With one of the most impressive lineups in recent years, Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinema has stayed true to their commitment to new cinema. Offering less mainstream selections than any schedule in recent memory, the festival not only looked forward in 2016 but took into account the current political and economic conditions that filmmakers face in the current age. In many ways, “New Cinema” exists in tension with not only the multiplexes screening Marvel films, but the art houses that showcase comfortable, self-affirming socially minded pictures. Just as the festival chose the word “explore” for its new virtual reality program, FNCeXplore, it also applies to the festival as a whole. In search of new worlds and experiences, this year’s FNC has been a journey from the physical world to the metaphysical.
The worldwide selection of films in the inaugural FNCeXplore lineup reflects different possibilities for the medium. Hosted in Montreal’s Place Desjardins, the virtual reality experience was open to the public. Setting up the virtual reality headsets in a bustling environment was a smart move in opening up the experience to the community, but it similarly reflects on the medium’s haunting loneliness. Bringing attendees even deeper into the personal experience, the contrasting sensation of a headset with hundreds of people buzzing around is exhilarating at best and dizzying at worst.
At FNC, the Swiss film Sequenced seems to represent my usual experience with VR technology. Set on an alien planet, the viewer’s look determines the direction of the story. Animated like a video game cutscene from the 1990s (replete with awkward “loading” screens), the characterizations have a stiff unpleasantness that doesn’t encourage revisiting the experience (which seems to be integral to the understanding of the viewer’s role as a participant). While it’s a narrative experience, this short takes inspiration from video games more than cinema, and without the challenge of active engagement.
The details of the environment and the keen sense of depth, however, serve as one of the few highlights of the experience. For viewers that linger in frustration over the burdensome and half-baked experience of 3D in theaters, virtual reality as a whole already seems to have overstepped them. The simple joy of seeming to be in an impossible space with realistic dimensions (and careful attention to detail) can be genuinely thrilling. The film works against its own illusion as the stiffness of the animations sever the already paltry illusion of immersion.
Notes on Blindness, on the other hand, powerfully utilizes the three-dimensionality of space in both concept and execution. Based on the audio diaries of John Hull, who lost his sight in the early 1980s, a virtual experience of blindness itself builds on his ideas through a fantasy audiovisual experience. Using Hull’s musings, a landscape of sounds and movements are created. Sounds are visualized as pointed blue energy that swirls and vibrates until they take on a form. Situated in a black void, depth and space are evoked through the strength and intensity of sound.
Space itself becomes malleable, as louder sounds appear most clearly, though they don’t necessarily reflect their actual size or distance. As Hull’s words guide viewers to listen for a particular sound, those images become more defined. Notes on Blindness does not rely on traditional narrative evolution for its progression, but rather the development of ideas and feelings. In my limited experience, it may be the medium’s first truly great work of art. A film like Notes on Blindness does not only offer an escape from reality but enhances it, forcing reflection on the movements, sounds and feelings of the world we live in.
The idea of escape seems to have figured heavily in a number of films at the festival, specifically a number of European films that reflect a world changed by the 2008 financial crisis. Other critics have tackled the idea that cinema from the nations most affected (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) have come to reflect the pressures of the world after the big crash. Greece, in particular, has emerged as a nation in the midst of a cinematic New Wave as filmmakers like Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari have found worldwide recognition for their craft.
Park, directed by Sofia Exarchou, continues in that tradition. With most of the film taking place in the new ruins of the 2000 Olympics, aimless and troubled youths live out their days. While touched with less surrealism than her contemporaries, Exarchou nonetheless injects a mythical overhanging in the film that threatens outright irony in the depiction of Greece’s crippled future. Park doesn’t revel overtly in the hopelessness of looking forward but touches on the exploitation of young people by foreign interests and former generations. The film’s first half teeters on overly familiar tropes of children behaving badly, but it works towards some surprising poetic encounters that demonstrate a sure eye on behalf of the filmmaker. One particular perversion of the Sisyphus myth (featuring a dead dog) may very well be one of the most tragic visualizations of the difficult future facing the young people of Greece.
From Italy, similar reflections are found in Mister Universo and Bella e Perduta. Both films establish a literal journey, an attempt to escape the futility of a mapped out life that will get worse before it gets better.
Mister Universo blends documentary and fiction while featuring a number of famous Italian circus acts playing themselves. Centered on the story of a traveling circus, a young lion tamer, Tairo (Tairo Caroli), loses his lucky charm and goes on a journey to recover it. Charming and heartfelt, Tairo’s road trip across Italy depicts the fringes of Italian society where travelers have forged their own communities outside of the cities and towns. The circuses and fairs, as depicted within the film, are sparse, and their slow, inevitable death seems to hang overhead. This melancholia counterbalances with Tairo’s brightness as he quests to make a better life for himself and his loved ones.
Bella e Perduta follows a similar journey across Italy while also blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Perhaps a little silly at times, the film’s narrator is a beautiful male calf who is spared the certain face of death in his early years, only to be forced to face his mortality once again. More ethereal than nearly every other film of the year, Bella e Perduta presents a mystical landscape where mankind faces its role in an uncertain universe. Condemned to the slaughterhouse since his birth, the calf hangs on to life longer than could be expected for an animal in his circumstances and becomes an apt metaphor for our own liminal time on earth, certainly in the face of mass and impersonal industrialization.
Moving towards Bosnia, one of the brightest films in the entire selection, Death in Sarajevo, seems similarly cast in the European Union’s literal oppressive shadow. Centered on a hotel in the capital city (on the the anniversary of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination), a large event commemorating the event has been planned for months. Meanwhile, most of the hotel hasn’t been paid for, with people planning a large-scale strike in the hopes of garnering international attention for their cause.
Building on the cyclical nature of genocide and fascism, the film presents an absurdist microcosm of Bosnia’s tensions with Serbia and their own painful legacy of violence. An unlikely contender for one of the funniest films of the year, the movie moves swiftly through the hotel’s many levels and class systems. Drawing comedy from mass surveillance, labor tension and literal anarchist violence, Death in Sarajevo builds up an energy of unreality, where truth does not exist as an absolute. The fascinating poetry of the film lies in how it establishes an atmosphere of discontent and pleasurable chaos before giving way to cold and stark violence. Touching on the rise and fall of Sarajevo, integrally worked into the consciousness of its residents, hotel employees enable their own doom by falling into systematic traps of oppression.
These films depict the fast changing world and hopelessly postulate a kind of doomed tone for humanity. Remarkably, the filmmakers don’t revel in outright misanthropy, though it does hang around the edges of the frame. Similar fantasies of escape are found in Andrea Arnold’s much-talked about American Honey, which offers a different take on the widening gap between rich and poor in the western world. Similarly, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann explores the other side of the absurd, showcasing the clinical impersonality of pursuing power and social acceptance above the simple pleasures of living. The rising screams of “crisis” in Toni Erdmann become a perfect thesis of the sometimes arbitrary designations of instability within the bureaucratic world.
These films figuratively deal with space and the environmental conditions that shape our lives. Partly anthropological, they are all infused with a certain mysteriousness that evade simple moralizations. They reach forward in through the uncertainty of their characters’ futures, as they seem to fear old cycles of oppression and hopelessness. They reflect the ideals of new cinema by facing humanity and the medium’s uncertain future. The painful reflections on austerity represent an uncomfortable reminder of the instability faced by publically funded enterprises such as FNC, which rely on support from governments that have shown little faith in their citizenry and even less in their alliance to artistic expression.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.