At the heart of any festival, lies its competition section. How this figures in the programme can vary. Cannes is pretty much defined by the various competitive strands, while other festivals emphasise their audience awards. This year's edition of New Horizons has scaled back its competition strands to the International Competition section, whose history has highlighted the work of key directors from the last two decades.
Beginning in 2002 with Przemysław Reut's Polish/US production Paradox Lake, the International Competition has championed key works from around the world. Winning countries so far also include Japan, France, Chile, Israel, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland, Thailand, Greece, the Netherlands, Russia, Italy, Germany, Tanzania, Belgium, UAE and Egypt. Amongst the awarded directors are Takeshi Kitano (Dolls, 2003), Jonathan Caouette (Tarnation, 2005), Sebastián Lelio (La sagrada familia, 2006), Steve McQueen (Hunger, 2009), Anocha Suwichakornpong (Mundane History, 2010), Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenburg, 2010), Aleksei Fedorchenko (Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari, 2013) and last year Tamer El Said (In the Last Days of the City).
This year, there are 12 films competing, with productions that encompass 11 countries. Of these, three films are from Poland: Łukasz Ronduda's A Heart of Love, Joanna Kos-Krauze's Birds are Singing in Kigali and Norman Leto's Photon. A study in relationships, identity and narcissism, Ronduda's film focuses on the blur between art/life and work/love of Wojtek Bąkowski and Zuzanna Bartoszek. Almost identical in their hairless form, A Heart of Love explores the nature of artistic and personal expression through its bold visual aesthetic. By contrast, Kos-Krauze's Birds are Singing in Kigali witnesses the impact of the outside world on two people's lives. A polish ornithologist and the Tutsi daughter of a colleague murdered in the Rwandan genocide attempt to bring order to their lives when they return to Poland. But the coldly bureaucratic nature of immigration and the recent past pull them back to the tragedy. In Photon, Norman Leto presents a visual essay/lecture that aims at the very core of our state of being. Inspired by the work of quantum physicist David Deutsch, Leto questions the notion of manifest destiny and touches on the growing trend towards notions of transhumanism.
Far from Montenegro's celebrated coastline, Dane Komljen's All the Cities of the North finds two characters wandering through a deserted concrete island. (Imagine a landscape the novelist J.G. Ballard would have conjured up and you're not far off.) A third person arrives - the director himself - and the simpatico is destabilised. Nothing will be the same again. Sergio Flores Thorija draws together two cultures for 3 Women or (Waking Up From My Bosnian Dream): the Balkans and Latin America. It details the lives of three women living in Sarajevo and what that city stood for in terms of their hopes and dreams. If that film highlights the shared loneliness of city dwellers, Natalia Almada's Everything Else presents the life of one woman in a cold and indifferent metropolis. Doña Flor is a civil servant with a menial job, which she attended to daily for over three decades. She barely talks to anyone outside of her work and even there she wonders if her colleagues would notice if she disappeared one day. Against this environment - the minutia of Doña Flor's world captured in exquisite detail - Almada shows the middle-aged woman in her only moment of rapture, floating in a swimming pool without a care in the world. If only the rest of her life could be this peaceful.
A wildly contrasting portrait of Mexico emerges in Strange But True. Directed by Michel Lipkes, whose extraordinary Malaventura wowed New Horizons audiences in 2012, his new film gradually reveals the tenderness between two garbage men, Jonathan and Yesi, as they carry on with the daily grind of their working lives. Mexico here is a violent, cacophonous urban sprawl, where danger and threat exists around every corner, and the notion that this relationship could be a happy one is so faint it can barely be grasped.
Sibling bonding and rivalries lie at the heart of the Hlynur Pálmason's Winter Brothers. Unfolding in a small workers' village in the middle of a forest, where the main occupation is mining, Pálmason presents a visually experimental meditation on solitude and the hardships of such a tough, unforgiving environment. Rather than digging down, building up becomes the metaphor for a hopeful future in Valeska Grisebach's Western. Produced by Maren Ade (Toni Erdmann, with which this film shares several common themes), it tells the story of a Bulgaria/Greece province town that has been chosen as the site of a major building development. However, relations between the local peasants and German construction workers are far from civil. Taking sides against your people risks being branded a traitor, but former mercenary Meinhard believes it is worth it.
Even by the standards of Emmanuel Gras' previous work (most notably the acclaimed 2011 documentary Bovines), Makala is a remarkable film. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction, Makala tells the story of Kabwita Kasongo, a farmer from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It details his attempts to make a living from selling charcoal (makala), which he produces by burning small areas of forest. Slow-burning (no pun intended), the film's magisterial pace allows us to understand the herculean task of Kabwita's attempts to make a living.
The Competition line-up is completed by two very different takes on domestic life. In The Impossible Picture, Sandra Wollner conjures up a world of memories through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl and her Super8 camera. Joanna records everything, but the meaning of what she has filmed only becomes clear with the passage of time. In Menashe, Joshua Z. Weinstein records life in Brooklyn's Hassidic community. (Filmed entirely in Jewish, this is the first film to be shot in this small community since the Second World War.) Focusing on his titular character, a man who recently lost his wife and by the rules of his community cannot look after her son, it explores the idea of shared identity when someone's values suddenly change. Distraught at the thought of his boy being cared for by a cruel relative, he sets out to break with tradition, if not his faith. Weinstein's film is a welcome addition to the competition line-up, having won the US in Progress award at the 2016 American Film Festival in Wrocław.
Ian Haydn Smith is a British writer and editor. Formerly the editor of the International Film Guide, he is the co-author of New British Cinema and author of the forthcoming The Story of Photography. He has attended New Horizons since 2008.