Our capsule reviews spotlight three documentaries and two Scandinavian features we enjoyed at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Watch out for them as they travel the festival circuit and arrive on home viewing platforms.
Advocate (dir. Rachel Leah Jones)
At one point in Advocate, Israeli human-rights lawyer Lea Tsemel describes herself as “angry” and “optimistic”. While her colleagues have retired, having lost all hope in the possibility of justice being found in the courts, she keeps fighting losing battles with boundless optimism. A controversial and political figure throughout her life, Advocate follows Tsemel in present day, a late middle-aged woman who is still fierce, intelligent, and determined. The film follows two of Tsernel’s key cases, each relating to the rights of Palestinians. The media (and members of the Israeli government) had already condemned as terrorists, even though one is child who committed no violence. We know the odds are stacked against her but we share her glimmer of hope as we watch the case proceedings and meet the desperate, downtrodden defendants.
The film mixes in footage of Tsemel throughout her career, from youthful political activist to controversial human rights lawyer. Many scenes in the film are at least partly rotoscope animated, often with Hebrew headlines embossed over the drawings — perhaps born of the need to blur out faces of key figures in the cases. The effect is to mythologize Tsemel and her work: she’s making history and doing heroic work. Even when the courts prove brutally unjust, Tsemel’s belief that things will eventually change is an inspiring one. She keeps fighting the good fight. – Alex Heeney
Bedlam (dir. Kenneth Paul Rosenberg
Psychiatrist Kenneth Paul Rosenberg uses the well-worn documentary format of knitting observational footage with archival images in an ambitious and moving attempt to make sense of America’s failure to care for mental illness. Bedlam provides valuable context about how prisons have largely replaced asylums as facilities to care for people with mental illnesses. But the film’s real strength is in Rosenberg’s connection with his subjects: he’s able to get them to speak frankly about how the mental health system personally impacts them. One of these connections is with Monte Cullors, an African American man with mental illness; his perspective, and that of his supportive family, are highlights of the film. Monte’s public flare-ups have more often led him to jail than to actual medical care. Partially in response, his sister, Patrisse, became one of the three founders of Black Lives Matter, drawing attention to the intersectional factors affecting mental care health – Brett Pardy
Koko-di Koko-da (dir. Johannes Nyholm)
Johannes Nyholm’s KoKo-Di Koko-Da is one of the most stylistically audacious films to screen in the World Dramatic Competition at Sundance. It starts out like an eerie fairy tale, with outlandish figures walking through a forest as the words “Koko-Di Koko-Da” are sung like an old nursery rhyme. It only gets creepier from there, where even the sound of a music box — bought as a birthday gift for a young girl — sounds like a harbinger of death. The sheer weirdness of this opening clashes wonderfully with the realist action that follows as we watch a husband and wife celebrating over a meal with their young daughter, before finding themselves in an emergency, at hospital, and then grieving parents. The real and the fantastical meet years later, when the couple go on a camping trip together and encounter the figures from the opening, now violent and terrifying, externalizing their grief. The film’s psychological insights lack depth, but the craft is exceptional. – AH
Midnight Traveler (dir. Hassan Fazli)
When Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazli was forced to flee after being threatened by the Taliban, he decided to document his family’s lengthy attempt to find refuge. Fazli uses his smartphone to document their time in refugee camps in Serbia and Bulgaria and in a detention facility in Hungary. The film begins as a travelogue, focused on documenting the facts of their journey, but begins to morph into reflective filmmaking. In a haunting scene, Fazli wonders if he should film the frantic search for his missing daughter (she is found safely). He worries that filming what could have been a devastating family tragedy could also have made the film more dramatic. Midnight Traveler offers a strong rebuke to the belief that countries are too accommodating to refugees. Even as of today, Fazli’s family have not found a home. – BP
Sonja: The White Swan (dir. Anne Sewitsky)
In 2015, I met Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky and actress Ine Wilman at Sundance, when they were here promoting their psychologically complex and heartbreaking film, Homesick. The story of a young woman constantly getting herself into toxic, clingy relationships as a response to her withholding mother was brutally honest and haunting.
The pair returned to Sundance this year with a mostly English-language biopic about Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie, who became the most well-paid movie star in Hollywood and the first professional skater — before her hubris caused her to lose it all. Even though it’s set in the 1930s-1950s, Sewitsky features contemporary music throughout — a reminder that Henie’s sexual liberty, financial independence, and business acumen made her a very modern woman.
Though the film tracks major milestones in Henie’s personal and professional life, Sewitsky is more interested in her private relationships with her family, who leech off her money and lose interest in her as she gets increasingly successful and self-absorbed. Like Homesick, Sonja: The White Swan is about an insecure but talented woman who can’t get over the need to please her unimpressed parents, who felt she could never do anything right. The older she gets, the meaner she gets, but Wilman’s tour de force performance shows us the vulnerable woman behind the bossy, often cruel mask. Plus, it features some great and gorgeous Busby Berkeley-inspired figure skating numbers, making this perceptive drama also kind of a musical. – AH