Though a little late, and by no means do I want to resurrect 2020 and all of its misfortunes, but our writers have once again highlighted films — both old and new — that either didn’t get the attention they deserved or remain neglected in the annals of film history, ready to be viewed and re-viewed. These are the movies that have left an indelible mark on our contributors the past year.
All the Vermeers in New York (Jon Jost, 1990)
I’m definitely cheating a bit since this is a film I saw at the beginning of January — however, this was definitely the hidden gem that has lately charmed me. What a fascinating little film, consisting of several intricate yet seamlessly integrated references to the greats (chief amongst them, Rohmer and Antonioni), its camera lingering on seemingly inconsequential moments in the lives of its characters. Beyond its iconic and masterful scenes shot at the Met, whose influence can be felt later on in, say, Hong Sang-soo’s Night and Day (2008), Jost’s dialogue-heavy work has a strange quality that very few films have. For instance, in an introductory part it’s not quite clear which one of the characters will turn out to be the protagonist, and it doesn’t even really matter: with the lens hovering close, a little piece of their humanity comes to the fore, which is all the more poignant given that almost none of the characters, save for Anna and Felicity, seem able to connect. And then there’s the film’s form: ranging from rigorous, long static shots and the odd scenes in which the lighting seems inspired by the titular Dutch painter, to its unexpected breaks into a quasi-experimental and poetical territory, as the camera dizzyingly sweeps across inner architectures and surfaces to sounds of free jazz — intermezzos which serve to underpin the shifting and unstable realities of the post-Reagan years that the film’s characters are navigating through. (A restoration of the film is available on MUBI.)
Honorable mention: The cinema of Swede Gustaf Molander — quite possibly the unluckiest director among the early pioneers of European sound cinema.
Free Time (Manfred Kirchheimer, 2019)
There were many great non-fiction films released last year (seven of them constitute my Top 10, which is quite unusual for me), but one that seems to be getting little attention is Free Time, the latest from documentarian Manfred Kirchheimer. As he has demonstrated consistently since the ‘60s with films like his masterpiece Stations of the Elevated (1981), Kirchheimer is a New York City symphonist par excellence. His subject this time around is, quite simply, New Yorkers at play, whether out on the streets in residential neighborhoods. By supporting his lustrously restored 16mm black-and-white footage — shot with Walter Hess from 1958–60 — with a soundtrack constructed in the present day, Kirchheimer psychically ties together past and present, suggesting that this vision of New York City as a vast playground has persisted through time. As ever in NYC, though, that vision is constantly on the precipice of extinction thanks to gentrification, which Kirchheimer reminds us of through periodic aerial shots of tall skyscrapers and images of demolished ruins. But during a year when most of us were forced to hunker down in our homes, even the least rosy parts of Kirchheimer’s film couldn’t help but evoke some sort of nostalgia about a world we were all missing.
This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, 2019)
In 2004, I visited Roșia Montană, an ancient Romanian village threatened by the use of cyanide for gold mining. Apart from my environmental concerns and an urge to revolt, what really stayed with me were a villager’s words about his neighbor who accepted the mining company’s deal and moved to town. He committed suicide soon after his displacement. According to the villager, his heart never left the place. Lemohang Mosese’s film follows Mantoa, an elderly widow who, after the death of her son, has little desire to keep living. She struggles to plan her own burial in the ancestral land of Nasaretha, a village doomed to be flooded by the construction of a dam. Her determination to keep tradition is the driving force of the community that begins to question the advantages of resettlement and so-called progress.
This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is not the typical environmental drama, exploiting the tension between modern and ancient ways of living, nor does it nostalgically praise small communities for their subsistence on farming. Rather, the film reclaims a sovereignty of the self in its protagonist. Listing her last wishes, Mantoa emphasizes her preference for local customs, like pre-missionary chants and other rituals, as a means to define herself. Her being buried in Nasaretha, and the opposition to the desecration of the graves, is an act of resistance, a means not only to die with dignity but to maintain a tie with the land. Mosese captures her passionate actions in extreme close-ups, isolating her experience from the collective. We likely witness the birth of a legend instead of the death of an elderly woman, as the actress Mary Twala Mhlongo brilliantly embodies a catalyst of change. The radical, ritual-like gestures Mosese invokes (a man dragging along a coffin in 2016’s “Behemoth: Or the Game of God,” the woman carrying a wooden cross on her back in Mother, I Am Suffocating.) are replaced by more subtle, tender images. In one scene, sweat runs down Mantoa’s wrinkled face while she struggles to dig her grave. She literally soaks the earth of her ancestors with her effort to reunite. It’s her symbolic pouring one out for the dead in a land where this fragile, magical connection may perish.
Dis-moi (Chantal Akerman, 1980)
Any screening in a theater is a blessing these days. I live in a smallish city, and theaters have been open since June with restrictions. The privileges are many: the theater itself, the people, and above all, the choice of film made by someone else, which takes me out of the self-absorption of my taste. I attended a double feature blindly; I only knew it was the last evening programmed by the students in the curatorial program at the film school here, before passing the torch on to the incoming class. The first film was “Los montes” (1982) by José María Martín Sarmiento: in a Spanish town in the middle of nowhere, an old man keeps repeating that he is close to dying. His wife gives the alarm, and an army of old women appear out of nowhere. “He is dying on us!” they scream, and he does suddenly die. At the funeral, they drink and tell jokes, reminiscing about all the other men’s funerals they’ve lived to attend. It seems to be the last night on Earth; they may all die together, so no one has to be the last one standing.
The second film was Chantal Akerman’s Dis-moi (1980), which I had never heard of. Akerman visits several old ladies for teatime in their homes. They are all Holocaust survivors, and they try to talk about it: their parents, their childhoods, their old towns. One of the ladies starts blackmailing Akerman with cakes: if she doesn’t eat, she won’t get any more stories. Little by little, Akerman stays with her. They have dinner, watch TV, they fall asleep. Has a grandmother been adopted, or has a granddaughter? Together, both films reveal the secret jokes of a generation that was born at the beginning of the 20th century and has lived through everything (civil war, dictatorship, holocaust, migration), the comedies they play for each other when no one is looking, when the men and the children are absent. They laugh at it all, for they are used to telling stories that perhaps no one listens to, that they find pleasure in telling each other. Is this the way they always are when we are not around? This was one of those miraculous moments in which I felt I was a real witness to something. These ladies cracked the best jokes of 2020.
“Still Processing” (Sophy Romvari, 2020)
The act of archiving, writes Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever, is not simply a matter of keeping a record of historical phenomena, it also involves a consideration of the “question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow.” The archivist collects and arranges a physical repository of images, ornaments, and other artifacts that hold personal or cultural significance to form a concrete link between the contemporary subject and the lost object of memory. The tasks that the archivist engages in (selecting which items to keep and which to exclude, organizing them into a coherent order) entail a confrontation with the past through the prism of the present moment. “Found” objects are subjected to a perceptual reframing that simultaneously alters their understanding of history and forms a foundation for thinking about the future. In her latest short, the magnificent “Still Processing,” Sophy Romvari investigates the potential of the archive to function as a repository of human memories and to aid the archivist in working through traumatic events.
At the center of “Still Processing” is a shocking familial tragedy: the untimely deaths of the filmmaker’s siblings, David and Jonathan. The film documents Romvari’s first encounter with a collection of old family photographs sent to her by her parents, which had been kept out of sight for a significant amount of time following the passing of her brothers. The photos depict various scenes from the filmmaker’s childhood, images of her reading, exploring the area around the family home, and playing with her brothers. Although the photographs may seem to be mundane snapshots, our knowledge of the trauma that occurred in the interim between their capture and the filmmaker’s interaction with them in the present lends them an incredible sense of weight. For Romvari, these images function at once as triggers for personal reverie and as painful reminders of the unchangeable nature of the past. We watch as Romvari processes her immense grief by pouring over these snapshots, and then proceeds to memorialize them by printing negatives, converting them to binary code to be stored on a digital hard drive, and, finally, displaying them as a slide show in a lecture hall.
Romvari directly, physically interacts with these photographic traces of her past, therapeutically working through the act of mourning by revising, preserving, and exhibiting these images for consumption by the public. “Still Processing,” then, is at once an archive of Romvari’s familial history and a visualization of the process of constructing an autobiographical archive. The encounter with trauma through the archive may therefore serve as a way to use Derrida’s terminology, “make amends,” with the traumatic event by directly confronting painful memories that have been repressed and pushed aside, and therefore work through the “unfinished business” of grief. Of course, the act of shaping these photographs into a slideshow also acts, on a meta-textual level, as a reflexive commentary on the making of “Still Processing” itself.
The Other One (Francisco Bermejo, 2020)
One of the highlights of my year was Chilean filmmaker Francisco Bermejo’s debut feature, El Otro (The Other One), which premiered at the 51st edition of Visions du Réel, which took place online this year. Remarkably original and subtly radical, Bermejo’s debut deservedly took home the Best Film Award in the Burning Lights category dedicated to narrative and formal experimentation.
Inspired by Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, it’s a stranded portrait of Oscar Garrido, a man living in a ramshackle hut by the sea somewhere on the coast in Chile. Although he appears to be alone, he is also visited by another man, different yet identical. They admonish each other and argue. One enjoys reading and drinking; the other goes out fishing and hunting. Outside the hut, there is only the vastness of nature to keep them company. Midway through the film, a whale washes up by the house. The arguments between the two men increase, and they separate, only to reunite at the end: “Come back. We are both Oscar Garrido.”
There’s no shortage of questions in El Otro, not least: What are we seeing? Straight from the start, Bermejo casts the audience as an equal participant in the search for meaning, getting us to reconsider what we are seeing and, crucially, the implications of our gaze upon it. What emerges is an unpredictable and undefinable dissection of madness, a portrait of a man in conversation with himself, the “other one” of the film’s title. The technique is rewardingly subtle: in Oscar’s inner world, madness is a form of solace for his solitude, and the conversations he has with his double keep himself, and the film, going. This is reinforced by Bermejo’s tight, tiered compositions that use mirrors, windows, and doorframes to further splinter the space and disorientate the viewer.
The performance of Oscar Garrido, poignant and sad and true, brings to mind the maxim of another great writer of melancholy and multiple identities, the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa: “To pretend is to know oneself.” And here, performance is employed as a method for gesturing towards understanding the human condition. Whether subtle reenactment or an insane feat in the editing room, Bermejo has given space to his subject to “perform” his inner world in all its complexity. What is truly remarkable about Bermejo’s debut is how it refuses to reduce its subject to an easily accessible stereotype, searching instead for a form that reflects the unwieldiness of an actual human life. The boldness of the gesture alone makes for a radical (and respectful) ode to an unorthodox man; the union of content and form makes for exhilarating cinema.
Top image: Jon Jost’s All the Vermeers in New York