First things first, I realize this post is ridiculously late – the 50th edition of the NYFF wrapped up just over two months ago. Between responsibilities for Sundance and DOC NYC, time got away from me. For those same reasons, I also only managed to see a handful of the more than fifty documentaries in the lineup. Still, it’s worth noting my brief thoughts on those films before 2012 is a thing of the past:
Going into the festival, Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Véréna Paravel’s project was one of my two must-see films for one simple reason: I loved the former’s previous film, SWEETGRASS. Like that film, the newer one is, at its core, about man vs nature – in this case, the audience is afforded the opportunity to experience the reality of the lives of the crew of a North Atlantic commercial fishing vessel. Outfitting a number of miniature cameras to various parts of the ship – both on and off the deck – Castaing-Taylor and Paravel capture remarkable, almost impossible, footage that attains a sort of sublime quality at times. Long takes carefully edited together – from the close-up bobbing of a fish head post decapitation to the seemingly endless discharge of fish guts out of the side of the vessel – impart to the viewer a visceral and hypnotic sense of the rhythms of life and work at sea – and its dangers, as the camera, and by extension, the observer, seems often on the verge of being lost in the watery depths. The filmmakers’ achievement, is both aesthetic, crafting a painterly tableau of the oceanic environment, and haunting.
Dror Moreh’s was the second film I made sure to see during NYFF, having missed it at Toronto. Gaining unprecedented access to the living former heads of israeli’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, Moreh reviews the relationship between Israel and Palestine since the game-changing Six-Day War of 1967. The men reflect on the decisions made under their watch that have either contributed to the peace process, or, more often than not, have ultimately served as a barricade – and how their experiences have opened their eyes and minds to the need for real dialogue. It’s hard to imagine a situation in which intelligence officials in corresponding roles in the CIA or FBI would speak on record with such jaw-dropping candor that ultimately goes against the typical Israeli hardline policies to the Palestinian question, the occupied territories, and Israeli settlements. This provocative and urgently needed film has made the Academy shortlist, and appears in the Spotlight section at Sundance next month.
FIRST COUSIN ONCE REMOVED
Over five years, director Alan Berliner visited with his cousin Edwin Honig, a respected academic, poet, translator, and playwright, as the latter struggled with Alzheimer’s. Honig was also Berliner’s beloved mentor, and this film stands as the filmmaker’s attempt to pay him his due respect while simultaneously portraying the deep loss resulting from the disease – to his memory, lucidity, and ability to communicate over time. Presenting Honig’s body of work through fragmented archival photography and film, as well as examples of his writing, Berliner poignantly echoes the confusion Honig often demonstrates during his visits. Cognizant of potential criticisms of exploitation, Berliner is careful to avoid sentimentality or manipulation. Instead the portrait is intimate, compassionate, and quietly revelatory about the impact of memory on the self.
DECEPTIVE PRACTICE: THE MYSTERIES AND MENTORS OF RICKY JAY
Another portrait featured at the festival, Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein reveal the acclaimed playing card magician and those who have influenced his career. The master showman is no stranger to holding an audience’s attention – as demonstrated in an entertaining film clip of a performing seven-year-old Jay – and Bernstein and Edelstein wisely let him show off his talents throughout. Less a conventional biography than a love letter to magic, the film doesn’t dwell on personal history but instead explores how Jay translated his passion for legerdemain into a sustainable career. Neither does the film ever reveal the secret behind Jay’s tricks – the joy instead is in the willing desire of the viewer to be tricked and entertained, and that’s what this simple but enjoyable documentary accomplishes.
One of the unexpected pleasures of the festival was the chance to see Dominique Benicheti’s rediscovered 1972 film about a French farmer and his wife. Despite winning at Locarno that year, the film has been nearly forgotten – and what a loss that has been until now. Benicheti’s observational portrait is both timeless and ahead of its time, an immersive look at life on a small farm with octogenarians Jules and Felicie, down to tiny but engrossing details of their daily routines – blacksmithing, drinking coffee, making lunch, shaving. As time passes over the course of this five-year project, this thoughtful film slowly reveals a melancholic side, recasting what’s been viewed as not only a document of a rural existence, but of a decades-long marriage dealing with major change.