New Directors/New Films is one of the most venerable film festivals in the United States. For more than half a century it has brought attention to fresh cinematic talent from around the world. This year’s edition is no exception, and while its slate is a bit lighter on the nonfiction front than it’s been in the past, some extremely promising documentaries are still in the mix, with many of the features looking at African and/or Indigenous milieus.

In Coconut Head Generation, Alain Kassanda follows students at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria’s oldest operating college. In a meta touch, it’s also a film about film, as the characters are part of a cinema club, where they watch classics by anti-imperialist directors and discuss how they can apply the lessons of such films to their own efforts to decolonize their university. A dialectical work, it enmeshes its audience with engaged young people, undercutting the titular insult which is often thrown their way.

Milisuthando Bongela’s Milisuthando is a memoirist essay about growing up in South Africa under Apartheid, within a unique circumstance: Her family was based in the quasi-breakaway Xhosa enclave of Transkei. Period film footage of the era and the places where she lived is heavily recontextualized — an ethnographic documentary becomes both a look at her home and an implicit critique of the lens through which she and her community was viewed. The movie is an avant-garde cinematic photo album and collage, a search for identity filtered through found materials. 

Other features in the lineup aren’t straightforward docs, but contain intriguing mixes of real and constructed elements. Hyperallergic previously highlighted Fox Maxy’s debut feature Gush when it debuted earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, and now New Yorkers will have a chance to see it in the theater. In it, the Ipai Kumeyaay and Payómkawichum filmmaker assembles an almost overwhelming collage of multimedia sources, blending 10 years’ worth of home movies with everything from Instagram videos to home-brewed CG animation, ruminating on everyday Indigenous life in the United States.

Ariadine Zampaulo takes a similar approach with Maputo Nakuzandza, a kind of throwback to the city symphony films of old. It surveys one day in Maputo, capital of Mozambique. Zampaulo freely combines actual observed incidents around the city with fictional scenes, such as a narrative about a jilted bride meandering the streets in her wedding dress, which is used to frame and interlink the other vignettes. 

Several non-narratives of note are part of the festival’s two short film programs. In the first program, there’s Aqueronte from Spain, in which Manuel Muñoz Rivas captures a hazy ferry trip through accumulated impressionistic details, and Mateo Vega’s Center, Ring, Mall, which intercuts footage of three different symbols of capitalist logistics: a data center, a highway around a city, and a shopping mall. In the second program, María Silvia Esteve’s The Spiral stands out, weaving animation and WhatsApp messages into a mesmerizing portrait of anxiety. Such works exemplify ND/NF’s unconventional programming philosophy, which continues to make it an essential festival.

Coconut Head Generation, dir. Alain Kassanda, 2023
Milisuthando, dir. Milisuthando Bongela, 2023
Gush, dir. Fox Maxy, 2023

New Directors/New Films 2023 takes place at the Museum of Modern Art and Film at Lincoln Center March 29 through April 9. Check the website for programming schedule.

Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn, and a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. His portfolio and links are here.