It was a chilly night on Wednesday November, 20 in the Lower East Side, where the Teatro LATEA hosted the second night of the Fall 2019 Bowery Film Festival. This year, the festival’s 42 films interspersed visual storytelling of all lengths, from longer features to short films to music videos. The audience was comprised of the support group of these filmmakers from friends and family to crew members behind the scenes. This season, the festival was split into 4 blocks: the Opening Night with a dance party; Make Your Move; LatinX, Female Gaze & LGBTQ + Visionz; and Wild Projectz.
Writing for New York 1 News, Cheryl Wills had noted that the “Bowery Film Festival is hot on movies that are adventurous and have shock value.” Indeed, she was right. I attended the block called “Make Your Move,” which included films whose plots ranged from 4 friends opening an escort agency on their way to help their nerdy, porn editor friend (Strut, by Misha Calvert), to 2 mental patients who find themselves locked inside a white room (ISO, by Coco Tolentino), to a girl stealing blood from the hospital for her vampire roommate, both of which are living in modern New York (Sucked in, by Courtney J. Camerota).
A brief glance at the titles of the festival’s 42 films also revealed directors coming from all cultural backgrounds and themes that touched upon issues that are being debated particularly hotly in our little island of New York City. The issue of immigration, for example, was explored in Orgullo (by Dylan Golden), which turns its focus onto an undocumented immigrant mother living in New York with her children. Other films such as Blacker (by Rhett Owen) and Black Girl Poem (by Daryl Paris Bright) clearly had race as one of its central themes.
Female empowerment is a big theme in almost all films that were showing that night, through little actions that don’t necessarily propel the plot (in Sucked In, the girl responds to a dick pic with her own vag pic) but also through shocking action, as in Below the Belt (by Mark St. Cyr), in which a female boxing coach literally pisses on her trainee (played by the director himself) to get him to face the boxing champion who defeated him in a match that’s about masculinity as much as it is about the sport.
However, what the films had in its politically driven, egalitarian intention, they lacked somewhat in its expression, particularly with regards to the construction of its characters. After two hours of screening, I started to feel that characters from different films started to mesh together. The women from Strut resembled the girl from Sucked In, and the barista from Roasted (directed by Allan Washington) resembled the two comedic male characters from Fakers (directed by Ryan DeNardo & Thaddeus McCants). Such a resemblance was not direct mimicry but rather a resemblance in spirit and air, that particular satirical, self-indulging smell that New Yorkers tend to exude in their action and thought. These characters are built on these New York stereotypes with little nuance and complexity, which makes their take on real problems of our society that have to do with race, gender, anxiety, etc. feel trivialized and sometimes almost uncomfortable to watch. In Fakers, when the two “loser” guys hooked up with the two self-proclaimed feminists and exclaimed loudly about how much they love feminism now, even with the understanding that it’s meant to be satirical, I couldn’t help but flinch under my coat. Maybe that is the intended effect, but maybe the protagonists can be developed a little better, too.
In comparison to these projects with an overly ambitious political overtone, the better stories of the night were actually the simpler ones. Latched (by Dewen Yang), a short thriller film about a Chinese delivery man who found suspicious signs of domestic abuse and struggled to react to it, felt much more real and relatable to the actual humans living around us. Starr Nathan’s music video Know Me So Well, an eternal story on love and loss about a young woman trying to find herself after a painful breakup was also quite sweet and tender to watch. These films, however, are not without faults. But one can detect in them a quality of genuineness that is not trying hard to be overbearing or pedagogical. Maybe in an age where being “political” and “woke” has become a personal identity, the truly radical lies not in the groundbreaking but the quotidian and the everyday.