First Look 2023

Anaita Wali Zada in Babak Jalali’s Fremont (2023)

Babak Jalali, the British-Iranian filmmaker who won the Tiger Award in Rotterdam for Radio Dreams (2016), was already at work on Fremont when the Taliban retook Afghanistan, forcing Anaita Wali Zada, a well-known face on Afghan television, to leave her home country. Five months after she arrived in the States, she landed the role of Donya, a former translator for the U.S. military now working at a family-run fortune cookie factory in the East Bay city.

When Fremont premiered in the Next program at Sundance, Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov noted that “twenty years ago, movies like this—droll post-Jarmusch/Kaurismäki exercises in missed connections and tentative bonds, often between the dispossessed of different cultures—were thick on the ground, and I generally enjoyed all of them. Fremont’s variation is that its performances are low-key naturalistic rather than hollowed-out deadpan, and it gains a lot from the specificity of its characters and their unglamorous milieus; it’s not like this part of California is overrepresented onscreen.”

Jalali and Zada will be in New York tomorrow when Fremont opens First Look 2023, the Museum of the Moving Image’s annual series of screenings and workshops. Fremont, which the New Yorker’s Richard Brody calls “a drama with a spare, wry tone that belies its earnest and ample substance,” will screen with Away, Belorussian filmmaker Ruslan Fedotov’s half-hour documentary focusing on Andrey and Alisa, sixteen-year-old Ukrainian refugees who look after other refugee children at a school in Budapest.

Several features in this year’s lineup are paired with short films. In Lucrecia Martel’s twelve-minute Maid, a new hire is distracted from her job by a series of strange phone calls from home. “While issues of class division and labor dangle on the periphery, Martel once again stretches her formal skills, crafting a portrait of a body in motion with a fair share of surprises,” writes Jordan Raup at the Film Stage. “If there’s only one quibble, it’s that in the six years since Zama, this all-too-brief return already leaves us hungry for her next work.”

Maid will screen before the New York premiere of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Tori and Lokita, which won a special 75th Anniversary Award when it debuted in Cannes last year. It’s “the angriest movie the Dardenne brothers have ever made, a distinction that shouldn’t be taken lightly in the context of filmmakers who’ve spent the last three decades carving diamond-sharp moral dramas from the plights of Belgium’s most dispossessed people,” wrote IndieWire’s David Ehrlich.

Tori (Pablo Schils), an eleven-year-old from Cameroon, and Lokita (Joely Mbundu), a sixteen-year-old from Benin, are passing themselves off as brother and sister in an unnamed Belgian city. He’s got papers; she doesn’t. For the Observer’s Mark Kermode, “it’s the tiny interactions between the pair—the tactility of their relationship, the palpable affection that sparks between them, the protectiveness of their unity—that are the heartbeat of the movie. Even when the narrative shifts from domestic drama to nail-biting, grueling suspense, their closeness remains our focus.”

In Rodeo, newcomer Julie Ledru plays a fierce French-Guadeloupean woman who joins a gang of stunt bikers and dares them to pull off an outlandish heist. “This punchy French feature debut doesn’t break any formal mould as a realist working-class drama in a familiar post-Dardennes vein,” writes Jonathan Romney in Screen, “but writer-director Lola Quivoron takes the form and makes it hers, infusing it with some dynamic motorbike action sequences.” For Romney, Quivoron is “high on this year’s list of new directors with potential to burn.”

Hardly a rookie, Belgian director Felix van Groeningen has been making films and winning awards for nearly twenty years. He’s teamed up with Charlotte Vandermeersch, his partner and cowriter on The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012), to codirect The Eight Mountains, the winner of a Jury Prize in Cannes. Pietro (Luca Marinelli) and Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) have been friends since childhood, drifting apart, then finding their way back to what bonds them. The directors are “wary of overdetermining a story both delicate and muscular, filming it with a stoic classical elegance echoed in Marinelli and Borghi’s reserved but piercing performances,” writes Guy Lodge at Film of the Week. “Over time, however, this combined restraint builds to a devastating torrent of feeling, like tears held back and back and back and then no more; an ode to loves taken for granted in life, it makes a case for renewing and reviving our oldest alliances.”

Last year, Natalia Keogan profiled another filmmaking couple, Artemis Shaw and Prashanth Kamalakanthan, for Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces of Film package. In 2020, as the world went into lockdown, “the two were rummaging through their Manhattan apartment when they stumbled upon something wonderful tucked away in the back corner of one of their closets,” Shaw’s old Hi8 video camera. Naturally, they used it to make a movie about a couple stuck in a relative’s apartment and losing their minds. Kallia (Shaw) and Ram (Kamalakanthan) “begin to regress and lash out emotionally, descending into a toxic pattern of spite, jealousy, and miserable codependence,” writes Keogan. “Wryly funny and cuttingly satirical, New Strains has the rare distinction of being a pandemic film that actually feels authentic to the moment in which it was made.”

While the focus of First Look is on discovering fresh talent, Sunday afternoon will be given over to Robert Beavers. The great experimental filmmaker will present five films made between 2007 and 2018 as well as his latest half-hour work, The Sparrow Dream (2022), all on 16 mm. First Look 2023 will then wrap with C. J. “Fiery” Obasi’s Mami Wata, which won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award at Sundance. “As characters debate spirituality in West African Pidgin, and lights pop to enhance a dreamy mid-forest sequence’s bold black-and-white, you find yourself fully immersed in the mystic fable,” writes Paste’s Jacob Oller. “Obasi brings us to the shoreline of Iyi, where technology stops with the tide and a religious leader is under threat. Shot with a striking, expressionist style by the Nollywood staple, Obasi’s story of a village, its water goddess, the women channeling her, and the men trying to wrest control is a beautiful, stark fantasy.”

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