Best Film of the Day(s): Users
All Light, Everywhere: In 2015, during the riots and rebellion in the immediate aftermath of the Freddy Gray killing by local police, the Baltimore Police department agreed with a private entrepreneur to send up a secret surveillance plane over the city, in order to monitor, in clear HD images, those neighborhoods most primed for a violent reaction. They did this without informing the mayor’s office, or other local government agencies. This is only a facet of Theo Anthony’s far-reaching doc on the subject, not just of surveillance, but also the Act of Looking as any type of objective measure of reality. Anthony stays fixated on Baltimore, his hometown, when he tours the AXON corporate headquarters in Arizona, the makers of the most used police body cams and taser weapons, where the company CEO enthusiastically walks through the offices and production warehouse, as these items are being manufactured. Not surprisingly, despite their near-ubiquity amongst American police stations, AXON’s most lucrative asset is its intense data collection, via its evidence.com portal, where law enforcement uploads thousands of hours of video each day. Anthony also spends time with marketing focus groups, camera-toting carrier pigeons, and scientists exploring the framework of our visual understanding. It’s at times an abstract experience — the film communicates its intentions largely through bracketed text blocks, and a voice-actor, who acknowledges their role in your understanding the film’s premise. He also makes frequent use of past scientific thought on the subject, including the creation of the earliest forms of motion picture recording, to best exemplify the more we attempt to create visual “truth,” the more the standard slips through our fingers. Notably, the AXON recording equipment is designed to give the idea of full-disclosure with respect to the police’ behavior, as a means of protecting the community, but it’s clear that the appeal to law-enforcement is actually quite the opposite: Providing enough legally permissible evidence to either exonerate their officers, or to put the plaintiff behind bars. As Anthony’s pithy film points out, the act of seeing is still an act.
The World to Come: It is, of course, deeply unfair to compare each film to the highwater mark in a given genre — to say, for example, ‘Well, I quite liked that hard-boiled egg, but it’s no souffle au fromage’ — but the current spate of turn-of-the-century hardship lesbian romance films makes it near impossible not to put them in canonical order. Leading the way, it must be said, is the first of this current iterations of romances, Céline Sicamma’s excellent Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which took my breath away. If the low-water mark of this triad is last year’s Ammonite, which relied far too much on its esteemed leads to do all the heavy lifting; Mona Fastvold’s film nestles somewhere close to the latter, but nowhere near the rarefied air of the former. What Fastvold does make use of is the natural environment in which the film was shot (Bucharest, as a believable stand-in for Upstate New York), filled with snow, and mud, and the damp gray features of that clump of woods in the valley of the mountains nearby. The story gives us two farming couples, both miserable, albeit in slightly different ways. Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck) genuinely care about one another, but the loss of their young daughter to diphtheria has turned their marriage into a sort of continual wake; and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and her dour husband, Finney (Christopher Abbott), who don’t have any children, and with Finney’s grimly cruel nature, aren’t likely to have any. In their shared loneliness and misery, Abigail and Tallie become friends, then eventually lovers, finding in each other’s arms, the wonder of worlds and joys otherwise lost to them. The film certainly means well, but as told mainly in journal entry and letter VO — Waterston’s voice so muted and unwavering, she sounds like an NPR journalist reporting a story — it’s so modulated and chaste, the emotional arc never rises beyond the slightly bowed. We aren’t given enough privvy into Tallie’s own state of mind, so thoroughly are we inside the consciousness of Abigail, to feel the full weight of her decisions. It’s earnest, but not particularly moving.
Flee: You don’t see a ton of animated documentaries, but in the case of Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s harrowing immigrant’s survivor tale, there was no way to catalogue the early life of Amin, the film’s subject, without extensive recreations in the first place. As a result, there is a strikingly evocative visual element to the manner Rasmussen and his animation team document Amin’s journey from war-torn Afghanistan, to Moscow, to Estonia, back to Moscow, and finally to Copenhagen. After his father is taken into custody by the Mujahideen in the late ‘80s, Amin and his mother, brother, and sisters fly out to Russia, in the months just after the fall of communism. From one chaotic country to another, the family desperately try to leave Russia for western Europe, but with unreliable traffickers, and a lone older sibling in Sweden, having to scrounge every penny he makes in order to make arrangements, things move in an agonizingly halting way. Eventually, Amin gets safely to Copenhagen, but is allowed to stay only by having to lie to Swedish authorities that the rest of his family is dead. If that weren’t enough, adding to Amin’s fears, he feels the need to tell his family — now scattered about Europe — about his being gay. Through extended interviews with Amin, Rasmussen teases out his friend’s full story, spread out over multiple flashbacks, while interlocking with Amin’s current serious relationship in Copenhagen, with a man he plans to marry, if only he can finally accept and trust in the idea of having a permanent home. Rasmussen’s genuine friendship with Amin adds a warm sheen of empathy to the proceedings, even in the ways not everything makes perfect sense. You get the understanding that Amin, having long buried his extremely difficult past journeys, is hesitating, even now, to fully unburden himself all at once, as if he has to take the time to reconcile all the different versions of his own story he’s had to live with, in order to make sense of it all.
Hive: In the era of #metoo, and Sundance’s continued efforts to represent female-helmed films at the festival, it’s becoming ever more clear in film after film, the biggest impediment to systemic change in culture and government is the ever-so-delicate male ego, which protects itself from damage more often than not by absolutely brutalizing anything that would dare threaten it. In Blerta Basholli’s excellent debut feature, based on a true story, the year is 1999, and in the aftermath of the grisly Serbian War, many communities are still awaiting word on the many missing, presumed dead family members who were taken away and will very likely not be coming back. One such half-widow is a fierce woman named Fahirje (Yllka Gashi), who still takes care of her missing husband’s father (Cun Lajci), as well as her two children. With funds dwindling, and her honey business not faring as well without her husband, a seasoned beekeeper, Fahirje gets a drivers’ license and begins a new business, hand-crafting jars of ajvar, the Serbian roasted red pepper sauce, and selling them at the local grocery. Despite violent, brutish opposition from many of the men in her small village of Krusha, whose favorite put-down is to call her a “whore,” Fahirje soldiers on, eventually enlisting many of the other village widows to join her business. Through it all, she has to contend with her own emotional pain — her husband vanished years ago, but has yet to be identified amongst the remains of the mass graves that become the final resting place for many Serbians. Basholli shoots the film primarily as handheld verite, documenting the day-to-day building of the business as well as the emotional upheaval of her protagonist. In this, Gashi, with her smoldering eyes, the lines of determination etched into her face, is a revelation. Fahrije suffers the multitude of slings and arrows — most miserably coming from her own teen daughter, who is embarrassed at first at the attention and gossip her mother is getting — with dignified solemnity. By the end, she has empowered a generation of women, while paving the way for countless others. Not all revolutions are won on the battlefield.
Users: It’s indeed jarring to see a film so dedicated to visual sumptuousness, so satisfyingly transfixing in its use of pattern, motion, and juxtaposition, but all in service towards an epitaph to our inevitable extinction. Natalia Almada’s cinematic essay uses its visual poetics to lure us in, to bewitch us with its beauty as it gently eases the blade of the knife deep in our midsection. A mother of two young children, Almada begins the film contemplating her babies, and the world in which they have been brought into, voracious in its use of natural materials, polluting the oceans with miles of fiber-optic cable, burning our forests to the ground, exploiting the Earth for every gram of mineable material, every ounce of oil, all to fill the growing chasm between ourselves and the formerly natural world in which we used to inhabit. The film moves at a placid, even-keeled pace. There are many beautifully composed slow-fixed shots of fields, trees, cityscapes from high above; juxtaposed against contrasting conceptions: an overhead drone shot of the Pacific’s cresting coastline cutting to an AT&T manhole cover; her own child’s face lit by the glow of a computer as he fixates on the screen in front of him, to a distant plane’s long vapor trail through a swath of sky; an infant breast-feeding to the endless rows of sprouts in a hydroponic lab. There is so much stuff, so many things, from shipping crates to solar panels, all slipping past the lens of DP Bennett Cerf’s cameras, so as to become something akin to a sort of visual intervention: You can see it, the film is telling us, you know very well how this is going to end. Almada doesn’t provide answers, or even firm conclusions, exactly. These are the things she is wrestling with in her own conscience, the horrific implications of otherwise deeply pleasing symmetric images. The film is a stunning ode to our demise.
Sundance goes mostly virtual for this year’s edition, sparing filmgoers the altitude, long waits, standing lines, and panicked eating binges — but also, these things and more that make the festival so damn endearing. In any event, Sundance via living room is still a hell of a lot better than no Sundance. A daily report.