59th New York Film Festival, “Currents”

Herb Shellenberger

November 12, 2021
Film at Lincoln Center, New York
September 24–October 10, 2021

After the virtual screenings and drive-ins of its 2020 edition, this year’s New York Film Festival (NYFF) once again rolled through Lincoln Center: a program of screenings, talks, parties, and red carpets that—with the exception of vaccine checks and masks—would not have felt out of place pre-pandemic. Situated as a festival-within-a-festival, NYFF’s “Currents” strand was billed as an eclectic showcase of innovative cinema, comprising 15 features and 36 short films that ranged from experimental and essay film to low-budget arthouse. In the context of a reduction in support for experimental film across festival lineups internationally, “Currents” was this year marked by a sense of plentitude that felt both generative and somewhat overwhelming. The general level of quality was high, but several works stood out.

A Night of Knowing Nothing (all films mentioned 2021), Payal Kapadia’s feature debut, is a bold work of documentary that balances the poetic and political in depicting protest movements at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). (Kapadia joined the institute as a student in 2012, producing several phenomenal short films through to the end of the decade.) It opens with an off-kilter shot, camera low to the ground like Ozu’s, showing a group of young people dancing in front of a video projection of what appears to be a dance scene from an older Indian film. This mysterious perspective leads the viewer into a black-and-white film that flickers like a dream between visual materials and tonal registers, including lovelorn letters read over home movies, protest marches, and CCTV footage. This last element documents abuse by the police, who the film suggests are cracking down on student activism at the command of a conservative head of the FTII who has been installed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Shot over several years, A Night of Knowing Nothing is both a bombshell exposé on the state of art under Modi’s right-wing government and a beautiful work of collectivity, resistance, and longing.

Sitting at the top of the raked seating at the Walter Reade Theater, watching the figures in A Night of Knowing Nothing dance in front of a projected film, it seemed almost possible to step within the monochrome glow being cast across the horizontal expanse of the room and enter the world of the film. This feeling of immersion—the commingling of what’s on screen and the viewer’s immediate environment, a sense of participation and physicality (with)in the work—is made literal in Carl Elsaesser’s Home When You Return. The American artist-filmmaker has crafted a double portrait of 1950s amateur filmmaker Joan Thurber Baldwin and his deceased grandmother, as he cleans out the home that she lived in for decades. In a breathtaking sequence towards the end of the film, a first-person perspective guides the viewer away from a realtor droning, with casual callousness, about the outdated features of the house, and on a walkthrough of its empty spaces. A silhouette of a man suddenly appears on the screen, shot from behind as he walks through the rooms. This abrupt switching from first- into third-person would be rote in a video game but is all the more impressive when one realizes that Elsaesser is composing these images on the less malleable format of 16mm film.

Daniel Chew and Micaela Durand’s narrative short 38 and Tiffany Sia’s essay film Do Not Circulate both visualize the effects that haptic mobile devices can have on our psychology and physiology. Chew and Durand’s film follows a 38-year-old woman who lives in a perpetual state of distraction and psychosis after the dissolution of a relationship. The film’s fragmented timeline symbolizes our hybrid IRL-online existence and the projections and distortions of social media: at one point, the protagonist describes her ex-lover’s new partner as a cross between J-Lo and Nosferatu. 38 brilliantly mixes elements of psychodrama—here referring to the mid-twentieth-century experimental film genre associated with Maya Deren and early Stan Brakhage—with a contemporary take on the alternate virtual world that permeates our physical existence.

Sia’s film takes a radically different form. It is primarily composed from vertically oriented screen recordings of videos shared on livestreams, social media, group chats, and forums of the Prince Edward Station Attack of 2019, in which police indiscriminately attacked protestors at a Hong Kong subway station. Through an unrelenting voiceover, which carries emotional force in spite of its neutral delivery, Sia explores hauntings, fake news, and the relationship between filmmaking and regimes of torture as she traces the dissemination of this footage online. Paired with these screen recordings at the scale of a cinema projection, Sia’s media college refreshes our encounters with both digital media and Hong Kong, a city which cinemagoers are more likely to have experienced through Jackie Chan’s “Police Story” series (1985–2013) or Tony Leung Chiu-wai as a lovesick policeman in Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 crime romance Chungking Express. During her voiceover, Sia quotes theorist Cameron L. White: “digital media has already reshaped cinema.”

NYFF remains important because it preserves a space to encounter the above films—variously conceptual, rigorous, entertaining, and immersive—in an environment best suited to their ability to surprise, shock, and enfold the viewer in their images and sound. While FID Marseille took place with a full lineup in July, it was the exception to the rule: lineups for new work at Toronto’s Wavelengths, Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival, and IndieLisboa were reduced for a second year, while experimental film was wiped clean from Locarno Festival after it made inroads with artisanal makers such as Ja’Tovia Gary, Joshua Gen Solondz, and Diana Vidrascu in 2019.

It would be hard to overstate the immersive experience that cinematic projections can provide. Yet in many other festivals, “immersive” has become a buzzword applied to programming that takes place outside of the film screening, in the space of VR goggles, projection mapping, interactive film, or augmented reality devices. The vast majority of these creations are regrettable from an artistic standpoint but major film festivals, from London to Sundance to Venice, have embraced them out of a misplaced belief that they share commonalities with the history, technology, or spectatorship of cinema. (NYFF’s comparable section, “Convergence,” appears to have dropped from the festival lineup since its eighth iteration in 2019.) Perhaps NYFF has realized that the boundary-pushing work by artist-filmmakers in its “Currents” section can be just as enveloping, sensory, participatory, and surprising as experiments with new technology. These films prove that cinema, now in its thirteenth decade, can still alter viewers’ perspectives and lead the artform in as-yet-undiscovered directions.

Herb Shellenberger is a curator, writer, DJ, and postal worker based in suburban Pennsylvania.

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