The New York Film Festival, one of the city’s most venerable institutions of cinema, has seen a remarkable spike in popularity this year, with many of its programs rapidly selling out. Even so, the festival’s brilliant Currents section — its lineup of more experimental and risk-taking films — still runs the risk of going overlooked. Of special note here are the Currents shorts programs, which bring together some of the best and most notable short films that have been making the rounds throughout the year. 

One of these programs showcases new works by some of our most inventive directors: France’s Jean-Luc Godard, China’s Wang Bing, and Portugal’s Pedro Costa. The centerpiece is Wang’s Man in Black (2023), a tribute to classical composer Wang Xilin that both figuratively and literally strips him bare. Nude, the elderly musician prowls a vacant theatre, often making frightened poses of supplication or defense. Eventually, he sits down and addresses the camera, providing context for his odd dance: He recounts his imprisonment and abuse in China throughout the 1960s and ’70s, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. Wang explains how he has expressed his experiences through his music, making this both a documentary testimony and a performance piece.

Costa’s “The Daughters of Fire” (2023) is a hypnotic triptych of three singing women standing amid volcanic landscapes. He has described it as a prelude of sorts to an upcoming feature. Godard’s “Trailer of a Film That Will Never Exist: Phony Wars” (2023) is the opposite, less a complete work than a proof of concept, describing a feature he was planning at the time of his death last year. Enigmatic and fragmented, it’s a melancholy and completely true-to-form final statement from the legend of the French New Wave.

Jamie Crewe, “False Wife” (2022) (courtesy Film at Lincoln Center)
Jean-Luc Godard, “Trailer of a Film that Will Never Exist: Phony Wars” (2023) (courtesy Kino Lorber)

Godard’s spirit of innovative montage lives on in Adam Piron’s “Dau:añcut (Moving Along Image)” (2023). When Piron sees an image of a Ukrainian soldier with a “native warrior” tattoo that happens to depict one of Piron’s relatives, he looks into the photo’s provenance. This investigation is from the perspective of a phone screen, complete with a portrait-mode aspect ratio. The image scrolls between TikTok videos, conversations between Piron with friends and relatives, and social media feeds. In the process, the film scrutinizes the overlaps between indigeneity, military tradition, memes, cultural symbols, and ideas of resistance. Similar formal experimentation is seen in Jamie Crewe’s “False Wife” (2022), a frantically edited, often strobe-effected evocation of a drug-fueled rave that even includes instructions for when the viewer should take poppers. (I did not follow such directives, so I may have had an incomplete experience.)

Shambhavi Kaul “Slow Shift” (2023) (courtesy Film at Lincoln Center)

Contrasting these modern takes is the languid deliberation of Shambhavi Kaul’s “Slow Shift” (2023), which looks at monkeys going about their lives in the ancient Indian city of Hampi, which according to folklore was the home of Hanuman and the rest of the monkey kingdom in the Ramayana. The film recalls the opening chapter of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but without the inciting extranormal incident that caused the apes in that film to begin their evolution toward humanity. Instead, the langurs gambol about and watch the world around them, suggesting life persisting against the incomprehensible backdrop of both human and geological history.

Ayo Akingbade “The Fist” (2022) (courtesy Film at Lincoln Center)

Furthering the observational mode is Ayo Akingbade’s “The Fist” (2022), which surveys a Guinness brewery in Nigeria, the first of its kind outside Ireland or the UK. Free of all but the most incidental dialogue and a complex soundscape of industrial noise, it rigorously scrutinizes the different labor processes that go into globalization, eliciting broader thoughts about how these African workers fit into the global economy. No discussion of observational documentary would be complete without a mention of the prolific Kevin Jerome Everson, whose 2023 short “If You Don’t Watch the Way You Move” follows two musicians recording and mixing a new track. In the middle of their process is a reference to John Cage’s “4’33(1952), used as a “soundtrack” of diegetic audio. It’s a discombobulating blend of old and new music — fitting for the mélange of styles to be found in the Currents shorts.

Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn, and a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. His portfolio and links are here.

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