“If you give an audience all the answers they’ll forget you as soon as they leave the cinema. But, if you ask the right questions, they’ll think about you for days.” This was the advice of two-time Academy Award winner Asghar Farhadi as he delivered a masterclass to a group of burgeoning filmmakers at this year’s FEST – New Directors New Films Festival.
A humble, yet engaging speaker, Farhadi talked about his work with insight and humour and, although light on didacticism, he was generous with anecdotes about his working methods. “There are no simple answers to the complicated questions of life” he concluded, “You just have to find the best way to tell a story.”
Dedicated to promoting the work of new talent, FEST – New Directors New Films (situated in the beautiful Portuguese beach town of Espinho) encourages young filmmakers to investigate new artistic methods through a series of workshops, masterclasses and a carefully curated program of first time features and short films. Now in its seventh year, the festival has previously showcased work from then-unknown talents such as Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Sebastian Silva – and CineVue’s own Rob Savage – and this year’s event was no different.
For a festival that aims to harnesses the raw, transgressive energy of nascent filmmakers it was perhaps understandable that short filmmaking dominated the program. The stand out was Qiu Yang’s Palme d’Or winner A Gentle Night, a film emblematic of the kind of indirect cinema Farhadi was advocating. Centred around a mother’s search for her missing daughter, this quietly devastating drama finds itself caught between the rampant individualism of modern-day China and the Confucian values it’s becoming increasingly divorced from, with Qiu’s intelligent use of sound and light pointing the finger at an increasingly indifferent society. Loosely inspired by the real-life disappearance of children in Changzhou, Qiu’s subtle, yet savage approach results in a haunting meditation on the loneliness and disconnection of a world in flux.
Elsewhere, Andres Cornejo’s documentary The Kitman demonstrated how focusing on underrepresented voices can encourage new outlooks on life. Occupying the solitary spaces of the football world, Cornejo’s film observes the kitman for Ecuadorian football team Independiente del Valle during their journey to the final of the 2016 Copa Libertadores de América. Stripping the beautiful game of its flags, colours and tribal pageantry, Cornejo observes his subject as he sits alone beneath the stands, listening to the roar of the crowd and praying for his team to succeed. Positioning Football as a substitute for religion in an increasingly secular world, The Kitman shows the lengths some will go to in search of hope in an unforgiving world.
One of the recurring questions at this year’s event was the responsibility of filmmakers to act as social advocates. Considering how his work has been championed for bringing social issues to the forefront, Farhadi’s response to this question proved quite controversial. “We often feel we have a responsibility to give a message to the people, but who put us in that position? My genre is ordinary life and themes like these are present in everything, what is important is how we tell these stories.” The same personal approach to tackling systemic concerns was observed in fellow Iranian director Mohsen Gharaei’s Blockage, a striking debut that gives a human face to the economic condition imposed on Iran by the US trade sanction.
An arithmetically fashioned potboiler, this tightly scripted tale of corruption and hypocrisy follows Qasem (Hamed Behdad), a municipal worker tasked with monitoring the street vendors who peddle their wares on the streets of Tehran. However, Qasem is no saint, and his own greed sees him falling deeper and deeper into a quagmire of self-destruction. The latest in a surge of contemporary Iranian films concerning class and gender inequality, Blockage generates its suspense from the inevitability of its outcome; that corrupt and powerful institutions will always attempt to crush the unwitting monsters they create.
Contemporary Iranian films like Blockage, and those from directors like Mani Haghighi and Farhadi, have been described by academics and certain corners of the press as a cinema of reflection; films that hold a mirror up to a society often at odds with its rulers. However, for some directors cinema can also be a means of working through personal trauma, such as Killing Jesus, the semi-autobiographical debut of Columbian director Laura Mora. Loosely based on the assassination of her own father, Mora’s film opens on the murder of a university professor as witnessed by his daughter Lita (Natasha Jaramillo).
Mora never tracked down the man who murdered her father, but she’s clearly fascinated with the question of what she would do if she did find him. So, in act of cinematic wish fulfilment, Lita spots the face of her father’s killer in a night club and, in an attempt to unearth his motivation she decides to instigate a friendship with him. However, as the pair become closer her desire for vengeance is gradually diluted by a reluctant sense of empathy. A compellingly directed and acted film, about the emptiness of revenge, Killing Jesus hums with both personal and political resentment. Sadly, although Mora appears to be asking the right questions the film’s fleeting moments of insight get lost in a whirlwind of emotion as she desperately searches for answers.
It was fitting that the highlight of this year’s program was a film that asked the biggest question of our time; how did life begin? Norman Leto’s avant-garde documentary Photon, plays out like a sensory overload of ideas, beginning with an animated representation of the big bang, then seamlessly flowing into a speculative science-fiction movie that foreshadows a dystopian future in which technology replaces Homo sapiens. What initially feels like an extravagant physics lecture about the origins of life and the biological foundations of human behaviours such as violence, depression and alcoholism, gives way to a mesmerising rumination on movement and rhythm.
The result is a film that at one point demystifies the miracle of childbirth whilst simultaneously celebrating the process of bodily excretion. In awe of the spontaneous, incidental poetry of life, Photon is a truly unique piece of filmmaking and although It’s hard to say if audiences will learn anything from Leto’s highly scientific approach, they certainly won’t forget the questions he asks.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble