Film Reviews

The Sundance Short Docs

Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma is a worthy non-fiction winner in strong field

A still from The Rifleman by Sierra Pettengill, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by UNT Special Collections, NBC5/KXAS and Canal & The Gallery 2020.

The Sundance short documentaries include some brief but significant works. For example, Ciara Lacy’s fiery This Is the Way We Rise (USA, 12 min.) injects Sundance with power and poetry. The doc profiles Hawaiian slam poet Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio and observes as she uses her voice, rhythm, and the language of her island to express empowering beats of strength and resilience. This Is the Way We Rise lets the poet’s voice resonate strongly and clearly as she confronts the legacy of colonialism through rhythms that defy the settler tongue. Lacy follows Osorio as she helps the next generation of Hawaiian poets develop their voices, too, finding an invigorating portrait in this artist who uses her platform to elevate others. When the film witnesses Osorio deliver powerful verses in Hawaiian before a crowd that includes Barack and Michelle Obama, Lacy conveys the impact of language and words. If they’re a weapon, this poet is a sharpshooter.

The Rifleman (USA, 19 min.), meanwhile, offers a brilliant character study. This doc directed by Sierra Pettengill traces the history of Harlon Carter, known as the “modern father” of the National Rifle Association (NRA), through archival materials propagated by the gun club turned lobby group. What follows is an engrossing portrait of the USA’s perverse political system in which vested interests and a powerful few dictate the safety and security of a nation. The film brilliantly unpacks the ways in which the NRA shifted its agenda under Carter’s tenure, furthering a lobbyist effort and curbing any motion to control and license firearms in America. This quickly paced and smartly edited piece builds layer upon layer of Carter’s story and ultimately turns his words against him. He says more than once that guns aren’t the problem—violent people are. The Rifleman offers a stark portrait of the consequences that follow when a violent man knows no consequences for his crimes and is instead rewarded with the most dangerous weapon of all: a platform.

A still from Dear Philadelphia by Renee Osubu, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Luis Lopez.

Formal innovation marks Up at Night (Democratic Republic of Congo/Belgium, 20 min.) from director Nelson Makengo. This evocative doc captures the voices of residents as they express concerns about an incoming hydroelectric dam. It splits the screen into three sections, which offer a trio of perspectives. Sometimes these images compete and sometimes they form a complete picture. The nature of the formal device, however, might work better on a multiscreen installation than in linear single-screen doc. The diminutive size of the images often reduces their power amid the busy frames.

Striking cinematography distinguishes Renee Maria Osubu’s Dear Philadelphia (UK, 28 min.). This elegantly composed essay explores life in the city through a series of vignettes. Dear Philadelphia observes urban life through the eyes of three fathers, who want the best for the children and community. Cinematographer Luis Lopez shoots some dazzling compositions that capture the reality of daily life like cinematic street photography. The film is frank without a hint of romanticism as it captures the worlds as these fathers see it. It’s living the best of street photography, but fuelled by the energy and sounds of the city.

A still from Snowy by Kaitlyn Schwalje and Alex Wolf Lewis, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Alex Wolf Lewis.

A novel study of surrogate communities and self-expression appears in Tears Teacher (Japan, 11 min.). This doc by Noémie Nakai observes classes that teach the power of catharsis. As Yoshida, the titular “tears teacher” helps his pupils learn how to unleash their emotions and embrace the power of a good cry, the offbeat doc smartly engages with the human elements that are lost amid impersonal communication. When people express themselves through emojis and texts, using one’s body to smile or unleash a flood of tears might be second nature. Similarly, the classes and the doc confront notions of masculinity and performative gender roles that encourage people to bottle up their feelings, which can lead to debilitating effects. The film is bound to put a smile on one’s face as it inspires viewers to relish the release offered by a good ugly cry.

The power of a good laugh, meanwhile, fuels Snowy (USA, 12 min.), a droll portrait of a man and his turtle. Directors Kaitlyn Schwalje and Alex Wolf Lewis explore the offbeat relationship between Snowy the turtle and his caretaker Larry. The human worries that Snowy needs some guidance to break out of his shell, so to speak, and embarks on a question to understand how or if pets can experience true happiness. Snowy has a wonderful sense of humour. It scores a chorus of memorable characters who really know how to make an interview lively and embrace the quirky. Moreover, the film should inspire a little heart-to-heart with one’s pet, as Snowy shows notable signs of improvement thanks to Larry’s earnest TLC.

A still from Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma by Topaz Jones and rubberband., an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The winner of Sundance’s jury prize for non-fiction short cinema, however, totally deserves the praise. Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma (USA, 38 min.) by directors Topaz Jones and rubberband (the moniker of creative duo Jason Filmore Sondock and Simon Davis) is truly ingenious. It offers an anthem for Black experiences as it repurposes the most fundamental of songs—the alphabet—through a Black lens. Listing a glossary of terms in between fiction and non-fiction interludes, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma mines the experiences that inform how we speak, act, love, and live. It’s a brilliant hybrid and is as funny as it is sharp, offering a distinct and clear voice that stands out from the crowd. Momma is one of the most original films at Sundance this year.

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