Before Sundance Film Festival organizers made the omicron-driven choice to cancel all in-person screenings in their longtime home of Park City, Utah, they were already one of the organizations that determined there was value in building a slightly different event in the years ahead. Virtual screenings were always drawn into the blueprint for the 2022 edition of the preeminent showcase of independent cinema, and I suspect attending from the comfort of one’s own couch will be an option for many years to come, maybe permanently. As a longtime coveter of the Sundance experience, I’m grateful that this version of the digitally connected infrastructure now reaches my gleaming television.
Further ado is unnecessary, methinks. Let’s get to the movies.
In a stroke of good fortune, Fire of Love was an ideal selection to kick off this year’s headlong sprint through new features. Directed by Sara Dosa, the documentary is built around archival footage featuring, and often shot by, Katia and Maurice Krafft, married volcanologists who did most of their work in the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, gaining renown for their daring study of active volcanoes. The older footage is often incredible, capturing the startling, daunting power of enraged planetary structures (it’s no surprise that National Geographic Documentary Films opened their checkbook to make the fest’s first significant acquisition). The real achievement of the film is in the way Dosa uses it, infusing a lively spirit that matches that of her subject, who come across as joyfully engaged with the scientific field and endearingly amused by their own mythmaking. In one key segment, Dosa acknowledges the the touch of artifice to the old footage — multiple takes of Katia looking tuckered out while in the field, for instance — which gives a jolt of added authenticity to the whole work. Fire of Love is a marvel.
Comparatively conventional, Descendant nonetheless has impressive scope in addressing longstanding injustices based on race. The Clotilda was a slave ship that arrived in the waters outside Mobile, Alabama more than fifty years after the U.S. government legally prohibited the continued importation of human beings to be the working property of rich white men. The vessel was deliberately sunk to conceal evidence of the crime, and the documentary is partially about the ongoing search for the wreckage and the complicated feelings that emerge from it. More pointedly, director Margaret Brown artfully exposes the ways in which the persecution of a people continues for generation upon generation, manifesting in the perpetuated wealth of an oppressor class that callously — and lucratively — harms residents of a community with industrial pollutants and encroaching infrastructure. There’s some staging that doesn’t quite work (I could have done with fewer scenes of people pensively walking through the wounded environs), but the overall message is vital. Whether through reparations or some other reckoning, a suitable answer for an large group’s immorality is yet to arrive.
The feature directorial debut of Alejandro Loayza Grisi, Utama puts its focus on an elderly couple (Jose Calcina and Luisa Quispe) living in the drought-stricken Bolivian highlands, where the wells are drying up and the farm animals are ailing. The storytelling is admirably delicate, tracing generational conflicts with care. The familiar fundamentals of the plot are given refreshed relevance by the specificity of the setting and the people within it. Working with cinematographer Barbara Alvarez, Loayza Grisi conveys the harsh beauty of the landscape, which in turn emphasizes that every line on the characters’ faces has been hard-earned, medals for persevering in a hard existence.