These films and artists tell the truth. Those were the words John Cooper, Director of the Sundance Film Festival, used to describe this year’s slate. These films and artists tell the truth.
We’re inclined to agree.
Of this year’s 112 titles, Cinereach is honored to have supported the production of 7 Sundance debuts. Each of our grantees’ films are unique cultural capsules that make no compromises: they are defined by unblinking, honest storytelling from the borders, the margins, the counterculture, and even the mainstream. From Penny Lane’s cheeky documentary on the importance of separation between church and state to Tayarisha Poe’s clever narrative take on the high school ecosystem, we’re drawn to bravery and openness in film.
Whether you’ll be in Park City for the Festival or there only in spirit, here are the truth-tellers you’ll want to keep tabs on this winter — and in the seasons to come.
World Cinema Documentary Competition
Director: Petra Costa
Producers: Joanna Natasegara, Shane Boris and Tiago Pavan
Once a nation crippled by military dictatorship, Brazil found its democratic footing in 1985 and then, in 2002, elected a hugely popular political disrupter: steel-worker-turned-activist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Under his watch, 20 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty, and his country rose to international prominence. In 2010, “Lula” passed the presidential baton to his prodigy, a fierce female guerrilla named Dilma Rousseff.
But beneath their sunny legacy, rumblings of populist rage and institutional corruption seeped into the mainstream — much of it abetted by a partisan judge who fed news outlets sensational, deeply flawed corruption reports that targeted Lula, Dilma, and anyone else who refused to scratch the backs of powerful politicians and special-interest groups.
With remarkably intimate access, The Edge of Democracy follows Brazil’s embattled leaders as they grapple with a scandal born out of their country’s fascist past and inflamed by a furious and ideologically divided nation. Like a great Greek tragedy, Petra Costa’s film carries a potent warning: Brazil’s crisis is one that is shared — and fomented — by Western superpowers run by equally treacherous political forces.
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Penny Lane
Producer: Gabriel Sedgwick
What kind of religious expression should be permitted in a secular nation? Holy hell, something is brewing! Just a few years old, the Satanic Temple has risen from the depths to become one of the most controversial religious movements in American history. Hail Satan? bears witness as the temple evolves from a small-scale media stunt to an internationally recognized religion with hundreds of thousands of adherents. Naked bodies writhe with snakes on altars as protesters storm the gates of state capitols across the country. Through their dogged campaign to place a nine-foot, bronze Satanic monument smack dab next to the statue of the Ten Commandments on the Arkansas State Capitol lawn, the leaders of the temple force us to consider the true meaning of the separation of church and state.
Brandishing their sharply honed cinematic swords, director Penny Lane and producer Gabriel Sedgwick strike a cunning balance between cheeky, brazen entertainment and defiantly serious storytelling in this wickedly topical documentary that bares its horns to speak truth to power.
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Liza Mandelup
Producers: Bert Hamerlick, Sacha Ben Harroche, and Hannah Reyer
Austyn Tester — handsome and 16 — feels oppressed by the confines of life in his small hometown in Tennessee. But in the online-streaming world, Austyn is adored by thousands of young girls, all eager for his “likes,” his attention, or just to hear him say their name. For Austyn and many like him, a big enough fan base could mean a ticket out of rural America and into a new life of wealth and fame — quite the undertaking when you’re coming of age.
Austyn is a rising star in the live-broadcast world, a postmillennial digital phenomenon that lets streamers engage with millions of people in a heady mix of fantasy, teenage desire, and (occasionally) genuine real-life positivity — all of this as they search for authenticity and connection. Austyn may be separated from his fans, but the emotions his viewers feel are just as real as anything we feel “IRL.” Jawline delivers us into this burgeoning online world as Austyn is discovered by a manager and sets off on a U.S. tour to build his following and make his dreams come true.
U.S. Dramatic Competition
Director: Joe Talbot
Producers: Khaliah Neal, Joe Talbot, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, and Christina Oh
Jimmie Fails has one hope in life: to reclaim the majestic Victorian house his grandfather built. Every week, Jimmie and his only friend, Montgomery, make a pilgrimage across San Francisco to Jimmie’s dream home and imagine what life would be like if this neighborhood had never changed. When they realize the house’s current owners have moved out, Jimmie decides to recreate the home his family once had. As he struggles to reconnect with his family and reconstruct the community he longs for, Jimmie’s domestic aspirations blind him to reality.
Director/co-writer/composer Joe Talbot makes an astonishing feature debut, transfiguring one man’s intimate despair into a timely story that questions who has a rightful claim to a city’s identity. Inspired by the real-life story of Jimmie Fails, who plays a fictionalized version of himself, The Last Black Man in San Francisco elegantly engages with a loss of cross-cultural connection as one individual seeks belonging in the new incarnation of his hometown.
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Luke Lorentzen
Producers: Kellen Quinn, Luke Lorentzen, Daniela Alatorre, and Elena Fortes
With striking vérité camerawork, Midnight Family drops us directly into the frenetic nighttime emergency ecosystem of Mexico City. In the midst of high-speed ambulance rides, we meet the Ochoas, a ragtag family of private paramedics, who try desperately every day to be the first responders to critically injured patients.
In a city where the government operates only 45 emergency ambulances for a population of over nine million, the family acts as a crucial — but unregistered — underground lifeline. But the job is riddled with police bribes and cutthroat competition. And even though the Ochoa family has a reputation for being trustworthy, they must reckon with the sudden escalation in bribes that could force them to wade into the ethically questionable practice of making money off of patients in dire straits.
Midnight Family maintains a breathless speed and urgency throughout. The camera is always exactly where it needs to be, capturing the intense textures and thrills of rides and rescues until, with each repetition, a subtextual story emerges — of a family and a society under profound financial and moral duress.
World Cinema Documentary Competition
Director: Hassan Fazili
Producers: Emelie Mahdavian and Su Kim
In 2015, after Hassan Fazili’s documentary Peace in Afghanistan aired on Afghan national television, the Taliban assassinated the film’s main subject and put a price on Fazili’s head. Fearing for their survival, the Fazili family fled Kabul for Tajikistan. Yet after 14 months spent submitting asylum applications that were rejected again and again, they were deported back to Afghanistan. It was at this juncture that Fazili picked up his cell phone and hit the record button.
Chronicling every step from inside the action, Fazili, his filmmaker wife, and their young daughters trek across Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Serbia — scurrying through perilous landscapes, huddling in freezing forests, cramming into rattling vehicles. As they endure smugglers, gangs, and refugee camps, the camera witnesses not only the danger and desperation but also the exuberance and tenderness of this irresistible, loving family. For Fazili, framing their story becomes an assertion of control, humanity, and self-expression in a situation where none exists. With its radical subjectivity, visceral footage, and poetic form, Midnight Traveler is a migration story like no other.
Director: Tayarisha Poe
Producers: Lauren McBride, Drew Houpt, Lucas Joaquin, Tayarisha Poe, and Jill Ahrens
Selah and The Spades was produced in association with Cinereach.
In the closed world of an elite Pennsylvania boarding school, the Haldwell, the student body is run by five factions. Seventeen-year-old Selah Summers runs the most dominant group, the Spades, with unshakable poise, as they cater to the most classic of vices and supply students with coveted, illegal alcohol and pills. Tensions between the factions escalate, and when Selah’s best friend/right hand Maxxi becomes distracted by a new love, Selah takes on a protégée, enamored sophomore Paloma, to whom she imparts her wisdom on ruling the school. But with graduation looming and Paloma proving an impressively quick study, Selah’s fears turn sinister as she grapples with losing the control by which she defines herself.
In her feature debut, writer/director Tayarisha Poe immerses us in a heightened depiction of teenage politics. This searing character study encapsulates just how intoxicating power can be for a teenage girl who acutely feels the threat of being denied it. Exciting newcomer Lovie Simone’s performance beautifully embodies both Selah’s publicly impeccable command and the internal fears and uncertainty that drive it.