Sundance 2023 — Part 1

My most reliable of reliable sources on the ground in Park City, Utah reports that the first in-person staging of the Sundance Film Festival since 2020 was a full return to the halcyon days of old in at least one respect: The place was absolutely buried in snow. Among the details I remember from reading and watching countless interviews conducted at the yearly celebration of cinema back in the nineteen-nineties, when I arguably coveted a seat at one of those screenings most fervently, was the awestruck, slightly fearful comments from California-based filmmakers when recounting their experiences with that January snow and cold. The weather apparently hadn’t provided such an endurance test in quite some time, so I’m strangely moved that nature provided a nostalgic underscore to the festival’s homecoming.

More than it did for many of its peer festivals, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything for the Sundance Film Festival. After going one hundred percent online in 2021, Sundance organizers decided they would maintain a virtual component moving forward. I was afraid that understandable piracy concerns would lead to attrition of offerings when boots were again traversing Park City streets, but films not offered in both physical and digital spaces are the exception rather than the rule. So for the third straight year, sundancing we did go in our household. A small timing blunder on our part meant the broader access we paid for the prior two years was no longer available when we secured our tickets, so we decided to opt for the package that provides a closing-weekend chance to see the films that snagged awards at the festival. Our household viewing fate was in the hands of Marlee Matlin, W. Kamau Bell, their fellow drawers of the best jury duty that U.S. has to offer. All in all, it worked out just fine.

Largely by happenstance, we started our two previous homebound Sundances with documentary features. This year we formally made it a tradition by starting with Beyond Utopia, directed by Madeleine Gavin. The film depicts the extreme efforts required of those attempting to defect from North Korea. Through a connection with Pastor Seungeun Kim, who is based in South Korea and has made helping North Korea refugees a major component of his life’s work, Gavin is able to get incredible footage, including extensive video of one particular family as they make the harrowing journey to freedom. Although the documentary is partially built like a thriller, it avoids sensationalism because of of Gavin’s deep commitment to clearly conveying the relevant history, cultural weight, and grave stakes at play. A title card at the beginning of the film asserts that nothing shown was recreated (a few unneeded but not terribly intrusive instances of animation are an obvious exception), and that simple statement of fact reverberates as staggering tests of human endurance play out within the frame. Beyond Utopia is one of those very rare films that left me shaken, encouraged, and informed in roughly equal measure.

Gavin’s documentary is structured in familiar fashion, with talking-head interviews spread throughout to help contextualize the complexities. Against the Tide hews closer to the Frederick Wiseman model of assembling documentary footage with a minimum of accompanying explanation, which explains its collection of a special jury award for vérité filmmaking. Directed by Sarvnik Kaur, the film explores the Koli community of Mumbai, who make their livings by fishing in the waters off the coast of Mumbai. The experiences of two friends who are at opposite ends of the spectrum of scale — one modestly takes his small boat into shallow waters close to shore, the other is running a small company taking on debt in pursuit of big paydays — are contrasted to show the range of impacts of mounting challenges to this longstanding way of life. Kaur meticulously and shapes the narrative of the documentary so stealthily that powerhouse moments, such as a visit to a medical clinic or the grudging adoption of a loathed technology, feel like they emerge with the mysterious inevitably of lives lived rather than concocted precision of filmmaking technique. It’s that moving commitment to truthfulness that gives Against the Tide its resonant power.

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