The annual New Directors/New Films program, now in its 41st year, brings together a program of more than two dozen films from all over the globe, and the only common ground between them is work by fairly new directors who show promise. The programming results in some wild juxtapositions. This year’s event, which opened this week, is typical.
Consider the three Jewish-themed features: a magical 3D animated film about a Moroccan rabbi and his talking cat; a somber meditation on life on Israel’s West Bank as experienced by a Palestinian filmmaker and father of four; an utterly berserk satire on the media manipulations that define post-Soviet Russia. An odd assortment, indeed, but each of these three films displays both distinction and the emergence of significant talent.
“The Rabbi’s Cat” is Joann Sfar’s second directorial effort (this time in collaboration with Antoine Delesvaux) and it’s a definite upgrade from his Serge Gainsbourg biopic; the energy never flags and the title character has none of Gainsbourg’s questionable behaviors. The cat, which has no name, is a creature of pure appetite, given to eating fish and birds without hesitation. (Come to think of it, he’s more like Gainsbourg than I thought, but he doesn’t do drugs or booze.) After apparently eating the rabbi’s parrot, he gains the ability to speak and almost immediately adds two new tricks to his repertoire, Talmudic disputation and lying.
Adapting his own books for the film, Sfar has concocted an entertainingly elaborate story that combines such classic elements of children’s adventure as a quest for a lost utopian city, a hunt for treasure and a close-knit band of friends to share it all with. Sfar and Delesvaux are also thinking of the adults in their audience and the film is as rich in its supply of inside jokes as the classic Warner Brothers cartoons of the ’40s and ’50s, ranging from a playfully snarky homage to Tintin to a rather pointed dig at Russian monarchists. The underlying message of the film is one of tolerance for diversity and for feline desires for fish, both of them admirable themes energetically enacted.
At times, “The Rabbi’s Cat” feels like a series of interlocking shaggy-dog stories (no pun intended), and “Generation P,” a savage satire on contemporary Russian politics and mass media, frequently seems a more metaphysical version of the same. Directed by Victor Ginzburg and based on a novel by the bad boy of post-Communist Russian literature, Victor Pelevin, the film is a sort of “Mad Men” for the oligarch era. “Generation P” follows the wobbly rise of would-be poet Babylen Tatarsky (Vladimir Epifantsev) from cigarette vendor for a Chechen thug to advertising genius to actual demi-god.
Although Babylen is named in honor of Babi Yar and Lenin, when challenged by schoolmates as a kid, he convinced them that he was actually named for the ancient city and empire. The real nature of his identity as a Jew is as transparent as his bizarre ruse of claiming Babylonian lineage, but that masquerade gives the film both a unifying theme and visual elements, as Tatarsky lives out his obsession with the goddess Ishtar while working his ad magic.
Ginzburg pulls the film together with a visual style that understandably owes a lot to television commercials, and humor that recalls such disparate works and artists as “Putney Swope,” a ’60s American satire on the business, Gogol, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. Given that Ginzburg is Russian-born but American- educated, the odd mix of his cultural references is probably not an accident. The commercials within the film are themselves gems of parody, and Epifantsev’s performance as the initially naïve Babylen is a triumph. The supporting cast is a kaleidoscope of memorable gargoyles worthy of Preston Sturges, and Ginsburg’s coruscating take on Russian politics seems more suited to the Putin era than the Yeltsin years in which the film is set. The film’s energy and invention flag a bit in the last half-hour, but that is probably to be expected in a first fiction feature of such ferocity.
“Five Broken Cameras” is considerably more sober than the other films under discussion. Emad Burnat is a Palestinian freelance cameraman and photographer who bought a video camera when his fourth son, Gibreel, was born in 2005. Since then he has become a frequent source of footage for Israeli TV, Al-Jazeera, Palestinian Television and many filmmakers documenting life on the West Bank. Since he bought that first camera, with no other intention than chronicling of his youngest child growing up, he gradually became an informal historian for his village, Bil’in. When the small village found itself pressed back by rapidly encroaching development from the settlements and from a separation barrier that claimed much of the land including olive groves that had been cultivated by the local population for generations, Burnat found himself not only covering the story but living it as well.
Burnat describes himself at the film’s outset as “just a peasant,” but his understanding of the tensions and passions in his community is considerably more sophisticated. So is his perspective on the dual role he has taken on. Like other filmmakers who specialize in documentaries that straddle the line between diary and history, he frequently finds himself torn between the urge to keep filming and the needs of the people around him.
Over the course of the half-decade covered by the film, we see him growing in technical skill and self-assurance at the same time that he grapples with the difficulty of maintain a strategy of non-violent protest when repeatedly met with force. It is this last dilemma that gives the film much of its power, as, one by one, five of Burnat’s cameras are destroyed, including at least two that were literally shot out of his hands.
Working with co-director Guy Davidi, an Israeli, Burnat has crafted a moving film that is poised on the brink of despair. Appropriately, it is young Gibreel’s warm smile and emerging personality that give both the director and the film some hope. Burnat says at the end of the movie that he films “to heal.”
“Five Broken Cameras” presents vivid witness to the power of the image to help with that kind of healing — a sort of indirect reply to the understandable cynicism of “Generation P.”
The 41st annual New Directors/New Films series, co-sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, runs from March 21 through April 1 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53rd St.) and the Walter Reade Theatre (165 W. 65th St.). For information, go to www.newdirectors.org.