First Look 2023: The Ties That Bind
By Sevara Pan
First Look, the Museum of the Moving Image’s (MoMI) film festival, annually introduces New York audiences to new cinematic talent and audacious experiments with form. Faithful to this mandate, this year’s 12th First Look, which ran from March 15 to March 19, showcased more than two dozen adventurous works spanning across geographies and genres. Two well-known fiction titles were the 2022 Belgian-French drama by the Dardenne brothers, Tori and Lokita, which also had its theatrical release in the United States in March, and Lola Quivoron’s Rodeo (2022). The selection of short films also featured assorted international titles, such as Ruslan Fedotow’s Away (2022; Fedotow was also a cinematographer on Agniia Galdanova’s queer documentary Queendom, which premiered at this year’s SXSW) about two Ukrainian teenage refugees in the Hungarian capital of Budapest, and Gerard Ortín Castellví’s Agrilogistics (2022; one of First Look’s Science on Screen selections), which examines the “uneasy tension” between the systematized production of industrial agriculture and the “unpredictable vitality” of life. Among the documentary feature standouts were Chloe Abrahams’ The Taste of Mango (2023), Maksym Melnyk’s Three Women (2022), and Marek Kozakiewicz’s Silent Love (2022), three debut features that are spotlighted later in this article.
Located in Astoria, Queens, a neighborhood that is both known for its diverse local population and home to many immigrant enclaves, MoMI prides itself on being community-minded in both its programming and the way it approaches the exhibition of films. In a Docs in Orbit episode ahead of this year’s First Look, MoMI Curator of Film Eric Hynes reflected on “an evolution” of this approach that involved thinking more about where the institution was located and the surrounding community, rather than merely relying on cinephiles. He noted the importance of “being mindful about who lives here, who lives nearby, and seeing our audience shift away from being reliant on getting on the train and coming out to Queens on the weekend, to more [acknowledging that] there is [also] a core audience of people who live around here.”
Apart from the year-round exhibition of finished films at the museum, the public-facing aspect of the institution is also reflected in the festival’s Working on It program, a series of daytime workshops and work-in-progress presentations open to the public. In a conversation with Documentary, Hynes shared how bringing work-in-progress sessions to First Look has been “less about them being industry-focused events and more about them being public”—opening up that door to the film-goers and members of the community to learn about the artistic process, how films are made, and the types of creative decisions that are taken. There is also an element of unpredictability to such sessions due to the possibility of members of the public or other attending filmmakers (who may not be part of the filmmaker’s cohort as one would have in a rough-cut screening or a lab) coming to a session and giving their perspective on the work. Works at different stages of development, from films close to being finalized to projects in the very early stages of development, are welcomed. This year, one such project was brought by visual artist, playwright, and filmmaker Robin Frohardt, who presented early materials for a new film that straddles puppetry and documentary.
Because First Look is not submissions-based, it relies on organizations like Sundance, the Gotham, Field of Vision, and Kickstarter, among others, to alert the festival to projects that may be at the stage to benefit from Working on It. The curators are also in continuous conversations with individual filmmakers over the years, who may not necessarily be ready to present their work in progress at the present moment but who can possibly be reengaged later. “There were projects we have shared a couple of different versions of over the last few years. As documentaries, in particular, take a long time to make, to have some continuity and some place to go back to and reengage folks winds up being vital,” said Hynes.
This year also began First Look’s collaboration with the Millennium Docs Against Gravity Film Festival (MDAG), Poland’s largest documentary film festival, held in seven Polish cities at once. As part of the collaboration, which the two institutions hope can be expanded in the future, MDAG Artistic Director Karol Piekarczyk presented two selections from their Warsaw showcase (Marek Kozakiewicz’s Silent Love  and Aleksander Szamalek’s Joanna d’Arc , co-presented with the Polish Cultural Institute New York) and participated in Working on It. This formal cooperation between the two festivals came from previous online collaborations during the pandemic and long-running interest in each other’s festivals.
MDAG has seen a staggering growth in attendance (last year’s edition attracted almost 140,000 people) and is en route to becoming one of the biggest documentary film festivals in the world. Speaking to Documentary, Piekarczyk noted that, generally speaking, there has been quite “a divide” in recent years between European and U.S. film institutions in regard to such types of cooperation: “Of course, U.S. festivals are showing European films, and European festivals are showing U.S. films, but that’s a given, you have to do that if you are showing films from around the world. But in terms of collaboration, there is definitely a lot of space. And we see that with a lot of American guests that are coming to our festival. They are really engaged in industry events and discussions. So it is good to find institutions for us, like MoMI’s First Look, to really have this connection and build more industry, and hopefully, other places will follow.” Commenting on such liaisons, Hynes also stressed the need for support from other film and cultural organizations: “It is not just supporting an individual filmmaker or an individual trip, it is putting two organizations together that can hopefully echo beyond themselves and offer even more help to the artists.”
Presented in partnership with MDAG, Marek Kozakiewicz’s assured debut, Silent Love, deftly probes the notion of family and traditional gender roles amid a shift toward conservatism and deepening discrimination and homophobia in Poland. The film achieves this subtly through unembellished yet haunting scenes. In one such scene, harmful notions of masculinity and femininity are revealed in the run-of-the-mill graduation dance rehearsal of 14-year-old Miłosz, one of the main protagonists in the film, when a teacher’s shouting at the confused youths slowly coalesces into manifold echoes: “Boys! Women need masculinity and confidence. Grab her! Lead her! Press her finger to make her go your way.”
Miłosz is attending school in a small Polish town, where the mores of the conservative community continue to dominate. When Miłosz’s mother succumbs to cancer, and Miłosz is orphaned, his 35-year-old sister Agnieszka returns from Germany to become his legal guardian. Agnieszka is in a secret long-term relationship with another woman, Majka, who has for years lived and worked in Frankfurt but—over the course of the film—also returns to Poland to move in with Agnieszka and Miłosz.
In their household microcosm, as we observe the three protagonists engage with one another, their interactions are imbued with quiet emotion and fondness even in the most mundane scenes: when Majka teaches Miłosz to do water bottle flip tricks in a garden, albeit somewhat unsuccessfully, and when the two of them play ball together and nonchalantly chat about girls. The film features no loud sentiments or proclamations of love on-screen, yet their bond grows palpably. Gradually, perhaps unbeknownst to the youngest party, we witness a family being born.
There is also the silent love that is fleetingly captured in the reticent conversations and lingering glances that Agnieszka and Majka exchange in the presence of others. Their silent love persists in the backdrop of vociferous anti-LBGTQ+ animus in Poland, with dozens of small towns declaring themselves free of “LGBT ideology” and the Catholic Church doubling down on the discriminatory rhetoric that “only a man and a woman can form a unity” and “a good, strong and healthy family.” The political pressures reveal themselves as Agnieszka seeks to become Miłosz’s foster parent, navigating the cumbersome legal process. She is compelled to offer answers that appear more favorable to the state—no, she is not in a partner relationship, and yes, she will be raising her brother alone.
The Taste of Mango
Familial searching and the dual fragility and tenacity of generational ties are also at the heart of Chloe Abrahams’ debut documentary feature, The Taste of Mango, a tender portrait of a strained mother-daughter relationship that delves deep into inherited traumas. The film's title refers to the filmmaker’s childhood sense-memory evoked by the taste of the fruit that transports her back to the times she spent with her mother, Rozana. It also alludes to the lineage of women in her family across three generations: Nana Jean ate mangoes when she was expecting Rozana, as did Rozana when she was pregnant with Chloe.
Filming handheld, Abrahams captures with sensitivity and candor her mother and grandmother in moments of unguarded intimacy. Straddling the roles of director, daughter, and granddaughter when grappling with the family’s troubled past is delicate for any documentary filmmaker. Through conversations between Abrahams and her mother, we learn that Rozana suffered abuse from her stepfather, which led to her leaving Sri Lanka and severing ties with Jean. Oscillating between intimate, observational sequences, introspective voiceovers, and visceral, dreamlike vignettes, the film further evokes our emotional registers, creating a feeling of being present in the moment yet simultaneously unmoored from it. Using sequences from the home movie footage that she shot of her mother, Abrahams finds another intriguing way to address her, entering—through voiceover—into an imaginary dialogue with her and venturing into places not yet explored, stories not yet told, and pain not yet healed.
Small, everyday scenes seemingly serve as a conduit in the film to convey intensely personal and traumatic experiences, some of which have thus far not been verbalized. One scene starts in a rather quotidian way as Rozana blow-dries her hair. The hair dryer’s white noise soon gives way to silence, followed by Abrahams’ voice recalling her own scarring experience of abuse when she was coming of age. In another seemingly insignificant scene, Rozana is taking a relaxing bubble bath, quietly singing along to Kenny Rogers’ “Coward of the County.” As she hears “the torn dress” and “the shattered look” lyrics, her eyes shift toward and away from the camera. And we are left to wonder whether the lines from the song stir up memories—of the loss of her father and holding on to the picture of him after his passing, of the sexual assault she was subjected to at such a tender age, and of the failure of her mother to protect her.
The film goes beyond the familiar intimacy often observed in author-driven documentaries by pulling further into extreme close-ups of Rozana. These enveloping images of Rozana’s eyes, gently yet unwaveringly filmed at such close range, are often twinned with archival videos of her first wedding. Revisiting these family archives winds up highlighting the precarity of stories we tell ourselves and the ones we choose to believe. Abrahams confides she used to love watching the footage of her mother walking down the aisle, wearing a floral headpiece and a radiant smile. But now, after a string of agonizing realizations and excavations of memories, only a phantom of that innocence remains. All she can see in that footage now is the man who violated her mother, Rozana’s stepfather.
Strong women protagonists also shine in Three Women, which picked up the Audience Award at the DOK Leipzig festival in 2022 and was screened at True/False earlier this year. Shot in 2019, the year of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s election victory, the film is a gentle prewar portrait of the Ukrainian village of Stuzhytsya (Zakarpattia Oblast), crafted by Ukrainian filmmaker Maksym Melnyk, who also hails from Zakarpattia. Teetering on the brink of disappearance, with its young people continuously leaving the village, Stuzhytsya (roughly translated as “a cold place”) is sparsely populated, nestled in the Carpathian Mountains near the EU border. But its residents “live in a dead end,” as aged farmer Hanna notes in the film.
As the title suggests, the film's main protagonists are farmer Hanna, post office clerk Maria, and biologist Nelya. The trio is as energetic as their age allows as they try to keep themselves busy, chiefly but not solely in an effort to stave off loneliness and isolation. Hanna has animals to keep her company. Maria is a postwoman who habitually runs out of stamps, which are often out of stock, spending parts of her days delivering pensions to the elderly in the village. Nelya, a scientist at the National Park, studies animal excrement as part of her research project on arthropods. Having decided to carry on studying and pursue a Ph.D. degree at age 56, she dreamed of joining a research expedition to Antarctica. It soon became “a fleeting dream” because she felt needed in her native village.
With a welcome amount of humor, Three Women paints a vérité picture of sprawling provincial life, where the priest’s blessings of cars in need of repair are nothing out of the ordinary. In a somewhat bittersweet scene, Melnyk reads horoscope news at the post office for all and any incoming customers who care to listen. When, per a horoscope reading, he advises a local woman to avoid conflicts in her household, she responds succinctly, “What conflicts? I am living on my own. Who could I have a conflict with?” Propelled by the filmmaker’s warm encounters and rapport with the local residents, the narrative unfolds unhurriedly, revealing how Melnyk and his DoP Florian Baumgarten—the latter is casually referred to by one of the women as “the German”—become endeared members of the community. In addition, their physical presence in the film becomes more prominent as they continuously enter and exit the frame. In one scene, Melnyk gifts a piglet to Hanna, much to her surprise. In another scene, he jokingly questions if her dream of eating dark bread is still a bad omen if the loaf is topped with jam.
Walking down a deserted road, the postwoman Maria says, “Someone should make a film about the dying village.” This film is a moving lament for a place and a home on the verge of being lost.
Sevara Pan is an Amsterdam-based journalist and film critic.