The Warden and the Young Man
In 2012, Ava DuVernay made history by becoming the first black woman filmmaker to get a major award at Sundance. Since then, she has continued to change the way African American women are perceived, dealt with, given directing and producing jobs to in Hollywood.1 The exhilaration was such that it may have been forgotten that the prize received by DuVernay was the US Dramatic Directing Award, for her second feature, Middle of Nowhere – a precise, intimate rendering of the relationship between three women when the husband of one of the daughters is in jail. So Clemency being awarded the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize pushes the recognition of black women in the US film industry one notch further. The road had been fraught for Chinonye Chukwu. Born in Nigeria, but raised in Alaska, she delved into this exceptional background as inspiration for her first feature, Alaskaland (2012), that depicts tortuous attempts at reconciliation between the two surviving halves of a family: a college drop-out stayed in Alaska, and his younger sister, raised by relatives in Nigeria after the accidental death of their parents. In spite of its originality, though, Alaskaland went straight to video.
For Clemency, Chukwu stacked more cards on her side – convincing an exciting array of name actors to collaborate on the project, in addition to spending several years on researching the subject – interviewing wardens and inmates, and, in 2014, founding the program “Pens to Pictures” in which she teaches filmmaking to female inmates. What had triggered her passion was the case of Troy Davis; sentenced to death in 1991 for the killing of a police officer, he spent 20 years on death row, and, in spite of claiming his innocence and benefiting from high-visibility national and international support (such as the NAACP and Desmond Tutu), was executed by lethal injection in 2011. Though only 12.3% of the US population, black people represent 41.48% of death row inmates. Behind these statistics is the complex reality of the US prison-industrial complex: there are black policemen, black correction officers and black wardens. Chukwu manages this rare feat, not only to tell the story from “the warden’s perspective [that] dominates the film to a degree rarely if ever seen in death-row screen dramas”2 – but to make the warden a black woman, and cast respected African American actress Alfre Woodard in the part.
Bernadine Williams has supervised 12 executions in an unnamed prison; she is a professional, competent, organised and detached. Clemency follows her painful unravelling – starting on a lethal injection that goes terribly wrong. On the other side of the high security ward wall is a young black man, Anthony Woods, who, in a parallel situation with the original Troy Davis, is silently waiting for a possible gubernatorial pardon. Noticed in the 2016-2017 television series Underground (about the secret escape network used by enslaved black people to escape to free states or Canada), Altis Hodge brings muted charisma, vulnerability and a complex mixture of resignation and anger to the part. Chukwu builds his character to trigger sympathy in the spectator, but it’s never clear whether Woods is innocent or not. The death penalty is not “fair” when applied to guilty people and “unfair” otherwise. What is at stake is whether any institution of power has the right to kill another human being3 – a dilemma complicated by the pitting of some black subjects (who are offered a share in the American dream) against others (to whom this has been denied). Anthony could have been Bernadine’s son; she cannot help but feeling some tenderness, or at least respect, toward him – and, in one moment of understated emotion, he gets it.
We are far from the stories of racist-white-wardens – closer to Michel Foucault’s concept of the “pervasiveness of power”, shared by many at micro-levels. Chukwu has the immense courage of bringing race into the equation, of looking at the death penalty through the eyes of a black woman hired to implement it.4
Women on Board
This was a good year for women, people of colour and queers at Sundance. On 8th May 2018, it was announced that a most beloved figure in the Los Angeles independent scene, Kim Yutani, was named Director of Programming. Starting her career as an assistant to Gregg Araki, Yutani became Artistic Director of Outfest (Los Angeles LBGTQ+ Film Festival) for a few years – at a time cumulating responsibilities at Outfest and Sundance where she started programming shorts in 2006 – then features in 2009. Women now make half of the Festival programming team. And, in addition to Clemency, four of the major awards went to female directors: the US Documentary Grand Prize was received by two Chinese American women, for their examination of the human rights abuses triggered by China’s one child policy, while a male/female Macedonian team (Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov) were awarded the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize for Honeyland and Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir received the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. I was particularly happy that the audience cast their vote for a project spearheaded by women (director Rachel Lears and co-producer Sarah Olson) about women.
In our times of moral and political bankruptcy, Knock Down the House deserved the US Documentary Audience Award, and gave us all hope. In the House, in the Senate, in both parties (Republicans and Democrats), it’s been business as usual, ran by white men relying on campaign money provided by corporations, courted by lobbyists and intent on keeping their power and their privileges. Women have started to subvert this order – yet we are aware that gender alone is no guarantee of integrity, as Hilary Clinton, for example, has been criticised as being supported by Wall Street.
Knock Down the House presents a new turn of events: younger women, coming from minorities, activist circles and/or the working-class, have been running for Democratic primaries, challenging the Party’s self-righteousness and unwillingness (or incapability) to change. Lears documents the campaign of four women having never held political office before running against the Democratic incumbents of their districts: Amy Vilela (Nevada) turned to activism after the death of her daughter in an inefficiently-funded health-care system; Cori Bush, an African American registered nurse running in Missouri; West Virginia environmental activist Paula Jean Swearengin; and, from New York, 29 year old Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (known as AOC). Three of the women lost the primaries (not without galvanising untapped energies from voters). Ocasio-Cortez, however, won against Joe Crowley, who had represented the district at the Assembly since 1999, was Democratic Caucus Chair, and callously expressed concerns about her youth and “inexperience”.5 In their only public debate for a local talk show, AOC pointedly made fun of his male tendency to “make every woman in the room responsible for everything that goes wrong” (I quote from memory) – which elicited a ripple of “I know-it-well” laughter from the audience. AOC, who is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, credits her Puerto-Rican origins, the support of her parents, and her past experience as a waitress, for her unflappability and her potential to understand and represent well the working people of her district: “I am used to people being rude to me, harassing me, of working very hard on my feet.” After the film was completed (but before Sundance), in November 2018, she was elected against her Republican opponent to become the youngest woman to serve in the Congress.
This year I found the documentaries to be the most exciting part of the Festival – as long as you stayed away from high profile forms of tabloid reporting. Dan Reed’s four-hour long Leaving Neverland (about Michael Jackson’s presumed sexual abuse of two young boys) generated a media circus (the singer’s estate threatening to sue), which prompted the organisers of the festival to ask for police patrols, and to provide mental care professionals in the theatre lobby for potentially upset spectators. Another media hype was Ursula Macfarlane’s Untouchable in which famous or obscure women recount being sexually attacked by Harvey Weinstein. American spectators love to despise fallen idols.
A US-Mexican co-production, Midnight Family, directed, shot and edited (with the collaboration of Paloma López Carrillo) by Stanford graduate Luke Lorentzen is more than a technical tour-de-force (that reaped the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematography). Over the course of three years, from 2015 to 2018, Lorentzen spent a total of 80 nights in the back of the private ambulance ran by the Ochoa family, with two Sony FS7 cameras rolling simultaneously: one he operated himself (sometimes on a tripod, sometimes handheld), and another mounted on the hood shooting inside the ambulance through the windshield.6 For the 9 millions inhabitants of Mexico City (and its humongous traffic jams), the government runs less than 45 public emergency ambulances; private citizens step in and provide their own vehicles – equipped with the minimum medical equipment. Fer Ochoa, his 17 year-old son Juan as the driver and younger son Josué doing his homework in the back and helping some, bring assistance to the victims of accidents or injuries (a young girl falling on her head from a building; the baby of a drug addict having stopped breathing), drive them to the hospital, and hope to collect a meagre fee for their work. Most of the victims are very poor, so often the Ochoas do all of this for nothing; they’re short of cash to pay gas, yet have to bribe policemen and compete with the other private ambulance services; they survive on cheap street food, steal a few hours of rest in their sleeping bags, yet they are consistently kind and caring with their patients.
As the Sony FS7 is designed to function well in the dark, Lorentzen was able to shoot about 400 hours of footage with only available light – with the exception of a few small LED screens7 in the blue night of Mexico City. This would have been impossible without the collaboration of the Ochoa family. Acknowledging the influence of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, Lorentzen resists the cheap shot or zoom effect that might have turned their harrowing ride-and-rescue mission into a commodified spectacle; his framing consistently keeps the victims’ bodies off-screen, focusing instead on the meticulous work performed, the small gestures. The power of the film lies as much in what it does not show – a strategy reinforced by the editing: we are not privy to the background stories, we don’t see the Ochoas’ family life, we are constantly on the move, within the ambulance as it speeds through the night, or on the pavement where a stretcher is quickly brought.
A US-Qatar-UK-Canada co-production, shown at the Berlinale after its Sundance premiere, Midnight Traveler is also shot on the move and made in the editing room. Here and there, we hear of NGOs giving cell phones to people in refugee camps so they can document their plight – underlying issues of authorship and possible exploitation (aren’t we using the bodies of others to construct our own political discourse?). Midnight Traveler has a different genesis. In 2014. Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili and his family had to emigrate to Tajikistan. After murdering a former mullah interviewed in his documentary, Peace in Afghanistan, the Taliban had put out a bounty for Fazili. Fourteen months later, their request for asylum denied, the family had to return to Afghanistan, then leave again, clandestinely, in a two-and-a-half year trek westward along smuggler routes and in refugee or internment camps in Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary, before finally arriving in Germany.8
Fazili had formed a friendship with filmmaker/scholar/curator and UC Davis Professor Emelie Mahdavian, who had programmed one of his shorts, Mr. Fazili’s Wife (2013 – the story of a woman fighting to find the money to cure her daughter). They immediately decided to start the project together. Hassan, his wife Fatima Hussaini (herself a filmmaker and credited as one of the film’s co-producers), and their two young daughters, Nargis and Zahra, filmed their long journey on their respective cell phones, and sent the footage to Mahdavian in a variety of ways (drives carried by trusted people, internet transfer via SIM cards recharged by a contact at the Serbian frontier….). Mahdavian (also the producer of the film) would edit the footage as it was shot (several hundred hours in total), and send it back in a compressed form to Fazili. 9
Midnight Traveler is a rare document showing the intimate details of a life on the run: sleeping on the ground, bedbugs in cell-like housing, repressive conditions of detention, anti-refugee riots in Bulgaria, ongoing displacement and permanent waiting. Yet it is also the portrait of a marriage. Fazili had a religious education and was destined to become a mullah until he married Fatima, learnt to respect women, and eventually decided to become a filmmaker. The film is enlivened by affectionate, often humorous disagreements between the spouses. The girls, experimenting with the footage themselves, are an increasingly enjoyable presence, as they display the exuberance of childhood while being frightened by the racism and the hardships they experience (In a lovely moment, Nargis dances to the Michael Jackson tune “They Don’t Care About Us.”)
In their first feature, two young Colombian filmmakers, Juan Pablo Polanco and César Alejandro Jaimes, follow an unusual path combining ethnographic and experimental cinema – somewhat echoing’s Trinh T. Minh-ha’s work on the role of time and silence non-Western cultures. Lapü documents the ancient ritual of the “second burial” in the Wayúu community – the largest indigenous ethnic group in Colombia (about 150,00 members). As outsiders (and not speaking the language) Polanco and Jaimes construct the film on an oneiric dialectic between inside and outside, between what we understand and what remains mysterious, composing long static shots in which the essential remains invisible. A young woman, Doris, living outside of the village, returns there after a dream in which her cousin, who had hanged herself, asks to be re-buried according to tradition. Doris complies and lends herself to a journey that becomes more and more emotional and difficult for her – as modernity and tradition are uncannily mixed. To exhume the bones, Doris wears a facemask and plastic gloves. Her journey ends up in a final cleansing through an old female shaman. Yet it becomes clear that this may be one of the last times such a ritual is performed – as young people like Doris express reservations, and as the way of the Wayúu people is gradually eroded.
Music as the Language of Time
Two of the most pleasurable documentaries – in the Premieres section – were about music. Or, more specifically, our love for certain musicians. Nick Broomfield’s latest opus, Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, is a moving, personal tribute to an impossible love story that ran through decades. In the 1960s, as European expat bohemians were getting high and experiencing free love on the Greek island of Hydra, a young Canadian writer seeking inspiration met a young divorced Norwegian woman, Marianne Ihlen. Leonard Cohen lived with her, became a father figure to her son Axel, published his book, and in 1967 embarked on the music career we know; his first album includes “So Long Marianne”, written as an homage to his muse. The romance itself was troubled by Cohen’s fight with depression, his Don Juanism, his inability to commit (at some point he was supporting two households, one with Marianne, and one with the artist Suzanne Elrod) but it endured and evolved into a friendship nonetheless, Leonard and Marianne dying three months apart after exchanging a letter and a telegram in 2016. Broomfield – who had a brief romance with Marianne on Hydra (those were the days) plunges the audience back into the history of the utopia of the times, carried by altered states, dreams of a better society, and the magic of some tunes and lyrics. Even at the press screening, few people kept their eyes dry throughout. It’s that kind of a film.
Another history is brought to life by the usual expansive, compelling archival research achieved by Stanley Nelson and his Firelights Films team. In Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, while investigating the essence of Davis’s contribution to music at the different stages of his career, he also revisits American and African American history from 1926 to 1991. Davis was another troubled musician, with instances of drug addiction and detoxification, womanising and domestic violence, drunken car accidents, elegant and spectacular narcissism – but he was first and foremost a black man, born in the Jim Crow era. As a teenager, he joined the be-bop cats in New York (Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie); like many other African American artists, he found a new freedom in Paris, where he had moved in 1949, became friends with Picasso and Sartre and lovers with Juliette Greco. This is also in Paris, that, back in 1957, he improvised the ground-breaking music of Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958). In 1959, he released the album Birth of the Cool (“music that white people could make love to”), a sure step toward his ever-growing cross-over appeal – but this was also the year of a sadly famous incident in front of the New York club Birdland. His name on the marquee, he had come down to help a young woman get a cab, and was smoking a cigarette. He was beaten up by a racist cop, his head and impeccable suit covered in blood. He never forgot.
Nelson was lucky to get a lively, priceless interview, with Frances Taylor (1929-2018), the Katherine Dunham-trained dancer Davis had a whirlwind courtship with and was married to from 1960 to 1968. She left him when he became increasingly jealous and violent. Still a smiling, engaging seductress in her late eighties, she never forgot either. “We were the most glamorous couple of the time”, she says.
Is the Party Over?
Among the narrative films, I was mostly seduced was Animals by Australian Sophie Hyde, whose debut feature, 52 Tuesdays (a faux documentary about the transition of a teenager’s mother into a man) I had adored when it won the World Cinema Dramatic Award in 2014. In gay Dublin, Laura, an aspiring writer (a first-rate turn by Holliday Grainger, all sarcasm, elegant pouting and insecurities) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat), are best friends sharing an apartment. They like to drink (a lot), party hard, take drugs, have one-night stands and make fun of everything including sex and men. The opening shot shows Laura tied up to the bed after the beau-of-the-night has left and asking Tyler to free her. This sets the nonchalant, freewheeling tone, but the GFs are now pushing 30. Carefree waitressing jobs are getting hard to keep, men have the weird idea of wanting to get serious – unless it is Laura who wants to get serious. Can’t write her book, can’t be tied up (literally and figuratively) and Tyler will always be there to untie her, right. Right, says Tyler, who’d like to keep things the way they were. Yet Laura is not so sure anymore. Hyde offers a sensitive, heartfelt chronicle of a friendship between women who love each other while wanting to have it all – as their partying and emotional rhythm grow out of sync.
The NEXT section included a few good surprises, the best being Adam, Rhys Ernst’s first feature. Known as a transgender filmmaker for their work as a producer and director on the web television series Transparent (2014-2017) about a Los Angeles family discovering that their father is a trans woman, Rhys adapted Ariel Schrag’s controversial book of the same title.10 In 2006, to avoid a boring summer vacation with his parents, shy cisgender teenage boy Adam (Nicholas Alexander), gets permission to go and visit his sister Casey (Margaret Qualley) in New York City. He soon discovers that she is at the centre of a vibrant LGBTQ+ scene and is dating a trans person. Seduced by the energy, the parties, the cool, Adam, goes out with his sister’s friends, explores dyke leather bars and enthusiastically marches for marriage equality. What piques the interest of Ernst and Schrag (who wrote the screenplay) is the fluidity of (trans)gender identification, their non-essentialism, the masquerade at stake into statements of one’s sexuality. Adam meets Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), once made notorious in her Southern high school for taking a girl to the prom. She assumes he is a trans man; he goes along with the deception and has an affair with her – his first.
Reconstructing the scene and the vibes of the New York hip scene of the time – the clothes, the bars, the flip-flop phones, different ways of pre-internet hooking up – Ernst subverts the coming-of-age tropes. What emerges, even out of the mess unwittingly created by Adam, is the indestructibility of desire itself. Was Gillian really deceived? Who wanted what and whom? And what really happened (and I also mean sexually) in this ambiguous summer of not so long ago?11
Sundance Film Festival
24 January – 4 February 2019
Festival website: http://www.sundance.org
- DuVernay directed the Oscar-nominated Selma (2014) and 13th (2016), then became the first black woman to direct a film budgeted between 150 and 250 million USD, A Wrinkle in Time (2018). Having directed a number of works for television, she created and executive produced the series Queen Sugar, for the Oprah Winfrey Network, hiring a number of black women as directors. ↩
- David Rooney, “Clemency Review”, The Hollywood Reporter, 28 January 2019; accessed 5 March 2019. ↩
- Due to the passion on both sides of the debate, the dilemma may be better explored through fiction, as already shown in Fritz Lang’s unsettling Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) ↩
- Another remarkable exception is Diao Yin’an second feature, Ye che (Night Train, 2007) about a woman in charge of supervising executions in a Chinese prison. ↩
- A member of the New York State Assembly from 1987 to 1998, Crowley was co-opted by his predecessor in the Congress, Thomas J. Manton, who put his name on the ballot. Since losing the Primary to AOC, he has become a corporate lobbyist. ↩
- See Lauren Wissot, “’Sometimes Restraint and Holding Back Yields a Far More Meaningful Result…’: Luke Lorentzen on Sundance Doc Midnight Family”, Filmmaker Magazine, 27 January 2019; accessed 5 March 2019.; and Filmmaker staff, “Director/DP Luke Lorentzen on Making Midnight Family as a Solo Shooter (with Two Cameras)”, Filmmaker Magazine, 27 January 2019; accessed 5 March 2019. ↩
- Ibid ↩
- At the time of this writing, the Fazili have been in a refugee camp in Germany for over a year. Fazili was unable to attend Sundance, but was present at the Berlinale screening. Due to the Dublin Convention, they may have to return to Hungary (the first European country they entered) before their asylum application can be processed. ↩
- See Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “A Conversation with Emelie Mahdavian”, HMT, 28 February 2019; accessed March 5, 2019. ↩
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York and Boston, 2014. ↩
- Disclaimer: Rhys Ernst graduated from the California Institute of the Arts, where I teach. ↩