From T (2019), dir. Keisha Rae Witherspoon (all images courtesy Film at Lincoln Center)

New Directors/New Films is one of New York’s most exciting film festivals. For nearly five decades, it has heralded new talents and trends, so it’s no surprise that a number of stellar films in the  49th edition evoke art’s power to heal. “When you do things with your hands, it heals you in places lower than where you cry from,” says Dimples (Koko Zauditu-Selassie), a Black mother grieving her son in Keisha Rae Witherspoon’s short film T. The mandate to heal, tempered by resilience, resonates with our current multiple crises. It also stresses the pernicious hold of trauma. “The hole in your heart you can never fill up,” says Dimples.

The impressionist T portrays a fictional “T Ball” in Miami, during which dancers mourn lost loved ones. Witherspoon collages anguished confessions with video, illustrations, dreamy electronic music, and ecstatic cosmic images. Some of her subjects defy the camera’s intrusion, but Dimples welcomes it as a conduit. In one hypnotic scene, the costumed participants gyrate in inky blue light. Dimples, a seamstress, shows off glistening wings she made from potato chip bags to honor her son’s cravings, while Tahir (Kherby Jean) is invisible except for the tiny white lights lining his armor.

From The Metamorphosis of Birds (2020), dir. Catarina Vasconcelos

“Death is a thing for the living” echoes the voiceover in Catarina Vasconcelos’s sublime The Metamorphosis of Birds. Vasconcelos dives into her past, having her grandparents’ letters read aloud as she stages scenes from their lives: her grandfather an absent seaman, her grandmother (whom she never met) a housewife caring for six children. Family members are depicted roaming the grandparents’ house with Alice In Wonderland enchantment. Prosaic objects (a wall socket, a peacock feather) stir sentiment, the still camera full of Proustian rapture. The film’s themes are commonplace, from a seamen’s nostalgia to how patriarchy has frayed over decades, and yet the sheer beauty of its compositions makes The Metamorphosis of Birds one of this year’s most memorable debuts.

From Los Conductos (2020), dir. Camilo Restrepo

In Camilo Restrepo’s bold Los Conductos, the past is a drug-numbed wound. The film is loosely based on the eight years that Fernando Úsaga Higuíta, who plays the main character Pinky, spent in a cult. The action takes place after Pinky’s escape, but his mind remains entrapped. In voiceover, Pinky recalls the cult’s hold on its members with biblical gravitas. The murky cinematography reflects the claustrophobia of his unmoored life in Bogota’s sepulchral tunnels and warehouses. The film’s willful opaqueness is a potent metaphor; as Pinky says, “Closing our eyes to our own barbarity” further perpetuates trauma.

Los Conductos is also a tribute to sound design’s role in cementing a world, locking in a character’s perspective. In Sandra Wollner’s flinty second film, The Trouble With Being Born, sound conveys the audience into the software of a girl-like robot, Elli, who is reprogrammed by a succession of owners to serve their cruel, often perverse desires. The electronic landscape of Elli’s mind, brilliantly engineered by Felippe Schultz Mussel, is frightening in its evocation of a nascent consciousness breaking down. Subtler but equally stirring are the psychological jolts delivered by Peter Albrechtsen’s sound work in Robert Macholan’s The Killing of Two Lovers. Creaking, grating, low oboe-like noises are juxtaposed with the film’s static wintry landscapes, contrasting torment and calm.

From The Fever (2019), dir. Maya Da-Rin

In Maya Da-Rin’s fiction debut The Fever, trauma has gone viral and taken on a fantastical form. Justino (Pedro Cesarino), a widowed Indigenous security guard at a Brazilian river port, reacts with sullen dignity to blunt racism at work. At home, his strange fever stymies his daughter Vanessa (Rosa Peixoto), who works as a nurse. The family drama plays with multiple ambiguities. Justino’s feverishness may result from Western malice or his own longing — here again Mussel oversees the sound, infusing the commercial sites with audio of the forest. A jaguar plaguing the urban dwellers may be a sensationalist prank or a deeper socio-somatic projection. Like Restrepo, Da-Rin’s opacity points to internalized trauma with wider societal implications. To quote T again, “the inner reality creates the outer form,” though connections remain nebulous. Healing can’t purge what ails you if it’s not rooted in an honest quest for knowledge — not only personal, but also communal.

New Directors/New Films runs until December 20, online via Film at Lincoln Center.

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.