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Sundance 2023: World Drama and Documentary Recap

Nestled in the Wasatch Mountains of northern Utah lies a small ski town called Park City. Resting at an altitude of roughly 7,000 feet, it has been home to the Sundance International Film Festival since its founding in August 1978. I was lucky enough to attend the closing weekend – January 26 to the 29 –with my girlfriend Olivia, screening films in the World Drama and World Documentary Competitions. In this post, I will rank the 4 films we saw: Sorcery (Chile), Animalia (France, Morroco, Qatar), The Eternal Memory (Chile), and Slow (Lithuania).

4) Animalia

dir. Sofia Alaoui

Description: “Heavily pregnant Itto looks forward to a day of peace and quiet when she gets her affluent household mostly to herself after her husband, Amine, goes away on business. She’s quickly lost sight of her modest origins and has adapted to her new family’s detached opulence. But when a mysterious state of emergency is declared nationwide, Itto struggles to find help; meanwhile, increasingly ominous events and strange weather phenomena suggest a supernatural presence is nearing. While frantically searching for a way back to Amine, Itto unexpectedly finds emancipation and the possibility of solace in a new world order.”

Animalia is a very beautiful film, from its locations to its cinematography to its visual effects. However, Animalia is overwhelmed by vagueness and ideas that aren’t fully fleshed out. We only knew that the “supernatural presence” was aliens by reading the film’s logline. Alaoui’s take on aliens is pretty unique: they can travel across astral planes and shape-shift to blend in with earthly life. However, the vague reveal of that truth arrives too late to answer all of the questions that come with said revelation. Some aliens are animals, some are human, and some seem to switch between the two. The reason that some shapeshift and some don’t is never revealed.

Some characters start as humans but become aliens later on. How they become aliens is also never revealed. There is one scene where a hoard of ants begins to crawl all over Itto’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law. One ant eventually travels into the sister’s ear, and she quickly transforms into a human alien. Do the aliens have souls that can move from being to being?

Some cities touched by the supernatural presence are left deserted with no hint as to where everyone went. Eventually the presence leaves, but there is no explanation as to what it wanted and why it left. And despite most humans disappearing after the presence leaves, Itto, Amine, and her baby are still on earth, and we never know why. Its critiques on gender, class, and religion did not spur many fresh conversations. Animalia is solid for a first feature, but it was still clearly a first feature.

3) The Eternal Memory

dir. Maite Alberdi

Description: “Augusto and Paulina have been together and in love for 25 years. Eight years ago, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and his wife has since become his caretaker. As one of Chile’s most prominent cultural commentators and television presenters, Augusto is no stranger to building an archive of memory, having been responsible for that herculean task following the Pinochet dictatorship and its systematic erasure of collective consciousness. Now he turns that work to his own life, trying to hold on to his identity with the help of his beloved. Day by day, the couple face this challenge head-on, adapting to the disruptions brought on by the taxing disease while relying on the tender affection and sense of humor shared between them that remains intact.”

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for World Documentary, this film beautifully captures love and intimacy while straying away from the exploitative tendency that documentaries about illness often have. Charming and tear-jerking, The Eternal Memory masterfully connects Augusto’s current struggle with memory and his past career, emphasizing the effect that memory has on acknowledging the truth of our past and our ability to better our future.

The film's most notable feature is its editing. The progression of Augusto’s disease is segmented by acts, intercut with footage of his old newscasts and old family videos of him building his home and family with his wife Paulina. Act 1 chronicles the early stages of his disease when he faces moderate struggles with memory but still has hope and drive for a long, fulfilling life. Act 2 chronicles the progression of his disease and the beginnings of Augusto’s lost hope for the future. Act 3, filmed during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, chronicles an interesting view of the effects isolation has on those with Dementia and Alzheimer’s, and Augusto’s corresponding loss of hope. Although we mostly experience Augusto’s struggle through his wife regarding the damage it has inflicted on their romance and intimacy, the only thoughts and feelings about his disease come from Augusto himself.

Beautiful and gut-wrenching, The Eternal Memory was my third favorite film and Olivia’s second favorite. MTV Documentary Films acquired it and is planning on giving it a theatrical release.

2) Sorcery

dir. Christopher Murray

Description: “Chiloé Island, 1880. After her father is murdered by a German colonist, Rosa (newcomer Valentina Véliz Caileo), a 13-year-old Huilliche girl, renounces her Christian upbringing and seeks shelter with Mateo (Daniel Antivilo), the leader of an Indigenous organization that practices witchcraft. Under Mateo’s gruff yet tender tutelage, she learns the art of sorcery and vows to settle the score. Rosa’s vengeance leads to a brutal crackdown by the island’s Chilean Christian authorities and puts her on the path to discovering her dormant powers.”

An absolutely stunning film about reconnecting with indigeneity, finding community, resisting colonialism and the struggle for personal justice. The sound design is exquisite; you can feel the island in your bones. It’s expertly utilized in creating alluring off-screen spaces that build an aura of suspense. The suspense is only elevated by the cinematography. The film’s consistent use of shallow, extreme close-ups places you in the minds of the characters, allowing you to experience their war of emotions. This is used to great effect, often utilized at major plot points to keep you on the edge of your seat. It beautifully complements the story’s main focus on Rosa and her quest for justice.

Sorcery has a run time just short of 2 hours, making it a bit of a slow burn with a wonderful payoff. The story’s focus on grief and healing justifies Rosa’s generally passive presence and the focus on her emotions until the very end when we witness the few instances of harrowing revenge scenes (although personally I would’ve loved to see the downfall of more Germans). I will be thinking of Valentina Véliz Caileo’s lead performance for a long time.

Sorcery was my second favorite film and Olivia’s third.

1) Slow

dir. Marija Kavtaradze

Description: “Contemporary dancer Elena meets Dovydas when he is assigned to interpret via sign language in a class she is teaching to deaf youth. Their connection is immediate, kinetic, and frictionless. As they gravitate toward each other, resisting the forces and interventions of their separate daily lives, their bond deepens from platonic to romantic. When Dovydas discloses his asexuality, the couple commit themselves to honoring their individual needs in tandem. As they continue to weave more tightly together, they struggle to negotiate sacrifice and compromise and are forced to discover the edges of their generosity toward the other.”

Of the films we saw, Slow had the best execution of ideas and story, and it was also the winner of the Directing Award for the World Drama category. The most notable aspect of the film is the acting performances of the protagonists, Elena (Greta Grinevičiūtė) and Dovydas (Kęstutis Cicėnas. They had the most believable chemistry of any romance film I’veI have ever seen; it was impossible to not connect with them. Their performances were so realistic and captivating that many points felt like a documentary. Not one minute of the run time felt wasted. Every scene, every line and every joke carried the story forward. As she is a dancer, many of Elena’s solo scenes featured music with lyrics that expressed her thoughts and feelings for her, allowing us to focus on the physical language of her movements.

Dovydas’s solo scenes mirror Elena’s, as the televised music performances he interprets for similarly express his thoughts and feelings. Dovydas frequently works as a sign language interpreter for televised music performances that also expressed his emotions through song. During the post-screening Q&A, Director Marija Kavtaradze talked about her focus on physical language and touch. She utilizes medium and close-up shots, often shallowly focused, to follow body movements and create intimacy between the character and the audience, as well as between the characters themselves. The film also has a charming humor to it, stemming from Dovydas’s ludic nature. His playful jokes and quirky demeanor attract the audience (along with Elena) and add a brightness to the story that balances out its more heartbreaking moments.

Olivia and I both had Slow as our top pick.

Attending Sundance was one of the most fun and memorable experiences I have had, in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Being surrounded by film and seeing the new creative directions it’s going was incredibly inspiring as a young filmmaker. I hope to attend again.



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