Film Independent Mon 5.24.2021

Someone We Watched: Julia Loktev’s Women on the Brink

Each year, the Film Independent Spirit Awards give the Someone to Watch Award to an emerging filmmaker of singular vision. In this column, film critic David Bax revisits some of the grant’s recipients to see how their work and careers have continued to develop.


Despite having a half dozen of these columns under my belt, it took a viewing of Day Night Day Night–which won Julia Loktev the award in February of 2007–to get me thinking more deeply about what it means to declare a filmmaker “Someone to Watch.”

The baseline explanation—the one from which I’ve been operating—is: “Hey, this person made a great movie and their career is still young! Let’s keep an eye out!” But with Loktev’s debut narrative feature (she had made a documentary, Moment of Impact, in 1998), the Russian-American video artist emerged with a cinematic voice so strong and distinct that the accolade took on a new significance. It served as a notice of sorts, that those of us who love film as an art form would be delinquent to not be paying attention.

Day Night Day Night follows a never-named young woman (Luisa Williams) who is prepared by a team of masked and anonymous handlers to become a suicide bomber in Times Square. The passive voice there is not unintentional. There is no preparation left for this woman to do for herself. She has arrived with unwavering commitment—even eagerness—insisting that she can carry the weight of a larger bomb than the one she’s first given.

The men (and one woman) get her to where she needs to be, help her memorize a cover story and even pick out the clothes she’ll wear on her mission, leading to the most bizarre and darkly funny trying-on-outfits montage in movie history. They also help her make a video statement, presumably to be released after she detonates herself and murders any number of innocent people. Crucially, we don’t actually see her speech. The complex ethics of sympathizing with a would-be suicide bomber aside, what’s important to Day Night Day Night is not what this woman believes in, only that she does so without exception.

Nica (Hani Furstenberg), the protagonist of Loktev’s only subsequent feature to date, 2011’s The Loneliest Planet, is similarly self-assured–though with much healthier, more wholesome inclinations. We meet her in the middle of a backpacking trip through the Caucasus Mountains with her fiancé, Alex (Gael García Bernal).

Against a backdrop of stunning, verdant locations, we come to know a couple fully at ease with one another, confident in their love and in their standing as equal, capable partners. She requires no help crossing a river and he loves her for her strength. And she loves him back for the kind, thoughtful, patient man that he is. In one moment during a tense encounter with a local shepherd, though, all of these beliefs are revealed to have been nothing more than assumptions. When those have crumbled, there is nothing but fear and despair at what, if anything, will take their place.

It’s worth pausing a moment here to note how often The Loneliest Planet is discussed in terms of its apparent commentary on masculinity and gender roles. I’ve even seen it suggested as a double feature pairing with Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. There’s certainly plenty of subtext to support that interpretation, like Alex’s non-traditional pride in owning a bicycle and not a car.

And I can attest, as a man, that the movie goes places that are uncomfortable. But it’s that very reaction that makes me wonder how much of the film is intended to be about gender and how much of that reading is critics like me projecting our own masculine insecurities. Would Alex’s actions be any more acceptable were he a woman and Nica a man? Anyway, back to the task at hand.

Julia Loktev (right) gives Hani Furstenberg a lift at the 2013 Film Independent Spirit Awards (photo: Getty Images)

What similarities exist between Day Night Day Night and The Loneliest Planet have foremost to do with Loktev’s immediate, particular visual language. In both cases, we start with shots of these women in the midst of idiosyncratic behavior—Williams’ character is whispering to herself; Nica is naked and jumping up and down—for which we only gradually gain context.

Later, both characters will be tracked in Dardenne brothers-style handheld following shots focused on the backs of their heads. The patience and curiosity of Loktev’s camera allows stolen moments like clipping toenails or practicing Spanish verb conjugations the same room and weight as more traditionally dramatic ones.

In broad strokes, one could make an argument for more commonalities between the two movies. Both women are away from home, getting by without creature comforts. If you wanted to be glib, you could say they’re both on adventures. But it’s the differences that really stand out.

It’s not just that Day Night Day Night takes place in a densely populated area while The Loneliest Planet is set in the great outdoors, though it is worth mentioning how effectively Loktev still makes Nica seem physically hemmed in when things are fraught. No, the most glaring contrast is that the two protagonists are such inherently different people. W

Williams’ character is, for most of the movie, in a state of complete passivity. She has already given herself over to her cause and thus remains reactive until the moment that she is activated. Nica, on the other hand, is active, dynamic and decisive. Even with Alex as her partner and Bidzina Gujabidze’s Dato as their guide, she has the air of leadership about her. And yet both women, despite their undeniable disparities, find themselves equally lost when their fundamental convictions are shattered.

It’s been nearly 10 years now since The Loneliest Planet made its debut at the 2011 Locarno Film Festival and it’s still the last we’ve heard from Loktev. In an interview with Mubi’s Notebook in 2019, she mentioned being near completion on a screenplay co-written with journalist Masha Gessen, a somewhat epic love story. It sounds like just as thrilling a new step as the one she took between her previous two films.

Other nominees: After her debut, In Between Days, So Yong Kim made a quick follow-up with 2008’s lauded Treeless Mountain and then directed 2012’s Paul Dano-starring For Ellen and 2016’s achingly beautiful Lovesong before transitioning into a staggeringly prolific career as a television director, helming episodes of Transparent, American Crime, Halt and Catch Fire, On Becoming a God in Central Florida and many more. Richard Wong, who was nominated for Colma: The Musical, has continued to direct, releasing 2012’s Yes, We’re Open and 2019’s Come As You Are, among others, and also works as a cinematographer, shooting things like Wayne Wang’s lovely 2019 feature Coming Home Again.


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(Header: Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg in The Loneliest Planet)