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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is  Senior New York Correspondent

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene, professor at Hunter University, accredited member of the Foreign Press Center,  U.S. Department of State NY.


Sundance Film Festival 2021 Film Highlights

As I noted in my earlier Context and Data report about Sundance 2021, the festival delivered an effective hybrid adaptation to the rapidly changing film universe by providing national and international online streaming, in-person screenings in Utah and independent art cinemas, as well as using drive-ins in numerous locations throughout the U.S. Sundance generated the largest audience it has ever experienced, reaching a total audience of 600,000 viewers, with event participants close to tripling the 220,0000 it reached in 2020. This is despite showing fewer films in 2021 and shortening its run to seven days. Sundance 2021 demonstrated that the embrace of streaming technologies and customization of festival programing and audience services enhances rather than diminished the quality of a film festival; with the added bonus of attracting more sponsors.  Of 14,092 submissions, 141 productions were selected for the final program.

Sundance excelled once again with outstanding documentary and fiction productions that delivered creative and reflective visions of the societies we are living in. Real representations of problems take precedence in going beyond the customary  bifurcation of tracking the path of advanced or developing countries. Political and social dislocations, disenfranchisement and oppression remain global themes but there is also a broadening space for artistic imagination not bound by these themes.

In  Hogir Hirori’s documentary SABAYA  (2021, USA) the viewer accompanies the director, who also worked as the photographer and editor, as he depicts  the rescue of  young Yazidi girls and woman from a Kurdish religious minority who were enslaved by ISIS when their homes in Sinjar, Northern Iraq, were occupied by ISIS five years ago  and most Yazidi men were killed. Now, about  75,000 displaced refugees live in the large run-down refugee camp Al-Hol, on the Syrian border, including thousands of Yazidi women who had been imprisoned by ISIS. The camp is in the war torn Syrian-Iraqi border zone where surrounding villages are still inhabited by many ISIS  sympathizers. The camps  do not provide safety for the Yazidi women. After their defeat, ISIS  frequently hid the Sabayas, the local term used for “captive women or sex slaves”, in refugee camps they controlled. The Yazidi Home Center that organizes their recue is located near the camp and locates them using women volunteers working as spies. Once found and identified, they are rescued by armed men who fight traffickers and smugglers in Al-Hol, as well as committed ISIS members living in that area. Hirori, a Swede who was raised in Kurdistan and communicates freely with the victims and rescuers, shows how the women are liberated from the camp.  Hirori reveals the approach of the Yazidi Home Center helping these traumatized individuals adjust to their freedom and  bringing them back into contact with whatever remains of their families. The stigma of having been a SABAYA remains attached to them as are traces of their indoctrination, particularly so if they had been abducted as young girls. SABAYA is an impressive achievement as a documentary in restoring our memory of this massive human rights violation by ISIS but also makes the viewer confront how these women can purge their experience or gain from distance it, if at all.

In her first feature debut FAYA DAYI  (2021, USA),  the  Mexican-Ethiopian filmmaker Jessica Beshire, who previously made shorts film about her  Ethiopian home town Harar,  successfully combines her filmmaking approach with documentary and ethnocentric elements  to create a masterful multilevel portrait of her country. In her vaguely linear narrative, Beshire combines closeups, slow moving addictive black and white photography with comments respecting and dissecting symbolic and religious cognitive structures shared by the young and old. In her semi-spiritual journey, lyrical passages and beauty provide an important layer of experience, but other elements of the Ethiopian culture are covered too. One  important part is the role and impact of the extensive growth and consumption of Khat, a stimulating psycho active green leaf plant which has been part of the folklore and tradition of generations for a long period of Ethiopian history. Khat supports meditation but also, as Beshire suggests, escaping everyday reality. Interwoven in her superb film is the fable of a man that asked by God to discover the water of eternal life and his failure to do so, There is also the story of a young boy named Mohammed working in the Khat trade and his frustrating experience with a father apparently addicted to the drug. In his words, Khat kills the soul. But Beshire also touches on the displacement of  traditional crops by Khat, the hopelessness of young people dreaming about leaving their country, the longtime  ethnic and tribal group conflicts which have been besetting Ethiopia, generational tensions, and the role of tradition. Beshire avoids the commonly accepted linear narrative and as a result the audience is led into an immersion of her imagery and fragmentary stories. The audience must reflect on the perceived gaps and are thus carried by FAYA DAYI into their own minds after the film’s superb visual execution has ended.

STRAWBERRY MANSION by the directors and writers Albert Birney  and Kentucker Audley (2021, USA) is a superbly crafted feature that premiered at Sundance.  STRAWBERRY MANSION is a virtual kaleidoscope of surreal imagery and loosely connected fantastical mini tales. For Birney, Kentucker, and their many project collaborators, there seems to be no limit to their imagination as translated into stunning images and sets. Any audience attracted to alternative surreal worlds and unusual visual new horizons will be compelled by STRAWBERRY MANSION, a film where anything can happen, and the narrative structure is unpredictable. To classify the film as a weird romantic fable, as some critics have done, dramatically understates this marvelous production.  In STRAWBERRY MANSION the past and present are morphed, and a political strain is injected, stressing that advertising and modern life flatten our brains and disconnect us from ourselves. Constant colorful transformation of objects and animals surrounding us take place, followed by depictions of our dream spaces,  and we observe celebrations of fried chickens and strange figures peopling the hypnotic story lines. This includes sailors with animal heads and the transformation of the principal character Preble into a caterpillar swimming across the ocean. Sequences of time and space are shifting constantly, and past periods become the present.

James Preble works for the IRS and is played effectively by Kentucker Audley. Preble is collecting taxes in this future world based on the recorded dreams people have, transforming our dreams into taxable  sales items. He meets Bella an  eccentric elderly artist who has not been assessed for many years. He stays in her home for some time and falls in love with her reincarnated younger self, chasing her over time and space. The tax system Preble presents is an advanced low-tech version of today’s surveillance society leaving no space for privacy and individuation.  STRAWBERRY MANSION is a frugal independent production shot digitally with simple homemade  special effects ideally suited for the Sundance philosophy. For me, this film was compelling and ranks as one of the best Sundance 2021 selections.

NIGHT OF THE KINGS La Nuit des Rois (2020, Ivory Coast) directed by Philippe Lacote has been nominated for the best 2021 international feature Oscar award. It centers on Roman, a young prisoner and former member of the Microbes, a gang led by Zama. Roman enters the huge and dangerous  La Maca prison, the largest of its kind in the Ivory Coast. Upon arrival he is recruited by Dangoro, known as black beard, who is an imposing inmate and actually  runs the prison as the warden has delegated all powers to him. Dangoro anoints Roman as the prison’s official storyteller, now forced to continuously present  tales to the assembly of all prisoners. If he fails to do so he faces death. Black Beard becomes sick and must kill himself if unable to run the prison. At his death, his job  goes  to a contender, but beforehand Black Beard must maintain control of warring factions  and their leaders that crowd the prison. According to Lacote, Roman’s assignment reflects the African griot storytelling tradition. The prison’s internal self-management by inmates’ mirrors that happens in the Ivory Coast. Lacote’s filmmaking merges old traditional customs with the prisoner’s life and his own personal experience visiting his mother as a child when she served time in La Maca. Roman weaves his never-ending tale around the life and death of Zama. Lacote incorporates in Roman’s tale reconstructed images from Zama’s life, real and imagined, going back centuries with images covering tribal regal conflicts and his youth, as well as footage showing the contemporary oppression carried out by the microbes gang and the peoples revenge killing of  Zama as witnessed by the escaping  Roman. In La Maca, the inmates reenact through dancing, songs, and theatrical posturing segments of the tale narrated to them by Roman. Lacote mesmerizes the audience with the art of African story telling, shaping culturally defined views of prison life alien to Western viewers. His NIGHT OF THE KINGS is an accomplished achievement effectively bonding multiple levels of filmmaking.


Claus Mueller, New York




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