Pop Stuff: The Year Cinema Didn’t Die
Cinema fulfills a basic human yearning to connect
Amongst the pleasures the pandemic claimed, going to the movies was high on the list. 2020 was the year that many said cinema with a little ‘c’, the cinema of the small budget film, was finished. By the end of last year, the second-largest U.S. cinema chain, Regal, had declared bankruptcy and the largest, AMC, had vowed on a quarterly investor call to fight to the death. In a doomy trifecta, Sean Connery passed away, the latest Bond release, No Time to Die, was rescheduled for the third time due to Covid and last month Amazon announced that it was buying MGM Studios, 007’s longtime home. Warner Bros. did the unthinkable by releasing its much-awaited Wonder Woman sequel on the HBO Max streaming service concurrently with cinemas, because people weren’t leaving their homes. This was just a prelude to Warner’s decision to stream their entire 2021 film slate. The much-revered theatrical window, that sliver of time when you can only see a movie in theaters, the thing which used to make a movie a movie, had collapsed. Those of us lucky enough to have them, turned instead to screens on our walls or in our palms. If the landscape was changing for cinematic franchises, that bring in billions by spawning video games, figurines and Halloween costumes on top of on-screen thrills, the prognosticators foresaw little hope for the Indie.
In a city like New York, the end of the movies as we know them would be a particularly dire outcome. For one thing, New Yorkers, not known for our calm, sorely need our pacifiers, our outlets, our flights of imagination. This is a city of people brawling on sidewalks, giving the finger to oncoming traffic out of taxicab windows, talking as fast as they walk, working anxiously out of shoebox-sized apartments or trying to out-success each other from big, shouty lofts. For another, the city and the movies have had such a long-standing love affair that a break-up would be hard to swallow. New York City appears in more films than any other location, she’s the main squeeze. In turn, the states of New York and California make up over twenty percent of the U.S. box office with New York City and Los Angeles accounting for the bulk of that. So it is hardly surprising that in spite of the cinema doomsayers, the city made reopening its many beloved theaters a priority and the results are being avidly watched as a cinematic bellwether.
In March, a full year after the city cemented its status as virus epicenter, cinemas opened at twenty-five percent capacity. In April, Film at Lincoln Center, an institution dedicated to independent cinema, one that championed the work of such greats as Spike Lee, Wong Kar Wai, Chantal Akerman and Christopher Nolan when they were little known, announced the line-up of the New Directors New Films festival (NDNF in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art) with some trepidation, given that their screens had been dark for over a year. The festival, which showcases debut directors, is synonymous with Spring’s blossoming. My walk across Central Park, a once regular pilgrimage from my home on the East Side to the West Side where the Lincoln Center Film theaters sit snuggled on a single city block, is, at Springtime, accompanied by swarms of yellow daffodils that this year seemed to nod their heads in particular anticipation. NDNF 2020, had been scuttled online, on the heels of the pandemic. In 2021, after a year of ‘Netflix and Chilling’ with an endless supply of prestige television, glittering with A-list casts, there was a sense that viral contagion combined with a streaming boom would be the final nail in cinema’s coffin. It was unclear if the audience still had an appetite for the ninety-eight-minute ‘foreign’ film that hoped to break new ground or launch a career.
It turns out they did. When Lincoln Center’s theaters opened with a restoration of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror and Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit, they did so to sold out, albeit socially distanced houses. However, it was the NDNF line-up comprising emerging talent around the globe in a breathtaking and emotionally resonant selection of films for its fifty-year milestone, one that the never easily impressed New York Times called ‘cutting edge and bracingly eclectic’, that gave the lie to the doomsayers. The repeatedly presaged death of independent film appeared to be fake news in the face of artfully crafted pieces of work that have something new to say, novel ways to do it and merit a big screen and a communal experience. The collective resonance of these stories is muted at best from a living room sofa and the fulfillment of storytelling with an uninterrupted beginning, middle and end is a craving that cannot be sated by the most enthralling episodic series. For me, initially unvaccinated and watching virtually with the benefit of a projector, the films were a snapshot of independent cinema at its best and a harbinger of more to come.
The festival highlights, antidotes to the frequently shallow abundance of today’s big-budget pictures, were intimate portraits of people grappling with relationships, particularly familial bonds and coming to terms with new orders of their own, very specific worlds, something many of us can related to after this past year. My personal favorites teased emotions of the moment in a way that only independent cinema, at liberty to take risks and free from studio constraints, can. The festival opened with El Planeta from debut artist-turned-director Amalia Ulman, following turns at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals. The Argentinian-born, New York-based director’s mother-daughter black comedy is set in the coastal Spanish town of Gijon which has been eviscerated by Spain’s economic crisis – eerily reminiscent of shuttered city storefronts during Covid. The beautifully shot black and white film (cinematography courtesy Carlos Riga) recalls Almodovar, drained of splashy color and with a more stoic approach to gender and sexuality that reflects current mores. Decades prior, Almodovar screened new work at the NDNF and, as Ulman demonstrates, independent film has continued to draw singular voices that stretch the potential of storytelling as he did.
El Planeta introduces us to Leo, a fashion student and her single mother, Maria, played to great effect by the director and her own mother, who live beyond their means, wear old furs and go shopping on credit with a vague sense of denial about the future. Everything hangs in a precarious balance as the film teeters on the edge of hope that things will get better and denial that they will combust. Mother and daughter prop up each other and the house of cards around them by pouting for Instagram, faking it through job interviews, dressing up for fancy meals that might well be their last and buying shoes they can barely afford whilst the electricity is turned off in their apartment. Hanging over it all is a sense of a past that was – the husband that died leaving the pair in limbo, the unseen political big-shot who still sends pastries to Maria, the vestiges of a life Leo had to leave behind in London. As much as these things may seem frivolous they are a stark echo for many who were forced to shift lanes during the pandemic, lose jobs and comfort relatives, that the wheels can come off even well-oiled lives.
If El Planeta traffics strikingly in the interplay between mother and daughter, P.S. Vinothraj’s Tamil film Pebbles, does so equally strikingly in a tussle between father and son. The premise is disarmingly simple. A day-drunk and rage-filled Ganpathy (Karuththadaiyun) pulls his young son Velu (Chella Pandi) out of school to chase down his wife, who has left for her mother’s house after a heated domestic fight. I was thrilled to see a film from India in the line-up, particularly one that showcases a rural Indian landscape with big emotions and characters, eschewing sentimental poverty porn tropes and dramatic flourishes even as it deals with issues of daily strife and domestic abuse. Pebbles, which premiered at Rotterdam (IFFR), is the antithesis of Bollywood, epitomizing pared-down cinema by relying on non-professional actors who nonetheless master the art of conveying so much through expression and movement that dialogue is barely necessary. This, combined with the use of an arid, drought-ridden landscape captured beautifully by cinematographers Vignesh Kumulai and Parthib and a spare score from Yuvan Shankar Raja, who works to amplify nature itself, makes for the most glorious kind of cinema that, stripped to its essence, reaches us at ours.
Pebbles has been described as a road movie and if so, it is one in its most elemental form. Aside from a brief period in a bus, father and son are mainly walking – for the most part stomping the soles of their bare feet against the scorched-earth road. There is something of the energy of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road in Vinothraj’s film. For Velu, as for Furiosa, it is the end of his world. His parents are at war. He can barely control the simmering anger he feels at his father who is, by all accounts, a villain rapt in the throes of toxic masculinity. At one point Velu picks up a shard of glass and trains the harsh glare of the sun in a diamond-shaped reflection on his father’s back. In this childish target practice, we see how anger and violence beget themselves. The women in the movie, including one that is forced to get off the bus to shield herself and the baby she is holding when Ganpathy triggers a brawl, do what they can to keep their heads down and survive. This unsentimental presentation of the patriarchy, the refusal to give it any excuse through purpose or motive, is the film’s most searing blow.
Eyimofe (This is My Desire) is to Nollywood (the burgeoning Nigerian film industry) what Pebbles is to Bollywood. The moving, debut feature from twin brothers Arie and Chuko Esiri, which first screened at the Berlinale, is set entirely in their native Nigeria and shows a Lagos that is rarely captured so authentically and wholly on camera. Structurally the film is a diptych that follows the stories of Mofe (Jude Akuwudike) an electrical engineer who is navigating the aftermath of his sister’s death and Rosa (Temi Ami-Williams) a young, part-time hairdresser and bartender who is looking after her barely-teen, pregnant sister Grace (Cynthia Ebijie). Although the film is trained on the struggles of the working class, the lens traverses Lagos from the characters’ tiny but colorful dwellings to the grittier domains of landlords, mob bosses and to fancy bars, luxury hotels and the high-flying lives of expats. Lagos, the film’s third major character, is at once overwhelming in its mindless bureaucracy and dog eat dog hierarchy and intoxicating in its sights and sounds.
While Rosa and Mofe’s lives don’t intersect, they are united by the common goal of migration. They are both doing everything they can to escape home for greener pastures in Europe and putting every penny towards obtaining necessary falsified visa and passport documents. The brothers Esiri have cited James Joyce’s collection of short stories The Dubliners and Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy as inspirations. True to the spirit of these works, Eyimofe captures what it is to feel simultaneously deeply connected to a national identity and oppressed by it. At a time when we have all had to consider how the state values or indeed doesn’t value lives, Eyimofe is particularly poignant. In a refrain that has become all too familiar in pandemic stricken nations, Mofe has to scramble to raise funds for his sister’s funeral, even to have access to her body to bury it. Meanwhile, Rosa and Grace plan to use the money from giving Grace’s baby up for an illegal adoption to chart their journey out of Lagos. Life is at once precious and commodified for these individuals who must make stark decisions around living and dying that are unhappily close to an inequitable reality that Covid has made plain.
In keeping with these films, Iranian director Firouzeh Khosrovani also uses family as the lynchpin for exploring big issues. In Radiograph of Family she dissects politics and religion as she innovatively chronicles her parents’ marriage through a melding of family photos, Super-8 home videos, found footage, imagined dialogue and restaged memories. Although the film, which won the main prize at the IDFA documentary festival, is not Khosrovani’s first rodeo, it is a documentary she has described as the ‘project of a lifetime’ – an apt label for a work that covers her parents’ decades long union while providing commentary on Iran’s transformation from a secularized nation, through the 1979 Iranian revolution and into an Islamic Republic. Khosrovani’s religiously devout mother, Tayi, struggles with the culture shock of moving to Geneva to be with her new, older husband Hossein, who is studying to be a radiographer. The amorous couple, experience a clash as Hossein encourages Tayi to go to bars with him and remove her hijab, things she considers sacrilegious. The dynamic flips when Tayi convinces her husband to return to Tehran where she finds her own power and voice as she embraces a populist, anti-Western revolution, in many ways leaving her husband behind and her daughter Firouzeh, our filmmaker, caught in the middle of values, ideals and culture.
In an increasingly polarized world, Radiograph of a Family shows love transcending politics and religion, albeit not without an emotional cost. For me, coming to the film with a skeletal knowledge of Iranian history, it was a reminder of the effectiveness of personal narrative in illuminating cultures and events – something we are quick to forget amidst non-stop news cycles that are themselves rarely without bias. Khosrovani strives as both her mother and father’s child, as insider and outsider to Iran, to present a vivid retelling that refrains from assigning blame. She does so by building on a genre of documentary that goes against the grain of naturalism and draws from many of fiction’s tools, most effectively through a set-piece of her childhood home which becomes a recurring motif that changes shape, becoming more austere as hardline Islam gains ground in Iran. She uses images to tenderly poetic effect, incorporating her father’s radiograph of her mother’s spinal injury from a skiing trip in Europe before they moved back to Iran and reconstructions of photographs that her mother had torn to shreds because they presented her without her headscarf, to emphasize rupture. These images carry far more than the weight of their immediate reality, echoing an unlocking of memories from revisiting old photographs that the virus has compelled for many.
The two films that struck the strongest chord with me, perhaps because they landed so presciently amidst the pandemic, were much-anticipated feature debuts from Greek filmmakers – Christos Nikou’s Apples, which first screened at the Venice Biennale and Jacqueline Lentzou’s Moon, 66 Questions which debuted at the Berlinale. The utter chaos of the 2009 financial crisis in Greece spawned reflection, creativity and innovation on extremely limited budgets that ignited a ‘Greek Weird Wave’ of film, as coined by critics. The films have been celebrated for their absurdist, tragicomic social commentary and Greek filmmakers landed with a splash across the globe, notably Yorgos Lanthimos who broke out with Alps in 2011 and went on to rack up awards for The Lobster and The Favourite. Apples and Moon 66, Questions have many shades of Weird Wave surrealism but approach their subjects – a man coming to grips with a pandemic that causes amnesia in Apples and a young woman impelled to look after her sick father in Moon, 66 Questions – with an empathy that is more elusive in the cynicism of their Weird Wave antecedents. Their artistry suggests our current crisis will be the genesis of another bounty in cinema, rather than its demise.
Both films were in the works for several years, yet their arrival suggests a moving clairvoyance. The opening sequence of Nikou’s Apples reveals an Athens in an analog time where a novel virus is causing people to lose their memories. A ‘New Identity’ program has been set up by the ‘Disturbed Memory Department’ of a hospital, where our protagonist, a middle-aged man, who we first see listlessly banging his head against his apartment wall, ends up, after he is found aboard a bus, with no recollection of who he is or where he is going. When he remains unclaimed at the hospital, doctors, who assume his relatives are deceased or have also ‘forgotten’, place him in a program designed to help him re-enter life and create new memories. Aris Servetalis’ arresting performance is a layered slow burn, thanks to a precisely crafted script from Nikou and co-writer Stavros Raptis. Our lead moves from affectless to poignant as he performs tasks assigned by the ‘Learning How to Live’ program. He progresses from the banal – riding of a bike, to the more engaged – asking someone out, to a heart-stopping scene in a bar where his body recalls how to dance and eventually to an emotionally loaded visit to a dying man. The sound and visuals, helped by Bartosz Swiniarski’s cinematography and Alexandros Voulgaris’ score, meticulously heighten everyday acts and encounters. It is an eerily familiar experience at a time when we have all had to recede from and re-enter life.
While Apples is on the surface an ironic exploration of the rituals of contemporary life, at its core the film is a deft examination of despair, personal and collective. Servetalis’ memories emerge when the old man he visits passes away. The experience recalls a grief he has buried deep down and brings him back to a life he was unable to face. In posing the existential question of why the virus attacked memory to begin with and positing that it is perhaps the natural extension of a collective disregard for emotions at the expense of tasks and aspirations, the film taps into our current reckoning. Apples reflects the uncertainty that we never anticipated grappling with on such a large scale and the anguish around truths seeping out from cracks that the pandemic has exposed.
Moon 66, Questions shares this dexterity at tightly bottling a big emotion. The film looks at love in the methodical way that Apples examines grief, dissecting its parts to create a whole that disarms us with depth and sudden clarity. Writer/Director Jacqueline Lentzou’s Atermis (Sofia Kokkali), an only child of divorced parents, returns home to Greece to look after her father, Paris (Lazaros Georgakopoulos), who is struck with multiple sclerosis. Father and daughter make an uncomfortable pair, trying to fit together like mismatched pieces of a jigsaw. Their emotional distance is emphasized when Paris’s reliance on his daughter for mobility calls for a dissonant physical proximity – they don’t look each other in the eye. Konstantinos Koukoulios’ camera juggles the tense dialogue between the pair with free-flowing conversational moments with others. The lens captures their physicality in tight shots, often staying on their faces while life goes on outside of the frame.
This unnerving attention to detail makes the rapprochement between father and daughter all the more real. Lentzou’s comic tableaus of the extended upper-class family and their snide interference are punctuated by Paris’s camcorder footage recalling a fonder, more intimate, past between father and daughter. In quiet moments Artemis re-enacts arguments with her father, explores his space and plays his music in an effort to reclaim the distance between them. The moment when love seeps through the barriers that have been erected between the two creeps up on us with the unobtrusive permanence of familial bonds. The camera holds still on an embrace between parent and child instead of opting to shield us from the awkward voyeurism of watching two people fully connect in real-time. Lentzou gives this act, dramatic in its simplicity, its due, opening a space within us. The frame recalls or invites actual moments when we deemed it safe to finally share an embrace with a relative. It is a feeling of relief, of reclaiming something lost and sadly, for some, a sense of an ending, evoking a touch that can no longer be relived.
Films that display whole worlds in just an evening, from nimble teams, using scant resources, presage the endurance of independent cinema. Emerging talents, as highlighted by festivals such as NDNF, are making work that is more exciting than ever. This crop of filmmakers will continue to innovate in cinema and some will eventually make the next blockbuster, prequel or sequel following in the footsteps of Ryan Coogler and Chloe Zhao, or streaming hit as we have seen from Jane Campion, Ava DuVernay and Paolo Sorrentino. The indie, provides much of the fuel for Blockbuster movies and more and in turn keeps the cinematic machine, one that has written its obituary over and over again, going. The movies were proclaimed dead when television entered homes in the 1950s, when corporates took over Hollywood studios in the 1960s, when Superman turned movies into toy advertisements in the 1970s, when the VCR arrived in the 1980s and when Netflix changed the game in the 2000s. But cinema keeps thriving as long as there are more stories to be told and fresh ways to tell them.
More than anything what these films show us, in reflecting on close bonds during crisis, is the power of film to connect us to the moment and to each other. Their narratives are a flashpoint for reflection and dialogue in this strangest of times. It might be a while before collective movie watching in a packed theater is a reality again but it will be a long time before I forget the hush that settled over the movie theater before the opening credits, in my last pre-pandemic movie. The lights, dimmed for trailers, went dark. Chatter quietened to a whisper which turned to silence as one invariably fusty patron shushed the talkers, to everyone else’s relief. The faint smell of warm, buttery popcorn laced the air and a collective calm descended. When the screen lit up for the main event, we experienced that most elusive mix of anticipation, wonder and satisfaction. We gasped, laughed and sighed together. Cinema fulfills a basic human yearning to connect. If the films of the NDNF are anything to go by, the movies are very much alive and waiting for us.
Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai. Twitter: @soleilnathwani