Sundance 2023 — Part 2

D. Smith’s documentary Kokomo City flouts all sorts of rules of nonfiction filmmaking. The primary mission of the film is to point the lens at several different Black trans women who make their living as sex workers and allow them to share their observations. They tell their stories, sharing hardships and triumphs that are familiar to anyone who has taken the time to listen to members of their community in recent years. What feels especially new is the confident expression of personal philosophies shaped by their experiences.

Smith slips past the reporting of incidents to try to get at, and really, truly understand, who these women are but getting a grasp on their worldviews. Daniella Carter is especially impressive, demonstrating that developed experience as a commanding thinker and speaker translates to any setting, including her own bathtub. As further expression of this instinct for upending expectations, the director also assembles the film with a commitment to dynamism, employing occasional obvious recreations and other bold visuals in a way that feels like a proper reflection of the fraught, ferociously alive space these women create. Kokomo City recalls Questlove’s Summer of Soul in the ways it hints at its maker’s background as a musician: The film moves to a wild, wondrous rhythm all its own.

Written and directed by Nigerian filmmaker C. J. Obasi, Mami Wata is based on African folklore about a water spirit. The deity is used by Mama Efe (Rita Edochie) as she rules over a humble village, her biological daughter, Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh), and adopted daughter, Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen), by her side. Trouble literally washes up on the beach in the form of Jasper (Emeka Amakeze), who soon draws on his experience as a conscripted soldier in a rebel army to indulge in some warlord machinations. Obasi gives the film the ethereal drift of fable, accentuated by the start, gorgeous visuals shot by cinematographer Lílis Soares. There are times when the energy of the narrative sags a bit, but the striking look of the film always compensates.

Deeply intimate, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a documentary about an Estonian tradition of women gathering in a smoke sauna to bond in the humid heat of the confined space. Director Anna Hints gets astonishing access as the women share fears, hopes, histories, secrets, and the truest selves. As if operating in determined empathy with those on the other side of her lens, Hints gives the film a lulling, calming tone that makes it all the more potent when sensitive subject matter is broached, which happens frequently and movingly. The context that Hints finally shares at the end of the film might have been provided at the beginning. Without undercutting the immersive qualities of the film, it would accentuate the understanding of just how meaningful the experience is for those who open their hearts in the heated haze.

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