This year, the Sundance Film Festival, usually held in Park City, Utah, is taking place online. It’s the premier showcase for American independent filmmaking in the commercial sense; it’s where the very notion of independent filmmaking got its brand as Hollywood’s minor league. In recent years, the festival has made a significant effort to present films of a wider artistic range, to highlight the originality of independent filmmaking along with its marketability. As a result, some of the most notable movies of recent years (such as “Madeline’s Madeline” and “Shirkers”) had premières there. This year’s edition is no different; its selections include some films of startling audacity and originality. Here are three of the standouts.
“In the Same Breath”
This documentary about the coronavirus pandemic, directed by Nanfu Wang, is a work of both scathing political analysis and personal passion, and the story of its making is inseparable from its investigative revelations. Wang, who was born and raised in China, has been living in the United States for nine years. She was visiting her mother in her home town, two hundred miles from Wuhan, at the beginning of 2020, when she noticed news reports about eight medical professionals who were arrested for “spreading rumors” about a respiratory disease. She didn’t think much of the report at the time. On the day that Wang returned to the United States, January 23rd, Wuhan went into lockdown. (Her son was still in China, with his grandmother; Wang’s husband managed to go to China and bring him home.) At the same time, Wang became aware of the radical disconnect between what the Chinese government was saying and what was actually happening. Her mother informed her that there were coronavirus cases in their town but that the hospital had been ordered to keep it a secret. Wang saw the propaganda of the Communist Party on Chinese television, while, on social media, COVID-19 patients were desperately posting images of their I.D. cards and chest X-rays in hopes of getting treatment. Her film project, she says, was born of that disconnect. (She also passed the story along to an American newspaper, which didn’t pursue it.)
Wang remained in the United States and commissioned camera operators in China to record what was happening in hospitals, on the streets, and, then, at funeral homes and cemeteries. (The operators did so, often secretly and at great risk to themselves.) Long aware of the inadequacy of China’s health system—which, she says, resulted in her own father’s death at the age of thirty-three, when she was a child—Wang was motivated to document the unreported struggles of people in Wuhan. She observes and relates, in meticulous and infuriating detail, the gap between official reports and the realities on the ground—and attributes the very spread of the virus to China’s heavily censored and centrally controlled media. She contrasts the widely broadcast, tightly crowded New Year’s Eve throngs in Wuhan—now readily discernible as a superspreader event—with the persecution of medical professionals who had, in December, warned of an outbreak of disease.
Even as the Chinese government was declaring its success in containing the epidemic, local hospitals were overwhelmed. The movie shows that people were literally dying in the streets, and clandestine reports from funeral homes and cemeteries suggest that the death toll was perhaps much higher than what was officially reported. As Wang puts it, the Chinese government celebrated how it was coping with adversity in the face of the virus, but the underlying source of China’s adversity was the government itself, the result of its suppression of speech and information in the sole interest of preserving the reputation of the Party. Wang, meanwhile, was no less appalled by what she saw unfolding in the United States—a similar politicization of the pandemic and similar effort to suppress information, which led to needless suffering and death. (The film also shows the effect of the two nations’ comparable political mismanagement in the anguish of health-care professionals both here and in China.)
“In the Same Breath” is a fervent work of reporting, filled with shocking revelations on both a close-up, experiential level and on the level of overarching statistics and trends. Wang recognizes that her immediate experience is of historic significance, and that she is reflecting on that history in real time. Her voice-over interweaves her observations and reflections, family history, and present-tense activities; her gathering of video footage—from the Chinese state television’s parroted lines to the insides of hospitals, where some patients lay moribund and others were turned away—is itself a furious record of the ongoing catastrophe. Wang’s anger at the Trump Administration’s response to the pandemic is fuelled, in part, by her understanding of the propaganda value it offers to the Chinese government and to other authoritarians worldwide: the cries of “freedom” on the part of MAGA-hatted pandemic denialists, conspiracy theorists, and profiteers tarnish the very concept and give comfort to those who repudiate it. Yet in Wang’s view, American failures appear not merely as a public-relations disaster but as a betrayal of core values; her view of democracy, far from merely procedural, is rooted in responsibility and responsiveness to the needs of the citizenry. There have been, and will be, many dissections of Trump’s assault on democracy and of his solipsistic mishandling of the pandemic; Wang’s insight shows us, via her compassionate and indignant observation of China’s experience, that the two are of a piece.
“All Light, Everywhere”
Theo Anthony’s main inspiration as a filmmaker is epistemological. His episode for ESPN’s “30 for 30 Shorts” series, “Subject to Review,” examined the implications of video technology in tennis umpiring. His feature “Rat Film” uncovered the history behind Baltimore’s rodent infestation, revealing the underlying politics of seemingly apolitical current events. “All Light, Everywhere” is also an associative documentary that’s centered on the inherent politics of image-making. It finds its through line in a guided tour of Axon Enterprise, an Arizona-based company that manufactures the Taser and the most prevalent body camera for the police; Axon also owns and operates the server that stores body-cam footage, the software that tracks it, and the artificial-intelligence programs that are being developed to mine the server for information. Anthony approaches the functions of these tools—which he sums up as “weapon, eye, archive, interpretation, automation”—as the launching pad for a series of collage-like meditations on images and data, image-making and the image-makers’ assumptions, and, ultimately, image-making and its tacitly predetermined set of outcomes. His subject is the elisions and suppressions inherent in the production of images (whether photographic or cinematographic), and, ultimately, a collective political blind spot: the racist preconceptions underlying the seemingly technical procedures of policing.
Anthony traces these themes back to the birth of modern technology in the nineteenth century. With a fascinating use of archival footage and images, he outlines the strange connection between astronomy, the birth of cinema, and the technology of war; the development of mug shots and of a new data science to make use of them; the development of composite photographs and its relation to the racist pseudoscience of eugenics. Other parts of the film cover the training of Baltimore police officers in the use of body cameras; public hearings, in Baltimore’s Black community, on the deployment of eye-in-the-sky surveillance, and the efforts to sell it to the Baltimore Police Department and to gain the community’s consent (Anthony’s analysis brilliantly reveals the racial discrimination that inheres in the device and its use); and even the precursor to such technology in the deployment of camera-bearing carrier pigeons, more than a century ago, in military espionage.
Like Wang, Anthony is a personal documentarian. In the film’s opening, he turns the camera on himself, examining his own retina as he defines the subject of the film—the blind spot, the exclusions inherent in all images. He is intermittently part of the on-screen action throughout, whether directing Axon’s public-relations officer in an introductory sequence or being filmed on location at an outdoor display of the Taser-to-camera link. Throughout the film, Anthony apostrophizes on the footage with two levels of commentary, a voice-over (spoken by Keaver Brenai) and a series of subtitles superimposed on the footage. For all its analytical focus and leaps into epistemological abstractions, “All Light, Everywhere” is a film of individual and immediate fascinations. With his passion for seeing, noticing, hearing, conversing, researching, and discovering, Anthony retains a sense of wonder and spontaneous astonishment; he obviously delights in interviewing and observing people and hearing their voices. The movie’s theoretical sophistication remains intensely personal, and its empathetic energy comes from the drive to connect the ideas at hand with the lives and concerns of the people Anthony sees, yet with no pretense of being a savior or benefactor. A brief epilogue, in a classroom, suggests his insistence on putting his own practice into question as well.
“I Was a Simple Man”
In Jiayang Fan’s Profile of Constance Wu in The New Yorker from 2019, the actress is seen at work on “I Was a Simple Man,” directed by Christopher Makoto Yogi, whose first feature, “August at Akiko’s,” which premièred at the Maryland Film Festival in 2018, is one of the recent treasures of American independent filmmaking. Like that earlier film, “I Was a Simple Man” is set in Hawaii, and, in particular, in the Japanese community there, in which Yogi was raised, and in a realm of natural splendor that has been largely despoiled by urbanization and tourism, just as the region’s complex, polyphonic, and polyglot ethnicities have been laminated under an American, Anglophone identity. “I Was a Simple Man” is similarly an intimate, spiritually illuminated film, yet one that’s both imagined and dramatized on a grander scale; it’s more deeply infused, and haunted, by history, more broadly diagnostic of recent unravellings, more explicit about matters of life and death and about what binds them together. Above all, Yogi crafts daringly original and wondrously inventive cinematic devices to exemplify, in modest tones, his grand vision.