This article appeared in the March 17, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Bunker (Jenny Perlin, 2021)

Boasting nearly 20 features, this year’s edition of the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look festival, which opened March 16, is nothing short of a renaissance. Two years ago, First Look was foiled by the pandemic, and last year, the festival worked overtime to program new and old-new titles from the disrupted 2020 season. This year, the festival is undeniably back, with a slate that sparkles with brazen storytelling and seductive selections that are uncannily befitting of this moment.

First Look remains an accessible and invaluable venue for U.S. filmmakers, particularly those whose work is rigorous and refreshingly unvarnished. Bunker, a 92-minute vérité doc by Jenny Perlin that expands on her 2020 short Doublewide, is one such picture. Screening in First Look on the heels of its premiere at the Museum of Modern Art’s Doc Fortnight, Bunker patiently observes several American men as they take up residence in decommissioned missile silos and elaborate underground condos in anticipation of impending nuclear fallout. With a sense of melancholy permeating its spectacle, the documentary exposes the revival of Cold War anxieties and doomsday fetishism among ostensibly ordinary grandfathers and uncles. Though primarily set in remote communities in the Mid- and Southwest, Bunker is reminiscent of Brett Story’s portrait of New York City during one of the most politically and environmentally hazardous summers on record, The Hottest August (2019). By interviewing subjects with a wartime journalist’s emotional distance and crafting still-life portraiture of their windowless lives, Perlin reveals the loneliness and dark humor of what some of her subjects consider the end times.

Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s Babi Yar. Context explores an atrocity that was not imagined but horrifically tangible. Loznitsa, who screened Donbass—a savage satire set in the titular separatist region—at First Look in 2019, here revisits a horrifying chapter in his country’s history through meticulously restored and frankly stunning archival footage. Over two days in September 1941, Nazi troops executed nearly 35,000 Jews in a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev. Presented with intertitles that are more eulogistic than didactic, the materials Loznitsa uses originate from an array of sources: Third Reich, Soviet, and American cinematographers all played a role in documenting the massacre and its aftermath. The visual tendencies of Nazi filmmakers haunt many of Babi Yar’s early shots, evoking not only Leni Riefenstahl’s jingoism but also the searing footage of 1942’s incomplete propaganda piece Das Ghetto (and its subsequent reclamation by Yael Hersonski in 2010’s Film Unfinished). The quality of these 80-year-old images and the complicity of those behind the lens are equally startling. Linear in its unfurling of the devastation, the film concludes with the harrowing testimonies of the survivors and the disaffected ones of the perpetrators; the latter evoke Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others: “One person’s ‘barbarian’ is another person’s ‘just doing what everybody else is doing.’”

A triptych of feature-length narrative selections—Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s Murina, Julie Lecoustre and Emmanuel Marre’s Zero Fucks Given, and Omar El Zohairy’s Feathers—form a festival unto themselvesAll three are both sublime and comical in their explorations of women eschewing patriarchal conventions, each probing the discontents—extreme and subtle—of female subjects at varying stages of life.

Set on the idyllic Croatian coast, Murina invents new ways of looking at the figure of the teenage girl. When a moneyed visitor from the States (Cliff Curtis) pays a family of three a visit, the foundational cracks in the unit are gradually exposed: the matriarch might have married the wrong man, the patriarch makes up for what he lacks in cosmopolitan sophistication with opportunism, and the daughter thrashes about in the fishbowl of near-womanhood. As lensed by Happy as Lazzaro’s Hélène Louvart, young Julija (Gracija Filipovic) evokes both purity and androgyny in a white one-piece swimsuit as she deftly dives into the Adriatic Sea to hunt eel with her middle-aged father, Ante (Leon Lucev). Starting out both Oedipal and Electral, Julija grows increasingly estranged from her parents and closer to their visitor until she is reborn in the film’s climax, bursting forth from the waters, a Venus coasting on the seashell of her own liberation.

Zero Fucks Given, First Look’s Showcase screening, considers the aftermath of this kind of feminine coming-of-age story. Capitalism’s rote disenchantment weighs heavily on the shoulders of a young French budget-airline flight attendant, Cassandre (played with pitch-perfection by Adèle Exarchopoulos), who—30,000 feet above ground—has yet to mourn her mother’s death in a car crash several years earlier. The cabin crew’s colorful uniforms and heavy makeup clash evocatively with the sterile environs of economy jets, while the camera exposes the mind-numbing performance of service work as Cassandre distributes in-flight snacks. In many ways, Zero Fucks Given is a profound alternative to feminist vérité exposés of the working conditions of employees in feminized service industries—a cinematic tradition that extends from Barbara Walters’s stint as a Playboy Bunny in 1962 to A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem (2019). Cassandre copes with her professional life in the air with booze-drenched benders during her few precious moments on the ground. Until the next wheels-up, she relieves herself of the weight of passenger caretaking and heavy mascara, permitting her legs to grow stubble without professional reprimand. Lecoustre and Marre make comic relief of the strange incompatibility of Cassandre’s job with her image of herself as a young millennial woman, all while portraying the gig as her means of holding off grief. The film righteously pillories travelers’ nostalgia for the splendor of pre-9/11 air travel to bittersweet effect.

The most farcical of these three portraits of femininity under duress, El Zohairy’s Cannes Critics’ Weekwinning Feathers asks the least of its antiheroine, an Egyptian housewife whose frivolous, domineering husband (Samy Bassouny) seemingly morphs into a chicken during a magic act at their son’s birthday party. A lightning rod at the El Gouna Film Festival last year, Feathers has been snubbed by some Egyptian industry luminaries as a poor representation of the country’s contemporary culture. One cannot predict the faith, good or bad, with which an international audience will view this film, but Feathers certainly provokes with its irreverent exaggeration of the quotidian. The unnamed matriarch, played by Demyana Nassar, seeks solutions to her husband’s metamorphosis with more duty than emotion, the preservation of the family’s livelihood remaining her paramount concern. While she takes on odd jobs to support her three young sons, the housewife’s attempts at restoring her lackluster husband to his human form become more and more absurdranging from visits with occultists to the invitation of farm animals into the family homedespite the relatively simple goal: a return to domestic balance, no matter how dissatisfying that might be. The dark humor of Feathers’s denouement rivals that of Jeanne Dielman, making a poignant statement about the potential for liberation even in the most tradition-bound of households.

Tomasin Fonseca is a film critic based in New York City; her work has been published in The AdvocateThe Los Angeles Review of Books, Reverse Shot, and elsewhere.