At Sundance, New Films Tackle Painful Legacies Through Archaeology, Urban Design and More


The Sundance Film Festival often includes a mix of biopics about innovators in the arts, investigative documentaries about the art world, or scripted feature films around contemporary art or clubby connoisseurs. Not this year, where the films screened as part of the entirely virtual festival (until January 30) go through architecture, visual innovation and archaeology.

Basically, Descending relates to archaeology. The Clotilda ship, the last to bring slaves to the United States, was set on fire by its operators north of Mobile, Alabama, in 1860 after unloading about 110 enslaved Africans. The slave traders lied about where the Clotilda sank, hoping that proof of their crime would never be found.

Many descendants of those Africans brought against their will to the southern United States still live in the district of Mobile called Africatown and trace their lineage to the Clotilda. One of the Africans was Cudjoe Lewis (1840-1935), whose story, told before his death to author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, was published in Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo (2018). White descendants of Timothy Meaher – a Mobile businessman who bankrolled the Clotilda betting he could get away with it even though importing slaves had been illegal since 1807 – didn’t talk much about it.

Margaret Brown’s documentary travels back and forth in time, tracing the archeology of a community rebuilt without the slave ship itself. When the submerged remains of the Clotilda are identified in 2019, this story moves forward, but the larger challenge of preservation is tested. Africatown is surrounded by an industry that pollutes and threatens its residents, even as they plan a new museum where tourists would pay to see the preserved remains of the ship. The challenge today is to preserve the people, now that the remnants of their enslaved ancestors’ journey to America are there for the world to see.

A scene from Riotville, United States by Sierra Pettengill Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Riotville, United States, by Sierra Pettengill, is about the architecture designed by the US military in the 1960s to preserve order. Fake cities were built on military bases and served as the backdrop for “riots” with all the amateurishness of small town theater, where soldiers dressed as protesters stormed the “streets” and armed troops were formed to quell the protests. Top military leaders cheered the “clashes” in the spectator seats.

The exercise footage filmed by the military, and now available to the public, is full of unintended humor. Structures are cruder than sets for low-budget films. The “rioters” are predominantly white and remarkably healthy, although some wear cheap makeshift wigs.

Some of the same officers who saw the clashes in the “cities” oversaw law enforcement units deployed to crush real riots at the political conventions where presidential candidates were nominated in the summer of 1968.

The footage speaks for itself, including violent protests and forums on a public television station (then called the Public Broadcast Laboratory, or PBL), where black leaders discussed the underlying causes of the actual riots in the American cities. PBL, a project created by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), was disbanded when the Ford Foundation, a major funder, found its coverage too political.

Decades later, soldiers trained in a dozen Afghan and Iraqi “cities,” including one with nearly 600 buildings, at a base outside Barstow, Calif., near Las Vegas.

A scene from anything that breathes by Shaunak Sen Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

A visually stunning and poignant documentary at this year’s festival that might escape notice is anything that breathes, directed by Shaunak Sen. In Delhi, the most polluted city in the world, the film follows a team of Muslim men who pledge to save injured birds, especially the black kite, which the mainstream Hindu population despises because it eats meat. . Without resources and with little technology, and resentful of the Hindus, men tend to the birds every day in a process that Sen observes closely.

The larger context sets the tone in a city so stricken with toxic air that humans and all manner of animals are crammed into what, through Sen’s camera, appears to be a post-natural environment. Enterprising monkeys use the strands of wire connecting buildings to power sources in canopies through which they move from place to place. At dusk, all sorts of non-human life – from rats to pigs to cows – jostle alongside the people sleeping outside, producing an immersive “city as terrarium” effect. As the “kite brothers” work, frightened by radio reports of murdered Muslims, Sen cuts to meditative close-ups of silent birds, portraits of seemingly stoic watchers waiting to be sent back to dangerous skies. Shabby and poetic, anything that breathes speaks of a shared destiny in an unwelcoming place.

A scene from Brainwashing: Sex-Camera-Power by Nina Menkes Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Brainwashing: Sex-Camera-Power by veteran independent director Nina Menkes might as well be called “An Inconvenient Truth 5.0.” Taking the form of an on-stage talk of environmental advocacy for Al Gore’s commitment, recently applied to another pressing topic in Who We Are: A Chronicle of Race in America by Jeffery Robinson, Menkes travels through mostly American cinema, arguing that a perspective in the predominantly male profession produces ways of seeing that then lead to gender discrimination, harassment and assault.

Menke’s starting point is the notion of the male gaze, a dynamic by which men use images and footage of women for the pleasure of men. The concept has been foregrounded in the writing of film theorist Laura Mulvey, who speaks on screen, along with many other female critics.

Few men are spared in Menkes’ investigation – not Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Ridley Scott, Spike Lee, Jean-Luc Godard, Abdellatif Kechiche, or even, heaven forbid, the well-meaning founder of Sundance. Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And no man here offers an opinion on the history of cinema or films as they are made today. Are there any men who have at least succeeded in doing things halfway? If we ever hear that, it’ll be in a different conference.

There are positive signs for Menkes. She likes nomadland, by Chloe Zhao. And it’s echoing everywhere Brainwashing by accomplished young critics. The Sundance Film Festival, with a majority of women at the helm, is itself proof that management can also change. Yet experience tells us that progress in the movie industry can be as slow as an Eric Rohmer love story.

  • Sundance Film Festival 2022online only, continues until January 30

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