Sundance Dispatch #3
A handful of new films ascended at Sundance at the festival’s midpoint. Earlier this week in Park City, Ira Sachs’s strikingly observant and powerfully insightful new film, Little Men, along with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson and Sara Jordenö’s Kiki emerged as highlights of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Sachs has been coming to the festival since he was a kid. The son of a local, he attended his first Sundance at the young age of 14. Since he started making movies back in the Nineties, nearly every single film Sachs has directed (including The Delta, Keep the Lights On, and Love Is Strange) has premiered here. His latest, Little Men, is the quietly poignant study of the lives of a pair of teenaged boys. Besties in Brooklyn, the kids spend a lot of time bonding and hanging out at each other’s apartments, all the while imagining that they will go soon attend LaGuardia High School together to pursue their respective arts. The young Anglo kid, Jake (Theo Taplitz), is a burgeoning painter while the Latino teen, Tony (Michael Barbieri), hopes to pursue acting.
As in other recent films by Sachs, real estate and gentrification play a key role. In this case, Jake’s family has inherited a building in which Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina Garcia), has a small dress shop. The harsh realities of modern New York City life confront the families when Jake’s landlord parents realize that they will be forced to evict the other family’s business unless the struggling shopkeeper can commit to a higher monthly rent.
Sachs said this week that he was thinking about films such as Mes Petites Amoureuses by Jean Eustache, George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient, and Ken Loach’s Kes when imagining how the teens in his new movie might resonate with viewers.
“I tried to find kids who would stick in your memory and somehow remind you of being young,” Sachs expressed thoughtfully during a post-premiere Q&A.
“This film was very personal,” he elaborated, noting its intention to explore how New Yorkers live together today. The father of young twins, Sachs noted that while conceiving of the film, he was thinking a lot about the ideals and complicated choices that can come with raising a family and the pressing question: “How to be good parents and how to take care of the people we actually love.”
Ira Sachs and his spouse, painter Boris Torres, are co-parents of twins with cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, who herself had a new film—the exceptional documentary Cameraperson—debut at Sundance this week. Johnson’s essayistic work, expertly wrought and openly personal, is a standout of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Early on in Cameraperson, the cinematographer’s visual memoir of her 25 years shooting documentaries for filmmakers in locales all around the world, the screen reveals a vast Bosnian landscape. Her camera jerks slightly as Johnson’s hand intervenes in the frame to adjust a weed in the foreground. In the following shot, somewhere in the United States, Johnson’s lens is trained on another landscape, clouds gathering in the distance. Suddenly a lighting bolt flashes and cracks. Johnson gasps.
These human interruptions remind us of the presence of a person behind the camera and over the course of the film reveal more and more about that person. In the many outtakes and moments from numerous films that comprise her extraordinary and emotional new documentary, we witness some of the scenes that Johnson experienced over nearly three decades and observe the often delicate dance between her and the subjects within her view. Johnson’s camera has created images in numerous documentaries, including CITIZENFOUR, The Invisible War, Fahrenheit 9/11, The Oath, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, and Two Towns of Jasper.
Sequences and scenes in Cameraperson, her directorial debut that premiered earlier this week, assembles footage shot in Brooklyn, Bosnia, Nigeria, and even unnamed locations domestic and overseas with Laura Poitras. Shots are brought together to illuminate ethical questions addressed by a documentary photographer in the heat of the moment and also to offer insight about what it means to photograph and to be photographed.
“The thing about being a DP that’s really extraordinary is that you get to drop into a location and experience the vividness of it, but you don’t have to experience the anxiety of being a director,” Johnson noted. “But this film, it wasn’t so much anxiety, it was like a mystery to me to understand what I had been through and what I was trying to communicate. So it emerged in this form that was unexpected to all of us.”
Watching Cameraperson, you find yourself pondering the interplay between Johnson and those whom she is shooting. The aforementioned ethical questions arise in many scenes. Should she zoom in to reveal the gruesome images about to be revealed by a lawyer expressing a passionate defense of his deceased client in front of her? Should she put down the camera and stop shooting two young children who seem to be innocently playing with an ax? How should she document the early moments of life for an infant, born in a rural hospital, but who is having trouble catching the first breaths of life?
“These ethical questions that I think about almost every moment that I am shooting populate this film. I wanted to make this film now because I feel like I am the old school,” Johnson explained after the film’s first screening here at Sundance. “I feel like we are all now camerapeople. We all have a phone in our pocket. We are all making choices about when we film, we are all making choices about what we look at. I made the choice to film many things in this film where you can see me on the cusp as I search, but I think we are all, as a world, now searching for how to deal with the imagery that is overpowering us in so many ways.”
It’s been 25 years since Jennie Livingston’s landmark documentary about New York’s ball culture, Paris Is Burning, was the big winner at the Sundance Film Festival. The film, a vital and vivacious look at the lives of young, queer, and trans kids of color facing harsh realities in an unaccepting, conservative Reagan/Bush era, was awarded the Grand Jury Prize here in 1991. This year, Livingston was in the audience when Swedish filmmaker Sara Jordenö’s unveiled Kiki, her documentary co-written with ballroom dancer and LGBTQ activist Twiggy Pucci Garcon about the next generation of Harlem ballroom dance.
Bursting with the pulse of the emphatic, high-energy dance scene that it documents, Kiki is also alive with the attitudes of the bold, outspoken people of color it profiles. The bright and competitive dance contests are contrasted with the sometimes painful and challenging personal environments that the film’s subjects are struggling to navigate.
Just as Livingston’s Paris Is Burning about the 1980s ball scene (on the cusp of Madonna’s mainstream hit, “Vogue”) followed in the footsteps of Frank Simon’s 1968 documentary The Queen about a Manhattan drag pageant, Jordenö and Garcon’s documentary adds to the ongoing story of marginalized queer and trans life in New York City.
Today, federal government funding backs the balls and houses of New York’s LGBTQ community. They serve as crucial networks for outreach and support of queer youth facing HIV, teen suicide, inadequate health care, police brutality, and underemployment.
Chi Chi Mizrahi dancing at Tuesday’s Kiki party. Photo by Jim McAuley
Our community is on very intimate terms with death,” we hear from Gia Marie Love, a trans woman who faces persistent discrimination and ongoing rejection. It is while dancing and interacting with the sisters and brothers of her chosen family—her house—that she reveals a smile and busts fierce dance moves.
At the premiere on Tuesday night, Twiggy Pucci Garcon emphasized the importance of a film like Kiki.
“Our stories need to be told as public health advocates, as community leaders, as human beings,” Twiggy Pucci Garcon said.
Last year, Sundance celebrated Paris Is Burning with the premiere of a restored print as part of its Sundance Collection series, and so to have a new film at Park City about the next generation of ballroom dancers and their community was a fitting festival moment.
Reached after the screening, Paris Is Burning director Jennie Livingston, at Sundance for meetings about her next documentary, Earth Camp One, was supportive of Sara Jordenö’s film. Reflecting on what has happened in queer culture over the past 25 years, via email, she shared that Kiki builds on the legacy of films and TV shows that showcase black and latino LGBT characters and reflects a sense of empowerment in the community that didn’t exist when she started filming the ballroom scene in 1986.
“Films do help change the world, by opening up a space for conversations, for identities, for activism, and ultimately, for more nonfiction films and for more fictional characters,” Livingston added. Appreciating the reactions she continues to receive in her travels with Paris and also noting the bonds between her film and Kiki, Livingston said: “I totally enjoyed it and am chuffed they were programmed.”
In Kiki—the title is a nickname for the current ball scene—Garcon and best friend Chi Chi Mizrahi stage a dance on the site of the former Rockland Palace, a Harlem landmark that was once the venue for drag balls in the 1920s into the early ’30s. They did the same on Tuesday night in Utah, taking over the comfy Kickstarter House on Main Street in Park City to host a ball for locals and festival attendees.
The spirited soiree, with tunes by Qween Beat (composer of music for the documentary), had the packed, converted storefront bursting with music and dance until the wee hours. The celebration welcomed Salt Lake City’s queer community, and Mizrahi vowed that he would return to bring the kiki scene to locals.
Before stepping out onto the Sundance stage to perform a dance for the cheering audience earlier in the evening, Mizrahi added that he and his community have come a long way from the world depicted in Livingston’s Paris Is Burning at Sundance a generation ago, but he added that he and his house family will do whatever they can to share their own experiences and opportunities with more and more kids who need support.
“Ballroom has healed us, and we feel it can heal other people,” Twiggy Pucci Garcon said.