable teenagers like Ben, a Reagan-loving arch-conservative who brims with confidence despite personal setbacks, and Steven, a progressive-minded child of Mexican immigrants who stands by his convictions amidst the sea of red. In the process, they have created a complex portrait of contemporary American masculinity, as well as a microcosm of our often dispiriting national political divisions that nevertheless manages to plant seeds of hope. An Apple release.

The Cloud in Her Room
Zheng Lu Xinyuan, China, 2020, 101m
Mandarin with English subtitles
Winner of the top prize at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, this mesmerizing debut feature from Chinese filmmaker Zheng Lu Xinyuan is an autobiographically tinged portrait of 22-year-old Muzi (Jin Jing), a young woman drifting through her days and nights after returning to her hometown to celebrate the New Year with her parents, and unable to let go of her past. With gorgeously monochrome photography, the director finds seemingly endless new ways to capture the dawns and twilights, the familiar pleasures and urban estrangement of the city of Hangzhou, where the director is from. Alternating between realist conversations between Muzi, family, and lovers; dreamlike interludes; and intermittent documentary sequences with local young people who are floating through their own discombobulating twenties, The Cloud in Her Room is an expressive depiction of the feeling of being transitory in one’s time and place.

Collective
Alexander Nanau, Romania, 2019, 109m
Romanian with English subtitles
What begins as a seeming exposé into a tragic accident gradually turns into something deeper and more shocking in this heartrending and revelatory documentary about state neglect and corruption. In October 2015, a devastating fire broke out at the Bucharest nightclub Colectiv, killing 27 people that night; in the following weeks, while the country was still reeling, nearly 40 more people who had suffered burns and other injuries died in hospital. As the film begins, newspaper journalists are investigating the suspicious reasons how this could possibly have happened—the beginning of a search for truth that uncovers an increasing litany of misappropriations, malfeasance, and lies, from medical officials to corrupt pharmaceutical company owners. With astonishing access, director Alexander Nanau follows the trail of evidence along with the film’s journalists and the newly installed Minister of Health, creating a universally relatable nonfiction thriller that uncovers the depths of governmental rot. A Magnolia Pictures release.

Los conductos
Camilo Restrepo, France/Colombia/Brazil, 2020, 70m
Spanish with English subtitles
A former criminal and cult member living under cloak of night in the crevices and corners of the Colombian city of Medellín makes his way back into civilization, yet is gripped by a shadowy past, in this fragmented first feature from Camilo Restrepo. After his memorable shorts Cilaos and La bouche, the director proves his mastery at economical yet expansive storytelling here, taking a complex narrative about the possibility of regeneration within a society all too willing to discard its outcasts and boiling it down to a series of precise shots, sounds, and gestures of off-handed beauty. A Grasshopper Film release.

Days of Cannibalism
Teboho Edkins, France/South Africa/Netherlands, 2020, 78m
English, Sesotho, Fujianese, and Mandarin with English subtitles
South Africa-raised filmmaker Teboho Edkins’s remarkable documentary begins in the Chinese port city of Guangzhou, following the daily movements of a young African man trying to make a living working in a hotel; soon the film moves to Lesotho, a mountainous, landlocked region in the middle of South Africa, where a group of Chinese migrants have recently settled seeking their own economic stability and are living uneasily beside the rural community’s cattle ranchers. Edkins situates his subjects as though in a fictional narrative, privileging us to bear witness to their lives and minute interactions even as they become players in a story of an emerging and competitive global trade relationship. This expansive and immersive work of nonfiction redefines the rules of the “western” genre.

The Dove and the Wolf
Carlos Lenin, Mexico, 2019, 106m
Spanish with English subtitles
The terrors of the past haunt the present in the astonishing debut feature from Mexican filmmaker Carlos Lenin, in which trauma lurks beneath every meticulously composed shot. Factory workers Paloma (Paloma Petra) and Lobo (Armando Hernandez) share a tender, loving relationship, though as their story unfolds it grows ever clearer that something from long ago is obstructing their happiness, and that for their romance to survive they must confront it. Setting the memory of unspeakable violence against hushed tones and deceptively placid imagery, Lenin gradually reveals the source of their pain, constructing an essential drama of the people who become collateral to the rampant gang and cartel violence in contemporary Mexican society.

The Fever
Maya Da-Rin, Brazil, 2019, 98m
Portuguese with English subtitles
In her spellbinding first feature, Brazilian director Maya Da-Rin takes a delicate, metaphorical look at the fragile political state of her country from a perspective most moviegoers haven’t seen. Da-Rin centers on the working and home lives of a father and daughter of indigenous Desana descent—middle-aged Justinio (a splendid, quietly expressive Regis Myrupu, who won Best Actor at the Locarno Film Festival) and Vanessa (Rosa Peixoto)—who have moved from their community to the northwestern city of Manaus. There, he works as a security guard in a massive warehouse; she has a position in a hospital and has recently been accepted to study medicine in Brasilia University. Trying to support his family, all the while dreaming of a soul-sustaining return to the Amazonian rainforest, Justinio must contend with encroaching obstacles, including casual racism, reports of a wild animal on the loose, and a mysterious malaria-like illness. Da-Rin keeps the film at once realist and mythic, modern and spiritual, leading to a symbolic, emotional conclusion.

Giraffe
Anna Sofie Hartmann, Germany/Denmark, 2019, 87m
English, Norwegian, Danish, German, and Polish with English subtitles
A finely observed burgeoning romance is set against a rapidly changing landscape in Anna Sofie Hartmann’s spare and humane portrait of the dissolving boundaries of our ever more globalized world. Giraffe follows an ethnologist in her late thirties (Lisa Loven Kongsli) who has come to the remote island of Lolland in the south of Denmark. She’s here to study its inhabitants and record their traditions and objects before their homes are demolished to make way for a tunnel linking to Germany. Unexpectedly, she meets an attractive younger man (Jakub Gierszal), a laborer who’s been hired from Poland. Their beautifully etched love affair functions as the fictional centerpiece of an otherwise documentary-like exploration of belonging, memory, and work, featuring the island’s real inhabitants, whose way of life is about to change forever.

Identifying Features
Fernanda Valadez, Mexico/Spain, 2020, 94m
Spanish with English subtitles
Middle-aged Magdalena (Mercedes Hernandez) has lost contact with her son after he took off with a friend from their town of Guanajuato to cross the border into the U.S., hopeful to find work. Desperate to find out what happened to him—and to know whether or not he’s even alive—she embarks on an ever-expanding and increasingly dangerous journey to discover the truth. At the same time, a young man named Miguel (David Illescas) has returned to Mexico after being deported from the U.S., and eventually his path converges with Magdalena’s. From this simple but urgent premise, director Fernanda Valadez has crafted a lyrical, suspenseful slow burn, equally constructed of moments of beauty and horror, and which leads to a startling, shattering conclusion. Winner of the World Cinema Dramatic Audience and Screenplay Awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. A Kino Lorber release.

Kala azar
Janis Rafa, Netherlands/Greece, 2020, 91m
Greek with English subtitles
Appropriately for a film about the unspoken connection between humans and animals, Kala azar seems to invent a new cinematic language. Set in a desolate, perhaps post-apocalyptic landscape in which people and their dogs, cats, and fish live together in a kind of liminal state, Greek director Janis Rafa’s first film, a top prizewinner at this year’s Rotterdam International Film Festival, surveys the grim but matter-of-fact day-to-day lives of a young, unfettered couple who work for a crematorium service. As they pay house calls to people who have lost their pets, helping to give their animals respectful send-offs, their own relationship begins to fracture. Rafa focuses on tactile surfaces and bodies rather than conventional narrative beats; her film is a sobering, poignant vision of the cohabitation of different species on our endangered planet.

The Killing of Two Lovers
Robert Machoian, USA, 2020, 84m
After a startling opening image of extreme tension, first-time solo director Robert Machoian’s stark, slow-burn drama never quite goes where you expect. An evocative and atmospheric transmission from wintry Utah, The Killing of Two Lovers is a compact, economical portrait of a husband and father trying to keep it together while seething with rage during a trial separation from his wife. An interior drama set mostly outside, on the vast, lonely street where David (a knockout Clayne Crawford) stays with his ailing father just a few doors up from his wife Niki (Sepideh Moafi) and their four kids, Machoian’s film compassionately depicts a family in crisis, while moving at the ominous pace of a thriller. A complex, brooding soundscape from Peter Albrechtsen that seems to emanate directly from the head of its disturbed protagonist, and a claustrophobic aspect ratio contribute to the powerful emotional register of this impressive new work of American independent cinema.

The Metamorphosis of Birds
Catarina Vasconcelos, Portugal, 2020, 101m
Portuguese with English subtitles
A highly unorthodox documentary that has the feel of a precious heirloom, this impressionistic yet emotionally rich film finds Portuguese filmmaker Catarina Vasconcelos sifting through the memories and dreams of her ancestors. In prismatic images, richly shot on 16mm film, we get the sense of a family’s entire lineage, starting with her naval officer grandfather, Henrique, who married her grandmother, Beatriz, on her 21st birthday; he then spent extended periods at sea, leaving her with an expanding brood of children. This is the beginning of a generational saga, told in shards of memory and voiceover. The Metamorphosis of Birds achingly evokes the natural world—the changing seasons, the play of sunlight, the ever-flowing tides, and the plant and animal life—that counterbalances and nurtures human life cycles.

The Mole Agent
Maite Alberdi, Chile, 2020, 90m
Spanish with English subtitles
This clever, entirely unexpected delight weds a spy movie conceit to an observational documentary framework: Sergio is a dapper widower in his early eighties who gets hired by a private detective to go undercover in a nursing home to investigate whether a woman who lives there is being abused and robbed. Initially, Sergio, with his spy glasses and lack of tech savvy, cuts a conspicuous and amusing figure as he reports back to his no-nonsense boss. But like any great detective story, the solution to the mystery isn’t as important as what’s learned along the way, and Sergio forges poignant, sometimes heartbreaking bonds with an array of fascinating elderly women. Director Maite Alberdi’s camera captures interactions with remarkable intimacy and compassion, resulting in a warm, funny work of nonfiction with an emotional power that sneaks up on you.

Nafi’s Father
Mamadou Dia, Senegal, 2019, 109m
Fula with English subtitles
A personal conflict between brothers escalates into a political, religious, and moral crisis in the gripping debut from Senegalese filmmaker Mamadou Dia, winner of the Best First Feature award at the Locarno Film Festival. When Tierno (Alassane Sy), the acting imam of a small town, discovers that his daughter, Nafi (Aïcha Talla), has agreed to marry the son of his older brother, Ousmane (Saïkou Lo), he becomes desperate to find a way to stop the wedding, without getting in the way of his daughter’s independence. The source of his alarm is Ousmane’s growing affiliation with a fundamentalist form of Islam that believes in employing any means to prevail, even violence. As Ousmane’s power in the town strengthens, his relationship with his more moderate brother becomes ever more fractured. Dia’s compellingly told tragic drama brims with detail and is an eye-opening portrayal of a man trying to hold fast to his principles in a world of intolerance and greed.

Nasir
Arun Karthick, India, 2020, 80m
Tamil with English subtitles
A day-in-the-life portrait expands into something else entirely in this patient yet ultimately startling sophomore breakthrough from Tamil filmmaker Arun Karthick. Based on a short story by Dilip Kumar, Nasir takes place in Coimbatore, a town in Tamil Nadu, where a small Muslim community lives alongside the Hindu population. Nasir (Koumarane Valavane) is a Muslim family man struggling to make ends meet for his wife and their mentally challenged nephew who lives with them. He makes a small wage working at a Hindu sari shop, and is also a poetry lover whose verses we hear in lyrical passages. With placid, beautiful imagery of the everyday, Karthick brings us fully into Nasir’s mundane world, but off-screen news reports and casual conversations remind us of the violence that hangs in the peripheries.

Red Moon Tide
Lois Patiño, Spain, 2020, 84m
Spanish with English subtitles
As he proved in his previous works, including Coast of Death and Night Without Distance, films that take place on borders between countries, or between life and death, Spanish filmmaker Lois Patiño is singularly brilliant at creating transfixing, ghostly images of enormous power. With Red Moon Tide, he has made his most haunting film yet, a journey into a phantom world, set on Spain’s Galician coast, where Rubio, a diver who retrieved bodies from shipwrecks, has gone missing. The small seaside community, made up of both the living and the long deceased, mourn his absence, in a series of exquisitely composed tableaux that turn images of everyday lives into the mythical.

Servants
Ivan Ostrochovský, Slovakia/Romania/Czech Republic/Ireland, 2020, 80m
Slovak with English subtitles
Slovak filmmaker Ivan Ostrochovský turns a politically fraught moment in his nation’s history into a spare, tense morality tale that moves like a thriller. Set in totalitarian Czechoslovakia in 1980, Servants takes place at a Catholic seminary that is being put under increasing pressure by the ruling Communist party to fall in line and for its students to essentially act as informants for any nonconformist behavior; meanwhile its head priest has become an easy target for blackmail. Ostrochovský tells his story of mounting anxiety through the eyes of two conflicted novitiates just arrived at school, Michal (Samuel Polakovic) and Juraj (Samuel Skyva), and shoots in a pristine, high-contrast black-and-white that gives his film the sense of a constant waking nightmare.

The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs
Pushpendra Singh, India, 2020, 98m
Gujari and Hindi with English subtitles
A visually entrancing fable with a core of steel, Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs centers on the unforgettable Laila, a ferociously independent young Bakarwal woman from the politically fraught Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. She movies with her new husband, the shepherd Tanvir, to a home in the forest, where her beauty and strength make her the obsession of a befuddled local police officer and the forest guard Mushtaq, whose attention she constantly, cleverly thwarts. All the while she tries to figure out her own, new identity. Structured around a series of local folk songs and poetic interludes, which function as Laila’s interior monologues, this humorous and meditative feminist tale observes a woman who wants to be free to make her own decisions in a modernizing world, despite her connection to age-old traditions.

The Trouble with Being Born
Sandra Wollner, Austria/Germany, 2020, 94m
German with English subtitles
This eerily placid work of science fiction begins as though a summer idyll in an isolated house in the forest between a middle-aged man (Dominik Warta) and what appears to be his adolescent daughter (Lena Watson). As the languorous days wear on, instances of a stranger, more intimate relationship between the two emerge, and we discover not all is what it seems in this otherworldly yet earthy environment. The film then takes a turn when the girl drifts away into the woods. Austrian director Sandra Wollner’s disturbing, unsentimental vision of the fracturing effects of technology on human life and memory is both compassionate and unsparing, and vivid in its hard-to-shake imagery.

Twelve Thousand
Nadège Trebal, France, 2019, 111m
French with English subtitles
In her fiction debut, which she also wrote and co-stars in, French documentary filmmaker Nadège Trebal masters a series of radical tonal shifts for a wildly entertaining, sexually unapologetic portrait of a couple contending with economic instability and the fight to maintain equality in their relationship. In a star-is-born performance, the magnetic Arieh Worthalter is down-on-his-luck charmer Frank, who, after being fired from his black-market scrapyard job, enters into an agreement with his partner, Maroussia (Trebal), to earn exactly 12,000 euros, the amount that would equal her annual income. Throughout Frank’s journey, which is occasionally absurdist and fraught with perilous seductions, both financial and sexual, Trebal never loses sight of the very real pressures that capital puts on contemporary lives.

Two of Us
Filippo Meneghetti, France/Luxembourg/Belgium, 2019, 95m
French with English subtitles
In his intensely moving middle-aged queer romance, first-time feature filmmaker Filippo Meneghetti casts Martine Chevallier and the legendary Barbara Sukowa as Madeleine and Nina, two women who live in the same apartment building and have been carrying on a love affair in secret for decades. Now that Madeleine’s husband has died, Nina encourages her to tell the truth about their relationship to her meddlesome, selfish grown children, hoping they can move to Rome together. As in any great melodrama (Sukowa’s work with Fassbinder is here never far out of mind), the cruel vicissitudes of society and fate get in the way; yet as their romantic dreams become more distant, their desperate love grows ever stronger. A Magnolia Pictures release.

Window Boy Would Also Like to Have a Submarine
Alex Piperno, Uruguay/Argentina/Brazil/Netherlands/Philippines, 2019, 85m
Spanish and Tuwali with English subtitles
Enter a world of the unexpected in this exceptional surrealist debut from Uruguayan poet and filmmaker Alex Piperno in which doors never lead to where they’re supposed to and the world is a lot smaller than it appears. Melding together two inexplicably interconnected stories from wildly different settings, Piperno’s vividly drawn dream movie initially follows a group of rural farmers in a Filipino village who come to believe a shack that has mysteriously appeared in a valley clearing contains evil properties they must exorcise; at the same time, a young janitor working on a bougie cruise ship discovers a portal that opens to somewhere else entirely. Touching upon ideas of global connectivity and economic inequality with a lightly fantastical touch, Piperno has made a delightful fantasia for our moment.