Documentaries from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival
The fantastic machine is the camera. This is a documentary about images and they come at you so fast and furious that you can’t look away.
There is some history: the invention of the camera, the advent of moving pictures, television and digital images. With the first cameras, the narrator comments that “from now on, every picture is part of world history.” To prove the point we see the blue marble photo of earth taken from space. There’s chilling images of a German concentration camp from 1945. I don’t imagine too many have seen bloopers from the filming of an ISIS propaganda piece.
There is an interview with Leni Reifenstahl who directed Nazi propaganda films but who also has been lauded for her boundary-breaking cinematic techniques.
Television brings other perspectives on the value of images. In an interview with Ted Turner, he comments that TV “helps you forget your miserable life.” At the time he was hyping The Beverly Hillbillies. That was some time before he created CNN.
Digital images are described as globalizing face-to-face communication. We see a range of YouTube videos, from one woman who provides an instructional video on how to defrost your freezer, to another who talks about her porn videos on Only Fans.
In introducing the movie the directors said their goal was to both inform and entertain. They nailed it!
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
The smoke sauna is a tradition in Southern Estonia. There is a cabin in what seems to be a very remote area. There’s a fire, it’s dark and smoky. Inside are four or five naked women, washing themselves and each other, washing and sweating out their fear and pain.
What do they talk about in a smoke sauna? Their mothers, body image, childbirth, abortion, dic picks, periods, discovering sexual preference. The women are likely from very traditional families but they are modern. The conversation is reflective, pensive, honest and heartfelt. There is little joy. The most powerful part of the movie is one woman’s emotional description of how she lost her virginity to a rapist.
The challenge of making this film is mind-numbing. For one thing it is dark. You see body parts and some faces but rarely a whole person. While four or five women are in the sauna at a time, the director said in a post screening session that 50 women took part in some 70 shooting sessions. The director herself is part of this sisterhood.
As a man watching this movie it felt a little like eavesdropping. How would the conversation have changed with a male presence? Maybe they’d talk about the weather? Over 70 sessions are these the most poignant things said? Or is the smoke sauna experience always like this?
The movie is more interesting than entertaining. It inspires empathy and is emotional. It certainly feels liberating.
(Director Anna Hints won the Sundance Directing Award for World Cinema Documentary)
SMOKE SAUNA SISTERHOOD teaser from Alexandra Film on Vimeo.
20 Days in Mariupol
This isn’t just a film. It’s news. It’s history. In his pre-screening comments the director said it is hard to watch. It sure is. Sometimes I had to turn my head. Sometimes I wanted to cry. Sometimes I was red with rage.
Mariupol, a port city, was an initial target of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. The footage was taken by a group of Ukrainian journalists working for the AP who stayed in the city for the first 20 days of the attack. They were able to send their footage out and it was used by news stations around the world. Perhaps the most recognizable is the photo of a pregnant woman being removed by stretcher after a Russian bombing of a Mariupol hospital. Neither the 30-year old woman nor her baby survived.
The movie puts to bed the question of whether Russia targeted civilians. They bombed hospitals, they bombed schools, they bombed apartment buildings and homes. What kind of inhuman prick makes the decision to bomb a maternity ward? The Russians also knocked out the city’s infrastructure so there was no electricity, no water, no phone or internet. And they surrounded Mariupol so no one could escape.
Some of the most poignant and most heartbreaking scenes are from the hospitals. There’s one in which doctors are treating a four-year-old and the head doctor tells the journalists: “Film this. Let Putin see this child’s eyes.” Other doctors around the table had tears in their eyes. There aren’t enough words to describe the bravery and heroism of the doctors, nurses and hospital workers in Mariupol.
I’d love to think that this documentary would get so widely circulated that some of the people who are questioning our support of the Ukraine (especially those in Congress), would see it. My fondest wish would be for this movie to end up as evidence in a court that would convict Putin of war crimes.
(20 Days in Mariupol won the Sundance Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary)
Five Seasons of Revolution
Lina is the filmmaker. She’s the narrator. It’s her story. She has a different name in Homs. And another one in Aleppo. She has a journalist name. And an activist name. Confused? Well, watching this documentary, I was too.
Syria is a repressive country ruled by a brutal dictator. Lina and a small group of young friends try to make a difference. They film and report on what’s going on around them. They protest and sneak their way through various checkpoints. Most get detained at some point and some are beaten and even tortured. They question their tactics and whether what they are doing works. One ends up dead. Most of the others end up leaving the country.
The film does highlight the role and importance of citizen journalists. How else would we know what goes in in a country like Syria? Or Iran? Or China?
Much of the film takes place in the city of Homs. This is where some regime troops defected and formed the Free Syrian Army. This brought a wave of brutal repression, including killing the children of FSA fighters.
While reporting on what’s going on in her country, Lina is also telling a very personal story about a small group of friends and a period in their lives. It feels like reading someone’s Instagram feed. But it gives us an inside look at a country that’s out of the headlines and that we don’t get a whole lot of information about.
This is both a history of South Africa and a visual autobiography of Milisuthando Bongela, the director and narrator. You could divide the documentary into two parts. The first is the history, put together with family photos, home movies and archival footage of interviews. The second part consists of interviews with contemporaries talking about race and how they are influenced by the past.
For the history, Milisuthando introduces us to the words and thoughts of her ancestors. She was born in Transkei, a short lived country that was created by South Africa in the 1970’s. Transkei was an independent black country which was part of South Africa’s plan to maintain apartheid through a separation of the races. While rejected by most of the Western world that saw it for what it was, there is in Milisuthando’s family history some sense of celebration, at least at first, of the freedom of a separate black country.
The most moving of the historical scenes are the interviews with children. A few days before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, interviews were filmed at a school in Johannesburg during which boys of about 10 were asked what Mandela meant to them and to black people. There could be no more meaningful an answer that what came from these kids. There are other interviews with black children who are about to become the first of their race to enter white schools. They seem remarkably eager, optimistic and free of fear.
Every part of this movie is about race, but at no point do we see virulent racism, violence or vitriol from either side. But the weight of history is clear as Milisuthando interviews her friends and associates who worked with her on the film. One comment by the narrator stands out: “Pray for the history that cannot be changed.”
At times this movie feels like a digital scrapbook. At others a beautiful poem. No matter how open-minded and experienced you are, you will learn something, not just about South Africa, but the issue of race that lives with us.
Thank you for these reviews. I hope to be able to see at least one or two of the docs this year. They all sound worthy.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thanks especially for your closing paragraph in your review of 20 Days in Mariupol. May it be so.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks, Ken! You always have the best movie recommendations.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Heavy subjects in these films, but I’d like to see at least a couple of them, Marisol and Milisuthando. Maggie
LikeLiked by 1 person
These are great recommendations, thank you!
LikeLiked by 1 person
These sound like great documentaries, some likely disturbing to watch but with important stories to be told.
LikeLiked by 1 person