Sundance 2020: On the Record, Into the Deep, Assassins
by Brian Tallerico on January 29, 2020 at 6:08 AM
Everyone at Sundance this year agreed that the non-fiction slate was one of the strongest in the history of a festival that has produced more than its fair share of beloved documentaries. As the festival gets into its midsection and the question of yearly favorites gets lobbed on every shuttle and in every theater lobby, more and more documentaries are coming back as the answer, including acclaimed hits like “Boys State,” “Bloody Noses, Empty Pockets,” “Time,” and more that we will cover before the fest has wrapped up for the year. Three of the most fascinating experiences I had at Sundance this year were non-fiction films that I suspect will find equally captivated audiences when these films descend from the Park City mountains. The best of the three is Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s controversial and devastating “On the Record,” the story of not just the awful crimes allegedly committed by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons but how the culture in the music industry has engendered one in which women can be treated as disposable objects. It’s a multi-faceted film that offers a study in courage from the women who share their stories while also centering this entire story in the history of music, black culture, business, and unbridled misogyny. The World Premiere was one of the most emotional filmgoing experiences of my life, as Ziering and Dick shared the stage with the subjects of their film, incredibly brave women who are only now getting a chance to tell their stories. “On the Record” is primarily the story of Drew Dixon, a producer who helped define the sound of DefJam Records and worked closely with Simmons for years. She was clearly a brilliant music executive, able to not only hear the next major talent but bring out the best in them. She was an incredible producer, responsible for hits by Method Man, Mary J. Blige, Santana, Lauryn Hill, and many more. One of the most tragic things about “On the Record” is what’s embedded in a lot of the #MeToo conversation, which is that we will never know how much we lost as a culture because of the predatory nature of awful men. Drew Dixon should have been as big as Russell Simmons, and the mind reels at what she would have done in the music industry over the last two decades. She wasn’t allowed that because, according to her, Simmons’ lifetime of aggressive behavior reached its apex one night when he raped her. Years later, and after trauma amplified by going to another company only to allegedly be sexually threatened by L.A. Reid too, Dixon finds all of her trauma coming to the surface of her emotional well being as the #MeToo movement makes headlines. Rumors and allegations against Simmons appear like they may get buried, and Dixon has to decide if she wants to go public with her story. And she learns that she’s not alone. “On the Record” isn’t just the story of a monster who saw every woman in his eyeline as an object, it’s a commentary on how men like Simmons feel entitled to be the way they are. Dick and Ziering aren’t afraid to look at a music culture that throws around words like “bitch” and “ho” with ease, and even take some of this into history and racial politics. Their film tries to unpack why the black community often seeks to defend the accused, noting that black male sexuality was used as a reason for hate crimes like lynching not that long ago in history, and so people are understandably defensive against mobs coming for their brothers. The film even brings up the case of Anita Hill, and how much we really should have believed her. Dixon even suggested after the screening that it’s possible none of them would be there if we had. And yet Dick and Ziering never allow the “big picture” to overwhelm the human stories at the center of their film. It’s that balance between the personal story and the larger backdrop that makes them such brilliant filmmakers. They did it “The Invisible War” and “The Hunting Ground” and this now makes for a trilogy about institutionalized violence against women. They also capture something about the #MeToo movement that no film has really accomplished yet: the courage it takes to come forward and how that changes a person. We’re with Dixon every step of the way as she grapples with what happens now. We’re a few years into #MeToo now and we need to start talking about what happens next, not just for the accusers who made themselves vulnerable but all of us. The first step to progress is listening. You need to listen to this movie. Another highly-buzzed doc from Sundance 2020 is one of the most remarkable true crime films you’ll see all year, Emma Sullivan’s “Into the Deep,” which started as a profile piece about a rebellious maverick and became a study of a sociopath. Some of the structure here can be a bit unwieldy, but it’s a haunting movie overall, especially in some of the what-ifs it raises and how bluntly it drives home the point that monsters can often hide in plain sight. Sullivan’s film started as a look at a charismatic inventor named Peter Madsen. The Danish celebrity started his own company, made up largely of young volunteers, and set about building things that most people don’t consider just making on their own, like a working submarine and a rocket that would someday take him into space. There aren’t a lot of amateur astronauts out there, and so it’s easy to see why people were drawn to Madsen, and Sullivan spends most of her time with the young people who worked day and night on these projects, excited at every new development. They had no idea why they’d be in a movie at Sundance. On August 10, 2017, while Sullivan was making her film, Madsen took a journalist named Kim Wall out on a trip in his submarine. They disappeared. He was found on a broken ship a day later, but she was still missing. Sullivan cuts back and forth between those early days of confusion about Madsen’s team, as they keep hoping Wall will be found alive but realize with each day that it’s less and less likely, and that Peter’s story doesn’t make a lot of sense. And then Wall’s torso surfaces. By the now, the story of what Peter Madsen did to Kim Wall is pretty well-known but Sullivan’s immediate, as-it-happens access offers a new appreciation of the world of a madman. Sullivan’s film even became evidence in the trial, as objects Madsen used to mutilate Wall can be seen in her film. It’s a remarkable piece of cinema just in its very existence – we don’t often see interviews with men filmed on the day they killed someone. And “Into the Deep” gains another terrifying angle when it becomes clear that Wall may not have been the intended victim. I didn’t fully take to the structure that cuts back and forth and think a more chronological version of this story, in which we really see the disillusionment of dreamers into witnesses, would have been even more powerful. Still, people are going to be talking about this from the minute it premieres on Netflix later this year. Keep an eye out for it. A similarly stranger-than-fiction story unfolds in Ryan White’s “Assassins,” another “can you believe it” story that I suspect will captivate people wherever they can see it. In this case, I found the filmmaking a little generic but I think that’s because White wants to get out of the way of this crazy true story as much as possible, letting the people closest to it tell it. He does place the tragic story of Doan Thi Huong and Siti Aisyah in an interesting context about viral culture and everyone’s fifteen minutes of fame. For these two girls, the desire to be famous made them murderers. At least that’s what their defense attorneys argue when the pair is charged in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un. On February 13, 2017, the two young women literally walked up behind Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur International Airport and smeared a deadly toxin on his face, killing him in an about an hour. They went downstairs, washed their hands, and left. “Assassins” makes a very convincing case that the girls were tools in a complicated plot. They had been actresses in a series of prank videos for a few mysterious characters who promised fame and fortune. They had completed a few pranks and they thought they were wiping face cream on a stranger. Get a laugh, make their bosses happy, go viral. And then they were arrested for murder. As the men who masterminded this plot sunk off into the night, two poor young women were tried for a crime they didn't understand they had committed. “Assassins” spends a lot of time making its case for innocence, and it’s hard to walk away from it and not think that Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong were victims too. And the people truly responsible for this murder weren’t even put on trial. The sad truth is that all three of these very different documentaries emerge from a world in which women are disposable, whether they’re hip-hop moguls, journalists, or wannabe viral stars. Taken as whole, they’re a snapshot of a world that needs to change. And filmmaking that exposes this toxic patriarchy is a step in the right direction.
Sundance 2020: Black Bear, Shirley
by Brian Tallerico on January 29, 2020 at 4:54 AM
Two of the most buzzed-about titles on the first weekend of Sundance 2020 concern at least partially the torture of living with creative people. And both verge into the surreal, blurring the line between traditional plotting and filmmaking drenched in symbolism and philosophy. They’re also both showcases for great performers who bite into these roles as hard as they can and don’t let go. The one that’s generally more acclaimed doesn’t work as well for me as it does some of my colleagues, who are willing to overlook more of its abrasive use of clichés about art and artists than I am. But let’s start with the one I kinda love. Lawrence Michael Levine wrote the excellent “Always Shine” and his wife, actress Sophia Takal, directed that Mackenzie Davis film. He returns with another deconstruction of identity and art, and helms it himself this time in the excellent, darkly humorous “Black Bear,” starring Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, and Aubrey Plaza. The film starts as a relatively straightforward (and yet still sharp) relationship dramedy with three strong personalities bouncing off each other at a remote lake house before becoming something even more challenging and thrilling. It’s a film that doesn’t just reinvent itself as much as deconstruct its entire existence in a way that’s breathtaking and wildly entertaining. Plaza, doing the best work of her film career yet, plays a writer named Allison who has decided to recharge her creative juices at a gorgeous lakeside home in the Adirondacks that’s owned by Gabe (Abbott) and his pregnant girlfriend Blair (Gadon). From the minute that Allison arrives, Gabe is flirting with her, although one gets the impression that he does that with just about everyone. And it’s probably at least in part because this musician enjoys having another creative soul around, especially since life with Blair hasn’t been great lately. The two passive-aggressively snipe at each other like George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” until the entire trio explodes in a riveting, drunken late-night argument. The three actors are totally committed, and Levine’s dialogue and character work are razor sharp. I would just watch these three sharply-drawn characters for a whole movie. And then “Black Bear” turns. I wouldn’t spoil anything but the second half of “Black Bear” is really a reflection of the first, and Levine’s work here becomes even more remarkable. Many people will focus on how Levine and Takal’s relationship is influential here with Plaza playing a creative who seems reminiscent of Takal, but the film’s lead actress also dives deep not only into her on-screen persona but the fact that she’s been dating a director/collaborator for years (Jeff Baena, who directed her in “Life After Beth” and “The Little Hours”). She gives the most complex and challenging performance of her entire career, and she's ably supported by Abbott and Gadon. It’s an actor’s showcase for a trio of great performers, but it’s also got something fascinating to say about how artists can weaponize their own relationships in their art. It doesn't quite stick the landing—I wanted it to add up to something a bit more in the final scene—but it's a minor complaint for a film I can't wait to see again. Josephine Decker’s “Shirley” works with many of these same themes and draws the comparisons to Albee’s incredible play even more directly. It’s one part Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, one part Shirley Jackson’s style, and one part undiluted Josephine Decker. The writer/director of “Madeline’s Madeline” has made a multi-layered film about how viciously cruel creatives can be, especially to those they claim to love, as well as a commentary on the disposability of young women in the 1950s. More than a biopic of the legendary writer of The Haunting of Hill House, Decker and writer Sarah Gubbins turn Shirley Jackson into a character in one of her novels, the writer who lives on the edge of sanity, and then gives Elisabeth Moss the freedom to give another breathtaking performance. I think the film, especially in its first half, leans into its “asshole creatives” tropes more than some of my colleagues, but the performances are rich and Decker and Gubbins turn “Shirley” into something more interesting when they get surreal. I have to admit that I found the act of watching most of “Shirley” pretty abrasive, but I think maybe that’s part of the point. “Shirley” opens with two young people literally walking into a trap. Anyone who’s known selfish artists can see what Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) can’t immediately – that living with Shirley Jackson and Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) can only end in, at the most optimistically, a nervous breakdown. Fred is there to work as a teaching assistant to Stanley, and so the young couple literally moves in, where their wide-eyed optimism about the world is crushed by two brilliant yet damaged souls who play mind games and emotional warfare with the flies caught in their web. Stuhlbarg sketches Stanley as a man who lashes out at any threat to his brilliance or esteem, someone who enjoys pushing Fred and demeaning every woman in his orbit, and we start to wonder if the city-wide perception that Shirley is a crazy burden isn’t something he likes to engender. It keeps her in his place and maintains his superiority. With shaky handheld work and intense score, “Shirley” is designed to unsettle you in much the way that Fred and Rose can never quite find their footing. A subplot about a missing girl who fascinates Shirley into writing her next book about her adds a sense of menace – it’s even implied that Stanley could be responsible – and Decker’s film gets more surreal as it pushes its young characters down the rabbit hole of misogyny and mental illness. Clearly, there’s a lot to unpack and admire here, but “Shirley” takes a little bit too long to get where it’s going, and I found some of the exaggerated character and style choices distracting more than engaging. I think that Decker is trying to put us in the unsettled space that would be this home, but that can make for a tough, aggressive experience. Still, I want to see it again to dissect how it fits together more. Like a lot of Shirley Jackson’s work, it feels like something that warrants analysis and reflection.
by Matt Fagerholm on January 29, 2020 at 1:46 AM
Around and around the young woman goes, spinning in her green dress until she suddenly finds that she cannot stop. The carefree giggles that had rippled from her lips, harkening back to the innocence of her childhood, are replaced with labored breathing, as her frolicking movement gradually proves to be a desperate compulsion. As long as she can keep the surrounding world out of focus, she will be able to sustain the denial that keeps her hope alive. This is one of countless moments seared into my memory from “Beanpole,” the astonishing sophomore feature effort of 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov, who utilizes color as artfully as any painter one can name. Creating new life—a theme represented throughout the picture by shades of green—is what the sterile woman, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), desires above all else. In Leningrad, a city freshly ravaged by the siege of World War II, everyone is struggling to regain their balance, resulting in a pervasive clumsiness deliberately evoked by the film’s title. Masha’s initial attempts at achieving happiness are irrational, ungainly and, in some cases, quite cruel, yet never less than understandable in their wounded humanity. Inspired by the oral histories of Soviet war veterans compiled by Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich in her 1985 book, The Unwomanly Face of War, Balagov strove to portray the criminally underrepresented experiences of female soldiers grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Not only is “Beanpole” one of the first essential cinematic works released in theaters this year, it is also among the most involving character studies in recent memory, bringing us so deeply into the psyches of its heroines that we find ourselves trembling along with them every time they are shaken to the core. Well before the first shot appears onscreen, we hear a soft, high-pitched tone, the definitive motif of “Loveless” composer Evgueni Galperine’s score, that is eerily evocative of the music cue signaling the presence of Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight.” Here, the sound deftly indicates the terrifying loss of control endured by Masha’s friend and fellow comrade, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko, a dead ringer for “Euphoria” star Hunter Schafer), whose service as an anti-aircraft gunner left her with the disorder known as post-concussion syndrome. She will periodically freeze in place without warning, unable to move or speak until the episode has passed, a potent metaphor for the paralysis felt in numerous ways by veterans when they are unable to function as they normally would. For Iya, sex emerges as its own form of paralysis, requiring her to lie silent and still for the purposes of fertilization. Masha’s need for a child causes her to rely on blackmail—both emotional and otherwise—as her method for persuading Iya to sleep with Nikolay (Andrey Bykov), a doctor at the hospital where they work as nurses in the months following the war. Iya’s refusal to fulfill this request without her friend being present results in a galvanizing overhead shot of Masha pinned between the intercourse and a wall, where she’s violently rocked by the violation of each thrust. Along with his brilliant 24-year-old cinematographer, Kseniya Sereda, Balagov sports the confidence to tell his story chiefly through the faces of his characters as well as their placement in the frame, thereby making the dialogue of secondary importance. His use of long takes never calls attention to itself, while allowing his actors to engage in a subtly choreographed dance that tells us more about their relationship than words ever could. It’s crucial not to cut between emotional beats, since it is in those lingering pauses and unspoken shifts where the heart of the film lies. Take for example the moment when Iya and Masha are reunited. Shame has caused Iya to cloak herself, along with her secrets, in the darkness of a room, until Masha lights a match, illuminating both of their faces. Then we cut to a mesmerizing five-minute take of the friends as they speak to one another chiefly with their eyes. Without Iya having to utter a line, the truth she’s been suppressing gradually becomes clear, prompting Masha to get up off the floor. Overcome with grief, Iya falls upon her friend’s shoulder, a tender move that inspires the pair to waltz back onto the ground, before Masha finally says aloud what they had been afraid to articulate. This scene is poetically mirrored by a later and considerably more harrowing encounter between the women, fraught with long-simmering tensions that surge to the surface, culminating in an angle that recalls an earlier sequence of such excruciating anguish, it haunts the audience as much as it does the characters. If green externalizes the potential for hope, then red is the color of trauma that threatens to trickle out of the women’s noses at any moment. Crimson hues are transferred between Iya and Masha throughout the picture, in everything from clothing and hair color to the intricate production design. The timely question of how to bring new life into a chaotic world—a central preoccupation of Alfonso Cuarón’s masterworks “Children of Men” and “Roma,” not to mention this year’s shattering Oscar-nominated documentary “For Sama”—weighs heavily upon this narrative, manifesting itself in Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), the boy mothered by Iya. We first see him from a high angle designed to accentuate his fragility and diminutive height in a land still smarting from the debris of warfare. Fantasy is what serves as a vital source of amusement for patients at the hospital, who entertain Pashka by imitating various animals, though the laugher momentarily subsides when one of them notes that the boy may not recognize the barking of a dog, since all of those residing in the town have been eaten. Privileged to have kept her own canine companion alive is Lyubov (Kseniya Kutepova), the wealthy wife of a government official, who also happens to be the mother of Sasha (Igor Shirokov), a horny boy that Masha has skillfully wrapped around her finger. The monologue that Masha delivers to extinguish the condescension from Lyubov’s gaze, detailing her tumultuous past and how she managed to survive on the battlefront courtesy of her sexual wiles, contradicts the backstories she had shared to Nikolay, affirming that at least one of these yarns may have sprung from her imagination. Neither Perelygina nor Miroshnichenko have acted in a film before, and their performances are as authentic and dizzyingly complex as any singled out this month by the Oscars. Their characters’ bond is, in itself, a fascinating study in contrasts, with red-headed Masha’s short stature juxtaposed next to Iya’s blonde hair and lanky height that earns her the nickname “beanpole.” Whereas Masha’s eyes are warm and calculating, Iya’s are wide and vulnerable, ever-paranoid of how she stands out in a crowd, making it all the more uncomfortable for her to discreetly carry out forbidden tasks assigned by Nikolay, who is too cowardly to complete them himself. Just as Jennifer Kent’s woefully under-appreciated second film, “The Nightingale,” took us to the depths of unspeakable pain before illustrating the healing power of human connection, the hard-won optimism of “Beanpole” is earned precisely because it refuses to dilute its depictions of abject despair, which include a death scene as excruciatingly protracted as the one in Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain.” Oftentimes what we’re looking for is right in front of us, provided we can peer through the haze of our expectations. I imagine even Billy Wilder would’ve gotten misty-eyed during the final, perfectly-pitched moments of this extraordinary film, as its remaining heroines realize they have little need for the impotent men in their lives and decide, in essence, to shut up and deal.
Sundance 2020: Spree, Feels Good Man
by Nick Allen on January 29, 2020 at 1:42 AM
Only a mad man like Eugene Kotlyarenko could have made the bloody, brilliant social media satire that is Sundance NEXT title “Spree.” He’s always had fresh critical ideas about how communication through modern technology leads to distorted experiences, whether it’s the AOL Instant Messenger boxes that dramatize the slacker comedy of his 2011 debut “0s and 1s,” or the desperate messages of Tinder within his previous 2017 film, “Wobble Palace.” For his latest, Kotlyarenko traps viewers in the ride share of an amateur murderer who desperately wants content for his viewers, resulting in an “American Psycho” for the age of social media influencers. Joe Keery gives his best film performance yet as Kurt, an extremely lonely twenty-something who just wants to be liked online. Though he posts videos all the time on his page @KurtsWorld96, he hasn’t been able to find the audience he believes that he deserves. Working as a driver for the Uber-company like Spree, Kurt concocts what he thinks is a brilliant idea to gain more followers—he’ll murder his passengers, and film the whole thing with GoPros outfitted in his car. An audience will undoubtedly find him, he reckons, and it’ll make him famous. He calls it #TheLesson, and he isn’t worried about any consequences, so much as getting content for his livestream. Written by Kotlyarenko and Gene McHugh (author of the book Post-Internet), “Spree” devises many clever ways for Kurt to unleash chaos that are related to social media and ride share culture, while using the screen-life presentation of his live streaming. His car becomes a type of trap, outfitted with numerous GoPro cameras, which he explains is to ensure a rider's safety. No one questions that—instead it’s more awkward when Kurt keeps trying to blast his junky techno music and plugging his social accounts, brazenly showing his desperation. And no one knows that the water is poisoned, which is initially how Kurt starts racking up his body count. All the while, Kurt is “on,” talking to his cameras as one single follower is on the stream (his friend Bobby BaseCamp [Joshua Ovalle], who has actually succeeded at becoming a famous influencer, something that haunts Kurt). Keery is a darkly comic delight to follow as his character takes on the performative act of being an influencer, talking to himself and trying to make his personality sound far more interesting than it is. And when Kurt does start to get an audience, he embodies how social media's most beloved influencers are themselves influenced by whatever their followers want to see. As Keery's performance is progressively devilish but always recognizable, "Spree" brilliantly shows influencer culture for the totally demented lifestyle that it is. The satire has a complicated relationship with the inescapability of social media, and airs them out through a comedian named Jessie Adams, played by Sasheer Zamata. She’s achieved popularity through having an online presence, and even encourages people to film her during her sets. With her thousands of followers, Jessie's a different kind of target for Kurt—he doesn’t want to kill her, he desperately wants her to tag him so he can get the likes. As Zamata becomes the hero of the film—she practically steals the show in the absolutely crazy climax—she also has her own awakening that makes “Spree” even wiser and incisive about the unavoidable possibility of social media. “Spree” is thrilling on a small and massive scale, like how he makes you afraid of free ride share water bottles, or naturally builds Kurt's mayhem to a car chase that's more visceral than recent blockbusters. And like the best of screen-life movies, “Spree” naturally escalates its anxiety factor while maintaining the constant presence of cameras and screen footage. It has a better conceit than most screen-life peers, because you know that Kurt wants all of this filmed, even if he has to pause in the middle of a murder attempt to adjust his dash cam. Kotlyarenko's full-fledged commentary slingshots viewers into the cringiest but most revealing parts of the internet—all the waves of crude comments in the live streams, the Pepe jokes, the audience's insatiable need for shocking entertainment. Kurt's mayhem is incredibly funny and entertaining because it's so smart in critiquing what content is truly out there, down to a video where Bobby BaseCamp pretends to help homeless people, all for the views. Throughout its wild ride, "Spree" is not just savvy in its critique of the internet, so much as the casual nature of violence in America, a type of phenomenon that we accept in our news feeds daily. Arthur Jones’ “Feels Good Man” is a zippy and very meaningful documentary about “Pepe the Frog,” the green meme character who started as the lackadaisical creation by San Francisco Matt Furie. Especially as Furie goes to the background during the passages about how Pepe was embraced by the alt-right, “Feels Good Man” is more about a developing meme language in general. And just like Pepe becomes far more than just a lackadaisical character created by Furie, the movie is far bigger than Pepe, unveiling itself to be a vital document of our new language of meme culture. The film’s release in Park City in January 2020 feels particularly timely—it’s a movie that intelligently wrestles with how much internet culture changed in the past decade. Jones’ approach is nothing less than heroic, as he takes a head-first dive into the internet’s wasteland of 4chan to restore Pepe’s potential for goodness, and to create a deeper, fuller understanding of his iconography. The first act is to restore Pepe back to Furie’s life story, indicated in earlier stories where the soft-spoken artist talks about how the character emerged from his lifelong fascination with drawings frogs, and melded with his own coming-of-age in a comic called Boys’ Club. The phrase “feels good man” was a punchline to a comic in which the character Pepe tries urinating with his pants pulled down to his ankles, an experience that Furie even traces back to second grade. Along with the sporadic animation sequences that present a melancholy Pepe as like a cartoon character with a warped reality, the film’s big heart then goes to understanding how this happened, and what hope there is for Pepe. There is so much shit out there, and Jones guides the viewer through 4chan history not as a freak show that certain news clips make it out to be, but as underground forum for voices of influence across the internet. “Feels Good Man” is full of thoughtful talking head interviews (even if an occultist’s presence can be confusing) who reflect upon the influence of this Pepe, and provide a context to what it means that Pepe became so toxic. For starters, Jones puts a face to the anonymous users on 4chan, with a few included people who talk about why they embraced Pepe. Yes, it wasn’t predictable that Pepe would go from a bodybuilding meme to Donald Trump’s twitter account, but the movie connects the dots concerning the underground various online movements, without ever sounding like it’s trying to explain the internet as a concept itself. Such savviness and clarity gives the movie a lot of kick, especially as it starts to seemingly speak in another language. The way the film blitzes through internet images, videos, novelties and the like might feel like the “Jupiter: Beyond the Infinite” segment in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but if you’ve ever scrolled 4chan, or any set of memes outside your curated news feed, that’s the total experience. “Feels Good Man” doesn’t feature “Baby Yoda Pepe,” but its hyper-speed sequences have the freshness as something that was finished just yesterday. Furie is more than just the person who creates Pepe, and then tries to take him back—he’s a stand-in for a mindset that has changed by this new decade, where we have become increasingly aware of our need to not just sit back and trust that art will control itself on the internet. We have to know what we’re sharing, and where it came from. Jones’ movie is a beacon of internet literacy about a whole new language—that memes are flexible, omnipotent, and pieces of a phenomenon more powerful than their creators.
Sundance 2020: High Tide, Summer White
by Nick Allen on January 28, 2020 at 9:58 PM
In Verónica Chen’s Argentinian film “High Tide,” a woman does what she wants with her body, and then has to put up with leering men and their disgusting lack of boundaries. Laura (Gloria Carrá) decides that she does indeed want to have sex with Weissman (Jorge Sesán), the boss of the workers who are fixing up a BBQ area for her beachside, two-story, glass-covered home. Weissman is a total dill weed from the get-go, the way he says gross stuff when dancing up against her, the stuff that a person with respect for women would never say. But Laura brushes it off, and the next morning when Weissman leaves, his workers are hiding the woods, are smiling like excited little boys, or sharks. Weissman doesn’t come back the next day, but the workers know what happened, and they are even more predatory. One worker in particular, Toto (Cristian Salguero) always finds a way to make a suggestive remark about sex when Laura communicates with them, and later gets naked on her property in front of her. He’s constantly staring at her with a grin, and also freely using her home when she is gone, despite her telling them not to use the bathroom. Chen gives his predatory a gaze a couple of jarring close-ups, but the story has little interest in him aside from the chaos he can stir up, like the houseguests in Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” The psychological game of “High Tide” is meant to come from Laura choosing to ultimately put up with such grotesque disrespect—and not give them the satisfaction of showing they've gotten to her—even though it’s all driving her mad. But Chen struggles to escalate the tension her story relies on, even as the workers’ behavior is more flagrant, their behavior more inappropriate. As if to provide context, certain sequences are meant to feel like we’re in a horror movie—like an overhead shot that shows the two workers breaking into her home as she goes to the beach—but these images don’t lead anywhere. Instead the film becomes repetitive, as in, “Here’s another instance in which the workers are doing something gross and disrespectful, and Laura tolerates them as if they were her wily, perverted sons.” Carra’s performance bottles up all this aggravation, but the story is so tedious that it’s hard to connect with her like you did the first act. Eventually the scenario that Chen is conjuring snaps when start you thinking, “She’s putting up with all of this for a BBQ pit?” By the third act, the film becomes as aggravating as the workers’ blatant creepiness, in a way it does not intend to be. One’s hope that this film would comment on its ugly class optics are lost—the workers are simply written as one-dimensional villains with thick accents who refuse to follow the upper-middle class woman’s guidelines. With such a simple story that is dragged along by Laura’s decisions and select actions, a real-life context is meant to support “High Tide” through out. But its premise, execution, and even setting register as a clumsy way to depict an everyday horror experienced by countless women. Also in the festival's World Cinema Dramatic section, Mexican filmmaker Rodrigo Ruiz Patterson’s “Summer White” is about a boy named Rodrigo (Adrián Rossi) who loves his mama (Sophie Alexander-Katz) to a dangerous level. The two are very close, like laying-in-bed-together, brushing-teeth-together-almost-nude close. When she teaches him how to slow dance minutes later into the movie, there is a tension between them as they stand inches from each other that seems loaded. But, then an older man Fernando (Fabián Corres) enters the home, a friend of mom’s who sticks around. Rodrigo, friendless and often silent, struggles to adjust. Rodrigo escapes to an abandoned RV in a junk yard, and proceeds to build his own type of domestic situation there; his interest in smashing up the place converting to finding a sense of home. Challenging the way that you might think about a new guy in mom’s life, Fernando is not a bad guy—they go on a trip to Acapulco, and when Fernando playfully shoves Rodrigo into the pool, it’s not a cause for war, but play. Fernando wants to help connect with Rodrigo through the boy’s clear interest in driving. But that becomes contentious, as with a few scenes that show disastrous driving lessons. Even worse, whenever Rodrigo hears sounds of Fernando and his mother being affectionate, or having sex, Rodrigo acts out. His interest in setting things on fire grows, starting with burning stuff in the lot, and then eventually, testing what it would feel like to put gasoline on his hands. The performances in “Summer White” are good enough that you wish they had more to do, other than try to capture a low-simmer coming-of-angst tale about a mama’s boy who has to share. In displaying its very low-key instances of conflict, Patterson’s filmmaking can be obvious, as with a moment in which the sound mix cuts everything out except Rodrigo’s heavy breathing so that we can hear him as he pours paint on Fernando’s suit. Later, Fernando points out Rodrigo's heavy breathing when they're in the car, and it feels like the script working overtime to assert a detail we should recognize primarily from performance. “Summer White” can feel empty too, going back and forth between Rodrigo and his RV, as we watch this young man and hope to feel something from a script that’s clearly personal (as the co-writer/director and the character share a first name). Rodrigo’s every sense of being is upset, and yet the movie seems thwarted by his angst—unable to make a compelling character study out of a boy’s inability to communicate beyond some heavy breathing, clenched fists, and pyromania.
Sundance 2020: His House, The Night House
by Nick Allen on January 28, 2020 at 7:02 PM
The last film to get its world premiere as part of Sundance’s Midnight program was Remi Weekes’ “His House,” the kind of confident debut that from start-to-finish feels like beholding a major new vision in horror. "His House" shows Weekes' already wide range in creating the unsettling to making scenes that will make audiences scream, all while getting people to empathize with a refugee couple’s story by way of a haunted apartment. It starts with a couple from Sudan, who have become refugees in Britain after trying to escape on a boat that capsized, killing many people including their young daughter. They've been given the opportunity for housing because someone in bureaucracy considers them "one of the the good ones." They’re placed into an apartment that is nightmarishly dirty—mysterious holes in the walls, there's roaches, and the lights don’t turn on. On top of that, they seem to be the only immigrants in the neighborhood, and each time they step outside, they get death glares. From the start, “His House” sucks you in with having hope for this couple to find some kind of new life in this impossible system, but a growing unease about what kind of trap they might be in. The true terror, however, is inside the apartment, so it’s worth pointing out that a case worker played by Matt Smith is nothing like the film’s true villain. It’s the dark corners of the place that wield a viciously frightening power that Weekes quickly builds to in his first act, based on the claustrophobic scenario. The husband, played by Sope Dirisu, starts to hear things in the walls, and he tries to see what's on the other side. I can’t remember the last time a horror movie made me scream out loud, and then proceed to watch much of it in between my fingers. In one of his many wise choices, Weekes knows that an audience can get familiar with a type of horror presence, so he works toward a different horrifying concept in his second half. It’s a little shaky making the transition, but Weekes is able to create big developments with his characters, story, and even point-of-view while maintaining emotional focus. “His House” is also about this marriage that is becoming strained because of a cultural disconnect. The husband and his wife (Wunmi Mosaku) start to see some of the same things, but have different interpretations, parallel to their feelings about trying to integrate into this society that seems to care little about them. She tells a case worker that she has survived by trying to not belong anywhere, a reference to surviving in Sudan; he finds himself in a blindingly white department store, trying to find clothes like the big Caucasian models have in the display. Weekes' narrative is comprised so many bold choices, especially in how he flips the more usual track for a horror movie. He gets us emotionally involved with the more outright terrifying stuff in the beginning, and as our heart rate starts to correct itself, the second half takes viewers to something that is horrifying in a whole different way. His point-of-view visuals have a devastating emotional impact too, like when his camera spins around the wife as she struggles to get directions from some cruel schoolboys who mock her accent. And as Weekes’ horror proves to be multi-faceted, he confidently builds the pacing of certain moments to unleash shocking surprises in the second half, which hit differently than his grade-A scares. In Weekes’ vision, which recalls early George Romero and Wes Craven, there are numerous terrors for us to be haunted by, and are all part of a tale that is as thoughtfully executed as it is terrifying. David Bruckner’s “The Night House” has one of the loudest and longest jump scares I’ve ever experienced—a brazenly loud home stereo, emitting some type of static nonsense, caused the woman next to me to grip her partner for dear life. That aggressive burst proves to be one of the movie’s few memorable elements, aside from a grief-stricken performance by Rebecca Hall. Hall plays a schoolteacher named Beth, who is widowed at beginning of the film. Her husband Owen (Evan Jongkeit) has just committed suicide, leaving her behind with a home on a lake and a wealth of bizarre secrets that she learns over the film’s duration. The story focuses not so much on making us feel the loss of her relationship by looking to the past, but instead watching the way that the loss has left her lonely and a little bonkers. In both extensive silent passages and gloomy discussions that she has with friends, the movie struggles to say anything interesting about grief. Beth keeps having instances where she thinks she’s walking around her house at night trying to communicate with a force that might be Owen, and then wakes up on the floor the next morning. She’s not sure if those are dreams, or some type of sleep paralysis. Some type of force is tapping on her window at night, suddenly turning on her and Owen’s wedding song before shutting it off. The script by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski leads Beth to more of Owen’s secrets, and they come out in clumsy, cliche ways. Yes, there’s a scene in which she flips through the kind of freaky book you wouldn’t expect your partner to have, just so that we can peek at the weird sketches and notes Owen (might have) written down like “Trick It - Don’t Listen To It!” Instead of making the story more ominous with its very broody tone, “The Night House” negotiates both lacking ideas about loss and dull horror execution. To Bruckner’s credit, he does achieve a few uneasy moments. But they’re related far more to dreading Beth tip toeing into a dark room of her home, instead of the flashier, louder stuff that he often throws at his audience. Hall is game for a concept that requires a lot of inner tension and on-the-nose displays of sadness—like dramatically pounding back some wine—but they make for bland scenes of emotional turmoil. Her performance becomes a little more interesting toward the middle, when all of the unexplainable things happening in her house (like when the force suddenly turns her speakers ALL THE WAY UP after Bruckner does a quiet close-up on her sleeping face) start to get to her. She cracks, and eventually she is so desperate for Owen to come back that she’s not scared by the very real threat that could be in her house. And there are, dear reader, many weird elements packed into “The Night House,” even if only a few of them register as entirely thought-out. It’s the kind of movie that would make for a fun challenge in how to explain what it all means in as few sentences as possible, in part because it does make sense by the end. I haven’t even mentioned Stacy Martin’s brief role as another woman in Owen’s life, or the second house across the lake, just a couple of bizarre plot threads that fail to mix under Bruckner’s care.
We Are Made to Feel Ashamed of Ourselves: Justin Simien on Bad Hair
by Robert Daniels on January 28, 2020 at 6:59 PM
Six years ago, Justin Simien arrived to Sundance with “Dear White People,” a comedy set on a college campus which questioned identity and the parameters of Blackness. The film won the festival’s dramatic prize and spawned a long-running streaming series on Netflix. Nevertheless, 2020 marked the return of Simien to the festival, this time with “Bad Hair.” Set in 1989 Los Angeles, Simien’s horror flick questions a systematic oppression predicated by fashion and standards of beauty. The film follows the soft-spoken Anna (Elle Lorraine), who wears her hair naturally after a childhood accident left her scalp badly scarred. She works as an assistant for the television station Culture. However, Anna dreams of one day hosting her own show. But when Zora (Vanessa Williams) assumes control of the station, attempting to rebrand it, Anna comes to realize that her only chance at advancement is to get a weave. Pretty soon, her co-workers also change their looks, like Brook-Lynne (Lena Waithe) and Sista Soul (Yaani King Mondschein) to match the station’s new brand. However, after her makeover Anna discovers that her weave is parasitic. It loves blood, and uses her as a host to kill. In its simplest form, “Bad Hair” is camp horror. The practical effects are realistic and the deaths are cartoonish. But when one considers that Culture, a Black affiliate, is now being co-opted for white entertainment, along with the film’s usage of African folklore, and its deconstruction of how standards of beauty adversely affect Black women, “Bad Hair” is nothing short of another ambitious entry into the Black horror genre that Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” nearly perfected. What compelled you to write or do a horror film? I mean there's a few things, man. Like one of them, very practically is that me and the producers of “Dear White People” and “Bad Hair” were having a conversation about hair horror, which is like a sub-genre of Asian horror films, particularly a movie called “The Wig” and a movie called “X Day” or “Extension.” We kind of joked about it and laughed it off. It's like, why isn't there like an American version of it? That'd be crazy. Ha ha. And I just put it in the back of my mind and it started to blossom into what would eventually become “Bad Hair.” And I felt like as a filmmaker, no one has as much fun frankly as white men doing psycho thrillers. Nobody has as much fun. And it really starts with “Vertigo.” It's like “Vertigo” is like the blueprint of a white man taking all of his obsessions, whatever they may be. However politically uncouth and distasteful, they might be, and pouring all of that into something and making something personal that also gives you a ride, but also gives you way more to think about. And there was a freedom in that genre that I feel like was available to me, which made me feel like, “Oh, I got to do it.” And so then I started working out a treatment. I realized I wanted to set the movie in 1989, which came through some research and realizing that really was the year that the weave sort of burst onto the national scene for everyday Black women. That's sort of when with Janet we started to understand, “Oh, how does she do somersaults in that hair?” And we started to understand what that technology is. It’s literally on the cover of Ebony magazine. You can find the year, you can find the month that it crosses over. So that felt interesting. I'm like gathering literally every Black woman I know that would talk to me that's a storyteller. And we just started talking about what is the horror of this experience for you? And some of it was like the actual horror of getting the thing or like, you know, straightening the hair or whatever. But the real horror felt like, even though these were choices that they were making, it felt like they really weren't choices. Which I think every Black person feels. I actually feel like every American feels it, but Black people feel it acutely. Like we get to name it. I think trans Black people, trans Black women probably get it the absolute worst. But like Black women in particular get it bad, where like you have to choose between yourself as you are and your ambition; yourself as you are is not even like an option on the table of options. And these options don't really feel like options, and you sort of feel like the more you succeed, there is this feeling like all of me didn't make it through the wringer of success. You know? I feel that way. Yeah. I don't know, six years since my big break, I'm like, “I don't think all of me made it through this process” Like part of my heart and soul didn't make it from my childhood through the process of assimilating into American culture and the ideas of American success. And so I realized that that was the thing that was the horror in the movie. It's like all of the little conditionings and dials and levers and cultural cues. And we're sort of guiding these women to be pitted against each other, to be pitted against themselves and to be led to these false choices. Like get a weave or be fired. That's not really a choice when you can't pay your rent. And then “Get Out” came out and it was like, “Oh, this isn't just a weird obsession.” There's a new genre forming about horror, psycho thriller films that are rooted in the truth of the Black American experience. And it made a lot of money of course. And so I was able to actually like get this movie into production that way. You just mentioned the freedom that the drama offers you. I love "Dear White People" because it’s so in your face. It's unabashedly Black, and "Bad Hair" is unabashedly Black, but in a different way. I feel like horror allows for digestible packaging. I feel like the ones that stick with my bones are like “Rosemary's Baby,” “Carrie,” “The Shining,” and “Bodysnatchers.” Those are very personal movies that are coming from obsessed people, and tying together a lot of their obsessions. And more and more I just sort of like researched into this story, and started pulling my script together and figuring out how to make the movie, the more and more I felt like so many of my obsessions sort of combined into this story. And I just sort of went with that. In "Bad Hair" you use Black folklore and the whole time I was watching and thinking, “Oh, I wonder where he got this from?” Like my background is in English, a BA and an MA, but I’ve never seen that topic covered much. It’s difficult to find a class on Black folklore. What's the research process for those stories? Were they something that you already knew or was that something that you discovered along the way? It came out of the research process, and likewise, I felt the same way of like, how did I not know that like literally my ancestors were telling themselves all of these stories that I don't have access to, and in their own way are saying things that are profoundly true about the Black experience. You know, it's not in Hansel and Gretel, you know what I'm saying? And it just felt like another one of those ways that culture sort of cuts me off from myself. And likewise in the movie, like you get, at least I hope you get the feeling that like, you know, if only Anna had time with these stories to interrogate them and their meaning, she might've had a few more resources as a person navigating this system. Like, one of my favorite stories is, you know, it's partly in the movie, is the Flying African story. Which is the idea that Black people, when they first got here from Africa, just flew back because Africans were magical. And what the slave owners learned, is that if you pour salt on them, it takes away their magic powers. And when you think about the relation with Black people and salt, and the things that we're fed that empower us versus other things that we're fed that don't empower us, I'm like, that is an incredible intuitive wisdom that like our ancestors, like put in a fable that I don't have access to that I've never had access to. And again, like the Moss Haired Girl story is made up, but I hope, I hope, people sort of scratch that itch. One of my favorites is the story of the Tar Baby, which I think I grew up just feeling like that's just racist. Like people just use the term “tar baby,” but it comes from one of those Breyer rabbit stories. And the idea of the tar baby is that there's this tiger that's drawn in by the blackness of the tar baby, and he keeps swiping at it. The more he swipes at it, the more its claws get stuck by the tar. And it's basically the analogy of using their hatred of your blackness to ensnare them. But like that story was never taught to me or explained to me in that way. And like, I don't know, there's something about that, that I felt like belonged in this movie because the stories Anna is being told about herself. That really is like the mechanics of the horror and the movie. All the music she's listening to, if you listen to the lyrics, there’s all this fucked up messaging from Sandra (Kelly Rowlands) talking about I'll do whatever it takes to get it. And you know, it’s basically instructing women how to be in society, and getting a sense of all of these people that are being run by somebody white. They're at the top of RMV or the top of their respective record labels. Those are the people actually pulling the puppet strings and making us tell ourselves these same stories over and over again. And it's the stories that like maybe could have saved her that are being kept away from her. It's definitely like how messaging gets like lost over the decades. Like, if you think about Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Yeah. That image has been used so often, it's almost lost its meaning. Well ultimately, like so many things that Black people do that is of our own accord, and with our own resources, they eventually get co-opted and used against us. I mean I made the movie really, I designed it in a way so that there would be things about it that when you get to the end of it, like just don't make any fucking sense and you just got to watch it again. Because there's a lot of that going on. You know, there's really this sub-story about the nature of stories, and the ones that we tell ourselves, and the ones that are told to us, and the ones that we think are ours, but they're actually owned by other people. And there's a lot of that going on that I think is important because like you can only aspire to be what society tells you is an option for you. You can't want to be an astronaut before you hear about NASA. You know what I mean? Like in 1989, and just like today, there's only a few versions of black womanhood. Anna felt like she couldn’t herself to get to where she was trying to go in society. And that's just the story. So who's telling us that story and why do we believe it? I think that's an interesting thing to interrogate. When talking about ownership of stories, at the Q&A for "Bad Hair" and you talked about the producers giving you free rein. Did you feel like you didn’t need writing process to amend or collaborate certain parts of your story this time around, as opposed to the writing process for say "Dear White People"? I mean one thing I learned from doing the show, because I couldn't have known when I made “Dear White People,” is how much Black women is our primary audience. I guess you know, it's like 60/40 but it's still like Black women have a relationship to “Dear White People” that is different. And with the show it was like, “Okay, well then it's very important to make sure I have a lot of different versions, like different kinds of Black women with me writing this show and behind the camera and stuff.” And so, I took that philosophy, which I learned from making the show, to this process and I just sort of begged literally every Black woman that was a storyteller to be a part of this creative process in some way. It started with a workshop, where I bought a bunch of people to Palm Springs to talk about the movie with me, and to watch scary movies, and talk about like, what is the most horrific aspect of your experience. How can I tell this in a way that doesn’t make you feel like I took your story from you? 'Cause I feel like I have something to say here, but I don't want to say it if I can't say it in a way that feels authentic to you. And so, we had workshops, we had writers groups, we had read throughs, we had lots of screenings. And really, I just sort of took that philosophy of just having my tribe of chosen people to sort of help me, and be around the movie at all times. With the role of Black men and "Bad Hair," it seems like often they almost edit themselves out. Like Usher wants to say something's wrong, but he doesn’t. Are Black men maybe not supporting Black women as much as we could? Right. Well, I think in the movie there's a lot of layers of oppression that's affecting Anna. There's the racial oppression that she's dealing with, but there's also the patriarchal oppression that she's dealing with. And the men in the movie, the Black men in the movie themselves are also under different systems of oppression. And none of them are in control of it. That is what I hope comes through. They're sort of pitted against each other instead of against their real enemies. I feel like if we look, if we're talking about songs like “Poison,” it's like that’s that. That was what was celebrated about Black masculinity at the time. But ultimately it's a song about not trusting a woman because she's really attractive. Which is fucking crazy. There's always a cost. And if this system can sort of get the people that it's depressing to sort of look at each other, as the people you gotta take out to get to where you're going, you'll never turn around and look at who's actually pulling the strings. And so that's why so often like these Black men who are also operating in their own patriarchy, they're also participating in the oppression of these women in some way. Both victims and victimizers. I think in this fucked up system that we all find ourselves in, it's not so much a statement as it is an observation. Sometimes when that happens, I find that when everyone is battling with our own oppressions, sometimes it can turn out to be a Black person being very comfortable with being the only Black person in a room. Yeah, absolutely. Where it's like, I gotta be the one Black person. If there's a second Black person, then I'm less valuable. And the thing that the movie tries to do is like, take a person that's caught up in a system like that and not necessarily say it’s their fault, but just observe it. It's the system that makes you feel like being the only one is valuable. You know what I'm saying? Because everyone's just trying to survive. We're all conditioned by our culture and by America to take the carrot that's in front of us, to survive everything, to aspire to move upward. And so that's all anyone is doing in the movie. But the people who have the least options are the people who are in the most danger, and the people who are the most vulnerable. That was the sort of system I wanted to try to interrogate in this home. I do think it’s interesting that Anna's consistently trying to pull everyone together, “You’ve gotta get a weave.” Trying to pull other Black women with her up the ladder. Is it partly because of the hair or because she's just a good person? She’s constantly being presented with choices that are not real choices. You know, like you got to get a weave or get fired, or you have to get these women on board or you lose your friendships. She's also being presented a lot of tools. It seemed really benign and helpful. Like the code to the door. Or the gun under the table. These things are like, “Oh, this is gonna empower me.” But actually, it does something else that ensnares her just a little bit further. And I don't know, that's my experience being Black in America. And I feel like it's even worse for Black women. That's because in a dog eat dog system, you take what you can get. There's a lot of times the choice is really not a choice. And I kind of wanted to point that out. This is probably more of a personal story for you. You spoke at the Q&A about some characters being named after family members: aunts and your mom. What were the feelings behind that? One of them was just a spiritual one and it was just like, I had lost my [aunt] Virgi, which was the last of my mother's sisters. I just didn't want their names to be forgotten. Shit. I wasn't gonna cry. I just feel like, so many of our stories, in particular Black women in this case, often die with us and our names die with us. And I was looking at my family and like how we are named. So vibrantly. Sora. Edna. Virgi. Ana. I wanted to hear their names and put them in this story that is ultimately about what happens when you cut people off from their stories. There was no calculus to it. It just felt like the right thing to do. It felt like a way to pay homage. And when you were crafting those characters with these names, did you use any other details? Or did you feel any pressure? Like, okay, this person is named after this person, so have to do this. No. I very intentionally told my mother, I was like, “This is not autobiographical in any way, shape or form.” It's really our namesakes, you know? It's funny cause like a bunch of coincidences started popping up. One of which is that there really was a hair salon called Verges in Los Angeles. Some of the mechanics of the film: how much are the hair movements spawned from practical effects? Every time it does something, there's at least a practical base. Sometimes you're watching just practical effects. Sometimes you're watching practical accentuated by digital. Sometimes you're watching digital completely overlaid with the practical. But with everything we did, there's a practical in-camera version of it. I think, especially when you're doing something that like, there's no place you can go in nature to see what a possessed weave would do. You know, it's cool to see what it would do in a real-world kind of environment, and the physics of it I just felt like would be more believable, even if we were accentuating it digitally, than if we just sort of just did it all CGI. So I worked with a guy named Tony Gardner who does a lot of the Chucky effects. In the studio we created puppets, and played with reverse photography, and what happens when we put the hair in a water tank and shoot it up this way. So it was just a lot of playing around this thing where we could get it to do on camera, and went with that, and sort of accentuated that. I love all the mock music videos too. I know you wrote some songs, right? Did you go in saying, “I'm going to write these songs and these are going to be on the soundtrack?” Or was it just something you fell into? I mean, again, I'm following my obsessions. I have written music as a hobby since I was a kid. I never had like real aspirations to go into it. But like, I've have songs come to me in the shower and I like going to pro tools and making a version of it. But you know, I've just accumulated all these songs. Music and television felt interesting to me because there were opportunities, but there were also things being taken away from Black people with New Jack Swing coming up. I felt like the music could operate like a kind of Greek chorus. Like the singers and “Little Shop of Horrors.” They're both like warning the characters subtly. And then at the same time, and since this is a movie about the stories we tell ourselves, music is a story. With "Dear White People," my favorite line is, “Why can't we just be ourselves?” You know? It feels like in your films, people are always struggling with their identity. I guess, it’s a truism of the Black experience in America. But could talk more about that line? It's like, we are made to feel ashamed of ourselves. That's part of the American experience. In order to be a value to society, you play a role that has market value for Black people. There are just less roles available. I feel this pressure to sort of fit into a role If I hope to have any market value. Which is the same as saying I hope to survive. I feel like through cultural conditioning, through popular culture, through literacy laws, through codes of conduct, you know, talking about this kid who came, and couldn’t walk in his own graduation because in the code of conduct his braids, his dreads are not professional. We're made to feel ashamed of ourselves. And I feel like that shame. That shame is like such a driving force. We don't even realize it's there sometimes. I mean, I feel that way as a filmmaker. You have to make a calculation every time, especially if you're Black. Like what kind of lane they're going to let you in, and what kind of pitches are going to sell for you. There's always that calculus. And I think that's the first way they get us to participate in our oppression. But it's like, I think that's how they get us to participate in our own sort of traps. So like I said, I think it's worth interrogating because you know, the most insidious shackles are the ones we can't really see.
Love Has No Gender: Kantemir Balagov on Beanpole
by Godfrey Cheshire on January 28, 2020 at 2:57 PM
Judged by accolades won at Europe’s pre-eminent film festival, Russia’s Kantemir Balagov may well be the world’s most lauded current filmmaker under the age of 30. In 2017, when he was 26, “Closeness,” his debut feature, premiered at Cannes and won an international critics (FIPRESCI) prize. Two years later, his “Beanpole,” which opens in the U.S. this week, took another FIPRESCI award as well as Best Director in the Un Certain Regard section. (Later in the year, the film was short-listed for the Oscars’ Best International Film.) Promoting “Beanpole” in New York in early January, Balagov seemed to acknowledge his youthfulness with wry, backhanded humor, wearing a large “Star Wars” hoodie (“May the Force Be with You”) throughout his visit and displaying a tattoo on one arm reading HAKUNA MATATA (he admits to an early “Lion King” infatuation). He also allows that his earliest short videos were made in the Tarantino mold. Given these American pop influences, it’s perhaps surprising that the young Russian would be drawing comparisons to such arthouse giants as Bergman, Dreyer and Von Trier. But his rapid ascent has followed an unusual trajectory from the first. I first encountered him in 2017 in St. Petersburg at a FIPRESCI-sponsored colloquium on current Russian cinema for international critics. One subject of that event was the recent emergence of filmmaking scenes far from the traditional centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg in such unlikely locales as Siberia and North Caucasus. Balagov hails from the latter region (i.e., the Kabardino-Balkar Republic) and owes the beginning of his career to the fortuitous fact that renowned director Alexander Sokurov spent several years teaching a university cinema workshop in Balagov’s hometown of Nalchik. Though not overly impressed with Balagov’s early Tarnantino-esque shorts, Sokurov agreed to take him on as a third-year student, and later stepped in to produce “Closeness.” As the Cannes critics recognized, that film is an incredibly impressive debut, an intricately wrought, emotionally wrenching drama reflecting the criminal activity and ethnic rivalries that beset North Caucasus in the late ‘90s. Telling of the desperation the town’s small Jewish community faces after a young couple is kidnapped by criminals who demand a staggering ransom, the tale focuses on a tomboyish young woman (a striking, much hailed performance by Darya Zhovnar) who’s pressured to help raise money by abandoning her non-Jewish boyfriend and becoming engaged to a wealthy Jewish boy. The film’s style has a raw, unrelenting, Cassavetes-like realism that shows Balagov’s skill with actors and closeup-centric camera choreography. Though these virtues were praised at Cannes, “Closeness” also drew fire for one scene in which characters watch an actual, stomach-turning videotape of Chechen rebels slowly killing captured Russian soldiers. In St. Petersburg, Balagov defended the scene by saying such tapes did circulate at the time, and were part of the culture he experienced as a teenager. A masterpiece of stylistic eloquence and emotional acuity, “Beanpole” builds on the strengths of its predecessor with astonishing confidence. Set in Leningrad at the end of World War II (or the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call it), the film’s title is the nickname given Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a tall, rail-thin blonde who’s working in a hospital caring for traumatized soldiers after serving as an anti-aircraft gunner in the war. The first scene reveals that Iya has a tendency to fall into what seem like frozen trances, a condition that adds a tragic dimension to her reunion with her wartime cohort Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who went all the way to Berlin with Russia’s forces. Though Masha soon falls into a romance with a diffident young man named Sasha (Igor Shirokov), and the two women are surrounded by the hospital’s patients and doctors as well the hustle and bustle of a vividly recreated 1945 Leningrad, Balagov maintains a close focus on the ever-evolving relationship between Iya and Masha, an interior drama built less on words than on looks and silences (the comparisons to Bergman’s “Persona” are inevitable), and an extraordinary visual approach that includes emphasis on greens and reds. You become so enmeshed with these characters, as with the heroine of “Closeness,” that it occurred to me that both of Balagov’s films could be titled “Intimacy” – though in the case of “Beanpole” that perhaps should be expanded to “Intimacy Following the Trauma of War.” Speaking to an audience at New York’s Film Forum in early January, Balagov – charismatic, modest, thoughtful -- revealed two inspirations for the film. One was a Robert Capa photograph of two women dancing together in Moscow after World War II. The other was a book, “The Unwomanly Face of War,” an oral history of Russian women in the war by Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina in a scene from Beanpole, courtesy Kino Lorber.When Balagov and I spoke the next day at Film Forum, much of the conversation was in English, though we were assisted at times by the expertise of translator Sasha Korbut. What was your upbringing in North Caucasus like, the place and your family? I grew up in an average family, not rich, not poor. There was no relation at all to cinema in our family. I was about 12 years old when my parents got divorced, and that was like a turning point in my life. As a child I had to make a choice as to whether I wanted to live with my father or my mother. I chose to live with my mother and sister. I think that’s a sign of why the first two films I made were dedicated to women. I feel like I had a pretty tough childhood. I couldn’t understand my mother, I couldn’t understand her needs, her desire to realize herself as a woman. At that time, when I was in seventh grade, I had pretty good grades in school, but I had to deal with things around me, like drugs. Nalchik where I grew up had that kind of scene. We had a cinema in my ‘hood, called Friendship, and the first film I watched there was “Naked Gun.” (Laughter) You’ve said that you really got interested in cinema after you heard that Alexander Sokurov was teaching in a school near you. How did that happen? As I’ve said, before that I made some YouTube series, like ten series of five to ten minutes each. Then a friend of mine told me that Sokurov had opened his studio in Nalchik, and he’d already been there four years. But I didn’t know who Sokurov was because I didn’t watch this kind of movie. I just Googled him and I saw he had won the Venice Film Festival. I started to watch his movies, and I realized I wanted to be a student of his. So we set up a meeting and he said, “You can be a student of mine if you don’t use violence or profanity.” He didn’t want me to aestheticize violence. So you didn’t tell him you like Tarantino? No, he knew! That’s why he said it. He saw my YouTube series and he saw the Tarantino influence very clearly! What is Sokurov like as a person and as a teacher? Well, he has an excellent sense of humor. You can’t tell this too much from watching his movies. Before I knew him well, I saw his films and I thought they were serious arthouse films. But later I thought that they were all comedies, and you just have to know him to see that. I look at him and I think, “This person is out of space and out of time, he projects such a massive amount of energy.” I feel very small next to him. You have said you feel like you developed greatly under him as a person, not just as a filmmaker. What were the key things you learned from him? Most importantly, [love of] literature. Before him, I’d read maybe one or two books, unfortunately. But Sokurov said it’s more important for a director to read books than to watch films. Before I started they gave us a list of books to read. I had to keep up with that list, and what I realized later was that at this time I started to form myself, to take shape as a person. Before that, I was just kind of going with the flow, living an unconscious type of life. What book impressed you the most? I think it was “Chevengur” by Andrei Platonov [1899-1951, he has been called “Russia’s greatest 20th-century prose stylist”]. After that I fell in love with this writer – the language, the characters, they were just amazing. In studying film technique under Sokurov, what did you learn? First and foremost, he prohibited us from watching his own films, from analyzing and criticizing them. I think this was because he didn’t want to turn out twelve mini-Sokurovs. He wanted to have twelve students that shaped their own vision. If you look at our student work., the notes he gave us were pointing us in a professional direction, an artful direction, but they were not trying to impose his own vision on us. Did you say that at the school, you worked with actors? No, we were the actors. We had an acting school where we were the actors. It was really tough. Why was it tough you on you? Because I’m a closed person, I’m an introvert. And coming on the stage, trying to play a character, that was tough. But I also think it had a good influence on me, because it helped me to open up a bit. Did it also teach you about what actors go through? Yeah, yeah. All the tools you need, the layers of acting. Of course. But I was a terrible actor! (Laughter) Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Timofey Glazkov in a scene from Beanpole, courtesy Kino Lorber.How did you come to make “Closeness”? Because it’s not at all a student film. It’s very accomplished, but it’s also on pretty big scale. Well, the story about kidnappings in the ‘90s I heard from my father. But his story was too criminal for me, it was like gunshots, killings, etc. It was from the point of view of the kidnappers, not the family. I was curious about family relationships; I think I’m still curious about that theme. So I found the scriptwriter [Anton Yarush] through Facebook and we started to work on the story. The first question we had to ask was, Is it right to ask your child to sacrifice himself, even if the sacrifice is for another family member, for example a brother? And of course it was about traditions and the kind of conservatism we have in the Caucasus. Once we had a script, I went to Russia’s equivalent of imdb and made a list of producers who had won prizes at international film festivals. I started writing to these producers. I got back some very nice rejections. So I decided to move to Moscow, where my sister was living, and started setting up personal meetings with producers. I was thinking, I’m an alumnus of Sokurov, now everybody wants me. (Laughter) I got a lot of rejections and the reasons people gave me were that no one would want to go to the theater to see a film about North Caucasus, or a story that takes place in the ‘90s. At that moment, Alexander Sokurov wrote me a letter saying we are willing to produce your film, so I went to St. Petersburg and we started shooting. He has his own production company and helped four of his students make their films. The family in “Closeness” is Jewish. Is your family Jewish? No. My family is Kabardian [an ethnic group that contains both Muslims and Christians] but I had a relationship with a Jewish girl and through that came to know the Jewish community. In the film, where the girl’s family forbids her to have a relationship with a boy because he’s not Jewish – that’s familiar to me. In many ways, the film offers kind of a harsh view of life in this place. What kind of reaction did it get there? Well, I think my films always get a kind of a 50/50 reaction (in Russia). Some people there really liked the film. To be honest, I expected that everyone would hate it. But no. Some people said, this is exactly the way it was. Others said, no, there were no kidnappings in North Caucasus then, that’s b.s., it was a great time to be alive. (Laughter) So it was 50-50. At Cannes, the film was controversial because of that one scene. Yes, my love Uma Thurman got angry! (Laughter) There was a big scene at the festival about it. Personally, I was uncomfortable at Cannes that first time because it’s a big festival and there were a lot of people I didn’t know. But with “Beanpole” I was much more comfortable because there were people I knew and it became important to me to work with people who had helped me on my first film, people who really believed in me. Let’s talk about how “Beanpole” got started. Well, in 2015, when I was studying with Sokurov, I read this book “The Unwomanly Face of War.” From that moment, I knew I wanted to make a film about that subject. After we premiered “Closeness” in Cannes, I started writing some short synopses of scenes. I wrote to (producer Alexander) Rodnyansky saying I’d like to make a film on this theme, and I wanted to make it with him because he is the number one producer in Russia. I knew that only he could make this film possible without asking the government’s support. So he responded to you positively? Yes, we were in Telluride together because (Andrei Zvagintsev’s Rodnyansky-produced) “Loveless” was there and “Closeness” was too, so we had a chat. At the beginning he thought the film should be about modern days, but as we talked he realized that the value of the story lies in what it says about those older times, for many reasons, including that people at that time were hoping for a miracle. Besides “The Unwomanly Face of War,” what drew you to the post-WWII period, what made you want to make a film about it? I was curious not necessarily about that period. I was curious about the aftermath of war. Right now I’m curious about the aftermath of the Chechen war. In such periods, you can see the quintessence of human nature. There are no absolutes. You can be a hero, you can be a coward. I really like it when my heroes act abnormally, immorally. At the same time, even if they act amorally, throughout the film I express compassion towards them, I understand them, why they are acting like that. And this is really important. This I took from literature. Where did you get the device of having Iya freeze? Was that epilepsy, or something similar to epilepsy? To be honest, it’s not a documentary thing. It was like a fiction. It’s a way of escaping for her, so that she can be in her own world. So this was something you came up with yourself, rather than finding it in a medical textbook, say? Yes, I came up with it, with the scriptwriter [Alexander Terekhov]. Talk about how World War II is perceived in Russia now. It had such a huge impact on your country in the last century. Yet you’re far too young to remember it. Maybe your grandparents’ generation lived through it, and there have been two generations since then. How is it regarded now, among people of different ages? Now the perception of the war is more mythical. Speaking from my own life, when I was a kid and went to these parades on May 9 commemorating the end of the war, I looked at it as a huge celebration, as something festive. And now after reading “The Unwomanly Face of War,” I realize it shouldn’t be just a celebration; it’s important to acknowledge the trauma of that time. When I moved to St. Petersburg and went to parades, I couldn’t believe people were getting really drunk and shouting things like, “We can do it again! Let’s go to Berlin!” I couldn’t understand parents who were putting military uniforms on their kids. So in the mythic version, there’s no suffering. Yes, and no sacrifices. There’s no human side. It’s like, We are gods! Like Greek mythology. Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina in a scene from Beanpole, courtesy Kino Lorber.You said you found the two actresses who play the film’s lead roles in the first day of casting. That’s amazing, right? Yes, it was amazing. Our casting director, Vladimir Golov, worked with me on “Closeness,” and he’s like my soul mate. He understands me, he understands the story. I think it’s due to him that we found these two on the first day. It was incredible. I had a conversation with them. I wanted to find some trauma in them, and after the conversation we had some rehearsals and the girls received an excerpt from the book [“The Unwomanly Face of War”]. For me the most important thing was that they could go through these emotions. And these were not professional actresses, right? Right. They were students. Studying acting. Did they know each other before meeting at the casting? No. And it’s funny. I tried another actress to play Masha. And it didn’t work. There was no chemistry between them. There was only chemistry with Vasilisa. How did that chemistry evolve during the shooting of the film? Did they get closer personally, and did that affect the storytelling? Yes. We moved them to St. Petersburg two months before the shooting. Because we did a pre-shoot and I wanted them to be a part of that. They shared an apartment. That was intentional because I wanted them to get closer, even if that meant they started to irritate or annoy each other. That could benefit the film. So much of what happens between them in the film is conveyed by looks rather than words. How did you get them to do that? I think it’s because I really love intimacy in films. Yesterday someone said maybe it’s the influence of Dreyer, like in “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” I hadn’t thought about that, but in that film the impression the faces make is so strong. To me it’s really important what the faces can communicate that words cannot. Because words come more from our intellect, our mind, where emotions come more through the facial expressions. But how did you get them to do that? They are good actresses! (Laughter) No actually, it wasn’t easy. We tried to find the right intonation of voice, of body language. But they are both modern girls, so that’s why we moved them to St. Petersburg. I didn’t want them to go to parties or something like that. I wanted them to be focused, to read a lot, to watch some movies, and not eat much. (Laughter) You mentioned Dreyer. But you said last night that Bergman wasn’t on your mind, you hadn’t seen much Bergman, right? No, I had seen his films while working on “Beanpole” but it wasn’t a reference. Were there films that were references for you? Yes. “My Friend Ivan Lapshin.” “Wings,” by Larisa Shepitko. “The Cranes Are Flying,” of course. “Breaking the Waves,” which was a reference for “Closeness” too. “Dancing in the Dark,” in some ways. One thing that was interesting to me was that the film takes place at a certain point in history. Yet there’s no reference to the Communist Party, we don’t see any red stars, we don’t hear about Comrade Stalin or anything that’s going on in the world. Why is that? It was intentional. Our art director was always insisting on putting in a bust of Stalin, saying it’s impossible not to have it. But cinema is a tool of immortality and for me this person doesn’t deserve immortality. Good answer. Let’s talk about the visual style of the film, and especially the color palette. Many movies about this period use black and white, because that conjures up what we know through films of the period. Why did you decide to use color? In doing research into the period, I found out that people tried to escape the gray reality of the period through using colors. That became really interesting to me. I wanted to make a film about the young people of those days – a film by young people, for young people. That’s one reason for using color, though not the main reason. The cinematographer [Kseniya Serada] is a woman? Yes, she was 24 years old when we made the film. Her work is amazing. How did you choose her? It was like an accident. When we found her she already had a gig. But luckily for us it was canceled. From the first time we met I decided this was the person I wanted to work with. I think she brought something important to the film that I didn’t expect. I don’t think it’s because she’s female and I’m a male, because I really think cinema and love and art should have no gender. She brought something as a person, as a human being, because if you know her well, she’s amazing. How did you and she decide on the color palette for the film? Because it’s very distinctive, and I think it has a lot to do with why the film is so appealing and visually engaging. It had to do with Dutch painters, like Vermeer, “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Also I saw some photos and pictures with this kind of color palette and I really found it interesting for the story because it’s like the battle of rust against hope and life – the red and green. Let’s talk about the very striking scene late in the film where Masha meets Sasha’s well-to-do parents, because this is the place where class differences come in. Why did you decide to introduce this element at that point in the story? First of all, this was something that existed then. One thing I discussed with my co-writer was that we didn’t want to judge these parents, we wanted to understand them. And there’s a statement the mother makes where she says, “You don’t know what we’ve gone through.” That’s right. She seems to be equating her and her class’ experiences with those of Masha and Iya. And that may have some validity, yet their experiences must have been very different too. Yeah, but everybody suffered. You’ve said the reaction to “Beanpole” in Russia has been 50/50. Why the negative reaction? Did people read it as a love story between two women – was it an anti-gay thing? Yeah, the most critical reactions called it “two lesbians in World War II.” I was like, okay, if you think so, alright, I can do nothing about that. But as I said, love has no gender. And it’s like this photo of Robert Capa of the two women dancing at the end of World War II: it’s not about two women in love, it’s about human relations. It’s more than a gender love. Header caption: Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina in a scene from "Beanpole," courtesy Kino Lorber.
Sundance 2020: Love Fraud, Lance, City So Real
by Brian Tallerico on January 28, 2020 at 6:33 AM
What does it say about the current state of entertainment that three of the best premieres at Sundance this year were of television docu-series? After the success of events like “OJ: Made in America,” “Finding Neverland,” “Lorena,” and “America to Me,” it makes sense that Sundance has become a launching pad for major television documentary events, but they’re becoming so accomplished that they’re almost starting to overshadow the film premieres. Way more people will be talking about this very distinct trio of TV gems this year than a vast majority of the films that premiered this year. I’m not here to pit film vs. TV again, but just noticing an undeniable trend. Discuss what that means among yourselves. It started on opening night with the nearly 4-hour premiere of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s excellent “Love Fraud,” which will air on Showtime later this year. The saga of Ricky Scott Smith is a stunner that will have people talking like they do about the best true crime documentaries that have appeared over the last few years. (It seems like there's a new one on Netflix every weekend.) Ewing and Grady are there as this con man is hunted across the country by a take-no-bullshit bounty hunter and some of the women he conned. For two decades, Smith has left a wake of not just broken hearts but empty bank accounts, marrying multiple women across the country and then stealing from them. How does he keep one step ahead of the law? Why does he keep destroying lives with no concern for his actions? And how can he be stopped? Ewing and Grady deftly slide back and forth between the history of Smith and the immediate hunt to find him. What results is a remarkable momentum that builds up as you get angrier and angrier at this loathsome human being and become more involved in his capture. As private investigators follow him around Kansas, you’re like a participant in a hunt, waiting for him to slip up, worried that he’s going to get away. By allowing these women that he has screwed over to tell their stories direct to camera, we become a part of the crew trying to find this guy. It’s like we’re in the back seat of the car, and the adrenaline is more similar to a thriller than a standard documentary. My only advice to Showtime would be to show it consecutively – don’t break this up over four weeks. It’s the kind of thing that’s meant to be watched at once, like it played at Sundance. Yes, 200 minutes is long, but people binge Netflix shows that long all the time (and it’s still shorter than “The Irishman”), and this is one of the fastest 200 minutes you’ll see all year. Another documentary that requires your patience premiered at Sundance this year in Marina Zenovich’s phenomenal “Lance,” about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. He even says in the revealing doc that the word ‘disgraced’ is usually used to describe him nowadays, so I’m just doing my duty. Zenovich mostly allows Armstrong to tell his own story, and the result is a fascinating look at a largely unapologetic man. To get right to the point, Armstrong fully believes that’s he paid for his sins with the endorsements he’s lost and the lawsuits he faced. As someone points out, that’s like believing you paid your dues after robbing a bank because you had to give the money back. “Lance” hits all the major beats of a bio-doc, including Armstrong’s early years and where he's at today. It’s easy to forget how young he was when he became a household name, winning seven Tour de France titles in consecutive years. As we all know now, he was illegally doping to give himself an advantage. A lot of cyclists were. What always bugged me the most about Armstrong’s story was not the doping but how aggressively he tried to destroy anyone who suggested he may have a chemical advantage. Zenovich gets there and Armstrong answers most of her questions. Overall, she deftly walks a fine line, never turning “Lance” into a hit piece but also never quite allowing him to write the story either. And she gives the entire Armstrong saga new layers, particularly in the story of how much good Armstrong did for cancer research. As someone deeply impacted by his work in that arena says, his doping shouldn’t diminish what he’s done for cancer research, but his cancer research shouldn’t excuse his doping. He’s a fascinating, but often elusive and hard-to-read subject, and what’s so remarkable about “Lance” is how much it allows us to see this very public figure in a new light. Finally, there’s the latest from “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James and the geniuses at Kartemquin Films, the document of a year in Chicago called “City So Real.” James and his team set out to chronicle what a mayoral race would look like in the middle of a racially-charged, nationally-known case. The shooting of Laquan McDonald changed Chicago forever, and James was curious how Mayor Rahm Emanuel could run for reelection in the midst of the controversy and subsequent trial of his shooter. And then Rahm dropped out, leading to the largest field of mayoral candidates in the history of the Windy City. At that point, “City So Real” became something even more ambitious, a study of how 2019 politics work in a city known for its dirty tricks. We all know how the story ended, but it’s fascinating to see the races take the shape, the mistakes the candidates make even early on, and the constantly shifting landscape of Chicago politics. Once again, what separates “City So Real” is its filmmaker, a man who simply approaches his form differently. I’ve said before that James is one of our most empathetic filmmakers, someone deeply interested in human stories, and that comes through in the casual footage of “City So Real” – the shots of protesters in the McDonald case, voters at parades being wooed by candidates, people going about their lives all over the city, etc. “City So Real” could have been a deeply dry look at the candidates, but James and his team are constantly placing them against the greater backdrop of the city and its people, who James knows better than any filmmaker alive. He is a Chicago filmmaker through and through, and he brought that energy to Sundance again this year. Every Sundance could use a little Chicago energy.
Sundance 2020: Acasa, My Home, Once Upon a Time in Venezuela
by Nick Allen on January 27, 2020 at 10:19 PM
A family’s journey of culture shock that sprawls over many years and different members’ lives, “Acasa, My Home” concerns what lack of freedom comes with being quote-unquote civilized. Director Radu Ciorniciuc has assembled a chronology of what happens to a family when they are removed from their secluded world on a Romanian marsh, after bureaucracy turns their land into a state park and forces them to relocate to the city. As some family members’ lives change drastically in the doc’s 86-minute run-time, the film wrestles with what is natural about keeping up with modern society. “Acasa, My Home” starts with moments of harmony. A bunch of kids of different ages playing by a marsh, tackling each other among reeds and mud. Their home, not far from a lake and covered with trash and who knows what, does not look all that inhabitable—a shack among reeds shared with two parents and countless animals. Still, there is not a sense that anyone in the Enache family feels trapped to this existence; some of them have only known this place as their life. Whenever Ciorniciuc’s camera films one of the sons fishing on the water, a striking image emerges: in the foreground, a boy fishes in darkness, with only a flashlight to help him see on the water. In the background, lit-up smoke stacks standing next to each other, a part of a world that is far away, but we can feel encroaching on the family. Like this year’s opening night film “The Painter and the Thief,” this is the kind of documentary that feels for the most part just along for the ride, and uses abrupt but discernible passages of time to make its greater points about how its subjects have changed. The people in this riveting film change a lot (and it would be a disservice to mention how), but it’s particularly distinct how the family goes from being a unit (of nine children) that sticks together to some members getting their own arcs. Earlier in the movie, the blustery father Gica threatens during one of his big "scenes" to light himself on fire in protest, in front of the park officials; later when he is reduced to more of a background character, Gica is laying on a couch, only as powerful as his ability to yell. “Acasa, My Home” also depicts the advantage of education, given that Gica received some, but then raised illiterate nine illiterate kids. (“You children don’t need this shit,” Gica says in an early sequence on the marsh, when he throws a newly donated book into the shack’s sole oven.) We get to see the boys learn to read and write, and it is has a complex significance to what opportunities are then opened up to them. The film also notes, with a specific lack of focus on the women back at the Enache’s cramped new apartment, how females in the family are not given the same opportunities as the males due to roles that have been continued from the marsh. The "hero" of the film, it should be noted, is a social worker named Mihaela. She helps keep the family—and the bureaucrats—in check. Ciorniciuc’s approach as an editor is to largely lead with information about how different brothers have their coming-of-age parallel with this culture shock, as if cataloguing different experiences (here’s what happens they face the police, or encounter screen culture, etc.). Occasionally, Ciorniciuc includes a succinct debate between the family members that lays a lot of the film’s ideas out on the table, like when one of the sons rebels against Gica for all that he did not provide his children while they lived in seclusion. The family does not all grow together, and the ramifications of their culture shock is often fascinating. Yet while the film does provides an emotional journey of seeing people you come to care for change, the Enache's constant instances of discovery do not help us see the world in any new way. And the ending simply arrives, symmetrical as it may be. I can readily imagine people seeing this documentary as either a cause for endless discussion concerning its numerous scenarios of nature vs. nurture, or an open-and-shut case, about watching people catching up with the conditions of modern society. But wherever it leaves you, “Acasa, My Home” ultimately prevails in conveying numerous external and internal changes for the Enaches, its numerous fly-on-the-wall passages able to speak for themselves. Also competing in the World Cinema Documentary category, “Once Upon a Time in Venezuela” is about the significance of a small village named Congo Mirador, a once-bustling fishing hub comprised of houses that are on stilts on the water. The village is full of proud citizens, as indicated by all of the film's footage of everyone hanging out on their shack islands, partying at night, or making their way to each other via boat. Anabel Rodríguez Ríos' documentary is lovingly framed by the songs from an old man, who strums a guitar and sings whimsical songs while sometimes cluing the viewer into a more prosperous life for himself, and Venezuela. He adds a sense of longing to this microcosm of how government can forget about the smaller places, and leaves them rot. Ríos has a great deal of access to people in this remote part of Venezuela, and spends a lot of time capturing them during regular days or on special occasions. One of her focal characters is a teacher named Natalie, who has to put her own money into maintaining the limited schooling space and supplies that she has, and feels threatened by the community’s big fish, Tamara. She quickly takes over a new project to fight the sedimentation that is destroying parts of the homes in the area, but is also part of a bribing campaign for the nation’s elections, offering a great deal of money to people to vote for a Chavist candidate. "Once Upon a Time in Venezuela" takes us on the boats with these residents; sometimes Ríos even interjects with a question, but it's mostly about watching these lives unfold. In one of its more disturbing, revealing scenes, Ríos and cinematographer John Márquez watch a Congo Mirador beauty pageant of young girls, a disturbing moment used to show what is expected of the women in this community, especially as her story’s main “characters” are different women who represent different citizens of various power. With the worsening conditions of Congo Mirador, Ríos establishes a melancholy motif of people having to pack up and move, their homes floating away under two boats (the floor ripped out), headed toward an unknown destination. In turn, Ríos' film is visually immersive to the community and its passage of time, though it does make you wish you knew more about the people of Congo Mirador, especially the ones who reoccur in her editing that can tend to jump around. Like Natalie for example, they are not detailed by their own life story so much as providing examples of this corruption that threatens all institutions in any community. Ríos often wants us to connect with these people through what they represent, instead of letting us connect through their individual lives and then building out from there. The person we do get to know the most is Tamara, a Hugo Chavez super fan who does most of her ruling from a swinging hammock, cell phone always in hand. She provides the challenging experience that you want from a documentary like this, where a polarizing figure experiences a roller coaster of self-awareness, and a filmmaker’s dedication to and respect for their subject captures every step of it. Tamara finds out, in one way or the other, that she’s not the only politician leading with self-interest.
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