January 2022, arsenal cinema

Unknown Pleasures #12
 – American Independent Film Fest

THE WORLD TO COME, 2020

A Democratic mayor working in Republican-led country, omnipresent surveillance technologies and everyday racism in a society that sees itself as enlightened: Unknown Pleasures #12 presents a selection of current American independent films in which the socio-political tensions of the last years can be clearly felt. What’s noticeable here is that these films are narrated from a firmly autobiographical perspective. When, for example, Theo Anthony thinks about cameras, guns and the police in his brilliant essay film ALL LIGHT, EVERYWHERE, he also repeatedly films himself and his camera and thus reflects his own viewpoint. In Alfred Guzzetti’s most recent film THE GIFTS OF TIME, he visits friends that he’s known for over 50 years and has them give accounts of their lives before the camera. What do they think about their current situation? Skinner Myers takes on the leading role in his debut film THE SLEEPING NEGRO, creating a furious comment on the question of whether the US really is a post-racial society. In ALL ABOUT MY SISTERS, a deeply harrowing documentary about the effects of China’s one-child policy, director Wang Qiong appears as the filmmaker and a daughter at the same time. ALL ABOUT MY SISTERS also embodies a trend in independent film for crossing national borders, which equally reflects the ever more precarious funding opportunities available. Wang Qiong lives in the US and financed her film via American institutions, even if it was shot purely in China. Ted Fendt’s OUTSIDE NOISE, which stands thematically and formally in the line of his last features, was ultimately produced entirely outside the US. One particular highlight is the tribute to Joan Micklin Silver (1935–2020), whose oeuvre is almost completely forgotten in Germany today. Her prize-winning feature debut HESTER STREET about Jewish immigrants to New York at the end of the 19th century was released in 1975. But despite this success, she had repeated difficulties finding work as a director. At the end of the 70s, she had to endure an influential director telling her the following: “Producing and distributing features is very expensive and female directors are just another problem that we can do without.” We are showing three of her most beautiful films: alongside HESTER STREET, we are screening the comedy BETWEEN THE LINES (1977) and what is probably her best known work, CROSSING DELANCEY (1988).

THE WORLD TO COME (Mona Fastvold, USA 2020, 1. & 12.1.) 1856 in the northeast of the US: married couple Abigail (Katherine Waterstone) and Dyer (Casey Affleck) lead a hard, monotonous settlers’ life. The death of their young daughter plunges them into a deep crisis which seems irresolvable. It’s only the arrival of new neighbors that provides them with some additional company, with intensive feelings quickly developing between Abigail and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby). THE WORLD TO COME depicts the laborious settlers’ life from a female perspective. The relationship between the two women is not just a way of escaping their dreary everyday existence. Instead, Fastvold is interested in exploring “how two women ultimately find a way of expressing their respective individual subjectivities.” (Dominik Kamalzadeh).

THE SLEEPING NEGRO (Skinner Myers, USA 2021, 2. & 15.1.) Los Angeles, the present day: a young Black man is forced to forge documents by his boss, a former friend tries to convince him that Black people are no longer at a disadvantage in the US, his white girlfriend would like to introduce him to her parents (although the nameless protagonist can’t stop thinking of the horror of Jordan Peele’s Get Out), and then his furiously angry doppelgänger turns up to top things off. Skinner Myer’s radical debut THE SLEEPING NEGRO asks whether Black Americans are not just being led to believe in progress so that they can ultimately feel more content with their own subjugation.

THE GIFTS OF TIME (Alfred Guzzetti, USA 2019, 3. & 6.1.) The lives of his grandparents and how they emigrated to the US, how his children grew up or historical explorations via old family photos: for nearly five decades now, Alfred Guzzetti has been documenting the history of his family in a wide range of different forms. These unusual films are always also about the passing of time and what is forgotten along the way. THE GIFTS OF TIME is now addresses this question head on. Guzzetti asks friends who he’s known for more than half a century to talk about their lives. Where do they find themselves today? What do they think about their age? How have they dealt with the blows of fate?

DOWN WITH THE KING (Diego Ongaro, USA/France 2021, 4. & 8.1.) Mercury “Money Merc” Maxwell (played by Rapper Freddie Gibbs) is disillusioned by the music business and his celebrity status is merely a millstone around his neck. He withdraws to rural Massachusetts to work on his new rap album there, but his fans are as shocked as his manager when he announces the end of his career. Shot with many non-professional actors in episodes based on their lives, Diego Ongaro’s prizewinning second film is neither a transfiguration of rural bliss nor a cheap reckoning with American rednecks. Instead, DOWN WITH THE KING is tinged with a modesty reminiscent of the work of Kelly Reichardt.

ALL LIGHT, EVERYWHERE (Theo Anthony, USA 2021, 6. & 16.1.) What is the relationship between cameras and guns and does something like an objective point of view exist? Taking these questions as a starting point, Theo Anthony’s most recent essay film follows people working on the development and application of new technologies: a company that builds body cameras and taser guns, the police officers trained to used them and a man that uses drones to create a live city map of Baltimore. “Starting from the hypothesis that the seat of power is the blind spot from which every gaze looks, Anthony tears through the history of science in forceful fashion, expanding outwards in all directions and recombining the ideas he finds there—teaching us fear along the way.” (Alexandra Seitz)

OUTSIDE NOISE (Ted Fendt, Germany/South Korea/Austria 2021, 8.1., screening attended by Ted Fendt & 18.1.) On her way back to Vienna from New York, Daniela (Daniela Zahlner) stops off in Berlin to visit her friend Mia (Mia Sellmann). She is tormented by the question of what to do now and plagued by sleepless nights. Mia is also struggling with insomnia. They spend a few days together in Berlin. Time passes and Mia visits Daniela in Vienna. The feeling of waiting for something is still very much there, however. Written together with the two leading actresses, Ted Fendt’s OUTSIDE NOISE is a beautiful film that casually explores the space between seeming stasis and new horizons in which tension and calm go hand in hand.

CITY HALL (Frederick Wiseman, USA 2020, 9. & 13.1.) After Frederick Wiseman’s last films created portraits of the New York Public Library, the National Gallery in London and the communities of Monrovia, Indiana and Jackson Heights, his 45th film examines the work of the Democratic mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh. Yet CITY HALL is far more than just a look at the city administration, functioning primarily as a portrait of Wiseman’s home city of Boston. We thus see workers repairing the streets and building houses, we take part in memorial events for veterans and accompany the preparations for the Red Sox baseball team celebration. Above all though, we follow Walsh as he constantly seeks dialogue with his staff and citizens. A hopeful film in which Wiseman’s rage against the USA under Trump can be clearly felt.

ALL ABOUT MY SISTERS (Wang Qiong, USA 2021, 10. & 19.1.) The filmmaker asks her younger sister Jin about her earliest memories, who simply shakes her head in frustration. She was born in the 90s in China, where a strict one-child policy was in force. As her parents wanted a boy and already had two daughters (and an abortion shortly before the birth didn’t work), she was abandoned and ended up growing up with relatives. Now she herself is a mother and is battling with the question of why she was abandoned as a baby. Wang Qiong filmed her family over a period of seven years and shows the complex ramifications of politics, birth restrictions and social control on the bodies of women in piercing fashion. A harrowing film, narrated as an epic act of healing.

TERRA FEMME (Courtney Stephens, USA 2017–2021, 15.1., screening attended by Courtney Stephens) In the 1920s, more and more women started photographing and filming the world. The filmmaker came across such amateur footage in film archives and other collections. In these early travelogues, women travel to India and Ecuador, film their vacations or take the camera with them on work trips. To what extent does their gaze differ from that of men? “These women documented the world and thus also documented their personal standpoint, which was still that of an outsider. The films make a claim for the right to public space as an outsider.” (Courtney Stephens). TERRA FEMME is screened as a live performance: in similar fashion to the historical screenings of the travelogues, the filmmaker speaks the text for her film live in the auditorium.

HESTER STREET (Joan Micklin Silver, USA 1975, 12. & 18.1.) At the end of the 19th century, Hester Street is the heart of Jewish New York. Yankel (Steve Yeats) lives there, but wants to be seen as American at all costs, calling himself Jake as a result. Yet when his wife Gitl (Carol Kane) and their son also emigrate to New York years after separating, the married couple are confronted with the question of how much one should adapt. Joan Micklin Silver’s debut film HESTER STREET is a magnificent retelling of Jewish life in New York and received numerous prizes (including an Oscar nomination for Carol Kane). “HESTER STREET dealt with themes that American cinema was just beginning to explore - the life of immigrants and ethnic identity. Can an immigrant gain everything that America has to offer without losing her specificity and traditions?” (Eric A. Goldman)

BETWEEN THE LINES (Joan Micklin Silver, USA 1977, 5. & 14.1.) A small troupe of passionate journalists are responsible for publishing the alternative newspaper “The Black Bay Mainline”, an institution within Boston’s media landscape. Yet their work is increasingly restricted by economic factors. Joan Micklin Silver’s second film BETWEEN THE LINES is more than ripe for rediscovery, using the turbulent working lives of a newspaper editorial team to stage a brilliant ensemble drama, including a music critic (Jeff Goldblum), who is always broke, but full of pride, a hot-tempered reporter (John Heard), who is dating the newspaper’s photographer (Lindsay Crouse), and a brief appearance by a crazy performance artist.

CROSSING DELANCEY (Joan Micklin Silver, USA 1988, 7. & 14.1.) Isabelle Grossman (Amy Irving) works at a New York book store and enjoys the intellectual exchanges she has with authors and customers. But her grandmother is less than pleased by this milieu and unceremoniously employs a Jewish wedding broker, who is supposed to pair off her granddaughter with pickle salesman Sam (Peter Riegert)—a decision that irritates Isabelle considerably. As one of the few works in Silver’s oeuvre to be financed by a Hollywood studio (via the help of Amy Irving’s then-husband Steven Spielberg), CROSSING DELANCEY was her biggest hit with audiences and is seen to this day as a classic of American independent cinema in 80s. (hb)

We would like to thank the US Embassy in Berlin and the Solothurner Filmtage for their support.