Not at Home

Having, in the past, expressed my contentment at attending Sundance, I feel entitled, this year, to introduce a slight drawback in my comments. There were some very good films this year, but I didn’t experience the kind of exhilaration Certain Women, Wiener Dog, Plaza de la Soledad, Sand Storm, Kate Plays Christine or The Illinois Parables had given me in 2016. And I felt rather uncomfortable when the US Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Feature was awarded to Macon Blair’s I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. Cinematographically, it’s quite competent, even brilliant, and it was wonderful to catch up with Melanie Lynskey who, at 16, debuted as one of the two leads (with Kate Winslet) of Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994) about the fantasy life of two teenage girls from New Zealand who create an alternative universe, fall in love with each other and end up taking murderous revenge on the adult world they feel oppressed them. The film soon became a staple of female queer cinema – and won Lynskey a part in Jamie Babbit’s lovely lesbian flick, But I am a Cheerleader (1999). Based on a real life event, Heavenly Creatures had been a fluke in Peter Jackson’s career (and even at the time of the film’s release, some feminists had expressed doubts); what had obviously interested him in the story was its “fantasy/horror” aspects, but the emotional involvement of the two young actresses rendered the film captivating. In I Don’t Feel at Home, Lynskey engagingly provides the feminist overtone in a very macho-conceived story. She plays Ruth, a meek-borderline depressed nursing assistant who decides to fight back after her house is burglarised, her laptop, medicine and the silverware inherited from her grandmother stolen, and the police do not seem to be willing to do much. Then she pairs off with the neighbour (Elijah Wood), whose dog had been shitting on her lawn, to go after the bad guys.

Shown on Opening Night (which means that people expected it to be forgotten by the Jury toward the end of the Festival) and produced by Netflix (which means that it was not slated for theatrical release, but instead went out on the streaming platform worldwide a month later), I Don’t Feel at Home was an unlikely winner. It is the first film directed by Macon Blair, a childhood friend of Jeremy Saulnier, who had offered him parts in his first three features, Murder Party (2007), Blue Ruin (2013 – awarded the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight) and Green Room (2015 – also shown in Directors’ Fortnight) – and Saulnier’s footprint, his reliance on a mixture of well-shot (grotesque) violence, nonsensical plot turns and absurdist humour – is easily decipherable.

Texts that reflect the hybridity of their conception are actually fascinating – revealing overlaps and ideological gaps. Yet they can also be annoying. In spite of compelling moments (such as the snobbish antics of a bored trophy wife, played by TV actress Christine Woods), or the deadpan humour, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore brings to the foray the issues that one may have with vigilante films. It’s one of the US film industry’s main ideological contradictions – this long-standing flurry of revenge films produced by an institution that fancies itself as being progressive. As Sundance kept offering snippets of resistance or criticism against the new administration, it didn’t register that I Don’t Feel at Home may specifically please the people that voted for Trump. It’s the revenge of “regular people” who feel that “the system” is slighting them. The insensitive cop is African American. The bad guys are a bunch of hipsters, a few black people, and, ultimately, a corrupted “elite”. I don’t feel at home in this film.

Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Queens, Arkansas

On the other hand, I could only rejoice that the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary was given to Dina – for which Christine Vachon gets executive producer credit – for this is cinéma vérité at its best and most generous. The directing couple made by Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini – famous for Mala Mala (2014) about the transgender community in Puerto Rico – follow another non-conventional couple from a working-class Philadelphia suburb: a feisty 49 year-old woman, Dina, and her fiancé, Scott, who works at Wal-Mart. Both have been diagnosed with “developmental disorders” but they are fighting for their right to happiness, and are as nervous and excited at the preparation of their wedding (finding the gown and the location, dressing up the maids of honour, booking the properly garish/luxurious hotel suite for the honeymoon, etc…) as a couple of blushing teenagers. Dina, who survived the death of her first husband and a near-fatal attack by an angry boyfriend who stabbed her multiple times, is a force to be reckoned with. She is very expansive and can’t stop talking. Scott, on the other hand, while clearly besotted with her, is shy, reserved, and has problems with intimacy (we see the couple sleeping side to side after Scott has moved into Dina’s apartment at the beginning of the film, their backs turned to each other).

Sundance 2017

Dina

Spectators were good-humorously laughing – with the protagonists, not at them, recognising themselves (all of us, really) in their little foibles and difficulties for a couple of adults to adjust to living together and making decisions together. Dina also presents a slice of working-class life rarely shown when issues of romance are involved. One of my favourite moments involves a trip to the sea (where Scott has never been!) organised by Dina. As the lovebirds don’t have a car, they have to take several buses to reach their destination – which makes Scott passively-aggressively complain that the trip wasn’t planned properly. Very simply, Dina responds that usually, when she was going to the beach, somebody was taking her there.           

Dina raises potent issues about the role of the filmmakers. Sickles had known Dina all his life, because his father had been her teacher in high school, and then a mentor in a community service organisation for developmentally disabled adults he had founded. One wonders, during certain scenes, whether the camera was not just left on a tripod while the filmmakers left, giving responsibility to the subjects to keep it on or not – a method of “passing the camera” successfully used, for example by Kirby Dick in Twist of Faith (2005) and Jennifer Fox in Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman (2006).

The Audience Award for US Dramatic went, predictably, to Matt Ruskin’s second narrative feature, Crown Heights. Ruskin has a progressive documentary background – he is mostly known for The Hip Hop Project (2006) – and he took his inspiration from an episode of the beloved National Public Radio program, This American Life, reported by the award-winning producer/journalist Anya Bourg and originally aired in February 2011. It told, in great details, the 21-year-long struggle of a young black man from Crown Heights (Brooklyn, New York), Carl King, to prove the innocence of his best friend, Colin Warner, jailed for life for a murder he didn’t commit.1

Sundance 2017

Crown Heights

Both the original story and the film deconstruct a miscarriage of (white) justice against young African Americans – but the film had to go further than being a piece of brilliant investigative journalism. To flesh out the plight of Colin, Ruskin entrusted the part to the young actor/rapper Lakeith Stanfield.2 Warner’s love affair with his girlfriend, Antoinette, who

kept visiting him in jail, staying intimate with him thanks to a special program allowing inmates to have sex, bearing his child, and marrying him, is also given emotional substance through the casting of Natalie Paul (revealed by Boardwalk Empire) in the part.

Already enthusiastic during the screening, the crowd went wild when Carl King, as well as Colin and Antoinette Warner, walked on stage for the Q&A. King is now a full-time advocate for unjustly convicted prisoners, and the Warners have become Rastafarian. This is when you realise that what makes a good Festival event may not turn into a completely satisfying film. Ruskin was too faithful to the original story, which was a smart analysis of the justice system. Something else happened to Warner in jail: the struggle of a soul, the discovery of spirituality. Something maybe less quantifiable, less useable to arouse skin-deep emotions and make a socio-political point. Something that would have truly turned Colin Warner into a three-dimensional character, instead of someone solely defined by what had happened to him.           

These ambiguities, opacities, contradictions, unsolved mysteries are what make Jonathan Olshefski’s Quest so exciting. But then, it’s a vérité documentary in which the filmmaker (who is white) accumulated 300 hours of shrewdly edited footage over almost a decade spent hanging out with and filming a North Philadelphia African American family he had met while teaching a photography workshop after graduating from Temple University. At the beginning of the film, after living together for almost two decades and having a 13 year-old daughter, Patricia (called PJ), Christopher “Quest” Rainey and Christine’a “Ma Quest” Rainey, who almost looks like a teenage bride, decide to tie the knot and get a proper wedding (in white and pink for Christine’a). Christopher runs a recording studio called Everquest out of their home, that functions also as a community meeting place – and this is how Christine’a gets called “Ma” by almost everybody. Yet the Raineys live very close to, if not under, the poverty level. Quest delivers newspapers and circulars to make a living, and Christine’a works at a domestic violence shelter. Her 21 year-old son from a previous relationship, William, is facing cancer and fatherhood at the same time, and she is taking care of his infant son, Isaiah. The film is punctuated by snippets about the political situation in the US – from Obama’s election to Trump’s campaign – and PJ’s growth from a little girl to a young woman functions as an accurate marking of time.

Sundance 2017

Quest

Olshefski focuses on the bonds of love and tenderness that unit the Raineys to their children and their community – as exemplified by the shots in which Christine’a is braiding PJ’s hair, or calling her husband from her work at the shelter. Quest is a love story between two complex, mature individuals, faced with the issues of surviving in the sometimes dangerous streets of the ‘hood. One day, PJ, on her way back from school, is hit by a stray bullet; she survives but loses her left eye. We see her struggling with medical procedures, and adjusting to wearing a glass eye. And things evolve even further. PJ eventually finds the courage to tell her parents that she is gay – and, as much of a loving father as Quest is, he has to struggle against some remnants of machismo to accept this new stage in his daughter’s life.

Two other dramatic films offered heartfelt views of African American life. For Roxanne Roxanne, his second feature after Cronies (Sundance 2015), Michael Larnell recounts the unlikely rise to fame of a female teenager from the Queensbridge projects (the largest public housing development in North America, located in Queens, NY), Lolita Shanté Gooden, who, against all odds, became the queen of hip-hop as Roxanne Shanté. The original Roxanne acting as executive producer, this is an “authorised biography” that captures her exuberance, willpower and talent quite well, but it does not shun from exploring some of the unsavoury aspects of her youth, such as her difficult relationship to men. In the title role, the film is graced by the soulful presence of newcomer Chanté Adams, who was awarded U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance.

Sundance 2017

Roxanne Roxanne

While Larnell has a first-hand knowledge of working-class African American life, Amman Abbasi, whose Pakistani parents immigrated to Arkansas when he was a child, had to reach out to create Dayveon (shown in Sundance’s NEXT section, as well as in the Forum and Generation sections of the Berlinale). He knew the location well (he still lives in Little Rock, Arkansas), but spent time with local gang members to develop the script, in collaboration with Steven Reneau. While preparing for the film, he was able to get a number of prestigious executive producers: David Gordon Green (who must have recognised echoes of his 2000 debut film, George Washington) and his producer Lisa Muskat, as well as James Schamus.

A musician as well (he composed the score of the film), Abbasi is as interested as capturing the rhythms and visuals of rural Arkansas as he is in “telling a story”. Through the struggle of a young black teenager (Devin Blackmon) grappling to come to terms with his brother’s gang-related death, and tempted to join a gang himself, he creates an intimate portrayal of lost youth.

Brooklyn again: Hittman and Ross Perry

Sundance is also a place to catch up with the newest films of directors whose work matters to you. First of all, for personal and professional reasons, I was most intent to see Eliza Hittman’s second feature, Beach Rats – that eventually reaped the Directing Award for US Dramatic.3 From her student shorts (Her Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight was shown at Sundance in 2011) to her first feature, It Felt Like Love (Sundance, Rotterdam and The Viennale 2013), Hittman has unflinchingly made movies about the milieu she has an intimate knowledge of: young people growing up in working-class Brooklyn. She also knows how to extract first-rate performances from new or relatively untrained actors. In It Felt Like Love, Gina Piersanti was Lia, a young girl courageously (and foolishly) decided to lose her innocence to sexual experimentation; through her, Hittman was drawing the unconventional portrait of a young girl that struck home. In Beach Rats, she has crafted an even bolder tale, narrating another coming of age story, from the point of view of a teenage boy, Frankie (a smouldering Harris Dickinson, who is actually British and had to reinvent himself with a Brooklyn accent). Living with his recently widowed mother (Kate Hodge) – at the beginning of the film, his father dies of cancer – and his younger sister whose sexuality he is quite keen to control, Frankie is, literally, torn apart by conflicting desires. While maintaining a macho façade with the clueless buddies he hangs out on the beach with (the “beach rats”) and starting a hit-and-miss relationship with a young woman, Simone (Madeleine Weinstein), he is struggling with, and eventually yielding to, his passion for cruising older men on the Internet. For a while, Frankie manages to maintain a double life, discarding the men he has sex with and consolidating his heterosexual façade. Yet the “beach rats” are ever present, watchful, curious, and when one man, in his interest for the lad, ventures in what turns out a forbidden territory, a sad, dirty, shameful tragedy is brewing.

Sundance 2017

Beach Rats

It was also wonderful to be able to screen Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits (shown in the Berlin Forum as well) – another film from Brooklyn. This time we are on the side of the intellectual petty-bourgeoisie – people with privilege and money, but not enough to live in Manhattan, so they settle for a cool neighbourhood across the river. The male protagonist, Nick (Adam Horowitz), is an archivist, entrusted by his wife (Chloe Sevigny) and annoying sister-in-law (Marie-Louise Parker) to work on the legacy of his father-in-law, a respected avant-garde filmmaker. Part of the research involves a trip to the Anthology Film Archive (there are a few possible models for this invisible filmmaker, and people familiar with the New York avant-garde will have fun trying to decipher the clues) He hires an intern – a young female student from Australia, Naomi (Emily Browning). Guarded and cautious after a previous relationship turned sour, Naomi functions as a cipher/blank slate and the people she interacts with start projecting their own desires and insecurities onto her. Apart from Nick, stifling in his family surroundings, Naomi connects with a friend of her mother’s, Buddy (Jason Schwartzman), a music producer, himself married. The two households are loosely connected (Buddy turns up at a guys-only birthday party for Nick) and it is clear that the presence of the young woman creates mostly unspoken and unrecognised trouble – that awakens uncanny echoes of Eric Rohmer’s work, in a New York Jewish version (the well-meaning-yet-horny-yet-blundering male in a few precious scenes in which awkwardness and desire mix like oil and water). Sticking to his well-known aesthetic choices (“I make films, not videos.”), Ross Perry had his usual DP, Sean Price Williams, shoot Golden Exits on celluloid (super-16) – and, as we have been led to expect from him, this is a finely observed, witty, acerbic ensemble piece, still sympathetic for its flawed characters, and without any kind of classic “narrative resolution”. The dialogue is a joy to listen to.

Sundance 2017

Golden Exits

Those Who Don’t Fit

Where is Kyra? (Premieres section), the latest film by Nigerian photographer/filmmaker Andrew Donsumu, shot by his usual DP, award-winning Bradford Young, and produced by Christine Vachon’s company, was not well received at Sundance. For one, people thought that the image was “too dark” – no vibrant colours, but muted tones and grey chiaroscuro – and they didn’t like the story. As it turns out, Sundance keep showing Donsumu’s work without knowing what to do about it – probably because it does not fit the mould. Restless City (2011) followed a young Senegalese immigrant aptly called Djibril (as in Djibril Diop Mambéty) as he eked a living on his moped through the streets of Harlem, waiting for a chance to make it as a musician, and falling for the wrong girl. A semi-documentary look at the lives of African immigrants in New York, it functioned, even at the level of its visual motif (the moped) as a discrete echo to Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (1973), a reference lost on the average Sundance festivalgoer.4 Plunging into the meanders of the Nigerian community in Brooklyn, Mother of George (2013) met with some reticence: yes, the imagery was sumptuous, but it was hard to relate to the story (the inside look at a marriage within complex family relationships, the question of a problematic pregnancy, and the nagging issue of the emancipation of immigrant women).

Sundance 2017

Where Is Kyra?

With Where is Kyra?, Donsumu’s first film about white people, it becomes clear that what interests him is the alienation between his characters and their surroundings – and that internal exile is as important to him as immigration stories. Donsumu also finely understands that, for actresses who were known as sex symbols and have now passed their “expiry date”, their relationship to the film industry is another form of exile. The decision to cast Michelle Pfeiffer (who had not appeared in a film since 2013) and to foreground her muted sex appeal was an inspired one, as she is both vibrant and melancholy as the unlikely heroine. Divorced, unemployed, taking care of her ailing mother, she finds herself drifting into an illegal scheme to keep herself afloat financially. She also connects with a man on the recovery from some dark past (Kiefer Sutherland), and the film evolves gracefully into a love story between middle-aged misfits and a suspense film involving another “invisible” population in the US: people who are no longer young, but have lost their jobs.

On the other hand, Barbara Kopple, who has just turned 70 and has won two Academy Awards, is a staple, an institution even, at Sundance. Her work has changed since her youthful “activist” debuts with Winter Soldier (1972) and Harlan County USA (1976). Her last two documentaries, Running from Crazy (2013) and Miss Sharon Jones! (2015) were about famous people: the Hemingway family and a soul & funk singer, respectively. This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous (Documentary Premieres section) investigates another kind of fame – one brought by the Internet. Young Gregory – who knew he was gay since he was a baby – crafts his new sexual identity as “Gigi Gorgeous” by giving make-up lessons on YouTube and staging his transition from cute boy to buxom blonde for his followers, raking up to $16,000 income per month. Gigi makes us privy to all – but one – stages of her sex change identity: starting with the face, that, at the cost of great suffering and bruising, she remodels to become “the perfect woman,” she moves to the moulding of her breasts (itself a painful operation). She remains silent about the last phase of her transitioning – differing, in this respect, from the most famous transgender woman in China, Xin Jing, who had a team of Sixth Generation filmmakers shoot in trembling b/w 16mm, the surgical removal of her male genitals.

Sundance 2017

This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous

But this was before the Internet – even though Xin Jing has now become a television celebrity – and the footage was kept secret for many years.5 Now that everything is shown, something remains hidden, the last stand of privacy. There is another aspect of Gigi’s transition that is quite moving: it is only after losing her mother to cancer, that she decided to become a full woman. There may have been the – conscious or unconscious – fantasy to offer one’s body to the altar of surgery as a substitute, or a reincarnation, of the maternal body…

Women on the Move

Also in the Premieres section was Before I Fall, the long-awaited fourth film of Ry Russo-Young, who had successfully shown You Won’t Miss Me (2009), and Nobody Walks (2012) in previous Sundance editions.6 Taking place among affluent young girls in a suburban high school, and based on a successful Young Adult (YA) novel by Lauren Oliver, this is Russo-Young’s most commercial film so far (as this text is being written, it just opened in wide distribution in the US). This is also a project that she did not initiate: the rights to the novel were bought by Fox 2000, and filmmaker/screenwriter Maria Maggenti wrote the script, and pushed for a female director to take the helm.7 As a result the film becomes an engrossing exploration of female subjectivity and relationship among girls. The protagonist, Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch), gradually peels off the layers of what originally made her an unsympathetic character – she is part of a group of “bitches” who bask in their popularity and sense of fashion while bullying more introverted students – and finally hits some sort of moral core when trying to disentangle herself from a tragic “groundhog day” situation. Upon returning from a drunken party, the car driven by one of her friends slips on the road and she dies… only to wake up, again and again, the same fatal morning, wondering if there is anything she could do to prevent her death, or, since this seems to be impossible, redress some of the wrongs she has committed and leave the world a better place. Once you have accepted this premise, and let yourself gripped by the suspense and by the sympathy you develop for Sam, the film is pure joy.

Sundance 2017

Before I Fall

Another entry in the Premieres section, Mudbound is African American filmmaker Dee Rees’s second film shown at Sundance, after her 2011 debut, Pariah, about a young black girl growing up gay in Brooklyn.

Winner of the Cassavetes award, this was a little film with heart, a lot of gumption and sincerity. Since then Dee Rees has learnt how to deal with bigger budgets. She directed an HBO film, Bessie (2015) that starred Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith, and garnered several Emmy Awards. Rees contributed to the screenplay and somewhat tweaked the story, but this is not original material for her. Producer Cassian Elwes brought the screenplay (written by Virgil Williams, and inspired from a best-selling novel by Hilary Jordan). Jordan, it should be noted, is a white female novelist, and Williams (who now shares screenwriting credits with Rees) is also white – which brings to mind the question of agency posed by Jessie Rhines in his book Black Film/White Money (Newark: Rutgers University Press, 1996).

Sundance 2017

Mudbound

Mudbound unfolds the stories of two families, one white, one black, in the Mississippi Delta in 1946. Each of them is waiting for the return of a soldier. Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), a former pilot who witnessed the death of a friend at close range, suffers from PTSD and turns to alcohol while being secretly sweet on his sister-in-law, Laura (Carey Mulligan) – while the black sergeant, Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) brings with him the memory of an affair with a white woman and has forgotten that, in Jim Crow country, he can’t enter a grocery store through the front door. What the two men have in common is the experience of fraternity between black and white fighters, and so they strike up a friendship back home, which starts creating ripples. The novel was written from several vantage points (transposed into a plurality of voiceovers in the film). However, in spite of Rees’s efforts to flesh out the character of Florence, the matriarch of the Jackson family, by casting actress/singer/songwriter Mary J. Blige in the part, I found the voices of black women strangely missing from the film. Mudbound is a well-directed instance of Southern gothic, but there is nothing new there to make the spectators reflect more deeply about race relationships in the US. Sundance audiences know that racism is bad; the others won’t see the film. Besides, both novelist and screenwriters seem to construct “Europe” as a utopian place and to underplay the sore existence of racism there. A German woman with a black child in the ruins of Germany after WWII would have had a much tougher time!

Sidney Freeland was also revealed at Sundance with her debut feature, Drunktown’s Finest (2014), that included a motley assortment of characters (including a transgender one) living in an Indian reservation – and went on to reap a Grand Jury Award at LA Outfest. Freeland has a wicked sense of humour and is not your “typical” Native American filmmaker – which is confirmed by the sassy and delightful Deidra and Laney Rob a Train (NEXT), a feminist, anarchistic fairy tale about the revolt of two mixed-race teenage girls. While their (black) mother is jailed after an act of temporary madness in her retail job, half-sisters Deidra and Laney decide to take matters into their hands to avoid being “taken care of” by a well-meaning Welfare System. The only way to pay the bills and fill the pantry is to hop onto freight trains and drop, onto a pre-decided spot, boxes containing various goods that can later be resold to the boys in high school that have a little business on the side. Simple, no? Especially since nobody will ever suspect the culprits to be young girls with kinky hair, bright coloured little dresses and an attitude. Especially since the only person who could have suspected it is a “bad cop” whose history of police violence can be used against him. Keeping her offbeat sensibility, Freeland has made giant steps as a director.

World Cinema

World Cinema sections keep getting more cutting-edge. Thanks to the untiring efforts of producer Ruby Chen of the Beijing-based company CNEX, Chinese documentaries with crossover potential are shown regularly at Sundance. Two years ago, for example, they made a splash by presenting Zhou Hao’s Datong (The Chinese Mayor). Like Zhou, Wang Jiu-liang, who screened his second feature, Su Liao Wang Guo (Plastic China, 2016) started as a photographer then morphed into vérité/investigation documentary filmmaking with his noted La Ji Wei Cheng (Beijing Besieged by Waste, 2011) that investigated over 460 landfills around Beijing8. World premiered at the IDFA in Amsterdam, where it won an award, Plastic China returns to the unwholesome treatment of garbage by leaving Beijing for the coastal province of Shandong, in Eastern China, whose major line of business is the processing of refuse plastic (we also learn that China is one of the main importers of refuse plastic from all over the world.) Wang quickly shifts to more intimate consequences of this global division of labour by spending time in a small processing unit and turning a non-judgmental camera on its workers. A former peasant, Kun has become a small plastic-recycling entrepreneur in Shandong, where he lives with his wife and young son, Qiqi, and the family of his only employee, another displaced farmer like him, Peng, with a weakness for booze. Peng has three children, including his bright, 11 year-old daughter Yi-Jie. Peng and Kun are “migrant workers” which means that their children don’t have access to free education where they live. Kun, who suffers from strange tumours, decide to spend the money to send Qiqi to school, but for Peng this is not even an issue: his kids will get their schooling, for free, when he returns to his hometown. A rushed decision to leave Shandong with his family after a row with Kun whom he accuses of underpaying him, however, proves fruitless, as he does not go any further than the bus station – having not enough money to buy the tickets.

Sundance 2017

Plastic China

Kun goes into debt by buying a new car to replace his dilapidated jalopy, instead of going to the doctor. Qiqi appears pampered and is happy to go to school, but continues to play, and even gather plastic, with Peng’s children in the midst of the garbage dump… For these kids, plastic refuse is the landscape, the horizon, maybe the only future there is.

The World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for dramatic features went to The Nile Hilton Incident, the enthralling third feature of the Swedish/Egyptian filmmaker Tarik Saleh. (Born and living in Sweden, of Egyptian descent, he was a graffiti artist before turning to cinema in 2011). In the weeks preceding the Arab Spring, Salwa (Mari Malek), the Sudanese maid of a luxury hotel in Cairo, the Nile Hilton, hears muffled cries and sees a man leaving a room. Frightened, she disappears into the neighbourhood inhabited by Nubian immigrants. A depressive, corrupt cop, Noredin Mustafa (Fares Fares), is in charge of the affair, under the tutelage of his uncle Kamal (Yasser Ali Maher), a man who practices corruption at a much larger scale. In the room was the body of a beautiful young woman, a singer called Lalena, involved with a powerful man with serious political ties. Almost in spite of himself, Mustafa unravels the multiple strands of the case that involves a ring of singers-prostitutes and the making of a political scandal. First shown as trying to take advantage of the situation by blackmailing the hotel authorities with two fellow Sudanese, Malwa, after the murder of her two accomplices, emerges half-way through the film as a luminous presence and the one positive character, in this game of shifting realities, double-crossing, deception, blackmail and murder, that Mustafa can sympathise with – the only one he can do something for – the only one who can still get out of this mess (read: the Mubarak regime and its aftermath).

Sundance 2017

The Nile Hilton Incident

And Now Jem Cohen

A film by Jem Cohen is always a treat, and the 57-minute World Without End (No Reported Incidents), presented in New Frontier, was no exception. Since 1983, the New York-based independent filmmaker has completed more than 60 works of varying lengths – from 1.30 minute films such as Drift (1993), made for Polish television to feature-length such as the acclaimed Chain (2004) that contrasts two women, one Caucasian runaway, one Japanese businesswoman lost in the dreary landscapes of American suburbia – and formats – super-8: This is the History of New York (The Golden Age of Reason) (1987) or his immensely poetic travelogue throughout the countries of the former Eastern block, Buried in Light (1995); 16mm: Blood Orange Sky (1999), a portrait of the city of Catania, in Sicily; Crossing Paths with Luce Vigo (2010); DV: One Bright Day (2009); HD: from 2012 onwards, including the feature-length film Museum Hours (2012), shot in Vienna; multiple-channels installations, such as one of his collaborations with Patti Smith, Long for the City (2008). In addition to Smith, he has worked with a number of musicians: Fugazi, R.E.M, Stephen Vitiello, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Vic Chesnutt, Terry Riley etc…

Sundance 2017

World Without End

Cohen’s malleability – while keeping intact the originality of his inspiration – has been a key to his enduring independence. A number of his most personal, intimate pieces are the results of commissions, when art groups from different cities have asked him for a “portrait” of the place. Meditative, yet witty, World Without End is one such portrait, shot in Southend-on-Sea, a British town along the Thames estuary. Starting with the recurring soliloquy of a man who sells hats – humorously aware of the social semantics that different hats represent in class-conscious Britain – Cohen, who is his own cinematographer, captures the bucolic muddy landscapes, bathed in the subdued tones of a light à la Turner, the sun veiled, the horizon receding, the seagulls minding their own business. Along him we walk through streets with quaint buildings, look at the inside of shop windows, espouse the rhythm of a sleepy British town, laugh a few times. With an uncanny sense for montage, in a few strange, banal or endearing details, a few lines of enquiry carefully yet serendipitously selected – the wise nonchalance of the Benjaminian flaneur – Cohen makes the city, its pulse, its intimacy, its inhabitants, present to us, for a little capsule of quality time torn away from the unflappable movement of History.

Sundance Film Festival
19-29 January 2017
Festival website: https://www.sundance.org/festivals/sundance-film-festival

 

Endnotes

  1. See https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/282/transcript
  2. Born in 1991 in Victorville, CA, Stanfield appeared in his first film, the award-winning thesis film by Destin Daniel Cretton, Short Term 12 (2009), and has since played in Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014), Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope (2015 – shown at Sundance), F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton (2015), Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead (2015), Oliver Stone’s Snowden (2016), as well as two films shown at Sundance this year, which I won’t be discussing here: Get Out, a horror thriller that marks the directorial debut of African American comedian Jordan Peele and was shown in a secret screening as part of the “Midnight section” on January 23; and Jim Strouse’s The Incredible Jessica James, an amicable yet highly conventional rom-com that was designed solely to showcase the (indeed, incredible) talents of the beautiful and charismatic comedian Jessica Williams, who had graced so many episodes of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show on the Comedy Central channel – the film appears to be have been selected as Sundance’s Closing Night film solely because Williams has accepted the invitation to host the Awards ceremony.
  3. Disclaimer: Eliza Hittman graduated from the California Institute of the Arts, where I teach.
  4. Touki Bouki, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s first feature, tells the story of two alienated young people – Mory, a former cowherd whose cattle has been slaughtered, and Anta, an androgynous-looking university student – who cross the country on a motorcycle scheming ways to raise the money to go to Paris. Four decades later, New York has replaced Paris as the place to dream about… Mati Diop, the filmmaker’s niece, recently paid homage to this landmark film with the hybrid documentary Mille Soleils (2013)
  5. The footage resurfaced in Jin xing xiaojie (Miss Jin Xing, 2000) a 30-minute documentary portrait short directed by Zhang Yuan and commissioned by the Jeonju Film Festival for their yearly series “Digital Short Films by Three Filmmakers”. Like Gigi Gorgeous, Jin Xing is also a celebrity. A dancer in the People’s Liberation Army troupe when a young man, she had her own dance company while transitioning, and is now a famous television anchor. She has published her autobiography in French as Rien n’arrive par hasard (Nothing Happens by Chance) in 2005. Paris: Robert Laffont.
  6. Russo-Young’s first film, Orphans (2007) was shown in Thessaloniki and South by Southwest but for some reasons is often omitted in her filmography.
  7. Maria Maggenti is also known to Sundance audiences for the two queer features she directed: The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Women in Love (1995) and Puccini for Beginners (2006).
  8. see http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/miff2012/the-affluent-and-the-effluent-wang-jiuliangs-beijing-besieged-by-waste/

About The Author

Bérénice Reynaud is the author of New Chinas/New Cinemas (1999) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (2002). She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. She edited the Senses of Cinema dossier devoted to Chantal Akerman.