NYFF 2020: Her Socialist Smile, The Plastic House, Tragic Jungle, Undine | Festivals & Awards

That kind itchiness, that churning in your brain from your very hungry sense memory, is now all I see in new work, though the Currents selection at the New York Film Festival, their avant-garde and experimental sidebar, has made it easy to find. Just look at the best scene in Nicolás Pereda’s “Fauna, in which a man demands that actor Francisco Barreiro act out one of his scenes from “Narcos: Mexico. People are desperate for performance, sensation, cinema. They don’t care what it takes. The best film that’s debuted so far in Currents, if not indeed the whole festival (Steve McQueen’s “Lovers Rock” and Akosua Adoma Owusu’s marvelous short “King of Sanwi” offers fierce competition) is a movie defined by the limits of cinematic experience and indeed the whole of sensory perception. John Gianvito, who I had the privilege to know briefly during my time at Emerson College, is something of a festival fixture without having much in the way of a footprint as a creator. He’s only directed six feature length movies, and yet everyone who has encountered his work knows that they’re the work of a rare and brilliant mind. “Her Socialist Smile” is his latest and it’s deceptively galvanizing given the form. 

Her Socialist Smile” is about Helen Keller and the most commonly erased part of her story: her unwavering dedication to Socialism. Keller traveled the world as a speaker and a kind of totem for the cause of the working man. She appeared in solidarity at strikes and went on extensive tours to promote her vision of a socialist future for America. Naturally this doesn’t fit in with American school curriculums, so it’s just left out. 

Gianvito shows us in blocks of white text on black backgrounds her writing on socialism. He shows lovely black and white images of Carolyn Forché reading some of her writing into a microphone. He shows images of a theatre she once spoke in while he overlays the text of the frequently hilarious interview she gave there. Typical exchange: “What do you think about marriage?“ “Are you proposing?” He also shows old photographs of her and newsreels about the way the socialist movement was violently rejected by America. Finally he shows footage of nature captured in what I take to be the property she and her teacher Anne Sullivan once owned in Wrentham, MA. 

In being so text-heavy Gianvito’s film requires you to truly engage with her words and her mind. She’s been whitewashed by a conservative establishment for 100 years, and “Her Socialist Smile” is an electrifying corrective, a film that makes us work to understand what we miss when Keller’s legacy is reduced to her learning to read braille. 

content the plastic house review

Allison Chhorn’s “The Plastic House” takes an inverse approach, telling its story of a woman taking up the mantle of her parents’ life as farmers, through a purely sensory approach. There’s almost no spoken dialogue and the film is mostly a study in time passing as marked by labor. Chhorn makes both the absence of her parents and her presence felt through the way she films fields, greenhouse, the inside of a car. The sounds of tilling and toiling come to make the spaces feel like they themselves are alive with the work done by its occupants. The land itself seems to breath, animated by the life blood of its steward. A truly lovely work. 

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