Melvin Van Peebles and other highlights of the New York Film Festival

The New York Film Festival opens this weekend under the shadow of mourning, due to the death on Tuesday of filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, whose third feature film, “Sweet Sweetback song Baadasssss, will play in the Revivals section of the festival, in a new restoration. His first feature film, from 1967, “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” filmed in France, presents a scathing vision of the experiences of a black American soldier, with a freely imaginative aesthetic that reveals internal conflicts. of this character. In “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”, 1971, shot in Los Angeles and other places in California, Van Peebles – working as a freelance filmmaker, writing and directing and even starring in the film (he even funded and retained ownership) – deploys a similar stylistic daring, and for even more daring political ends. It’s the story of a sort of apolitical artist – a black sex worker and freelance stallion, a performer in an erotic show – who, after suffering police brutality, becomes an accidental revolutionary. Van Peebles’ vision of the devastating police violence that black Americans endure at home (indeed, even literally inside their homes), and the resulting distortions of their ordinary lives into extraordinary heroism of resistance (or simply survival) – has an eruptive emergency. Through fragmentation, distortion, and a sense of frantic haste, Van Peebles fuses his sense of righteous anger at witnessing such realities, his painful aversion to filming such unbearable truths, and his relentless sense of purpose in throwing nonetheless them on the screen.

“Sweet Sweetback” from 1971 made Van Peebles a hero of the cinema and a hero of the time in general.Photograph by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

For all its horror, “Sweet Sweetback” has an exuberant and hedonistic excitement. With the title character, Van Peebles tears to shreds the cinematic conventions of the era designed for the consumption of white. Far from the stereotypes of middle-class respectability that Hollywood then assigned to black stars, Sweetback is blatantly sexual and gleefully sybaritic, regardless of how whites see him; he is admired in his own community for his sense of freedom. Few things in his life suggest a political direction, until he meets and makes common cause with a member of the Black Panther Party, at great personal cost. Sweetback’s political awakening, his violent resistance to his police persecutors, and his successful escape convey a spirit of outrage and revolt that no other filmmaker at the time dared admit. The triumphant independence film – which grossed ten million dollars at the box office shortly after its release – “Sweet Sweetback” made Van Peebles a film hero and a hero of the day. As much as the film is a model of the art of independent cinema and a decisive ancestor of independent black cinema, it is also a model for beating Hollywood at its own game – of art as a crucial form of power.

The Israeli film “Ahed’s Knee”, starring Avshalom Pollak and Nur Fibak, is filled with long, tense shots that tremble on the verge of violence.Photograph courtesy of NYFF

Among the novelties of the premieres of the first week of the festival, one stands out for its political outrage and bitter mistrust: “Ahed’s kneeBy Israeli director Nadav Lapid. From the first scene of the film, Lapid candidly displays and furiously denounces the militarization and oppressive nationalism of Israeli society. It is the story of an Israeli Jewish filmmaker in his forties, identified only as Y (and played by Avshalom Pollak), who flies alongside Israeli soldiers, in a small plane resembling a shuttle, until ‘in a village in the Negev desert, near the Jordanian border, where he is showing one of his films in a local library. A cheerful young woman named Yahalom (Nur Fibak), from the village who works for the country’s Ministry of Culture, welcomes him there. She’s as affable and welcoming as he is cranky and skeptical, and they quickly bond – dialectically, platonically, over art and politics. He reveals to her, in detail, the horrors of a seemingly suicidal mission in which he participated as an army intelligence officer. She reveals to him her discomfort with the censored regulations that her ministry imposes on cultural activities. He unleashes a torrential, seemingly endless rant about the government of Israel, its ethics, and what he sees as the moral and intellectual numbness of citizens in the face of the country’s criminal policies – and he plans to issue a damning report on that trip. .

Lapid captures this intellectualized push and pull with an eager eye for verbal glimpses and flowery digressions, for peculiar characters and idiosyncratic demeanor, and his aesthetic matches Y’s howling angst. film of subtlety or nuance; he hits the nail so hard on the head that he risks breaking the hammer and the hand that wields it, as well as the wall. The film is filled with long, tense shots that tremble on the verge of violence, disorienting angles to suggest Y’s inner disarray, and jerky camera movements that correspond to the disruptive and reckless actions Y takes during her brief interlude in the desert. The film takes its title – with, of course, its allusion to Eric Rohmer’s film “Claire’s Knee” – from a project Y is working on about a real Palestinian named Ahed Tamimi, who as a teenager was sentenced to prison for slapping an Israeli soldier in the face, prompting a Jewish member of the Israeli government to tweet that she should have been shot in the knee and thus put her “under house arrest for the rest of her life.” For a French director like Rohmer, a woman’s knee was at the heart of an elegantly dialectical erotic comedy. For Lapid, as an Israeli director, a woman’s knee is an inflection point of politics and repression, violence and power, and art is a battleground between conformity and freedom.

As the title of the film by Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes “Tsugua’s diaries“suggests, the action, which takes place in a town in rural Portugal, covers twenty-two days in August, one by one, backwards, from day twenty-two to day one – the length of the filming himself. (“Tsugua” is “August” backwards, a trick reproduced in the translation of the original Portuguese title, “Diários de Otsoga.”) The film incorporates the behind-the-scenes story of the cast and crew at work on the set with scenes from the film they are making and leaves it to the viewer to analyze the action in its constituent parts. Yet, rather than distract viewers from the emotional content of the drama, the unusual temporal pattern In the opening scene, three young people, two men and a woman, dance the night away in a dark summer house to a record of, yes, “The Night” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. As a man walks away and enters the garden among crickets and bats, the other two come closer and kiss each other timidly, tenderly. This climactic romantic breakthrough at the head of the film sets the fiery and delicate tone to the whole drama, imbuing it with the glow of a fate-like fatality.

The subject of “The Tsugua Diaries” is love and cinema at the time of COVID. The cast and crew all play versions of themselves. Fazendeiro and Gomes play co-directors Maureen and Miguel, respectively. Actors Crista Alfaiate, Carloto Cotta, and João Nunes Monteiro play actors of the same name, etc. The isolated farm compound where the film takes place serves as a bubble for the cast and crew, and mandatory health protocols play a crucial role – they become subjects of debate and conflict in production meetings, and the resolution of these differences is filtered into the story that the filmmakers shoot. That’s because the movie Maureen and Miguel are making doesn’t have a set storyline. They build the story from the observations of the actors and the environment, their lectures with team members, and the changing behind-the-scenes relationships that develop. (They also satirize the very open nature of their project in scenes depicting the actors’ struggles to use their creative freedom.) The carpentry involved in the construction of a butterfly greenhouse, a ride around the farm on a tractor and its trailer set, a spontaneous jump into a swimming pool and preparing a meal all vibrate with purpose, display creative inspiration, brim with dramatic possibilities. Fazendeiro and Gomes film the carefully maintained sets with a joy of passionate but serene observation and the actors with a gentle and restrained affection: in art as in life, these people and places shudder with the promise of love and from the specter of death.

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