Slamdance 2021 Review: Holy Frit

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

75/100

Who knew stained glass could be so interesting? Justin Monroe’s documentary tells the story of artist Tim Carey and Judson Studios who were commissioned by the Church of Resurrection in Kansas City to craft a 400,000 sq foot stained glass window which would be the largest installation known to date. In this process, I developed an entirely new appreciation for the art of glass making, the history industry that is over 1000 years old, and the personal growth that occurs when an artist discovers and reinvents himself.

In this doc, we learn about the history of glass making of the 120-year LA based glass making Judson Studios and the artists who work there. Our “protagonist” is Tim Carey who is the lead artist on the stained glass window commission. Even though I am not an artist I really identified with Tim who had these conflicting notions of perfectionism and impatience about his work and purpose as an artist. It was also a story about a man who underestimates himself and the need of words of affirmation to carry out his work.

This story about innovation relied heavily on a remarkable stained-glass master called Narcissus Quagliata. Tim, Narcissus, and the rest of the team at Judson Studios had a seemingly impossible task at hand; they had 24 months to complete 161 stained glass panels that would form the installation. Time wasn’t on their side. Traditional stained glass window techniques where single-color glasses pieces were individually bound together by lead would not be possible. Instead, they incorporated a new fusion glass staining technique that would allow them to fuse together multiple colors into a single piece of glass.

You will need to watch the documentary to see the final result. In the end, this was a story about finding your light through art and innovation. It was this passion for art and the commitment of the artists that possibly saved a dying industry and one of the last stained glass studios in the US who’s commissions increased after the Church installation. To quote Narcissus, “this window is going to be part of the history of glass.” I, for one, think they successfully accomplished this goal.

Recommended.

Holy Frit Trailer

Buy a ticket to see Holy Frit at the Slamdance 2021 Film Festival

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

Sundance 2021 Interview: Jonathan Snipes Composer/Sound Designer of ‘A Glitch in the Matrix’

Interview by Anna Harrison

Jonathan Snipes’ Website: http://jonat8han.com/

A Glitch in the Matrix takes audiences on a journey through science and philosophy to examine the theory that humans live in a simulation and the world as people know it is not real. It is a documentary style animated horror and composer Jonathan Snipes emulated the theme of the film into the score. Jonathan was inspired by 90s electronic beats and used those throughout the music. Beyond being the composer on this film, Jonathan also held the role of sound designer, sound supervisor, and re-recording mixer. Jonathan is also a longtime collaborator of Hamilton and Blindspotting star Daveed Diggs, through their freestyle rap group Clipping, and produced other Daveed tracks including Rappin Ced in the credits and album of Pixar’s Soul and Disney’s Puppy for Hannukah song. Alongside his work in film, he also works extensively as a theater sound designer, especially in Los Angeles’ Geffen theater. He also teaches a course on sound design in UCLA’s theater department.

A Glitch in the Matrix Trailer

A Glitch in the Matrix played as an official selection of the Sundance 2021 Film Festival. It has been released on VOD by Magnolia Pictures and is also available through Virtual Screenings.

You can read Anna’s review of A Glitch in the Matrix or you can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd and her website.

Sundance 2021 Review: A Glitch in the Matrix

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

A Glitch in the Matrix starts off by examining an idea that’s been bandied about for years and viewed with varying amounts of skepticism: what if we live in a simulation à la The Matrix? The film heavily features Philip K. Dick’s lecture in 1977 wherein he declares we are, in fact, living in a simulation, a weighty declaration from one of the foremost science-fiction oriented minds. Elon Musk and other bigwigs pop up with soundbites, but A Glitch in the Matrix focuses most of its time on ordinary people—some with families, some without; some with advanced degrees, some with high school diplomas—who happen to subscribe to this theory. 

Director Rodney Ascher playfully obscures the faces of many interviewees with animated, mechanical masks, complete with creaking and scraping sound effects provided by sound designer and composer Jonathan Snipes that toe the line between diegetic and non-diegetic. (The film possesses a level of self-awareness that many within it do not.) We never get to see the expressions of those interviewed, but they lay bare their souls as they describe the metaphysical experiences that led them to believe in the simulation theory. Ascher rarely judges; he simply lets the speakers speak, often accompanied by extensive animations of their narratives and underlaid with appropriately eerie music, though there are moments when the viewers—and speakers—are brought back to reality. At one point, an interviewee’s dogs start barking, completely breaking the immersion and giving a much-needed moment of levity.

The first half of the film is interesting enough, if not that groundbreaking aside from the largely-animated style. The second half, however, examines a question I have not often seen brought up alongside the simulation theory: if we are in a simulation, then our actions should have no real consequences, and so what does that mean for our morality? How do we relate to other people?

Here, the film gets more intriguing and more harrowing, especially as we hear Joshua Cooke speak calmly of murdering his adoptive parents at the age of 19 while believing he was inside the Matrix. Yet many of the others interviewed, strange as it may sound, took the apparent lack of consequences in a simulated world and went in the opposite direction, wanting to “level up” for the person controlling them, concerned more with doing good than running amok. Several admissions turn out to be unexpectedly touching.

This is A Glitch in the Matrix at its best: engaging at a personal level with those interviewed, discussing the why over the what. Unfortunately, this is largely delegated to the back half of the film, but while we have to wait awhile before getting to the heart of the matter, it turns out that the heart, simulated or not, beats quite strongly.

A Glitch in the Matrix Trailer

A Glitch in the Matrix is now available everywhere

You can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd and her website

Sundance 2021 Review: Homeroom

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

75/100

Homeroom editors Kristina Motwani and Rebecca Adorno are recipients of the Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award presented at the Sundance 2021 Film Festival.

SYNOPSIS: Director Peter Nicks has spent more than a decade chronicling life in Oakland, CA through the lens of its diverse public institutions, revealing deep insights into some of the most consequential chapters of recent American history. The third and most personal in a trilogy of vérité portraits [The Waiting Room (2012), The Force (2017)], Homeroom follows a group of high school seniors in the tumultuous school year ending in Spring 2020. At centerstage is Denilson Garibo, one of two Student Directors on the Board of Education representing the 36,000 students in the Oakland Unified School District. A year derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic and rocked by the na/onal trauma of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, Homeroom celebrates the tenacity of today’s youth. Confronted with crisis after crisis and coming of age in a chaotic world has not instilled pessimism, but a galvanizing determination to make change.

REVIEW: The kids are going to be alright! This might be a cliché conclusion but it was the overwhelming sensation I felt when I finished watching Homeroom, the finale of Peter Nicks’ trilogy about the great American city of Oakland, CA. In this documentary, we followed the senior class of 2020 at Oakland High School as they navigated the 2019-2020 academic year. Nicks’ documentary is well crafted and shines a light on the confounding problems Black and brown people face in the country.

These problems include, but are not limited to, a financial crisis, a housing crisis, an education crisis, food insecurity, police brutality, gentrification, COVID, an impeachment trial (the first one), and racial equality protests. We see all these crises and events unfold through the eye of high school students, particularly the members of the All-City Council Governing Board Student Union, as they fight against budget cuts and increased police presence in their schools. The students showcased in the documentary showed grit, determination, and conviction in fighting for what they believe in. In fact, I’d even go as far as saying they are much more grown-up than the school board members and elected officials that are supposed to represent them.

At its core this documentary is about the power of youth and the voices that they bring. It tells the story of Oakland but I am sure that it could be translated to many other American cities. One thing that a really appreciated is that Nicks’ did not make COVID19 the focal point of this piece instead integrated the story of the pandemic into a larger narrative about what was happening in the students’ lives. I would have really loved to see name cards pop-up when students were introduced because oftentimes I found myself forgetting their names as the documentary progressed. This small issue aside, this documentary was a good snapshot of the moment we are living in.

Recommended.

Homeroom played during the Sundance 2021 Film Festival and is currently awaiting distribution.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

90/100

SYNOPSIS: Over a career spanning more than 70 years, Rita Moreno defied both her humble upbringing and relentless racism to become a celebrated and award-winning actor. Born into poverty on a Puerto Rican farm, Moreno and her seamstress mother immigrated to New York City when Moreno was five years old. After studying dance and performing on Broadway, Moreno was cast as any ethnic minority the Hollywood studios needed filled: Polynesian, Native American, Egyptian and so on. Despite becoming the first Latina actress to win an Academy Award for her role as Anita in “West Side Story” (1961), the studios continued to offer Moreno lesser roles as stereotypical ethnic minorities, ignoring her proven talent.

Beyond the racism she experienced as a Latina actor, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” will explore the lesser-known struggles Moreno faced on her path to stardom, including pernicious Hollywood sexism and sexual abuse, a toxic relationship with Marlon Brando, and an attempted suicide a year before she won her Oscar. The documentary will demonstrate Moreno’s talent and resilience as she broke barriers and paved the way for new generations of artists by refusing to be pigeonholed and fighting for Latinx representation in a variety of genres.

REVIEW: Rita Moreno is a legend! What other way can you describe a woman who won an Emmy, Oscar, Tony, Grammy, Presidential Medal of Freedom (2004), National Medal of Arts (2009), and Kennedy Center Honors (2015), and Peabody Award (2019)? All these accolades do no justice to the magnitude of the woman. While production-wise the documentary wasn’t remarkable, her story was. Told through a series of vignettes from the likes of Norman Lear, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Justice Sotomayor, Eva Longoria, Whoopi Goldberg, Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, and countless playwrights and producers.

Rita is a trailblazer. Born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, she came with her mother to the US during the Great Depression. From an early age, Rita loved performing and by age 16 she was the sole breadwinner of her family. After making a connection with the head of MGM Studio, Louis B. Mayer, she got a contract and 6 months moved to LA. This transition was not without struggle. People were not nice to her at MGM, she was sexualized, and set up on fake dates to raise her profile. She was also typecast, her skin darkened, and always played the “island girl”. Reflecting on this part of her career she stated that she went along with it at first but, soon after, it started to hurt and took an incredible toll on her self-image and self-worth. At another point, she mentioned how she wanted to turn down these parts, but that’s all she was offered, and she needed the money to survive.

The documentary also details more personal aspects of her life like her relationship with Marlon Brando and her agent who raped her. She reflected that she had so little self-worth at the time that she continued letting him be her agent. This particular moment of the documentary is intercut with images of the trial Christine Blasey Ford and introduces us to Rita Moreno the activist. Rita Moreno is a pro-choice activist. She almost participated in atomic disarmament marches and sat 15 feet away from Dr. King during his famous “I Have Dream Speech” at the March on Washington.

All this is not enough to describe her remarkable career Rita was in Singing in the Rain and got a chance to see Gene Kelly perform live. Rita Moreno is, truly, Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It. Icon, legend, trailblazer do not do justice to explain what, as a Latina, Rita Moreno means to me. Year and year again trade publications and research papers discuss the under-representation of Latinos in Hollywood. The 2020 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report states “Latinos’ share of lead acting roles was 6.6% on scripted broadcast shows, 5.5% in cable and 4.0% in digital in 2018–19. Among all TV acting roles in the past two years, Latinos’ best representation was in broadcast shows during the 2017–18 season, but even then, they made up just 6.4% of casts.” This is infuriating because the lack of Latino representation in Hollywood is a mirror to the under-representation of Latinos on the US job market in general, even though they make up roughly 17% of this country’s population.

After reading this if you still have any doubts about how kick-ass Rita is go watch her Oscar acceptance speech (an all-time great I might add. Even though she doesn’t agree.) or watch her sing Fever on the Muppets (which won her an Emmy), or that time she re-wore her 1962 Academy Award dress to the 2018 Academy Awards. I could talk about her all day.

All I can do is say thank you, Rita Moreno! Thank you for paving the way for a Latina girl like me. Showing me that women can do anything.

Director Mariem Pérez Riera’s Statement:
The first time I interviewed Rita, I had prepared a series of questions about the biggest moments of her career. As soon as she started speaking, I immediately saw myself reflected in her answers. It was as though I was speaking to a therapist who understood exactly what I had been through. I related to all she was saying: her stories about discrimination, the insecurities she felt because of the way others perceived her, the complicated love relationships, and the constant need to work three times harder to prove to others that she is worthy. It was at that moment when I realized that this movie was not just a biographical documentary of Rita’s life, but a story about all the women who feel alone as they struggle to assert themselves in a patriarchal society rooted in white supremacy.

While listening to her stories I constantly questioned the American Dream. To what extent are we willing to pay the price? Fifty years ago, Rita lived through hardships and experiences that unfortunately many women continue to endure, including myself. So I decided to shift the documentary’s focus to the courage, transformations, and highs and lows of a brave immigrant woman trying to overcome discrimination, hatred, and humiliation. A woman who when speaking about herself, speaks to and for a lot of us.

My goal with this documentary is to show what an amazing inspiration Rita is to all of us. In order to do this, it was important for me to capture Rita’s vulnerable and fragile side when she’s off-stage or off-guard. This is why one of the aesthetic decisions of the documentary was to follow Rita in a verité camera style. We see Rita in her daily life, without makeup, in pajamas, preparing her breakfast, or driving, doing her own hair and makeup, or setting out decorations for her own birthday party.

To me, a biographical documentary should do more than to tell important events in chronological order, it should move you emotionally, and make you feel like you actually know the subject personally. The decision behind every location for all the interviews was highly important to me, as I wanted the space, the environment, and the ambiance to capture Rita’s soul. I selected “vintage” spaces where Rita’s friends and colleagues could be interviewed. The decorations, the colors of the furniture, the warm light for example, should resemble Rita’s taste in some way, and be reflective of a space Rita would decorate for herself.



Another aspect I wanted to explore was Rita’s inner child, Rosita. To capture the duality of Rita and Rosita, I decided to use stop motion animation with paper dolls. These dolls were very popular during Rita’s childhood, and they embody the little girl who has been molded through clothing to “pretend” to be what the outside world wants her to be. Rosita/Rita was accustomed to behaving like a doll with no expression, obliged to accept any garment that is placed on her.

Music also plays a key role in this documentary. In addition to jazz as the basis of the score, the incidental music has many meanings, and I am very grateful to have included my ‘wish list songs’. Songs by Fania All Stars, La Lupe, and Rafael Hernandez’s “Lamento Borincano”; all these songs relate directly and indirectly with Rita’s story.

During the final steps of the editing process, while looking for a song to close the documentary, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”, performed by Nina Simone, came to mind. This song, that at the time of its creation became a hymn of the Civil Rights movement, resonates to me like a hymn to Rita’s life. This song, that at the time of its creation became a hymn of the Civil Rights movement, resonates to me like a hymn to Rita’s life. One could ask, how much would she have accomplished if she didn’t have all the limitations (“the chains”) thrown at her because of her race and her gender?

These lyrics take on another meaning when we hear them through the voice of Nina Simone at the end of Rita’s documentary. It helps us understand what it feels like to be Rita, to be an immigrant woman — “who decided to go for it” — despite society’s gender and racial expectations. Rita has finally liberated herself from all those chains that were holding her, she has finally expressed how it feels to be her, and now in her late 80’s Rita is finally able to be herself; flying through her greatest self. Rita’s voice becomes the voice of inspiration of every woman, especially of every immigrant, Latinx in the USA.

Recommended. 

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It is currently playing the Sundance 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

Sundance 2021 Review: Rebel Hearts

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

85/100

 

SYNOPSIS: During the 1960s, a tight-knit group of progressive nuns in Hollywood discarded their habits and gleefully oversaw a radical women’s college grounded in social activism. Spearheaded by sisters Anita Caspary, Helen Kelley, and Corita Kent (also a renowned pop artist), Immaculate Heart College ensured women received degrees at an unprecedented rate and crested a tidal wave of social change that engulfed the nation. But as the nuns marched on Selma and transformed the education system, they incurred the wrath of the archbishop of Los Angeles and, with him, the church’s entrenched old guard.

With a mixture of defiance and joy, Rebel Hearts reveals one of the biggest religious showdowns of the twentieth century, which pitted a delightfully noncomforming group of feminist nuns against a powerful patriarchy insistent on female subservience. Pedro Kos’s euphoric and essential documentary reveals a groundbreaking sisterhood that not only flipped the bird—politely—at the Catholic Church’s brazen misogyny but, through their teachings, fundamentally reshaped American society.

REVIEW: “Changing is what keeps us growing.” Rebel Hearts directed by Pedro Kos is one of those rare festival gems. Featured in the US Documentary Competition this movie tackles religion, feminism, and the patriarchy through animation, archival and current day footage. As a Catholic and women’s college graduate the stories of the Sisters at Immaculate Heart College, in Los Feliz, CA,  Rebel Hearts spoke to me on a very personal level.

The women featured in this documentary are the epitome of kick ass. From the get go these women were out to challenge the patriarchy and what it meant to be a nun. Many of them said they joined the convent as a way to get out of marriage and as a means to obtain education. Along the way they received a fierce push back from Cardinal McIntyre when decried the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary for promoting liberalism and straying away from their vows. In his words, “they were becoming way too modern”. This doc exposes the past and present unsavoriness of the Catholic Church.

It also discusses the radical change brought about by Vatican II. The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary welcomed these changes because it “encouraged them to explore new ways of living”. They used this opportunity to form commissions to discuss changes in religious ways of life and take agency on their own life as women and Sisters. These Sisters marched with Dr. King in Selma, AL, had lunch with Coretta King, protested the war in Vietnam, supported reform to the labor conditions of farm workers, and endorsed the abolishment of the death penalty. Throughout this process they learned about the cause of justice, peace, and social activism.

The Sisters were arrested many times and they were okay with that. They claimed that “if you really think something is wrong it is important to put your body on the line” and that they did. This culminated with their participation in the 2017 Women’s March among other protests like defending DACA and putting an end to human trafficking. They argued that protest with joy has the power to transform everyone that’s a part of it. Following the dispensation of their vows the former Sisters still continue being an active part of the Los Angeles community. Their passion for justice is what drives them and it continues to this day.

Recommended.

Rebel Hearts Interrogation Clip

Rebel Hearts is currently playing the Sundance 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

Sundance 2021 Review: Ailey

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

75/100

Editor’s Note: NEON has made it’s second acquisition at the Sundance Film Festival with Jamila Wignot’s Ailey. Described as the moving and intimate portrait of dance legend Alvin Ailey. The film debuted on Saturday to both critical and audience acclaim, being celebrated for its sensorial, rich story that traces the full contours of this extraordinary artist’s life and his connection to the present dance company that bears his name.

SYNOPSIS: Alvin Ailey is one of the most important choreographers in the history of modern dance. In 1958, at just 27 years old, he founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Ailey’s vision was of Black bodies unshackled and overflowing with feeling: Confidence… sorrow… joy… pride… beauty… possibility.

Ailey is a sensorial, archival-rich story that traces the full contours of this extraordinary artist’s biography and connects his past to our present with an intimate glimpse into the Ailey studios today, where we follow innovative hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris as he conceives a new dance inspired by Ailey’s life.

Using never-before-heard audio interviews recorded in the last year of his life, we experience Ailey’s astonishing journey in his words, starting with the textures of his childhood in Jim Crow Texas. Raised by a single mother who struggled to provide, Ailey knew hardship, but his life was rich with culture and love. He brings us into his world of blues and gospel, juke joints and church. And he tells us about the blush of young love and the awakening of his gay identity.

Ailey’s story is one of sacrifice. Possessed by his ambitions, he dedicated himself to his company. He endured racism and homophobia; addiction and mental illness; and the burden of being an iconic African American artist. In 1989, he tragically succumbed to the AIDS epidemic.

Thirty years later, Ailey’s dream lives on. Where other modern dance companies were built to showcase their founders, Ailey saw his own as bigger than himself. Throughout his rich journey, our film interweaves Rennie Harris’ present-day rehearsal process to show the enduring power of Ailey’s vision. In Harris’ creative process, Ailey comes alive for a whole new generation: His faith in the transformative power of dance, his grand embrace, his expression of complete freedom.

Review: A beautiful film by Jamila Wignot who showcases Black joy through the life and legacy of legendary choreographer Alvin Aliey. Through archival footage, testimony from friends and colleagues as well as his own commentary we get to learn more about Alvin Ailey the man. Fundamentally Aliey’s art was about the Black experience and he was never afraid to say so. 

The documentary showcased how his childhood, in Texas, influenced by blues and gospel was part of his genius. Ailey often said that “blood memories” were the anchor for his dance. These “blood memories” were part of his history and the history of his parents and his parents parents and so forth. This is just a fraction of what Ailey was able to capture in his choreographies. Ailey was also a trailblazer. Who saw a future in dance when he was 12 and saw Katherine Dunham dance in LA. It was the first time he saw a Black dancer on stage and that touched something in him and he just knew his future. 

Ailey’s story was not without struggle and he kept a part of it hidden. He often talked about the physical, emotional, financial, and personal sacrifices dancers have to make in the process. But hid his AIDS related illness. Ailey struggled with the idea of being known as a Black choreographer. Ailey simply wanted to be a choreographer and showcase all the aspects of his genius and not just what the industry expected of him. He described his creative process as bringing movement into an empty space. Ailey certainly accomplished this and spoke truth to power through movement. 

What he did was universal and reverberated across the United States and outside of these borders. It was pure magic! Ailey’s choreography opened the world up to who he really was showcasing Blackness and Black joy. His goal was to search for truth in movement and this documentary showcased that he achieved his truth. 

Director Jamila Wignot’s Statement:

Nothing prepares you for the experience of Ailey—the emotional, spiritual, aural, and visual overwhelm the senses. As a filmmaker, I am drawn to stories about artists like Alvin Ailey—innovators who tenaciously follow their own voice and in doing redefined their chosen forms. Ailey’s dances—celebrations of African American beauty and history—did more than move bodies; they opened minds. His dances were revolutionary social statements that staked a claim as powerful in his own time as in ours: Black life is central to the American story and deserves a central place in American art and on the world stage. A working-class, gay, Black man, he rose to prominence in a society that made every effort to exclude him. He transformed the world of dance and made space for those of us on the margins—space for black artists like Rennie Harris and me.

I am inspired by subjective documentary portraits like Tom Volf’s Maria by Callas and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, and by the poetic cinematic approaches of films such as Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. My aim was to blend these influences into a sensorial, poetic documentary portrait.

Recommended.  

Ailey is currently playing the Sundance 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

Sundance 2021 Review: All Light, Everywhere

Written by Taylor Baker

94/100

SYNOPSIS: ALL LIGHT, EVERYWHERE explores the personal and philosophical relationships between cameras and weaponry. Once again, as in his acclaimed debut feature RAT FILM, director Theo Anthony roots his inquiry in Baltimore, a city that has long been a testing ground for new policing technologies.

Using the rise of police body cameras as a point of departure, Anthony creates a kaleidoscopic portrait of our shared histories of cameras, weapons, policing and justice. Moving from the 19th century, where the nascent art of photography went hand in hand with colonial projects and the development of automatic weapons, to the headquarters of Axon, a company with a near monopoly on body cameras in the United States, Anthony charts a long view of the relationship between photography and violence. His narrative encompasses abstract explorations of the nature of perception and concrete examples of how the limitations of that perception are weaponized.

All Light, Everywhere presents this authoritarian use of photography without ever losing sight of the medium’s potential to subvert. Anthony’s self-reflexive style makes room for both ambiguity and the sublime, employing verité, performance, and archival research to frame and reframe, underline and undermine. The film stands as a rebuke of the very images it uses to construct its argument. All Light, Everywhere orients the viewer toward a more democratic approach to the image, forsaking the illusion of certainty for a shared journey towards truth.

REVIEW: Broad but narrow, specific but all encompassing, personal but private. Solar parallax, Taser-Axon Body Cameras, optic nerves, eugenics, the operant observer effect, pigeon cameras, the history of photography, Charles Darwin’s cousin, anthropomorphism, constitutional rights — how does one properly begin a review of a film with so may facets? I think with it’s own words. A quote from one of the dozens of lines it has that would define any other picture. But in a film as unique as All Light, Everywhere they simply make up it’s marrow and in a film centered on images it’s astounding that all of it’s narration is worthy of quotation.

“The eye only sees in each thing that for which it looks, and it only looks for that of which it already has an idea.”

Alphonse Bertillon

Theo Anthony’s All Light, Everywhere marks his third project since his 2016 tour de force Rat Film. He edits as well as directs, using Dan Deacon’s evocative score to great effect. In the beginning of the film we are greeted by the smooth voice of narrator Keaver Brenai. Brenai almost reassuringly chimes in as the film builds and elucidates thought provoking realizations in conjunction with troubling facts and historical technologies that expand not only your way of thinking about sight, recording, and images. But the way those pieces of photographic technology have been curated and at points exploited to attack, denigrate, and falsify claims against races, soldiers, and types of individuals.

Theo introduces us to the Axon Technologies Headquarters and shows us, the viewer the process of setting up the choreography with our presenter, walking through the steps to ensure the lighting is correct and the scene is a fluid movement. Presented almost straightforwardly as a bit of corporate marketing. It’s only as the film progresses and these choices and the spoken lines that our guiding executive declares offhandedly that you see the genius of not only the inclusion of these moments with Axon but their pacing. Foreshadowing a critical moment later in the film in which Baltimore citizens and community representatives debate the merit and legality of a new “god’s eye” technology, high above their city recording everyone.

This “god’s eye” technology uses twelve cameras attached to a plane to capture a live feed of whatever is beneath the aircraft. In this case it is the city of Baltimore, which also served as the subject of Baltimore based photographer/director Theo Anthony’s Rat Film. We come to learn that this technology was previously in use for some weeks without the Mayor of Baltimore knowing. This is at once a monumentally disconcerting moment, but also just another brick of grievances in the wall that Anthony has been building. One can feel a clear connection to the black drop effect shown to us earlier in the film in which we learn of an optical phenomenon visible during the transit of Venus that makes it appear to have a liquid-type surface. During this scene a casual line of great implication is shared with us “the act of observation, obscures the observation.”

This off the cuff statement at once beckons one to think of the Hawthorne Effect. Something many budding Psychology Students often learn as the “Operant Observer Effect”. In which one is taught that the very act of observation has a multi-variant effect on that which is being observed. A quick example to consider this idea is to imagine a child at play who knows a mother or father is watching. This also applies to particles in physics observations and has been attributed in many fields of thought in between. Though these claims have on occasion been disputed by some as ‘placebo effect’, knowing that discourse only enriches the film. Knowing that Anthony is playing this bit of insight against us the viewer as well.

In the end All Light, Everywhere is an enriching documentary with great consideration and thought. There’s a slow zoom in on an ugly cartoon-ish face of a dummy that Axon Technologies is testing their weaponry on, cleverly invoking the viewer to reconsider what importance there might be to the faces that our policemen and women target while training with their weapons. There must be a consequence to practicing shooting at specific types of things, mustn’t there? There’s many things that beg deeper inspection and engagement, but after one viewing in the middle of the festival this is as far as I feel I can dive adequately without a rewatch and some more time to research many of the specific points and references within the project.

DIRECTOR THEO ANTHONY’S STATEMENT:

All Light, Everywhere is a film about vision and the power to frame perspective. The project is a natural outgrowth of my first two films, Rat Film and Subject to Review. In Rat Film, I was trying to understand the history of Baltimore through the maps and the power of the mapmaker. In Subject to Review, I tried to understand how power manifested itself through a tool like instant replay. All Light, Everywhere brings together these investigations, focusing on the intersection of cameras, weapons, policing and justice.

I look for subjects that can be latched onto as a vector across time and place, subjects that have contradictory or ambiguous meanings and make strange bedfellows of those who attempt to define them. It’s a process of constant curiosity, exploration, and iteration. I try to move with an understanding that a film doesn’t need to be distilled to a takeaway, that a film and the process of making it can be a proposal, a hypothesis, a gesture to how things can be, rather than how they are.

I believe that concepts are only effective insofar as they connect to the concrete. In my films I want to advocate for a practice that encircles ideas, peoples, and stories into a configuration that not only refracts a greater truth about the nature of their relation, but also lays bare its blueprint, accessible to disassemble and rearrange. I approach documentary with a recognition of the manufactured construct of the medium, and I hope to use that artifice to shed light on arbitrary frameworks masquerading as objectivity. A pursuit of a truth that acknowledges the impossibility of ever arriving, and attempts to make peace with its own failed agenda.

All Light, Everywhere is currently playing the Sundance 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow Theo Anthony’s career at his website.

Sundance 2021 Review: Sabaya

Written by Taylor Baker

86/100

SYNOPSIS: Guarded by Kurdish forces, 73,000 Daesh (ISIS) supporters are locked up in the Al-Hol Camp in northeastern Syria. Considered the most dangerous camp in the Middle East, it is situated amidst a volatile political and military reality where Daesh is still omnipresent. Five years ago, Daesh killed thousands of Yazidis in the Sinjar province of Iraq and abducted thousands of Yazidi women and girls to be held and sold as sex slaves – called Sabaya.

In this film, Mahmud, Ziyad and other volunteers from the Yazidi Home Center rescue the Sabaya, who are still being held by Daesh in the camp. Continuously phoning, smoking and sometimes bickering, Mahmud and Ziyad systematically prepare their missions and know exactly who to look for, and where. Often accompanied by female infiltrators – some of them former Sabaya – and armed with nothing but an old mobile phone and a small gun, they travel to the camp in an inconspicuous van. Once there, mostly by night, they must act extremely quickly to avoid potential violence.

In this observational film, directed, shot and edited by acclaimed Swedish/Kurdish director Hogir Hirori, we experience first-hand the strong contrast between the tense situation in the camp and the comfort of daily life at home. Under the loving care of Mahmud’s wife, Siham, and his mother, Zahra, it might take a long time for the young women to heal, but perhaps one day the traumatized girls will also be strong enough to become brave female infiltrators themselves, helping to rescue even more Yazidi Sabaya from the claws of an ideology that tolerates nothing but itself.

REVIEW: In Sabaya Hogir Hirori harrowingly documents the events of one small group of dedicated and compassionate individuals rescuing kidnapped children being held by extremists as sex slaves. Some of these children have been held as Sabaya for 6-7 years thus aging into early womanhood. Each time we venture in the Al-Hol camp there’s a dread inducing sense of danger. All it takes is one person tipping off an ISIS member for everything to go horribly wrong and this group of everyday heroes to be brutally murdered.

There are many moments of trepidation and terror in Sabaya. In the middle of the night a fire is set by ISIS burning the families crops, thus removing the only income our central family earns. What feels unique and accentuates Hirori’s filmmaking is that that fire feels almost less palpitating than a drop in cellphone signal, or when Mahmud receives a call instructing him to wait until an infiltrator can be certain that she’s identified a kidnapped Kurd. These moments juxtaposed to the delicate moments of Siham and Zahra(Mahmud’s Wife and Mother, respectively.) assisting the rescued girls disrobe from the niqab and abaya that they’d been forced to wear in the Al-Hol camp.

In a film about such a serious situation and topic it’s hard to find an appropriate way to discuss Hirori’s cinematography. But I would lament ending this review without mentioning the moving way he captured images. From the claustrophobic night time cinematography in Al-Hol, a car chase with roadside fires after a successful rescue, to Siham and Zahra pushing water from the storm out of their home. There are dozens of small beautifully captured moments. One of my favorites is when a rescued Sabaya who is only seven years old is laying down outside on a steel platform. To the left of the platform there is a large pile of laundry and to the right there’s more laundry, then the laundry stirs, and you notice it’s not laundry it’s the rescued seven year old girl wearing nonrestrictive clothes laying under the sky. It’s a small but beautiful moment, in a film decorated by many such moments.

If you’re unfamiliar with the topic, this documentary serves as a very holistic boots on the ground view of what is happening.

DIRECTOR HOGIR HIRORI’S STATEMENT:

Growing up as a Kurd in Northern Iraq my whole childhood was plagued by war and persecution because of my Kurdish ethnicity. My family lost everything and we constantly had to flee our homes. Life was full of hardships, but at least we had each other. I always wished I had a camera back then, to document the injustice my people were subjected to. Since then I have left the country and settled down in Sweden. But still, 20 years later, war, unrest and oppression prevail in my home country. With Sweden now as my home base, I have had the opportunity to go back to document the fate of the Yazidis, a religious minority of Kurds. Through history, the Yazidis have endured and survived countless genocides as they have tried to uphold their own religion. In August 2014, the Yazidis became victims of a genocide by Daesh (ISIS) in its campaign to force them to convert to Islam. This has led me to make a trilogy of documentaries, to show the real consequences of war, and the raw and unretouched fate of the Yazidis in Northern Iraq – The Girl Who Saved My Life in 2016, The Deminer in 2017 and now Sabaya.

Life in the Sinjar province where most Yazidis live was completely destroyed when Daesh attacked in 2014. Families were shattered, men killed, and women and girls kidnapped and held captive by Daesh as so called Sabaya (sex slaves). Daesh believes it is their right to use them as slaves because of their religion. I felt I had to document these cruelties, so in 2018 I packed my camera again and traveled this time to Syria to try to find out anything I could about the Sabaya. There, I met Mahmud and Ziyad, from the non-profit organization The Yazidi Home Center, who worked day and night to try to save the hidden Sabaya in the dangerous and infamous Al-Hol camp in North East Syria. I decided to follow their work and make a documentary.

Sabaya is a film about those who risk their lives every day to save others. It is a documentary about the intolerable and unacceptable consequences of war, about abuse and suffering, but also about humankind and compassion, second chances in life and new beginnings.

Sabaya is currently playing the Sundance 2021 Film Festival.

Sundance 2021 Review: President

Written by Taylor Baker

70/100

SYNOPSIS: Zimbabwe is at a crossroads. In the first election since the removal of Robert Mugabe, the new leader of the opposition Nelson Chamisa is challenging the dictator’s corrupt legacy, and his successor Emmerson ‘the crocodile’ Mnangagwa. The election will be the ultimate test for both sides. How they interpret the principles of democracy, if they can inspire trust among the citizenry, not succumb to violence, and foster faith in institutions, will set the course for the future for the country. President is a riveting and epic reminder that, while specifics may differ, the fight for democracy is of universal relevance.

REVIEW: President follows the Electoral Campaign of Nelson Chamisa. An aspiring public representative in Zimbabwe. Who has big plans to reclaim natural resources from foreign investors, participate in a free and fair election, and unite people forward. In the beginning you think it’s a dream that may be achievable. We see scenes of Chamisa listening to concerned citizens and leading large rallies then it quickly descends into to a tale of election fraud and tampering. We hear mention of the threats of the ZAFU PF. Which stands for Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front. A political party that has ruled in Zimbabwe since 1980. A concern that will soon prove to be foresight.


Chamisa receives a death threat and is forced to go underground shortly after casting his vote. Following a lengthy process with Chamisa and his team pressuring the ZEC (Zimbabwe Electoral Commission) to provide fair ballots and a united front against ballot stuffing. I’m sure you can guess it doesn’t go well, based on the pattern you’ve read thus far. At one point a man on Chamisa’s team chimes in that “Winning the election isn’t hard, claiming victory is.” What proceeds is a discussion about the difficulties in claiming victory without the Military eliminating them, violently. Unfortunately their worries are apt.


Nothing quite says an election may be rigged than when you’re watching foreign experts or advisors answer questions about the legitimacy of a nations election. This feeling is amplified when those individuals don’t answer the questions posed to them. Shortly after this press conference with foreign officials we start to see military beatings, and watch protestors and ordinary citizens caught in the crossfire of the military. We see a soldier point his gun down a crowded street and kneel. Firing into the fleeing citizens for close to 15 seconds. The other soldiers around him are firing “warning shots” into the air. This snapshot best explains the pain and sadness that President slowly walks us down during it’s runtime.


I wish it didn’t so deeply remind me of Armando Iannucci’s 2016 film The Death of Stalin. In which an incompetent party waddles around maintaining power and not knowing what is actually happening. Though it looks different in President than it did than it did in The Death of Stalin the similarities are too close to ignore. It morphs again into a legal battle to prove election fraud, while we hear stories of police beatings, rape, and killings. President doesn’t have all the answers, but it shows evidence of such veracity that you can’t deny it’s questions.


Recommended.

President Trailer