Being There

Amy Taubin on the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

Ana Katz, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, 2021, DCP, black-and-white, sound, 73 minutes.

THE PRIZES WERE AWARDED a month ago, some very big deals have closed in recent weeks, and the Sundance Film Festival has closed its streaming platform, hopefully never to be used again—at least not as the primary means of connecting Sundance’s chosen movies to Sundance audiences. Having covered the festival for thirty-two years, the place—Park City, Utah—and my ten-day routine there is stamped into my neurological pathways, so it’s no wonder that I had flashes of déjà vu while sitting at home watching four or five movies a day on my desktop. One evening, checking in by phone with my Sundance housemate of many years, he mentioned that he had found time earlier to attend his book group, and for a second I thought he meant he had flown to L.A. and back to Park City without my noticing. The festival itself amplified this dreamlike displacement, surrounding the films with as much of the Sundance experience as virtually possible. In addition to daily breakfast talks by Tabitha Jackson, SFF’s new director of programming (she previously led the Sundance Institute’s documentary initiatives), every screening began with a conversation between a programmer and the film’s director and was followed by a longer discussion incorporating questions dropped into a chat room by viewers. We were then invited to “teleport” to New Frontier, Sundance’s virtual reality showcase, for an afterparty. Given that the entire festival was held virtually, the idea of summoning my avatar, maneuvering it around a virtual bar, and engaging in virtual conversations only brought home how much I missed encountering friends and colleagues, old and new, in the flesh. Still, of all the festivals I’ve attended in my apartment, Sundance alone managed to put its imprimatur on everything it showed.

If distributor bidding wars are a measure, one of the most popular Sundance films was Amir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Jubilant from beginning to end, it was edited from video documentation of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place over six summer Sundays in what was then Mount Morris Park and drew over 300,000 people to hear such performers as Stevie Wonder, Max Roach, Mahalia Jackson (sharing a mike with Mavis Staples), The 5th Dimension, B.B. King, and most extraordinarily Nina Simone, whose set included not only the Lorraine Hansberry tribute “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” but a reading of the Last Poets’ David Nelson’s exhortation to revolution: “Are you ready to smash white things . . . to burn buildings?” TV producer Hal Tulchin supervised a five video-camera recording of what came to be known as “the Black Woodstock,” but he was never able to raise the money to turn some fifty hours of two-inch analog tape (standard television recording format at the time) into a movie. It was a frustratingly extended showbiz story with a perfect ending (if not for Tulchin, who passed in 2017), because there could be no better choice of director than Questlove, who brought his DJ sense of pace and timing and his embrace of performers and audience alike to the project. Summer of Soul was gobbled up by Disney’s Searchlight, which plans a theatrical and Hulu release.

Questlove, Summer of Soul, 2021, 35 mm, color, sound, 117 minutes. Sly Stone.

I’m not sure you can call it a trend, but at least three Sundance films recapitulated the ’60s: Summer of Soul and Judas and the Black Messiah from a Black, fairly radical perspective, and Dash Shaw’s hand-drawn animation Cryptozoo from a white, “flower power” point of view that is thoroughly dismantled from within. Made in collaboration with producer and animation director Jane Samborski, Cryptozoo is like one of those long autobiographical dreams where moments of mundane reality punctuate displacements of time and space that can be ecstatic or terrifying. I know nothing of cryptids and have no expertise in animation, although Bambi remains the most hyperreal and traumatizing movie I’ve ever seen. But I’ve been a witness to radical art in all mediums being tamed by capital—often under the guise of benign protection, promotion, and audience expansion. The crazy quilt of allegories and mythological figures in Cryptozoo were immediately read by critics and fans as instances of the colonization of the “other.” But what is liberating for me in the movie is its commitment to total freedom of the imagination, no matter how dangerous or even violent the result. (Magnolia bought Cryptozoo, guaranteeing its eventual release.)

Dash Shaw, Cryptzoo, 2021, HD video, color, sound, 95 minutes.

In addition to Cryptozoo, two other fiction films are worth keeping an eye on. Remarkable for its control and courageous for its emotional reserve—yet conveying a sense of urgency from beginning to end—Bierta Basholli’s debut feature, Hive, is based on a true story about a small village in Kosovo, where many of the men were murdered during the war. Defying entrenched patriarchy, a group of women pools their meager savings to buy a car and choose Fahrije (Yilka Goshi, tougher than any mere Marvel superwoman) to drive to a distant supermarket to sell the red pepper spread they collectively produce. In real life, the story ended in triumph; had the movie not done likewise, it would have been unbearable. Hive won the big prizes in the World Dramatic Competition, although my favorite film in that section, and the film I most loved in the entire festival, was Ana Katz’s The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet. An elliptically constructed shaggy dog story, the film is a celebration of adaptability—the quality that allows people to survive in difficult circumstances, including pandemics. Its hero is a man in his thirties, unambitious but self-reliant. Above all, he is kind to others, including animals. He’s played by Daniel Katz, a nonprofessional actor and the director’s brother, and the film, while evoking the precarious economic existence of Argentina’s middle class and the global environmental collapse crisis already upon us, is a portrait of a man who exists outside of movie types. Made for pennies but fluidly shot and edited to evoke an entire decade of one’s life collapsed into a few disconnected memories, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet has some bleakly hilarious moments, as when a cloud of poisonous gas forces people to move around in a crouch, never allowing their head to be more than four feet above the ground. Those who can afford them buy helmets that look like fishbowls connected to portable oxygen containers. Written several years ago and shot over a period of four years, The Dog captures the anxiety of this moment before it had arrived.

Nanfu Wang, In the Same Breath, 2021, HD video, color, sound, 95 minutes.

One of the only films to directly address the pandemic was Nanfu Wang’s In the Same Breath. Wang, who has lived in the US since 2012, often returns to China to visit her family in the small village where she grew up, just two hundred miles from Wuhan. She was in China on January 1, 2020, when a brief TV report about eight independent journalists being arrested for allegedly spreading false rumors about a deadly virus was, as the filmmaker shows, mostly unnoticed amid the celebrations of the Communist Party Congress. On January 22, however, just a week after Wang returned to the US, Wuhan was locked down. Like her earlier documentaries, Hooligan Sparrow (2016) and One Child Nation (2019), In the Same Breath investigates how Chinese nationalism places the power of the state above the welfare of its people. Critics, including this writer, came to Wang’s film expecting that she would expose new information about the pandemic itself, perhaps how it started. Instead, interviews conducted remotely over the course of a year, and which are remarkable for the personal connection Wang makes with her subjects, illustrate how even the most grief-stricken and angry women and men end up putting patriotism above the pain of being deceived by their government. When Wang concludes that there is worse to come, she is not referencing the accelerating environmental crisis—although that is certainly a grave danger—but rather that nationalism cannot allow truth to challenge the triumphant narrative of a totalitarian state. In the Same Breath will go out on the festival circuit before coming to rest on HBO Max, a bit of a pleasant surprise since HBO’s parent company, WarnerMedia, is dependent on the Chinese market for its blockbusters, and China never lets a criticism it chooses to notice go unpunished. On April 7–8, HBO will air another potentially controversial work, Raoul Peck’s Exterminate All the Brutes, which analyzes world history through the continuous colonization of people of color. Peck presented excerpts as a festival special event.

Like In the Same Breath, Nathalie Almada’s Users and Lucy Walker’s Bring Your Own Brigade engage large, looming issues in a personal register. The filmmakers’ own presence, in voice-over and sometimes onscreen, structure their narratives. In Users, Almada connects the micro with the macro as she examines the AI technology that has invaded the mother/child dyad and her fear that her son’s experience of the world will differ profoundly from her own. Visual scale is a crucial factor in Almada’s editing strategy, making Users a film that needs to be projected on a big screen. On the other hand, the images of California forest fires in Walker’s documentary were terrifying even on my pathetically small home screen. Walker embedded with fire brigades as they drove into the inferno of the 2018 Paradise fire, whose casualties and suffocating terror is unsparingly depicted in the film’s opening. In the aftermath, as those who lost their homes—not to mention loved ones, animals, and neighbors—try to figure out how to go on, Walker follows them to community meetings and potluck meals, widening her scope to include a devasting fire in Malibu, where the wealthy never thought it could happen to them. A verité epic, Bring Your Own Brigade ends just as Walker closes in on the logging industry and its clear-cutting practices as a leading cause of fires like the one that destroyed Paradise. A sequel is in order.

Lucy Walker, Bring Your Own Brigade, 2021, HD video, color, sound, 127 minutes.

Camilla Nielsson’s President is a follow-up to her gripping Democrats (2014), which tracked the struggles between opposing political parties during the writing of Zimbabwe’s first constitution. Five years later, President shows the right-wing ZANU-PF maintaining its hold on power and, despite the popularity of a charismatic opposition candidate and the existence of that long-sought constitution, engineering a coup at the ballot box. If President is a cautionary tale (and not just for emerging democracies), Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s Writing with Fire is an inspirational one. In their first doc feature, Thomas and Ghosh follow a small group of Dalit women in Uttar Pradesh, some of whom, in 2002, had started a newspaper to report on issues affecting women and families in their rural communities: rapes, murders, accidents in the mafia-controlled mining industry, and the failure of the police to investigate these crimes. Writing with Fire begins in 2014, when the paper, Khabar Lahariya, led by senior reporter Meera, makes the decision to go digital, despite most of the staff not even knowing how to use a mobile phone. Over five years, the paper’s online readership grows into the millions. A teaching tool for women journalists in an openly misogynist society and in a country that is among the most dangerous in the world for journalists, the movie details Meera’s skill and courage in asking tough questions with a courteous smile, and never allowing anyone—Prime Minister Modi, the Hindi nationalist throngs that surround him, or her own family—to push her around.

Transformational journeys like that of the women in Writing with Fire shaped many of this year’s documentaries and quite a few fiction films as well. Employing over fifty years of news clips, personal videos, and interviews with women of intelligence, wit, and grace, Pedro Kos’s Rebel Hearts illuminates the liberating effect that the ’60s Civil Rights and feminist movements had on the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, many of whom eventually left their Los Angeles convent and formed a lay community. There were also two mostly rich biopics, which trace through a wealth of visuals and personal testimonies the respective pioneering careers of dancer/choreographer Alvin Ailey and dancer/singer/actor Rita Moreno. Both Jamila Wignot’s Ailey and Mariem Pérez Riera’s Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided to Go For It will eventually air on PBS’s American Masters, as will James Redford’s Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, a more prickly and emotionally revealing weave of personal trauma with creative will. A differently styled journey—one of constant new beginnings—is evoked in Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers. Fans of Ron and Russell Mael and of the brand-refusal esthetic they have embraced for five decades in their music will rejoice at this cornucopia of performances and interviews, as will many more for whom this film will be an introduction.

Lise Akoka and Romane Guéret, Would You Rather, 2021, still from a TV show. Djeneba and Shaï (Fanta Kebe and Shirel Nataf).

Sundance was one of the first dedicated film festivals to program television series, among them the first season of Jane Campion’s detective thriller Top of the Lake (2013). The entire 360 minutes was projected with only a twenty-minute break, and I remember thinking that this was the future of movies—series that rewarded the deep dive, like a four-hundred-page novel, viewed in a theater with two hundred similarly rapt spectators. Campion’s series had been acquired by Sundance TV, which now shares little with the festival save for the brand name. This year, I fervently wish that they take on Lise Akoka and Romane Guéret’s series, Would You Rather (Tu Préfères), which has nothing in common with Campion’s series except that the directors and the central characters are women. The roughly seventy-minute webseries, licensed by Arté, comprises ten seven-minute episodes, each ending in a twenty-second credit sequence set to up-tempo Vivaldi (the directors clearly appreciate ’60s Godard). Set in one of Paris’s low-income housing projects, the show focuses on an intense friendship between two sixteen-year-olds, one Black (Fanta Kebe) and one Jewish (Shirel Nataf) who constantly challenge each other through the game of “would you rather”: “Have big breasts or a big ass?” “Have a handicapped baby or no baby at all”? “Make money or create happiness on earth?” “I die or you die?” The concept is brilliant and it pushes these teenagers to confront their desires and beliefs with a frankness and spontaneity seldom seen in movies. If you are in France, the episodes are available on YouTube, Instagram, and various streaming sites. Would You Rather is as much about the possible future of movies and their audiences as it is about the characters and the lively, engaging actors who play them. It made me very happy, which these days is a lot.

The Sundance Film Festival ran online from January 28 to February 3.