Currents Shorts at NYFF 2023

The Moon Will Contain Us
October 5th 2023

In this year’s Currents program, the most experimental of the New York Film Festival’s offerings, short films are strung together as “necklaces of interior worlds,” to borrow a phrase from Sonia Oleniak, the director of Coral (all films 2023). Taken together, they give careful, if combative, guidance: that the body must be understood expansively. Oleniak conjures an eternal song. Kevin Jerome Everson blurs in the interest of precision. Kim Torres touches on familial memory and experiments with collective storytelling. Ayo Akingbade accounts for material life within the factory. Taking care of fragmented memories, these artists and others put collective narrative practices, repetition, and improvised forms of movement toward a renewed mode of seeing and bearing witness.

In If You Don’t Watch the Way You Move, Kevin Jerome Everson documents the music group BmE composing and recording their latest composition, “Shiesty” at a studio in Columbus, Mississippi. Understanding the setting as a site of both labor and creative practice, Everson alienates the familiar, cloaking his subjects in dim lighting and blur. His cropped, intimate gaze on the artists—one enters the control room’s glass frame when the other leaves, beginning his verse when the other has finished—keeps the viewer apprised but outside the collaborative space, which at times uncomfortably recalls an enclosure of captivity. His mode of representing collective labor is somewhat obscured, as if protecting his subjects from full view—or unconcerned with the viewer, at all.

Coral opens in darkness, greeting us with a song: “Last night, the moon was singing.” Oleniak summons Iva Bittová, the Czech violinist and singer, whose incantatory force elicits a call and response. The dark glittering ocean acts as a sonic mirror: “But tonight, a peculiar thing—a feast! The whales are swallowing the moon!” We’re graced with a dynamic stillness that Coral promises to maintain. When light finally breaks in the opening, I feel as though I’ve, too, washed up on shore with the dishes that scatter in the waves: it’s as if they’ve been washing themselves. How do you renew the movement of the waves?, Coral seems to ask. When a pair of hands begins to gather the plates, I am taken aback by the rupture, having been already immersed in the lull of Oleniak’s conspicuously unpeopled world.

“They arrived in the city from somewhere else,” the song croons in a make-believe language, subtitled for our comprehension. Oleniak introduces her few characters slowly, each modeled after a tarot card. Soon we’ll meet The Hermit—a salt miner with thick gauze taped over his left ear. Soon we’ll meet The Lion—a boy awakened by the call of whales, and the son of the violinist.

As viewers, we follow such characters through their desires and curiosities, both everyday and exceptional. We witness a cashier, standing in front of a portrait of a matriarch, dump a salt shaker onto the counter, as if seeking a message. The salt miner wakes up from a dream in the front seat of his truck and removes the used tea bags he’d placed over his eyes. Then he does what we don’t want him to do: he opens a box of his wife’s salt-ashes, kisses a handful, and then tastes them. The instinct to correct their play is instructive; for Oleniak, honoring space for play is as much part of this film as is the diligence of her sequencing, which neatly ties one scene to the other, delivering coherence to the disparate lives on screen.

Coral pays homage to Poland’s salt mines, to the shores of Brighton Beach, and to the everyday crevices in the solitary characters’ worlds: a boy’s bedroom with unmade sheets, a storage room filled with birdseed and cages, a rooftop’s lookout point flooded in moonlight. The capacity to create rhythm within a landscape’s most mundane aspects suggests Oleniak’s deep appreciation of and familiarity with her subjects and their environments. Coral wonders how to renew the mundane—maybe a single material, such as salt—down to the very molecule and grain. “In doing research for this film,” Oleniak shared with me, “I learned that there is something called 'the sodium tail of the moon'—like a comet, the moon has a tail. Every so often, that tail, touches Earth”

In Kim Torres’s Solo la Luna comprenderá (The Moon Will Contain Us) (pictured at top), a young man stands in a doorway on a ship. Four other windows in frame give a perfect view of the sea. The boy’s stance is relaxed, as if he’s been there for a while, holding the railing with both hands. He’s turned away from us, concealing his whole anterior, yet this composition, which Torres repeats throughout the film, reflects on his interiority.

“Well, story? I don’t have any story.” The film opens on someone submerged in the night ocean, facing the moon. “But I can tell you when I was younger what happened to me.” While the narrator’s voice greets us with a gentle and open tone, he asserts refusal to be pinned down, as if reminding us that there is no universal story; the body of a narrative, in this case his own, is never complete.

The rusted ship becomes a vessel for the youth and the elderly of Manzanillo to engage in a collective political practice. Accompanied by voices telling stories about the night the ship washed up on shore, Torres cuts between shots within and around the ship—the whirlpools and seaweed at its bow—and then to girls on park benches, whispering in each other’s ears: “Do you want to hear the story or not?” While the image of a ship calls up cargo and the circulation of goods, Torres makes the structure a vehicle for a community’s collective musings and memories. As the generations speak to each other, they understand their history to be both inherited and made.

Torres captures the texture of what it is to live in the Costa Rican village of Manzanillo by means of immersion. Oscillating between scenes of leisure and moments of disquieting stillness, the film moves quickly between geographies. Sly choreography of children’s movement creates an intimacy with the viewer: the rich shadowplay against a soccer net that partially hides kids from full view, the unsettling stillness of their bodies floating in water before they reanimate with playful splashing, the race through the corridors set to the pace of a mesmerizing voice that counts down in a game of hide-and-seek. Under the fortress of a yellow-mesh mosquito net, two children play patty-cake. We are at first unable to get a full view of them beneath the veil, and then suddenly Torres brings us so close to their hands it feels as though we’re in the percussive space between each touch.

Children in Manzanillo take up the whole streets in the evenings. On New Year’s Eve, groups of girls in slinky dresses hold flashlights in a small procession; it is difficult to tell whether Torres has slowed down the footage, or if the twitching and spastic movement comes from the strobing lights. The brief stutters create disjointed gestures and restlessness, giving the children their own collective force and pace.

While Oleniak’s Coral makes everyday places mythic and their inhabitants godlike, in The Rays of a Storm, Julio Hernández Cordón understands location to be fraught with its continuing histories. “If I’m like this, it’s because I had to be,” an interviewee in Rays shares. “I had to become like the neighborhood, to toughen up, you understand? Resting on his motorcycle, he’s kept the lights turned on, giving the sense that he’ll leave momentarily.

The film’s reenactment of Victory Night—the only battle won by the Aztecs against Cortes and his troops—features residents of Eje de Tipo, a neighborhood in Mexico City. Through gossip and hearsay, Cordón tries to make sense of Mexico’s history of conquest. “If you see a Spaniard, you want to punch him in the face,” says one performer, his face painted yellow and blue. “Europe is rich thanks to us and to all their looting here.” In Zócalo, the city’s main square, the man takes a selfie with a tourist and licks an ice-cream cone as if no one is watching.

Motorcyclists dressed in Jesus– and Virgin Mary–printed sweatsuits are recruited to play the Spaniards, with the approval of the women in their circles. In this dizzying theatrical work, small cinematic tricks go a long way; sound edits make them a literal cavalry. Rays doesn’t belabor any simplistic thesis about modernity and the power of the urban environment. Instead, the film accumulates, disjointedly, into a cacophony of contradiction. Providing a continuum of injustices, which seem to be offered by passersby, Cordón creates a historical bridge to the gold-seeking Cortes and his fleet. As if stealing away attention from official records of Mexico’s history, Cordón gives real indictments of violence, but reminds us that gossip and humor deserve their own place in the official narrative.

The record of time kept in Ayo Akingbade’s The Fist is literal. A clock runs at the top of the frame for the film’s 24 minutes, which we spend within the Guinness beer factory in Ikeja, Nigeria. I wonder if the clock is there to test us: how long can we bear witness to the monotonous and bureaucratic tasks that one worker, as one of hundreds, must do? The Fist takes up islanders’ accounts of boredom from Solo La Luna (“Nothing changes here,” they say. “We walk all day long, without stopping.”) with a more tenacious tone, pointing to the toll the clock takes, or threatens to take, on one’s life.

Not much is said in the film, and Akingbade doesn't glorify the worker, as we might expect. To accompany the eternal songs chanted in Coral, The Fist offers other eternal sounds: the droning churn of machines, water rushing from a faucet, echoes of chatter from beyond the frame. The Fist generates its own rhythm: a series of efficient motions. The only words spoken are over a microphone, in a small morning gathering before work begins. It’s difficult to hear what is said—a prayer, a request for keeping diligent inventory, an afterthought of safety. In quiet registers of tedium, Akingbade documents the anonymous workers movements: A figure bends over a jet of steam. Another slides down a ladder with a skip in his step. A face peers out from between moving blocks of the assembly line, and we feel momentarily as though we’re working across from him.

Akingbade manipulates the uncomfortable beauty of the machine, delivering quiet acrobatic acts performed at the pace of an assembly line. Her camera-eye touches each aspect of the job: stunning images of frosted-over refrigerators, close-ups of broken glass and beer being swept into the gutter. Once, giving us respite from the harshly-lit warehouse, Akingbade takes us to a lovely white-tiled room. The machine here—the mash filter— looks like a giant piano. Still, the signage in a lower corner of the frame reminds us that a laborer in this room has different concerns than an onlooker: WARNING/too low/mind your head.

The Currents shorts programs begin tonight, October 5, and continue throughout the New York Film Festival, with all of the filmmakers mentioned here appearing in person.