Born Again

Sundance measures humanity’s depths in a toxic world

Nikyatu Jusu, Nanny, 2021, DCP, color, sound, 97 minutes. Aisha (Anna Diop).

“WOW NANNY,” I texted to one of my Sundance critic pals—she on the West Coast, me on the East—after I had viewed Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature, which a few days later won the grand prize in the festival’s US Dramatic competition. Except for a few screenings in seven “Satellite” locations across the US, the 2022 Sundance Film Festival was entirely virtual. Given that the decision to put everything online was made only two weeks before the January 20 opening date, it was amazing how smoothly things went. I streamed about thirty-five of the festival’s ninety-eight features without a glitch, and while I will want to see some of them on big screens—certainly the vision of a New York that is both seductive and punishing in Nanny and the tragic beauty of Bolivia’s Altiplano, now nearly uninhabitable because of climate change–induced drought, as depicted in Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s Utama, the grand prize winner in the World Dramatic Competition—there is something to be said for not having to crowd into shuttle buses and frigid holding pens in order to view films that you might want to walk out of in twenty minutes.

I did turn off a couple of films after one or two scenes, but those were outliers. This year’s lineup was exceptionally strong, and from the perspective of Sundance’s long history as a white boy’s club, exceptionally feminist, and regardless of the gender of the director (52 percent of the directors were women) female characters and issues were at the center of the most interesting films. It’s not incidental that three women are now the big decisionmakers at Sundance: festival director Tabitha Johnson, programming director Kim Yutani, and Sundance Institute’s recently appointed CEO, Joana Vicente.

Nanny follows Aisha (Anna Diop), an undocumented Senegalese immigrant who is employed by a wealthy white couple to take care of their six-year-old daughter. The premise is reminiscent of Black Girl, the 1966 movie by Ousmane Sembène, in which a French couple, having imported a young Senegalese woman to be the family’s au pair, fail to notice that her isolation from everything she’s known is driving her mad. In Black Girl, the protagonist is a victim; not so for Aisha. Her only desire is to earn enough money to bring her son to New York, but her employers are careless about pay. The longer it takes for Aisha to save enough to buy her son’s plane ticket, the more her fear grows that something terrible will happen to him. Dark visions haunt her dreams, and even in her waking life, she’s tormented by evil sprits. It would be easy to categorize Nanny as a horror film, but what terrifies Aisha are warnings of danger from her own unconscious, a feeling perhaps exacerbated by the effects of the black mold growing in the room in this otherwise immaculate Tribeca loft where she sleeps when her employers ask her to stay the night. In the twenty-three years I’ve gone to Sundance, I’ve seen perhaps a half dozen first fiction features by artists who have the intelligence, skill, and sense of form to create a movie that is revelatory from first to last. Nanny is one of them.

Audrey Diwan, Happening, 2021, DCP, color, sound, 100 minutes. Gabrielle and Anne (Sandrine Bonnaire and Anamaria Vartolomei).

Asked by her professor if she has abandoned her studies because of illness, Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), the protagonist of Audrey Diwan’s Happening, which won the Golden Lion at the 2021 Venice Film Festival and is soon to be released in theaters by IFC, answers tartly: “Yes, it’s an illness that only women catch. It turns them into housewives.” Divan’s stylistic restraint perfectly frames the urgency of Vartolomei’s performance in the best of three necessary films about women desperate to terminate their pregnancies in the years before abortion was legalized in France and the United States. As women in the US contemplate the grim likelihood that Roe v. Wade will soon be overturned by the Supreme Court, the inclusion of three films depicting the nightmare that is already taking place in Texas and other states where Roe has been chipped away at to the point of uselessness was anything but overkill. Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’s well-researched documentary The Janes (soon to HBO) tells the story of the Jane Collective, a group of Chicago women who made it possible for women to obtain illegal abortions (11,000 between 1968 and 1972). Some of the Janes learned to do first trimester terminations themselves. Phyllis Nagy’s Call Jane, a fictional narrative based on the Janes’ heroic activism, boasts a terrific performance by Elizabeth Banks as Joy, a suburban woman married to a successful criminal lawyer (she rewrites his briefs). Their daughter is already a teenager when Joy learns in too rapid succession that she is pregnant again and that she has developed a pregnancy-related heart condition that gives her only a 50/50 chance of survival. “Your baby could live,” says one of the doctors on the hospital board that decides that the odds against her are not sufficiently grim to authorize a legal termination. Fortunately, a “Call Jane” flyer catches her eye. What The Janes and Call Jane lack in complexity doesn’t make them any less useful as tools for inspiring activism. Go, Jane, go.

Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, The Janes, 2021, DCP, color, sound, 101 minutes.

At least three documentaries focused on the work of exhuming ugly histories too long buried for the sake of national unity. Ben Klein and Violet Columbus’s The Exiles (US Documentary Grand Jury Prize) is two films in one: a portrait of the longtime New York–based activist filmmaker and teacher Christine Choy and an update to an unfinished documentary Choy began in 1989 about three opposition leaders who fled China after the Tiananmen Square massacre. More than thirty years later, they are still in exile, and China, which recently removed Hong Kong’s Tiananmen Square memorial, has succeeded in obliterating the event from its history. Alon Schwarz’s Tantura is an investigation of an investigation. In the early 1990s, Teddy Katz, an Israeli graduate student published a dissertation about what happened in the Arab village of Tantura immediately after the 1948 war, known to Israelis as “the War of Independence” and to Arabs as Al Nakba (“the Catastrophe”). Katz claims that he received the highest grade for his work but that, a short time later, he was fired from his teaching position and all copies of his dissertation were removed from libraries. He has brought lawsuits to no avail. Schwarz uses the transcripts and audio interviews Katz collected and does his own on-camera interviews with many of Katz’s Israeli sources, most of them now in their nineties. Although the testimonies are contradictory, it would be hard to deny that Israeli soldiers killed Arab men in this village after peace had been declared, and that elderly men, and women and children did not voluntarily abandon the farms on which their families had lived for hundreds of years to happily flock to what are now the occupied territories. But Israel, which insists on the morality of its military, cannot any allow such evidence to be made public.

Margaret Brown, Descendant, 2022, 35 mm, color, sound, 108 minutes. Emmett Lewis.

In Margaret Brown’s Descendant (acquired by Netflix for the Obamas’ Higher Ground label), citizens of Africatown, Alabama, finally have proof that they are descended from Africans who were transported in 1860 on the Clotilda, the last slave ship to reach the US. If the discovery of the Clotilda can be celebrated as proof of trauma and survival, it also confirms that the same wealthy white family that now owns the industrial plants that spew cancer-causing pollutants over Africatown engaged in the slave trade there for more than fifty years after its it was outlawed in 1808, selling into slavery the ancestors of some of the town’s present-day Black residents. And in a remarkable first documentary, Alex Pritz’s The Territory, shot in Brazil during the pandemic, the filmmaker follows a dwindling Indigenous tribe who are fighting to protect the rainforest. Small farmers, deliberately duped by the Bolsonaro regime, are claiming settlers rights and burning down huge swathes of the jungle, doing the dirty work for the big ranching and mining corporations that are waiting in the wings. Pritz has a remarkable rapport with the members of this tiny tribe and the representative of an NGO that seems to have left her on her own to care for them as they care for the Amazon rainforest, a wonder and necessity for the entire world.

Alex Pritz’s The Territory, 2022, DCP, color, sound, 83 minutes.

This was a festival where there were startling performances by women who weren’t at all concerned with being likable, or for that matter, fuckable. In John Patton Ford’s Emily, the Criminal, Aubrey Plaza plays a young woman burdened with student loan debt and a teenage DWI conviction. Sick of being exploited as a wageworker or a no-wage intern, she discovers a talent for pulling credit card scams and straight-out robberies. Anger is her fuel, self-preservation her only principle. I wouldn’t want to spend time with her in real life, but she was great to observe at a distance. Juan Pablo González’s Dos Estaciones rests on the formidable screen presence of Teresa Sanchez, playing the owner of a tequila factory that is the sole support of a small Mexican town’s economy. Threatened by foreign tequila companies that have flourished since NAFTA and with her agave plants increasingly vulnerable to climate catastrophes, she nevertheless refuses to sell the business that has belonged to her family for generations. Although her character is a woman of few words, Sanchez makes her complex inner life utterly transparent while never selling her short or giving away her mystery. A very different kind of actor, Rebecca Hall, makes us hang on her every word in Andrew Semans’s Resurrection. The convention that in movies—excepting comedies—women should be seen but not heard takes a licking when Margaret (Hall) delivers an eight-minute monologue to some unseen person (maybe a colleague, but basically to us) detailing a love affair she had as a teenager with a madman who killed and ate their five-month-old child. Hall delivers this grisly tale with such clarity and conviction that it seems incontrovertible. But when Margaret claims that this madman is now following her and threatening her college-bound daughter, you wonder who is crazy and if the impending separation of the mother/daughter dyad has unhinged her. Semans is an excellent director of actors, here not only of Hall but also of Tim Roth as a seedy sixty-year-old who may or may not be the person Margaret believes him to be, or perhaps he’s entirely a figment of her deranged imagination. (Resurrection will be released this year by IFC.)

Andrew Semans, Resurrection, 2022, DCP, color, sound, 103 minutes. Margaret (Rebecca Hall).

If Hall’s performance is a tour de force, so too is Emma Thompson’s in Sophie Hyde’s Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. Thompson gets extra points because comedy is harder. As a recently widowed sixty-year-old who has never had an orgasm and pays a gorgeous rent boy to show her what she’s been missing, Thompson’s glorious ability to play two opposing impulses at once (essentially fight and flight) turns what might have been an icky one-joke movie into a touching study of desire and desirability. (Searchlight bought Leo Grande for release in theaters this year.) It was certainly the funniest feature I saw at Sundance, aside from Stranger than Rotterdam, an animated short by Lewie Kloster and Noah Kloster, written and narrated by Sara Driver, about the risks that fledgling filmmakers take in order to wrangle a free plane ticket to a major festival. (Driver won an award for short film screenwriting.)

And finally, a few words about three films that, along with Nanny, matter the most to me: Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes, Ricky D’Ambrose’s The Cathedral, and Daniel Roher’s Navalny. The most charismatic on-screen personage of Sundance 2022 was Alexei Navalny, who agreed let to Roher film him while he was recovering in Europe in 2020 from being poisoned by Putin’s assassination squad (Putin denies the deed). Working with Christo Grozev, an investigative journalist from Bellingcat who’s an expert in correlating open-source data and buying information on the dark web, Navalny locates four possible poisoners, and with Roher filming him, he prank calls them, pretending to be one of their supervisors or some such. The first three hang up on him immediately, the fourth stays on the phone for a long time, spilling the details of the plan and why it went wrong, i.e. Navalny didn’t die. The story was published in Bellingcat and picked up by newspapers around the world, but it’s jaw-dropping to watch it taking place in real time, with Navalny and his team barely able to suppress their laughter at the stupidity of guy who fell into their trap. Navalny is a great manipulator of media, and you’re aware throughout the film that he’s the director behind the director. But he gives Roher very good access, and with CNN aboard, the filmmakers follow Navalny’s return to Moscow, filming the protest at the airport, and the crowd’s reaction as he is arrested. Navalny is a sketch of a brilliant, exuberant politician and a spycraft thriller, with a tragic ending. Who could ask for more absorbing TV?

Daniel Roher, Navalny, DCP, color, sound, 98 minutes. Alexei Navalny.

D’Ambrose describes The Cathedral as a fictionalization of his childhood, but the film is less concerned with presenting the important events and people in his life than the way he remembers the nondescript, rundown suburban Long Island house where he grew up: the crumpled throw pillows on the sofa; easter eggs carefully lifted from brightly colored water; soft light coming through a bedroom window, illuminating two young women lounging on a bed—an image that is the Rosetta Stone for this portrait of the filmmaker as a boy. Unlike almost all narrative films, The Cathedral reverses foreground/background relationships to show that D’Ambrose did not become an artist because his family was fractured by jealousy, frustration, or anger. What made Jesse Damrosch (D’Ambrose’s alter ego in the film) “different” is that he protected himself by taking refuge in “things,” in his sensory perceptions of them. In this film, which is a period piece but not a memory piece, since it’s couched in a present that extends from 1989 to 2006, those perceptions become our focus as well. I can’t think of a comparable contemporary narrative and visual strategy, except perhaps Todd Haynes’s short TV short Dottie Gets Spanked (1993) or the Ontological-Hysteric theater productions of Richard Foreman. Like Foreman, D’Ambrose presses the emotional mute button on his actors without lessening the intensity of their performances. I hate to label The Cathedral an experimental film (not exactly a lure for distributors), but that is the genre from which D’Ambrose has produced a hybrid unlike any other.

Shaunak Sen, All That Breathes, 2022, DCP, color, sound, 90 minutes.

Sen’s All That Breathes documents the all-consuming vocation of brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud: saving the kites of Delhi who fall from the sky, weakened by disease or broken wings. Kites are scavengers, more ubiquitous in the poor section of Delhi where the brothers live than pigeons are in New York. Without them, one of the brothers speculates, “the garbage would reach the sky.” As teenagers, the brothers studied bodybuilding and they apply their knowledge of anatomy to the kites who were refused treatment in veterinary clinics because they are meat eaters. As are Muslims, who have become outcasts in Modi’s India. (Sen never makes the analogy directly, nor do the brothers.) They begin by using their kitchen as a treatment facility, then move to a larger space in the basement, and by the end of the film, they’ve built a bird hospital on the roof. By then, the neighborhood has decayed so much that the brothers worry that no one will be able to bring them sick birds because the streets are impassible. But they’ve also begun to receive international recognition for their work. With the great documentary cinematographer Benjamin Bernhard, Sen creates images as sublime to our eyes as the sight of these huge black birds flying through a sky darkened with pollution are to the brothers. When asked why they have devoted their lives to the kites, one of them answers, “Life itself is kinship. We are all a community of air.”

The 2022 Sundance Film Festival ran from January 20 to January 30.