What exactly is a “new director”? This question is something of an annual tradition, regarding the lineup of New Directors/New Films. The festival frequently features fourth, even fifth features, and this year isn’t an exception. But there is one arena that is almost unimpeachably a place of discovery, at this or any festival. The two short film programs of this year’s edition contain some remarkable images and ideas, both from entirely new directors and those who have worked exclusively in shorts for quite a while. Either way, it’s an opportunity for the audience to encounter something inarguably new. Three of them, all nonfiction, are among the best films of any length in the entire program.
Akosua Adoma Owusu has been making avant-garde short films since 2005. Her newest, Reluctantly Queer, is a meditation on queer African identity shot on Super 8. It’s both beautifully simple and achingly complicated, a productive contradiction caused by the expert combination of warm images and contemplative narration. The film is built on the words and body of Kwame Edwin Otu, a Ghanaian-American man writing a coming out letter to his mother. The text, inspired by James Baldwin and possessing an admirable amount of his signature clarity, evokes both centuries of racial history and fleeting private memories.
Owusu marries this voiceover to scenes of Otu’s solitude, sleeping and showering and dressing at home. The black and white Super 8 footage has an air of the eternal about it, as if the scene has been preserved in cinematic amber. Owusu then slowly incorporates shots of Otu in bed with an anonymous lover, as the text of the letter towards a confession of “this self.” Queerness is alluded to, and demonstrated, but never needs to be bluntly put. There is a warmth to these scenes reminiscent of what Derek Jarman might call an “archaic smile,” placing Reluctantly Queer in a lineage of quietly radical representations of the queer body that also includes Barbara Hammer’s Nitrate Kisses and Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston. To say that queer sensuality is “naturalized” would be too small a point. It ascends.
Solitude also permeates Ali Cherri’s The Digger, though its images are much, much more grand. The film is a near-silent profile of Sultan Zeib Khan, the caretaker of a Neolithic necropolis in the Sharjah desert of the United Arab Emirates. It begins, however, with a fair bit of establishing text. “Sometimes the most terrible place is the place where there is nothing,” the opening titles read, “where nothing has yet happened.” Excavations uncovered human remains in some of these ancient graves, while others turned out empty, still waiting for a guest. Khan guards over them all, spending his days wandering both the archaeological spaces underground and the vast expanse of rock and sand above.
The city of Sharjah is only barely visible in the haze, and only in the right weather. Even the few animals that appear are all alone, a camel and an owl that disappear just as quickly as they emerge. The museum is something of a cemetery as well, a repository for ancient vessels with no further use. After a while, the whole world begins to seem like a necropolis waiting to be filled. The vast negative spaces in so many of Cherri’s images, whether the pitch black around Khan’s night wanderings or the massive desert sky above at noon, seem to mimic the emptiness of those patiently empty graves. They dwarf the film’s lonely human subject, a constant reminder of the smallness of mortality.
Ancient mortality, of course, seems to have little in common with contemporary urban youth. Yet a transition from The Digger to Isabel Pagliai’s Isabella Morra is made a bit easier by some unexpected similarities of cinematography. Both films rely a great deal on striking bifurcations, though in Pagliai’s case it usually architectural rather than topographical. The children of Isabella Morra, the residents of a Parisian housing project, are frequently framed as if on a stage. Their proscenium of boarded up windows presents them as constant performers, both for each other and for the camera.
This phenomenon drives this film, a documentary of great literary interest with a cast made up entirely of young children. The first shot is of a little girl holding a talking doll, which repeats such canned lines as “We’re sisters!” and “My best friend is my sister” as she repeatedly squeezes it. These words echo harrowingly in a story told by Adriana, the closest thing the film has to a protagonist. Her tale is an improvised adaptation of the life of 16th century poet Isabella Morra, who was murdered by her own jealous brothers. The conceit of the interjection is Pagliai’s but the vocabulary is Adriana’s. The story itself is chillingly easy to believe, even in the context of contemporary Paris.
As Pagliai articulated in an interview with Mubi, she has located Morra’s “poetic force” in the independent character of her subjects. It is also in their language, which alternates between conspiratorial whispers and impetuous shouts. There are so many profanities uttered by the cast that the subtitles run out of reasonable English equivalents and resort to terms like “strumpet.” A fight breaks out down the street, off camera, and Adriana starts hollering, threatening to join in if her cousin is hurt. It’s a raw distillation of her force of will, though also part of her performance. Every documentarian walks this line between authenticity and a world made false by the presence of the camera, but few are quite so artfully self-aware as Pagliai.