Sundance 2022 Critic’s Notebook: Fire of Love, Every Day in Kaimukī and Shorts
Derrida’s “archival turn” of the ’90s has officially taken over mainstream documentary filmmaking—a trend that has been covered in general interest thinkpieces in Indiewire as well as in academic scholarship, and one that’s proven more lucrative than I could have ever imagined. For the second year in a row, Sundance opened its U.S. Documentary competition selections with a blockbuster archival film, and National Geographic Documentary Films won the bidding frenzy for Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love with a “mid-seven figures” purchase almost a year after reports that 2021 Sundance “Day One” film Summer of Soul sold for north of $12 million. Several critical and box office nonfiction hits of the last few years have also been archival, from Raoul Peck’s history of American racism, I Am Not Your Negro (2015), to Todd Douglas Miller’s nostalgic slice of American patriotism, Apollo 11 (2019), which even played in IMAX theaters across the country. This commercial success has lifted the subgenre from its popular reputation as stuffy academic exercises or, for a certain brand of leftist filmmaker, preachy agitprop in the vein of Adam Curtis. This is a technique of documentary filmmaking that I’m glad to see headlining Sundance sales news—filmmakers deserve to be paid and archival digitization efforts are expensive.
Many of these films are as much media analyses as they are retellings of events or reconstructions of histories. Fire of Love—“starring,” as the film’s opening credits proclaim, Katia and Maurice Krafft—applies this forensic mode to find evidence of the formation of its main characters within their own archives. This pair of freelance vulcanologists funded their independent research through filmmaking, TV appearances, books, and speaking engagements. In addition to their own research footage, the film capably analyzes their media appearances for their scientific contributions to public pop culture discourse. In total, some 200 hours of source material were beautifully digitized for this film; in the press notes and Q&As, the filmmakers describe how they gained access to the Krafft archive. I truly admire how Fire of Love constructs a fable about how we should all trust scientists, presented within the trappings of a love story. Its taste makes up in execution for a lot of the twee stylings; the voiceover performance from Miranda July lends weight to the film’s narrative ruminations and the score—by Nicolas Godin, one-half of the French band Air—is magnificent.
July’s narrator elucidates the difficulty of working in the all-archival mode (because the Kraffts didn’t appear in many recorded interviews together) and discloses each time when the voices performing the Kraffts’s writing are actors rather than original audio of the subjects. What’s not made clear up front is that not all of the material in the film is made by the Kraffts—and, to be fair, that’s not the meaning of “all-archival” as a term. That said, the digitized archives’ deployment isn’t quite the visual discovery proclaimed in early reviews. The most iconic shots (and both of the film’s official production stills) were all used a few years ago in a two-minute segment of Werner Herzog’s Into the Inferno (2016) dedicated to the Kraffts. Fire chooses to use their raw footage for the purpose of corny psychological readings of the differences in the footage produced by the respective Kraffts and statements like “Katia takes photographs, which turn ephemerality into eternity.”
Moreover, a curious line in the end credits, under the subheading of “Recreated Archives,” credits Pablo Álvarez Mesa as this unit’s director of photography and Erin Ryan as its art director. The Montreal-based Álvarez Mesa has digitally lensed outstanding creative documentaries from filmmakers like Cecilia Aldorando and Samara Chadwick, but I imagine Fire of Love’s producers were drawn to him via his own Bicentenario (2020), a mid-length film that effortlessly merges Álvarez Mesa’s beautiful 16mm recordings from a contemporary Colombia (on the 200th anniversary of its founding as a country) with VHS tape archive footage of the 1985 fire that destroyed all the legislative and judicial records in Bogota’s Palace of Justice. To be clear, I’m not objecting to the idea that archives are incomplete and can be added to. There is a rising movement of Black and Indigenous filmmakers who make the fashioning of the more-than-archive urgent and necessary—by following the scholar Saidiya Hartman’s notion of “critical fabulation,” which combines archival research with fictional narrative to counter the archive’s propensity to center the stories of those in power (“history is told by the hunter”). The recreated archives of Fire of Love don’t have such lofty ambitions. While it does valiantly assemble an interior life for Katia—who is not on tape nearly as much as the gregarious Maurice—the film completely avoids any mention that Western scientists and volcanologists have historically discounted Indigenous knowledge about volcanoes and is perhaps complicit in this narrative by asserting the volcanologists as martyred do-gooders.
This B-roll—mostly cutaways, like shots of coffee cups and maps on the wall, captured in 16mm as opposed to a more contemporary digital veneer—is a very minor part of the film in terms of the overall percentage of shots, which do appear to draw primarily from the Kraffts’ archive, but their inclusion is something we should be cognizant of. In rejecting the all-archival norm of cutting between visual sources in favor of cutaways between the archival and the specifically staged, Fire of Love creates a hidden synthetic that doesn’t have any political or historical basis, rather being intended primarily to blend into contemporary aesthetics and nostalgic festishizations of analog formats. This trend is visible across a wide swatch of Sundance films from this year—The Exiles shows sprocket holes surrounding new 16mm footage of Cristine Choy to match her own footage of Tiananmen Massacre exiles, while jeen-yuhs: A Kanye West Trilogy grafts anachronistic VHS and DV tape/tracking artifacts onto lower thirds of footage shot in recent recent years. What, then, is the result of the mainstreaming of the archive? Archival material becomes a replicable aesthetic.
Alika Tengan’s Every Day in Kaimukī sits within a genre of doc-fiction hybrid films regularly selected by all other major film festivals but rarely for Sundance (Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is a notable recent exception). Co-written with star Naz Kawakami, the film takes Naz’s real-life decision and motivations to move from Hawai’i to New York as a narrative spine, gives him fictional dramatized elements to react to and builds out its setting with a cast of Naz’s real-life friends, all non-professional actors playing versions of themselves.The fictional segments come in the form of two characters—a long-term girlfriend, Sloane (Rina White), and a work trainee Naz befriends, Kaden (Holden Mandrial-Santos, who also starred in Tengan’s previous short, the single-setting Moloka’i Bound, and composed the soundtrack for this film). The press notes confirmed this film’s hybridity, but it was also pretty clear from the film’s closing credits, where the characters played by everyone else have their performers’ real name except for these two.
Sloane and Naz are rarely shown on screen together, though they are planning to move to New York in a scant few weeks so that the former can pursue a graduate arts program. She’s a sculptor of some talent, with a local show and mentorship. Naz, on the other hand, seems to be loafing, especially at the prospect of giving up his (also real-life) gig as a radio DJ at KTUH (many of the tracks he plays are used in the film’s soundscape). His biggest hold-up is a series of Kafkaesque phone calls with airline customer service representatives while trying to figure out how to transport his cat on the plane to New York, and he regularly ditches helping Sloane pack in order to hang out with Kaden and introduce him to his friends with a shared love of skateboarding. Kaden’s provocations are, sometimes, overly transparent: he pokes at Naz in disbelief that he would give up his comfortable life, and doubts whether Sloane is truly committed to him. Unfortunately, with Sloane, the film falters when she has a sudden change of heart, producing a series of plot contrivances that read a bit misogynistic. But what that does catalyze is a chance for Naz to be able to articulate his personal reasons for leaving the islands—not inertia, it turns out, but rather a fear of it and the placelessness associated with visually passing as hapa Hawaiian, that drive many of his decisions, illustrating the effects that representational politics have on individual members of groups that don’t easily belong. It’s lived in, believable and uniquely melancholic.
Like Christopher Yogi and his collaborators on I Was a Simple Man, the filmmakersare deeply invested in presenting different narratives of Hawai’i. This is a Hawai’i bereft of sunny beaches, blue skies, and palm trees. Cinematographer Chapin Hall’s trendy 4:3 aspect ratio focuses our attention on the heavy blacks and backlit interiors of urban apartments, an urban radio show, and late-night skateboarding jaunts. The film really pulls its punches with a bet between Naz’s friends on whether he will actually leave Hawai’i, set up early in the film’s runtime, but that plant pays great dividends in on epic night of bad decisions, culminating in an argument scene of hilariously tautological twists. Whether or not Naz actually makes it to Brooklyn after that no longer mattered to me, as the film had displayed a real command of the dynamics of love and jealousy that I’ve experienced in deep friendships. The way Every Day in Kaimukī resolves this game of waiting is pleasingly gentle and forgiving, extending to its often infuriating slacker lead a great degree of grace.
The short films at Sundance almost seem like they come from a completely different festival. They are, as a group, more playful, transgressive and formally inventive than any of the fest’s features (except maybe those in the Midnight section). The shorts program at Sundance is indeed programmed by a different team than the features (though they still answer to the festival’s Director of Programming and Festival Director). But it’s not surprising that shorts can be a lot more radical—in the US, short film programs are often a festival’s only site for works that the rest of the world considers boundary-pushing. The thinking is that a general audience will accept a short film that is much weirder in content and radical in form than a feature-length work because if they don’t like it, at least it’s over in 10-15 minutes. US film festivals also prefer short films with a runtime of 10 minutes or less, and this preference is one that is routinely conveyed to aspiring filmmakers, whereas that would be unspeakably short to many of the top European film festivals that might never select a short film under 10 minutes long. Sundance’s shorts programming, however, is one of the few US festivals that dares break this rule.
I’ve been watching the short films intermittently between screenings and writing and have been delighted to catch the latest from Sundance regulars such as Sky Hopinka, who premiered a new short, Kicking the Clouds. This film alternates between a cassette tape recording of a Pechanga language lesson between Hopinka’s grandmother and great-grandmother—which starts with words about family relationships and reveals some friction—and a contemporary interview between Hopinka and his mother recalling the day that tape was recorded, family memories and the latter’s own process of repair and healing with her family history. The images are a flow between home video recordings of family outings, the Pacific Northwest landscape and family totems (beadwork, banners), binding together the artist’s interest in language preservation and alternative mythmaking with the deeply, intensely personal.
Renee Zhan’s animations have been joyfully disgusting me for years. After completing graduate school at the NFTS, she returns with Soft Animals (one of the best-traveled animated shorts of the last year, from Annecy to TIFF), which depicts the awkward moment two former lovers accidentally bump into each other and—well, their bodies react in unexpected ways. Rendered with a few sheets of paper and what appears to be an overlay of paint-on-glass animation, the techniques and character design are wildly impressive. The soundtrack is laden with deliciously complex squishy effects, and the bodies of the two ex-lovers are rendered with overhanging and sagging body parts, which swing pendulously in moments of both frenzy and stillness.
My friend and collaborator Keisha Knight recommended that I watch Érica Sarmet’s A wild patience has taken me here, a Brazilian tale of a middle-aged white butch (complete with a sexy motorcycle riding) who finds new inspiration, community and sexual gratification in the communal lives of four young queer women. It’s a mishmash of multiple screens in the experimental video form, a YouTube PSA that touches upon the politics of contemporary Brazil, collage animation and a centerpiece of a staged but unsimulated group sex scene. The scrapbook feel of the film’s source material and scenes are emulated in the aesthetic approach, which quilts together nostalgia for the physical, digital materiality, and self-reflexive performativity. None of it feels pretentious, not even the meditation scene with bells, and it riveted me for its almost-half-an-hour runtime—would that more US film festivals take these kinds of chances.