Exploring Personal Trauma and Human Struggle at The New York Film Festival

By  · Published on October 4th, 2016

A first weekend diary from the 54th New York Film Festival.

I Am Not Your Negro

You’ve heard it before, but I am going to say it again. Summer of 2016, which wasn’t especially good news at the multiplexes, is thankfully well behind us with its mostly dreary slate of films. Fall film festivals are taking place one after another, and have been unveiling the kind of quality, highbrow fare we’ve been starved for in the last few months, save maybe for a few exceptions here and there. After Venice, Telluride and Toronto, arrives my home town’s prestigious New York Film Festival for the 54th time, with an expansive and diverse slate of films that consists of world premieres and former film festival favorites (including critically-lauded, award-winning titles from Sundance, Cannes, and beyond) as per usual. And the first weekend of this 17-day fall event has already come to an end.

The initial few days of NYFF have been defined by small, personal and quiet films from renowned, established auteurs and newly emerging storytellers, that dwell in human struggle and trauma, and around the ghosts of the past. From features to documentaries, the opening weekend of NYFF maneuvered some unusually gloomy waters, perhaps aptly reflecting the dark mood of the contemporary audiences to some degree. After all, these are socially and politically tricky times in our polarized country and around the world. A critically important and historic election is just around the corner. All in all, the last couple of years (but especially 2016) has proved to be rigorously challenging for lot of us.

The opening night of NYFF, usually reserved for prestige, awards-bound and often times exceptional crowd-pleasers (think Life of Pi, Captain Phillips and The Social Network from the recent years), perfectly set the tone for the days ahead with a film unlike any other we are used to seeing at this slot. Ava DuVernay’s rousing 13th, which examines racial inequality and mass incarceration in the United States and entered the awards-conversation following its premiere, was an opening night for the books from many accounts. In NYFF’s 54 years of history, this was the first documentary to ever open the festival. It was also the first time a film directed by a woman of color had scored the said key spot. DuVernay’s angry, urgent, timely and timeless film struck a crucial chord with the audiences in the era of “Black Lives Matter” and the rise of Trump, by boldly demonstrating that our contemporary prison complexes assumed the modern-day role of the institution of slavery, by burdening people of color with a life-long stain of crime. (Read our rave review of 13th here.) An immediate and visible companion film to DuVernay’s 13th was Raoul Peck’s hypnotic I Am Not Your Negro, which puts the viewer inside the words of James Baldwin, the great African American writer and social critic. Very different in style than 13th (DuVernay’s film uses archival footage, graphics and talking heads whereas Peck’s employs Samel L. Jackson’s VO narration over archival material) yet equally, hauntingly powerful, I Am Not Your Negro dissects the history of racial injustice in America from civil rights era to today. Through an unfinished work of Baldwin where he looks at the lives and endeavors of three of his assassinated friends (Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), I Am Not Your Negro is at once as shocking and provocative as its title, and searing in its emotional scope.

Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, a devastating tale of familial grief, put its stamp on NYFF as well, following its rapturous Sundance, Telluride and Toronto reception. The film follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, a likely Oscar nominee this year); a reserved and unhappy janitor who returns to his hometown following the death of his brother and finds he has been entrusted with the guardianship of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges). As Logergan slowly reveals the source of Lee’s devastation, he constructs a grand visceral world for a human being, traumatized by his past and unable to move on in life. The now infamous scene Lee shares with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams, scene stealing) once again became the most-talked about part of the film, like it did in the previous festivals it played. During a live talk Lonergan participated in with festival director Kent Jones, he said the only direction he gave to his actors for this scene was “you’re trying to make it easy for one another,” and noted Affleck and Williams took it much further than he ever imagined.

I, Daniel Blake

In Ken Loach’s deserving Palme d’Or-winner I, Daniel Blake, we follow the titular British blue collar worker (Dave Johns). With a serious health condition, Daniel tries to navigate his way through endless bureaucracy and paperwork, in order to take advantage of his state-provided benefits while maintaining his absent status at work until he fully recovers in health. While he battles against unsympathetic figures and a system that completely lacks human empathy, he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two, also stuck in a similar situation. They lend each other a helping hand through tough times, but Loach’s frequent punches in the gut inevitably arrive in his signature envelope of realism, harshly critiquing a system that erases humanity from any process concerning humans; a phenomena that plagues the entire globe nowadays.

Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ sophomore feature that premiered in Telluride to glowing reviews, charts the life of a young gay black man in three chapters, as he grows up and lives in Florida through turbulent times, while discovering his identity and sexuality. Seamlessly played by three actors who beautifully capture the character’s pain consistently in three different ages, Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Terevante Rhodes) is one of the most fully and beautifully conceived American characters you will get to see in film this year (or possibly, ever). Jenkins’ aching film is an intimate, elegiac and eloquent portrayal of a young person, with social struggles around race and class lurking on the background in every corner.

Certain Women

Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy director Kelly Reichardt’s anthology style Certain Women (perhaps her finest film to date) is another title that could sufficiently be defined as quietly aching. A celebration of female intuition, perception and sense of negotiation (all three key females in the film work in the practice of law), Certain Women is a sublime, and deeply expressive film, adapted from Maile Meloy’s short stories. Its most powerful storyline, which makes up for the film’s final chapter, is led by Kristen Stewart (also starring in Personal Shopper and Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk this year) and Lily Gladstone, and invites the viewer into a very specific headspace of longing and melancholy.


Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson was perhaps the lightest of the fare that touched upon gloomier human themes during the festival’s first few days. Another Cannes hailer, the film follows a Paterson, NJ bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver); a devoted husband and an aspiring poet. With a lovely, soothing rhythm that captures the poetic beats of everyday people with an observant eye, Paterson eventually suffers in the hands of some antiquated gender dynamics and over-used quirk; but is remedied by its leads (Golshifteh Farahani, in addition to Driver) and a stunning performance by an English Bulldog, who adorably (and heartbreakingly) won Palme Dog at Cannes posthumously.

In the coming days, NYFF will premiere 20th Century Women (Mike Mills) and Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk (Ang Lee), as well as screen other festival hits like Elle, Jackie and Fire at Sea. Until next week…

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.