LIYANA (Aaron & Amanda Kopp, 2017)
Museum of the Moving Image, Bartos Screening Room
35th Ave. at 36th St., Astoria
Saturday, November 17, and Sunday, November 18, $15 ($9 ages three to seventeen), 11:00 am
Liyana is a bittersweet, heart-tugging film about the power of storytelling and the depth of the human mind and heart. In 2003, husband-and-wife filmmakers Aaron and Amanda Kopp visited the rural Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha orphanage in their native country of Swaziland. Most of the children living there lost their parents to violence or the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic. A few years later, they asked South African actress, writer, and activist Gcina Mhlophe to come to the orphanage to work with the kids: Their project is for the kids to make up their own fairy tale. The boys and girls do not talk about princes and princesses, fancy balls and lush palaces. Instead, the group, primarily Phumlani, Nomcebo, Sibusiso, Mkhuleko, and Zweli, develops a tense and thrilling adventure about a young girl named Liyana who takes off with a prized bull to try to rescue her twin brothers who were captured by marauding thieves. “The kids that we are working with, they come from the very dark side of life. They’ve been hungry, they’ve been in so much pain and abused and suffering so early in life,” Mhlophe explains. “They have those images playing over and over and over in their minds. Working with a fictional character allows a child to delve into places that you’ve covered and stored away. So many of these children’s real-life experiences are going to end up on this fictional character.”
As the kids continue describing the tale in impressive depth, the Kopps, who directed, produced, and photographed the film, show them working on the orphanage farm; going to a health clinic for checkups; wandering through the gorgeous landscape as if on their own adventure; and painting, drawing, and making collages about Liyana. Nigerian visual artist Shofela Coker, who serves as art director with Amanda Kopp, brings Liyana’s story to life through compelling 3D animation that editors Davis Coombe and Aaron Kopp beautifully weave into the main narrative, which features a compelling score by South African composer Philip Miller, William Kentridge’s longtime collaborator. What’s happening in the animation often references what the children are doing and saying, forming a lovely, often subtle juxtaposition. The tale is a brutal one, as Liyana faces one frightening situation after another; the kids do not make it easy for her. But as the story goes on, you don’t have to be a psychiatrist or child specialist to see how the fictional world they are creating relates to their own lives. When they say that Liyana must “overcome fear” and “hold on to hope,” they are really talking about their own approach to daily existence. “It’s more difficult to live your life than writing a story,” one child notes, while another says, “In your own life maybe there is no hope but sometimes you need to keep pushing.” These are remarkable statements coming from such young children; clearly, they have already experienced heartbreak and terror in their brief lives, although they also burst with bright smiles. One child gets right to the point: “I want my story to end well,” he declares.
Executive produced by actress and activist Thandie Newton and winner of more than two dozen festival awards around the world, Liyana is a stunning achievement, a unique and powerful film about the human spirit even in the darkest of times. Mhlophe, who has written such books as The Snake with Seven Heads, Love Child, and Queen of the Tortoises and toured the world with her play Have You Seen Zandile?, does such a wonderful job with the kids, getting their creative juices flowing in such positive ways. It’s a joy to watch her and the children come up with a genuinely exciting tale that just happens to be layered with such meaning in a country where 25% of the adults have HIV/AIDS and there are 200,000 orphans. Liyana is screening at the Museum of the Moving Image on November 17 and 18 at 11:00 in the morning as part of the “Family Matinees” series. Don’t miss this genuine treasure of a film.
Extraordinary multidisciplinary artist Bill Shannon brings his latest project, the multimedia Touch Update, to New York Live Arts this week, accompanied by special programs. Shannon is best known for his performances and unique technique using crutches, as he was born with a degenerative hip condition. But that hasn’t stopped Shannon from skateboarding through the Financial District, moving through Duarte Square and Governors Island, and appearing at the Maker Faire in Queens. Over the years, he has been adding cutting-edge technology to his performances and installations, culminating in Touch Update, which incorporates dance, theater, prerecorded and live video, and a cubist mask onto which images are projected; Shannon met with neuroscientists to get everything just right. “It’s built around basic philosophical questions about humanity: Can people change?” he says in an online promo piece in which he also calls the show “a response to the filter of social and digital media and how humans interact.” The seventy-minute work, which was developed at a residency at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in Pittsburgh, includes reverse engineering of the Shannon Technique for those who do not require crutches and will be performed by Raphael Botelho Nepomuceno, Ron Chunn Jr., Teena Marie Custer, Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight of slowdanger, Jacquea Mae, Cornelius Henke, and David Whitewolf. The November 15 show will be followed by a Stay Late Conversation moderated by Jennifer Edwards; there will also be a Reverse Engineering Workshop ($15) on November 17 at 1:00 and a lecture, “The Condition Arriving” ($10, $5 with ticket), the same day at 5:00.
“You are very well informed,” Holocaust survivor Ruth Elias tells filmmaker Claude Lanzmann in The Four Sisters: The Hippocratic Oath. Thanks to the Paris-born Lanzmann, a French resistance fighter during WWII, we are all very well informed about so many of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis, told to him in moving, powerful stories by “living witnesses” for decades. In The Four Sisters, which made its world premiere at the New York Film Festival in October, the Shoah director, who passed away in July at the age of ninety-two, focuses on the extraordinary experiences of four strong women who survived concentration camps, each one originally interviewed for Shoah. “The more I thought about these four women, the more the necessity to bring the spotlight on these female faces of the Shoah seemed important,” Lanzmann explains in his director’s note about deciding to turn them into four separate portraits. “Each of them deals with a little-known chapter of the Holocaust, each from a unique point of view. . . . The incredible strength in each of them has to exist in its own right, and yet the exceptional quality they all share also had to come through — that searingly sharp, almost physical intelligence, and an irrepressible survival instinct which could not be extinguished, despite an apparently certain death awaiting them.” The four-part film is being told in two parts at the Quad beginning November 14, Hanna & Paula and Ruth & Ada.
In The Hippocratic Oath, Ruth Elias tells her remarkable story from the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 to her deportation in April 1942 to Theresienstadt, where she was reunited with and married her boyfriend, to her pregnancy in the winter of 1943, which led to her being sent to Ravensbrück and Auschwitz, where she met Dr. Josef Mengele, who chose to use her baby in an inhuman experiment. Filmed in a little garden, Elias, an accordion player, is firm and direct as she shares the details of precisely what happened, her dark eyes seemingly sent back to Eastern Europe as her words bring it all to vivid life; one can visualize each location, each movement, each glance. The camera occasionally turns to Lanzmann, smoking a cigarette as he listens to her, mesmerized, just as the audience is. Lanzmann is more active in Baluty, walking along the shore in Panama City, Florida, with Paula Biren, whose story begins in Lodz, Poland. An elegant woman, Biren needs a little more prodding to speak, which she does very carefully, with a brutally cold honesty. She describes how Lodz was turned into a ghetto, how she became a police officer there, and then was sent to Auschwitz, where her younger sister and mother were killed, followed by her father’s death shortly thereafter. Lanzmann supplements the film with archival photographs of Lodz. Throughout The Merry Flea, Ada Lichtman is cleaning and mending dolls; it is eerie as viewers eventually find out why. Lichtman, from the Polish town of Wieliczka, relates her story of being captured by the Germans and sent to Sobibór, speaking at a determined, almost eager pace, sometimes skipping around so that Lanzmann has to interject to get her back on track or to go into more specifics, particularly regarding her treatment at the hands of a Nazi officer named Wagner and her description of cattle cars where naked men, women, and children were forced to dance with one another. The camera occasionally shifts to her husband, who she met in the camps; he stares ahead almost blankly, with hollow, haunted eyes, then hides his head in his hands. The sound of traffic outside can be heard, as if coming from another time and place.
Finally, in Noah’s Ark, Lanzmann introduces Hungarian native Hanna Marton, who sits calmly in a chair, holding a small notebook as she speaks in Hebrew, the director sitting right in front of her, nearly knocking knees; in the film’s production notes, Lanzmann explains, “I’ve never heard an account that is as constantly, relentlessly painful as the one that Hanna Marton gave me when I filmed her during the shoot for Shoah in her Jerusalem apartment.” Her eyes sometimes tearing up, Marton, continually on edge and at times defensive, talks about the early Zionist movement in her hometown of Cluj, the capital of Transylvania; discusses how Jews were used by the Hungarian army, which supported Germany and Italy, as living mine detectors; details the creation of the Kolozsvár ghetto in May 1944 as a way to quickly exterminate Jews; and delves into her involvement with the Kastner train, a deal made between Jewish-Hungarian lawyer Rudolf Kastner and Nazi Obersturmbannführer Adolph Eichmann. The Four Sisters is no mere addendum to Shoah, nor is it a footnote to Lanzmann’s long, important career; together, the four films make a powerful statement about hatred and bigotry, about violence and war, and about the indomitable strength and spirit of women, especially during the war and its aftermath. They are also a terrifying reminder that given the state of the world today, it’s not impossible that something like this could happen again, even right here in America, as there are fewer and fewer concentration-camp eyewitnesses, Holocaust deniers litter the internet, nations build walls and fences to keep out refugees, and a sitting president insists that some white supremacists are “very fine people.”
THE LAST OF THE UNJUST (LE DERNIER DES INJUSTES) (Claude Lanzmann, 2013)
34 West 13th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Wednesday, November 14, 6:35, and Monday, November 19, 6:35
For more than forty years, late French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann documented the Holocaust and the birth of the state of Israel in such provocative and powerful films as Israel, Why; Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.; and his nine-and-a-half-hour masterpiece, Shoah. In 1997, he made A Visitor from the Living, built around a 1979 interview with International Red Cross worker Maurice Rossel, who led a delegation inspecting the Nazis’ so-called “model ghetto” of Theresienstadt, which turned out to be a glorified concentration camp. Lanzmann returns to the Czech camp in The Last of the Unjust, an utterly fascinating 218-minute documentary consisting of a series of interviews he conducted in Rome in 1975 with Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, the only Jewish Elder to survive the Holocaust. For years, Murmelstein, who was appointed directly by and reported to Obersturmbannführer Adolph Eichmann, has been declared a Nazi collaborator, by writer Hannah Arendt and many others, even being arrested, imprisoned, and tried by Czech authorities. But in The Last of the Unjust, he paints a vivid portrait of everyday life in Theresienstadt, claiming he was not a collaborator but instead was doing whatever he could to improve conditions for the Jews there.
He poignantly describes not knowing about gas chambers and trains to Auschwitz and proudly defends his actions, referring to himself as the “last of the unjust.” Murmelstein has a spectacular memory, vividly recalling specific moments, answering all of Lanzmann’s questions with a bold honesty and correcting long-held misbeliefs concerning Theresienstadt. A cool, cigarette-smoking Lanzmann is seen in the old interviews and he also appears in new footage shot as he visits the camp and other relevant locations, geographically linking the past and the present. Between Murmelstein’s amazing storytelling ability and Lanzmann’s sharing of his personal perspective, the film never gets boring or repetitive over the course of its three-and-a-half-hour length. In the written introduction, Lanzmann states, “It took me a long time to come to the realization that I didn’t have the right to keep this to myself.” He indeed did a great service by not keeping this to himself, making yet another poignant document of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of a unique and thoroughly intriguing witness. The Last of the Unjust is screening at the Quad on November 14 and 19 at 6:35 (the November 14 show will be introduced by Lanzmann assistant Laura Koeppel) as part of the “Claude Lanzmann’s Cinema of Remembrance” series, which continues through November 21 with such other works as Napalm; Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.; Israel, Why; A Visitor from the Living and The Karski Report; Shoah in two sections; and Tsahal.
Danish director Gustav Möller’s debut feature, The Guilty, is a furiously intense, brilliant edge-of-your-seat procedural. Jakob Cedergren stars as police officer Asger Holm, who has been demoted to working in an emergency call center pending an investigative hearing into a mysterious incident; if the investigation exonerates him, he’ll be back out on the street, where he wants to be. The night before the hearing, he’s at the center, sitting in front of a computer, taking calls on a headset, mostly dismissing people’s problems with a shrug and a lack of concern, although his prowess is evident when he quickly gets to the bottom of things with callers who don’t tell him the full story. But then Iben Østergård (Jessica Dinnage) phones in, a distraught woman who apparently has been kidnapped by a crazed man (Johan Olsen), leaving her six-year-old daughter, Mathilde (Katinka Evers-Jahnsen), and infant home alone. Holm faces many of his own demons as he desperately tries to save Iben, demanding favors from dispatchers, including his friend and colleague Bo (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann); his partner, Rashid (Omar Shargawi), who is supposed to testify for him the next day; and others even as they warn him he is overstepping and needs to back off. It’s a pulse-pounding race against time as Holm continues to break the rules and protocol in order to rescue Iben — as if saving her would save him too, achieving the redemption he seeks.
Denmark’s official submission for the 2019 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, The Guilty, which was written by Olsen with Emil Nygaard Albertsen, is a nonstop thrill ride and character study that takes place completely in the call center and in real time. Olsen, who also is the lead singer in two rock bands, maintains the frantic pace primarily through words, in addition to Cedergren’s facial expressions; the audience is caught up in the fierce action even though it is only heard, never seen. Cinematographer Jasper Spanning, editor Carla Luffe, and supervising sound editor Oskar Skriver expertly upend the claustrophobic nature of the story by making it seem like we can see the car chase, Iben’s terror, and Mathilde’s horrible situation. Of course, each viewer will see things slightly differently, bringing their own experiences and biases into the tale. Winner of audience awards at Rotterdam and Sundance, The Guilty is centered by an unrelenting performance by Cedergren (Submarino, Terribly Happy) as a man on a mission — and harboring some dark secrets — as the plot twists and turns. Don’t miss it.
Art During the Occupation Gallery, Bushwick
119 Ingraham St., Buzzer 05
Ground Floor Main Gallery, Brooklyn Fire Proof Building
Tuesday, November 13, and Wednesday, November 14, $15, 7:30
Art During the Occupation Gallery in Bushwick is temporarily deinstalling its current exhibition, David B. Frye’s “Return of the Mack,” in order to present the two-night experiential art performance Rupture. The thirty-five-minute piece features dance and choreography by Lexie Thrash and Kelsey Kramer, featuring performance artist Eric Gottshall, sound artist Adriana Norat, and musical artist Sonpekiza, exploring ideas of fear, pessimism, displacement, and death through music, movement and wearable sculpture. Tickets are $15; the shows begin at 7:30 and will be followed by a reception with the artists.
The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday-Sunday through December 9, $35-$65
At the entrance to the Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center, a sloppily handwritten sign says, “Pardon Our Appearance.” The theater inside seems to be in the midst of some serious construction: There’s a huge hole in the floor at the front of the stage, which is littered with various pieces of equipment, and protective sheets hang on the walls and from the ceiling, as if preventing the place from collapsing. Amy Rubin’s deteriorating set matches the crumbling mind of Thom Pain, superbly played by Michael C. Hall, in the Signature revival of Will Eno’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Thom Pain (based on nothing), which opened last night. Pain is the epitome of the unreliable narrator, beginning jokes and stories he never finishes, posing repeated questions that he answers differently each time, and inviting audience participation only to then take it back. “How wonderful to see you all,” he says at the start, in near-complete darkness save for the occasional light from his cigarette. The seventy-minute monologue, previously performed by James Urbaniak and, more recently, Rainn Wilson in LA in 2012, touches on such notions as time and memory, fear and loneliness. Wearing an everyman-style standard suit (the costume is by Anita Yavich), Pain walks back and forth across the deep stage and wanders through the audience as he indifferently relates a tale about a young boy, his dog, and a puddle, possibly a scene from his past that left him emotionally scarred. “When did your childhood end?” he asks rhetorically. “How badly did you get hurt, when you did, when you were this little, when you were this wee little hurtable thing, nothing but big eyes, a heart, a few hundred words? Isn’t it wonderful how we never recover? Injuries and wounds, ladies and gents. Slights and abuses, oh, what a paradise.”
He self-referentially refers to the show as “our little turn, on the themes of fear, boyhood, nature, hate, the nature of performance and vice-versa, the heart of man, of woman, et cetera.” He steps in and out of darkness courtesy of Jen Schriever’s sharp lighting design. “Does it scare you? Being face-to-face with the modern mind? It should. There is no reason for you not to be afraid. None. Or, I don’t know,” he says. He makes direct eye contact with as many audience members as he can, searching for connections that have otherwise eluded him. “As for our story, if you’re lost at all, you’re not alone,” he tells us. “Don’t think I’m somewhere out ahead, somewhere, anywhere, with a plan. I’m right here beside you, or hiding behind you, like you, in terrible pain, trying to make sense of my life. I’m just kidding — you probably are alone. Or, I don’t know. Where are we, exactly, I wonder, in your estimation, in mine.” By the end, we know everything about him, as well as nothing, his search for relevancy perhaps evoking our own.
Hall, the Dexter and Six Feet Under star who has excelled on Broadway in Eno’s The Realistic Joneses and John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch and off Broadway in Ivo van Hove’s Lazarus, is outstanding as Pain, a role that Eno (Title and Deed, The Open House, Wakey, Wakey, all at the Signature) notes in the script should be played by an “actor [who] must also create a character that is close to — and largely derived from — himself.” Hall keeps us mesmerized with just the right amount of confusion to make us wonder what is real and what isn’t, what is truth and what is not. When he asks several times if we like magic, he is also referring to the magic of theater, which Eno and director Oliver Butler (The Open House, What the Constitution Means to Me) tear down rather elegantly. It’s a disorienting yet exhilarating experience, a journey into the digressive nature of life, constantly under construction, and the mind of a man trying to find his place in the world, just like we all are.
WELCOME TO THE BEYOND (Brent Huff, 2018)
260 West 23rd St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday, November 13, 7:30
Festival runs November 8-15
In the summer of 1978, Hoyt Richards, a gorgeous blond athlete from a large, successful family, was approached by a man on a beach in Nantucket who offered him a bright future. Richards, aka John Richards, appeared to already have it all, but he eventually followed the man, who turned out to be Frederick von Mierers, the leader of the Eternal Values cult, who claimed to be an alien from the planet Arcturus. Former model Brent Huff tells the bizarre story, in many ways a cautionary tale, in Welcome to the Beyond, screening November 13 at DOC NYC. In 2012, while filming a Ford Models reunion, actor, writer, and director Huff (Behind the Orange Curtain, Chasing Beauty) recognized Richards and approached him about making a documentary about his experience with Eternal Values. Richards agreed, and speaks extensively about what happened to him; Huff also meets with many of Richards’s friends and relatives. “There’s definitely a dynamic in this family that’s regrettable,” younger brother Garth says. “That dynamic had to do with, John was always my father’s favorite, and John epitomized what my father would have loved to have been: the blue-eyed, blond-haired, good-looking football player. There’s a cruel twist in all that, is that by my father making John his favorite, he created resentment from every other sibling of John. He put John on an island, and I don’t know how John internalized that, but that wasn’t a pretty place to be.”
Talking about his mother, John, who is one of the film’s producers, admits, “I always just felt like she was on a different planet.” John was the first male supermodel, went to Princeton, partied at Studio 54, and had a major career, but ultimately he came to understand that he was in a cult and that he had to get out. The psychology behind his story is related by Steven Hassan, a former cult member who became a deprogrammer and has written such books as Combatting Cult Mind Control. Richards’s five siblings, cousins, parents, and close friends as well as a fellow former cult member all share their thoughts on a situation that they still don’t really understand: Just why did Richards fall for von Mierers and Eternal Values? Welcome to the Beyond is screening November 13 at 7:30 at Cinepolis Chelsea in the Portraits section of DOC NYC, with Huff, producer Shawn Huff, and editor Pete Speneuk on hand for a Q&A.