Susan Morris | Essays

Four Film Festivals Address Home

Film festivals SXSW, Doc Fortnight, Full Frame, and New Directors/New Films 2022 have continued to make their offerings available online, although many now have in-person components. This has enable us to cover back-to-back offerings, and to observer emerging trends in content at SXSW, Doc Fortnight (MoMA), Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and New Directors New Films (MoMA & Lincoln Center). The first category to pop out is the notion of home: stories around those creating or seeking home, home as the crux of identity and community, displacement, and typologies. Creating a new home In What We Leave Behind is Julian Moreno who, in his 90s, buys a plot of land next door to his own house in San Juan del Rio in central Mexico to build a new home for any family member who would like to live there. It’s a race to see if he can finish it in the year he expects he has left to live. He would like everyone to be together, even though some of his family lives across the border in the U.S., who we see him visiting for the last time at the start of the film. Widowed at an early age, he brought up seven children, and is particularly concerned about his son Jorge, who is nearly blind and lives with him. Julian’s health declines, he gets smaller and smaller, and we finally take a walk through the new, nearly finished, lightly furnished, simple as-yet unoccupied house. (It won both the Fandor New Voices and Louis Black Lone Star Awards at SXSW.)

In Ihyangjeong: Carving with Memories the director explores in animated VR, building his own home while groping with his family’s 300-year old house, a traditional Korean Ihyangjeong. In animation, he ruminates on how a homestead is a vessel that holds memories and how — and whether —to give up the modern city for what an ancestral building form can offer.

In Home, Noriko DeWitt, wonders about where home is. She was born in Japan, lived in Greece, moved to Canada and now lives in Texas. She experiences racism and discrimination, and realizes “Home is simply where your heart is, no matter your race, background, or ethnic identity.”

Ela is seeking a home in Once Upon a Time in Calcutta. She is desperate to leave the apartment she shares with her estranged husband after losing a child, and tries to gain what she thinks is her birthright in an abandoned landmark theater in central Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), where her half-brother Bubu lives, holding onto grudges he he holds against Ela. Refused a bank loan for a mortgage, she finally accepts the offer from her corrupt boss who runs a Ponzi scheme, of an apartment in a new high-rise tower in exchange for sexual favors. Her devil’s bargain backfires when her boss’s misdeeds are exposed, but she may gain the theater after Bubu dies. We hear a newscaster in the background: “The spirit of the city makes it what it is! … It’s not jut becoming more beautiful, the expanding city is taking over everything around it as Calcutta adapts to modern necessities, it gets busy building…The New City!” The poet, writer, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer and painter from Calcutta, Rabindrath Tagore, is laces throughout the film in a “modern remix” updated version of his lyrics in song heard on the radio: “Arising from the world’s core/Are the winds of a new vision/ To this wind I submit my world/Purify my world in your stream of light/Cleanse me in your stream of eternal joy,” An announcement on TV that the government is going to display 10,000 Tagore busts to bring a “cultural change in the citizens and his songs will be played at all the traffic signals,” and a small child dresses up as him in costume.

Deception is at the heart of Millie Lies Low where star architecture student Millie, whose face is plastered on posters across Wellington, New Zealand, boards a flight to New York to accept a Guggenheim Fellowship in New York City, only to have a panic attack and disembark. Having forfeited her airfare, she is now stuck and too embarrassed to admit that she is still on home turf. Without a home to return to, she slinks around the city, posting fake videos and Instagram photos of herself in NYC (taping a NY subway map behind her, feigning an exposed brick apartment wall, or scattering flour to simulate snow), and learns truths about her friends, her architectural ideas and herself.

A slew of films depicted collective identity represented in home and community. Freedom Hill in Princeville, NC was the first town chartered by Blacks, established in 1865 after the Civil War and incorporated in 1885, located on the flood plain of the Tar River. Whereas whites claimed higher ground, this low-lying land is vulnerable to major floods and toxic dumping, making this a prime site for the environmental justice movement. After Sherman (also at the 2022 Tribeca Festival) explores the South Carolina Low Country where the first Africans arrived in 1526 as part of a Spanish expedition from the Caribbean, and by the start of the Civil War in 1861, the population was over 85% African. Filmmaker Jon-Sesrie Goff hails from this region, although he grew up in New York State, so his father makes the distinction: “There is a birthplace and there is a home place.” Goff starts with a small plot of land that belonged to his family in the Low Country. Modeling his film on Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1986) which takes a personal POV to an historical subject, he interviews relatives. An 1865 agreement between 20 Black ministers with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman to reserve an area within 30 miles of the sea for Blacks (which would have included his family land) was never honored. Goff traces the history of the region through site-specific South Carolina examples: the trajectory of Georgetown, once home to International Paper, the largest paper mill in the world, and whose slave market became a police stations and is now a rice museum; General Sherman’s headquarters at the Green-Medrim Mansion in Savannah; extraordinary footage of KKK rallies; and AME churches including Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbia, erected in 1859 by an ancestor (his father, Normal Goff, was the head of the NAACP in Rochester, NY during the Kodak case against Blacks and women, who became the acting Father of Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston after the 2015 shootings by Dylann Roof, having left Bible study 20 minutes before the attack). Before a public land auction, there is an announcement requesting that non-Black buyers not bid on property that was originally designated for Blacks, but Whites ignore the request when bidding starts.

Elaine De Valle, an 8 year-old girl living in a public housing project in Brooklyn is rehearsing a school presentation about her neighborhood in the opening of Brownsville Bred. “301 Sutter Avenue between Rockaway and Mother Gaston Blvd, Brownsville, Brooklyn. Langston Hughes Project are the three tallest buildings in all of East New York, 22 stories high, 8 apartments per floor, average household has more than 6 people, more than 3,000 people living on one city block.” She grows up to be the filmmaker, and this is her story. Hers is one of the only Puerto Rican families in the projects in the 1980s where she idolizes her salsa-loving father who gets arrested for using heroin, bringing her world crashing down. It won the Audience Award for Episodic Pilot competition at SXSW.

Mariner of the Mountains is a personal journey for Brazilian filmmaker Karim Ainouz to explore Algeria, homeland of the father he barely knew. His parents met when both were students in the U.S., his mother studying red algae in Wisconsin, and his father studying engineering in Colorado. Both countries had repressive regimes and the two met in Washington over democratic political involvement. When his mother returned to Brazil to give birth, the country was taken over by the military and his father never joined them, instead fighting for an independent Algeria. Ainouz explores Algeria, making his way to the hilltop village with narrow walkways and brick & stucco buildings where people share his name. He weaves together his mother and father’s communities to discover his own identity.

Another cluster of films about home focused on displacement. White Building was an actual 1960s apartment building in central Phnom Penh, Cambodia designed to house 2,500 moderate-income tenants, and was populated by many artists who found the innovative design appealing. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, it fell into steep decline and was demolished in 2017. Director Kavich Neang grew up in the building and crafted this fictional story of the moment of displacement when the 500 remaining families were offered a pittance to move, and the residents’ debate about whether to accept. We follow the story of one family, whose father was the building representative to the developer, but who laments his inability to save the building. His teenage son shoots a video of the apartment to document the building before demolition starts.

A brother and sister are preparing to leave their small Vietnamese village where they live in a cheap, new cookie-cutter house with blue pitched roof and yellow or red stucco walls, for the city in Further and Further Away. The daughter wants to visit their parents’ grave in another village before leaving, but her brother doesn’t see the point. She takes a boat to the old abandoned village set in a swamp with older wooden peaked-roof huts on stilts with bamboo walls and floors. She clearly does not want to make the move. No Kings depicts a fishing village on a mountainous southern Brazilian coastline inhabited by the Caiçaras people. The word caiçara in the Tupi language signified a rustic fence made of tree branches, and fences are used to build huts on the beach, surround villages and trap fish. Their world is fast disappearing.

Children are displaced from their homes in 107 Mothers, which dramatizes what actually happens when mothers can no longer care for their children because they are incarcerated, many having committed crimes of passion killing an unfaithful partner or their paramour. The film has extra resonance now as it is set in Odesa, Ukraine, where we’ve heard reports of such youngsters being evacuated. Children are allowed to stay for three years in this hulking structure, at which point they are transferred to an orphanage if no one is willing to take them. Even when their mothers get out of prison, alcoholism, drugs and other complications often mean the children are left behind.

A woman is displaced in Lili Alone when she goes to the city to earn treatment for her father’s medical condition. Although she tells her abusive husband she’s going to work in a factory in Guangzhou, the capital of Canton Province, China (she tells her son she’ll be making toys.), she arrives at a high-rise octagonal apartment building with a central courtyard. It’s a bit of a prison because she is there to be artificially inseminated to become a surrogate mother, paid for by prospective parents. It’s a company flat which is heavily surveilled inside the apartment so she is viewed at all times. She can go out twice a day, but cannot speak to anyone. The interior is cheap ‘motel’ decor with plastic outdoor chairs in the kitchen, a ‘waterfall’ photo with heightened colors on the wall. A rundown rooftop garden with potted plants and red-tiled floor and rusted wall tiles provides a bit of relief. One of her roommates tells her that many women in her village do this job to get money to build a house. When the couple who ordered Lili’s baby decide they no longer want it, and plans are made to abort the next day, she defies the rules, ventures outside, takes a boat trip where we see the brightly-lit skyscrapers and sports stadium along the Pearl River waterfront.

Next up: Susan Morris explores typologies, surveillance, and mayhem at the film festivals.

Films Listed by Festival

107 Mothers, directed by Peter Kerekes
Mariner of the Mountains, directed by Karim Aïnouz
No Kings, directed by Emilia Mello

After Sherman, directed by Jon-Sesrie Goff
Freedom Hill, directed by Resita Cox

Further and Further Away, directed by Polen Ly
Lili Alone, directed by Zou Jing
Once Upon a Time in Calcutta, directed by Aditya Vikram Sengupta
White Building, directed by Kavich Neang

Brownsville Bred, directed by Elaine Del Valle
Home, directed by Sarah DeWitt
Ihyangjeong: Carving with Memories, directed by Sunghwan Lee
Millie Lies Low, directed by Michelle Savill
What We Leave Behind, directed by Iliana Sosa

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