An interesting aspect of this time of year is how film festivals fall one after the other. As I was putting Palm Springs coverage to bed, Sundance was immediately up to bat. I wasn’t able to revisit Park City, Utah, this year—heading there in 2020 was one of my last big activities for me prior to lockdowns—but thankfully I was able to connect with several publicists, who had some absolutely stellar films this year to share virtually. I saw several great documentaries, a fabulous short drama as well as one particularly difficult film from Belgium that features one of the best acting performances in some time.
Here are the favorites:
WHEN IT MELTS
Directed by Veerle Baetens
From Belgium comes this searing drama, starring the extraordinary Rosa Marchant as Eva, a thirteen year-old girl whose home life is a study in chaos: Her mother is a drunk, her father a storm of emotions, and her younger sister is caught amidst all of it. Thus, Eva seeks community outside the home, falling in with a duo of boys who devise a rather unsavory riddle game in which incorrect guesses result in the guesser removing an item of clothing. Eva’s decisions, with the boys and a wealthy older teen girl she befriends, result in one of the most awful scenes to be staged in a film in some time. The film bounces back and forth to adult Eva (Charlotte De Bruyne) who returns to her hometown for a school reunion—where she will confront the horrors visited upon her years earlier.
As the younger Eva, Rosa Marchant is a force to behold and, despite her youth, her performance demonstrates a maturity well beyond her years—which may be why Sundance awarded her with its World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Best Performance. We will see much of her in the years to come.
Directed by Roman Liubyi
This hauntingly experimental film uses contemporary footage and audio, modern animations, and even some actors to take us back to the terrible downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as it flew over Ukraine in 2014. Separatist forces on the ground believed it to be a military target, launching a ground-to-air missile that killed all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board. Almost immediately a disinformation campaign commenced, in which Russia and their rebel allies in Ukraine put forth all manner of theory as to what else could have brought down the passenger jet.
This isn’t a documentary in the traditional sense; rather, Roman Liubyi has fashioned an immersive experience in which truth, however difficult, will out. Pay particular attention all the way to the end, when a final animation shows how commercial air traffic over Ukraine all but ceased in the wake of the disaster. This is a film unlike any other.
20 DAYS IN MARIUPOL
Directed by Mstyslav Chernov
Also regarding Ukraine is this documentary that goes inside the ongoing war there. Right as Vladimir Putin was getting ready to launch his “special operation” in Ukraine, filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov and a team of confederates ran toward the fray, embedding themselves in the crucial city of Mariupol as Russian forces descended without mercy. “20 Days in Mariupol” is not for the faint of heart, as Chernov documents ample horrors and films war crimes as they happen. People’s limbs are torn from their bodies by explosions, and young children are murdered by indiscriminate assaults on civilians. This is documentary filmmaking in extremis, and Chernov is indeed a brave man who knows that facing down the darkness is the only way to bring light to a damaged world.
Directed by Marija Kavtaradze
Greta Grineviciute is Elena, a shy but genuine dancer who commences an affair with a sign language interpreter named Dovydas (Kestutis Cicenas). Jealousy is the name of this game, as Dovydas tries his best to deal with Elena’s sexual liberation. But can he tamp down his natural possessiveness and balance that out with Elena’s Bohemian lifestyle? At first we feel more for Elena, but, incredibly, the film makes you more sympathetic to Doydan as the film goes on, which is a rare feat in a narrative that switches your allegiances from one main character to the other.
This is human drama at the level of real life, without explosions or histrionics or the typical pitfalls of romance films. This is, in other words, a work for adults.
Directed by Paul Eiselt
Not long after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, the culture wars over abortion and birth control took a new turn. For one, what about Jewish law, which contends that a fetus is not a “person” until the moment of birth? Paul Eiselt follows several Jewish, Muslim and other people whose religious dictums (or “religious freedom,” as some are so fond of saying when it suits their purposes), they contend, are being infringed upon by restrictions upon abortion access.
It’s a fascinating expansion of that ongoing conversation, and one that, perhaps, might bring the temperature down from knee-jerk argumentation.
I HAVE NO TEARS AND I MUST CRY
Writte and directed by Luis Fernando Puente
This short narrative feature takes us into an uncomfortable bureaucratic office as a DHS employee interviews a young Mexican couple eager to enter the United States. As the interview goes on, and the couple realizes their long preparations and plans might be upset, we can’t help but feel sympathy, even for these fictional persons. The acting is extraordinary, particularly Alejandra Herrera as Maria Luisa, the hopeful Mexican woman who has every reason to be furious at a system whose rules she abides by but continually finds new ways to tell her no.
IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?
Directed by Ella Glendining
Ella Glendining was born with a rare genetic disorder, convincing her she was alone in the world. “Is There Anybody Out There?” sees the subject-filmmaker striking out on a unique quest to determine if, in fact, there are others like her. Glendining is a rather intriguing person, who not only has to navigate the everyday world just like the rest of us, but her quest lends life a rather unique purpose for her that could inspire anyone who has ever felt like an outsider.
Directed by Madeleine Gavin
That North Korea is a closed society peddling a false narrative for its people is not news, but what Madeleine Gavin uncovers in “Beyond Utopia” is the extraordinary lengths people will go to in order to escape from that country as they seek escape into China or elsewhere. Among some of the most unbelievable facts we learn from this film is that, in North Korea, people are forced to contribute poop for field fertilizer…from their own toilets. And those who don’t have enough are forced to steal it from neighbors! (Think about that the next time you complain your basement loo gets even slightly backed up.)
Gavin’s camera treads some very dangerous ground, as the refugees brave one potentially deadly encounter after another. And even those who escape agonize over the relatives they have left behind, many of whom are tortured by the Kim regime. This is a harrowing documentary that shows the price so many are willing to pay for freedoms we take for granted.
Directed by Lin Alluna
Aaju Pete is a Greenlandic Inuit lawyer and activist for the rights of her people, which have been trampled upon by European conquerors for centuries. Pete speaks to the United Nations and continues her fights for gender equality, even as her personal life is riddled with scars, from an abusive ex-boyfriend to a son dealing with a mental health crisis. She was also shipped to Denmark, the island’s “owner,” and forced to learn the local culture as a young girl, and only later was she able to return to Greeland and learn more about her people and their struggles.
Pete is a study in endurance, dignity and the ongoing fight for the right to be seen, heard and respected.
SQUARING THE CIRCLE (THE STORY OF HIPGNOSIS)
Directed by Anton Corbijn
The artists behind some of your favorite album covers get the documentary treatment here. Anton Corbijn introduces us to Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey “Po” Powell, who operated an artists’ studio the two called “Hipgnosis.” Because it was the ‘60s, they fell in with some of the most famous rockers of the day in and around London, including Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney and Led Zeppelin, all of whom called upon the duo to design some of the most iconic album covers in rock history—and many of whom appear in this doc as talking heads. For a while, the cash rolled in, but the culture and music soon changed, as it always does, and Thorgerson and Powell soon found their business model no longer quite worked and their collaboration in danger of collapsing.
While not especially illuminating, “Squaring the Circle” introduces us to a lesser-known chapter of classic rock and the stars who called upon these highly talented artists to help them sell their visions to the public
(featured image is a still from Anton Corbijn’s “Squaring the circle [the story of hipgnosis]”)
The 2023 Sundance Festival took place January 19-29; full program details here)