Powerful forces are at work in this new batch of documentaries, seen and reviewed at the Sundance Film Festival. Backward-looking binaries are dismantled, where art, hope and optimism remain triumphant in the face of conflict and confinement. The past is coveted and truffles are eaten while the lines between fiction and reality are blurred.
The Earth Is Blue as an Orange
(dir. Iryna Tsilyk, World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Pro-Russian separatist forces and the Ukrainian government have maintained a frighteningly intense status quo in the southeastern region of Donbass since 2014. Anna keeps her family of four children afloat amid the chaos, holing up in her basement between the irregular intervals of heavy shelling. Everyday life continues in this cosy shelter as the raging conflict surrounds the familial house. Zeroing in on the surrealism of these parallel universes, Kiev native Iryna Tsilyk, who won the Directing Award in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, explores the therapeutic power of documentary cinema.
The Earth Is Blue as an Orange records the quotidian aspects of the family’s life. Since making home movies is their favoured pastime, we’re observing two films, as they are created simultaneously and interact with each other. Anna’s daughter Myroslava’s desires to become a filmmaker run parallel to the development of Tsilyk’s documentary. While she applies and gets accepted into film school, the family’s enthusiasm for DIY filmmaking doesn’t abate. Kitchen table meta-discussions fire up as Myroslava makes her first short: how should the war be depicted? How does one show the suffering of a city? Myroslava’s little brothers pick up their flutes and accordions like she does her camera. Their symphonious notes, combined with the shelling, form a soundtrack suited for a war documentary that contemplates the unfaltering optimism of its subjects.
The warmth the filmmaker cherishes for Anna and her children emanates strongly from the playful images of familial intimacy. The gruesomeness of the long-lasting conflict, however, permeates much more in the second half of the film, almost as if Anna’s partial empty-nest syndrome concedes to the ugliness surrounding her. She nonetheless emerges from the documentary as the chief conductor directing her family to write the resilient war symphony that will help them get through this.
The Truffle Hunters
(dir. Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw, World Cinema Documentary Competition)
In Piedmont, the northwestern region of Italy, selling white truffles has the appearance of a drug deal: hunters meet buyers meet chefs in back alleys. Whispers, outbursts of excitement: it’s all very hush hush. It’s all very expensive. Especially when it passes through the hands of buyers: the slick sharks sell the precious dirt-diamond for ten times the amount they had bought it. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw (The Last Race) follow the few men, and dogs, who know how to navigate the forests that produce them. Singing Piedmontese folk songs and talking out loud to a favourite pet may or may not be prerequisites to finding the elusive tartufo bianco but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Michael Dweck’s background as photographer and visual artist is apparent: he frames the scenes as if they were photoshoots and the hunters his models. The modest and intimate images, decluttered from anything superfluous and coloured with warm, natural tones, offer a sensible format for the austere and simple lives of the old truffle hunters. Static tableaux capture the men being boys despite the high financial and culinary stakes at hand. They romp around with their dogs, climbing up and down the hills and valleys of the region for hours on end. They chase chickens in courtyards and climb out of the window for night hunts even though their wives explicitly forbade them to do so.
The twinkle in their eye (or is it a touch of madness?) tell us these men are the true caretakers of these lands as well guardians of a dying trade. As conveyors of a precious past, they’ll have to pass on their knowledge. Swaying from dogs in dirt to wine tasting in fancy restaurants, we learn about turf-wars and hunting tactics. Not too much, though. The truffle hunt remains a secretive business: the superstitious men won’t easily divulge their favourite spots or preferred methods. And if they did, you wouldn’t be able to make sense of their thick Piedmontese dialect anyway. Instead, the filmmakers focus on lighter aspects of their lives—the companionship of their furry friends and faithful assistants. The dogs steal the show more often than not. A camera attached to the collar of one of them even extends the hilarious pleasure of going on a truffle hunt from the canine point of view. Non-truffle related distractions, head shakes and panting are included.
(dir. Garrett Bradley, U.S. Documentary Competition)
Alone and America. Garrett Bradley’s shorts were screened at previous editions of Sundance and both are intrinsically and thematically connected to her first long feature Time, which won the Directing Award in the U.S. Documentary Competition. But where America was a cerebral, conceptual and historical work, Time is focused on a personal point of view.
Louisiana mom Fox Rich makes things happen. She is large-than-life, a hurricane of a woman. Hence her plan to rob a bank with her partner Rob when she finds herself in dire need of funding for her starting business. Things go awry and both end up incarcerated. But while Fox returned home after three years, Rob was sentenced to 60 years in prison. Through the Black feminist lens of Garrett Bradley, we see how Fox grows into an advocate against mass incarceration and the injustices inherent to the American justice system: she is, in her own words, a modern-day abolitionist. Bradley combines home movies, mostly shot for Rob by Fox and her sons, with her own contemporary footage. Bradley’s spotlight remains set on the trial and tribulations of a mother of six and a fighter for all. We see resilience and tenderness come together to amplify the radicalism of Black love.
Time is made to hearten those who share Fox’ experience and considering the problem of mass incarceration in the United States, the women who fit that role are numerous. At the same time, it remains accessible to those for whom the specifics of the heart-wrenching situation will remain unseen and misunderstood. A montage of phone calls shows how bureaucracy stretches time until someone, somewhere snaps. Not Fox Rich. But when she almost does, it is the mantra ‘success is the best revenge’ that keeps her on track. Determination is a powerful life thread, and she clings to it with both hands and feet.
Accompanied by the swirly piano tunes of the 90-year-old Ethiopian nun Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou, Time surpasses the conventions of US documentaries. The usual overload of factual and contextual information is dispensed with, and would have been utterly useless in narrating Fox’ life mission. Bradley positions herself as a modern doc filmmaker: not as standard-bearer of a cause–Rich takes the helm on that front—but as a storyteller channeling strong emotions and affecting narratives.
(dir. Catherine Gund, Documentary Premieres)
While a documentary about your mother as a collector, philanthropist and Maecenas of the contemporary arts will at times inevitably be self-congratulatory, Catherine Gund’s Aggie delivers a commendable twist on the classic American talking heads documentary. What better way to put the intriguing Agnes Gund on a pedestal than asking the artists who benefitted from her curating prowess to interview her? This approach leads to interesting conversations about diversity in the institutional arts, as the emphasis is placed on Gund’s role and impact as the president of the MoMa (Museum of Modern Art). A grande dame of the arts, she was able to set aside seemingly immobile hurdles of the art establishment to open the doors to artists of colour. Although the documentary admits that the MoMa was rather slow to buy, and thus recognize, the work of black artists, it also shows Agnes Gund vulnerably admitting how late she was to the game, having only truly understood how far-reaching the tentacles of structural racism are in the United States by the time Eric Garner’s name was already known to most of us.
“Your vision did not need altering” says John Waters after asking her whether she ever took LSD. While a cute compliment to the patron of his own Pink Flamingos (1972), the remark isn’t entirely true and contrasts with the statement the film makes a few moments earlier. Explaining how Aggie Gund’s perception changed when she saw Ava DuVernay’s 13th, it wants to shed a light on the evolution of her curatorial politics. The film motivated her to sell her 1962 Roy Lichtenstein “Masterpiece” and to create a fund that supports criminal justice reforms seeking to reduce mass incarceration.
While all the artworks supported by Gund over the years pass as if through a slide projector, other interviews with her daughters and grandchildren add a softer, intimate touch to the film. Like Ryan White’s Ask Dr. Ruth (2019), Aggie sometimes suffers from the grandeur of its own subject. As humble documentaries, they’ll will never be able to match the scope of these leading ladies. But Aggie grows on you, as I imagine Agnes Gund does too.