‘Risk’ was an inescapable buzzword at Sundance 2019, prominently appearing across promotional materials and within the programmers’ introductory comments. And for good reason: an exceptional story cannot be told without it. We are excited by our grantees’ willingness to candidly speak about the risks they took long before their final cuts earned Sundance laurels: Penny Lane explored an entirely different style of nonfiction film; Joe Talbot grappled with a setting that was changing overnight; as his own cinematographer, Luke Lorentzen juggled two cameras. From Selah and The Spades to Midnight Traveler, we are humbled by the chance-taking and mold-breaking that defines these seven films, on and off-screen.
The Edge of Democracy (dir. Petra Costa)
At Sundance, senior programmer Caroline Libresco described Petra Costa’s political memoir-documentary as being as “much about our own country as it is about Brazil.” The Edge of Democracy is a story of democracy yearned for, found, and interrupted that transcends time and nation. Costa is, as The Wrap notes, “Posing a series of sad questions rather than supplying the answers; in truth, she may not know whether she’s documenting a stormy political era or chronicling the end of something.”
The biggest risk Costa took was changing up genre conventions. “This film brings me to a new place, both artistically and in terms of subject matter,” she told Women and Hollywood. “My previous films have been intimate portraits of individuals and The Edge of Democracy is still that, but with individuals at the heart of a major unfolding global and political news story. It’s been fascinating but challenging at every step.”
Hail Satan? (dir. Penny Lane)
A crisp, devil-may-care look inside the Satanic Temple, Penny Lane’s Hail Satan? introduces us to the diverse men and women who are holding the line for religious freedom in the United States. Working a sharp contrast between iconography and intent, Lane presents the Satanic Temple’s noble tenets to audiences steeped in the hysterical Satanic panic of the 1980s. Overcoming an assumptive fear is no easy task, but the film reframes the conversation around contemporary Satanism with grace and humor. As The Wrap review observes, “Prepare for shocks, but also to think. The question mark in the title isn’t an invitation to worship a red demon with horns, but to engage other humans.”
Lane’s biggest risk was all about vérité. “The stories I have done before were historical. They were stories from the past, not unfolding in the present through production,” she told Filmmaker Magazine. So when setting out to tell the origin story of The Satanic Temple I had to follow the action, which isn’t something I’ve really had to do before. It was very hard for me.”
Jawline (dir. Liza Mandelup)
Winner, U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Emerging Filmmaker
In Jawline’s lead participant Austyn Tester, Mandelup finds the a sixteen year-old determined to break out of the shadows by way of positivity, good looks, and online availability. “Mandelup cleverly lets both its subjects and the audience feel out the parameters of this unknown territory together absent of traditional influence,” Moveable Fest says. “For a subject that’s been covered by many others, Jawline breaks new ground, and in the process is more than likely to bust your gut as well.”
Like Lane, Mandelup bravely embraced story as it transpired without thinking too much about the outcome; a particularly daunting task when social media stars, and their preferred online platforms, fade as quickly as they are born. “The film takes place on the coattails of the social media gold rush,” Mandelup explained to MTV News. “Everyone thought, I can get famous off of this, and that person did it, and he’s making a ton of money and has millions of followers. It became oversaturated. I think what you see in the film is this world of everybody thinking that all it takes is just going live all the time or posting on social media all the time, and I, too, can become famous. It’s actually not that easy. It’s really hard to keep up with.”
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (dir. Joe Talbot)
Winner, U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Creative Collaboration; U.S. Dramatic Jury Award for Directing
In a rapidly-changing San Francisco, hospice nurse Jimmie (Jimmie Fails), enabled by his pal Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), daydreams of reclaiming his family’s old Victorian home from luxury real estate’s maw. When the opportunity to squat there arises, he seizes it. It’s a fleeting act, one that allows Jimmie to have the life he should have, if only for a fortnight. Called a “funny, poignant, personal and a rage-filled valentine to a metropolis” by Rolling Stone, The Last Black Man in San Francisco shares its frustrations with major city natives across the country.
Talbot took a gamble by crafting a narrative about a rapidly gentrifying city. The San Francisco of pre-production in 2015 was destined be an entirely different beast than the one of post-production in 2019. Envisioning a way to make the city look, sound, and feel contemporary required the insight that, fortunately, only locals like Talbot and Fails could possess. “It’s this random ode to the city, full of little stuff that everyday San Francisco residents go through. We know how it’s all changed — the good and the bad of it,” Fails told Filmmaker Magazine in 2015.
Midnight Family (dir. Luke Lorentzen)
Winner, U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematography
In Mexico City, private ambulance companies provide a disproportionate amount of the capital’s medical transportation service—and even those, such as the one run by the Ochoa family, struggle to keep up with the demands of a metropolis lacking public health infrastructure. Called “exhilarating but never sensational” by Exclaim!, Midnight Family, Luke Lorentzen’s vérité effort, captures the adrenaline rush of this resourcefulness.
Serving as director, editor, producer, and director of photography, Lorentzen took a chance by being a one-man crew relying on two separate cameras. “One FS7 was mounted on the hood of the ambulance filming the drivers, while I shot in the back of the ambulance with another FS7,” he tells No Film School. “Juggling these two rigs at once was overwhelming and took weeks to properly figure out. The schedule I needed to follow was also very difficult. I was filming from about 3:00 in the afternoon through 6:00 in the morning for weeks on end.”
Midnight Traveler (dir. Hassan Fazili)
Winner, World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for No Borders
The Taliban put a price on Hassan Fazili’s head after his regime-critical documentary aired on Afghan national television. Capturing his family’s aftermath, this time on a trio of smartphones, felt all too natural. Midnight Traveler’s border-crossings, interspersed by Fazili’s meditations on asylum, capture a familiar journey in a new light and underscore the inefficiency of present-day EU immigration policies.
Fazili’s story is rife with risk and bravery, took countless leaps of faith to preserve his recordings. “The first major hurdle was handling how to hand off the footage that the Fazili family was shooting while on the run and moving through different countries. In most cases, Emelie arranged contacts in each country who would meet them, copy the footage off their SD cards onto a hard drive, and mail the footage to me in the U.S.,” producers Emelie Mahdavian and Su Kim tell No Film School. “In Hungary, they actually sent the footage out using mobile data that we topped up remotely because they were unable to leave the camp where they were being held.”
Selah and The Spades (dir. Tayarisha Poe)
Teenage world building at its finest, Tayarisha Poe’s first feature probes five elite boarding school cliques that support their student body’s five basic needs: cheat sheets, gambling, parties, public relations, and drugs. Senior classman Selah (Lovie Simone), alongside her long-time friend Maxxi (Jharrel Jerome), run the latter enterprise. In this lush ivory tower space that The Hollywood Reporter calls “so well-crafted that it’s quite easy to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride,” Selah begrudgingly passes her torch along to adoring sophomore, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor).
For Poe, risk was tied to the hands of the production clock. “There was never enough time, but you had no choice but to make the time that you had work for what the story needed. it took a lot of positivity, willingness to experiment, and trust in one another, but we made it work! Every single day and overnight,” she tells No Film School. “I’m extremely proud of this team for that.”