MUBI’s New York Film Festival Projections 2016 Selections

The first short of the selection, “Regal” achieves the feat of conforming exactly to the viewer’s idea of what it is and sneakily suggesting something more. It is in effect a showing of an immensely degraded print of a Regal Theaters preshow advertisement, and there is a certain thrill in watching these images broken down to their elemental colors, but Karissa Hahn complicates this by foregrounding how it is being shown—on a laptop screen. There is much buffering and playing/pausing, coupled with the amusing sounds of the space bar and a computer alert, though it is complicated further by having the play/pause icon that pops up look as degraded as the ad. The short is capped off by showing a download button, and though Hahn’s point doesn’t necessarily come across cleanly, her images are a delight nonetheless.

“Now: End of Season” also pulls off a similar mixture, though to slightly less successful results. Using footage of Syrian refugees in Turkey and overlaying it with an archival telephone call of former Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad trying to reach Ronald Reagan as the latter is horseback riding, Ayman Nahle mixes the present and past in a somewhat oblique way. This juxtaposition is further displayed by the focus on things of the present that act as extensions of the various figures: cell phones, suitcases, clothing, and other such items. If Nahle is attempting to imply some sort of political message related to modern day Syria (e.g. on American intervention), it is mostly lost under the just-too-long running time and the inexplicably ominous thrum of the electronic score, but the short remains engaging throughout its run.

On the other hand, “Cilaos” goes for extreme artifice, combining a ’70s blaxploitation aesthetic, a capella musical numbers, and a rigorous style to tell the story of a woman searching for her father. The moody celluloid look is matched by the soulful singing of the three actors, especially Christine Salem, and Restrepo frames them often against empty backgrounds as they look directly at the camera. Throughout, a spirit of experimentation is as present as the narrative, using the same actor to play two different roles in the same shot and framing. In the final third, Restrepo abandons the narrative in favor of pure celebration, as the woman seems to assume her father’s role and the short breaks down. It is a wonderful, mystifying short all around.

Almost certainly the most exciting of the entire program (from both parts) is “Foyer”, by Ismaïl Bahri. The setup is simple enough—a blank piece of white paper is placed in front of a camera filming a street in Tunis—and even if the sole content of the film was to capture the way the light and wind subtly change the color and texture of the shot, it would remain thoroughly absorbing for at least a good portion of the runtime. But Bahrain uses the sound to an astonishing extent, using what appears to be unscripted conversations with random passersby as they ask the purpose of his filming the paper and, especially in the earlier parts, about how it relates to the traditional conception of cinema. Consequently, the short remains more than lively throughout, with only a few lulls in between certain conversations. The second half takes an unexpected but even more delightful turn, as police officers ask Bahri to take his camera to the station to be examined. The tension is quickly dissipated after the officers quickly realize the contents of the recording (the sound continues even as the filming is ostensibly stopped, which leads to some question over whether everything is as is) and gradually the short turns into a study of the mindset of Tunisia in the current decade. At once a study of the image and a unexpectedly expansive piece of ethnography, “Foyer” is even more rewarding than initially meets the eye.

In stark contrast, “Indefinite Pitch” seems to almost provoke the viewer with its confrontational approach. Beginning as a pitch for a film set in Berlin (originally unspecified), the short quickly devolves into an extended reflection on the Northeast, the town of Berlin, New Hampshire, and even the culture of today, all using the pitch that has been reconfigured from a 1927 silent movie filmed in Berlin. The monologue itself is surprisingly dense, and perhaps takes on too many topics in such a short timespan, but the deftness with which Wilkins returns to certain points seems almost too clever. Unfortunately, as a result of a possibly jaundiced worldview on the part of the narrator (whether or not Wilkins fully shares the views he is espousing is unclear), there is a strong tinge of nastiness that is only amplified by the continual escalation then deescalation of the pitch modulation that, at the halfway mark, turns into an alarm-like whine which does dissipate after less than a minute. The still images are visually pleasing enough, occasionally echoing the narration, but their purpose only becomes clear towards the end, as Wilkins continues his game of metaphorical cat-and-mouse with the viewer.