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Intimate Portraits: Soleil Nathwani Discovers New Voices in Documentary at The New Directors, New Films Festival

Image from MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. (Directed by Stephen Loveridge)

By Soleil Nathwani

The New Directors New Films festival (NDNF), jointly presented by two celebrated New York institutions, The Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, hails the onset of Spring with a cadre of fresh talent in Global Cinema. Generally presenting work from first- or second-time filmmakers in narrative and documentary, the festival, having just closed its 47th year, has aged like a fine wine and is by far my favorite way to discover new voices in Cinema.

Unfettered by a desire to pander to a market of distributors or buyers, the programmers select films for film lovers and as a result often end up showcasing pieces that make up for what they might, to some palates, lack in commerciality, with an abundance of originality. In doing so NDNF has brought once little-known talents from Pedro Almodóvar, to Christopher Nolan to Laura Poitras to wider audiences and to prominence. It continues to be a place to launch exceptional films and filmmakers.

This year, as most every year, the festival provided an opportunity to see some world premieres and other U.S. or Northeast premieres in celebrated works from the Cannes, Locarno and Sundance film festivals. Where in the past the discoveries that felt most exciting to me at NDNF drew from narrative films, a stand out being Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night a few years ago, which imagined the life of an Iranian-skateboarding-punk-she-vampire-heroine who stood as a symbol of feminism subverting hero tropes from comic books to westerns, this year’s gems were rooted in the “real.” The documentaries at NDNF 2018 presented portraits so proximate to their subjects that they matched the imaginative force of a feature with an intimacy that stirred emotions in equal measure.

Tellingly, the festival opened and closed with documentary works that held audiences rapt at Sundance earlier this year. The Opening Night film MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. was one that I approached with trepidation expecting many of the marks of a celebrity-led music documentary – a brand vehicle tinged with narcissism. What I found instead was a surprisingly authentic portrait of Maya Arulpragasam, a portrait which unpacked the artist whose work as M.I.A., full of the influences of her family’s political heritage, had always intrigued and at times confounded her audience.

The film is a delicate, at times meandering, at times commanding, but ever-engaging mash up of years of Maya’s own home video footage going back to her teens, a treasure trove that she handed over to director, long-time friend and former university mate Stephen Loveridge. Initially fueled by a desire to become a filmmaker herself, a younger Maya captured footage from interviewing her father and family in Sri Lanka as members of the Tamil Tigers guerrilla movement to a using a bathroom as her confessional at the outset of her career as an artist. The result, intercut with interviews, snippets of news items and merely a few glimpses of concert footage, showcases the most interesting side of celebrity – the bit beneath the veneer.

Courtesy of IMDB.com.

Bridging the gap from the people under the microscope to those that remain “unseen,” Closing Night saw a documentary at the opposite end of the spectrum. Director RaMell Ross’s film Hale County, This Morning, This Evening, lyrically showcased the overlooked daily lives of Black families in Hale County, Alabama.

Ross, who grew up in the Northeast, first traveled to Alabama, which he now calls home, for a brief sojourn as a photographer. As he alluded in a post-screening discussion, what began as a journey to negotiate his relationship to the South as a Black man – a reference also made in the film’s title which echoes James Baldwin’s short story grappling with a similar struggle – ended with this poetic essay on screen that presents Black lives as we rarely seen them captured in film. The film and Ross’s searching camera, which repeatedly finds beauty in the quotidian, draw our attention to the fact that this is one of the many travesties of a racially skewed point of view that can hem in our vision. As Ross put it, “The film is a Rorschach test for our relationship to Blackness” and as such it’s a necessary watch.

Image from HALE COUNTY, THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING (Directed by RaMell Ross)

In between these bookends, the two works that stayed with me were Milla and Makala, films that look so closely, quietly and unobtrusively at lives that might on the surface seem mundane, that in the rare moments when I realized the camera was there at all, I marveled at the ability of the filmmakers to establish such trust with their subjects.

Milla is self-taught filmmaker Valerie Massadian’s follow-up to her Locarno Best First Feature winner Nana. Using documentary tools to create fiction with a focus on the challenges of being female and in the world, in Milla, Massadian casts a non-actor and her child to tell the story of titular character and teenage runaway Milla’s trial by fire as she comes of age and comes face to face with adulthood too soon, finding herself suddenly single and with child. The film nudges at our stereotypes of teen pregnancy and the camera, through long takes where we watch Milla so closely that we begin to internalize her emotions, allows us to identify with a life that for most audiences is a world apart. In doing so, Massadian achieves the highest goal of cinema.

Image from MILLA (Directed by Valerie Massadian)

Makala similarly brings a character far removed from the world of film festival privilege into stark relief. Director Emmanuel Gras deservedly received the Cannes Critics Week Grand Prize for this film that follows a Congolese charcoal worker’s arduous journey from felling a grand tree in the land near his rudimentary home to brokering sales with city dwellers after a 50km journey on foot with the charcoal he has made from the tree. Kabwita Kasongo, another non-actor, plays a version of himself as he carries out work that receives short shrift from the bustling city folk on screen and gasps from an audience who have a dramatically different worldview.

As Kabwita navigates dusty roads with a charcoal-laden bicycle and Gras’s skeleton crew of three follow him behind the lens, in the making of this film Gras gives us the most memorable bicycle scene since Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. The camera moves slowly and gracefully over the landscape and alongside Kabwita in this unconventional road movie which holds us in a grip as we ache for our protagonist to reach his goal and all the while gives us time to ruminate on what it means to work, to support a family and to simply carry on.

Image from MAKALA (Directed by Emmanuel Gras)

As NDNF comes to a close these films will come to theaters or streaming services in the coming months and provide a much needed counter point as blockbuster season revs up. As we look for characters to ground ourselves in outside of cinematic universes and fantasy lands, in this year’s NDNF crop of documentaries, we can find them firmly in the real worlds that sit parallel to our own.

For more on New Directors, New Films visit newdirectors.org. 

Soleil Nathwani is a Consulting Editor and Film Critic at Honeysuckle Magazine. She is a Contributing Editor and the Culture Columnist at Rolling Stone India. Formerly a Senior Features Writer and Contributing Editor at L’Officiel India and MW India, her celebrity profiles, opinion pieces and features on art, culture, politics, human rights, film and fashion have appeared in numerous publications across the globe. Soleil is also a film producer and former hedge fund COO. She can be found at @soleilnathwani.

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