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Sundance 2020 Final Dispatch: Softie, Farewell Amor, A Machine for Viewing, Infinitely Yours

Charlie Shackleton in A Machine for Viewing (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Previously, when attending a premiere heavy festival like Sundance, I was usually lucky enough to be present as part of a team of programmers. We divided the screenings between all of us to cover as many of the films as possible. (There are spreadsheets and rating systems involved.) Watching films as a freelancer, I realized over the first few days at Sundance that I was playing it safe by watching films by filmmakers I was already familiar with for the guarantee that at least the film would appear finished at the screening. For programmers working at festivals like Sundance, what they are watching through submissions are often rough, unfinished works with temp music, graphics, credits, sound and even voiceover. This is doubly true of festival alums, who are often given later submission deadlines than everyone else, and established filmmakers who are asked to let programmers consider their work-in-progress. After being invited and accepting the invitation, filmmakers then rush to finish the film for its premiere. This order of events isn’t true of every film, but it’s true of many. The final product that’s presented to industry gatekeepers and buyers could have been finished beautifully, or hurriedly, and—particularly in the documentary world—sometimes filmmakers quietly continue editing after a festival premiere in order to tighten up the film or even to make major structural changes based off of public feedback. This is all to say that I resolved to take more chances on debut feature films for the rest of my time at Sundance. 

As Sundance continues to spread its reach across the globe, it’s slowly improving its selections from the continents of Asia and Africa, garnering international and world premieres of filmmakers one would more traditionally find at the Berlinale. For instance, Sam Soko’s Softie is the first film produced in Kenya to be selected for Sundance. For sharp-eyed followers of the documentary industry, however, its inclusion in the World Documentary Competition is no surprise, given the amount of support the film has garnered from many granting organizations, especially after receiving a grant from the Hot Doc Forum’s Blue Ice Group Fund for African directors and also winning the Forum’s Cuban Hat award at its industry-leading pitch. The film itself is a marvel of narrative storytelling, condensing almost a decade’s worth of activist Boniface “Softie” Mwangi’s political rise into an imminently watchable fable. From his start as a photojournalist to his political protests on corruption and uncaring elites, Mwangi matures into a political candidate for a local election who introduces innovative campaign techniques, from canvassing to street rallies that don’t rely on giveaways and cash payments. Further, the film shares the very real danger that Mwangi’s family faces. From a few affecting scenes with his wife, Njeri, we witness his family’s flight to the US for safety and Mwangi’s eventual decision to prioritize his family over his country. Despite this withdrawal, the film is hopeful and upbeat, driven by plenty of context-laden news clips and idealistic speeches.

Its conventional form is completed with the skill that Western TV documentaries have perfected over the last few decades, blanketing audiences unfamiliar with the political particulars with information and plenty of intimate moments with campaign managers and supporters. In an interview with Soko and producer Toni Kamau after their film’s premiere, I asked them about all the work that got them to Sundance and who has helped them navigate the festival. Soko explained to me that they found industry support vital, though not in a way I expected: “In Kenya, we have very little support. There are organizations like Docubox [the only financing body in East and Central Africa] but they can only support very few films. From that space your journey to get into any festival is next to impossible. You have to accept that your journey is going to be long and you need as many supporters as possible. It’s something that I came to terms with a couple years ago, to create collaborations along the way.” 

Kamau added another layer to this relational reading. She made it clear that during production, when they were seeking international support, funders realized that Soko “will finish the film with or without [them],” so they wanted to be on board. She also credited the Brown Girls Doc Mafia collective for making her feel welcome at Sundance and providing a built-in community. Given the labyrinth of Sundance and the effort it takes for films to stand out, it now necessarily takes a panoply of publicists, funders, advisors, like-minded colleagues and festival programmers to ease the way for each filmmaking team. What a Hydra of a situation—merely critiquing festival’s market embeddedness and demanding more truly independent features selections means, without the proper support, that those films would be seriously disadvantaged on the ground.

That afternoon, I watched Farewell Amor, Ekwa Msangi’s accomplished first feature, whose conceit turns out to be a lot less conceptual and more appealingly lived-in than at first glance. It’s a film neatly divided, via title cards, into three acts, each told from the perspective of one of the main characters—Walter, his daughter, Sylvia, and wife Esther. The opening shot, of their family reunion in the arrivals hall of JFK, marks the beginning of each of their “chapters,” and the film quickly establishes that each act is dedicated to the particular POV of each character, with the camera sometimes hovering, literally, over their shoulders. Walter is the first up. His story is one that feels very familiar in the pantheon of American immigrant stories. By tracking the first couple of weeks after he is reunited with his wife, we learn that he was forced to abandon his family in Angola 17 years ago, now works as a taxi cab driver in NYC, loves to dance, and was living with another woman, a nurse he fell in love with at a club in the years in-between. But because Sylvia and Esther have lived almost two decades separate from him, he’s most in the dark about their thoughts and what they do all day, with Sylvia attending public school and Esther a homemaker, so the fractured nature of this first third transparently sets up questions that the following acts do, as promised, answer. 

By the time Farewell Amor moves into its third act, with Esther, several side plots have come and gone, but the essential estrangement of the family members from each other is still unresolved. By dint of a too-conveniently placed dance competition, the film turns its disparate threads and glimmers of hopefulness to a tightly woven cross-cut climax. Esther, it turns out, holds the largest differences in the richness and complexity of her inner life vs outer demeanor, as she is one who stays inside the apartment at the beginning and drives herself in mental circles. Watching her discover the world outside is a true treat, especially with the presence of a quirky and independent neighbor (Joie Lee, actress, and Spike’s sister). It works as a corrective to the monolith of immigrant stories that we traditionally encounter and as a tale of family perseverance. The camera, edit and pacing are all steady and loving, with a lot of care taken to establish the complexity of each character. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something about it all feels a bit too even-handed, with most plot points neatly resolved so that we know “what really happened.” The parts that sparkled the most, I found, were the few hanging threads, like Esther’s manipulation by a predatory evangelical church and some of the mystery of her religiosity. I’m hoping the film lingers, and am looking forward to what Msangi is working on next.

My last day at Sundance, I went to a brunch hosted by the Documentary Producers Alliance. The first half of the meeting was a closed-door working meeting—the type that abounds at Sundance by dint of its status as a gathering place for industry players and filmmakers, regardless of their associations with films in the official selection any given year. Some are officially hosted by Sundance initiatives, like the meeting that started what would become Art House Convergence 15 years ago, and others are independently organized. (To be clear, this happens at many other big industry festivals.) For the first hour of this DPA meeting, member producers met and refined recommendations for reforming investing practices in documentary practices that had been applied, ad hoc, from fiction funding. Last year, this nascent group released a comprehensive “Guide to Best Practices in Documentary Crediting.” As documentary film has burgeoned into what appears to be a lucrative (or prestigious) investment opportunity, DPA is positioning itself as a trade group, however informal, necessary to ensure the sustainability of independent filmmakers and the future of the field.

The second half of this meeting was the public presentation of these initial recommendations to funders and other gatekeepers, as well as to anyone merely curious about the proceedings. First, the DPA’s committee chairs read a list of guiding principles that included tenets like “transparency and honesty should be the bedrock of filmmaker-funder relationships.” Then, they quickly went over a very provisional set of guidelines that included recommendations on disperse fees, outsets, soft money, overages, and, most fascinatingly to me, a debate about “equity” as an investing term and its connotations of ownership over IP, which the DPA posited should clearly belong to the filmmakers. The public was informed that after soliciting more rounds of feedback and conducting teach-ins across the country, the DPA will release their recommendations next month in Documentary magazine, a project of the International Documentary Association. (Through events like the biannual Getting Real conference, the IDA has recently become a de facto mouthpiece advocating for independent documentary in the US.) The DPA event was attended by a who’s who of nonfiction funders, whose questions at the end were entirely encouraging and supportive of the DPA’s work. Nonetheless, I also noted that the DPA committee chairs passed around a hat, asking for donations to help cover the cost of hosting the brunch. Festivals like Sundance are an easy way for those working to reform the industry to gather industry leaders in one room, but it’s an expensive proposition: one must, as in the world all over, pay to play. 

That evening, I trekked up to the top of Main Street to Park City’s historic Egyptian Theater for a “double feature” of live performances presented in the New Frontiers section for expanded and experimental media. The last time I attended Sundance, three years ago, the New Frontiers Central that is home to all the expanded cinema/VR installations was free and open to the public, even if one didn’t have a credential. Now, many of the experiences are ticketed events at set times, and New Frontiers Central is closed to the general public. With its gated access, the space’s copious comfortable couches, nooks and crannies appear to function as much as a decorated meeting space as a place for experiencing installations and videos. (I have to confess here that I did, in fact, take two meetings in the space, which is open from early in the morning to 10pm at night, with a short break in between, and is far more private than any of the hotel lobbies or coffeeshops.)

In her introduction for the double feature, New Frontiers head curator Shari Frilot explained that each of the two performances would be followed by its own Q&A. Now understanding the billing as one that wanted to draw distinctions instead of connections between the work tonight, and give its makers enough room to establish the particulars of each work, I was still pleasantly surprised when the house lights went down for A Machine for Viewing and the spotlights turned on to reveal one of its three filmmakers, Charlie Shackleton, sitting in the middle of the audience. The performance began immediately, with Shackleton reading off of a prepared script about the history of screen sizes and ratios while a member of the audience interacted with a VR headset. What the audience member was seeing and manipulating was projected onto the screen for the entire theater, and while there were some technical difficulties resulting in Shackleton’s voice fading in and out of audible legibility, I was able to still garner enough to puzzle through his argument that screens, and frames, were man-made constructs that aid and fundamentally change the scope of what we see on screen. The participant was allowed, at points, to change the aspect ratio of the classical films she was watching in a virtual theater, which, in turn, we were also watching. At one point, she edged the top of the screen all the way down to the bottom, not letting the audience see anything except for black and the virtual reality movie theater seats. These unexpected participatory results were affecting, and seeing it unfold in real time gave the performance a palpable sense of excitement and import.

Warned by Shackleton earlier in the week that live VR elements were complex and the makers themselves weren’t sure how whether all of it would technically work together, I wasn’t surprised when the screen immediately went to black afterward the first segment, and some placeholder cards appeared over generic waiting room Muzak: “We are currently experiencing technical difficulties. Please enjoy the music.” But even this occurrence was cleverly integrated into the audience experience. Further cards explained that the directors purchased the music royalty free and they apologized for it being a mere six second loop. After a couple minutes, another card appeared: “If you are still reading this, the crisis has escalated. Please bear with us as we devise a backup plan.” Some stage managers were indeed walking briskly through the audience with headsets as this was happening. Chatting with a couple seated in front of me, they told me that this was their first Sundance screening ever, and also that they thought these technical challenges were part of the performance. As far as experimentation and expanded cinema goes, I enjoyed the feeling of community in the room, and also the directors’ care towards still taking care of their audience by pre-planning a narrative and explanations for us all though we were still literally kept in the dark.

Once the projection was up and running again, Richard Misek and then Oscar Raby took the baton from Shackleton for their portions of the performance. Each also essentially live-read a script for a video essay from different places in the theater, including the projection booth, and had their participants also situated in these disparate spaces, who were interacting with their versions of the same virtual theater in Shackleton’s portion. One of the participants turned out to be director Josephine Decker, who stood up as the screen in her headset folded over itself and into the screen-theater space, engulfing the screen-seats while we all sat riveted in our real-seats. (At one point, for the sharp eyed and in-the-know, we were watching Decker watch her own films.) Topics that Raby and Misek questioned included the choice of seats in a theater, the distance between audience and screens, and the notion of spectatorship. The notion of different “machines for viewing,” to which VR and a black box theater both belong, was compellingly explicated in all three portions. I found myself wondering what truly was essential to a theater space, and in what ways they can continue to be transformed as technology evolves beyond digital projection. 

Animator, dancer, and performer Miwa Matreyek’s Infinitely Yours closed out the evening. For this performance, she collaborated with SORNE, the solo act of composer, musician, and multi-media artist Morgan Sorne. Though clearly multi-hyphenates both, I still wasn’t prepared for the aural and visual bonanza that followed. Matreyek has made a name for herself by devising a mix of shadow-puppetry using her own body combined with digital animation. This amalgamation of live animation and collage techniques unfolded onto a small screen in the middle of the Egyptian’s stage, with SORNE off to the side rocking out to music, horns, bells, drums and his own voice. The room felt electric. On the screen, the images were a tour through environmental destruction and human intervention in the built environment: wildfires with animals fleeing, trucks delivering pigs to slaughterhouses, the packaging of industrial products, their eventual dumping into landfills, and so on. The associative imagery crescendoed to a clear question: “What are you waiting for?” before fading back into nature, the idyll of the beginning in the woods with woodland life scampering around.

As someone typically skeptical of the impact of anything to change hearts and minds, I still found this half an hour a galvanizing call to action to take seriously the urgency of climate disaster and tectonic shifts of the Anthropocene. It also reminded me that cinema’s origins have as much to do with live shows, entertainment like burlesque and concerts and light shows, as they do with the photographic and mechanical reproduction. The original expanded cinema has always existed in some way, and, if we can find a way to ensure our survival on this planet we’ve made hostile, will persist in the decades and centuries to come, no matter its exact form.

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