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Review: Bikini Moon


- Milcho Manchevski breaks new stylistic and geographical ground with this strangely attractive and accomplished mix of documentary, New York indie and fantasy

Review: Bikini Moon
Condola Rashad in Bikini Moon

In his new film, Bikini Moon [+see also:
film profile
, Macedonian filmmaker Milcho Manchevski mixes documentary and fiction through a sort of New York-style indie approach, and some minimalistic fantastic elements. He seems to have found a new form of expression after four very different and ambitious features, and made his most accomplished film since his debut, Before the Rain, in 1995. After its world premiere at the São Paulo International Film Festival, the film has just won the Special Jury Award at Fantasporto.

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As the movie opens in a homeless drop-in centre in New York City, a small documentary crew consisting of producer Kate (Sarah Goldberg), her boyfriend director Trevor (Will Janowitz) and camera operator Krishna (Sathya Sridharan) have just found their new protagonist: a young, black homeless woman named Bikini (Condola Rashad). She is extremely charismatic with her wide eyes and radiant smile, and very dynamic, verging on hyperactive – we soon learn this is a result of her mental illness. Talking to a centre employee, she says she is a carpenter ("like Jesus, just with tits") and that she served in Iraq. She also claims she has a daughter that the social services took away from her.

While Trevor immediately realises what a great protagonist Bikini can be in his documentary, Kate, who seems to suffer from an overly developed need to save everybody, questions the ethics of the whole thing right from the start. But both of them are taken by Bikini and go on to both try to help her and make a film about her.

When their attempts to find a home for her fall through, they agree to take her in to live with them. Of course, this is not even the first boundary they cross as filmmakers, but it is certainly the one that will change all of their lives.

Visually, the film feels like a making-of of a documentary, as the camera following the crew around as they, in turn, follow their protagonist is always hand-held, often sticking close to the characters, shaky and imprecise, and almost messy. But this is one of the things that make the film seem so awash with possible interpretations and question marks.

The unreliability of Bikini's claims about her life, including the possibility that her daughter is just a product of her imagination, and her erratic behaviour when she is off her medication represent a clear parallel with the relation between reality and its representation. On the other hand, it is clearly a completely fictional film, but Manchevski's directorial approach is so convincing that it is hard for the audience to pull themselves away from perceiving it as a "documentary". And when the unexpected and beautifully executed fantastic elements kick in at the end of the film, turning all expectations upside down, the viewer leaves the cinema both emotionally fulfilled and with a lot of food for thought.

Rashad, known to wider audiences from Showtime's Billions, gives an impressive tornado of a performance, and she deserves to become a huge star. If Bikini Moon were not such a decidedly independent and "small" movie, an Oscar nomination for Best Actress wouldn't be out of the question.

Bikini Moon is a co-production by Germany's Czar, US companies Milkman Productions and Final Frame, Canada's YN Films and Macedonia's Banana Film.

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