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From Ethiopia to Taipei to Hollywood

Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi (2021)

Telluride is on through Labor Day, and this year’s lineup naturally includes a good number of the season’s big guns—Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, and so on—but also a few surprises. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, for example, is a feature based on the series of viral videos and books about a talking mollusk created by comedian Jenny Slate and filmmaker Dean Fleischer Camp. The cast includes Isabella Rossellini and Lesley Stahl, and Slate tells Entertainment Weekly’s Lauren Huff that she’s “really glad that, especially right now, we can finally offer this small and astounding sweetness to the very big world out there.”

After last year’s cancelation, Telluride is proceeding with caution and enforcing all the necessary safety protocols. “I do think we’ve got the best movies of the year,” festival codirector Julie Huntsinger tells IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. “I’m feeling pretty good. Shit could hit the fan at any moment, but so far, so good.” Kohn also talks with Barry Jenkins about the films he’s selected as guest director, including Med Hondo’s West Indies (1979). “It boggles the mind that I got through film school and the majority of my twenties without seeing this film,” says Jenkins. “When you watch it, you wonder how it’s not canon. Of course, it is canon, among a certain group of filmmakers—but I hope by presenting it in this place, it can become canon for many others. Watching the film is an opportunity to interrogate who gets to stay in the canon and who gets pushed out.”

In other festival news, Toronto has announced that it has been working “in top secret collaboration” with Steven Soderbergh to present a surprise screening, the world premiere of a “never-before-seen” new film. Tribeca, in the meantime, will launch its first Fall Preview on September 22 with the world premiere of The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel to The Sopranos directed by Alan Taylor and written by Lawrence Konner and David Chase, who created the series often credited with ushering in the age of peak TV.

This week’s highlights:

  • When Faya Dayi screened as part of New Directors/New Films back in April, Amy Taubin, writing for Artforum, called Jessica Beshir’s first feature “a haunting documentary-fiction fusion set in the khat-growing highlands of Ethiopia, where the hallucinogenic plant is the basis of the economy and allows some respite from the political turmoil and periodic ethnic cleansing from which the filmmaker escaped when she was a child.” As Faya Dayi begins its theatrical run at Film at Lincoln Center today, Nicolas Rapold writes in the New York Times: “Ritual objects and dramatic fragments—two kids bathing, a scuffle over emigrating, a madeleine-like musing on coffee—hold center stage more than bright narrative threads. The smoky texture of the images led me to think of her technique as a kind of sfumato: shading in and out of moods of presence, absence, and longing.”

  • Sight & Sound is reviving the Black Film Bulletin, a vital publication launched in 1993, as a new quarterly supplement. Online we find two interviews conducted in 1996, Onye Wambu’s with Haile Gerima and June Givanni’s with Horace Ové. Gerima (Bush Mama, Sankofa) was born and raised in Ethiopia, emigrated to the U.S. in his early twenties, and became one of the leading filmmakers of the LA Rebellion. Trinidad-born Ové is the first Black British filmmaker to direct a feature-length film, Pressure (1976). Sight & Sound’s online package also includes appreciations from the filmmakers’ sons, director Merawi Gerima (Residue) and visual artist Zak Ové.

  • In July, Dennis Zhou traveled to the mountains outside of Taipei where Tsai Ming-liang gardens, paints, and shoots films in the home he shares with his longtime collaborator, Lee Kang-sheng. Zhou’s piece for the New Yorker is a fine primer on Tsai’s oeuvre and his gradual shift away from narrative over the course of three decades. “When I asked Tsai about the direction in his work,” writes Zhou, “he glanced outside. ‘The path of my films is like planting a tree,’ he answered. ‘After being planted, it grows by itself. I know what kind of tree it is, but not what shape it will grow into.’” Tsai’s nineteen-minute The Night, premiering in Venice, is a reflection on Hong Kong shot at the end of 2019. “Witnessing the unexpected changes in the Pearl of the East, I could not help but feeling an emotional stir,” he says. A new short film, The Moon and the Tree, will premiere in a few weeks at the Taipei Film Festival.

  • In our recent collection of tributes to actors appearing in films by Wong Kar Wai, Andrew Chan calls Tony Leung Chiu Wai “our emissary from the land of lonely hearts.” As Leung makes his long overdue arrival in Hollywood—in a Marvel movie to boot; he plays the hero’s villainous father in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings—award-winning writer Alexander Chee introduces Leung to GQ readers. Chee takes us from childhood trauma—Leung’s father abandoned the family when the boy was only seven—all the way to the set of Shang-Chi. In an accompanying video, Leung talks about his work with Wong, John Woo, and Ang Lee, which will make you hungry for more. So turn to Yang Zhang, who discusses what he perceives as the three phases in the career of Tony Leung, “the man who can speak with his eyes.”

  • For the Mary Pickford Foundation, resident scholar Cari Beauchamp tells the story of the actor and producer’s crucial role in the founding of the Film Library at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the summer of 1935, Iris Barry, the first curator in MoMA’s film department, went out to Hollywood to try to convince producers to donate films, and one evening hosted by Pickford was the turning point. “Walter Wanger, Harold Lloyd, Jesse Lasky, Sam Goldwyn and his wife Frances, Mack Sennett, Colonel Selig, Walt Disney, and Mrs. Thomas Ince were all in attendance,” notes Beauchamp. Films were screened, and it was a clip from Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) featuring Louis Wolheim, who had recently passed, “that seemed to truly touch the audience. He was gone, but he was still with them. That was the power of films—it was their chance for immortality and the emotion that swept through the room was something they seldom paused to appreciate.” For MoMA’s Magazine, curators James Layton and Dave Kehr introduce one of the museum’s recent projects, the restoration of seventeen early color films.

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