On the night of September 3, 1944, Recy Taylor, a black woman, was walking in Alabama when seven white men rode up in a car, accused her of violence against a man she hadn't committed, and then forced her in the car at gunpoint. They drove her a few miles into darkness, taunted and terrorized her, threatened to kill her, and then six of the seven men raped and maimed her. No one was punished. Recy Taylor is now in her 90s and the country that denied her justice appears to be in freefall back toward the frightening political climate that allowed her attackers to go free. Her brother Robert Corbitt talked about the issue as much as he could afterwards because there was so much buried in this single incident. Every horrific stereotype foisted on the black community by white people was proven a cowardly projection of their own sexual violence and hideous prejudice, abusing their powers in order to never find themselves in so precarious a social position as to be taken advantage of by another race. The rape of Recy Taylor, it becomes clear in Nancy Buirski's astounding documentary of the same name, was one of a handful of symbolic acts of punishment handed out randomly by white men to let blacks know that they would never find comfort or safety in their own country.
"The Rape of Recy Taylor" is the strongest documentary in the NYFF line-up, a stirring, infuriating marvel. As Godfrey pointed out in his curtain raiser a few days ago, the line-up has become somewhat predictable under Kent Jones and his selection committee. The only thing about this I see as troubling is that the documentaries allowed in tend to follow too strict a guideline. There are the issue/human interest docs, like "Recy Taylor" or "Voyeur," that center on one person; there are the sunny biographies (which too frequently border on hagiography) represented this year by "Spielberg" and "Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold," which offer fond looks at a life's work; and there are the formally assaultive biographies like "Caniba" or last year's Jonas Mekas marvel "I Had Nowhere To Go." I've been covering the festival almost as long as Jones has been in charge and you can sort of set your watch by the few documentaries they let in. There are HBO and Netflix distribution deals behind most of them and the high-profile subject matter means lots of coverage ahead of awards season. Considering how strong the fiction main slate is, it's a bit of a letdown knowing that the documentaries aren't a little more diverse.
Having said that, there is no downside to "The Rape of Recy Taylor" being given this attention. If anything, the relatively lightweight (tonally speaking, if nothing else) "Spielberg" and "Voyeur" make "Recy Taylor" seem all the more vital and striking. Buirsky has many virtues as a filmmaker, her ability to conjure atmosphere the most cunning and impressive of all. In her documentary "Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq," the sensuality of dance is communicated through still images and the interplay between music and silence. Buirski's intense rhythm and knack for filling in vital missing pieces through respectful and electrifying invention make her work as interesting as her subjects. She has precious little footage of Taylor and knows that her talking heads can only be so dynamic (though the shallow focus photography does relieve some of the unavoidable monotony of the practice—she is plainly trying to do something different, which is admirable). And to help us visualize what Taylor went through, what her world looked like, she uses clips from race films by directors like Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams.
Her most frequently recurring soundtrack motif is Dinah Washington singing "This Bitter Earth" over Max Richter's plaintive strings. This composition may be familiar to fans of either "Shutter Island" or "Arrival," but this is the first time its been used essentially as part of a film's fabric. The film gives Washington's voice back to black women by letting it speak for Taylor's pain, in as much as film can change our conception of music by pairing it with images. By coupling the composition with ominous, double exposed footage of dark woods (the site of Taylor's violation) and images of black women from movies directed by black men, Buirski is attempting to let the voices and experiences of black people be seen and heard as loudly as possible. Those trees, filmed at dusk and laid over top of each other, are among the scariest images I can recall in any film this year. They speak of collusion and secret violence, of pain easily erased from every conscious except that of the recipient.
"The Rape of Recy Taylor" allows its interviewees to be angry, to cry, to be as visible as they choose to be. The truth of the assault has always been known to those who listen (Rosa Parks even showed up to help and interview Taylor after her attack), so Buirski wants to questions as many institutions as possible in investigating the painful facts of the case. Haunting images of a black woman in a white dress fleeing down a dusty dirt road, almost as if she's dancing (a la "Tanaquil Le Clerq," the ballet dancer from Buirski's 2013 film), while a scholar tears up trying to wrap her brain around the inhumanity of the crime, weaves a tapestry of sorrow not soon forgotten. Everything about "The Rape of Recy Taylor" aims to stay with you, to present the ugly history as something that cannot be scrubbed from the chambers of our memory. Recy Taylor is still here, the film reminds us, and so is the stain of these crimes, of hate and rape. We must want to remember what happened so that it will never happen again.
After being entranced and stung by this film it was nice to watch something a little more buoyant and mirthful, if also filled with puzzling quandaries about the human condition. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, by now a fixture at NYFF, is back in the main slate with the hilarious and tragic "Before We Vanish" in which three people begin acting strangely in the same way at the same time in a small Japanese town. We learn slowly that they're bodies have been possessed by aliens who need to study us in order to properly plan for their invasion, after which all human life on earth will be destroyed. A journalist accidentally stumbles upon the scoop and stays with their ringleader as he gets ready to vaporize all human beings. He's a selfish mess of a man who can't muster much enthusiasm for saving mankind, to the point where when it becomes clear that a shadowy government agency is shadowing the aliens with intent to stop them, the guy actually helps out in planning the invasion. The nicest of the three aliens wound up in the body of a cheating husband who accidentally becomes a better husband by having his sense of self replaced with that of an extraterrestrial.
Kurosawa's done so much wonky experimenting in the last few years that it shouldn't have been a surprise that he remade "Starman" (with a dash of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"), but it's still very odd indeed to see him working so heartfelt a register, especially because he hasn't curbed any of his famous violence for the sake of finding a bigger audience. Yes, it's the peculiarly heartwarming tale of a man who becomes a better partner thanks to an alien invasion, but it also has an enormous body count and a dimly optimistic view of humanity. Still, you won't see anything else quite like it this year. The film not being a masterpiece is less important than knowing as I sat in a press conference that this film was offering me a set of pleasures I wouldn't get elsewhere. That's why I look forward to NYFF all year round. The schizophrenic experience of watching three movies a day can play havoc with your quality receptors and exhaust you quite easily, but for movies like "The Rape of Recy Taylor" and "Before We Vanish," it's well worth it.