Kazakh filmmaker Adilkhan Yerzhanov has directed 15 films in the last 12 years, a breakneck pace to rival even Hong Sang-soo. Not many seem to have received any kind of US distribution; his most recent work to be properly released was 2020’s Yellow Cat, a charming if shallow bit of quirk-infused deadpan comedy that freely mixed Wes Anderson, the French New Wave, and Tati. His new film, Steppenwolf, is an altogether different animal. A bleak, dystopian parable of hope versus savagery, the film wallows in violence and depravity on its way toward a desperate grasping at hope for a better future. Indeed, Yerzhanov has fully discarded the borrowed twee aesthetic of Yellow Cat and replaced it with a pronounced dose of Béla Tarr. It’s a film composed almost entirely of slow, lateral pans, the camera gliding left or right as it observes torture, shootings, and stabbings — the second shot of the movie is long pan across a row of police riot shields being scrubbed clean of blood. We are in the middle of some sort of internecine conflict, as police officers round up and beat confessions out of local villagers. The villagers protest their innocence and accuse the officers of being corrupt; the police respond by hammering fingers and taking saw blades to hands. It’s unclear if Brayuk (Berik Aitzhanov) is an officer or a prisoner, but he nonchalantly assists in the beatings regardless, careful not to disturb the cigarette dangling from his mouth. A group of armed villagers suddenly lay siege to the police compound, and as a gun battle rages on, Tamara (Anna Starchenko) wanders into view. Seemingly oblivious to the combat around her, she begs for help to find her missing son, Timka. Sensing an opportunity, Brayuk talks his way out of detention and summary execution at the hands of insurgents by offering to help Tamara (her promise of a $5000 reward, to be split amongst the people, seals the deal). The unlikely duo take off to begin their search, wandering out into a vast wasteland of death and destruction.
As Tamara and Brayuk proceed along their path, each encounter with citizens or fellow travelers quickly erupts into bloodshed. There’s no real sense of place here; every building is dilapidated, every car is broken down, shot up, or engulfed in flames. There’s a droning, repetitive quality to the narrative, an oppressive sense of dread that’s levied only by the absurdity of it all. Early notices have compared Steppenwolf to Mad Max and the films of Nicolas Winding Refn; it seems likely that the American-educated Yerzhanov would be well aware of these pop culture touchstones, but the game of spot-the-reference only takes viewers so far (several visual nods towards Ford’s The Searchers don’t elucidate much, either). This is far angrier than anything produced in the American mainstream, too freeform and plotless. Little kernels of information propel Tamara and Brayuk forward, but only barely. They eventually learn that a local warlord has been kidnapping children to sell their organs on the black market; this leads to a narrative endpoint, a climax, but it’s neither more nor less exciting than anything that has come before it. The abrasive Brayuk, who verbally and physically abuses Tamara throughout their mission, never changes his ways or learns a lesson. Tamara, largely catatonic and barely verbal for large parts of the film, does not become a fierce warrior or suddenly begin to stand up for herself. There is no catharsis here, and one senses that even if Tamara is to be reunited with her child, there would be no substantial change to their material existence. Like Sergei Loznitsa’s 2010 film My Joy, Steppenwolf leaves realism behind as it becomes a parable for a particularly nasty State of the Union address. Yerzhanov doesn’t seem to like what he sees in his homeland, and can only laugh at man’s inhumanity toward one another. It’s all so absurd. — DANIEL GORMAN
Schirkoa: In Lies We Trust
Speculative fiction tends to valorize the unreality of utopianism more than the concreteness of dystopian realism, and perhaps intuitively so: in the act of speculating, realism has fewer grounds on which to tread, its sounds and images often resembling uncanny yet unconvincing parodies of the world we live in. That said, the best works of apocalyptic fiction have frequently surrendered to a frisson of violent imagination, foregrounding elements of contemporary malaise (ecology, capitalism, fundamentalism, etc.) with literary visions of transformation and freedom. Blade Runner, addressing the existential conundrum of artificial sentience, nevertheless took pains to envision a cosmopolis of air traffic and labyrinthine potential; Happiness, the four-minute “story of a rodent’s unrelenting quest for happiness and fulfillment,” distills the pessimistic crux of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism into a poignant if unmistakably populist series of animated vignettes, substituting mice for men. Both examples are to some degree cultural cornerstones: accomplished works which have also been condensed into shorthands for Orwell and Huxley.
If speculative dystopia used to have a monopoly on simplicity, it no longer quite does with the electric and ambitiously unclassifiable first feature from Indian filmmaker Ishan Shukla. Schirkoa: In Lies We Trust studies, true to its title, the proliferation and reception of false ideologies amid times of crisis; it also concludes that all ideologies are bound to be false, one way or another. The search for truth, then, isn’t a mere matter of human will or contingency, but a Sisyphean endeavor necessarily futile. But it is also proof of what a lapsed cynic might term the “indomitable human spirit,” the will-to-life even as life as we know it has shown all routes to bring forth death. Schirkoa, the moniker of homogeneous, empty capitalism, is witness to such a conflict, between the universal global village and the particulars of its denizens. In Shukla’s alternate reality, citizens do not show their faces, wearing paper bags over their heads even in private life. They don’t have names, only numbers; our protagonist — designated 197A — is a bureaucratic middle-manager inexplicably called to attend and represent the ruling party’s showdown against a mythical opposition. And they all worship and deify a “Lord O,” Himself bagged and buried under a veneer of numerical divinity: the “O” as gaping, deferred identity, but also as the “One” from whose form all creation stems.
Schirkoa’s worldbuilding, for the most part, offers spellbinding vitality, in spite of or because of the technical limits imposed on it. Developed from Shukla’s 2016 short, the film adopts both traditional 2D animation techniques and the mimetic phenomenology of 3D motion capture, lending its overall design an eerily sluggish quality. The rendering of its gameplay mechanics, reminiscent of Japanese acid steampunk (see for instance Enter the Void) but just as redolent of unbounded visual potentiality (a motif underscored in the hyperlinked cinema of The Human Surge), pushes the viewer into ever-stranger, ever-amorphous territory. Schirkoa’s obsessively totalitarian environs is quickly destabilized by popular political action culminating in riots and witch hunts: the bogeyman of conformity is cited in a young female rebel with whom 197A first contemplates suicide techniques before tearing down the establishment. The noocracy of Schirkoa, headed by four “Intellectual” types who speak garbled nonsense and appear ambivalently satirical of both technocracy and sophistry, does not therefore comport with any specific regime; its emphasis on the conservative pulses of “safety, sanity, sanctity” speaks rather to the present’s contempt for freedom. Freedom from, instead of freedom to, has become the paramount ethos of a world fundamentally divested of it.
Shukla’s odyssey, however, traces not just the trappings of popular totalitarianism. Beyond Schirkoa, two other communities come into focus: the Bacchanalian inverse of Konthaqa, a space for uninhibited, counter-cultural expression, and the exiled monastery of Heghov, where an introspective, almost arcane wisdom presides. In both of these worlds, the possibility of utopia is raised and repealed, quashed by specters of revolutionary zeal. A telling constant within Shukla’s universe is the belief, or signifying power, in Lord O: interpreted by Schirkoans as a political icon while revered by Konthaqans as anomalous and radical (while subsumed under a more traditional religiosity by the ascetics), this constant illuminates the parallels between their varying ideological projects and those of our own. As 197A defects to Konthaqa, having unfettered his chains from a world of indifference, he encounters and leads the movement in support of reactionary diversity and inclusion. Ditching the paper bag’s blank stare — an effective if perhaps unintended recall of the killers in Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers — for devil horns and a sex change, the reformed politician cavorts with Lies, the Konthaqans’ mermaid leader, whilst fending off propaganda attacks and assassination attempts from his embittered Schirkoan past.
The messy, irresistible passions of Schirkoa are themselves incisively delineated as the film interrogates a dialectic of consciousness merely hinted at in such triumphant interpretations of world history as V for Vendetta. In the Apollonian fantasy of order we see the Reichian thesis of mass sexual repression, while at the Dionysian orgy of post-humanism, we are privy to the impotence of narcissism, so convincingly argued by Christopher Lasch to be the state of post-60s America. A shapeshifting production of enormous ambit and heft, Shukla’s debut features an eclectic voice cast (Golshifteh Farahani, Lav Diaz, Gaspar Noé, Asia Argento, Shekhar Kapur among others), an effervescent medium of speculative creation, and an enervating if tacitly empowering message for the politically conscious today. It argues, in line with what Raymond Geuss has said about the search for meaning in a world “without why,” that purpose and purposiveness are features of the landscape; they cannot be isolated from material, lived imagination. As one of our protagonist’s fellow sojourners remarks, en route to a land of pure difference, “a beautiful night of errors awaits”; in truth we serve, in lies we trust. — MORRIS YANG
The last decade has seen disillusionment and negativity about feature filmmaking expand from the grumblings of enthusiasts to a near-universal consensus that they’re not making ‘em like they used to. Over the same period, a radical expansion in digital video technology has meant that the average untrained person can easily access and use image-making technology vastly superior to what a first-rate effects team could cook up a mere generation ago. In light of all this, many contemporary filmmakers — including some of our most lauded leading lights — have embraced timidity and regression back to static conceptions of what a film can be inherited from a simpler time. This juncture presents an opportunity for established filmmakers to harness this largely untapped potential to create dazzling new works that expand the horizons of visual language. And some have already risen to the occasion, most notably Aleksandr Sokurov with his AI-animated masterwork Fairytale in 2022.
Who better to step up to the plate next than the similarly exalted New German Cinema master Alexander Kluge — recently returned to the world of the living from his purgatorial late career exile in the world of five- to twelve-hour documentaries about such ponderous topics as the intersecting throughlines of ideology and culture across modernity and the machine as a successor to humanity — and begin again (in collaboration with Filipino icon Khavn) in earnest to make direct and forceful aesthetic work of the kind he had spent almost 50 years receding away from. Now at the ripe old age of 91, Kluge has put out Cosmic Miniatures, an AI-generated outsider film billed as echoing his eccentric forays into science fiction in the early 1970s. And viewers are likely to come crashing down to earth the moment the film starts. It’s a slideshow mostly comprised of static AI-rendered images of space with algebra and star charts scrawled over the top with comic sans intertitles, sprinkled with very occasional dashes of movement. It feels like something a stargazing senior citizen might have pieced together. Replace the soundtrack — which oscillates between ambient, classical, electronic, industrial, and all manners of eclectic music — with a schizophrenic lecture, and this could really do numbers on BitChute. At times, the film seemingly verges on ironic humor. There’s a segment dedicated to Laika, the first dog in space, composed largely of eccentric AI images of dogs in space, which must surely be taking the piss. Another segment titled “Obituary for PIRX the Spaceship Pilot” — a reference to the character created by Stanislaw Lem — is like a deep-fried Soviet futurism TikTok meme set to the Laibach cover of “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” That a nonagenarian made this is in itself an act of manic genius.
Perhaps the framing above is a little unfair; after all, this is ultimately just a small-scale personal project from a man who is known for his many digressions. But it brings up the obvious question: what is the purpose of the screen now as opposed to online video, or in the case of the still images, plain old HTML? While it is conspicuous that Jean-Luc Godard chose to similarly dominate his final work, released last year, with a series of static compositions, cinema is a medium of motion pictures, and the bizarre oddities Kluge has collected here are just calling out to be given life. The AI video generation tools out there now are already sufficient to accomplish this, and one could only imagine how unique a fully visually and temporally realized version of Cosmic Miniatures could be. The brief final stretch of the film is genuinely beautiful in a way that cuts through after an hour and a half of shitpost cinema. After an intriguing series of juxtapositions of found images highlighting the geometries of the biological and the cosmological, Cosmic Miniatures ends with a remarkably poignant edit of a scene from Heimat entitled “Lovers Beneath the Moon,” by Kluge’s New German Cinema collaborator and legend in his own right Edgar Reitz. Kluge has appended the footage with some forcefully artificial impositions of the moon onto vivid time lapses of the sky with striking force. This sequence could and should exist most beautifully and authentically on its own terms. Perhaps Alexander Kluge edits the official Instagram account. — NOAL OAKSHOT
The Night Visitors
“Not a day elapsed which did not bring us news of the decease of some acquaintance. Then, as the fatality increased, we learned to expect daily the loss of some friend. At length we trembled at the approach of every messenger. The very air from the South seemed to us redolent with death. That palsying thought, indeed, took entire possession of my soul. I could neither speak, think, nor dream of any thing else.” This passage from the first paragraph of Edgar Allan’s Poe’s short story “The Sphinx,” drenched in that tale’s Cholera context, feels freshly poignant in a post(?)-Covid present. It’s also, of course, reflective of the author’s career-long preoccupation with death — which Freud would dismiss as mere trauma manifest; how exactly does that reason out in the face of pandemia? — and it later takes form in the story as a giant death’s-head hawkmoth, “far bigger than any ship of the line in existence,” which the narrator regards as a potential omen of his imminent demise.
The description of the moth — garish and just a bit descriptively incoherent in its arch gothicism, in typical Poean fashion — features prominently in director Michael Gitlin’s latest, The Night Visitors. “A movie about moths,” as the film’s Letterboxd description aptly begins, Gitlin’s film doesn’t concern itself with any fear of death, but does recall Freud in its hat tip toward the function of semantic processing, and particularly the way in which our collective regard for moths lacks much of an allegorical or scientific association in the cultural consciousness. Thankfully, Gitlin doesn’t take that as a challenge to make any grand metaphorical statement, but rather embraces the opportunity to engage with the creatures as underappreciated aesthetic objects, and ones that do hold considerable mystery at that (the director even takes a humorous shot at Poe’s “overwrought symbolism”).
It would be plenty enough in this craterous age of the documentary for Gitlin to simply engage with moths, in all their biodiversity and alien beauty, on aesthetic terms, but he moves beyond the potential passivity of observation to survey moths as poetic bodies, possessors of bounteous meaning and almost uniquely absent much ascribed symbolic representation. He highlights a number of subspecies, often set alternately against black and white backgrounds, considering not their metaphorical heft or indulging any opportunity for anthropomorphic thematizing, but instead wondering in their practical function, the secrets of their behavior, their stunning biological adaptations. That this wonder is mostly achieved in silence, or else in fittingly ethereal accompanying on-screen text, speaks to Gitlin’s trust in viewers to come to the same meditative, near spiritual, conclusions that motivate his project. Sometimes Gitlin’s moths spin as if the work of 3D modeling; sometimes fingers creep into frame, manually expanding wings so as to highlight incredible markings in super hi-def — the awe is always palpable.
A warping, synth-driven soundscape — sometimes skewing neo-industrial, other times lending the texture of insectile clicking — envelops the director’s images, supporting the essential esoterica of the film’s subject of choice. And Gitlin’s willingness to abide concision to the point of dreaminess displays a savvy handle of the material, and makes for a pleasantly mystifying immersion; this is far from a comprehensive microhistory, and so avoids all of the patness that comes with such narrative nonfiction arcs, preferring to function as a toe-dip into a particular otherworldliness. To this end, Gitlin at one point bemoans the insistence of zoocentric documentary filmmaking’s go-to move of using closeup to suggest creature interiority, a cheap trick that speaks to our discomfort in engaging with the world around us in anything but human terms and which subsequently offers more easily digestible art. The Night Visitors commits no such sins, understanding the dulling effect our instant access to information has on existence and the way that didactic art flattens like a bug all instinct for curiosity. Gitlin instead directs viewers’ attention to the mysterious recesses of our world, and so ourselves. Hopefully, like moths to a flame. — LUKE GORHAM
Given the current, extremely complicated relationship between Hong Kong and China, it’s perhaps surprising that Choy Ji’s film (his debut feature) Borrowed Time made it past mainland censors. Granted, no one is going to confuse the movie for a political tract; instead, this delicate memory piece moves in opaque ways, implying rather than stating. Perhaps the linking of a familial schism with contemporary politics is entirely incidental. Choy isn’t saying, but it’s hard to overlook the inference.
Eschewing typical narrative momentum, Borrowed Time is very much an attempt at a certain kind of poeticized reverie. In other words, there isn’t much plot to synopsize; Mak Yuen-ting (Lin Dongping) is preparing to get married to Ngai (Sunny Sun), a well-to-do man from a wealthy family. Yuen-ting’s mother, Chau-kuen (Pan Jie), is embarrassed to attend the wedding without Yuen-ting’s father, who left them in Guangzhou some 30 years earlier and fled to Hong Kong after racking up thousands of dollars in debt. Further, it’s revealed that he has an entirely different family in Hong Kong. Chau-kuen declares that she will not go to the wedding without the father there, and so Yuen-ting sets off to find him and implores him to return with her. All of this information is disseminated in one long conversation between mother and daughter; otherwise, Choy and cinematographer Shuli Huang are preoccupied with turning the city into a series of emptied-out liminal spaces, moving isolated bodies through Edward Hopper-like compositions. It’s slowly, methodically paced, the film’s rhythms seemingly attuned to non-professional actress Lin’s attenuated performance.
Eventually, Yuen-ting makes the journey across the bay, as we follow her travels from boat ride to quarantine hotel (the film was shot during Covid lockdowns). Later, she reconnects with childhood friend Yuseng (Eddy Au-yeung), who seems to remember more about their past than she does. Interspersed throughout the film is a recurring motif: a mix CD with a hand-scribbled label that acts as a kind of totem. It’s a potent symbol, and Yuen-ting and Yuseng bond over the resurfacing of their shared history. It’s all very calm and lovely, perhaps too much so. Cinema is an ideal delivery method for a certain kind of ennui; Antonioni perfected wandering through cities in a fugue state, while Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jia Zhangke, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (amongst others) updated the idea for the 21st century. Choy doesn’t do much to add to or differentiate himself from these signposts, instead making a fairly simple dichotomy between the colder, more austere mainland and the livelier (if still claustrophobic) Hong Kong locations. There’s little effort to give Yuen-ting any sort of psychological interiority; a brief scene shows that she works for a debt collection agency, the same sort that would’ve hounded her mother and father in the past. But the linkage is never mentioned again, and the idea that capitalism could have driven a wedge into the family isn’t explored, either. The film offers one breathtaking sequence, suggesting Choy’s talents lay less in narrative cinema than in experimental sights and sounds. Yuseng is an anthropologist of some sort, and toward the end of the film, Choy introduces a fascinating formal and narrative rupture, superimposing nature footage over the walls of Yuseng’s apartment. It has the effect of removing Yuen-ting and Yuseng from one world and transporting them into another. It’s rapturous, a magic-realist interlude of sorts that approaches the transcendent. Borrowed Time is a fine enough debut effort on the whole, but it’s this concluding scene that shows a path forward for this young filmmaker. — DANIEL GORMAN
Explanation for Everything
Gábor Reisz’s latest film is Hungarian through and through, but despite that, it feels very much like a sanded-down Romanian one. In fact, some of the underlying themes in Explanation for Everything have been addressed with much more subtlety in Cristian Mungiu’s recent films, such as R.M.N. and especially Graduation. And if we try to take Explanation at its word, however ironic — that it offers insight that could potentially explain everything — it’s still the case that Reisz was beaten to the punch, and then some, by Radu Jude’s near-masterwork Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World. In light of this uncanny similarity in approach, it’s perhaps worth noting that the character who turns out to be the prime mover for Explanation’s primary conflict is Erika (Rebeka Hatházi), a journalist for a right-wing Hungarian newspaper who is herself Romanian.
Loping and digressive until it hits its one-way topical fast track, Explanation for Everything is the story of Ábel (Adonyi-Walsh Gáspár), a chucklehead high school senior preparing to take his final exams. We see him cramming, as well as interacting with Janka (Lilla Kizlinger), the classmate he pines for despite the fact she has pretty obviously got him in the friend zone. Discussions hint at Ábel having perhaps been caught up in an earlier conflict between his father György (veteran actor István Znamenák), a bitter architect who supports Viktor Orbán’s far-right Fidesz party, and Jakab (András Rusznák), Ábel’s lefty, manbun-sporting history teacher. While we never get any direct evidence that Jakab has it out for Ábel, the kid has an unspoken animosity for his instructor that is mostly apolitical. Janka has a crush on Jakab who, to his credit, spurns the lovelorn teen.
One gets the sense that Reisz is attempting to make sure all the human chess pieces are on the board and recognizable before setting off the film’s central problem, and this accounts for an opening half-hour which is mostly scene-setting. But Explanation does not justify its bloated 150-minute runtime. That’s just as long as Jude’s film, but Jude uses the broad canvas of Do Not Expect Too Much to lay out various levels of social fractiousness in order to braid them into a kind of intersectional analysis. Reisz, by contrast, simplifies events until they come across like a New York Times op-ed demanding that we really, really listen to the MAGA crowd.
When Ábel puts on his suit jacket for his oral exam, it still has a ”patriot pin” showing the colors of the Hungarian flag. While these are broadly worn on March 15th, commemorating the 1848 revolution, wearing them at other times has been associated with the Fidesz movement. So when Jakab innocently expresses his observation that Ábel is wearing the pin, the boy uses this comment as a smoking gun, claiming that he failed his history exam because of Jakab’s liberal views.
If we give Reisz the benefit of the doubt, we could assume that the boiling down of all simmering class resentment to left-vs.-right politicking is itself the point, that these simplifications draw attention and sell newspapers, but ultimately obscure more than they illuminate. However, Explanation is not an equal opportunity satire. While György is a grumpy blowhard, he is shown to be a fiercely devoted family man, where Jakab is so involved in his own projects (a half-assed documentary film, in particular) that he routinely ignores his wife (Eliza Sodró) and children. He is, as György calls him in the subtitles, a “libtard,” someone who forms his identity through political affiliation but has very little in the way of character or compassion. But that’s not to suggest that Explanation for Everything is politically biased. It’s just rather half-assed, with Reisz taking the longest possible route to travel the shortest intellectual distance. — MICHAEL SICINSKI
yours, is an anthology piece commissioned by Kunstencentrum Nona (Nona Arts Center) to pay tribute to Chantal Akerman — a titan of durational and feminist cinema. The film is made up of five shorts, all directed by women (one co-directed with a man), which reflect various modes of cinema that Akerman championed. The first, Stone, Hat, Ribbon and Rose by Eva Giolo, is a standout. The clearest tribute to any of Akerman’s individual films operates as an homage to News From Home, touring the subways and streets of Brussels, Akerman’s place of birth. Gorgeous city shots are interspersed with footage of women in a studio performing various ritual tasks — scratching their backs, playing with toy cars, taking photographs. As an aesthetic and thematic portrait of Akerman’s films, Giolo’s short does something more obvious than the others. It recreates the dynamic of News From Home and cuts it against women engaging in banal tasks (something Akerman would frequently do, most famously in Jeanne Dielmann). The sections featuring Giolo’s women, however, lack the intrigue that Akerman imbued into her works. When Jeanne Dielmann peels a potato, every flick of the knife — and the meaning it communicates — reverberates through one’s body; Giolo’s nameless women are just that — nameless. Their actions mean little in the context of the short, and the jarring cuts between the ethereal interiors of the city and the professionally-lit, baby blue backdrop only highlight how much more beautiful Giolo’s city shots are. Some particularly stunning shots of pools echo Ellie Epp’s Trapline, which was inspired by Akerman’s Hotel Monterey. The cyclical nature of the avant-garde!
Barefoot Birthdays on Unbreakable Glass by Rebecca Jane Arthur is the most ambiguous in its connection to Akerman. It acts as a documentary showcasing the lives and passions of three women: Constance Neuenschwander, a gardener; Azam Masoumzadeh, an illustrator; and Anna Dede, an artist. The theme of motherhood arises in all their stories, but the anchoring point of the film is the birthday they share in the film’s last part. In an experimental montage, Arthur shares in the joy of these women celebrating. Although interesting in its own right, Akerman is rarely implicated beyond passing references to Brussels. Though Akerman’s connection to her mother is necessary to understanding the artist, Barefoot Birthdays’ doesn’t make the connection strong enough to take up lasting space in the viewer’s mind.
When Things Fall Apart by Katja Mater plays fast and loose with the “homage” designation, instead taking on a more spiritual connection to Akerman. Mater made the film between the passing of her father and the passing of her mother, guided by the death doula Staci Bu Shea. It’s the most formally simple, and most breathtaking in its execution. The film oscillates between hand-written journal entries, showcased word-by-word, and still “aerial drawings” of celestial objects using multiple exposures to position the bodies outside of time and space, in a realm entirely of their own. The text portions of the film are daring in overcoming their apparent banality thanks to inspired movement from Mater’s camera and penmanship that allows the material to flow as if guided by gravity. It’s a more poetic take on something more structural like So is This, the comedy by Michael Snow which plays one word at a time to great effect. As for the words themselves? They read like something a “spiritual” therapist might have on posters in their office. “Your loss and grief are not so material. It is the unseen that will be very important.” These entries are, of course, very personal to Mater’s own experiences with grief and are partly attributed to her exercises with Bu Shea. However, most remain either too literal or too vague to contribute much meaning to an viewer’s life, though it is nonetheless an ambitious response to Akerman’s own grief in the face of her mother’s death, which ultimately drove her to suicide.
Un Âne by Sirah Foighel Brutmann and Eitan Efrat marks a sudden political turn for the film, and a very timely one at that. Both Brutmann and Efrat were born in Israel, which Akerman called home for a period of time. In Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie, she uses shots of the Negev desert as contrast to her mother’s apartment. Akerman’s Negev is a gorgeous, anonymous landscape that haunts the film. In Un Âne, Brutmann and Efrat attempt to reckon with Akerman’s place in the displacement of Palestinians, defying the “anonymity” with which the desert was cast in Akerman’s work and placing the images they’ve shot of the desert in squarely political terms. They narrate a letter to Akerman: “Since 1948, this desert is a place of continuous and daily erasure. The erasure of roads, plants, water sources, of knowledge, histories and livelihoods of Palestinian Bedouin communities.” There is much to be said about Akerman’s complicated relationship with Israel, which merits more than an aside, but is spoken of at some length and to great effect in motelabyss’ review of Là-bas. In some of Yours,’ most moving images, the filmmakers recall a white donkey they met in the desert, and imagine that it holds the spirit of Akerman. The white donkey grazes the desert in the night as the film turns to black.
The possibility of being sea by Maaike Neuville ends the anthology on a mixed note. It’s another letter following Un Âne, but this time addressed to the filmmaker’s mother. It’s a sentimental piece focusing on Neuville’s child. The director seems to lament the looming death of her mother, and celebrates her own motherhood. While she does compose occasionally stirring pictures, much of the visual language feels amateur compared to what comes before. It’s as earnest as any of the shorts included, and it’s hard to fault the unabashed feeling of spontaneity the film captures in its most tender moments between mother and child, but the film is disserviced by its position as a capstone to the project. Its last shot, however, is as beautiful as the best work of Neuville’s collaborators, as waves, catching light, mirror pyramids across a dazzling blue sea. — JOSHUA PEINADO