Sundance 2021: In the Year of COVID

Taming the Garden

By Robert Koehler

The weather at Sundance this year was great—mostly sunny, a steady 74 degrees Fahrenheit, based on my indoor AC monitor—although the wind in my Southern California desert backyard did kick up from time to time. But at the actual Sundance, not the virtual one attendees were experiencing through their computer monitors, serious questions were in the air.

Now that the cinema world was a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, what movies would be done and available? Would anything premiering be worth a damn after sitting on the shelf for nearly 12 months? Were the good movies being held back in the hope that actual festivals would kick back into gear by, oh, late spring? (Hope springs eternal.) That last question was the one that really mattered, one that pestered the fall festivals of 2020 to a degree but which has now come down hard on festivals in early 2021, as the feeling (is it just a feeling?) grows that the pandemic is coming to the beginning of the end.

For a festival so reliably terrible when it comes to programming world cinema, that question was fundamental. As I’ve noted in these pages before, Sundance has always been the kind of US festival (because it is the most powerful US festival) that feels as if it can skate by with a mediocre global selection so long as its domestic lineup packed houses, generated sufficient buzz, and sold to distributors. But that profile changed somewhat this year with the hiring of the Black British filmmaker Tabitha Jackson as festival director. Jackson, who ran the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program for six years, represented an immediate upgrade over her long-serving predecessor John Cooper, what with her extensive contacts in the global nonfiction cinema community. She demonstrated this during the Q&A that followed the streaming premiere of Theo Anthony’s All Light, Everywhere, aptly invoking Harun Farocki and expanding the conversation; it’s hard to imagine Cooper being able to manage the same.

But, given that Rotterdam’s extraordinary Tiger lineup (which coincided with Sundance and made for some serious late-night computer viewing competition) put to bed any concern that the good movies were being held back, Sundance’s poor 2021 program just underlined this festival’s profound, chronic problems. I saw 52 of the 70 features, probably as high a percentage of a festival’s overall program as I’ve managed in 20-some years of festival viewing (certainly one major benefit of streaming rather than wasting time trudging through snow), and the only “major” premiere I missed was Passing, a US competition entry written and directed by actor Rebecca Hall. Which is one way of noting that I have a fairly firm idea of what this edition’s overall program was: a wave of half-realized works that often bore the marks of being designed as calling cards for Hollywood or, worse, that actually tried for something outside the industrial mainstream and came up painfully short.

Certainly, the embarrassing, near-clean sweep of the major US dramatic awards by a wan, dismissible item titled CODA (acronym for Child of Deaf Adults)—coupled with Apple’s insane $25 million purchase of same—indicated that formulaic product suitable for families everywhere is the way forward if you’re a filmmaker with ambitions of Sundance gold. The screenplay award to Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch for the interminable crime comedy On the Count of Three was no better, though their ridiculous script had competition from the likes of Mayday (made with flagrant aspirations for Marvel glory), CODA, Jockey (an old mare of a movie that could’ve been made 30 years ago), and John and the Hole (a ludicrous Cannes 2020 selection and an example of how to ruin a perfectly good premise). Arch comedies like First Date, thin, effects-rich horror like The Blazing World, bland relationship dramas suited for TV and nothing else like Ma Belle, My Beauty, and entries in what can only be termed the “Stupid Weird” category—led by the rotten Strawberry Mansion—projected an overwhelming sense of creative exhaustion, blanketing American cinema like a pandemic.

The ones that succeeded comprise a short list, including a studio movie—Warner Bros.’ superb Judas and the Black Messiah—boat-racing the narrative indies in the lineup for sheer energy, ideas, and storytelling. A list of seven, and for an even ten I’ll toss in Ben Wheatley’s sloppy In the Earth for at least getting this increasingly problematic filmmaker back on the wild-man track where he belongs; Eight for Silver, an effective and strangely overlooked entry in the Premieres section (and which should actually have been slotted in the Midnight program, one of several misprogrammed titles this year) that shows what a fully-realized horror movie can look like; and a minor consolation prize to Ana Katz’s sneaky The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, one of only three Latin American movies at the festival (Sundance’s slack attention to that continent is worth an essay in itself), which exhibited some interest in narrative invention beyond mere cleverness.

Another Latin American filmmaker, Natalia Almada, made it into the program with Users, although this new feature is neither about nor set in her native Mexico. Like a few other Mexican filmmakers, Almada operates part-time in English-speaking North America; just as she shifts geographically, she also shifts in form, hopping between fiction and nonfiction features. Aside from the familial aspects of El general (2009), her major work—including Al otro lado (2005), El velador (2011, still the most original film on the Mexican cartels), and her brilliant chamber drama Everything Else (2016)—observe aspects of Mexican life from a distance. Users takes on the most clinical subject she’s yet tackled—the fantastic spread of mechanization across every aspect of human activity and its impact on humanity and the environment—but through the prism of motherhood, as Almada (who narrates on the soundtrack) studies her two sons, Elias and Gray, and ponders the many ways that technology is going to change them. Almada resists using the hot Silicon Valley term of the moment, “post-human,” but that concern for how our machines may alter us runs through Users as a disturbing blend of fear and love.

The Strangelovian and Gil Scott-Heron-referencing title of Questlove’s Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) refers to the loss and recovery of hours of videotape of the six-week Harlem Cultural Festival held in Harlem’s sylvan Mt. Morris Park in 1969, which was intended for broadcast but neglected for 50 years after no TV station chose to air it. An incredible act of video-age archaeology, the film moulds this lost-and-found footage into a story about Harlem at a critical turning point in American culture, when Black and Latino music were reaching critical mass in the still white-dominant country. Summer of Soul is not a vérité-style concert doc à la Woodstock (1970); rather, Questlove pointedly employs talking-head interviews and archival material to provide each selected segment with a context, creating a cultural-history document for contemporary audiences. The 5th Dimension, for example, had to overcome the crowd’s skepticism as they were viewed as “the white Black group” due to such hits as “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In”; white audiences (and most consumers of all things Sundance) wouldn’t know that Mahalia Jackson was and remains the fundamental figure of gospel, and the segment here (which features Jackson performing with the Staples Singers) shows why. When Questlove cuts from Rev. Al Sharpton’s assertion that “1969 was the pivotal year when ‘Negro’ died and ‘Black’ was born” to jazz drummer Max Roach delivering “It’s Time,” it says more than 50 speeches.

Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers is another kind of musical recovery, and for my money Wright’s most wonderful movie to date—even though he apparently felt the need to kowtow to some Hollywood celebrity royalty, who appear in the film to explain how much they love this band you’ve supposedly never heard of. Some of us, however, knew about Ron and Russell Mael’s crazy music project Sparks from the start, especially if you lived in their native Los Angeles, and especially if you attended their alma mater, UCLA. This makes this pretence of obscurity a rare misstep in an otherwise loving portrait that not only provides an exhaustive summary of the group’s roller-coaster career and brilliant discography, but also grasps the quicksilver nature of the Maels. For one thing, the brothers, even given their obvious and often thwarted ambitions for pop stardom, were never much into celebrity or Hollywood: aside from a botched collaboration with Tim Burton, their idea of breaking into the movies was trying to get something off the ground with Jacques Tati; they’ve only recently realized their cinematic ambitions, as co-writers of Leos Carax’s upcoming Annette. (Guy Maddin is another Sparks fan: the Maels wrote “The Final Derriere” for The Forbidden Room [2015] after Maddin staged a reading of their Swedish radio-commissioned album The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2011.) Wright’s wit is an ideal match for the Maels, whose massive output (over two dozen albums across 50 years) is stuffed with hilarity, mainly in the juxtaposition of Ron’s cockeyed lyrics and titles (who else would write a tune titled “I Wish I Looked a Little Better”?) and Russell’s matinee-idol guise, which they’ve mined for an endless number of variations. Even the film’s occasional VH1-style dips into music-business highs and lows don’t detract from the movie’s giddy energy and the way it captures the visceral pleasure of the act of creating—which, the Maels remind us, involves sitting down at your desk every day and doing the work.

In the reams of coverage of this year’s Sundance, I couldn’t find any reference to the most obviously newsworthy item: for the first time in the troubled section’s history, New Frontiers would be presenting no features, and will be devoted exclusively to VR from now until, I guess, eternity. This failure to note Sundance’s complete abandonment of experimental cinema just confirmed that the press covering the festival never gave a crap about what it considers a minor backwater of the art form. But did it mean that Sundance’s last experimental feature would be Sky Hopinka’s maɬni—towards the ocean, towards the shore (2020)? Not quite. Slotted prominently in the US documentary competition, Theo Anthony’s aforementioned All Light, Everywhere expands on the form that Anthony articulated in Rat Film (2016), as well as his critique of the history of systemic racism in the US, with a sneaky, indirect approach that contrasts with Travis Wilkerson’s more direct, broadside approach to issues of race and class.

Anthony’s subject is the development of surveillance of citizens in public spaces, which makes the film a close cousin to Users in its concerns for technology’s social domination. The work’s mainspring is the 2015 murder of Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore police department and the subsequent use of new forms of city-funded surveillance techniques to scan and control the city’s Black neighbourhoods. Remarkably, Anthony obtains the trust of the men behind these technologies, such as Steve Tuttle, CEO of Axon Intl., who describe and boast about the effectiveness of their new crime-fighting weapons. As in Rat Film, Anthony creates a complex mosaic that cinematically interrogates ideas: in this case, our own sense, as viewers, of the flaws of visual perception—that is to say, how optical perception at the biological level contains its own blind spots. The fact that the viewer feels the need to replay All Light, Everywhere to make sense of what it shows onscreen—and what happens just offscreen, in some fascinating sequences during a Baltimore citizens’ meeting—is both a by-product of the movie’s experimentation and the core point of the project. Don’t believe your eyes.

Jessica Beshir’s poetic lament Faya Dayi, a standout in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, was the only other work at Sundance this year that can be honestly termed “experimental.” Shot in black and white in Ethiopia’s remote Harar highlands (which were also the setting of Beshir’s 2017 short Hairat), Faya Dayi outlines the massive cultural shifts in the region that have been brought on by climate change. Unable to grow their traditional coffee crop due to lower rain levels, the community of Sufi Muslims that Beshir observes is able to eke out a living with the new cash crop of the highly addictive khat leaf—with the trade-off of high levels of addiction among the population. With her extraordinary editors Jeanne Applegate and Dustin Waldman, Beshir creates a dreamy weave of images and thoughts—a beautiful kind of stoned reverie—and she seems to cohabitate with the villagers, including the young men who ponder journeying to Europe and the elders who appear lost in a world they didn’t make.

Faya Dayi and the festival’s only masterpiece—Salomé Jashi’s Taming the Garden, which is destined to be one of the key nonfiction works of our time—dismantle the driving philosophy that guides most of Sundance’s nonfiction output: to instruct. Just as Faya Dayi radically veers away from being a standard piece of reportage (even with the amount of information it obliquely conveys), Taming the Garden reframes the strange case of Georgia’s ex-prime minister, billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, and his obsessive purchase and collection of mature trees—which involves their labour-intensive extraction and transportation to his private dendrological park—as a meditation on power and its uses. That power is pointedly kept offscreen, with Jashi’s steady camera maintaining a respectful, observant distance from residents and the workers making the whole insane operation run on time, resisting the temptation of cheap and easy sops to audience sentiment, such as close-ups of villagers grieving the loss of their beloved trees.

As in her astonishing debut, The Dazzling Light of Sunset (2016), Jashi’s art is complex, Chekhovian: she allows space for the viewer to realize that everyone has their reasons, to admire the sheer engineering prowess involved in this literal rape of living things from their native soil to suit the whims of an oligarch, and even permits a certain sense of beauty to bleed into the absurdist finale, set in Ivanishvili’s tree park. What courses through every moment of Taming the Garden isn’t anger, which would be the easy way out; instead, Jashi’s movie plays honest witness to the practice of power in the 21st century, where the natural world is being remolded at irrevocable cost. Koehler Robert