The 2012 Tribeca Film Festival is roaring along smoothly, as celebrities, cinephiles, and NYC residents of all stripes descend on Lower Manhattan for this ever growing event. There are many films making their World Premiere at this prestigious gathering, including one from NYC based production company Ghost Robot, who bring “First Winter”, filmmaker Benjamin Dickinson’s directorial debut.
“First Winter” takes the viewer to upstate New York and a yoga commune of sorts, where the harsh winter is setting in, and a catastrophic power outage changes the dynamics of the sojourn. The film’s premise is fairly straightforward, as a tightly knit group who share the same world view must overcome human emotions in a fight for survival. But the straightforwardness pretty much ends there, as the narrative unfolds in what can only be called an unconventional manner; one that is deeply personal, revealing, brave, and most importantly real.
The film certainly is not shy about looking in a forthright manner at the contradictions that can be part of the yoga world. Certainly, their lives revolve around spiritual enlightenment along with healthy eating and exercise, but they also indulge in drugs, alcohol, and sex with multiple partners simultaneously in what can only be described as an orgiastic atmosphere. Judgments could be made immediately by audience members, but one should take caution before doing that. The film is telling a story in a way that feels uncomfortable, but allows, if given a chance, an understanding of both human and cosmic ideas in a deeper way.
A way of life, a specific world view is what defines these characters. It can be seen in the laborious preparations of the vegetable laden fare, the big ideas, the deep philosophical issues facing the world that are discussed in many scenes, the hard work and physical struggle involved with this simpler, more rugged way of life. How many people chop wood for their heat, grow vegetables and fruits for canning to survive the harsh winter? Sure, these characters smoke doobies, indulge in other things some in society frown upon, but these are their choices and the film simply seems to lay them out, forcing the viewer to confront them.
It is made easy through the naturalistic way the actors bring to life on the screen these actual lifestyle choices. The honesty in their portrayals is uncanny, slipping the viewer into this world many have never seen before, whether they want to go there or not. This naturalistic realness that flows from the characters creates a certain level of discomfort however. As the film goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult to empathize with them, as more and more flaws are exposed. But again, that is the beauty of the film, it is unapologetically honest.
Contrary to the limited ability to manipulate light in a natural setting outside covered in white snow, the interior scenes were superb in their use of lighting. Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra uses a painterly touch to give insight into the characters’ thoughts and relay important sub-textual information. Shadows or beams of light that cross characters in what must have been due to choices made by the visual team and director, elicit a semiotic response in the viewer that is undeniable. Using sources like fire, sunlight piercing a shade, and a variety of others gives the film a polished look that aided the narrative and never interfered with it.
The film unfortunately lost some of its pacing as it progressed, but perhaps that was due to the elevated emotional ground it stood on earlier in the narrative. There were also a couple of moments that felt a tad contrived, but they were few and far between, as the film set a high bar for intensity that was bound to be missed a few times. That is what happens when a filmmaker actually takes chances and tries to tell a story that is unconventional in method and subject matter. This film will elicit a reaction from viewers, one way or another, that is a fact.
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