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What are you looking at when you’re looking at me?

As Sundance may be one of the last film festivals I will cover for a while, maybe it is a good time to probe what a festivalgoer’s pleasure is made of.

1. Do we go to festivals to check new films by directors we know?

The Gaze of the Disappeared

The first film I rushed to was Vivos, by Ai Wei Wei, a towering influence for anybody interested in contemporary Chinese culture. Moreover, after Alison Klayman’s documentary, Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry was screened at Sundance and received a Special Jury Prize in 2012, he has become a household name at the festival. A German-Mexican production, Vivos marks a new step in his cinematic output. After being released from custody in June 2011, and being given back his passport in 2015, Ai moved to Berlin, where his documentary, Human Flow (2017), about the global refugee crisis, was co-produced by human rights journalist Andy Cohen (who had contributed to Klayman’s film in a similar capacity) and German producer Heino Deckert – and was shown in competition in Venice. With The Rest (2019), about another aspect of the refugee crisis, Ai started to work with the German foundation that also co-produced Vivos, shot in Mexico, in Spanish and English, with a largely Mexican crew. In spite of its double displacement (in 2019, Ai left Berlin for the UK), the film marks a partial return to the immersive techniques he was using in his earlier work – such as the Beijing videos of 2003-05. Abounding in meditative landscape shots (dirt roads, spectacular skies, small adobe houses), then refocusing on intimate scenes, the first part of the film is haunted by absence. A man hoeing the ground says that his son has not returned to help him. A woman lost in her thoughts cooks in the kitchen. Children are missing their big brother to play with. A man and a woman sit on a couch too big for them. The dirt road leading to the house is empty. Himself a former “disappeared” (he was incommunicado for several weeks after his arrest), Ai evokes the void left in space by missing young men. In September 2014, buses transporting about a hundred students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’s College on their way to a demonstration in Mexico City were attacked in the city of Iguala (Southwestern state of Guerrero) by policemen and masked assailants. Six were killed, and 43 taken to an unknown destination. They were never seen again, and their families, to this day, live in a vacuum. The official version was that the “43” had been handed out to a drug cartel that killed them and burnt their bodies. This does not match forensic evidence or further investigation. The second part of the film is more conventional – with interviews of civil rights experts – but also more militant, as the parents and families of the “43” are demonstrating, organising marches and sit-in with the slogan: “you took our children alive (vivos), we want them back alive.”

One of the victims of the attack is neither dead nor missing. Doctors declared him brain dead but his father refuses to believe this; he gets a second opinion, builds an extra room in his house, gets medical help to take care of him, hoping that there is a chance his son will get better. What is there to see in the young man’s empty gaze? And what does he see? Can the disappeared see us?

Girls Looking at Each Other

I saw Vivos at a press screening, so I missed Ai Wei Wei’s talk, which I was told was extremely potent. But for the second film I rushed to see, Never Rarely Sometimes Always (US Dramatic), I wanted to be in conversation with the director, Eliza Hittman. Instead of writing a boring disclaimer in a footnote, I will state that I have treasured the aesthetic exchanges I have had with Hittman since 2010, when she was a student at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). It started when she showed me a short film she had just completed, Second Cousins Once Removed (2010) in which two young girls were left alone in a motel room during a family vacation. We had more meetings when she was working on her thesis film, Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight (2011), which is already vintage Hittman: Sonya and Sveta, two teenagers from the Russian immigrant community of Brighton Beach get dressed up to go night-clubbing together in the midst of the Brooklyn winter. They meet two young men, and, caught in-between their desires and their reluctance, subjected to male pressure to “let it in further”, and drunk to boot, they get into a somewhat messy situation, but, hanging on to each other, manage to escape relatively unscathed “- Did you sleep with him? – I don’t know…” Well-received in Sundance’s short competition, Forever became a blueprint for Hittman’s first feature It Felt Like Love (2013), shot in another neighbourhood of Brooklyn, Gravesend – a brave foray into the emotional turmoil, the aspirations and the awkward experiments of 14 year-old girl Lila who, one hot, lonely summer, wants to lose her virginity, to emulate the prowess of her best friend Chiara. For her second feature, Beach Rats (2017, shown at Sundance where it won the Directing Award: US Narrative – then in Locarno) she segued away from her female-centric themes, by focusing on the confused sexuality of a working-class Coney Island teen, Frankie, who fights hard (and dirty) to keep a heterosexual front while having sex with older men he meets online.

With Never Rarely Sometimes Always, she returns to the friendship between two women, while leaving the familiar haunts of Brooklyn that, as a native of the borough, she knows so well. We are in a small rural Pennsylvania town, at the end of the school year. On stage, school kids perform retro Elvis-like numbers. 17 year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) sings a folksy love tune at the standing mike. Later, at a pizza parlour with her family, she coolly, silently, throws a glass of beer at a boy sitting with his buddies. That’s all we know about him. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” are the possible answers to the multiple-choice questions posed by a sympathetic counsellor in a Queens Family Planning clinic. Have you been pressured to have sex without consent? Have you been victim of violence in intimate situations etc… Autumn’s non-committal reactions speak volumes. And it’s been a long journey for her to arrive to the clinic.

Having found she is pregnant, Autumn had first tried to get help at a local facility, only to be given pamphlets on the joys of motherhood. She then decided to go to New York, where the laws are more progressive, and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) agrees to go with her. The two girls travel by bus, have no money, and are sure that it’s going to be a matter of a few hours. It turns out that Autumn’s pregnancy is too advanced, and she has to return the next day to complete the procedure. With no place to stay, and Autumn at risk for hemorrhaging if she does not lie down, they ride the subway back and forth, hang around Grand Central Station, get a bit of money from a nerdy college kid with a fixation on Skylar. One of the strongest moments shows Skylar standing against a column in the station, being kissed by the young man, extending her arm backward, with Autumn squeezing her hand. At the Q&A Hittman discussed Cristian Mungiu’s 4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2007) – not to say that things have changed since Ceaușescu’s Romania (in a rural Pennsylvania clinic, they may not be that different), but to assert that Mungiu’s film, while centred around the friendship between two women, still bears the mark of the male gaze: Gabita is “responsible” for her pregnancy.

Autumn’s experience is bracketed not by repeated lies, like Gabita’s, but by her silences. Young women are vulnerable, from an early age, to sexual violence and exploitation. Yet they have agency, energy, determination. And, even though they don’t deal with abortion, the two female-directed films that Never Rarely echoes in its representation of how its female protagonists deal with survival in a city without a place to stay are Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008) and, on a “feminist burlesque” mode, Chantal Akerman’s J’ai faim, j’ai froid (I am Hungry, I am Cold, 1984): women looking at how they help themselves or help each other. Remaining almost painfully close to the specificity of an American experience she knows, understands and expresses so well, Hittman has put the bar very high. Sundance gave her the US Dramatic Special Jury Award for Neo-Realism and Berlin the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize. Never Rarely is currently in wide (digital) release in the US.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)

Trans-racial and Cross-gender Gazes

The third film I rushed to see was cryptically presented as Untitled Kirby Dick/Amy Ziering Film (Documentary Premieres), now known as On the Record. The film became controversial after being announced as part of the Sundance line-up, when executive producer Oprah Winfrey withdrew her support, stating that she wanted the “context of the story to be broadened.” I have been in conversation with Dick (who also attended CalArts, but before I started teaching there) since his first documentary, Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997), made in collaboration with the artist’s dominatrix, Shirley Rose, which won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. Since then, Dick has been a regular presence at the festival, an example of successful independent authorship though the company he created, Chain Camera (named after his experimental 2001 work, Chain Camera). In 2002, for his documentary on the French philosopher Derrida, he collaborated with Amy Ziering, now his partner in the company, and with whom he has since co-directed all his films from 2012, from The Invisible War on. The discovery of the prevalence of sexual assault in the US army (targeting mostly, but not exclusively, enlisted women) was so emotionally upsetting for Dick that it made him change his formal approach to documentary – veering more toward the side of investigating reporting. This change of style made possible clear and decisive results, such as institutional changes in the way the military is handling cases of rape (for example, a law passed by the Obama administration in 2013), and won the film many accolades in the US, such as a Peabody Award and an Emmy Award for Best Documentary Feature and Outstanding Investigative Journalism. While putting Kirby and Ziering at the centre of many contemporary debates in the US, it has also kept them away from the international network of festivals more involved in interrogating the language of documentary than in investigative reporting.

The Invisible War may have been Kirby’s road to Damascus. Whether or not she is an actual victim of it, sexual violence is something that every woman is aware of as being a part of the female condition; for a man, reaching a similar awareness means understanding that you’re part of the problem – a fact that you cannot change without questioning, and giving up, privileges that you had unconsciously accepted since birth. Ziering’s contribution has been of paramount importance, as she can interview the survivors from a terrain of mutual understanding. The pair’s next project, The Hunting Ground (2015) deconstructed a no less harrowing abuse of power, rape on college campus. If female cadets are sexual fodder for the military brass, so are female students for male faculty, football stars and, alas, male students.

On the Record is inscribed in the current discussions about gender, race and equality that are troubling America. Like so many feminist movements in the US, #MeToo is mostly the expression of the voices of white women; and the über-villains – Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein – are not only white men, but Jews in position of white power, be it from Hollywood or the financial world. Since the founding of Motown Records in 1959, a parallel structure of black-owned power has clearly emerged in the US entertainment industry. Street and block party performances in the South Bronx in the mid-1970s morphed into the multi-million hip-hop industry that includes music, fashion, film and MTV. CEOs and executives are men, as are most of the performers. At the level of financial and executive decisions, it is a patriarchal structure, with an intermingling of black and global interests.1 Women, however, have sought to play a role in the industry, as artists or producers, encountering similar obstacles as they do in white-controlled Hollywood.

On the Record (Kirby Dick & Amy Ziering)

On the Record delves into the dilemma of the first black woman, former music recording executive Drew Dixon, who reported having been raped by a major figure of hip hop, Russell Simmons. Dixon left Simmons’ Def Jam, and went to work for Arista Records, where she was also subjected to sexual harassment by CEO L.A. Reid, who, angry at her rejection, refused to sign the then unknown artist she had brought him, Kanye West (!).2 For the camera, Dixon thoughtfully recounts how she left the music industry in disgust and tried to put the pieces of her life back together; it is only now, after she found the courage to speak up, that she is starting again, acting as a mentor for a young female musician.

Other black women spoke up similarly against Simmons and, as in the case of Weinstein, there is an uncanny similarity in the scenarios described by plaintiffs who had never met: an invitation by Simmons to come to his apartment to listen to a demo. It takes a different kind of determination for a black woman to accuse a black man of rape. Historically, white men have routinely raped black women; it was not called rape, but slave ownership. Historically, the accusation of rape has been routinely used against black men to justify lynching, arrest, torture, hasty trials, death penalty, or killing in the hands of the police. Dixon and the other women who came through (in the white-owned New York Times) are painfully aware of this plight. They say that they are thinking of their daughters, or of the next generation of young black women. There was also a therapeutic effect to their coming out, as some had been struggling with alcoholism and depression following the assault.

And the elephant in the room: why is this a film made by two white filmmakers, a man and a woman? Does the film fail to address the cultural importance of hip hop for the black community? On the Record opens a space for these questions to be addressed.

2. Do we want to increase our knowledge of certain filmmakers?

The Eyes of the Landscape

I had missed Braden King’s first feature-length film, the black-and-white impressionistic documentary Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, co-directed with Laura Moya and premiered at the Berlinale in 1998,3 but at the 2011 edition of Sundance I caught Here, an experimental road movie shot in Armenia. King’s segueing between the art and music world and the film world has produced notable installations, art and photography exhibitions, music videos (for Sonic Youth, Will Oldham and Yo La Tengo), short films (one with Laurie Anderson) and curatorial projects (one in collaboration with Chris Doyle), but has made is difficult to get a comprehensive view of his multifaceted career. Evening Hour, world premiered in Sundance on its way to Rotterdam, was a way to reconnect with his oeuvre. Recognisable by his distinct visual style – bringing to the screen the elegiac, lyrical quality of a landscape – King is also, thanks to his manifold collaborations with sonic artists and musicians, a master at orchestrating soundtracks. Shooting in the former mining town of Dove Creek, in the Appalachian landscapes of West Virginia, he shows the “evening hour” of the small community, a time of emotional and societal twilight, in the midst of the opioid epidemics. A young nursing aide, Cole Freeman (Philip Ettinger), tries to supplement his meagre income by quietly recycling left over medicines. Cole’s long-estranged mother, Ruby (Lili Taylor), returns to town for her father’s funeral, and gets a job as a waitress in a local joint; Cole is still bruised by her leaving him behind, and her refusal to tell him who his father is. Real trouble brews, though, when Cole’s friend Terry (Cosmo Jarvis), recently sprung from jail, wants to break into what he perceives as a new lucrative drug market, butting heads with the dangerous Everett and bringing elements of violence into the original elegiac tableau.

Evening Hour (Braden King)

Gazes from the Frontier

While reduced to a small number of screenings (six – including the West Coast premiere of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela) and a wide array of exhibitions), the New Frontier section offered a glimpse at the evolution of the work of more experimental film artists. Miwa Matreyek’s 3-D animation/performance pieces, in which she plays with the signature shadows of her body in a miraculous landscape, alternatively enchanting and threatening, may seem at odd with the Sundance ethos of cool independent cinema, but this was her third visit to the festival, an especially well received one. Having written on Dreaming of Being Lucid and The World Made Itself, which she presented in the 2014 edition,4 I will just mention I still experience the same delight whenever I watch a performance by Matreyek. Her new piece, Infinitely Yours, was accompanied by a live music imaginatively performed by Morgan Sorne’s handmade instruments and vocals. The excitement and enthusiasm palpable in the young audience filling the Egyptian Theatre was evidence of the magic this collaboration created. Ecological concerns, however, keep surfacing in the work, as the pieces tend to become both more luxuriant and more sombre…

Your TV is Looking Back at You

A relative newcomer at Sundance, Kahlil Joseph is a significant presence in the Los Angeles art scene; he is currently the exhibition director of the Underground Museum, in the black working-class neighbourhood of Arlington Heights, co-founded by his brother the painter Noah Davis (who died at 32 in 2015). Joseph completed a number of music videos for the likes of Flying Lotus, Shabazz Palaces, Sampha and Kendrick Lamar, even the original sole director of Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016), as well as museum-commissioned pieces, such as the shorts m.A.A.d. (2015) (presented at MOCA in a two-screen installation titled Double Conscience, as a reference to W. E. B. Du Bois’s concept of “double consciousness” or “twoness”),5 Black Mary (2017) (an homage to the photographer Roy DeCavara) and Fly Paper (2017) (a variation on the history of Harlem, filtered through Chris Marker’s influence). Various venues around the Festival hosted iterations of Joseph’s new creation, BLKNWS, a utopian newscast presented in a continually updated 50-minute, two channel version, after its world premiere at the Venice Biennial a few months before. The piece is an ingenious, often humorous mash-up of appropriated or fictional TV news, social media items, commercials, and segments from the work of prominent black artists or filmmakers such as Kara Walker and Julie Dash… Two salient examples: Hip-hop artist Mariah Parker takes an oath on Malcolm X’s Autobiography after her election as County Commissioner in Athens, Georgia. On a television talk show a comedian is asked what he thinks about sending a black man to the moon, or a least putting a black man in a space rocket.6 “The Martians should be so lucky” was (in substance) the response. “Before, the only music they could hear coming from Earth was Mozart and Beethoven. Now they’re going to have a chance to hear Miles Davis!”

BLKNWS (Khalil Joseph)

The Delocalised Gaze

So New Frontier is a space where the gaze can be thrown back, instead of “looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”7 It is also a deconstruction of American history. When the West was won, white men were aiming for the Frontier, killing as many Native people as they could. With Kennedy, space became the “New Frontier”. Now African Americans look at white people from a real or imaginary spaceship – as to be expected, if we have been listening to the tales and music of Afrofuturism, from Sun Ra and Miles Davis to Flying Lotus and Shabazz Palaces8 – and Native Americans return the gaze from the sacred landscapes they still inhabit, in a situation that could be described as “residential exile”. Their right to be in the space is constantly eroded, questioned, limited; and the space itself is parcelled out by legislative diktats and damaged by ecological mismanagement. So “throwing the gaze back” is a complex process.

Sky Hopinka’s first feature, małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore posits the gaze in an improbable space of conflicting directions, to and fro – as the Chinookan myth of the origins recounted in the film also embodies this double movement: toward death and toward birth. Language itself is a decentring experience. As Hopinka recounts in an interview, he encountered the nearly extinct language Chinuk Wawa when he moved to Portland Oregon for his undergraduate studies.9 Then his discovery of experimental cinema made him realise that “he could more uniquely express the nuances of endangered languages through forms unrelated to conventional modes of nonfiction filmmaking.”10 The twelve shorts he made since then (some showcased at Sundance), combining language (spoken or written), myth, landscape film and documentary, are as many thoughtful experiments on finding the right camera placement, the right distance, the right framing, to shoot Native Americans.

He adopts unconventional documentary techniques (an oblique, non-frontal glance) to approach his two protagonists, Sweetwater Sahme and Jordan Mercier, as they shift back and forth between English and Chinuk Wawa, with both languages being subtitled. Like Du Bois’s “black folk”, Native Americans are experiencing “twoness” fighting for their soul. Do I speak English to be understood or do I remain faithful to the language of my ancestors? In Hopinka’s mise en scène, this translates into a circularity of gazes, a fluidity of linguistic situations, permeability between the landscape and its inhabitants, and the eternal cycle of birth, death and yet another birth. When Hopinka met Sweetwater Sahme and decided to include her in the film, she told him she was pregnant. She peacefully describes how she was herself raised by a single mother, an educator. It is unclear whether the absence of a man results of the disintegration of traditional family structures (Sahme alludes to past struggles with alcoholism), or the echo of an ancient female power.11 She is seen in her home, inhabited by the vivid memories of her mother and grandmother, or by the water in a quiet clearing. On the other hand, Jordan Mercier, who acts as a guide to Hopinka through roads that at first, seem to lead nowhere, has gone full circle and is now a family man, whose wife, Amanda, is expecting their second child. Sahme and Mercier don’t meet, but they each provide an answer about what it means to inhabit an Indigenous body in the Pacific Northwest in the 21st century.

małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore (Sky Hopinka)

3. Do we want to discover filmmakers we don’t know?

The Gaze of the Not-Yet-Born

A winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: US Dramatic, Nine Days, the first feature of Japanese Brazilian Edson Eda, was a film nobody expected, but the buzz was mounting so toward the end of the Festival, an additional press screening was scheduled. Eda makes a no-less unexpected foray into the tropes of Afrofuturism, revisited through uncanny echoes of Kore-eda Hirokazu’s low-tech science fiction, Wandafuru Raifu (After Life, 1998). Both films imagine a non-descript, lower-middle class location that serves as a transit point between existence and non-existence. In Kore-eda’s film, social workers welcome people who have just died, and offer to stage for them their most precious memory, for them to take in eternity. Eda imagines two petty bureaucrats in a remote house by the sea, filled with file folders and crummy VHS tapes where they host, for nine days, souls that are hoping to come to existence. At the end of the process, only one soul will be selected to be born, leaving the others to nothingness. A “precious memory” of what could have been is manufactured and recorded.

What is endearing in both films is their use of analogue recording, their low-key DIY technology, and how modest these memories are. No grandiose fantasies, special effects or green screen, but a bicycle ride, a walk on the beach, a completed drawing. Both directors also project their fiction into a “future” that is very close to our reality. Eda imagines a subdued dystopia, brought to life by colour-blind casting. Will, the man wearily in charge of processing and judging the unborn souls, is played by Winston Duke, who had starred in landmarks of contemporary black popular culture: Black Panther (2018) and Jordan Peele’s second horror film, Us (2019). Unlike his Chinese assistant (Benedict Wong), Will was alive once, and is cautious about the qualities needed by an unborn soul to “make it” into the world of the living. He is still grieving at one of his failures: Amanda, a talented pianist he had ushered into existence, died in a car accident. The unborn souls brought to him at the onset of the film are those of a Chicana woman, Maria (Arianna Ortiz); three white men, Kane (Swedish-born Bill Skarsgård), Alexander (Tony Hale), and the artistically minded Mike (David Rysdahl); and a sharp, charismatic, devil-may-care black woman, Emma (Zazie Beetz).

Nine Days (Edson Eda)

As a series of tests unfold, so does the tension. Some of the questions are deeply disturbing: “You are a concentration camp inmate. Your young son tries to escape and is caught by the guard, who puts him on a chair with a noose around his neck. The guard tells you: if you don’t pull the chair, everybody else is going to die. If you pull the chair, only your son is going to die.” The women are giving the most interesting answers. For Maria, the guard could be bluffing. Emma defiantly replies: I can’t answer that.”

No spoiler here, but two narrative lines play contrapuntally: the making of Will’s decision, and the relationship that is building between him and Emma, a black man and a black woman played by two remarkable actors. One may remember Beetz for the role of Courtney in Matthew Porterfield’s indie jewel, Sollers Point (2017). The German-American actress also appeared in more commercial fares, such as the Marvel Comics superhero film Deadpool 2 (2018) and Joker (2019). Here she is the force facing up to Will’s complex energy, in a duet where impossible romance, respect and nostalgia combine in a last walk on the shore.

Behind Those Gates

Another unexpected hit, which eventually won the Directing Award: US Documentary, was Time, by African American artist/filmmaker Garrett Bradley. In 2017, her 13 min documentary Alone, about a young New Orleans woman in love with her incarcerated boyfriend, had received the Short Film Jury Award: Non-fiction. Time, which started as another short film project, builds on the connections made by Bradley when shooting Alone, and is another take on the destruction of the modern black family by a racist judicial and penitential system. Like Alone, like Middle of Nowhere (2012), Ava DuVernay’s second feature,12 Time looks at this “new form of slavery” from the point of view of a woman. Through FFLIC (Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children), Bradley met Fox Rich, a mother of six boys, and set out to make a short film about her. At the end of the shooting, Rich handed Bradley her personal archive – about 100 hours of Mini-DV tapes, that she and her older son Remington (who was seven when the process started) had shot as a diary about her efforts to obtain the liberation of her husband Robert. Bradley edited this material and interwove it with recent footage taken by her DPs.

When they were young, Fox and Robert opened a sporting goods store, but were going straight to bankruptcy. “Desperate people do desperate things”, Fox comments wryly. So they tried to rob a bank. Fox, who was driving the car, got thirteen years, and got out after three and a half years. Robert got sentenced to 60 years without the possibility of parole. We see Fox overwhelmed at first, striving to juggle motherhood and job, making repeated phone calls to judges and lawyers as, on the kitchen table, one of her sons is doing his homework. As years go by, she grows more assured, dresses more stylishly, and, stunningly, becomes even more beautiful. Always courteous and professional when making phone calls, she does not beg or argue, goes straight to the point and does not dwell on her disappointment. She becomes a businesswoman as well as an activist, speaks in public for the rights of incarcerated people and their families and digs into the fine points of the law. Meanwhile her sons get straight As in school, enter universities, get jobs and become well-adjusted young men in spite of the pain of growing without a father that they sometimes express.

Another woman joins the chorus: Bradley incorporates the music of a 96 year-old Ethiopian nun, Emahoy (Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou), a survivor of the anticolonial war against Italy, who had been trained in (Western) classical music;13 the soundtrack creates a dialogue between layers of cultural influences, and the ability to strive and create beauty in the most harrowing circumstances. For beauty is what Rich achieves – above and beyond happiness – as the film concludes on an emotional paean to carnal black love.

Time (Garrett Bradley)

The Eyes of the (White) Macho Reporter

Matt Yoka’s first feature, Whirlybird (US Documentary Competition) is another combination of archival footage with contemporary material. Yet the archive here was never private, as images were taken from a helicopter flying over the greater Los Angeles – this playground for voyeuristic fantasies – to be immediately aired on television. Whirlybird foregrounds the omnipresence of television news in our lives, by recounting the seminal role played by the husband-and-wife team of Marika Gerrard and Bob Tur. The founder of Los Angeles TV News, Bob was upset about not arriving “on time” – this meant, in his competitive machismo, “before the others” – on the site of a newsworthy event – be it murder scene, drowning accident, police procedure, airplane crash, fire, civil unrest, you name it. So Bob learnt how to pilot a helicopter, bought one, and trained Marika, at first admiring and submissive, to be his cinematographer. Their collaboration changed what we call “Breaking News”. When nothing important is happening, a helicopter hovering over a good old car chase on the freeway has become many Angelinos’ major source of televisual entertainment. The team is also responsible for some of the iconic news items of the last couple of decades – that have reshaped, and not for the best, race relationships in contemporary US discourse. The 1992 LA riots started with a video footage taken by a black man of the beating of another black man, but the mainstream television footage articulated a white point of view; Gerrard and Tur filmed one of its most infamous incidents, the attack on white truck driver Reginald Denny on April 29, while we hear Tur’s disgusted commentary over it. They also brought the footage of O. J. Simpson tailed by the police in his white Bronco SUV in June 1994, that was watched by an estimated 95 millions viewers. Simpson’s celebrity status protected him from being just another black man on the lam, but the motivations of the viewers were unclear.

With a background in TV, journalism and music video, Yoka does not contextualise the footage, but draws an exhilarating, adrenaline-fueled portrait of Los Angeles through the years. The contextualisation is to be found off-screen. Recent interviews intimate there was trouble in this journalistic paradise. Tur and Gerrard have two children together, Katy and James, but their family life was less than stellar – they were never at home. Gradually, something strikes us as not right. Gerrard speaks too nicely of her relationship with Tur, how he swept her off her feet from her uneventful life as a nice middle class girl, and “made her” into a sharp cinematographer. Then we see Tur in the cockpit, questioning her framing and her judgment, and calling her “stupid” as she is almost hanging out of the helicopter to capture the most spectacular images, As a spectator, you think that you hate the film, that you’re not going to take this.

Whirlybird (Matt Yoka)

You don’t have to. Whirlybird is punctuated by sequences featuring a middle-aged woman called Zoey, who recalls her memories of the time – mostly of the emotional toll it took to produce such stories. Raised by an abusive father, Bob became abusive to Marika – which Zoey attributes to “bathing in testosterones… the privilege of pricks.” It’s because he no longer wanted to be “a prick” that Bob made the decision to go to Thailand and became Zoey. And so the story of the helicopter-captured, daredevil, macho-style Los Angeles breaking news becomes a trans story, a somewhat disturbing reflection on gender roles. Rumour is that some members of the trans community have been ambivalent about embracing the film – maybe because Zoey is sometimes still a stupid, aggressive “prick”, with old-fashioned ideas about the difference between male and female brains. What is refreshing in Whirlybird, however, is that, instead of making a film “about” a transgender person, Yoda made a film about the lures and foibles of mainstream television journalism in which gender reassignment is part of the story, one thread among others in a complex texture.

Sundance Film Festival
23 January – 2 February 2020
Festival website: https://www.sundance.org/festivals/sundance-film-festival/

Endnotes:

  1. For example, the company co-founded by Russell Simmons, Def Jam Recordings, is owned by Universal Music Group, itself owned by the French media conglomerate Vivendi and the Chinese tech company Tencent.
  2. Ironically West’s G.O.O.D. Music label is now released by Def Jam Recordings.
  3. The film was accompanied by a music track improvised by some of the most noted musicians of the avant-garde music scene of Chicago.
  4. “How Not to Drown at Sea: The 33rd Sundance Film Festival and the 22nd Pan African Film and Arts Festival” Senses of Cinema March 2014, Issue 70, http://sensesofcinema.com/2014/festival-reports/how-not-to-drown-at-sea-the-33rd-sundance-film-festival-and-the-22nd-pan-african-film-and-arts-festival/.
  5. See W.E. B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk, Oxford’s World Classic, 2007 edition, 9: “The Negro is… born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, – a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
  6. So far there’s been 14 African American astronauts launched into space – the first one being Guion Bluford, who was sent on mission in 1983, ‘85, ‘91 and ‘92.
  7. Du Bois, ibid.
  8. The question posed by Afrofuturism is not whether black people should be sent into space, but whether they came from outer space (as Sun Ra claimed) and are looking at the world and at their history from a spaceship. See, among other sources, Lanre Bakare, “Interview – Afrofuturism takes flight: from Sun Ra to Janelle Monáe”, The Guardian, July 24, 2014,
    https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jul/24/space-is-the-place-flying-lotus-janelle-monae-afrofuturism, accessed April 14, 2020:
    “Afrofuturism… is the intersection between black culture, technology, liberation and the imagination, with some mysticism thrown in, too. It can be expressed through film, art, literature and music. It’s a way of bridging the future and the past and essentially helping to reimagine the experience of people of colour.” Here I am applying the concept of Afrofuturism to a larger gamut of films produced and directed by people of colour, not only of African descent.
  9. Sky Hopinka, interviewed by Jordan Cronk, “Sky Hopinka on Indigenous language, the afterlife, and making his first feature,” Artforum, January 28, 2020.
  10. Jordan Cronk: “Sky Hopinka” in “The 25 New Faces of Independent Film 2018”, IndieWire
    https://filmmakermagazine.com/people/sky-hopinka/#.XpZyzW57nNA
    accessed April 15, 2020
  11. Unlike other Native American tribes, the Chinook people were not a matriarchy in the full sense of the term, but women had agency, strong women were respected and some could become chiefs.
  12. Winner of the Directing Award: US Dramatic Film at Sundance. See Bérénice Reynaud, “Unlikely Heroes: The 31st Sundance Film Festival and the 20th Pan African Film and Arts Festival, Senses of Cinema, March 2012, no. 62
    http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/festival-reports/unlikely-heroes-the-31st-sundance-film-festival-and-the-20th-pan-african-film-and-arts-festival/. Bradley was DuVernay second unit director on her 2019 series, When They See Us, about the Central Park jogger.
  13. Amy Taubin, “Interview: Garrett Bradley, Film Comment, January 31, 2020, https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-garret-bradley/, accessed Feb 2, 2020.