Sundance 2023: 5 Seasons of Revolution, My Animal, Selected Shorts, The Tuba Thieves and Milisuthando
Before it started, one question about this year’s Sundance concerned attendance: what happens when a more-expensive-to-attend-than-most festival, held in a cold place during winter’s peak at a high altitude, offers the option to stream the bulk of its titles online days later? Brand presence on Main Street appeared to be down (one out of five awnings rather than every single one), and P&I attendance seemed to be as well—but, for many there, the answer was jamming out endless viewings on their tablet or laptop between venturing out for select IRL screenings. Whatever those combined, not-yet-disclosed industry-plus-public streaming numbers were, they may have been successful enough for the festival to signal that they were embracing the hybrid format until further notice—at least judging by the day five iteration of the daily fest recaps (sponsored by Adobe) shown before each screening, where one filmmaker after another either announced their intent to use streaming to catch up with hot titles once they got home or expressed enthusiasm about the broadened viewership. Per one unidentified voice of many: “People got to see these people’s work. Not just us.” Minus the shorts, I stubbornly stuck to the all-IRL model, although I missed the capacity to unobtrusively tap out a virtual screening gives you; there’s something showy about the gesture of abruptly exiting after 15 minutes that shamed me into sticking around even when my warning bells were going off.
A card at the start of Lina’s 5 Seasons of Revolution says that both face-blurring and deepfake technologies were used to preserve the safety of on-camera subjects. Anonymization makes sense given the subject matter—political resistance from 2011 to 2015 to Bashar al-Assad’s still-extant, brutal and retaliatory Syrian regime—but I wasn’t clear on why deepfakes might be specifically preferable to face blurring. Late in the film, I spotted a presumably incomplete example as one subject’s skin hovered over her head in jittery fashion, like A Scanner Darkly in the not-quite-real world. These may seem like trivial thoughts to be having during a documentary in which multiple of the filmmaker’s friends are killed or flee into self-exile; though accustomed to pushing formalism to the point of idiocy, I do understand that there are more important things than shot composition. (Sometimes.) But no matter how courageous its subjects, 5 Seasons is a badly made testament, both compared with some of the best of the many nonfiction films that have emerged from the Syrian Civil War and related turmoil (e.g. Of Fathers and Sons and Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait) and in general storytelling terms. Delivered at low volume with painfully over-acted understatement, Lina’s voiceover is a study in not trusting viewers to understand that what’s being described is bad, like when she describes a friend’s arrest: “Raghad was a paramedic, treating people regardless of politics. And for that [vocal emphasis hers], he was arrested.” Is it when the apolitical get into trouble that the alarm bells go off? Do audiences need extra convincing that Assad is bad? Again: Lina spends part of this movie describing her arrest and month-plus solitary confinement, so I feel especially churlish registering these complaints, but the inevitable side effects of film festival mass viewing include the nearly-mechanical collation of which narrative tics, micro-genre tropes and technological trends are newly or particularly prevalent. Here, deepfakes and too-visible choices about how to force empathy were top-of-mind.
I see more nonfiction films at Sundance than any other kind, and that more extensive frame of reference means I’m harder on them; conversely, since I’m too automatically freaked-out by jump scares, I’m probably easier on the rare Midnight selections I do see. Fortunately for me (and, likely, unfortunately for a lot of properly horror-minded viewers), the werewolf-as-lesbian-metaphor selection My Animal has zero jump scares or even feints at any; it’s all colorful style and surface eccentricities, and hence a good fit for me. Music video/short film director Jacqueline Castel makes her feature debut from a script by Jae Matthews, while the faux-’80s score is by Augustus Muller, the writer’s bandmate from musical project Boy Harsher. The tone is set immediately by an unrepentantly artificial shot of a young girl crouched in a basement in front of a heavy ’80s TV console, bathed solely in atmospheric moonlight; the image is directly, seemingly deliberately reminiscent of the Poltergeist poster, which is presumably why the protagonist is named Heather (as in O’Rourke, that film’s late child star). In this proudly Canadian production (lots of hockey, snow, an excellent supporting performance from Pontypool star Stephen McHattie), Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) goes lycanthrope every full moon, an instantly parsable metaphorical stand-in for her budding queer sexuality, which is pathologized by her family and community as she pursues new-girl-in-town Jonny (Amandla Stenberg). The first two acts are fun, with unexpected jokes punctuating the dreamy vibe while bright reds suffuse everything in giallo mode; in the last act, queer tragedy expectedly/rotely arrives to suck the air out. But it was a nice final film to watch on-the-ground—confident in its pocket, not overplaying its “I Love the ’80s” hand.
Two of the shorts I sampled from this year’s selections both start by replicating Terence Malick in camera-swoops-around-cuddly-couple mode before finding their own distinct paths to sour the mood. In Ben Brewer’s A Folded Ocean, this over-adorable state of affairs takes a twist when the man (John Giacobbe) and woman (Annabelle Lemieux) wake up to find themselves literally fused at the fingertip, an ominous prelude to increasing stages of unwanted closeness. This is clearly a multivalent metaphor for coupledom as suffocation, literally growing in contradictory directions and so on, but also catalyzes a freaky and original set of visuals that transcends easily legible symbolism. (Writer-director Ben Brewer is also his own one-man f/x unit, making this one form of total auteurism.) Sophia Mocorrea’s half-hour The Kidnapping of the Bride likewise begins with a heterosexual couple high on their chemistry; here, that’s set into destabilizing relief by the the dual families of Argentinian bride Luisa (Rai Todoroff) and German groom Fred (David Brunoff), notably the latter clan’s imposing of a horrible “local custom” on the former. Both families are privileged and nightmarish in wildly different but complementarily grating, keenly observed ways, and the overall tone of this promising short is similar to Maren Ade’s anatomizations of very EU-localized forms of discomfort.
Some of the sharpest imagery I saw at this year’s Sundance came from Alison O’Daniel’s The Tuba Thieves, whose capacious structure is at least in part because significant parts were conceived, and in some cases filmed for (or in response to), pre-existing gallery projects. The end credits boast more separate production unit credits for individually labeled sequences than any I’ve seen in a fiction feature that’s not an anthology movie; I wish I’d written some of those labels down, as they probably would help articulate Thieves‘ preoccupations more specifically. In a general sense, it considers d/Deaf experiences, most repeatedly as they intersect with a number of music-centric narrative strands, including the most famous intersection of silence and classical performance, the premiere of John Cage’s 4’33”. The film is also, among other things, a group portrait of d/Deaf friends against the occasional eruptions of an LA city symphony, consistently shot in seemingly effortlessly handsome widescreen compositions. Tuba Thieves‘s biggest innovation is its use of open captions both for dialogue and descriptions of the audio track. Their presence makes sense thematically; formally, O’Daniel toys with their placement on-screen, turning lettering upside-down when the camera does or parking the words at the very top of the frame as a drone rises upwards. Beyond keeping eyes moving, these captions allow—even, by rules of her own making, mandate—for O’Daniel to describe the sometimes unclear “what” of the audio (e.g., a series of increasingly slowed-down tuba sounds) while being under no obligation to provide the “why,” a neat trick that means the captions are opaque and explanatory in equal measure. Cut to 25 minutes of its greatest hits, Tuba Thieves would be my best-of-fest; as is, its originality of conception on multiple levels and baseline excellence in technical execution are clearly a cut above.
As it was, my festival feature highlight (I am trying to close with optimism) was Milisuthando, the debut feature by Milisuthando Bongela. Like Joonam or 5 Seasons of Revolution, this is another long-gestating first-person essay film in which family lore and culturally/historically specific traumas are intertwined. Nearly two hours, Milisuthando is a sprawl, but the only one of the festival I found legitimately unpredictable start-to-finish. The film’s divided into five chapters, but I found it easier to think of as a double-feature between extended bookends. In those, Bongela films her late maternal grandmother and two funerals in shots that are largely handheld, slightly indifferent in composition and color and generally not an inviting way to start. But what Milisuthando’s grandmother has to say is fascinating, as she condemns Nelson Mandela in no uncertain terms for his role in the destruction of the Transkei—a South African state enacting “separate but equal” by creating a black-only zone ostensibly meant to empower its residents as autonomous, but whose existence obviously only strengthened the apartheid norm. That that experiment was enough to spark nostalgia for a space that, whatever else, lacked white people in racist visible authority is like a more sinister South African variant on ostalgie, the nostalgic longing for East Germany.
Milisuthando slowly but definitively transitions from personal familial archives to a wider national found-footage dive, full of unsavory images of colonizers doing their thing in South Africa. This extensive section includes celebrations with white women dressed up as flowers, a familiar trope of dainty femininity rendered literal within a larger montage of colonial power; not fucking around with her music choices, Bongela scores part of the film to Wagner’s “Vorspiel,” thereby doing great (and honestly overdue) violence to the connotations it shares with the end of The New World. It’s a thankfully lost universe reconstructed in all its queasily hypnotic fascination, but the film also takes its time with what came after the apartheid state was dismantled, diving into school integration via long outtakes from a news segment interviewing black children about their hopes and fears for their new schools. Much of this footage was donated by unspecified donors, and it’s a tremendous find; alongside, Bongela interviews old classmates and reminisces in voiceover about her own fond memories of education, reciting the names of long-gone classmates and the first restaurants she ate at with a nostalgic tang akin to Sarah Cracknell looking back on adolescence and listing formative band names on Saint Etienne’s “Over the Border,” but far more complicated and negatively charged.
None of this prepared me for the second half, which kicks off with a very long argument between Bongela and one of her producers, Marion Isaacs. Bongela, to reiterate the obvious, is black, Isaacs is not and though they’ve been close friends for a long time, a seemingly quick argument between them gets very real: a morning request from Isaacs for Bongela to turn her music down quickly becomes a referendum in which both go deep on why they responded the way they did. Bongela loves her friend but was freaked out by the ask; when Isaacs points out that she said it politely rather demandingly, the filmmaker answers that that kind of “sweet, sugary” tone is exactly the way colonizing white women historically wielded power. It’s a messy, distended conversation in which both parties work very hard to locate their internalizations of larger discourses of power they’re both equally theoretically familiar conversant with, but because of the obvious have very different lived experiences of. Viewers have the space to give this exchange their undivided and slightly abstracted attention, since it’s presented almost entirely without images. Taking the current fetishism of video home movies and all the glitches that come with it to a logical limit, the audio’s heard not over normal black leader but over something approximating the milky grey of unrecorded VHS, complete with a slight tracking artifact up top. First-person debut features drawing upon literally an entire lifetime often leave filmmakers with nowhere to go for a follow-up besides, having demonstrated their ability to execute a production, migrating to the content mills; Milisuthando‘s expansive dialogues and formal modes, and the ways both steadily mutate, seem like a promising sign Bongela won’t have that problem.