Susan Morris | Essays

New Directors/New Films 2023

Ashkal: The Tunisian Investigation
Still from Ashkal: The Tunisian Investigation.

The 2023 52nd edition of New Directors/New Films, the annual celebration jointly hosted by Film at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art that “has celebrated filmmakers who speak to the present and anticipate the future of cinema” featured films that explore worlds that are built, sometimes decaying, or under-construction.

The urban center in Hainan, China’s smallest and southernmost province with the most populated island in the country is now filled with cookie-cutter skyscraper housing blocks in various states of completion. “The bridge was removed. They filled in the river. The whole area is skyscrapers now.... In ten years we accomplished what the Industrial Revolution took 100 years to do.  So after ten years in jail you now have a brand new hometown” is explained to Han Jiangyu on his return from prison. He ascends an elevator up a building under construction and is offered his choice of apartments with views because he took the wrap for the building’s developer. However that individual is still swindling buyers who have invested their life savings but can’t get their apartment or money back. “Absence depicts Hainan as one giant construction site whose sad state is a far cry from the promise of comfort and luxury used to lure new buyers. Incomplete structures, unreliable developers, and never-ending financial demands make the dream of owning a home almost impossible.... The inadequacy of urban planning results in the evolution of Hainan into a paradoxical ghost town, where hundreds of half-built and unoccupied buildings exist alongside millions of people in desperate need of housing.... The social and cultural cost of China’s extremely rapid urbanization.” The film ends with Han, his wife and daughter, setting up home in an abandoned construction site in dream-like rotting ruins, looking out over the city.

Another decaying neighborhood is the Gardens of Carthage, an area in the north of Tunis built for dignitaries on the former regime in Ashkal: The Tunisian Investigation. Intended as a modern, enterprising, rich city, in December 2010 President Ben Ali was deposed in the Arab Spring in the Tunisian Revolution and all construction ceased, leaving a concrete jungle of unfinished buildings. Now, work has started up little by little, and the tale starts with security guard’s death at one of the sites. We drive around and roam through the half-made town, with sheep and feral dogs wandering around, idle cranes parked, and rebar sticking out of concrete columns among the weeds. This half-finished village is the perfect setting for a caper.

Maputo Nakuzandza is a day spent in Mozambique’s capital where we traverse run-down neighborhoods and more upscale (but still tawdry) ones, a beachfront section and the port of Matola. Wikipedia describes the city as “aesthetically attractive if dilapidated; “Distinct eclectic architecture with Portuguese colonial neoclassical and Manueline styles alongside Art Deco, Bauhaus, tropical Modernism, and Brutalist buildings.” A Portuguese colony that became independent in 1974, the historic Balada de Maputo downtown is a planned city district with square blocks and wide avenues. The grandest building is a mosque, and in a run-down area is a “literature mural” where José Craveirinha (1922 – 2003), considered Mozambican’s greatest poet, is highlighted. Fragments of stories take us around the city, and the soundtrack is a radio station broadcasting local news.

In Civic, we barely leave the car while driving around South Central Los Angeles with Booker, who has recently returned home.

Similarly Center, Ring, Mall circles three structures: a data center in Amsterdam, a city ring road and a vacant shopping center, with commentaries on capitalism and consumerism. “Hugged by industrial parks, science parks, office parks, temples to growth the fetish of financialized cityscapes, endless ‘once in a lifetime’ plans promising ‘rejuvenation’ leaving little behind except empty office spaces and archives jam-packed with scale models, CGI-visions and PR snapshots they are worlds that never quite arrive, the rubble of development, the raw materials of whole cities lying around in piles.... A concrete-skin without beginning or end choking the city, to the hymn of orbiting traffic.... Great ruins of an unremembered past can be found at its edges.” Whew.

A few films had interesting takes on houses and homes. In Escasso, Rose sees an open door and decides it is an invitation for her to move in. She says she’s taking care of the house until the owner comes back, but seem oblivious to the fact that she is doing something illegal.  She loves the house, and prefers it to the favela she called home. In Family Time, a Finnish family gather at their country cabin in the snowy woods for the holidays, making meals, using the sauna, all utterly bored with each other and themselves. Jitterbug takes place on Shacklewell Lane, Hackney, London E8 where a bright young Black woman wants to be an art historian and attend Cambridge University (she admires John Berger and Bisi Silva) while her friend wants to be an actress like Michaela Coel. When her family is notified they must vacate their council flat because of redevelopment, they feel powerless as they are at the bottom of the food chain. (Artangel, the arts commissioning organization, produced the film). Human Nature focuses on a house and garden during COVID lockdown, while a peacock idly walking past cars parked on an urban street.

Two films dealt with repressive societies. Chile ’76 opens in a paint store in Santiago where Carmen, a well-heeled woman, is having pigment matched to the photo of a house in Venice, adding blue to the pink color, while someone is arrested outside in the Augusto Pinochet regime. It’s for a house by the ocean she is renovating on the central coast between Algarrobo and the port city of San Antonio in the Valparaiso region. The Modernist house sports a flat roof, large windows and a reflecting pool in geometric patterns, protected by an exterior stone wall. Carmen is encouraged by a priest to help a wounded freedom fighter, which makes her realize how protected she is, and the ruthlessness of the regime, while her complicit family tries to ignore what is around them. At the end, Carmen is congratulated on doing such a wonder job with the house renovation.

Metronom takes place in Romania under Nicolae Ceaușescu, with a teenager ratting on his friends in order to get his family out of the country. The bas reliefs of a war memorial at the National Defence University is a meeting place of the youth.

Films + Directors
Absence, Wu Lang
Ashkal: The Tunisian Investigation, Youssef Chebbi
Maputo Nakuzandza, Ariadne Zampaulo
Civic, Dwayne LeBlanc
Center, Ring, Mall, Mateo Vega
Escasso (Scarce), Gabriela Gaia Meirelles & Clara Anastácia
Family Time, Tia Kouvo
Jitterbug, Ayo Akingbade
Human Nature, Mónica Lima
Chile ’76, Manuela Martelli
Metronom, Alexandru Belc

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

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