Ága, sincere authenticity on the snow covered fields of Siberia

This month, I’m looking at Ága–a film that was on my list for a while—brought to my attention by filmmaker and collaborator Bogdan Darev and Filmabee, a platform he founded in 2019. The platform brings together filmmakers, artists, writers, and educators from diverse cultures. And its mission is to help connect these individuals to niche audiences who are most likely to enjoy their work and provide support. Ága was screening on Filmabee for a limited time and is now available on Apple TV and Vudu. Treat yourself to this worthy addition to the canon of sincere and authentic filmmaking.

The FilmAuthentic filmmaking, Aga Frame Grab

Ága (2018), directed by Milko Lazarov and shot by Kaloyan Bozhilov centers around an Indigenous Yakut couple, Nanook and Sedna, who live in a yurt on the snow-covered fields of Siberia. They live as their ancestors did—as reindeer herders, alone in the wilderness, living off the land. We come upon them in the twilight of their lives as hunting becomes more difficult and animals around them die of strange wounds. But they are no strangers to this challenging life. And even while Sedna endures ongoing pain from an injury to her abdomen, what worries them most is the absence of their estranged daughter, Ága.

Records about the Yakut culture date back to the tenth century–they were hunters, fishermen, reindeer herders, and raised cattle and horses. They’ve suffered an all too familiar story. When they first encountered Russians in the 17th century. The Tsarist regime began taxing them, invading their territories, laying claim to their land, and converting them to a Russian Orthodox religion. When they fought back, they were met with an unbeatable force whom also infected them with diseases like smallpox. As a result, they experienced a 70% drop in their population in just forty years between 1642 and 1682.

Discoveries of gold and diamonds brought more and more Russians into their region. By the 19th century, most Yakut had transitioned into a more urban lifestyle.

When Stalin came to power in the 1920’s Yakut territories were officially absorbed into the Soviet Socialist Republic, and systematic persecution began. With help from an armed force of anti-communist Russians, the Yakut were able to take a last stand against the Red Army. They were victorious in their first battle but were ultimately defeated–leaving them vulnerable to ongoing persecution while experiencing another decline in their population. At that point, they were only numbering 236,700.

In the 1970s, their population began to recover. In the 2010 census, almost a million ethnic Yakuts were registered. Those who carry on a traditional Yakut lifestyle struggle with a worsening climate every year.Authentic filmmaking, Aga Frame Grab

Ága was shot on 35mm with an Arricam lite package and anamorphic lenses for a 2:35 presentation. I had the pleasure of speaking with Kaloyan last week—the movie’s Cinematographer. I first asked him about the rounded corners included within the aspect ratio of the final presentation. He said he wanted to take advantage of the entire image area on the negative and show that there was no cropping or reframing. To express why this is significant, here is a little background:

There is hardware in an analog film camera that functions as a window—framing the area on the negative where the image is exposed—we call it the “gate.” The corners of the gate are not perfectly square but slightly rounded. Usually, these rounded corners would be cropped out for the final presentation, but Kaloyan opted not to do that. Many of his compositions were dependent on action happening at the edges of the frame, and he didn’t want to compromise that. He was also thinking like a purist and wanted to show that he did not crop his images
 
This purist approach started with still photography—a medium that largely embraced cropping and reframing as an acceptable standard since its advent. But even then–as early as the 1880s–some photographers didn’t believe in cropping or manipulating their images. These photographers became known as the “purists.” Notable “purist” photographer Paul Strand became one of the movement’s significant influencers in the early 1900s.
 
Cropping in the motion picture analog era was also reserved for achieving the desired aspect ratio. Another way to achieve 2:35 was to crop off the top and bottom of a 4:3 image (square image). The filmmakers would use 2:35 frame guides in the viewfinder and monitors to set up their compositions. They’d often allow lights and other film equipment to be seen outside the frame guides–a practice used to achieve a certain quality of light or discourage the reframing of their work. And sometimes, the filmmakers would compose for both a 4:3 and 2:35 presentation when making films for both the big screen and TV—resulting in two versions of the film. Cropping and reframing for the sake of adjusting composition were very rare during this period.
 
Digital filmmaking technology began to emerge with the digital intermediate (digitized film for color grading). Minor creative adjustments to composition became commonplace. And as 4K settled in—major adjustments to composition became prevalent in certain circles—surpassing creative needs into time and budget savings onset. Going to the extremes of cropping a wide shot to get a medium shot, a two-shot to get a single, and a single to get an extreme close-up. Most Cinematographers strongly disagree with this practice—myself included.
 
Lenses and compositions are chosen to best evoke emotions and authenticity. Visual story arcs in a film are designed around and with these choices. The nuances of lens and composition characteristics play a significant role. For example—the emotional response to a wide lens close up vs. a long lens close up is very different. So, if a filmmaker decides to start cropping in for close-ups, he or she is losing out on this ability to orchestrate emotions. And it risks disrupting verisimilitude in the entire film. The optical characteristics of a zoomed-in and reframed image are very different from an original composition’s optical characteristics. When the two are cut together within a film sequence, it can create a jarring effect that takes the audience away from the story. However, the yin to this yang is—if you want to disorient or confuse an audience intentionally, this could be a technique to use. 

Authentic filmmaking, Aga Frame GrabAga Frame Grab

When starting conversations about the cinema language and shot design for the film, director Milko Lazarov gave Kaloyan a lot of autonomy in bringing his own sensibilities to the story. Thus Kaloyan made a bold choice for keeping the camera static throughout most of the film. Compositions were chosen based on certain essential moments in the scene, allowing the characters to stand up out of frame or briefly hang out behind a prop or piece of set dressing. He thought this approach would add a layer of authenticity and gravity to the film while not distracting the audience with camera movement. He also felt that the action in the movie didn’t motivate or need any camera movement. I agree with him, and I think it paid off–the film was a visual feast in terms of location and sets. The fixed camera often forces the viewer to scan the frame and take in the surroundings as if we were there, with them, sitting or standing quietly, just observing. It was meditative while both surreal and authentic. At times you could feel the cold. 

The camera did move in at least two shots in the film. First, in a pivotal moment as Nanook hurries home to his wife. Technically the camera was still static–it was mounted to Nanook’s sled in a fixed position, holding Nanook in a medium shot as he runs behind the sled. This gave us a frenetic feel, complimenting Nanook’s sudden anxiety—also emphasized by the stillness of all the surrounding shots and serving as a visual segue, transporting the audience into the final act.  

Secondly, the closing shot of the film is an aerial. The camera moves slowly out of a diamond mine—where Nanook goes to find his daughter Aga—and into the clouds as the credits fade up. This shot book ends a visual theme through the film, designed by the director to express the decay of culture and environment. It’s one of those visual motifs that can mean different things to different viewers, so I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, for further discovery. That’s part of the fun!Aga Frame GrabAga Frame GrabAga Frame Grab Kaloyan’s lighting was kept simple and motivated to further service the narrative’s authenticity. Outdoor’s on the icescape it was mainly bouncing and reflecting the sun. Inside the yurt, he motivated light from above—augmenting the natural daylight coming through the typical skylight at the yurt’s crown. Kaloyan positioned 4K HMI’s outside—making additional openings in the roof to facilitate different angles. The only instruments he brought inside were reflectors and bounce cards. Otherwise, there were no windows in the yurt. So the only other source of light came from the wood-burning stove and kerosene/oil lamps.

Aga movie, film Frame GrabAga movie, film Frame GrabAga movie, film Frame GrabWhat touches me most about this film is how it invites us to see inside such a treasured lifestyle at a time when its characters and environment are at their most vulnerable. Thank you, Milko and Kaloyan, and cast and crew.

Credits and Specs

Directed by Milko Lazarov
Produced by Veselka Kiryakova
Written by Simeon VentsislavovMilko Lazarov 
Starring Mikhail AprosimovFeodosia IvanovaSergei Egorov 
Music By Penka Kouneva
Cinematography by Kaloyan Bozhilov
Edited by Veselka Kiryakova
Production Design by Agi Ariunsaichan Dawaachu
Production Company: Red Carpet
Release Date: September 4, 2019
Running Time: 96 min
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Camera and Lenses: Arriflex Arricam lite, anamorphic lenses
Negative Format: 35mm
Country: Bulgaria, Germany, France 
Language: Yakut
Reported Budget: EUR 1,000,000 (estimated)

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SXSW 2021 Favorite Films

I have another festival favorites edition this month. I didn’t watch every film–that would be impossible. Therefore, out of the forty-eight I watched–here is a breakdown of twenty-eight SXSW 2021 films. Similar to the Sundance edition–The film links point to their festival program page and the synopsis’ come from that same page.

Narrative Feature Films

Inbetween Girl – “Teen artist Angie Chen turns to secret hookups with the heartthrob of her private school after her parents’ sudden divorce.

The Drovers Wife – The Legend of Molly Johnson – “The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson is a reimagining of Leah Purcell’s acclaimed play and Henry Lawson’s classic short story. A searing Australian western thriller asking the question: how far do you go to protect your loved ones?

Gaia – In the depths of an ancient forest, something has been growing. Something older than humanity itself, and perhaps greater too. When a park ranger discovers a man and his son living wild, she stumbles onto a secret that is about to change the world.

Here Before – After new neighbors move in next door, a bereaved mother begins to question her reality in this unsettling psychological thriller.

I’m Fine (Thanks for asking) – When a recently widowed mother becomes houseless, she convinces her 8-year-old daughter that they are only camping for fun while working to get them off the streets.

The Fabulous Filipino Brothers – From Northern California to The Philippines, four brothers confront their issues with love, family, and culture, surrounding a highly controversial Filipino wedding. Told in four vignettes with cockfights, adultery, romance, food, and family.

Bantú Mama – An Afropean woman escapes after being arrested in the Dominican Republic. She is sheltered by a group of minors, in a dangerous district of Santo Domingo. By becoming their protégée and maternal figure, she will see her destiny change inexorably.

Documentary Feature Films

Mau – Mau follows the unlikely story of design visionary Bruce Mau and his ever-optimistic push for massive change.

We Are As Gods – “We are as gods and might as well get good at it,” Stewart Brand wrote in ‘68. The legendary pioneer of LSD, cyberspace, futurism, and modern environmentalism now urges people to use our god-like powers to fight extinction by reviving lost species.

Narrative Short Films

Malignant – Chynna travels to a West Texas health retreat to visit her terminally ill mother. As she learns more about the faith based wellness preached in the commune, Chynna desperately attempts to convince her mother to leave.

The Other Morgan – When a dopey young exterminator discovers there’s another version of her out in the world, she begins to question her life choices.

The Mohel – After celebrating the birth of their first child, James & Lola are faced with family expectations and financial strain as they fly in a Mohel to perform their son’s Brit Milah – The circumcision ceremony.

Plaisir – A lonely American faces unrequited love on a farm commune in the south of France.

Are you Still There? – Safa’s been through a lot. Now her car battery is dead in a strip mall parking lot.

Chuj Boys of Summer – Speaking only his native language, a Guatemalan teenager begins his new life in rural Colorado.

The Nipple Whisperer – Maurice Sanders has a gift. He’s a nipple whisperer. Once he was known as “Magic Sandy”. But that was years ago, before Doris, a famous model and Sander’s muse, fell ill. Now, after more than a decade, Doris wants to meet Maurice again.

Soak – A 16 year old tries to convince her runaway mother to return home.

Sales Per Hour –  A young woman faces a moral dilemma when she witnesses a sexual encounter in a dressing room at the clothing store where she works.

Marvin Never Had Coffee Before – Marvin Wexler tries coffee for the first time and desperately tries to talk about it with anyone who will listen.

Femme – When Jordan gets into the car of a flirtatious drug-dealer, his night takes a dangerous turn.

Doretha’s Blues – Doretha goes out for her evening drink at her local watering hole when a news story dredges up old memories.

Summer Animals – Living out of a motel, 15 year old Tommy makes a drastic decision in order for her siblings to escape the heat before the summer’s over.

The thing that ate the birds – On the North Yorkshire Moors, Abel, Head Gamekeeper, discovers the thing that is eating his grouse.

Documentary Short Films

Plant Heist – California’s fight to protect valuable native succulents from an international poaching ring.

Joe Buffalo – Joe Buffalo is an Indigenous skateboard legend. He’s also a survivor of Canada’s notorious Indian Residential School system. Following a traumatic childhood and decades of addiction, Joe must face his inner demons to realize his dream of turning pro.

The Box –  The Box is a hybrid documentary that explores the effects of solitary confinement through three people’s harrowing true stories – they’ve spent a combined nine years in isolation, and one of them co-directed this film.

Aguilas –  Along the scorching desert border in Arizona, it is estimated that only one out of every five missing migrants are ever found. ÁGUILAS is the story of one group of searchers, the Aguilas del Desierto.

The Unlikely Fan – “She’s a Sri Lankan born, Dallas-based, retired teacher and mother. She’s also crazy about basketball. Meet “The Unlikely Fan” who knows a thing or two about hoops.

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The Cinematographers Dark Canvas

I’m often thinking about films I want to study, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has been on my mind for a long time—the dark painterly aesthetic has been a consistent draw. It’s an aesthetic that I’ve always thought of as “my thing,” but it only works for certain films. I think the appeal comes from an intense degree of creative control over what we reveal and don’t reveal on the screen. In a new addition to the newsletter dubbed “Ponderings,” I pontificate on what darkness means to a Cinematographer—or at least to me. After that, we look at Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, dark cinematography in a Carhart ad, Caravaggio, and a word from the “Prince of Darkness”—Gordon Willis.

Ponderings
Darkness is the Cinematographers canvas. It is not to be confused with thematic darkness unless that theme inspires a beginning, a void, or a nothingness upon which creation is imminent. 

When I was learning about lighting and its relationship to cinema, I was constantly drawn to a dark aesthetic. Films I was looking at included The City of Lost ChildrenIvan’s ChildhoodTouch of Evil, and Blade Runner. But there was a pang of strange guilt associated with this attraction because I equated darkness with sadness, depression, fear, and all those traditional themes. And I had yet to grasp the concept of darkness as a canvas, upon which an artist that uses lighting instruments can express themselves. An expression that can dictate themes in degrees of light, shadow, darkness, and color with limitless potential—exploring every nuance between a black screen and a white screen.

There is also a stimulating parallel with yin and yang—part of the philosophy being that a balance of opposite or contrasting states is necessary for a harmonious experience, happy disposition or productive outcome–childbirth, for example, requires a man and woman. In Cinematography, the closer we get to having a perfect balance of lightness and darkness on the screen, the better, more comfortable, more at ease, or just neutral the audience will feel. And this neutral place is a standard upon which capture and display devices are calibrated for the industry to exist in a harmonious state of capture and display.

This neutral standard feels like a starting point because we—as an audience—don’t think about how the sensor or film is initially blank. And without first having this blankness—or blackness when displayed or printed—no image would ever exist. And without having light to imprint the dark, there would be no image. Thus, to have an image at all—we must have a certain degree of balance between light and dark.

We even have a unit and method of measurement for this balance in the craft of Cinematography—lighting ratios and foot-candles. A lighting ratio represents the degree of contrast between light and dark. And foot-candles measure the intensity of light falling on a subject. Ratios help to establish and maintain a consistent look for a film, monitored by measuring the foot-candle value in light and shadow. The balance of light and shadow can be manipulated to enhance the emotional response to a scene. Some films maintain the same ratio from beginning to end, while others use varying ratios to complement a narrative and character journey. Figuring this out for each film, planning for it, and letting it materialize on set is a big part of a Cinematographer’s job.

The whole visual style was set out before we shot one foot of film. We talked about the contrast between good and evil, light and dark. How we’d really use darkness, how we’d start out with a black sheet of paper and paint in the light.— Francis Ford Coppola on The Godfather, cited by The Guardian in “Gordon Willis Obituary”

 

Film
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), directed by David Lowery and shot by Bradford Young, won the Cinematography award at Sundance in 2013 for the U.S. Dramatic Category and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. In the same year, it littered top ten lists from critics worldwide—many praising it for its fresh look at the Bonnie and Clyde paradigm.

It gives us a contemporary look at a dark aesthetic—an aesthetic that Bradford Young has built a career on. The photography swims with the narrative in a game of hide, seek and reveal. As insights into the plot and characters are held back by quiet reflection and solitude, the photography is dominated by shadows—made authentic by using location and time of day. Now and then, as the characters hit milestones along their journey, the screen may get a little brighter, but it’s all very subtle because the protagonist has to stay physically hidden to get what he wants. His wife has to hide too, but she has to do it in plain sight. Her cloak is in deception—her surroundings only bright enough to project a facade and dark enough to evoke her secrets. And until she reunites with the protagonist, she is stuck in this duality.

The feel of the movie is intimate and handmade, as if Lowery were renewing, lovingly and poignantly, the landscape’s ruined landmarks and infusing them with his own memories and dreams.-The New Yorker

Downloadable Resources 
Frame Grabs

Credits and Specs
Directed and Written by David Lowery 
Produced by Cassian ElwesToby HalbrooksJames M. JohnstonAmy Kaufmanmore
Starring  Rooney MaraCasey AffleckBen Foster
Music By Daniel Hart
Cinematography by Bradford Young
Edited by Craig McKayJane Rizzo
Production Design by Jade Healy
Production Company: Sailor Bear
Release Date: Aug 16, 2013 
Running Time: 96min
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Camera and Lenses: Arricam LT, Cooke S4, Zeiss Master Prime and Angenieux Optimo Lenses, Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2, Panavision Primo Lenses, Panavision Panaflex Platinum, Panavision Primo Lenses
Negative Format: 35mm (Kodak Vision3 250D 5207, Vision3 500T 5219)
Printed Film Format: 35 mm (anamorphic), D-Cinema
Cinematographic Process: Digital Intermediate (2K) (master format), Super 35 (3-perf) (source format)
Country: USA
Language: English

Painter
Caravaggio, (1571-1610) is known for bringing a new level of emotional painting to the arts scene in Italy and his paintings in the Contarelli Chapel made him the most famous painter in Rome. His style of heightened chiaroscuro, detailed realism and dramatic lighting greatly influenced forthcoming Baroque artists such as Rembrandt and Bernini. And he could be the most referenced painter in the Cinematography universe. Vittorio Storaro uses him as a constant source of inspiration—he has written books and given lectures about him. And shot the 2007 film, CaravaggioHere is a Storaro commentary about the painting, The Calling of St. Matthew, one of the Contarelli Chapel paintings.

This is one of the only paintings that I know that has such a specific delineation between light and darkness, between the divine and the human being. The symbology that was used in The Conformist was light as a consciousness and darkness as the unknown—as unconscious. This was exactly the structure of the character—he had to hide something in himself, in the darkness. And then there was something that he presented to you as a reality which was the conscious side. So this specific relation in painting was for me the same symbology I was trying to portray with lighting. Specifically, not only the character, but the entire principle of The Conformist.

Ad
Carhart, directed by Douglas Avery and shot by Max Goldman, is a great example of how a dark aesthetic doesn’t have to invoke dark, depressing themes. Instead, it is used to show how Carhart’s clothing can stand up to the toughest jobs in the toughest conditions. A concept that the brand is certainly proud of and built on.

Quote
I am not a great believer that you have to see an actor all the time on the screen. I believe that the scene has to be played properly, but sometimes it’s better not to see what is going on until a given point in the scene. Then you see something. – Gordon Willis, AKA The Prince of Darkness

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My 2021 Virtual Sundance Favorites

I have something a little different for you this month. I “attended” virtual Sundance at the turn of January into February. The festival’s tribute and commitment to Native American culture is fitting to last month’s musings on Native American Culture In FilmSundance has been fostering the talent of Native Peoples since 1994, when it formally started its Indigenous Program. And, at the head of every single screening, there was a beautifully crafted video honoring Native Tribes and their Homeland.

There were 73 features and 50 shorts at the festival this year—out of 14,000 submissions. I watched 22 Features and 35 Shorts—my 2021 virtual Sundance Favorites are as follows. 

The included summaries are straight from the festival program, and the titles link to the film’s detail page, where you can read a short director’s bio, watch a short “Meet The Artist” video, and view additional credits. If a film won an award, it is noted at the head of the summary.

Dramatic Features

Fire In The Mountains – Chandra and her husband, Dharam, run the Switzerland Homestay, an inn that hovers high above the only road in a small Himalayan village. The terrain poses a problem for the family, who must transport their son Prakash down the mountain in his wheelchair to go to the doctor and school. Though Chandra believes Prakash needs more medical attention, Dharam isn’t as keen on the idea. He’d rather put the money toward a shamanic ritual he believes will rid them of a deity’s curse, the cause of Prakash’s affliction. Tensions increase as their worldviews collide and slowly erode their familial ties.

The debut feature from writer-director Ajitpal Singh, Fire in the Mountains is a searing portrait of the power dynamics at play between tradition and modernity in one family’s foundation. With handheld camerawork and seamless tracking shots, Singh vividly captures the beauty and hardship of their daily lives. Fire in the Mountains is bolstered by Vinamrata Rai’s commanding performance as Chandra, a woman unafraid to stand her ground and find ways forward for her family and village.

Directed and Written by Ajitpal Singh
Produced by Ajay Rai, Alan McAlex

Knocking – What. Is. That. Noise. When Molly hears knocking coming from the ceiling in her new apartment, she naturally searches for the source. The upstairs neighbors don’t know what she’s talking about and dismiss her with cool indifference. Is this all in her mind? After all, she’s still processing a traumatic event that left her mentally unwell, and the unprecedented heat wave isn’t helping her think clearly. As the knocking intensifies and gives way to a woman’s cries, Molly becomes consumed with finding out the truth. Could it be Morse code? Is someone trapped? And more importantly, why doesn’t anyone care?

Knocking is a sharp indictment of the gaslight culture and social stigma that work against those experiencing mental illness. Director Frida Kempff’s stunning visuals induce a dissonant sensation of physical disembodiment and feverish claustrophobia that mimics Molly’s deteriorating mental state. Cecilia Milocco exudes Molly’s vulnerability and strength in equal measures, spiraling in one moment before standing her ground the next. Knocking leaves you, just like Molly, questioning yourself until the very end. 

Directed by Frida Kempff
Written by Emma Broström
Produced by Erik Andersson

Ma Belle, My Beauty – Audience Award for the NEXT program – Newlywed musicians Bertie and Fred are adjusting to their new life in the beautiful countryside of France. It’s an easy transition for Fred, the son of French and Spanish parents, but New Orleans native Bertie grapples with a nagging depression that is affecting her singing. Lane—the quirky ex who disappeared from their three-way relationship years ago—suddenly shows up for a surprise visit, bringing new energy and baggage of her own.

First-time feature filmmaker Marion Hill takes us on a tipsy, moody dive into polyamory that holds all of the gravity and complexity of sexual fluidity and triangulation, while maintaining the buoyant atmosphere of a hot summer adventure through the fields of Europe. Levitated by an intoxicating acoustic guitar soundtrack by Mahmoud Chouki, Ma Belle, My Beauty is a breezy and meaningful journey through wine-drenched candlelit dinners, firelit vineyard parties, farmers’ markets, and sunny hikes alongside the creek, as Fred, Bertie, and Lane grapple with how to get what they want inside the soup of their desires, passions, and life ambitions.

Written and Directed by Marion Hill
Produced by Ben Matheny, Kelsey Scult, Marion Hill

Land – When Edee’s life is tragically altered, she loses the ability to connect with the world and people she once knew. She retreats to a forest in the Rocky Mountains with a few supplies and leaves her old life behind indefinitely. The beauty of her new surroundings is undeniable yet quickly humbling as she struggles to adjust and prepare for the winter ahead. When Edee is caught on the brink of death, a local hunter and his family miraculously save her, but she alone must find a way to live again.

Acclaimed actress Robin Wright returns to the Sundance Film Festival with her directorial debut, set in the picturesque but unforgiving wilds of nature. Wright stands out in her performance as Edee, a woman lost in grief, while Demián Bichir’s subdued and charming presence depicts an unexpected and reflective companion who questions Edee’s abrupt choices. Land is a quiet yet masterful journey into the complex desire for solitude as a woman searches for meaning in the vast and harsh American wilderness.

Directed by Robin Wright
Written by Jesse Chatham, Erin Dignam
Produced by Allyn Stewart, Lora Kennedy, Leah Holzer, Peter Saraf

Night of the Kings – Philippe Lacôte’s gripping second feature, Night of the Kings, has won acclaim at major festivals since premiering at the Venice International Film Festival.

A new arrival at Ivory Coast’s infamous MACA prison is quickly anointed the institution’s “Roman”—a griot instructed to tell stories for the population at the command of reigning inmate king, the ailing Blackbeard. Roman must ascertain his place in the prison’s dangerously shifting inmate politics, embrace his inner Scheherazade, and weave a tale that will get them all through the night and stave off impending chaos.

Night of the Kings is a bold, imaginative ode to the power of storytelling and a layered, compelling portrait of the complexities of life within the prison walls. Roman’s desperately woven tales cleverly embody the turmoil surrounding him, and Lacôte enhances their fantastical and dramatic effect by interjecting glorious cinematic depictions of the boy’s imaginings. The horde of listening prisoners transforms into a makeshift chorus, translating the tales into song and dance, intensifying the film’s enthralling effect.

Written and Directed by Philippe Lacôte
Produced by Delphine Jaquet, Yanick Létourneau, Ernest Konan, Yoro Mbaye

Judas And The Black Messiah – Fred Hampton’s cathartic words “I am a revolutionary” became a rallying call in 1969. As chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Hampton demanded all power to the people and inspired a growing movement of solidarity, prompting the FBI to consider him a threat and to plant informant William O’Neal to infiltrate the party. Judas and the Black Messiah not only recounts Hampton’s legacy and the FBI’s conspiring but also gives equal footing to the man who became infamous for his betrayal—highlighting the systems of inequality and oppression that fed both of their roles.

Director Shaka King returns to the Sundance Film Festival with an incredible cast of Sundance alums led by Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield. Kaluuya channels Hampton’s ability to energize and unite communities, while Stanfield taps into the anguish of a man with conflicting allegiances. Dominique Fishback also stands out in her reserved yet confronting performance as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s life partner. King’s magnetic film carries themes that continue to resonate today and serves as a reminder of the potent power of the people.

Directed by Shaka King
Written by Will Berson, Shaka King
Produced by Ryan Coogler p.g.a., Charles D. King p.g.a., Shaka King p.g.a.

Coda – U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Feature, Directing Award for U.S. Dramatic Feature, U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast, Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic Feature. 

Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of a deaf family. At 17, she works mornings before school to help her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) keep their Gloucester fishing business afloat. But in joining her high school’s choir club, Ruby finds herself drawn to both her duet partner (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and her latent passion for singing. Her enthusiastic, tough-love choirmaster (Eugenio Derbez) hears something special and encourages Ruby to consider music school and a future beyond fishing, leaving her torn between obligation to family and pursuit of her dream.

Siân Heder’s heartwarming, exuberant follow-up to Tallulah (2016 Sundance Film Festival) brings us inside the idiosyncratic rhythms and emotions of a deaf family—something we’ve rarely seen on screen. In developing Coda, which stands for Child of Deaf Adults, Heder was determined to tell the story authentically with deaf actors. Her writing and direction—layered, naturalistic, frank, and funny—finds perfect expression in richly drawn characters and a uniformly outstanding cast, led by Jones in a fantastic breakout performance.

Written and Directed by Siân Heder
Produced by Philippe Rousselet, Fabrice Gianfermi, Patrick Wachsberger

Documentary Features

Flee – World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary — An Afghan refugee agrees to tell a remarkable personal narrative of persecution and escape on the condition that his identity not be revealed. As a means of fulfilling that wish, his filmmaker friend uses striking animation to not only protect this young man but also enhance his tale, bending time and memory to recount a visceral, poetic, and death-defying journey dictated by deception, loneliness, and a relentless will to survive.

The result is Flee, a film unbound by documentary constraints and swept up in an astonishing array of archive footage, ’80s pop music, and hand-drawn craft that brings audiences directly into the experience of a teen fleeing multiple countries—and the psychological impact on how he loves, trusts, and understands his burgeoning identity. Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s film is a triumph of storytelling and filmmaking ingenuity, but its greatest asset is the empathy and trust Rasmussen forms with the film’s protagonist, whose clarity and vulnerability grant us access to a unique refugee tale.

Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Produced by Monica Hellström, Signe Byrge Sørensen

Taming The Garden – The opening shot of filmmaker Salomé Jashi’s striking environmental tale captures a tree as tall as a 15-story building floating on a barge across the vast Black Sea. Its destination lies within a garden countless miles away, privately owned by a wealthy and anonymous man whose passion resides in the removal, and subsequent replanting, of foreign trees into his own man-made Eden.

With astonishing cinematic style, Taming the Garden tracks the surreal uprooting of ancient trees from their Georgian locales. With each removal, tensions flare between workers and villagers. Some see financial incentives—new roads, handsome fees—while others angrily mourn the loss of what was assumed an immovable monolith of their town’s collective history and memory. With a steady and shrewdly observant eye, Jashi documents a single man’s power over Earth’s natural gardens: how majestic living artifacts of a country’s identity can so effortlessly become uprooted by individuals with no connection to the nature they now claim as their own.

Written and Directed by Salomé Jashi
Produced by Vadim Jendreyko, Erik Winker, Martin Roelly, Salomé Jashi

Dramatic Shorts

Bj’s Mobile Gift Shop – A young Korean American hustler runs throughout the city of Chicago making sales out of his “mobile gift shop.”

Written and Directed by Jason Park
Produced by Julianna Imel and Jason Park

Bruiser – After his father gets into a fight at a bowling alley, Darious begins to investigate the limitations of his own manhood.

Directed by Miles Warren
Written by Miles Warren and Ben Medina
Produced by Gustavo René, Albert Tholen, Lauren Goetzman

Bambirak – Short Film Jury Award for International Fiction – When Kati stows away in her father’s truck, Faruk must juggle his responsibilities as a single dad while holding down his first job in a new country. As their relationship deepens, a brush with covert racism tests their bond.

Written and Directed by Zamarin Wahdat
Produced by Joy Jorgensen

Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma – Short Film Jury Award for Non-Fiction – In 1970, Black educators in Chicago developed alphabet flash cards to provide Black-centered teaching materials to the vastly white educational landscape, and the Black ABCs were born. Fifty years later, 26 scenes provide an update to their meanings.

Written and Directed by Topaz Jones, Rubberband.
Produced by Luigi Rossi, Jason Sondock, Simon Davis, Eric McNeal, Kevin Storey

Lata – a 23-year-old domestic worker, navigates her way through an upper-class home in South Mumbai. Doors consistently open and close, giving Lata selective access to the various contending realities that occupy this space.

Directed by Alisha Tejpal
Written by Alisha Tejpal, Mireya Martinez
Produced by Mireya Martinez

Raspberry – Undertakers wait on a family’s final farewells as one son struggles to say goodbye to his dead father.

Written and Directed by Julian Doan
Produced by Turner Munch, Brianna Murphy

Unliveable – In Brazil, where a trans person is murdered every three days, Marilene searches for her daughter, Roberta, a trans woman who is missing. Running out of time, she discovers one hope for the future.

Written, Directed, and Produced by – Matheus Farias, Enock Carvalho

The Longest Dream I remember – As Tania leaves her hometown, she must confront what her absence will mean in the search for her disappeared father.

Directed by Carlos Lenin
Written by Carlos Lenin, Isa Mora Vera
Produced by Paloma Petra, Laura Carreto, Andrés Luna Ruiz

We’re Not Animals – His ex, Marie, became an Instagram star (thanks to an activist group focused on the female orgasm). Depressed, Igor believes this is a deliberate campaign to prevent him from finding someone else.

Written and Directed by Noé Debré
Produced by Benjamin Elalouf

Lizard – Short Film Grand Jury Prize – Juwon, an eight-year-old girl with an ability to sense danger, gets ejected from Sunday school service. She unwittingly witnesses the underbelly in and around a megachurch in Lagos.

Directed by Akinola Davies Jr.
Written by The Davies Brothers
Produced by Rachel Dargavel, Wale Davies

Like The Ones I Used To Know – December 24, 1983, 10:50 p.m.: Julie and her cousins ate too much sugar, and Santa Claus is late. Denis, alone in his car, is anxious about setting foot in his former in-laws’ house to pick up his children.

Written and Directed by Annie St-Pierre
Produced by Fanny Drew, Sarah Mannering

The Unseen River – Stories told along the river: a woman reunites with her ex-lover at a hydroelectric plant; meanwhile, a young man travels downstream to a temple in search of a cure for his insomnia.

Written and Directed by Phạm Ngọc Lân
Executive Producers Gabriel Shaya Kuperman, Alex Curran-Cardarelli

The Criminals – Short Film Special Jury Award for Screenwriting – In a town in Turkey, a young couple looks for some privacy. They are rejected from the hotels because they do not have a marriage certificate. When they think they have found a way, the situation gets out of hand.

Written and Directed by Serhat Karaaslan
Produced by Laure Dahout
Co-Produced by Laura Musat

Documentary Shorts

This Is The Way We Rise – An exploration into the creative process, following native Hawaiian slam poet Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio as her art is reinvigorated by her calling to protect sacred sites atop Mauna Kea, Hawai’i.

Directed by Ciara Lacy

Tears Teacher – Yoshida is a self-proclaimed “tears teacher.” A firm believer that regular crying promotes healthier living, he’s made it his mission to make more people weep.

Directed by Noémie Nakai

Snowy – a four-inch-long pet turtle, has lived an isolated life in the family basement. With help from a team of experts and his caretaker, Uncle Larry, we ask: Can Snowy be happy, and what would it take?

Directed by Kaitlyn Schwalje, Alex Wolf Lewis
Written by Kaitlyn Schwalje
Produced by Rebecca Stern, Justin Levy

Related

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December Musings – Child Prodigies and Renaissance Men
November Musings – Understanding racial division through cinema, literature, and more

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