BAMcinemaFest, the fifth annual iteration of which begins on Wednesday and runs through June 28, is a little bit different this time around. Both the 2012 and 2013 selections feature a small group of local work, Brooklyn-based films that the festival can hold up as examples of the exciting filmmaking happening right outside its doors. Last year, however, the net wasn’t cast quite as wide. “The Comedy” and “Gayby” are great movies primarily about the North Brooklyn community of transplants from Manhattan and the rest of the country, the “hipster world” that the New York Times Style Section gets so excited about. (To be fair, “Gayby” director Jonathan Lisecki is from The Bronx.) Dan Sallitt’s extraordinary “The Unspeakable Act” was set in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood, but the Pennsylvania-born Sallitt has himself admitted that the film could have taken place in any number of places.
In the summer of 2013, BAMcinemaFest strides south and east, into parts of Brooklyn mostly unheralded by those enamored with the borough’s cultural boom. The films are just as compelling as last year’s crop, but they present a slightly different face. And no film on the program is quite as immediately electrifying as Andrew Dosunmu’s “Mother of George.”
Set in the Nigerian immigrant community in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, “Mother of George” opens with a wedding. The groom is Ayodele, played with a stern and earnest restraint by Isaach de Bankolé (White Material). His bride is Adenike, whose nervous resolve is embodied so effortlessly by Danai Gurira (The Visitor, Treme). The pressure is on from the very beginning for Adenike to produce a child as fast as possible, a necessity made perfectly clear by Ayodele’s mother. And yet, as the months after the wedding go by, there is no baby. Darci Picoult’s screenplay jumps from peak to peak, and the actors all rush after it with gusto. Soon Ayodele’s brother is involved, along with Adenike’s close friend Sade (Yaya Alafia).
Moreover, the dramatic whirlwind of the story is matched by Dosunmu’s audacious sense of style. In Bradford Young’s eminently capable hands, the camera is entranced by the gorgeous patterns of Adenike’s dresses and the colorful clothing of the community in general. The flowing of fabric is a central obsession of the film, slowing down to capture every dappling of light on the brightest of yellows and the deepest of blues. It’s reminiscent of Xavier Dolan’s work, his fleeting, fevered slow-motion love affairs with costume here transposed to the assertive poise of Nigerian Brooklyn. The only element more central than the clothes are the faces, a particular strength of Young’s that we’ve already seen in “Pariah” and “Middle of Nowhere.” This is a family conflict in collage, an arrangement of expressions and colors that add an entirely new layer to the already rich visual sensibility of American melodrama.
Heading south from Crown Heights, Eliza Hittman’s astonishing debut feature “It Felt Like Love” brings the fire of the sexual awakening film to Gravesend. Her heroine, Lila (Gina Piersanti), is fourteen. We see her first on the beach, her face white with sunscreen, staring into the open ocean. She’s there with her best friend, Chiara, and Chiara’s boyfriend Patrick. Lila is the odd one out, the awkward adolescent in a world with no more fourteen-year-old virgins. Determined to catch up with Chiara and Patrick, she decides to pursue Sammy, a college-aged guy she meets on the beach. Chiara absent-mindedly points out that Sammy will “f**k anything that movies,” unaware that’s exactly what Lila is looking for.
The most obvious comparison is to Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank,” which is warranted and a compliment to both films. “It Felt Like Love” also has a crucial scene in a marsh, and also uses dance to explore its protagonist’s self-confidence and sexuality. The final set piece in the film is a performance, a cathartic moment of choreography as Lila and Chiara dance to Mykki Blanco’s “Wavvy.” Yet if “It Felt Like Love” leers and dances like Arnold’s work, it sweats like a film by Catherine Breillat. Lila’s grasp for sexual fulfillment is reminiscent of “Fat Girl,” the consciousness that love can be nothing but another way to make the loss of virginity even more painful in the long run. Lila’s pursuit of Sammy may not be as horrific as the final events of Breillat’s masterpiece, but it confronts the danger and dark naiveté of youthful sexuality that has gone too far in its own way.
“Mother of George” and “It Felt Like Love” take the genres of melodrama and teenage sexual awakening, filter them through Brooklyn communities, and create something entirely new. Other films in the festival are equally ambitious, genre-bending without quite so much local flavor. The documentary shorts program is especially clever. Dustin Guy Defa’s “Declaration of War” is a surprisingly powerful recut of George W. Bush’s declaration of the war on terror, while the similarly minimalist “Century” adds an odd new perspective to the demolition of a car. The whole group, from the trippy “Catnip: Egress to Oblivion” to the bewildering “Apes as Family,” thrives on tossing out everything you might expect from a program of “documentary” shorts.
And, finally, there is a film that seems to fall into the North Brooklyn transplant category. Yet, like last year’s “The Comedy,” Michael Bilandic’s “Hellaware” turns his camera in onto the artistic community of Williamsburg/Bushwick by turning his characters outward into the world. His protagonist is a young, struggling photographer who may finally have found his break. The new subject? A group of teenage Insane Clown Posse imitators who have uploaded a single music video to YouTube, the subtly titled “I’ll Cut Yo Dick Off.”
It’s about art and hypocrisy, and manages to lampoon New York’s gallery culture by way of the Juggalo. Like Rick Alverson and “The Comedy,” Bilandic has absolutely no interest in keeping his main character heroic or even likeable. This is about how ridiculous artistic success can be, and the temptation to sell out everyone you meet on the way. It’s dark, it’s pretty hilarious, and it’s just the sort of thing that should have its world premiere at BAMcinemaFest.