In its 46th edition, the New Directors New Films showcase at the Film Society in New York approaches middle age, yet shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, the mix this year proves as eclectic as ever, following on last year’s heady ensemble, in which ambitious nonfiction fare, Zhao Liang’s Behemoth (2015) and Tamer el Said’s In the Last Days of the City (2016), screened alongside atmospheric thrillers, such as Marcin Wrona’s Demon (2015) Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow (2016), and political comedies such as Federico Veiroj’s The Apostle (2015) and John Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner (2016).
Perhaps the most surprising inclusion this year is the presence of Angela Schanelec. The German director has been making films since the 1990s, which shows that the Film Society isn’t afraid to play with its mission of promoting ‘emerging filmmakers.’ In The Dreamed Path (2016), Schanelec’s ninth feature, vacationing lovers Teres (Miriam Jakob) and Kenneth (Thorbjörn Björnsson) are forced to part, when Kenneth is recalled from Greece to Berlin, after his mother suffers an accident. Set during the fall of the Berlin Wall, the action then follows Kenneth who, we learn, struggles with drug addiction.Teres eventually ends up in the German capital, with her small son. Kenneth and Teres meet again, but their rapprochement proves illusory.
The Dreamed Path highlights Schanelec’s longtime preoccupations. She favours ensembles over singular characters, thinks in scenes rather than in narrative arcs, and hews to an emotional flatline, without vertiginous ups or downs. Overall, Schanelec’s is an art of the ellipsis. She has experimented with brisker editing before, particularly in Passing Summer (2001), in which scenes are snippets that one must cobble together like a mosaic, but The Dreamed Path springs its own surprises. For one, its early continuity is deceiving. Halfway through, Schanelec amplifies the story by introducing a new couple in crisis: Ariane (Maren Eggert), an actress with a young child, who asks her husband for a separation when she realizes she no longer loves him.
The ‘dreamed’ path, then, is ultimately a trope – as if out of a Robert Frost poem, ‘The road not taken.’ We are invited to see the two women as reiterations, and to commune with a desire, oft expressed in Schanelec’s oeuvre, to be someone else. Schanelec’s deliberate taciturnity leaves small gestures and objects – a cap fallen in the midst of a fainting spell, a piece of a jagged shard, or a shoe dropped in haste, or despair – to speak for persons who can’t or won’t communicate openly.
An even more intricate ellipsis lies at the heart of Anocha Suwichakornpong’s ambitious second feature, By the Time It Gets Dark (2016). What starts out as a story about a young filmmaker’s earnest attempt to write a script about a former student protest leader in 1970s Thailand, turns into a labyrinthine film-within-a-film. Rather than progressing in a linear fashion, we are tumbled into parallel storylines. In one the film’s script lands in the hands of a charming young actor, Peter, who is busy wowing his girlfriend and pondering the lows of the Indie film scene, before he falls victim to a car accident. Peter’s exit leaves us, and the film he was in, in a literal limbo, but it could also be read – like much else in this mysterious story – as a metaphor for the process in which history is passed down. The film’s overall destabilizing effect speaks to the sheer impossibility of fully capturing a historical moment or person. As the protest leader remarks, ‘I’m not living history. I’m a survivor.’ An eerie remark, perhaps reminding us that, given Thailand’s political climate, with its legacy of prolonged strife, corruption and suppressed protests – first under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, followed by his ousting in 2007, and then, by a military coup in 2014 – we can’t be sure its tormented ghosts are actually being heard.
In comparison to Suwichakornpong’s weighty themes of love, duty and historical rectitude, Boundaries (2016), by Canadian filmmaker Chloé Robichaud, is a slight comedy of manners, whose emotions never overtake the confidently churned-out plot. Robichaud is no stranger to major festivals (her first feature, Sarah Prefers to Run, was screened in Cannes, in 2013) and she’s clearly a young filmmaker to watch. Yet the film’s taut drama and promising start – the negotiations between an imaginary small Canadian island and a large mining conglomerate – rather peters out.
Even in the absence of cathartic fireworks, Boundaries’ three female characters are complexly rendered: Danielle is a tough-minded politician who must shore up the locals’ fishing interests, as she considers opening up the region to mining; Emily is a no-nonsense international negotiator who helps opposing parties smooth out tensions, while in private, she weathers a bitter custody battle over her only child; and Félixe is a feisty, idealistic assistant to a Minister who sees herself trampled upon, her scrupulous research either ignored or trivialized, only to open her eyes to an alternative future as a political independent. Robichaud draws her world with loose, impressionistic brushstrokes that feel somewhat careless in contrast to Schanelec or to Suwichakornpong’s strict control. Yet the Canadian’s ample wit, and her clear-headed, nonjudgmental portrayal of women’s choices – child-bearing versus career, steady relationships versus casual ones, the pitfalls of trying to be a team-player – are all qualities that make this cameral ensemble piece if not quite earth-shattering then at least memorable.
New Directors New Films 2017 at the Film Society at Lincoln Center, New York, runs 15 – 26 March. Visit their website for more information here.
Ela Bittencourt works as a critic and curator in the United States and Latin America. She writes for publications such as Art in America, Film Comment, frieze and the Village Voice and runs a film site, Lyssaria.