From the comfort of my home, and the peace of my computer, I didn’t miss the long lines in the cold, or my shoes soaked in dirty snow, nor did I miss the crowded trips in the shuttles fighting week-end traffic making me afraid that I’d miss my screening. Yet I missed the camaraderie, the friendly exchanges around a hastily grabbed meal or a much-needed cup of coffee, I missed the tribal aspect of the Festival (there were usually three tribes occupying Sundance, corresponding to each of the time zones: West Coast/LA; East Coast/New York and local Mountaineers plus the people coming from foreign countries or US festivals Not On Any Coast). Above all, what I missed was THE BUZZ – the amount of information imparted by friends or overheard in conversations in the wait line. And so I missed Sian Heder’s CODA (the winner of Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for US Dramatic, the film was bought by Apple for a record $25 Million), the story of the relationship between a rebellious teenage girl with musical ambitions and her deaf family (father, mother and older brother). I also missed, even more to my chagrin, Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee (winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for documentary), a collage of hand-drawn animation and archival newsreels reconstructing the protagonist’s traumatic journey to flee from Afghanistan to Denmark via Russia and to embrace his LGBT identity.
Yet, I had enough to comfort me, for I had zeroed in on Blerta Basholli’s first feature, Zgjoi (Hive), that ended up with both the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award and the Directing Award for World Cinema Dramatic. In the small Kosovo village of Krusha e Madhe, years after the end of the war, many men are still missing, and many bodies have not yet been discovered. The film starts on a high, shrill note, with the protagonist, Fahrije Hoti (Yilka Gashi), a middle-aged, ponytailed, resolute woman, after tending the hives of the family business, defying official orders and crossing barriers to inspect body bags for remains that have recently been retrieved. Like other women made single by the war, she is very vocal about requesting justice and information: if her husband is dead, she should know about it and be able to bury him properly; if he is not among the dead, then she can still hope for his return – even though many corpses had been thrown in the nearby river or discarded in Serbian mass graves.
Yet things evolve; beyond dealing with her very real grief (we see her crying and refusing to identify the clothes presented to her as being those of her husband), she has two kids to raise, she has to move on. Against the patriarchal structure of the village and the scolding of her wheel-chair bound father-in-law (veteran actor and musician Cun Lajci), she learns how to drive (with a male instructor) and goes to the nearest town (a sign of moral turpitude); against the oedipal accusations of her teenage daughter, Edon (Kaona Silejmani), she decides to sell her husband’s sawing tools to raise money; against male chauvinist hostility (windows are broken, unwanted passes are made) and against all odds, she manage to rally other women in the village in the same situation as hers and manufacture jars of ajvar – a local delicacy made of roasted spicy peppers. The jars are sold in a supermarket in the nearby town, where the women learn a thing or two about proper labelling and marketing… which eventually leads them, as we learn at the end of the film, to selling the ajvar outside the area, and even abroad. If you’ve been shopping for Fair Trade products, no doubt you have encountered wares manufactured by women collectives all over the world – a minority, yet growing trend. Bringing to the screen the story of the real Fahrije Hoti, Basholli shoots in a neo-realistic mode, casting professional actors in the main roles, while enlisting the participation of the villagers to represent their community.
Another take on female empowerment, initiative and resilience, that won the Audience Award as well as a Special Jury Award for World Documentary, Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s directorial debut, Writing With Fire, came from an unlikely corner of India: a group of Dalit women (or off-caste, formerly called “untouchable”) putting together a newspaper, Khabar Lahariya (AKA Waves of News) to report on violence against women, ecological disasters, bureaucratic incompetence and the raise of Hindu fundamentalism, among other hot topics troubling ordinary Indians these days. Having to deal with the interference and the haughtiness of people in power offended by the nature of the reporting – those who refuse to do anything when a Dalit woman is raped or murdered, those who neglect to bring water supplies to disenfranchised rural communities, or the young, arrogant Fundamentalist Hindu candidate who, interviewed about his platform, replies that it is about “protect[ing] our holy cows” – they also have to face a flurry of domestic issues. It would bring shame to her family if a young Indian woman refused to get married, so they don’t have a choice. The problem is not, as in the case of Farihje, the absence of a husband, but their constant, nagging presence, their protests when their wives seem to put their work for the newspaper above domestic work, or come home late. (“Everyone wants to marry an educated girl but won’t let her work after marriage”, says the father of one of the journalists).
You need a lot of stamina, determination and courage to face both inside and outside opposition – qualities that the women followed by Thomas and Ghosh between 2016 and 2019, seem to have galore. Even more than their men, Dalit women represent the lowest station in Indian society, which is why so many of them are victims of violence, but, in their act of unravelling the “weakest link”, editor-in-chief Meera Devi and the two other reporters the film focuses on, Suneeta Prajapati and Shyamkali Devi, are more enthusiastic and rightfully outraged than discouraged. Powerhouse Meera, married at 14, earned master’s degrees in political science and education while raising her kids; Suneeta stopped working for six months after her own wedding, then returned to the newspaper; uneducated Shyamkali is struggling with her lack of literacy when Khabar Lahariya successfully expands to digital platforms. Writing with Fire conveys the excitement and the optimism these women project.
For his directorial debut Fire in the Mountains, which also explores the gender gap in India, Ajitpal Singh returned to his home village in the Munsiyari region at the base of the Himalayan mountain range to direct the lonely, heroic struggle of a village wife, Chandra (Vinamrata Rai) against an ineffectual, often drunk husband, Darham (Vinamrata Rai), unresponsive or corrupt authorities who keep postponing the building of a road (no Khabar Lahariya reporter here), and the belief that a shamanist ceremony, Jagar, can cure the psychosomatic ailment of her pre-teen son, Prakash (Mayank Singh), who can’t walk, better than the doctors in the city. In addition to her work as a wife and mother, Chandra efficiently runs a small bed-and-breakfast business for tourists about to embark on their trek on the mountain or lured by the beauty of the scenery (one of the major attractive features of the film as well) – but Darham has his eyes on her earnings, in the most predictable part of the scenario. A bit disappointing, also, after seeing Hive and Writing with Fire, is the isolation of Chandra, who doesn’t seem to connect with other women, but, instead, is in a situation of rivalry with her sister-in-law, Didi.
What makes the film memorable is its ambiguous, non-judgmental ending. With the money stolen from his wife, Darham invites a guru to perform the Jagar ceremony; a defeated Chandra and a crestfallen Prakash both become spectacularly possessed, which seems to assert the superiority of folk Hinduism over modernity, while in fact indicating how complex the issues are.
Also shot neorealistic style with the collaboration of the local community, Alex Camilleri’s Luzzu was the first feature from the tiny film industry of the Republic of Malta to play at Sundance,1 and its production credits include Memento in France, award-winning Iranian-American director/producer Ramin Barhani2 and the “Maborosi Film Production” (could Kore-eda Hirokazu have been a sponsor or an inspiration for the project?). Cinephiles can hear distant echoes of Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1948) in which real-life fishermen in a near-by island (Sicily) were acting the part of fishermen fighting to keep their livelihood and their way of life against their exploitation by the wholesalers. In Camilleri’s film, Jesmark Scicluna (who got a Special Jury Award for his performance), plays Jesmark, an increasingly alienated fisherman intent of keeping his beloved luzzu (traditional small wooden boat) against bad luck (at the onset, the boat is damaged and needs repair; his newborn son needs costly medical care) against the encroachment of big business, black market and the EEU’s regulations; the latter not only rules what he can fish and when, but are also offering financial compensation to the fishermen willing to give up their trade.
As the cards stack against Jesmark, it is easy to predict where this is going, but Camilleri engagingly and almost magically makes you share the life of fishermen and small people from Malta, the sometimes-secret allure of the place, and the visceral love for fishing – as only somebody from the island could. Luzzu is good cinema, but it’s also a precious document on a way of life which, as it is about to disappear, becomes an image, as Walter Benjamin would say.
Another Special Jury Award went to the “Creative Vision” of the Wong Kar Wai-produced film, One for the Road by Thai director Baz Poonpiriya. Its starting point is deceptively simple. Boss (Tor Thanapob), a Thai bar owner in New York City, a self-styled extrovert who likes to hit on female patrons after hours, receives a phone call from long-lost friend Aood (Ice Natara) who, back in Thailand and dying of cancer there, requests his help. As the narrative unfolds and the road trip Aood has convinced Boss to take with him is under way, multiple layers of complexity are revealed, pertaining to the relationship of both men to their families, to each other, to the women they loved or dated in the past. Outlining an unexpected portrait of what contemporary Thailand is for young men in their thirties, with, in the background, the lure of the American dream, One for the Road reshuffles the cards and delves into a nuanced terrain redefining what the protagonists are. As an added sense of gravity, the soundtrack is inhabited by the charismatic voice and musical choices (of mostly English-speaking vintage pop songs) of Aood’s father (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), a famous DJ who went out of fashion before being taken away by cancer himself.
For cinephiles of all ilk, the film not to miss was The Most Beautiful Boy in the World by Kristine Lindström and Kristian Petri, a highly personal investigation of the fate of the Swedish teenager called Björn Andrésen who was selected, as “the most beautiful” out of several hundred boys interviewed, by Luchino Visconti to play Tadzio in Morte a Venezia (Death in Venice, 1971). So, fifty years later, what happened to “the boy” who was 16 in 1971?
When the film starts, we see him as a gentle hippie, with long hair and a beard, amicably scolded by his girlfriend for his unkept apartment, and, for a while, we may think we’re seeing “loser” written on his forehead. Yet, editing their material in a non-linear fashion, Lindström and Petri have stayed away from the biopic, and created their work in collaboration with Andrésen to reveal the sharp, original mind of an artist full of complexities and contradictions. Maybe not so surprisingly, Andrésen has little to say about Visconti; the maestro gave him only minimal directions, and, moreover, made sure his young star was protected and unmolested in the congenial atmosphere of the shoot – where the majority, if not all of the collaborators were queer – so he was mostly left alone. Andrésen’s childhood was dominated by the anxious desire to “save his mother” – an intelligent, professional woman, a free spirit and a single mother who disappeared one day and was found later dead in the woods, probably of suicide – and by his relationship to his sister Anike. After Death in Venice, Andrésen enjoyed a modest acting career – small parts in Jacques Demy’s French-Japanese English language production Lady Oscar (1979) or in Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019), and a bunch of TV series shot in Sweden or Finland – but is mostly a composer and a musician. Lindström and Petri shot their documentary in CinemaScope like Death in Venice, intimating that what happened to Andrésen after Visconti was equally as important. “It is Björn’s film, not Tadzio’s film”, said the filmmakers, who worked with Andrésen for about five years, gaining his trust, meeting people with him, giving him the responsibility to unfold his story. Not wanting to further his exploitation, they have not made a film about the terrible toll exacted by early fame on child actors; they respect Andrésen’s silences, don’t push him on what he does not want to say and, instead of drawing the portrait of the most beautiful boy whose alluring profile became a beacon of 20th century cinema, draw the multi-layered portrait of a man.
I spent more time than usual on World Cinema, and was often disappointed by the US Dramatic Competition, especially by films I was looking forward to, such as Rebecca Hall’s Passing (a rather flat adaptation of Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance eponymous novel3 – faithful mostly at the level of costume and set design) – and Lyle Mitchel Corbine Jr’s Wild Indian (a great coming of age short, followed by the uninspired “30 years later” relationship between two Native American men with divergent paths). Probably because the pandemic-related closure of the studios and production units caused a bottleneck in the completion of narrative projects, while documentaries and independent animation features did not suffer the same way. I struck gold when I zeroed in Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) the first venture in film directing by musician/DJ/journalist Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson,4 which I had selected for my opening night, for it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for US Documentary. Not only is this a very entertaining work, but it is also an important moment in retelling the history of the United States, redressing past instances of erasure and blindness. In July and August 1969, overlapping with Woodstock, for six consecutive Sunday afternoons, singer/community activist Tony Lawrence organised the Harlem Cultural Festival in Mount Morris Park – then Harlem’s real centre. The free concerts attracted an audience of 300,000 and unfolded without a hitch (the NYPD refused to get involved so security detail was assured by the Black Panthers). A white filmmaker, Hal Tulchin, recorded hours of videotape. As the Festival’s budget did not allow for the rental of lights, the stage had to face West to benefit from the position of the sun. The event was a family affair, spectators bringing their children and their mothers, “something like a black BBQ”, recalls a spectator who was a kid at the time. And what a program: a teenage Stevie Wonder at the drum; BB King; Herbie Mann; The Fifth Dimension; Edwin Hawkins singing “O Happy Days”; The Staple Singers; Clara Walker and the Gospel Redeemers; Mahalia Jackson and her mentee Mavis Staples singing together “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, the favourite tune of Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated over a year before (4th April, 1968), and whom the crowd still mourned collectively; Ben Branch; David Ruffin from Motown singing “My Girl”; Gladys Knight and the Pips; Sly and the Family Stone; Mongo Santamaria; Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach; the 5th Dimension; Sal Masekela; the incomparable Nina Simone, in a defiant and militant mode; Ray Barreto; the Chambers Brothers…
And, interspaced with the musical numbers, some direct incursions of the political (in addition to Nina Simone’s impassionate slogans): speeches and addresses by liberal Mayor John Lindsay who had tasked Lawrence to organise the event; or by Jesse Jackson; boos from the crowd when the news of the US landing on the moon interrupted the concert5 …
Something is wrong with this picture: why have we not heard of this before, the same way we all know about Woodstock? In October 1969, Raymond Robinson was writing in the New York Amsterdam News “The only time the white press concerns itself with the black community is during a riot or major disturbance.”6 While mainstream television stations were hungry for images from Woodstock, there were no takers for Tulchin’s footage, which sat for 50 years in his basement. Shortly before his death in 2017, Tulchin sold it to an entertainment lawyer, Robert Fyvolent, who became one of the producers of the film. And the rest is history, at least history revisited.
Shown in the Premieres (non-competitive) section, and co-directed by two white women, Betsy West and Julie Cohen, with an impressive track record,7 My Name is Pauli Murray is another attempt to address a zone of erasure in African American history – and not only because white people were not interested, but because the way history has been told within the African American community has included blind spots, namely in the area of gender. In 2003, Sundance showed Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin by Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer – which I reviewed in this journal that year. Rustin (1912-1987) was open about his homosexuality – for which he paid a heavy price.8 Pauli Murray (1910-1985) was discrete about being queer, yet extremely outspoken about gender discrimination – which she fought all her life, along with her work to end racial discrimination.
Thinking writing was her calling, Murray nevertheless enrolled in 1941 in Howard University Law School (after being rejected by the University of North Carolina because of her race), where she was the only woman in her class and experienced sexism (for which she coined the term “Jane Crow”). In 1942 she joined CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) and, influenced by Gandhi’s theories, participated in sit-ins in white-only restaurants of Washington DC. In 1944, against the criticism of her classmates and professors, she argued to document the psychological damage caused by segregation to black children. She developed her argument in an essay published in 1950, which became the “bible” for Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP to win the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.
Graduating first in her class, she was, however, rejected from post-doctoral studies at Harvard because of her gender; she went to Berkeley instead, passed the California bar in 1945, and, in 1946, became state’s first black deputy attorney general. In 1965, she returned to Law School at Yale, being the first African American to do so.
The list of Pauli Murray’s trailblazing achievements goes on and on, and it is impossible to list them all here. In 1940 – fifteen years before Rosa Park’s Montgomery Bus Boycott – she was arrested for refusing not to sit in the white-only section of a bus in Virginia, and, while in jail, wrote to Eleonor Roosevelt about it. This led to a spirited epistolary exchange, and, eventually, a friendship of a quarter of a century, even though Murray was often critical of the policies of the lady’s husband.9
In 1963, her speech “The Negro Woman in the Quest for Equality” was one of the first to criticise sexism within the Civil Rights Movement; in 1966, she was among the 28 women who founded NOW (National Organization of Women) with Betty Friedan; in 1977, after leaving her tenured position in American Studies at Brandeis University to study divinity, she became the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest.
West and Cohen have based their extensive research on 135 boxes of archival material, a long audio interview recorded in 1979, the two autobiographical books penned by Murray, Proud Shoes and Song in a Weary Throat,10 the books written about her and interviews with witnesses and scholars, especially Rosalind Rosenberg, who insists on the importance of the feeling of in-betweenness in Murray’s life and work. In Proud Shoes, she acknowledges her white ancestors; because of her race, of her gender, or both, she was often at odd with her surroundings, and she was quite articulate about this. But there is another form of in-betweenness that Murray did not speak or write about, even though her writing contains many allusions to how much she regretted not to be able to change her gender. While the term of “transgender” seems inappropriate for the time she was living in, Murray was a tomboy from childhood, did not wear dresses, cut her hair short, and even (unsuccessfully) sought hormonal treatment. She also suffered from recurring depression, and had two intimate relationships with white women, Peggy Holmes, a camp counsellor in her youth, and her long-term companion, Irene Barlow, who died of cancer in 1973. It is to hope that the documentary and the books currently published will delete the adjective “overlooked” that too often accompanies her name. As for the overlapping between her civil rights activism, her feminism and her sexuality, she was born too early. It would have been great to see Pauli Murray in conversation with Audre Lorde, bell hooks or the women of Black Lives Matter.
While widely different in scope and form, these two documentaries raise similar questions: why is it that most of those of us who happen to be white only learnt of the Harlem Cultural Festival and the significance of Pauli Murray’s life and work through films at Sundance? Don’t we have the feeling that the History we have been fed is just one gigantic illusion? Don’t we feel sometimes that an invisible veil has been woven by the powers-that-be in front of our eyes concealing the truth to conform to their narratives, no matter how hard we strive to tear that veil of illusion? And, while the most salient examples are to be found in the realm of African American and PanAfrican history, this question has haunted humanity for a very long time, in religion (the veil of Isis), philosophy (Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in paragraphs 514a-520a of the Republic; Descartes’ First Meditation; Kant’s categories), literature (Hamlet’s soliloquy; Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Kafka’s The Trial; Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories and Inquisiciones), science-fiction (the novels of Philip K. Dick), and popular culture (the Wachowskis’ The Matrix, its imitations, spinoffs, prequels and sequels; as well as countless VR videogames; or Elon Musk’s tweets). Yet, isn’t the belief that the world as it is presented to us is nothing but an illusion, itself a delusion? Such is the question neatly implied in Rodney Ascher’s latest opus, A Glitch in the Matrix, shown in the Midnight (non-competitive) section).
Ascher burst onto the scene when his documentary, Room 237, was featured in the New Frontier section at Sundance in 2012; it was a fascinating decoding of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) through the grid of various conspiracy theories deciphering “secret messages” about the landing (or not) of Apollo 11 on the moon, or the genocide of Indigenous people. As a documentarian, Ascher does not judge, he espouses the views of his interviewees (going as far as restaging them, such as the sequence in which he replays a certain moment of the film forward and backward) and integrates them in a maze of his own. Such playful generosity is also at stake in A Glitch in the Matrix, in which he interviews the believers of the simulation theory via Skype, digitally reworking their faces so they look like cartoon characters, and taking for face value what they have to say. Proving (or disproving) simulation theory is like trying to prove the existence of god. You can’t do it, you need a leap of faith, but there is no denying that the believers represent a social force to contend with – and Ascher plays their assertions against a formidable, quasi Borgesian, archival research and erudition. It has been said about Borges that he used erudition as a form of the fantastic, and the same can be said of Ascher; his list of sources scrolls down several minutes after the end credits – from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to articles in Wired magazine or report on Fox News, to philosophical inquiries, to countless post-Blade Runner (1982) and post-Matrix movies to a 101 course on the books of Philip K. Dick. The difference is that post-modernism, opening up toward a mish-mash or overlapping but contradictory sources, has imprinted a new twist onto the notion of erudition – one that allows for a playful slippage of signifiers as well as a sobering dissolution of the notion of “original truth”: the world as we see it might be a computer-generated illusion, but there may be nothing real behind it.
A Glitch in the Matrix opens up with a few lines from a talk given by Dick in the French city of Metz in 1977 (excerpts from this talk intervene throughout the film, introducing a new idea or a new chapter):
We are living in a computer-programmed reality and the only clue we have is when some variable is changed and some alteration in our reality occurs.
That’s the “glitch”. And the film’s last chapter is about one of these terrible glitches. In 2003, 19 year-old Joshua Cooke of Oakton, VA, obsessed by The Matrix he had seen hundreds of times, dressed and armed himself like Keanu Reeves, and shot his parents because they were “not real.” The kid’s lawyer wanted to try the famous “The Matrix made me do it” line of defence, but it was eventually dropped, and Cooke is in jail for a very long time. Ascher does not quote Lacan in his sources, but he could have: in the overlapping circles of the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic, the Real is what is left over, what has not been processed by the two other instances – but when it asserts itself, it is with a vengeance.
Not a documentary, but a winner of the Innovator Prize for the NEXT
section, the exhilarating Cryptozoo by graphic novel author/filmmaker Dash Shaw and his wife, animation director Jane Samborski, resurfaced at the Berlinale and was the object of a bidding war between Magnolia (which was already distributing A Glitch in the Matrix) and The Match Factory (the latter won). Like A Glitch, it was years in the making, but, to drape an invisible veil between “the real” and our private fantasies, it resorts to animation and to a form of joyful hallucinatory fantastic. It starts with two lovers, Matthew and Amber, who wander into a forest on a sex date. Afterwards, they discover a large, tall wall which, emboldened, Matthew endeavours to climb. On the other side, he finds himself face to face with a unicorn that, frightened, transfixes his chest with its horn.11 Amber – who will wander throughout the film in her state of Adam-and-Eve-before-the-fall nakedness – mad with grief and anger, crushes the unicorn’s head to death. Unbeknownst to them, the hipster lovers have ventured into the ground of a cryptozoo, a utopian space created by an older butch called Joan (voiced by the incomparable Grace Zabriskie)12 to shelter cryptids. According to the Merriam-Webster, cryptids are “animals… that have been claimed to exist, but never proven to exist” – such as the fantastic beasts described by Borges’s Manual de zoología fantástica (Book of Imaginary Beings): griffins (winged monsters), manticores (gigantic red lions with a human face and three rows of teeth) or krakens (sea dragons). Shaw and Samborski acknowledge having drawn inspiration from French experimental classic René Laloux’s and Roland Topor’s La planète sauvage (Fantastic Planet, 1973), Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988), as well as Dungeons & Dragons. Their cryptics have been borrowed from various folk, mythological, and pop culture bestiaries, and they obviously had a lot of fun designing, drawing and animating them. Their most endearing creation is the baku, endowed with the sweet (female) Japanese name of Mariko – a combination of pig and baby elephant (for the small trunk), with blue eyes and the ability to float in the air and to suck off people’s dreams.
When the baku is found missing and Joan fears she is in danger of being kidnapped by black marketeers who’d want to sell her to the military, she assembles an all-woman team to save her. Her collaborator Lauren Gray has a special fondness for the baku that had once delivered her from her childhood nightmares. She is joined by Phoebe, a beautiful gorgon who dutifully injects tranquillisers into her hair of snakes to make sure they stay put, while waiting for her wedding with her devoted but conventional African American fiancé. As Lauren and Phoebe search the United States for the baku, fighting a few badass black marketeers on the way, they wonder, in spite of their respect for Joan, if building a shelter-cum-zoo for the cryptids is the best way to protect them… Touching, in a novel, original and often humorous way, on issues such as the encroachment of the military, environmental protection, bio-diversity, gender and queer identity, Cryptozoo is an exhilarating dream for our times – that does not end into a nightmare.
Another winner (Directing Award: US Documentary) Natalia Almada’s Users starts with small questions: a recent mother (the filmmaker) feels a bit displaced and ponders about the larger signification of machines invented to make parenting easier, such as smart-cribs lulling a baby to sleep, electronic baby-sitters, or the creation of a synthetic voice to read to the children. As in her previous acclaimed documentaries – in particular El General (2009) and El Velador (2011) – Amalda starts with her personal experience as a bilingual native of Mexico residing and making work on both sides of the border, and extends her investigation further, here segueing into organ transplant, in-vitro fertilisation, the length of the fibre-optic cables covering the earth or lying in the ocean (47,775 km, i.e. 37 times the earth’s circumference), oil drilling, deforestation, the beginning of the “fire season” in California, the lateral direction of an owl’s eyes, scepticism and ambivalence toward technology. A pandemic-era project, Users was made with the small, safe crew of the family unit. “My process is pretty sculptural” says Almada, who carved the film as she went along. Her brother-in-law, Bennett Cerf, signs the exquisitely beautiful cinematography, including a noted “bravura” shot of the camera moving in sync with a train racing at 70 miles/hour. “My previous films were shot with a tripod; Bennett opened the choreography of camera movements for me.” Her husband, Dave Cerf, designed the sound and composed the music with the collaboration of the Kronos Quartet and Clare Chase at the flute and vocals. And Almada seamlessly, inventively, edited the material, opening more questions, drawing dialectical relationships between apparently heterogeneous elements, and not eluding the nagging issue of nostalgia that faces us all when confronted with technology: “the future is already here; the present is in the past”, she says.
From this point of view, Users entertains a conversation with A Glitch in the Matrix (and its sense of non-linear time inherited from Philip K. Dick’s novels), and, for its concern with ecological damage, deforestation and devastating wild fires in California, with Lucy Walker’s Bring Your Own Brigade, shown in the Premiere section. Like Almada, Walker looks at American reality with the grain of salt of somebody born elsewhere (the UK), and in spite of being well-funded (Walker is a multiple-time Oscar and Emmy contender), it never loses a personal touch, carried by the voice-over commentary of the filmmaker. When the Camp Fire (that destroyed most of the semi-rural community of Paradise in Northern California), and the Woolsey Fire in Southern California (encroaching the wealthy suburb of Malibu) started simultaneously in November 2018, Walker and her three cinematographers courageously embedded themselves with the firefighters, bringing back unforgettable images while narrating harrowing stories. Yet, she does not stop there, but gets to know a community of survivors, marvelling at times that she can become close with people whose ideology is so different from hers. Continuing to dig, she searches for the causes of this epidemics of wildfires. Climate change, of course, but also the cutting down of municipal services (such as the state firefighting forces – 40% of which is composed of prisoners) to reduce taxes for the wealthy landowners, laxism in regional planning and building standards, and, as always, corporate greed. The timber boom started in 1910 in California, and now Sierra Pacific Industries owns the majority of logging land, i.e., 1.4% of California. The indiscriminate cutting down of trees, and the debris left by logging prepare a path for wild fire to propagate. Digging further, Walker touches on the despoiling of Indigenous people, notably and the loss of tribal knowledge for managing the land and fighting fire with fire.
BYOB ends on the wedding of Brad Weldon, a Paradise resident turned local hero for opening his house to homeless neighbours, a widower who, after mourning his wife for years, finds a new chance at happiness. Metaphor for hope? Or, after the footage of a sobering town hall meeting where provisions proposed by the firefighters were rejected, the sense that, the more it changes, the more it stays the same? Or an example of Walker’s ability to reach out and genuinely respect “people with a different ideology”?
And the “brigade” of the title? It’s an allusion to archival footage of Kim Kardashian saying that she can afford her own private team of firefighters. Like Elon Musk who, because the world is a videogame anyway, wants the likes of him to emigrate to Mars – and damn the ecological damage to the earth! – Kardashian feels safe with her own brigade and paying less taxes – and let California burn!
Sundance Film Festival (online)
28 January – 3 February 2021
Festival website: https://www.sundance.org/festivals/sundance-film-festival
- Malta, however, is the site of significant filmmaking activity, being a location of choice for a number of Hollywood films and TV series. See Melanie Drury, “Malta and movies – a film industry a century in the making” in GuideMeMalta.com, 15 March 2020; accessed 25 March 2021. ↩
- Camilleri has been a close collaborator on Bahrani’s different projects over the last ten years. ↩
- Nella Larsen, Passing, Albert A. Knopf, New York, 1929; Penguin Classics/Random House, New York, 2018. ↩
- Questlove – as he is known professionally – started working as a drummer/percussionist with the hip hop band The Roots in 1993. In the late 1990s, he went into producing albums of other musicians, and collaborated as a drummer with other artists as well. He has written three books, and has been invested in a number of media ventures, from Dave Chapelle and Tupac to Michelle Obama, Chris Rock and Spike Lee, and a number of TV shows. ↩
- An editorial in the New York Amsterdam News, the city’s major African American newspaper, was titled: “Yesterday the moon. Tomorrow, maybe us.” Quoted in Jonathan Bernstein, “This 1969 Music Fest Has Been Called ‘Black Woodstock.’ Why Doesn’t Anyone Remember?” in Rolling Stone, 9 August 2019; accessed 30 March 2021. ↩
- Quoted in Bernstein, ibid. ↩
- West is a multiple-time Emmy winner for her work as an ABC news producer, and has executively produced several documentaries; Cohen has directed more than eight documentaries; West and Cohen’s first collaboration was RBG, on the legendary (and outspoken) United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which was shown at Sundance in 2018. ↩
- The FBI threatened Martin Luther King, if he did not sever ties with Rustin, to spread the rumor that the two men were gay lovers. ↩
- After the Detroit race riot of the summer 1943, Murray expressed her outrage at a statement by the President, ending in “I am sure that every American regrets this”, and wrote the poem “Mr. Roosevelt regrets”:
What’d you get, black boy,
When they knocked you out in the gutter,
And they kicked your teeth out,
And they broke your skull with clubs
And they bashed your stomach in?
(…)What’d the Top Man say, black boy?
“Mr. Roosevelt regrets…” ↩
- Proud Shoes, Beacon Press, Boston, 1999 © 1956 Pauli Murray; Song in a Weary Throat, Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York and London, 2018 © 1987 the Pauli Murray Foundation. ↩
- The question of the unicorn gender has been debated, especially now that the unicorn is sometimes a symbol of the LGBTQ community. Here, I will assign a neutral pronoun to the cryptids – except for the baku Mariko, identified as female. ↩
- Specialising in roles of older women even at an early age, Grace Zabriskie, now 79, has appeared in several dozen films and television series, notably the work of David Lynch: Twin Peaks (1990-91), Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walks with Me (1992) and Inland Empire (2006). ↩