MOMI First Look Festival 2023

    (above: “Mami Wata”)

    The Museum of the Moving Image’s annual First Look Festival returns March 15 to March 19 in Astoria, showcasing over two dozen unique international and domestic films, with some screenings making their U.S. or New York premieres and featuring filmmaker appearances in person. MOMI says the “guiding ethos of First Look is discovery…” and that principle is well represented by special events like their four “Working On It” presentations in which filmmakers will show work-in-progress screenings followed by hosted discussions. And this year they have introduced a “Reverse Shot Emerging Critics Workshop.” (“Reverse Shot” is the name of MOMI’s in-house publication.) Young film critics were invited to submit essays and selected ones will meet with accomplished critics for a three-day mentoring session. Many of the series features will be screened with short works beforehand and there are also three showcases of new short films and two “Persistent Visions” showcases of short films grouped by theme. Legendary American experimental filmmaker Robert Beavers will be presenting an evening of films called “The Sparrow Dream and Other Films.” Go here for full lineup and ticket information.

    I’ve previewed three remarkable films in the series and will be writing about many others soon.

    Anaita Wali Zada in “Fremont”

    Joseph Von Sternberg’s autobiography was titled “Fun in a Chinese Laundry,” and while watching “Fremont” I kept thinking a better title might have been “Fun in a Chinese Fortune Cookie Factory,” even though the workers at the fortune cookie shop set in San Francisco here don’t seem to be having a lot of fun despite having genial employers. Twenty-something Afghan refugee Donya (Anaita Wali Zada, in a wonderful debut performance) stuffs paper fortune slips into cookies and folds them while complaining to coworker Joanna (Hilda Schmelling) about her terrible insomnia. Joanna has theories about why Donya can’t sleep and so does her therapist (Gregg Turkington). The therapist, who is oddly obsessed with Jack London’s book “White Fang,” suspects his patient’s experiences as a translator for the U.S. Army in her home country is the culprit and he may be right, but Donya just wants sleeping pills. Donya is not forthcoming at all which makes the deadpan humor of “Fremont” so deadpan as to be non-existent yet the character interactions are still fascinating and rich; the film has a unique tone and style. Filmed in ravishingly beautiful black and white by cinematographer Laura Valladao, the story advances in mostly static shots that create a delicious tension in the frame; director Babak Jalali creates a sense of longing and sorrow visually rather than having characters talk about. When Donya is promoted to the job of writing the fortunes she finally takes risks that change her life in surprising and delightful ways.

    This opening night film (a U.S. premiere) will be attended in person by director Babak Jalali and star Anaita Wali Zada.

    Carmen Chaplin and Angeliki Papoulia in “A Little Love Package”

    In 2016 Argentinian director Gastón Solnicki’s film “Kékszakállú” was an experimental narrative about young, wealthy Argentinians tentatively enlarging the boundaries of their world. His new film “A Little Love Package” reprises his unique strategy, this time in Vienna. Greek actress Angeliki Papoulia (who acted for Yorgos Lanthimos in his films “The Lobster” and “Dogtooth”) plays herself (more or less) as she visits prospective new apartments with her interior designer friend Carmen (Carmen Chaplin, grand daughter of Charlie), always finding them lacking in some way. The film begins with the news that smoking indoors has been banned in Vienna but it’s never quite clear if Solnicki thinks this turning point in the culture of the city is for better or worse.

    Carmen visits her elderly father’s goat farm in Malaga and has an argument with her sister about familial responsibilities. There are odd set pieces like the one in which Carmen documents on a map the places where her family have lived followed by Angeliki counting $100 Euro bills. “A Little Love Package” can’t be understood in traditional narrative terms. Instead it’s a collection of often stunning visuals, dramatic interactions that seem somewhat improvised and even some unexpected narration. This is a poetic work in which the music is equally as important as the visual or the (lack of) narrative form. Adventurous filmgoers will eat this up–a delicious pastry doesn’t need a plot.

    Director Gastón Solnicki will appear in person for this North American premiere of the film.

    “Art Talent Show”

    Adéla Komrzý and Tomáš Bojar’s “Art Talent Show” is a Czech documentary about the lengthy, multi-day entry exam process at Prague’s Academy of Arts. It resembles a Frederick Wiseman documentary so much it is almost a pastiche of his work, but with some cringeworthy humor about the woke trends of recent art and the often stifling requirement of artists to be able to talk about their art rather than just create it.

    Three sets of professors review the work of a  variety of prospective students working in various mediums, sometimes requiring them to go through silly exercises to reveal their personalities and ideas about art-making. As someone who was once in a graduate art program much of this student and teacher feedback loop is familiar to me. The teachers here are sometimes fatuous but they also sometimes correctly challenge the students: how does “expressing” yourself help the world? Doesn’t everyone express themselves? The students are often comical in their indulgent respect for woke critical dictums and performance art. Their works range wildly in quality and promise yet it a unique visual pleasure in itself to just see so much new art in a single film. Meanwhile, a middle-aged receptionist is unimpressed by all of this. She rolls her eyes while chatting with a colleague: “I hate those creeps who dress up as women!” (The teachers and students were all very brave to give the filmmakers such unlimited access to this ritual.) “Art Talent Show” is a must-see for anyone interested in or just curious about today’s academic art world. It would also make for a good double feature with last year’s “The African Desperate.

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