What you need to know
In the last of a four-part survey, our film critic CJ Sheu reviews documentaries and short films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Jakub Piątek’s fly-on-the-wall Pianoforte follows a handful of competitors at the XVIII Chopin Competition (2021), the piano world’s most prestigious, held in Warsaw as it has been for a century. The structure is free associational, moving back and forth through time, with the progress of the competition as throughline (edited by Ula Klimek-Piątek). Wisely, the film treats all of its subjects as a collective, cross-cutting between them rather than siloing each into their own segment. We get a feel for who they are as pianists (including Hao Rao from China, who gives an incredibly moving final performance) unhindered by biographical facts. It’s a sturdy if not very innovative documentary. The real winner here is Chopin.
Similarly sturdy is Lina’s 5 Seasons of Revolution, executive produced by Laura Poitras, which follows the filmmaker and her group of secret activist friends as they protest the Syrian regime and document the civil war that coalesces around them. It covers the period from the first anti-Assad protests to the emergence of ISIS, which goes unnamed but for a brief mention of sword-wielding extremists. Edited together (by Diana El Jeiroudi and Barbara Toennieshen) from the daily recordings of Lina, a video journalist, the film feels often rudderless and sometimes voyeuristic. The development of political protests, from initial fervor to division and abandonment, is well-trodden territory; perhaps the only new element here (aside from the subject matter) is how Lina adopts different personae for each aspect of her work for safety reasons: journalist, activist, filmmaker, journalist in the divided city of Aleppo, and Lina herself, just a girl from Damascus, a city whose support of the regime never wavers. Of course, the mononym suggests that “Lina,” too, is just another persona. The greatest significance of this film is as an indirect reminder that .
Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler’s Bad Press starts with a bombshell: Only five out of 574 sovereign Native American nations legally guarantee freedom of the press, and one of them — Muscogee (Creek) Nation — repeals it in the first ten minutes of the film. From there, the film offers an invigorating examination of just how hard it is to realize change and hold power to account in a democracy where the media’s editorial direction and budget is controlled by the government, especially when the media is banned from supporting the right to a free press because it counts as political engagement, which it’s not allowed to do.
The film follows Angel Ellis, a journalist with Mvskoke Media, the only newsroom in the Nation, who was (allegedly) once described by a tribal councilman as “a shit-stirring asshole” (the councilman denies this), now leading the fight for a free press tribal constitutional amendment in her capacity as a private citizen. She’s the kind of person everyone wants on their side, unless they’re doing something shady. So it seems spectacularly heinous when Council Speaker Lucian Tiger III has a nice little chat with her behind closed doors for four solid hours trying to get her to give up the fight.
From that very first council vote to repeal freedom of the press — a tie vote broken by the Speaker — every legislative session is edited (by Jean Rheem) and scored (by Denisse Ojeda) to convey the almost unbearable tension. Every time important news is killed by the government, or the newsroom is banned from responding to baseless accusations (which would be considered political speech), the free press campaign seems ever more hopeless. And the election of a reformist Principal Chief (the chief executive) on the campaign issue of freedom of the press doesn’t change much when it’s the Council (the legislative branch) that holds the purse strings. Even Sisyphus didn’t have to deal with a rock that grew bigger as he pushed.
Bad Press is an amazing title: It’s what amendment opponents accuse Mvskoke Media of being, while proponents argue that it’s what the government is trying to kill (i.e., bad publicity). In an atmosphere of pervasive media bashing, the film reminds us of just how much worse things would be without it.
Amanda Kim’s Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV (the subtitle is the name of one of Paik’s works; Marina Abramović had a hand in choosing it, as seen in an end credits scene) seeks to promote the work of “the father of video art,” Nam June Paik, who coined the analogy of information networks as a superhighway and died in 2006, as well as to explore his artistic motivations. It’s yet another traditional documentary, full of talking head interviews and archival footage (both of which include some major artists); Paik’s writings are read by Steven Yuen. What makes it special is the sheer number of Paik’s works excerpted throughout.
Sometimes the explanations of his art are profoundly moving. Regarding his early period as a member of Fluxus, the (often destructive) experimental performance art collective, an interviewee basically notes that artists are the canaries in the cultural coal mine; the film then cuts from historical footage of the Korean War to Paik (“Becoming a patriot would ruin me”) banging his head on a piano (edited by Taryn Gould). Sometimes the explanations are abstract and shallow. Explaining his work, Paik says that he wants to “make technology ridiculous” and let the viewer “talk back to the TV” — but why are these motivations so important, and how do they connect to technology in everyday life today?
As befits such a character, there are some great stories recounted by the interviewees, including that Paik spoke many languages (“badly”) and had two PhDs; that he called an artist friend at 3 a.m. one night to describe what the friend realized 25 years later was the internet; and the story of his first solo performance in New York, which included playing piano, cutting John Cage’s tie, and pouring shampoo on Cage’s head — a story told by Cage himself in archival audio. The long and short of it is that Paik was extremely intelligent, an artist and visionary running on educated extrapolations more than mere vibes.
Paik may have sought to provoke and subvert for most of his life, but the film hints at a more conventional turn as his death neared, including Berlin Wall, a piece using fragments of the wall that an interviewee calls a plea for Korean unity, and Modulation in Sync, a video and laser installation that took over the Guggenheim’s atrium and which an interviewee compares to Jacob’s Ladder; the way the latter is shot (by Nelson Walker) and scored (by Will Epstein; the theme is by Ryuichi Sakamoto) imbues it with sentimentality related to Paik’s impending death, something I’m not so sure Paik intended.
For most of the film’s running time, Paik’s work as conveyed in Nam June Paik still looks like it comes from the future.
Now for some short films.
Mike Donahue’s Troy (2022) is a small gem of observational neurotic comedy, written by Jen Silverman from her story with Donahue and Dane Laffrey. Married couple Charlie (Michael Braun) and Thea (Adina Verson) live in an apartment subdivision whose thin wall fails to block any sound from their neighbor. Unfortunately, their neighbor has constant loud sex. (No points for guessing his name.) Charlie and Thea can’t bring themselves to confront him about it, and so as the days pass, they start to form a parasocial relationship with him. Gradually, he goes from a (loud) one-note cutout to a three-dimensional character in his own right. Then, Troy, fuckboi extraordinaire, suffers a personal reversal. Shot almost entirely in a single subdivision by Ryan De Franco, the film makes excellent use of the small yet well-lit space. The comedy lies in the situation, but also in the central performances, including that of Hans Berlin playing Troy as the straight man (but not a straight man). Irrespective of the precious ending, Troy reassures us that even in the isolated city, caring warmth can be found.
Jessica Bardsley’s experimental Life Without Dreams conveys the literally galaxy-brained associative logic of insomnia. Infrared footage of a person wandering a house and people falling asleep on the subway; black and white nature footage of owls and bats catching their prey; DIY computer models of the moon and the Milky Way — all are linked by science-y voiceovers about sleeping mechanisms and on-screen titles, cris de coeur such as “I can’t sleep again.” Jacob Ross’s ambient sound design and woozy synth provide the liminal atmosphere, and the soft industrial rock tune “Go Under” by Earth Like Planets plays us out, offering a sense of resolution. Ironically enough, if you watch this when you’re tired enough, you might find yourself falling asleep.
Aemilia Scott’s Help Me Understand has the simple synopsis, “Six women come to a consensus.” Turns out, the six are a laundry detergent focus group asked to choose between two “brand visions” (i.e., scents). Counting Paul Feig as a producer, the film starts off like a parody of 12 Angry Men (1957) as for some reason the company really, really wants a unanimous decision. Jane (Dana Powell) is the lone holdout; notably, she’s seated on the same side of the square table as Toni (Nicole Michelle Haskins), the only Black woman, who for most of the first half seems fed up with the whole exercise, led by an unctuous marketing guy (Ken Marino). As ever more ludicrous gambits are tried to change Jane’s mind, effectively stitched together by editor Christoph Wermke, one wonders how this will end. Then we get a sharp left turn into the lived experience of being a wife and potential mother. The setup and themes hit hard, so long as you can accept how the film gets from A to B.
Angelo Madsen Minax’s experimental Bigger on the Inside is about . . . heck, I don’t know. Sometimes, cinema is just pure sensation. We get lots of imagery related to snow, often in time lapse or super slow photography and out of focus. Shapes, blurs, and one of those screensavers where you’re barreling through a cylindrical tunnel. At one point there’s a montage of eyes that goes on longer than one expects — so many eyes. Like the images, the score is haunting and unsettling. We see a sexting conversation that ends with a psychedelic proposal. There’s an extended theoretical YouTube video apparently about Lacanian desire. And smack in the middle of it all: a gorgeous shot of a serene seascape with a field of broken ice. Now that I think about it, the film really is bigger on the inside.
Yuki Yoko’s experimental In the Big Yard Inside the Teeny-Weeny Pocket would’ve been in the animated shorts program, except that it’s a string of surrealist vignettes, each in an intentionally amateurish and unpolished style followed by a bilingual title card that offers some form of explanation: “Here I am again, trapped in my sanity”; “Chaos fractals fluctuate”; and, my favorite, “♄⛢♆♇” — the astronomical symbols for Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto (the film’s translator is Eguchi Asako). The accompanying soundtrack feels like it was mashed together from various videogame scores and sound effects. It’s not seven minutes long, but there’s simply so much here to enjoy, or puzzle at, depending on your intellectual temperament. The film is the latest in a .
The synopsis of Ben Brewer’s A Folded Ocean says, “A couple get lost in each other.” As it showed as part of the Midnight Short Film Program of fantasy and horror, my first reaction was, Surely not. Reader, it was so. The film asks: What would happen if two lovers (Anabelle Lemieux and John Giacobbe) passed through each other? Not like ghosts, but physically, their bodies melding together and separating out the other end (Brewer also did the VFX)? What if the whole stupendous process, complete with sounds (designed by Bobb Barito) and conscious reactions, took ten minutes? I’m afraid I now know. The realism is heightened by the shaky camera, strategic closeups, and — to their eternal credit — the actors’ emotional reactions after the event. I have no idea what was going through these characters’ heads at the end, but the actors made it feel traumatic and profound. A cute little bit of cannibalism play at the beginning teases subsequent events.
Last but by no means least, Jerah Milligan’s Mahogany Drive (which played at Slamdance, Sundance’s microbudget cousin) is an energetic comedy horror. Cowritten with James III, Jonathan Braylock, and James Carr, the short finds three Black men (eponymously played by Milligan, Braylock, and James III) waking up in an Airbnb to find a dead White woman on the floor. As they debate what to do, another White woman shows up and, on entering the house, falls dead. Things, as they say, snowball. The characters are immaculately and memorably drawn through the use of classic comedy tropes that, along with the raised stakes, effectively paper over some thin plot mechanics, while the horror comes mostly in the form of Isaac Lucas’s heavyhanded score. I won’t spoil the ending, but the film becomes a reflection on how hard intersectionality can be when one is deeply invested in one’s own cultural politics, be it by circumstance or by choice.
READ NEXT: Sundance 2023: Fiction Films of Note
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)
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