At Sundance, the art of documentary film knows no bounds

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Like last year, this year’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival was online. The full program was available to me at home and the best films I saw were encouraging. The pandemic hasn’t curbed independent filmmaking as much as I feared. The decline in theatrical admissions of most films can negatively impact independents’ profitability — and therefore their ability to release them (although the truth is, theatrical releases were already declining before the pandemic). But the art of independent filmmaking is thriving.

Over the course of a recent series of short films and a featurette, writer-director Ricky D’Ambrose has invented a personal, instantly recognizable method and style of cinematic drama. Building stories from documentary-style observational tableaus with authoritative voice-overs and fabricated documents (such as fictional newspaper and magazine articles), he transforms fiction into a variety of non-fiction. In his new film “The Cathedral” he approaches further intellectual and emotional extremes. He presents an autobiographical drama – a fictionalized version of his own childhood and adolescence that focuses on family conflicts – through a sober, quasi-factual cinematic documentary that is also linked via television news to key events in the modern history of Operation Desert Storm and the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 to the Iraq war and the 2004 presidential campaign.

D’Ambrose’s protagonist and stand-in, Jesse Damrosch, born in 1987 (like D’Ambrose), has a rich backstory — or rather, deep foundation — that precedes him. The story takes Jesse from preschool through his freshman year of college. (Jesse is played at various ages by about half a dozen different actors; his parents are played by Monica Barbaro and Brian d’Arcy James.) But the film reveals Jesse’s inner workings even before he was born: with the death of his uncle Joseph von AIDS, in 1985, and the family’s longstanding lies on the subject; with the money matters that still weigh on his parents on the wedding day; and with his mother’s obscure estrangement from her sister, a rift that runs ominously through the film like the San Andreas Fault.

Coupled with the bitter interpersonal struggles that characterize Jesse’s life—including his parents’ divorce, his mother’s remarriage, and his great-grandmother’s move from relative to relative—D’Ambrose dramatizes Jesse’s aesthetic upbringing with a startlingly simple yet daring approach. The sharpening of the child’s perception and the refinement of his lust are developed with documentary-like methods, whereby the hidden grandeur of everyday life in an inconspicuous suburb is emphasized in an exquisite way. Close-ups on paper plates and leftover cake from a three-year-old’s birthday party, the electronic voice of a tape recorder, the red fire bell on a classroom wall, the sentimental tones of a TV commercial, the writing on a road map, the coloring of Easter eggs, his mother doing her nails a brightly lit table – all of which contribute to Jesse’s precocious passion for photography, which is evident in his window view of houses and trees, his view of sunlight and shadows on floors and furniture. “The Cathedral” is a fervent memorabilia filled with haunting images of Jesse’s visions. Amazingly, these scenes don’t have the subjective feel of point-of-view shots; rather, they present memory as fact and present inner experience as objective reality. This passionate look at a young man’s artistic training is reminiscent of Terence Davies’ autobiographical films Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. D’Ambrose’s exceptional style and technique are reminiscent of his equally original conception of the nature of personality and character – and of cinema itself.

“Framing Agnes” analyzes the experience of trans life down to the essence of self-expression in social life.Photo by Ava Benjamin Shorr / Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

In “Framing Agnes,” Chase Joynt, the co-director of “No Ordinary Man” (one of the best films of 2021), takes that film’s constructed documentary style even further. Framing Agnes is a quiet but resolutely radical film that builds its own genesis and staging. It is a documentary based on archival footage that does not exist and that is why Joynt is creating it. By showing the production of this substitute for the non-existent footage, he also centers the gap in historical consciousness that suggests its non-existence. “Framing Agnes” draws on a long-hidden UCLA archive of interviews with trans people from half a century or more ago — and a remarkable backstory of the director’s research (with sociologist Kristen Schilt) that unearths those interviews brought. The title character (also dramatized) is a trans woman who went to university in the 1950s to undergo sex determination surgery and participated in a gender study under the false pretense that she was born intersex. Years later, Agnes confessed the ruse to a psychiatrist on the project, during which interviews with at least eight other trans people were also taped. Joynt found the unpublished transcripts of eight of those interviews and turned them into scripts that were performed by Joynt as interviewer and trans actors as interviewees in the contemporary format of a high-profile talk show (in the style of David Susskind’s long-running series).

The performances of the transcripts vividly bring to screen the burdens trans people themselves have borne in the modern past: the silence and sacrifices, the obsessive staging and tight performances of their lives – on which their safety depended. Joynt and the rest of the cast (Angelica Ross, Jen Richards, Zackary Drucker, Silas Howard, Max Wolf Valerio, and Stephen Ira) also appear as themselves in authentic documentary sequences, in which they do the mock-up interviews from both outside and inside reflect outside. as readers and viewers of them and from within due to the emotional impact of their performance. Historian Jules Gill-Peterson also provides insightful and far-reaching attention to the details and implications of the filmed transcripts and the broader context in which the original interviews were conducted. The film’s analysis of the experience of trans life—in light of race, class, and family dynamics—extends to the essence of self-expression in social life, the psychological challenges of self-identification, and the existential implications of the very concept of identity.

The overwhelming power of the story drives Descendant, a documentary about the residents of the Africatown neighborhood of Mobile, Alabama.Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Long-suppressed testimony is also given a remarkable cinematic incarnation in Margaret Brown’s documentary “Descendant”. It focuses on the residents of the Africatown neighborhood of Mobile, Alabama, the descendants of Africans brought as captives on the Clotilda in 1860, the last known ship that transported enslaved people to the United States. The importation of enslaved people had been banned in 1808. As a result, the Clotilda’s captain burned and sank the ship after its human cargo was unloaded. “Descendant” documents efforts to find his remains. But the film achieves much more – in fact it is brimming with exertion, incidents and memories. Its centerpiece is the testimony of Cudjo Lewis, an Africatown resident and one of the last survivors of the Clotilda, whose 1927 interviews with Zora Neale Hurston form the basis of her book, Barracoon, which remained unpublished until 2018.

Brown interviews current Africatown residents who describe and show their efforts to preserve the memories and legacies of the Clotilda survivors – silenced by the terror of the Jim Crow era, when white residents sought to suppress knowledge of the crime . The film traces the economic oppression and health injustice imposed on Africatown residents by the encroachment of their lands by big business interests and legalized pollution in favor of manufacturers, while Africatown residents endured exceptionally high rates of cancer. In addition, it shows the continued ownership of much of the area by the white descendants of Timothy Meaher, who owned the Clotilda. Brown also films descendant meetings with marine archaeologists searching for the remains of the Clotilda, as well as other National Geographic documentarians who intended to fund and film the expedition. (One of them informs the assembled residents of his desire to tell their story, with all the no doubt unintentional irony of appropriation that entails.) In anticipation of the Clotilda’s discovery, residents also consider the prospect that theirs Remains will become the centerpiece of a museum — which the city’s mayor and other officials appear eager to develop. One of the film’s most touching moments comes when one of the descendants, contemplating the development of such an institution, goes to Montgomery to visit the city’s memorial to the victims of lynchings, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and crowds of Observing White Visitors, expresses concern that the institution, far from being a spark for its actions in the name of racial justice, risks serving as mere “entertainment.”

The film’s form does not live up to the pinnacle of its substance, nor does it match the devotion of its Africatown cast. “Descendant” is somewhat inhibited by its impersonal professionalism: Brown, a white filmmaker from Mobile, leaves out the personal element – her connection to the subject and to the residents of the area, the relationships on which the film depends. Nonetheless, the overwhelming power of the story and the pressure of ongoing injustices fuel her filming; The film delivers an emotionally distorted, collage-like onslaught of purpose and urgency.

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