Sundance 2022 espoused the to and fro of the volatile situation of the pandemic. The Festival was supposed to be hybrid: each film afforded several in-person screenings, duplicated by one remote screening for each. However, a few days before the Opening, it was decided that the whole festival was to be remote. So, within a few days, the indefatigable staff changed the whole set-up of the Festival (kiddos!) and what could have been a catastrophe turned out to be a pleasant experience. With one exception: the soundtrack provided by the San Francisco-based band Afrolicious was more misses than hits. A series of onomatopoeias (cries of the jungle?) Ah! Yoo! Ooo! that could even be considered as racist by somebody not knowing the history of the band, but miles away from the beauty and the complexity of African music they claim to be inspired by. After a while, the sound (played before each screening) became so obnoxious that I disconnected my earphones to avoid listening to it. 

Black Lives Matter, in cinema too. Sundance 2022 will be remembered for its line-up in the US Dramatic Competition that showcased three features by or about black women, that explored different genres. And it was Nanny by first-time African American feature director Nikyatu Jusu that won the Grand Jury Prize for US Dramatic Competition. Aisha (Anna Diop), a Senegalese former high school teacher, has accepted a job as a nanny with a wealthy Manhattan couple, in order to make more money and bring her young son to the US. Slim, elegant, personable, Aisha is at least as well educated as her bosses (she teaches French to their young daughter, Rose). Nanny avoids most clichés – the half-hearted pass made at Aisha by her boss is feeble and non-threatening – but does not eschew some – a glamorous love affair with a wealthy African American neighbour. Beautifully shot, filled with precious little details, Nanny falters in the last third, which, unfortunately, was the moment we were waiting: the intervention of the West African Water Goddess…


Alice was definitely a hybrid product. Directed by Krystin Ver Linden, a white woman who drew inspiration from Quentin Tarantino, blaxploitation films from the 1970s and her own interpretation of Afro-futurism, where different temporalities mingle and collide. Uneven as it is, the film is endearing because of the engaging performances of the two leads, Keke Palmer as Alice and the super-cool rap artist Common (who produced the film), as Frank, the driver who rescues her on the freeway. Historical research has proven that, up till the ‘60s, people were still kept enslaved in the South. The film spends a little too much time in the plantation (that’s the Tarantinian gothic), while the story of Alice’s liberation, from the moment she chances upon a 1973 freeway, is much more interesting. Frank has a book by Angela Davis in his flat, and takes her to see Jack Hill’s Coffy (1973) starring Pam Grier, with whom he compares her – another Tarantino touch.1 Alice’s screenplay suffers from some inconsistencies glossed over by the Afrofuturist posture of the film.

It is to the horror genre that first-time feature director Mariama Diallo turned to express the uneasiness and the hidden threat she experienced as one of the few black women in an elite New England university. The film starts with Gail Bishop (Regina Hall, who executive-produced the film) finding out that her key won’t open the door to her apartment as a Master (dean of students) and being quite vocal about it. Gail is the first black woman to be appointed Master – in an effort toward cultural diversity on the part of the university, but not to everybody’s liking. Gail, who jokes about saying that her position can be paralleled with that of a servant, finds a grotesque puppet of a Mammy in one of her kitchen cupboards. Time and space clash as the university is built on the ground of one of the greatest injustices inflicted by white people to other white people, the Salem witches trials (1692-93)– and one of the hung “witches” is rumoured to haunt the dorms of the building. In the neighbouring countryside, a community of Puritans in 17th century costumes live an isolated life out of modern history. Gail befriends freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) who soon becomes the target of racist hostility as well as the menace of the vengeful witch. Gail is friends with light-skin literature professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) who butts heads with Jasmine. After a harrowing confrontation with the unexpected appearance of Liv’s (white) mother, Gail comes to question her friend’s claim to blackness. She walks a difficult path, between asserting her poise, professionalism, and right to be a master, and the distress caused by instances of racism, shrouded in gothic horror, against her, Jasmine and even Liv who is made to understand her tenure is not a question of her own worth as a scholar and instructor, but a question of asserting diversity in a mostly white institution.

Honk For Jesus Save Your Soul

To me, the most the most exciting of these films, and the better US dramatic film – although it was not in competition but in the Premiere section – is Honk For Jesus Save Your Soul, by the duo of twins Nigerian American Adamma Ebo (writer-director) and Adanne Ebo (producer). Focusing on the couple of Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall, in a spectacular performance) and her pastor husband, Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown), the film is a humorous satire of the for-profit black megachurches (Southern Baptist in this case) whose membership can be counted by the tens of thousands and who have become an integral part of the American landscape. Anchored around the spectacular performance of Regina Hall as the first lady of one of these churches in Atlanta, Honk for Jesus is posited at the seam between being and appearing, as it is constructed as a faux TV documentary. Trinitie keeps supporting her man, maintains her poise and elegance (buying a very expensive hat for the reopening of the church) and skilfully struggles to keep a straight face after a sex scandal (left unspecified) forces the couple to close their church. From 25,000, the flock is now reduced to a meagre group of five faithful. The (invisible) fictional TV crew follows them – except for a few intimate moments between husband and wife, that nonetheless throw a new light on the dynamic within the duo – as they fight to reopen the church. Smilingly, Trinitie gives them the official version to report to the audience. The truth is more complex. As the Ebo twins suggested in an interview with Indiewire Lee-Curtis is happy that with the income of his church, he can buy Armani suits, but he also sincerely believes that he helps saving souls. This mixture of commerce and faith is dyed-in-the-wool American, and the film might fare very well from the point of view (the distribution company Focus bought it right away) but it might have problems crossing over to other territories, especially in Catholic countries where a satire of a religious institution is perceived as an attack on the religion itself – unless it reaches audiences in love with American kitsch.

Honk for Jesus foregrounds Trinitie’s travails, and present the subtle – or not so subtle – put-down she has to face as a first lady upholding her man’s authority. Toward the end of the film, Lee-Curtis, with the desperate yet comical energy of the man who is about to lose his manhood and his livelihood, organises a ridiculous pageant of sort in front of the empty church, to prove it is more glamorous and entertaining than the other church down the street. He convinces a reluctant Trinitie to cover her face with thick white make-up – like a cartoon character (Minnie Mouse?), a Japanese doll or a minstrel show in reverse.2 This image will remain as a keen criticism of the church’s sexual politics.

The section Premieres contained also two provocative features. 2nd Chance, the first documentary by Iranian American director Ramin Bahrani,3 is a lucid – and frightening – dive into the murky waters of American masculinity, lust for entrepreneurship, the ambiguous power of boasting and lying as a lifestyle, and gun culture. After being (maybe), the victim of a stick-up (no record of the incident has been found), after his two pizzerias burn (accident? or insurance fraud?), Richard Davis reinvents himself and manufactures a bullet-proof vest which he tests on himself and sells to the police. In his small town, his company, “2nd Chance” gives jobs to 80% of the population. When Davis invents a “more efficient” vest, things don’t go as planned.

2nd Chance

No voice-over commentary. Bahrani arranges the story in chapters whose titles (“Inglorious Missteps”, “Print the Legend”) indicate his point of view but otherwise he lets the facts, the man and the witnesses speak for themselves.

Miles apart, Brainwashed – Sex, Camera, Power, feminist experimental filmmaker Nina Menkes’s first foray into the criticism of mainstream cinema and the misrepresentation of women it fosters, divides its audience4 Thoroughly reviewed, and playing in a variety of festivals, it has generated an enthusiastic response on the part of many female spectators, but also some hostility. Menkes has culled 75 film clips, and analyses the lighting, the framing, the sound design to make her point. She also interviews, in addition to Laura Mulvey, 34 “expert witnesses”, from Julie Dash to Eliza Hittman, from academics to TV creators, that delve into how this politics of representation translates into a strategy eliminating women from the power of decision in Hollywood. In her savvy and competent analysis of cinematic signs, Menkes is too invested in the mise en scene of Her Gaze to produce a pure essay film, and one learns as much about her as about the films whose excerpts she presents. Brainwashed is the extension of a talk she gave at Sundance a few years ago, and she appears on and off in the film, drawing diagrams, expressing emotions. While this may irritate some spectators, this personal aspect is a precious kernel of emotional truth, as she circles around the disappointment, the sense of exclusion and of being denied as a human being, the pain and the anger experienced by a feminist filmmaker like her, and many women who share her emotions, when exposed to the mainstream language of cinema and the sexist way the film industry is ran. She points at the thorny question and the contradiction that many of us have experienced: how can you love a film when you disagree with its sexual politics? From the rage, we found hope, said Cecily Rhett, Menkes’s editor and close collaborator.

Brainwashed – Sex, Camera, Power

The section NEXT featured two films that playfully flirted at the boundary between documentary and fiction. In Mexican culture, “Mija” means “my daughter” and addresses young women, not necessary of your family, like “sweetheart” or “honey”. In a Mexican or Mexican American family, the father is the rock, the authority, but the daughters are the emotional centres. With this comes the responsibility of supporting and upholding the family, or ensuring its cohesion. Unlike many “immigration stories” that are sombre, serious or sociological, Mija, the first feature of Mexican American director Isabel Castro who shot most of the film, is a joyful, bubbly, engaging film that opens novel vistas about Mexican immigrant families and about the resilience of modern young women. Castro follows one of these Mijas, Doris Muñoz, who, at 23, ambitiously decided to act on her love for Latinx music5, and started a career as talent manager for an independent musician who, as “Cuco” became extremely popular. Muñoz quickly reaped a 6-figure income, which allowed her – the only member in her family to be a US citizen – to help her undocumented relatives, such as paying the expenses of getting a green card to her father and mother. Mija is an alluring, intimate and generous mixture of verité footage and reconstructed, written scenes, which gives the film a sense of authenticity. When “Cuco” decides to part ways with Doris – an event that happens off screen – she loses her income and the ability to help her family. Castro depicts her moments of depression, her interaction with her loving family, her attempts at finding strategies to cope. In the meantime, her parents have received their green cards and can visit their son who had been deported on the other side of the frontier. And, like the Phoenix, Doris is soon ready to manage an auspicious young Latina singer, Jacks Haupt, eager to break out of her parent’s home in Dallas, Texas and to make it into the music scene. 


Framing Agnes, the second feature of trans auteur Chase Joynt6 deservedly got the Audience Award for NEXT. Collaborating with artist/activist and trans-historian Morgan M. Page, Joynt brilliantly merges documentary and fiction by digging into the UCLA archives of the 1960s when they had an experimental gender-reassignment program. Addressing issues of representation and performance, Joynt asked several well-known transsexuals in the US – among which Zachary Drucker, multimedia artist, actress and producer, the star of the trans- scene; African American actress/activist Angelica Ross; actor/filmmaker Silas Howard; and actress/producer/activist Jen Richards, etc to re-enact the interviews of the original trans-subjects, and to talk about this “doubling” experience. The film focuses more specifically on Agnes (“played” by Drucker), who lied about her condition to the UCLA medical team to be allowed to benefit from the reassignment procedure, and then disappeared. Playful, yet well-documented and sometimes disturbing – as doubles are – the film raises more questions than it answers, as the trans condition itself, so its experimental form fits the subject. The question of visibility is at the core of Framing Agnes in a culture that has allowed “the creation of the trans celebrity, the trans documentary subject, and the trans research subject,” says Page 7.7 Dotranssexuals as glamorous as Zackary Drucker and Angelica Ross have “the right” to be invisible and to lead an ordinary life? “What does this mean for Agnes to be ‘framed’ by history and medical research? We are only humans if we’re allowed to be anti-heroes,” says one of the protagonists.

The most potent documentaries were those made in collaboration with their subjects. With Descendant (Special Jury Award for Impact for Creative Vision, US Documentary Competition) Margaret Brown reports on the efforts of a community of African Americans in Mobile, Alabama, to retrieve their history and connect with the ancestors, while fighting the encroachment of industrial pollution in Africatown. Slavery was abolished in the US in 1865, and bringing enslaved people to the territory became a capital crime. But in 1860, what is now known as “the last black cargo”, the illegal slave ship, Clotilda, carrying about 100 enslaved people, landed in the Mobile River. After unloading its cargo in various places of the countryside, the captain of the ship and the man who chartered the expedition, Timothy Meaher, decided to burn it and sink it. Through obfuscation and denial, and apart from a strong oral tradition, the population of Africatown didn’t have any tangible proof of their history, nor the place they were coming from and who were their ancestors. In 1927, the seminal African American novelist/cultural anthropologist/filmmaker Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), started a long interview with Cudjo Lewis, then in his 80s, the last survivor of the Clotilda, but the resulting book, Barracoon, was not published until 2018.8


There’s no single hero in Descendant, but an entire community working together – dozens of militant activists assuming different positions of leadership, including the schoolteacher who reads excerpts of Barracoon to her students. When the wreck of the Clotilda is found and identified, the joy of the community finally able to reconnect with a long-denied history is palpable. Yet history is not only directed toward the past but is a tool for contemporary activism. The descendants of Timothy Meaher own the industrialised area that surrounds Africatown with a pollution triggering cases of cancer and other diseases. The legacy of the inequalities brought by slavery is still something to fight against.

Unlike well-meaning films made about third world issues by directors from Europe or America, that speak for their subjects rather than with them, Territorio (The Territory) (Special Jury Award for Documentary Craft; Audience Award for World Documentary) is a rare and genuine collaboration between American filmmaker Alex Pritz and the members of the Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous people who co-produced the film and were Pritz’s co-cinematographers. Their territory is the Amazonian rainforest, but their livelihood is relentlessly threatened by farmers who want to invade and seize the land to grow crops and raise cattle (there is an ominous shot of huge cows brought by the truckload). Once populating the rainforest, the Uru-eu-wau-wau count only 200 survivors. The encroaching on their territory is illegal, but Brazil’s right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro encourages the land-grabbing invasions.

Eschewing voice over narration, the film courageously examines two sides of the coin — giving the floor to the indigent farmers who want to establish a settlement – as well as to the young activists of the Uru-eu-wau-wau and to environmental activist Neidinha who lives with the Indigenous people. Meanwhile, the deforestation is becoming a global environmental issue, as the rainforest plays a fundamental role in the climate. The farmers cut a trail through it, and then set fire to it, cutting in two the territory of the Uru-eu-wau-wau. Territorio offers harrowing shots of the Amazon burning – a spectacle of grief and desolation that is not easily forgotten. Hope is not absent as the Uru-eu-wau-wau are organising themselves and seizing electronic means to publicise their cause – but the images are also a reflection on loss. The idyllic, peaceful lifestyle of the Indigenous people in nature, shot with sensitivity by co-cinematographer Tangãi Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau is something that may disappear forever.

For her third documentary feature, Sirens, Moroccan American director Rita Baghdadi, who acts as her own DP, casts an intimate look at a courageous group of women working together. There’s five of them – guitarists Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara, vocalist Maya Khairallah, bassist Alma Doumani, and drummer Tatyana Boughaba, who have united to form the only all-woman metal band in the Middle East, Slaves to the Sirens. Working with women is not always easy, especially when queer attraction or rejection between members of the band complicate matters. The women live in Beirut, mostly with their mothers, which complicates matters even further. “I have to tell Mother that the woman met in Syria is a casual friend.” Meanwhile the band travels in various places of the Middle East, sometimes fighting the resistance of their male colleagues, or the lack of interest of the audience.


Baghdadi approaches filmmaking in a generous way. She is both a big sister and a confident to the women, and skilfully inserts their personal stories within the tumultuous history of Beirut at the time (including the explosion that destroyed part of the city) – not ignoring it, but not overshadowing the plight of the band either. 

It’s also women working together against a backdrop of violence that young female filmmaker Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing shot in Midwives. It is a rare feature from Myanmar that was shot over six years during civil war and periods of anti-Muslim ethnic cleansing in the western state of Rakhine (the birthplace of the filmmaker). In Rakhine, Muslims (called Rohingya) have been a large minority for generations, and ethnic tensions are prevalent. It goes from the murder of a Buddhist man for having sold rice to Muslims to periodic attacks of ethnic cleansing. The film focuses on a medical clinic providing services to women about to give birth. It is the only such clinic in the area for both Buddhist and Muslim parturients, and the two women running it are empowered by a sense of mission. Hia, a middle-aged Buddhist woman, owns the clinic, and has hired Nyo Nyo, a young Muslim woman, who can work with Rohingya women and translate for them (she is forbidden to touch Buddhist women). While intimate, the collaboration between the two is not as idyllic as presented in the official descriptions of the film. Hia is often irritated by Nyo Nyo’s ways of doing things, and sometimes calls her kalur, which means “darkie” and is a derogative term for Muslims. Nyo Nyo dreams of going to the next city to join her sister, and, later, after giving birth to her latest child, to open her own clinic for the Rohingya women. Meanwhile, Myanmar is torn by a rampant civil war and a military coup against the 2020 democratic elections.

Sense of the times: the situation of Myanmarese women is changing. The older Hia’s husband is mostly absent – but he expects his wife to take care of his mother (a task she delegates) but Nyo Nyo’s husband is very supportive, going as far as to mortgage his field so his wife can build her clinic from scratch. Shot in dangerous circumstances (Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing has since left Maynmar), Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing Midwives won the A Special Jury Award for “Excellence in Vérité filmmaking” in the World Documentary Competition

One of the most remarkable features in the selection was Dos Estaciones, in the international dramatic competition. Juan Pablo González returns to the municipality of Atotonilco El Elto, in Jalisco, a large, Northwestern state of Mexico, where he had shot his previous non-fiction work9. And, not coincidentally, it’s not far from the tequila factory his grandfather used to own. DP Gerardo Guerra’s camera has a love affair with the landscape of Jalisco, the immense grey skies, the vast expanses where the agaves are harvested, but also (and this is another landscape), the beauty of the installations of the factory, whose intricate workings are shown with a respectful precision.

Over the factory reigns the owner, Maria Garcia (an extraordinary performance by Teresa Sanchez), a stout, mannish middle-aged woman who has the owner of the beauty salon in town, Tatin (Tatin Vera), crop close to the skull her hair every other day, if so it seems. The Coleman Spirit Company is matriarchal, with Señora Maria ruling with a stern and benevolent demeanour. The respectful workers take their meals together, accepting (temporary?) delays or reduction in their pay when the factory is having solvency issues. Dos Estaciones starts in a very direct, physical way, with the farm workers harvesting agaves, whose pines will be distilled to make tequila. Yet catastrophe may be looming. A plague has wiped out the agaves in the neighbouring estate. Foreign companies around are aiming to buy the whole harvest to make custom tequila in an industrial way.

Maria hires the young, pretty, and competent Rafaela (Rafaela Fuentes) to help her with the books and the administration of the company. The mischievous joy that Maria experiences being near Rafaela, driving her around, “messing up” (joking) with her is palpable, funny, exhilarating and very moving. As the sexual tension mounts – discretely – for Maria, Felicia just offers her friendship. It culminates in a dance, filmed through a frame-within-a frame in Maria’s house, Maria leading the way and showing Felicia the moves.

A downpour triggers a flood with water invading the factory, putting it out of commission. “Do you know what you are going to do?” says Felicia. “No” is the brief response; Maria’s eyes are wet, and tears are rolling down her cheeks. What she does afterwards is both destructive and unexpected. Teresa Sanchez was awarded a Special Jury Award for Acting for Innovative Spirit. This is not coming out of nowhere. She acted in supporting or bit parts in a few American and Mexican features. And González spent several years working with her on developing Maria’s persona and character. A star is born.


  1. Pam Grier (b 1949) appeared in a number of blaxploitation films and prison films in the 1970s and 1980s. later, Quentin Tarantino cast her as the title role in Jackie Brown (1997)
  2. The accurate reference would be kabuki theater, but I didn’t think it was part of Lee-Curtis’s visual vocabulary. On the other hand, as a black man, he would be aware of the existence of minstrel shows (early 19th-early 20th century) in which white performers put on black make-up (blackface) to caricature and make fun of African Americans.
  3. Selected filmography: Man Push Cart (2005); Chop Shop (2007); Goodbye Solo (2008); At Any Price (2013); 99 Homes (2015)
  4. No stranger to controversy, Nina Menkes is one of the most prominent feminist experimental filmmakers. Selected filmography: Magdalena Viraga (1986); Queen of Diamonds (1990); The Bloody Child (1996); Phantom Love (2007), Dissolution (2010). Disclaimer: Menkes is one of my colleagues at the California Institute of the Arts.
  5. Gender-neutral alternative for latino or Latina
  6. Joynt directed a number of shorts, including a short version of Framing Agnes (2019) and co-directed the feature No Ordinary Man (2020).
  7. See https://filmmakermagazine.com/113186-who-does-visibility-serve-and-who-does-it-harm-chase-joynt-and- morgan-m-page-on-their-sundance-doc-framing-agnes
  8. Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon, The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”, New York Amistad/HarperCollins, 2018
  9. Selected filmography: Last Nubes (short, 2017) Caballerango (2018). Disclaimer: Gonzalez is a colleague at the California Institute of the Arts

About The Author

Bérénice Reynaud is the author of New Chinas/New Cinemas (1999) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (2002). She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. She edited the Senses of Cinema dossier devoted to Chantal Akerman.

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