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Challenging Dreams & Learning to Survive at First Look Festival ‘21


By Roger Costa


Neo-realism finds a new strong cinematic voice in director Michele Pennetta’s award-winning timely depiction of displacement, abandonment and resilience. A powerful arthouse exercise, the film is an observational social humanitarian tale, following two different souls as they experience consequences of poverty, abandon and rejection. Oscar is a kid who works with his father and brother collecting scrap metal as an income in a remote village in Sicily, while Stanley is an adult immigrant trying to make a living in an urban zone after courageously crossing the ocean. Both were abandoned by their mothers, and demonstrate a suffering from an inexplicable solitude even though they’re surrounded by people, running away from their troubles and uneasiness. They both feel as outcasts among their own home or community, constantly contemplating the idea or opportunity to leave, to move forward. Their worlds will intersect at one point in the narrative, in which results in a heart rendering statement about human virtues and compassion. Raw and transparent, Pennetta masterfully gives the classic aesthetics of Neo-realism, a fresh, precisely contemporary wardrobe.


A richly involving and tender community-focused experimental work filmed completely around a few blocks along Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens. Director Philip Warnell’s alter ego is Martha, an older woman, seemingly enjoying the Summer walks in the city and randomly approaching people with some intimate, soul-searching questions. As the “interviewer” reaches a target, providing a familiar atmosphere and gaining their trust, she extracts truthful revelations about the human condition and the power to overcome obstacles- in a lovely representation of the spirit of New York City, the strength of community bond, the importance of preserving local habits such as caring for one another, supporting and embracing other cultures. Using impressive surveillance-style techniques, Warnell’s experiment is a courageous, frenetically funny and sincere look at human connections.


An intimate and deeply engaging exploration on a group of Millennials’ artistic aspirations and adventures, this experimental documentary helmed by Amit Desai evokes the spirit of revolution familiar to the 60’s. The cameras follow the young hipsters as they rehearse a play called “The Highway” at various NYC’s parks. As they wander the green fields of the city, being observed by the crowds and absorbing urbanism as a form of triggering their inspiration, they reveal their creativity as much as they display their individual traumas and surviving experiences. Lively and energized as its subjects, Desai’s Avant-Garde aesthetic and candor eye demonstrate a sense of modern philosophy, composing an ode to youth’s comradeship and to the process of finding freedom through art.


An established mixed martial arts fighter flees the persecution against homosexuals in his native country Chechnya, arriving in Brussels under a silent vow. As he seeks asylum and restoration, director Reka Valerik crafts an unusually affecting, inventive and immersive portrait of resistance and determination. The director imprints honesty and creativity as telling the story through his various interactions: listening to his mother’s anguished requests and motivations over the phone, being instructed in how to proceed and analyzing his case with specialists and hanging out with a social worker, as well as exorcizing his demons during his physical practices. Named Best Mid-Length Documentary at Hot Docs 2020, this is an important and impressive account on the irreversible ethnical consequences of the injustice and intolerance imposed by hierarchy.


Director Claire Simon gains all access to the behind-the-scenes of setting up a Documentary Film Festival in a small rural community in the South of France. Among the agricultural activities of the area, a group of filmmakers and media professionals work incessantly to launch a web program allowing cinephiles to subscribe it and have the films at easy reach. Running against time, financial troubles, health issues and protocols, the team is eagerly united in the process, creating a communal atmosphere as they share ideas, strategies and also become involved in each other’s personal dilemmas. Absorbing and smartly edited, it is an accomplished portrait of the challenges the film industry faces in this ever-changing decade, and the optimistic increase of worldwide attention towards documentary filmmaking.


(First Look Festival ’21 runs July 22-August 1 at Museum of the Moving Image in NYC. Featuring In-person screenings with the participation of filmmakers and also available thru its Virtual Cinema platform. Go to for details.)

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