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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is  Senior New York Correspondent

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene, professor at Hunter University, accredited member of the Foreign Press Center,  U.S. Department of State NY.


New York Film Festival 2021

The 59th edition of the New York Film Festival (NYFF) presented by Film at Lincoln  Center was held from September 24 – October 10 at Lincoln Center venues. NYFF 2020 was presented in a hybrid format with both streaming and in person formats, still adopted by most major film festivals. NYFF 2021 was restricted to theatrical exposure and some outdoor screenings at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park.  Last year’s drive-in screenings were not scheduled again. To expand audience reach, NYFF partnered with four local arthouses, Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archives and the Maysles Documentary Center, Brooklyn’s BA cinemas, and the Jacob Burns Film Center in Westchester. On relative short notice before the festival, NYFF advised the press and FLC members that no virtual screenings will be held this year “after much deliberation and discussion internally and with our external partners… in response to distributor and filmmaker partners, and in light of festivals returning and theaters reopening across the country”.

Dennis Lim, the NYFF director of programming, emphasized that NYFF would  “open up new ways of thinking...and help us make sense of our moment” in a period of uncertainty. The program’s Main Slate  featured 32 films. Currents with its stress on new and innovative filmmaking, showed 15 productions, Current: Shorts had 8 programs, Spotlight “showcased [9 of] the season’s most anticipated and significant films”, including Denis Villeneuve’s DUNE. A special section of programs was devoted to Amos Vogel’s impact on the festival.  Vogel co-founded NYFF in 1963 and managed it until 1968. The program concluded with the Revival section of digitally remastered works by renowned  filmmakers.  NYFF 2021 selected 17 North American premieres and numerous others from international film festivals including several features which had received awards as best films for its  Main Slate. 88 films were part of the NYFF59 program. Accredited press could  participate in 38 press screenings. Final data about the festival, the number of films considered for the program, and the size of the audience compared to last year are not yet available. However, there seems to be a consensus among festival staff that there was an overwhelmingly positive reaction to having the film experience in a large screen theatre setting with the presence of a significantly higher number of first time attendees this year. Among backers for NYFF 2021 were HBO, Netflix, American Airlines, Campari, The National Endowment of the Arts, New York State Council of the Arts, and the NYS Legislature.

Despite the apparent reduction of tensions between Arab countries and Israel, a growing number of Israeli features and documentaries are cogently expressing Israel’s internal problems. These productions are borne from the immuring problems in the relation between Israeli authorities and Palestinians living in Israel and the occupied areas. The forthcoming New York based Other Israel film festival has in its November in-person and online program several recent films on these unresolved and festering issues.

NYFF’s outstanding exemplification of these critical productions is Nadav Lapid’s 2021 feature AHED’S KNEE a  French, Israeli, German co-production by a director known for his uncompromising approach to the topics he covers. In this story, Y, a filmmaker involved in the pre-production of a film on the abusive treatment of Palestinian artists by Israeli authorities, travels to the small remote town of Sapir. He was invited to show one of his films in a local library run by Israel’s ministry of culture. Y must sign an official document with a prepared list of the points he intends to cover in the discussion, without which he will not be allowed to screen his film or be paid. His interactions with the librarian, Yahalom, and the audience watching his film, provide the narrative basis for AHED’ KNEE. This film was the co-winner of the 2021 Cannes Grand Jury Prize.

The mood is set early in the film by the portrayal of a true incident. Ahed’s knee was smashed after she slapped a soldier and was sent to prison. Interactions between the trusting and accommodating Yahalom and a cynical and aggressive Y are driven by Y’s uncompromising moral position on freedom of speech and  artistic expression. Yahalom adheres to the policies of the ministry of culture, whose pending but never passed Knesset Culture Loyalty Bill would have threatened all Israeli artists and extinguish their freedom of expression. In an animated exchange with Yahalom, Y learns that unless he signs and adheres to the ministry of culture’s pre-prepared points of discussion for his screening, he will be blacklisted and never get any future support from official agencies. Y argues that the official points of discourse make any critical analysis of Israeli conditions impossible. He also shares how the army creates an artificial world of imaginary threats to justify oppression and violence. Under duress, Yahalom reveals that the minister hates art and culture. Without Yahalom’s knowledge, Y records her statements and plays them for the audience after screening his film. Y shares that the tape will be sent to the press. Yahalom threatens to kill herself and some members of the audience tell Y that he faces death if anything happens to Yahalom.

The drug crimes of Mexican cartels and the impotence of official agencies to protect the public alongside widespread corruption have generated much US media attention. Despite this, there are few films which honestly convey the perspectives of those affected by the rule of crime. 

PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN, 2020, is a narrative first fiction feature by the documentary film maker Tatiana Huez which premiered in the 2021 edition of Cannes  and mirrors the experience of people living in a small cartel dominated town in Mexico. Huez ‘s background gives her film authenticity and plausibility. Residents of the town make a poverty stricken living by harvesting opium paste from poppy plants. Virtually all victims of crimes in the town are women or girls. These victims are subjected to violence by cartel members. Young girls are kidnapped and trafficked as sex slaves. There is little connection between the small town and the outside world; cell phones work rarely. The police and army are rarely present other than when visibly  collaborating with the cartel. An impressive and crucial part of Huez’ episodic narrative is the portrait of three girls during their childhood and adolescence, played by six girls in their first time acting roles. Outstanding cinematography depicts the joys of coming of age, the problems they master, and the realization of the constant threats surrounding them. There is little the people can do to overcome the cartel’s domination except for leaving.

In Alex Ritman’s Cannes review of THE TALE OF KING CRAB, directed by Matteo Zoppis and Alessio Rigo de Righi, he identified the feature as the hidden gem of the festival. His assertion is an understatement. The film has not received the wide spread attention it unquestionably deserves. THE TALE OF KING CRAB is a masterpiece that excels in originality, storytelling, and cinematography. It is a superb example of creative filmmaking that marvelously combines oral, visual, social elements and, also as Rigo de Righi emphasized, folkloric music. The feature was developed by artists with a strong documentary background assisted by kindred fellow workers whose input shaped their film. It is based on ambiguous folk stories shared by elderly men recounting tales of  Luciano. Luciano was an adventurer who lived many years ago and was forced to leave Italy to migrate to a distant island in Argentine in the late 18th century. In the first chapter of the film, Luciano is shown in the context of his early life as fearless and outspoken. He does not fit, refusing the path of other his father, a medical doctor, villagers have mapped for him. His free spirit breaks the rules others follow, opposing the dominating rituals used by the aristocrats to oppress the villagers. Luciano plays the role of heroic outcast. The first chapter depicts Luciano’s love for the shepherdess Emma and its power in overriding his constant drinking and lack of firm roots. The filmmakers intentionally selected the settings and made the film from a perspective based upon study of visual art from the periods gave the first part of the film a painterly effect. The gorgeous photography of landscapes and interactions in warm and light colors mirrors an appealing atmosphere. Gabriele Silli dominates as Luciano in an outstanding character performance. His guiding role continues into the film’s second part. The dreamlike atmosphere of the first part of the film disappears, completely replaced by stark realism. An exiled Luciano becomes obsessed with finding hidden Spanish treasure on an abandoned island. Luciano has now found his place and roots as a treasure hunter, among the other gold obsessed mercenaries travelling with him. The romanticism has disappeared. The film shifts into a thriller, with action in place of oration. Most of Luciano’s companions disappear or are murdered during the trip. Luciano does not articulate what motivates him. At one point, he encounters a dying priest, killed by indigenous peoples. The priest gives Luciano his diary after being  promised a proper burial which reveals, after being deciphered, the path to the treasure. A giant king crab which had been travelling with the group from the very beginning, attempting to return to the lake from which it had emerged, leads Luciano and his fellow treasure hunters through a rugged mountainous landscape. Luciano’s dangerous ascent leads him to the lake. The cinematography of Luciano’s journey is the most stunning I have seen in years, a perfect accomplishment. The barren landscapes and mountain settings of the island, marauding treasure hunters, the king crab and, most importantly, the visual storytelling,  reinforce the mythical aspect of this chapter of THE TALE OF KING CRAB. Matteo Zoppis  and Allessio Rido de Rigti do not attempt to ground THE TALE OF KING CRAB’s in reality, though they did find Luciano’s name in the record of the period when they stayed in Argentine.


Claus Mueller, New York








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