White Sun & The Last Family| New Directors/New Films 2017 Discoveries
New Directors/New Films is one of the best series programmed in Manhattan every year. This is quite a feat considering the quality and quantity of annual series that spoil New Yorkers—the New York Film Festival, BAMcinemaFest, the New York Asian Film Festival, “To Save and Project” at MoMA, “Migrating Forms” at BAM, and on and on. Unlike these other programs, viewers get to experience unknown entities—burgeoning filmmakers with one, two, three movies under their belt. This 46-year old series embraces discovery. And what discoveries too be had! This year features a work from a nascent film scene and one from a thriving film culture in Central Europe.
From 1996 to 2006, civil war tore apart Nepal. It was a violent time that pitted Maoist rebels against royalists wanting to keep King Gyanendra’s monarchical rule. By the end of the conflict, more than 13,000 people were killed, the king was deposed, a republic was established, a new constitution was written, and a president was elected—Ram Baran Yadav. This is a quick sketch of recent Nepali history that provides the basis for White Sun’s (2016) drama.
Deepak Rauniyar’s second film is one of the few emerging from Nepal’s newly formed republic. It has plenty to say about the country immediately after its decade-long conflict. An ensemble film, White Sun rotates between three generations living in a village. A man, Chandra (Dayahang Rai), with backpack on back, returns after hearing the news that his father died. Chandra’s arrival creates a stir, for he hasn’t been home in quite some time. He has been fighting in the civil war with the Maoists, taking the revolutionary name of “Agni.” Once in the village, he quarrels with his royalist brother, Suraj (Rabindra Singh Baniya), during the burial ceremony in which, following custom, he must carry his father to the river. His estranged wife, Durga (Asha Maya Magrati), greets him with paperwork for him to sign, allowing his daughter, Pooja (Sumi Malla), whom he has never seen, to attend school. The villagers are suspicious of him. And to top it all off, the little street urchin, Badri (Amrit Pariyar), who follows him from Kathmandu, may be his son.
White Sun has many sub-plots weaving in and out of the narrative, but the main thread concerns the body, and its journey to the river. While carrying it—wrapped up on a stretcher—Chandra and Suraj can’t help but fight, ultimately coming to blows with each other. The body is left in transit, since the village elders cannot lift it, leaving Chandra no choice to seek help from police, politicians, and guerilla soldiers.
White Sun belongs to a group of films within the Nepali industry that Rauniyar calls “conscious cinema.” White Sun, Rauniyar’s first film, Highway (2011), and more push back against Bollywood movies saturating theaters, for these works are topical, political, and critical of Nepal. For White Sun in particular, it has a no-frills aesthetic. Its plain look puts the center of attention on its characters, all of whom are not drawn, but sketched out as strictly functional in this kind of social, and de-centered drama unfolding among many players. In this way, White Sun shares affinities with the civil-minded work of Ousmane Sembene and the ensembles of Robert Altman. Taking a village as a synecdoche for a country juggling traditional customs with a progressive government. It’s a film in which every action is a political one.
With The Last Family, we move from South Asia to Central Europe, from the public to the private sphere. For his debut feature, Jan P. Matuszyński takes as his subject an acclaimed Polish artist of surreal, fantastic, and hellish paintings, Zdisław Beksiński (Andrzej Seweryn), specifically his relationship with his troubled son, Tomasz (Dawid Orgodnik), an important translator and music journalist, as well as the rest of his close-knit family from 1977 to 2005, the year of his murder. His story is a tragic one. It’s a tale in which his bleak art unfortunately mirrored his life, and not vice versa.
Matuszyński’s film glimpses at a dysfunctional family over the years. However, this is not that quirky iteration of dysfunction that you see in American films by Wes Anderson and his copycats. Quite the opposite, the Beksiński’s squabble, crack dark jokes, and die tragically.
The Last Family takes place in and around Zdisław’s apartment, which is close to Tomasz’s. Matuszyński goes for authenticity in look and feel of the time periods and locale. Just look at the wealth of footage found on YouTube under the account of a Beksiński specialist, Andy Teszner. All the video footage comes from Zdisław, who was an early adopter of the camcorder. A real life David Holzman, he recorded his and his family’s daily life to intrusive and invasive degrees. Like other recent biopics (Jackie ), Matuszyński recreates and incorporates the footage, simulating the full-frame aspect ratio and texture of VHS. A mark of fine craftsmanship, he maintains shot and editing patterns over the course of The Last Family’s two hours, frequently shooting wide shots from knee-level camera perspectives. These shots give the impression of time both changing and freezing spaces, coupled with a sense of entrapment as characters are framed in doors and hallways. The Last Family just goes to show you that hell is your loved ones. Home is where the hurt is.