Tackling Time

in 49th Festival du Nouveau Cinéma de Montréal

by Jasmina Šepetavc

The events of the current year have deeply affected the ways we make, watch, discuss or write about movies. Film festivals – once celebrations not only of great cinema, but also a physical space that served as a gathering place for cinephile communities – were forced, by and large, to move online and, with this, viewers and critics have become lonely entities watching great cinematic works on individual computer screens.

But this year’s selection for the Festival du nouveau cinéma de Montréal has taken the new festival experience form and combined it with well thought-out content able to capture 2020’s unique atmosphere in a visionary manner. All of the films eligible for the FIPRESCI Prize and their first-time feature directors have posed important questions about the contemporary human condition, whether opening up wider political points through an intimate setting of suffering bodies and dysfunctional families or hitting the viewers in an affectively straightforward way, through images of war, violence, and poverty.

The greatest surprise came from three of the works that imagined a future in which humanity transforms due to specific unforeseen consequences. Interestingly enough, these three sci-fi films had the most to say about the present. In Christos Nikou’s Apples (Mila, 2020) a pandemic wipes out people’s memories and the afflicted have to build new lives through prescribed normative steps which they capture in photographs – they meet new people, try to dance, go to the cinema, sleep with strangers, accompany a terminally ill person, etc. Apples constructs a strangely hybrid world with retro throwbacks and familiar, yet alternative reality; there is no 21st century technology in sight, but the protagonists always carry polaroid cameras, which function as a sort of a prosthetic for a fragile human memory and a tool of visual construction for their new lives. The premise of the film is fascinating, humorous and poignant at the same time: for some, memory loss is a tragedy; for others, it’s a cure for sadness and loneliness.

Similarly, Night Has Come (2019, Peter van Goethem) portrays a virus epidemic wiping out memories and leaving people’s minds wrapped in darkness. The story, narrated by an old man, is visually brilliant, integrating the Royal Belgian Film Archive’s old footage in innovative ways. Whereas the protagonists of Apples accept the blank slate of their new lives quite peacefully, Night Has Come proposes that the population would not look at the governments’ construction of their identities and memories favourably. The two films, produced well before the Covid-19 pandemic, are today politically potent, presenting versions of post-epidemic dystopias which are becoming, due to memory loss, more and more ahistorical and dehumanizing. They challenge us to imagine variations on the end of everyday life as we know it.

Yet, it is the third film of the bunch, Last and First Men (2020, Jóhann Jóhannsson), that takes the philosophical confrontation between humanity and its future extinction to a wholly different level. The late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s first and last film is a visually and musically mesmerizing work on the time of our species, juxtaposing traditional storytelling with an inventive sci-fi structure that sparks our capacity to imagine the Earth to come. While the camera glides across the surface of megalomanic statues – taken out of any context of place and history – a member of a highly evolved human race (narrated by Tilda Swinton) reaches across billions of years to our present to tell us that we will often come close to extinction but manage to survive and evolve. She also discloses, however, that her species is doomed to die. The Last and First Men is an affective wonder, a philosophical proposition about our future and a poetic farewell letter from our descendants, hopeful despite their imminent end. The film is the best we could hope for in these strange times we are living in: it offers a calming vision of an unbreakable vitalist force that survives. After all, Swinton says that the universe was here before us and its life surpasses our fleeting existence within it.

Jasmina Šepetavc
Edited by José Teodoro