By Robert Koehler
Sundance equals power, and for a good reason: get your movie into the lineup, and you have an excellent chance of securing distribution in the US, a better chance by far than at any other festival. This means that it’s the supreme gateway, and despite or because of this fact, Sundance’s audiences are among the most conservative and rearguard in the international festival world. A fine gauge of this is the treatment accorded Vitalina Varela, which unexpectedly ended up in the Park City line-up. From the moment the selection was announced, it was an outlier: while Pedro Costa’s masterpiece was a natural for Locarno’s Golden Leopard competition (even better, a perfect Golden Leopard winner) and easily secured a spot in the New York Film Festival’s main slate, Sundance pushed it to the far edges of its program. Here was a stark example of how the festival universe pits North America against the rest of the world: what’s mainstream at major European and New York festivals suddenly is deemed fringe in the Utah mountains, where the programmers can’t risk slotting a title in a centrepiece, high-profile platform, as they know their audiences will bolt. Even ensconced in the pseudo-avant-garde section of New Frontier—where viewers supposedly know that they’re in for something fairly adventurous—the Sundance walkouts for Vitalina Varela were like none the movie experienced in most of its appearances at other festivals.
There’s a reason why Sundance refashioned New Frontier a few years ago as primarily a showcase for new VR work, taking it ever further away from its original mission as a safe harbour for the experimental and avant-garde; it’s the same reason you search the US landscape in vain for a significant festival with an experimental section. These festivals, and Sundance above all, have failed to develop the audience for such work; no such effort guarantees no audience, so the festivals give up on something they never believed in anyway, and instead opt for the trendy dead end of VR, now all the rage at a festival near you. (So is the terrible idea of screening early episodes of upcoming streaming and high-end cable shows, but that’s a topic for another time.) Sundance could easily afford to treat New Frontier as a loss leader, in the same way that record labels used to handle new work by uncommercial artists who defy categories. By not doing so, it has done great damage to the cause of American festivals exploring cinema’s outer edges.
It’s so bad now that Sundance attendees identify New Frontier as VR and only VR. So how’s this virtual thing going anyway? Pretty horribly. With one exception—Canadian artist and filmmaker Randall Okita’s touching and involving saga, The Book of Distance, about his Japanese family’s forcible relocation from British Columbia during World War II—every VR and computer-driven work I viewed was visually ugly and hobbled by tech glitches that often delayed things as long as 20 to 30 minutes. Instead of presentation going smoother after several editions, New Frontier VR is worse than ever—a regression that, in its own way, mirrors the country’s politics, infrastructure, and just about everything else. By my fifth experience with these annoyances, I vowed to never waste time on Sundance’s idea of VR ever again, knowing I wouldn’t be missing much anyway.
What attendees apparently didn’t know, judging by the mild attendance, was that New Frontier still does provide a very few slots for actual cinema, led by Sky Hopinka’s elegant malni—towards the ocean, towards the shore. Reflecting on the time and place the artist lived in the Portland area before he relocated to Vancouver (where he currently teaches at Simon Fraser University), Hopinka’s first feature looks and feels in perfect sync with his remarkable string of short films, exemplified by a rich interplay between image, language, mythology, social realities on the rez, and dreamscapes. With malni, Hopinka provides himself more space to explore one of his favoured artistic territories: the borderland between dream and reality, life and death. The space also permits Hopinka to devote his fluid camera’s attention to male and female friends (Jordan Mercier, Sweetwater Sahme), who inject their own thoughts and views about living in the traditional land of the Chinook. Hopinka learned Chinuk, the tribal language, which provides the film a balance of aural and visual poetics, expressed in its most sublime form in sequences where sky, land, and river meet ocean, places where water moves back and forth, flows and recycles in the way nature revives itself.
Fear of losing the audience haunts the Sundance lineup, but the only work I saw among 50 that naturally pleased the audience while still fulfilling its artistic mission was the second feature project by filmmaking team Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, who followed up their superb The Last Race (2018) with The Truffle Hunters, a charming, panoramic look at the exotic business of truffles. You almost can’t miss with a movie featuring dogs, their elderly northern Italian truffle-hunting masters, foodie porn, and gorgeous imagery that would make Terrence Malick salivate. But Dweck and Kershaw’s movie isn’t simply pretty and cute, although that may be how some will label it. Like The Last Race, it’s about the tragedy of a fading culture, the clash between corporate power and authentic human community, the pleasures of conversation, and the ways in which old age can burst with life and absurdity.
Although Dweck and Kershaw are distinct outsiders to this special Italian world, they never seem like tourists—which is a profound problem with several other nonfiction works at Park City, especially Ai Weiwei’s Vivos and Hubert Sauper’s Epicentro. Ai’s interest in the tragic 2014 case of dozens of disappeared teachers-college students in Mexico’s Guerrero state can easily be read as the artist-filmmaker viewing China’s repressive state through the filter of Mexico; as such, Vivos is a complicated case of indirect protest, one that is hobbled by Ai’s utterly conventional approach (including dull talking-head interviews) and generally lacking any of the visual excitement of his work as a conceptual artist, and, even worse, the probing investigative sensibility that informs some of his earlier documentaries. It could be that Ai was simply stymied by being in Mexico, which is certainly the sense conveyed by Sauper, who wanders around in Havana to no real effect in Epicentro. Probably no place in Latin America encourages moviemaking tourism more than Cuba, which, though seemingly frozen in the early-’60s amber of Fidelismo, is actually seething with potential for great change. But Sauper’s movie—which is certainly the most disappointing in Sundance, given the director’s adventurous filmography—is little more than a document of his total failure to delve under those surfaces.
Maybe it’s best to stay close to home, which is what reporter-turned-filmmaker Radu Ciorniciuc does with Acasa, My Home, his intimate account of what happens when a poor family who has eked out a living on the Bucharest delta immediately adjacent to Romania’s capital is forced to relocate to a cramped apartment. Like Roberto Minervini, Ciorniciuc gains his subject’s trust in his direct-cinema strategy, although he lacks Minervini’s poetics. Iryna Tsilik, on the other hand, is an actual Ukrainian poet, and her first feature-length nonfiction film, The Earth Is Blue as an Orange, is a work of sublime lyricism even as it remains stubbornly domestic. Tsilik observes, through her highly aesthetic lens, a family recreating their trauma of surviving Russia’s siege of the Donbass by making a movie about it shot by eldest daughter Mira, who starts her university training as a cinematographer during filming.
A different celebration of cinema was the latest from the prolific Alexandre O. Philippe, who follows his previous explorations of Psycho (78/52, 2017) and Alien (Memory, 2019) with Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist. Friedkin’s granular discussion of his horror-movie milestone recalls the director’s own filmed 1975 interview with Fritz Lang (included on Criterion’s DVD set of M), and Philippe is smart enough to include clips of that conversation in this unexpectedly wide-ranging discussion, which allows Friedkin to let loose, in his characteristically thoughtful and freewheeling mode, on everything from how Exorcist author William Peter Blatty wanted to play Father Karras to the movie’s connection to a Zen garden in Kyoto. With Friedkin now reportedly seriously ill, and the unlikelihood that any of his peers would or could hold court for such an in-depth, feature-length discussion, Leap of Faith may be one of the last documents to record the thinking of any of the key “New Hollywood” directors of the 1970s. But in Sundance, it’s pretty much always about America in the 2020s: if you asked anyone if they had seen such highlights in the typically erratic World Cinema Dramatic Competition as Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero’s stunning Mexican border drama Identifying Features or, say, Visar Morina’s searing, rigorously conceived German thriller Exile, you likely received blank looks.
No movies captured the mood and realities in today’s US so much as a trio that will be remembered as key takeaways from Sundance 2020: Bill and Turner Ross’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, Garrett Bradley’s Time, and Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s Boys State. With films like Tchoupitoulas (2012) and Western (2015), the Rosses have built an oeuvre on the principle of in-between cinema that interrogates filmmaking forms, and Bloody Nose continues and heightens this project. Saturated in a Bukowskiesque stupour, the film restages the actual closing day-into-night of a way-off-the-Strip Vegas dive bar (ironically called The Roaring 20s), the camera swimming around the bar’s motley denizens, casting them as stars in their own recreated lives. The clientele forms a loose family (including a real one which periodically takes the action outside the bar, as the female bartender’s teenage son hangs out with his pals) that spans generations—not unlike the Rich family in Time, an exquisite work of cinema vérité (and the first outstanding nonfiction project produced through The New York Times’ documentary unit) that chronicles Fox Rich’s dogged fight to free her incarcerated husband Rob. Bradley’s slipstreaming montage shifts between Fox’s trove of home video and filming that has the electrical charge of being in the moment without feeling like journalism cinema, even as it will become known as the great movie demanding radical US prison reform. Boys State leans closer to journalism, but the husband-wife team of Moss and McBaine create something like a bittersweet fable of the American underdog in the era of political schisms. The filmmakers descend on the annual confab of Texas Boys State, organized by the American Legion (and thus right-leaning by definition) to simulate political conventions and teach civics, a subject that used to be required in US public schools. That their cameras just happen to focus on three high schoolers who happen to be picked for major offices is either good luck or trickster filmmaking, but either way, Boys State reinforces a depressing fact: progressives keep losing, and right-wing assholes keep winning.
Sundance’s programming strategies are so screwed up that its best American movie was slotted in Next, the non-competitive sidebar created after the demise of the late, lamented CineVegas festival (which was founded by former Sundance program director Trevor Groth when he couldn’t get some of his favourite offbeat movies in the program). In case anybody could find it, The Killing of Two Lovers provided an object lesson on what happens when a writer-director of supreme artistry (Robert Machoian) crafts a concentrated narrative focused on the essentials of character, conflict, and desire, and fills it with the contrasting landscapes of the human face and the wintry desolation of a small town in central Utah. Through the course of roughly 24 hours, David (Clayne Crawford, in an astonishing performance) struggles with the fresh reality that his estranged wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi) may no longer want to revive their marriage, and his desperation recalls the tortured pride of Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman. With limited means and humility, Machoian—whose many shorts and features, such as Forty Years from Yesterday (2013), should be required viewing—has become a poet of America’s working-class families, treating their stories with a sublime balance of warmth and rigour.
The festival’s only great discovery came from Lesotho-born, Berlin-based Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, whose first narrative feature This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection felt like an alien landing in the ski resort. (The film premiered in Venice, and, days later, it landed in the friendlier confines of Rotterdam.) Naturally, few saw it, including most members of the press who had no excuse; once again, Sundance’s genuine efforts to expand its World Cinema portfolio went nowhere, but never mind. Telling the story of an 80-year-old widow who stands at the centre of the forced relocation of a highlands farming village (the kind that the filmmaker grew up in), Mosese endows the film with the mythic qualities and earthy textures of Pasolini, with subtle influences ranging from Ousmane Sembène to Costa. Reflecting Mosese’s own odyssey as a formerly devout Christian to a member of (as he puts it) “the church of cinema,” This Is Not a Burial traces the course of an old woman’s grief from isolation and loss of belief to gradually renewed contact with her community, even as the community is dissolving in front of her fierce eyes. Cinema’s potential to portray resistance to entrenched power seldom feels like it is realized; here is a majestic example of what can be done when anger is filtered through poetics. That this is coming from the southern edge of the continent least recognized by the dominant film festivals is all the more remarkable.