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New Directors/New Films' Women filmmakers on the rise: Tsangari, Keshavarz and Rees

by Anthony Kaufman
March 23, 2011 2:21 AM
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I often greet the arrival of New Directors/New Films with measured enthusiasm. In the past, I've endured hours and hours of ambitious, though plodding cinema, which seemed to be inspired, but also lacked sufficient maturity to deliver a coherent whole. I'm happy to say that this year is different, with two films, by young female filmmakers, standing out for their sophistication, style and intriguing subject matter that combines the personal and the political: Athina Rachel Tsangari's "Attenberg" (here's my write-up in this week's Village Voice, "Greek Life") and Maryam Keshavarz's "Circumstance."

Tsangari is the real discovery of the fest. I haven't seen her debut "The Slow Business of Going," and missed "Attenberg" along the festival circuit, but I'm glad I caught up with it. It's a distinctive work of art cinema from a fresh new voice. Combining the "phlegmatic tenderness,” as she calls it, of the nature documentaries of Richard Attenborough with the modernist impulses of Fassbinder, Bresson and Godard, Tsangari focuses closely on the human species, yielding a work that is surprisingly analytical and intimate at the same time. It's full of surprises, alternating between socially coded manners and liberating whimsy.

While a more conventional film, Maryam Keshavarz's "Circumstance" has its pleasures, as well, and looks and feels like the work of a filmmaker with far more experience. While the movie has its histrionic moments--it is, after all, about two liberated young women struggling to break out of the constraints of Islamic culture--Keshavarz takes her sweet time, letting several delicate scenes unfold in silence. I had my doubts when the film won the Audience Award at Sundance, but it's far less sentimental or superficially triumphant than that accolade might connote. Keshavarz tells her story in a highly accessible manner, but it also doesn't shy away from the brutal truths of Iran's conservative ruling powers. To that end, the movie's got balls: it includes lines of dialogue that would get Keshavarz locked up in jail if she ever stepped foot in her parents' country. I'd like to see what she makes next.

The other female director who seems natural to include here is Dee Rees, whose debut film "Pariah" was picked up by Focus Features after its Sundance debut. And while "Circumstance" and "Pariah" may sound similar in their plots--both include young women in love with each other--I'd argue that "Circumstance" is far more about political revolution than sexuality. And while I believe that makes "Pariah" ultimately the lesser film (in addition to some preachy music choices and "Afterschool Special" plot turns), Rees does some superb work with her actors, not only with her young star Adepero Oduye, but especially Pernell Walker, who plays her best-friend, a proud dike trying to survive on her own, and the father, Charles Parnell, who wonderfully plays a complicated mix of love, shame and denial.

Notably, all three films include complex and carefully orchestrated father/daughter relationships that do not fit easily into preconceived cliches. There's no autocratic patriarchs on display. Rather, each father has multiple dimensions, pressing upon their daughters certain roles, but also revealing their own faults, whether "Attenberg's" bitter, dying father, who can offer her daughter little comfort or guidance as he passes away into oblivion, "Circumstance's" failed liberal, who can no longer climb the mountain of rebellion, or "Pariah's" paternal cop, who manages to oppress his child with endearing platitudes.

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