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The Unknown Pleasures of American filmmaking

The American Independent Film Festival is at Arsenal Kino until January 19

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Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall peeks behind the curtain of civic life

Unknown Pleasures is well under way at Arsenal and lasts until Jan 19. The 12th edition of the American Independent Film Festival presents a selection of current independent films from the US, with a focus on socio-political tensions told from an autobiographical perspective. 

Mona Fastvold’s award-winning The World To Come is one of the programme’s biggest titles. Set in 1856 in the northeast of the US, it sees a couple Abigail and Dyer (Katherine Waterstone and Casey Affleck) deal with the aftermath of their daughter’s death. The arrival of new neighbours provides company and support, as intense feelings develop between Abigail and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby). It premiered in Venice two years ago, and while it is a crop above many repressed lesbian period dramas (Tell It To The Bees, Elise & Marcela, Ammonite), it doesn’t conjure the same whirlwind of emotions that Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire did. Still, Waterston and Kirby are both excellent, rising above some of the script’s clunkier moments, and Fastvold does movingly explore the theme of loss, as well as provide an under-seen female perspective on the American frontier. It screens on the 12th at 19:00.

Other standouts include Skinner Myers’ debut film The Sleeping Negro, a stunning drama about shame that doubles up as a timely piece that asks the question of whether the US is convincing anyone when it pretends to be a post-racial society (screening on Jan 15 at 21:00). Also taking on the issue of race in America is Down With The King, a drama about a rapper “Money Merc” who, following a creative crisis, moves to rural Massachusetts. Starring real-life rapper Freddie Gibbs, this unexpectedly searching film seek to question the ideas of masculinity, race and the personas we adopt in order to lead our lives (Jan 8 at 21:00).

Another highlight is the vital documentary All About My Sisters, by Wang Qiong. It chronicles the effects of China’s one-child policy through the eyes of the director, who asks her younger sister about her earliest memories; as a child born in 90s China, the strict one-child policy meant that she was abandoned and grew up with relatives. Wang Qiong filmed her family over a period of seven years and explores not only the social control that governments impose on their citizens and the bodies of women, but also how address the layered facets of trauma can lead to healing. It screens on the 10th and 19th (both at 19:30).

Finally, don’t miss out on Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall on the 9th (18:00) and 13th (19:00). It’s an absorbing portrait of Boston’s City Hall which shows Wiseman once again peeking behind the curtain of civic life: his observational documentary takes us where policies are made and we are privy to the seemingly mundane meetings and one-on-ones that shape people’s lives. It is a humanist and at times quietly heartbreaking mosaic that’s unmissable.