Sundance 2022 Critic’s Notebook: Mija, Mars One, Emergency
When does a virtual film festival start? The types of film screenings, audience accommodations, parties, panels, social spaces, diversity and development programs, residencies, labs, medical procedures and contingency plans film festival organizers are responsible for keep spiraling. The International Film Festival Rotterdam warned all attendees in late December that its 2022 edition would be entirely virtual, while the Berlinale recently confirmed the festival’s focus on in-person screenings would proceed as planned next month, without exception for press, but with a slightly expanded, all-virtual European Film Market. In this climate, Sundance announced a scant two weeks before the festival’s opening night that in-person events in Park City would be canceled, after several affirmations that the festival would proceed as announced.
Unlike the impression given from most pandemic-era narratives you may have read, most film festivals have had virtual components for decades. The world’s most important film festivals, including Sundance, had already been rapidly expanding their activities in the virtual realm before COVID-19. Most of these activities, however, had been hidden from the public view, being available only to industry guests, press programs and alumni or artist development programs. They include virtual press and industry film libraries and viewing windows, online marketplaces and directories, and the humble email list and Facebook group.
Since the May 2020 racial reckonings in the US and elsewhere, Sundance Institute has also used its newsletter communications to profess the institution’s commitment to diversity and equity in its film, project, and artist development activities. In late September 2021, as 60,000 IATSE members prepared to vote on a historic general strike, Sundance issued a statement in solidarity on social media with seven other independent film organizations, stating that they “support the protection of workers and their rights to safe workplaces, reasonable work hours and rest, and living wages. As advocates of people underrepresented and under-protected in the entertainment industry, it is imperative that we uphold safe and regenerative working conditions, especially as we all continue to weather the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The workers referenced in this statement were those who crewed films and TV—and without films, episodic TV, and immersive works, Sundance certainly wouldn’t exist as we know it. But Sundance, like many film festivals and other independent film non-profits, also employs many contract workers of its own. This category covers the more-visible programming and technical staff as well as venue managers, travel and hospitality coordinators, stage managers, ticket takers, crew members of its directing labs, and volunteers who are often working under onerous conditions.
In direct response to this one statement, two Instagram accounts were set up by anonymous contract workers to collate testimony from these laborers, who did not feel that the new consciences of their employers extended to them. For those interested in truly knowing the working conditions of film festivals, @feststafferstories and @offthefestcircuit are invaluable resources and sites of organizing. To platform further discourse, FilmEx—the virtual conference for film festivals and arthouse cinemas administered by Film Festival Alliance—organized a panel on the heels of Sundance’s sudden announcement of an all-virtual festival. “Best Practices by Seasonal Workers for Organizations” illuminates the challenges facing contract workers, with special attention paid to how different departments segregate their workers from each other. For all the sympathy that was extended to filmmakers who had to re-arrange their in-person premieres, and industry guests who lost thousand-dollar deposits on flights and rentals in Park City, the testimonies of these panelists attest to how we still overlook vital segments of film festival precarity.
In Mija, Isabel Castro turns her camera towards such behind-the-scenes characters in the music industry by focusing on the life and work of then-26-year-old music manager Doris Muñoz. Castro’s debut feature documentary opens as Doris is at a pinnacle of success, dropping viewers into the middle of a Selena for Sanctuary benefit concert, part of a wildly successful series of free concerts at venues like the Lincoln Center and Central Park’s SummerStage. The benefits raised funds for immigrant families seeking reunification and immigrant rights organizations, and headlined Cuco, a Chicano musician whose prospects and fame were deeply entwined with Doris’s. Doris promised, as his manager, that Cuco and his music would never be whitewashed. (In all early magazine profiles of Cuco, Doris is mentioned as his discoverer, with phrases like “wunderkind” manager.) The early portion of the film covers their meteoric rise and the real result of that success for both musician and manager: to be able to financially support their immigrant families and sponsor their green card applications. Throughout the rest of Mija, these types of professional and emotional beats are constantly entwined through an organic incorporation of both Muñoz’s home videos and voiceover. Sometimes her narration explains family preference sponsorship in green card eligibility and its exorbitant costs; other times she opens herself up to vulnerability over having to be the bridge between her parents and an older brother who was deported years ago, or a more prosaic sense of professional ennui. It’s extremely moving, without any of the canned feeling that afflicts many other documentary voiceovers written in collaboration with the participants, where stiff or aspirationally poetic deliveries reveal the construct as an imposition.
Castro’s camerawork is steady, her instincts tend towards the intimate, and the editing pace of each scene allows for its own internal rhythms, instead of zooming from scene to scene to build artificial narrative thrust. Mija kicks into high gear when it becomes an unexpected two-hander—not with Cuco, who drops Doris as his manager early in the film’s runtime, but with Jacks Haupt, a young Mexican American singer from Dallas whose parents, like Doris’s, are undocumented. Immediately after Doris teases a new, but unnamed, musician she sees promise in, the film cuts to said musician. It’s a delightful change of pace and smart production redirection, but it also works because Mija takes the time to establish Jacks as a character and person in her own right. Her breathy croon and whole affect are almost the opposite of Cuco’s hyped-looped pop ballads—but more importantly, in Jacks the filmmakers find a foil to Doris.
Their beliefs aren’t opposite, but between Doris and Jacks, the film gets to explore two possible visions of artistic struggle and family relationships. Visiting Jacks in Dallas, Doris convinces her to make a business trip to Los Angeles for her 21st birthday. The emotional tension from the resulting trip culminates in a scene with Jacks on the phone with her mother, whose disapproval of her trip appears to be a transposition of her personal worries and hurt to her daughter as much as it comes from family need; Jacks’s fraught response is defused by Doris sharing her own family’s journey of accepting music as her career. Doris treads the line between packaging Jacks, providing connections, and promising success she cannot guarantee with great delicacy; if I have any quibble with the film, it’s that the portrayal of the power of the myth-making producer seems a bit underbaked and unquestioned. (Mija Management is also the name of Doris’s company, and the film’s title card uses the same font and branding as the company.) After all, at the end of the film it is Doris whose family is reunited, and who get to share in the communal power of music together.
A different sort of filmmaker-participant collaboration and family-disagreement-as-dramatic-arc marks Mars One, which is, I believe, the first Filmes de Plástico production to play Sundance. This collective of four filmmakers—André Novais Oliveira, Gabriel Martins, Maurilio Martins and producer Thiago Macêdo Correia—formed over a decade ago in their hometown: the city of Contagem, on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte. Their prolific output is an important part of a new Cinema Negro Brasilia, a Black Brazilian Cinema movement that has recently cohered in the writing of film critics, scholars, and filmmakers from the region. Oliveira, Gabriel and Maurilio Martins make films with great ingenuity and aesthetic control, and have rapidly ascended the international film festival circuit with a few notable self-reflexive hallmarks: a Gramscian bottom-up focus on the quotidian lives of their families and neighbors in Contagem (often, in early years, using each other as non-professional actors), a mix of lo-/hi-fi video sources and implicit media analysis of consumption and, as they gained critical acclaim and grant funding, ongoing collaborations with veteran Black Brazilian theater actors.
All of these elements are present in Gabriel Martins’s film, which takes its name from a Dutch scam that promised investors people would be sent to colonize Mars by 2025. Mars One focuses on one family, the Martins, on the eve of Bolsonaro’s election. The political valence of the film is present in the background, but the gentle narrative thrust focuses on matters much closer to home. The four family members live and eat dinner together and have genial card playing evenings. But beneath the surface, each is dealing with issues: the teenaged Deivinho (Cícero Lucas, who Gabriel Martins “discovered” playing in a samba circle) obsessively watches the Mars One marketing YouTube videos and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s lectures while his father, Wellington (Carlos Francisco, last in Bacurau), is obsessed with nurturing his soccer potential; Deivinho’s older sister, Eunice (Camilla Damião), falls in love with a young woman and accidentally reveals to her protective parents that she is thinking about leaving home; their mother, Tércia (a magnificent Rejane Faria), suffers from the after-effects of a TV-prank-show suicide bomb stunt.
If the Mars colonization and prank show threads sound a bit out of place for a domestic drama about a lower-class family, the Martins family’s lives are subtly and gracefully enfolded within the larger media landscape of their world and in conversation with Octavia Butler’s vision of Black space exploration and countering unscripted TV’s dependence on Black trauma. The one plot twist that raised my eyebrows involved Wellington’s coworker, whose actions go against class solidarity and put Wellington’s livelihood in jeopardy. Martins is currently developing a series for Amazon, and Mars One shows that his interests capably translate to a mainstreamed aesthetic—the film has more music, locations and flash than his previous work without losing warmth or insight.
Carey Williams’s second feature, the electric Emergency, contains more of Mars One’s sweetness than you would imagine given the film’s set-up: bosom friends Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler, truly remarkable) plan for an epic night out that would get their names enshrined on a plaque in the Black student union’s tongue-in-cheek “Hall of Firsts.” They arrive home to discover a white girl passed out on the floor of their living room, though their nerdy roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) was there the entire time playing a turn-based game (which looks like a Paradox Interactive title, specifically Europa Universalis or Crusader Kings) on his computer. They agree not to call the cops, out of fear that they will be blamed, arrested or killed for “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Kunle’s desire to help, and belief in social services, conflicts with Sean’s self-preservation instincts, and when the girl starts to vomit the film’s internal clock ticks down. The three friends decide to take Sean’s old van and drive the girl to the hospital. A case of mistaken identity at a frat party leads to one of the van’s taillights being busted, increasing the chances of being pulled over by cops, so the friends take a back road to the hospital. Unbeknownst to them, the white girl’s older sister is tracking her iPhone. Along with a friend and frat boy crush, they set off the world’s slowest car chase via beatdown bike and hoverboard.
Williams burst onto the festival scene with his 2018 short by the same name, Emergency, which he and writer K.D. Da’Vila have expanded into a very full feature-length two hours. Impressed by Williams’ first feature, R#J (2021), which adeptly retold Romeo and Juliet, I was satisfied to see that film’s editor, Lam Thanh Nguyen, reunited with Williams to handle Emergency’s many emotional and situational shifts. Emergency will receive a short theatrical release by Amazon before going to Amazon Prime, though it appears R#J was completely buried after its slot in Sundance’s NEXT competition (an oft-overlooked section for formally experimental work and, for me, the only sanctuary within Sundance’s current bland commercial selections that consistently offers daring films in the spirit of its early years). The feature begins expanding the short with a short socially satiric prologue, where a white British English professor starts a maybe-incendiary, maybe-naïve debate about the n-word in a class of predominantly white students, and Kunle and Sean disagree on how to respond. At this point, the film appears to be a college frat film in the vein of Animal House (1978).
Emergency summarizes the conflicts inherent in Black and immigrant respectability politics. Kunle’s parents are immigrant doctors and he’s inherited their belief in upward mobility and has gotten into graduate school at Princeton. Sean’s background is not as clear cut, but his cousin is a townie (who we learn is on parole), and he has personal experiences with police brutality. The film’s biting humor and escalating tension stem not from the perpetuation of harm but from attempts to mitigate it, and help save its characters from being simple archetypes. Scenes careen from town-gown relationships, performances of white guilt, and Asian and Latino proximity to whiteness with a rare earnestness that works far better than the opening satire. Is the film about teaching Kunle and others with assimilationist aspirations a lesson about the reality of America? When the police finally catch up to our motley crew, Carlos, who serves as a mediator at key moments, finds himself on a different side of the street to Kunle. Perhaps the film gets too preachy at that moment, but coming from Da’Vila’s (who is Mexican American and a Princeton graduate) script, it could also be read as a warning about the flattening effects of bland racial solidarity contained within phrases like “people of color.” Sentimentally, but crucially, the denouement returns to the bonds we forge with each other, upending easy conclusions about Black excellence.