From now through October, we’ll be covering the films set to show at this year’s New York Film Festival. Today, we’re looking at Neil Beloufa’s Occidental (Projections), Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki’s El mar la mar and Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun (Spotlight on Documentary).
Right from the start of Neil Beloufa’s experimental thriller Occidental (B-), our better moral instincts are putting us at a narrative disadvantage. Two men check into the titular Parisian motel, one the adorably dressed Giorgio (The Ornithologist‘s Paul Hamy), the other a stern, windbreaker clad Antonio (Idir Chender). Two charismatic Italian men checking into the single-bed honeymoon suite. It’s enough to arouse the paranoia of high strung hotel manager Diana (Anna Ivacheff), who very quickly starts making her presumptions about the mens’ dubious intentions. Our trusting morality leads us to the reasonable conclusion that Diana’s prejudice is confounding a threat and crisis based merely on race, sexuality or ethnicity. Another reductive tale of misplaced resentment and mistrust.
And then our seemingly firm moral grounding becomes shakier, as Occidental reveals itself as an increasingly slippery, tense and pulsingly erotic mind game. Of course it has our contemporary capacity for tolerance and understanding to leverage against us. Nowadays our senses of empathy and acceptance are so instinctive, at least on the left, that any accusation of distrust towards minorities, regardless of their merits, feels like a shameful embarrassment. When Diana brings her suspicions about Gigi and Antonio to her staff and the police, they react just as well, discounting her suspicions as unfounded and prejudiced.
“Remember the story of’ ‘Peter and the Wolf’?”, a policewoman asks. “A boy keeps crying wolf, and when the wolf is real no one believes him.” She has her children’s fables confused, and that’s just the start of the misunderstandings and lapses in cogent communication. The two men keep getting their stories mixed up, revealing that Diana’s suspicions may have been reasonable after all. All the while the events of this single night, set on the backdrop of an anonymous political demonstration that’s consuming the city, are told from the unreliable perspective of ditsy receptionist Romy (Louise Orry-Diquero), who comes off as the long-lost sister of Meredith from Mad Men and Lucy Brennan from Twin Peaks.
With so many vastly divergent assumptions of guilt and innocence, the truth matters less than the insanity that the characters’, as well as the viewers’, assumptions give way to. Are Diana’s accusations based on reasonable doubt or simply prejudice? Are the men actually who they say they are? Is Diana telling the truth about why she suspects the men. Are they secretly terrorists? Are they simply pretending to be terrorists? It’s anyone’s guess, but it becomes clear halfway through its brisk, ever-shifting 70-minutes that whatever plan the two men had when they arrived, things definitely aren’t going according to it.
As the farce gradually balloons out of control, keeping pace with the escalating protest chaos and police suppression outside, sexual boundaries between the staff and their questionable guests very easily blur. Gigi works his charms on the easily enamored Romy. Her easily panicked coworker Khaled (Hamza Meziani) becomes the target of Antonio’s confusing political and sexual games. He also kicks off a separate psycho-sexual game with Diana, who goes ever more unhinged on her solo crusade against her perceived intruders. The characters may have their certain convictions about what’s going on, but there’s never any firm ground for the viewer to situate themselves.
Surely that’s Beloufa’s intent, creating a practical sitcom sound-stage for his characters to bounce frantically around each other. Factual uncertainty gives way to political appropriation, as the chaos within the Occidental is leveraged to support any number of rebellious political convictions. In this way Occidental is a consistently transfixing, just as frequently confounding, study of our capacities for conviction and easy self-deception. Towards the end of its roller-coaster runtime, Beloufa’s hold on those themes becomes more tenuous and untethered, but the sheer sensual swagger of his sound-stage storytelling is engrossing enough.
Prejudices are more perniciously ensnared in Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (C), Travis Wilkerson’s nightmarish docu-essay about his family’s monstrous history. Most white Americans don’t have any urge to dig into their own ancestry, less out of fear than out of apathy. “I know *I’m* not racist, so what does it matter if my forefathers were?” For Wilkerson, that kind of non-dialogue doesn’t cut it. So many of his family’s scars date back to the same dreadful origin story set for them by S.C. Branch, Wilkerson’s great-grandfather who shot an unarmed black man, Bill Span, in his convenience store and was never found guilty for that blatant act of racial violence.
Despite the titular question, there’s no such murder-mystery into the killer. We know who the monster is. Travis’ journey is more in search of the circumstances and legend surrounding that act, and how it reverberated both within his family, his mind and beyond. Wilkerson rides on murky scarlet highways, through digitally altered images of Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird and unnervingly mundane home videos of his great-grandfather. It’s a very digitally doctored journey that at best heightens the disturbing dreamworld of grappling with your bigoted family history and at worst indulges his Wilkerson’s complex of existential white guilt and atonement. It’s a rough tightrope that Wilkerson, and all white Americans, should try to walk, but not to feel commendable about themselves for doing so.
Along the way Travis meets with civil rights hero Ed Vaughn, black families living in the same Alabaman town he grew up in, threatening white supremacists and, most upsettingly, his own scattered and contorted family. While much of the beginning involves people like Vaughn and the rough compromises of living under and resisting racial oppression, the back-half becomes a more internalized, psychological study. Wilkerson’s aunts, as vicariously relayed through Travis, develop vastly different memories of their grandfather. While one white supremacist remembers a falsely fond family man, the others face long-buried memories of abuse and fear.
A broken family portrait splinters out, though Wilkerson still remembers to bring the focus back to the family that seems to have fizzled out of existence. Bill Span and his family become a horrifying blank space in Travis’ recreated story, and as hard as he tries, Wilkerson can’t manage to fill up that emptiness. So much of the film is eaten up by stultifying interludes involving onscreen musical text and lengthy stretches of blank highway driving. He regain some of that faith in the lengthy denouement, but Did You Wonder‘s moody brand of storytelling can’t help but feel like an overextended, often weirdly indulgent historical episode of Scout Tafoya’s The Unloved.
A more terrifying journey lays at the center of El mar la mar (B), Sensory Ethnography Lab veteran J.P. Sniadecki and Joshua Bonetta’s latest challenging doc experiment. Immigration stories are often a too unfortunate necessity in getting Americans to empathize with those make their way into this country without documentation. It’s weird that there’s assumption that Mexican immigrants just flippantly hopped a border with ease to steal jobs many American born here don’t want. The reality is in brutal, blaring focus in El mar la mar, a visual portrait of an oppressive, yet beautiful, transitional landscape and an audio portrait of those who risk death and decay by crossing it.
No particular physical person comes into close focus or scrutiny in El mar la mar. Sniadecki & Bonetta’s camera glides past dizzying fence bars, above a small, slender flame meagerly lighting a traveler’s way through darkness, past water jugs put in place to save dehydrated migrants. It’s more a portrait of the identity ascribed to the desert separating Mexico and the United States than of the desperate individuals who get all too easily lost across it. Voice-overs from the perspectives of locals, border patrol agents and immigrants themselves illustrate how easy it is lose one’s life to the journey.
All the while, the camera sits gazing from afar at a hill lit by the most slender of sunsets. Squint your eyes, and you can see a shadow making its way slowly across the screen. It may be the person currently telling us his story of the land. It may be just another wanderer, making his way towards an uncertain future. He remains the tiniest of shadows, only noticeable when you spend enough time looking for him. Patience and openness seem to be the chief traits Sniadecki and Bonetta are trying to teach, but even those are mightily tested by the film’s short, but frustrating, final stretch. A storm is murkily presented, roiling slowly across the landscape, while equally affecting and confounding poetry is performed over this visual stagnant stretch. It’s a testing cap on an otherwise exciting, empathetic visual journey.