Film Reviews

Sundance Documentary Report: Part 8

Reviews for Philly D.A., Try Harder!, and Writing with Fire

POV’s final documentary dispatch from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Find the rest of our reviews and interviews here.

A still from Philly D.A. by Ted Passon, Yoni Brook, and Nicole Salazar, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Yoni Brook.


Philly D.A.
(USA, 110 min for first two episodes)
Dir. Yoni Brook and Nicole Salazar

What happens when people who have spent their careers trying to change the system are finally put in charge? The desire to rip everything up and start afresh has shaped politics in the U.S. on both left and right (as a certain former president will loudly attest). However, for Larry Krasner, the transformation is nothing short of radical. After spending decades fighting against the District Attorney’s office as a civil rights lawyer and defense attorney, he’s elected to head the department in Philadelphia—the city that has highest percentage of incarcerated people in a nation with the highest number of incarcerated people in the world.

Judged solely on its first two episodes of the eight-part doc-series, Yoni Brook and Nicole Salazar’s Philly D.A. mixes intimate, vérité-style moments with probing interviews, resulting in a deep immediacy with plenty of recognition that change is rarely embraced in a universal fashion. There are obvious obstacles to Krasner’s cause, from outspoken police union leaders to former assistant district attorneys, all vying to see things either slow down or revert to what had been policy for decades.

It would be easy enough to be swayed by Krasner’s eloquence and tenacity. From the outset, though, Brook and Salazar capture not only their successes, but also the glimpses of frustration, arrogance and even hubris at play. Ideals being put into practice aren’t always done so without bruising the original intent, and it’s clear that there’s a similar lack of empathy for those that put in the work as there has been traditionally from those excoriating these progressive activists from the outside. The result is deeply fascinating and complicated, a true look into the process that’s fodder for any political junkie or documentary fiend.

While the episodic nature of Philly D.A. yields some reality TV elements that feel a bit forced, and the filmmakers are not granted the privileged of a Wiseman-like ramble to tell the story in one epic arc, the sincerity and journalistic acumen provide a uniquely overwhelming look at challenging ideas and operations. One cannot know whether this radical change will work out from what’s been teased, but from this brief glimpse, the questions raised and the characters introduced promise an absolutely riveting project. – Jason Gorber

A still from Try Harder! by Debbie Lum, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Kathy Huang.


Try Harder!
(USA,
Dir. Debbie Lum
Programme: US Documentary Competition

Debbie Lum’s Try Harder! takes audiences into the halls of Lowell High School, an elite, high-ranking public school in San Francisco. With a student body mostly comprised of Asian-Americans, one kid describes Lowell as “Tiger Mom Central.” (However, the film shows that tiger moms come in all shades and races.) The five teens highlighted in this feature are under immense pressure — both parental and self-imposed —as they prep for the gruelling college admissions process.

With her light-hearted framing, Lum breezily showcases each student and his or her quirks. The importance of college to immigrant families and other marginalized groups is clear: prestigious schools can help secure one’s future. Lum also shows how the model-minority myth hurts Asian kids. It pressures them to meet narrow, high standards while suggesting they’re a monolith of interchangeable robots, which work against them when they apply to college. (“I try to portray myself as less Asian because Asians are seen as machines,” admits one student.) In addition to anti-Asian bias, Lum exposes anti-Blackness as well. Rachael, a brilliant student whose mother is Black, rarely gets full credit for her successes. Her peers suggest she’s likely filling some affirmative action quota.

The elements of Try Harder! that are affecting, however, are less about societal phenomena and more about each individual student’s feelings. As the inevitable rejections roll in, it’s hard to see young people declare dejectedly that they don’t have what it takes. They act as if their lives are already over. While older audience members can recognize that this is far from true, it’s still sad to watch. Thankfully, the film isn’t a downer because the kids are engaging and endearing. They score their share of victories and the film peppers in some amusing moments. For example, a mother takes her sweet time to leave her embarrassed son, Alvan, on his first day at college. Still, as charming as Try Harder! is, it sure makes me glad I’m out of high school. – Sandi Rankaduwa

A still from Writing With Fire by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Gosh, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Black Ticket Films.


Writing with Fire
(India, 92 min.)
Dir. Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Gosh
Programme: World Cinema Documentary Competition

The winner of both a Special Jury Award and an Audience Award at this year’s Sundance, Writing with Fire wastes no time in showing what’s at stake. In its opening scene, chief reporter Meera interviews a rape survivor who says four men keep breaking into her home to assault her. After multiple failed attempts to get the police involved, her husband tells Meera, “We don’t trust anyone but you.”

Khabar Lahariya is India’s only women-run news platform and it’s led by Dalit women like Meera. (Dalits are the lowest caste in India, once called “Untouchables.”) In Writing with Fire, directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh follow these intrepid journalists as their rural media outlet gives a voice to the voiceless — that is, both the reporters and their subjects — and wisely makes the leap into the digital sphere. Wielding smartphones, it observes the reporters bravely source stories and build their skillset while confronting the more traditional gender expectations thrust upon them. The digital training itself is a gradual, bumpy process, but their YouTube channel becomes prolific in due time. Their news stories result in tangible change: fixed roads, improved irrigation systems, electricity hook-ups, and prosecutions for rape charges. It’s a paradox that has become familiar: those who suffer the most and are afforded the least become the ones to usher in, wider societal change that is desperately needed.

Intersecting topics of caste, gender, technology, democracy, and politics, Thomas and Ghosh cover so much ground here that Writing with Fire might be overwhelming for some viewers. (One subplot features the rise of Hindu nationalism, which could warrant a feature of its own.) The film’s multiplicity is nevertheless understandable. People can often forget how varied and complex India is because there are so many dynamics at play. Writing with Fire’s balancing act is therefore a considerable achievement. The work of Khabar Lahariya deserves to be highlighted and celebrated, as does the fortitude of the women behind it. – Sandi Rankaduwa

Visit the POV Sundance Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.