Sundance 2023: From a Distance
This article appeared in the February 2, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
The Tuba Thieves (Alison O’Daniel, 2023). Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Derek Howard.
On the second day of Sundance, the value of open captioning at film festivals was demonstrated when a caption device given to juror Marlee Matlin, who is Deaf, failed during a screening of Elijah Bynum’s Magazine Dreams. Variety’s report of the incident states that some filmmakers “declined the request to provide open captions onscreen, citing the costs and time associated with making another print.” Bynum later clarified that he never objected to open-captioned screenings. The more salient fact, it seems, is that no one pushed for them, which exemplifies how established festival and distribution practices, which treat captions as an afterthought or “last step,” hinder the implementation of accessibility measures beyond the bare minimum, leaving disabled attendees with no options should things go wrong.
Attending Sundance online, I was removed from the conversations and activities that can only happen in person. However, viewing films virtually lets me bypass access barriers like the one Matlin faced. I could enable captions directly on screen without needing finicky, uncomfortable-to-use CaptiView devices, and avoid the concentration fatigue that would surely be engendered by navigating noisy social gatherings. As is often the case, I was caught between being overwhelmed by the exhausting immediacy of the hearing world and remaining out of sync with it. For better and worse, this strange state of desynchronization was my main impression of the festival.
Some films noticeably had extra effort put into their captions, such as Fox Maxy’s Gush, which employs elements of horror to comedic effect. A furiously edited, chopped and screwed video diary spanning a decade, it’s an arterial spray of clips about seeking companionship, maintaining back channels of gossip, and engaging in ceremony and celebration as strategies for surviving the violence of relationships and the film industry. A video-game logic permeates its montage, externalizing inner physical and emotional states through stock GIFs and animations of skeletons, bits of viscera, blood trails, and spirals that flash on screen like effects showing in-game characters healing or taking damage. The name of every song and remix featured in the film is included in the captions, along with lyrics and sound descriptions. The captions also contain unorthodox touches like abbreviations, slang terms, or symbols in place of words, which complement the visual experimentation of the work.
The built-in open captions of Alison O’Daniel’s hybrid documentary The Tuba Thieves stretch the form even further, sketching out an inventive grammar of Deaf cinema that reshuffles familiar relationships between image, sound, and text. The film fashions Los Angeles into a tympanic urban fabric rippling with the roar of planes, the rumble of traffic, and the beat of marching bands. O’Daniel scores the cacophony with her captions, which may appear backwards or upside-down, and in every area of the frame. Two stories recur like leitmotifs across this city symphony: one involves a Deaf drummer (Nyke Prince) and her boyfriend (Russell Harvard), and the other a teenage drum major (Geovanny Marroquin) affected by a spate of tuba thefts from schools across the county. Through them, we glimpse different notions of what hearing loss looks like. For Nyke, who uses ASL, hearing loss is Deaf gain, opening up new ways of relating to music. At the same time, Geovanny is effectively disabled without the low, pulsing register of his band that helps him lock in as a conductor.
The Tuba Thieves pokes fun at “avant-garde” explorations of sound which reveal for hearing audiences what d/Deaf/hard-of-hearing individuals have long theorized through their own experiences—for example, that deafness hardly corresponds to silence. One striking scene recreates the 1952 premiere of John Cage’s 4’33” in upstate New York, but instead of staying with the performance, it follows a seemingly unenthused man as he leaves the concert hall to walk in the woods. The scene draws attention to the pretense of the piece itself as an intellectual exercise, needing to be couched within an exclusive and elitist circle of experimental music to be recognized as profound in the first place. To stage this “walkout” of 4’33” is both a realization of its message and a rejection of who gets to deliver it. Knowing Cage’s sensitivity to the liberties taken by interpreters of his work (notably, he reviled Julius Eastman’s outré rendition of his Song Books), I wonder how he’d have reacted to this gesture by O’Daniel. Regardless, she exceeds his provocations. Like Gush, The Tuba Thieves is a conceptually dense film that also succeeds in being playfully pointed and irreverent.
Mary Helena Clark and Mike Gibisser’s A Common Sequence, also a heady essay film, was by comparison a more anodyne offering. The first of its three distinct parts begins with a metaphor for the pursuit of knowledge—a light sweeping the darkness—and follows efforts to conserve the achoque, a salamander endemic to Mexico’s Lake Pátzcuaro and related to the axolotl. The potentially lucrative genomes of both animals have been studied in hopes of harnessing their ability to self-regenerate. The second part jumps to Washington State, where AI-driven precision agriculture is leveraged to produce the perfect genetically engineered apple, picked in the perfect way. Migrant farm workers supply training data, their efficiency and judgment refined over years of labor. The third section delivers a warning about the commodification of genetic material: by extracting biological resources from marginalized groups under the guise of open data initiatives, and feeding this data into the black box of machine learning, the industry threatens to plunge humanity into the night of the film’s beginning—an era of scientific gnosticism in which we no longer understand what we create. Figures from relevant research papers are displayed throughout, marking leaps in scientific visualization from illustration to photography to a form of machine sight expressed algorithmically.
A Common Sequence consists mostly of static or slow-moving shots over which a disembodied voice reads from books, articles, and interviews about the film’s cerebral topics. The loose organization of these elements imitates the aesthetic of a Straub-Huillet film without the characteristic combativeness or particularity, and I wanted it to mount a deeper argument for or against its texts, rather than merely represent them. When a scientist speaks about Indigenous data sovereignty, the slides of his presentation are only briefly shown, as if the filmmakers were more interested in him as a spokesperson for a certain viewpoint than concerned with his research. That said, the montage becomes illuminatingly self-reflexive at times, as in the transition between the first and second parts. The camera pans past a Mexican family discussing why they’ve chosen to stay in their homeland instead of immigrating to the United States; then, the screen fades to black, and we cut to a shot of a glowing, apple-shaped neon sign representing the state of Washington. This abrupt border crossing from Mexico to the U.S. juxtaposes the film’s own mobility with that of the individuals on screen, making us aware that cinema itself is a mechanism for the transfer of data, harvesting images and sounds to be recombined for other purposes.
Erica Tremblay’s Fancy Dance, set on Oklahoma’s Seneca-Cayuga Reservation, takes a more conventional approach to depicting systemic injustices. Jax (Lily Gladstone) and Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) are respectively auntie and niece, and are looking for Tawi, Jax’s missing sister and Roki’s mother. But when child protective services claims that Jax’s criminal record makes her an unsuitable guardian and places Roki with her white grandparents, Jax secretly takes Roki on a road trip, triggering an Amber Alert. Their flight implicates the settler state in the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, underlining how the undermining of tribal authority and child welfare erodes the very communities that can keep women like Tawi safe. Tremblay and Miciana Alise’s script shines in tense scenes, such as when Roki, cornered by an ICE agent, claims that Jax is Tawi, using the fact that Tawi was never formally registered as a missing person to evade arrest. The question of who controls the right to belong—in a house, a family, or a nation—is constantly posed by the film.
Most films I saw shared a desire to shed light on underrepresented social issues, but also felt railroaded by their narratives, which neglected to fully flesh out secondary characters or background details. I kept wanting to see another film like The Tuba Thieves, which allowed its minor, incidental details to breathe, while remaining politically focused and incisive. Sarvnik Kaur’s Against the Tide was just such a film, a documentary portrait of two friends, both Indigenous Koli fishermen in Mumbai, whose ancestral responsibility to live in sync with the sea’s cycles is challenged by the accelerating demands of capital. Like the Sicilian fishing films of Vittorio De Seta, the movie vividly depicts the spaces that make up its subjects’ world: from high-rise apartments and semi-pucca houses to the dockside markets leading to the boats and the sea. One of the fishermen, Rakesh, uses modest vessels and braves intensifying cyclones in shallower waters, while the other, Ganesh, uses powerful deep-sea boats and considers attracting fish with LED lights at night (a practice banned in many parts of India). This divergence is never set up as a simple battle between temperance and greed—Kaur urges us to look at each of their situations on their own terms.
That said, the film does not equivocate between the two men, and in the end, the sea is evidence of their disparities: Umeed Mistry’s visceral underwater cinematography reveals the difference in what they catch, the plastic debris that gets hauled up in the nets, and the ghostly jellyfish floating in the water, portending the collapse of their ecosystem. But even Ganesh realizes how rapidly LED fishing is depleting fish stocks, and Rakesh is confronted with the unsustainability of traditional cyclone fishing, which is becoming unjustifiably dangerous. All of this is arrived at through careful observations of everyday space and time, which also give voice and presence to the men’s families, their fishing crews, and their children, who prompt them to think about a future beyond themselves. These are people who, in a broadcast news headline, might be described as existing on the “front line of climate change,” but their circumstances are not sensationalized or made into neat examples for the rest of us to learn from. The camera follows them, shrewdly and patiently, in a way that feels simply like life.
Emerson Goo is a Deaf writer and film programmer from Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, and a landscape architecture undergrad at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.