Sundance 2021: Five unmissable documentaries, from Flee, Summer Of Soul to The Sparks Brothers

Rounding up our week-long escape to the virtual Sundance, here's a selection of five unmissable documentaries.

Prahlad Srihari February 09, 2021 08:06:22 IST
Sundance 2021: Five unmissable documentaries, from Flee, Summer Of Soul to The Sparks Brothers

Sundance dished out another high-fibre diet of documentaries this year. The nonfiction showcase screened some 30 films from around the world. Besides the standard issue-driven films, the line-up included a time capsule of a forgotten cultural festival, a fanboy profile of a cult band, and many a chronicle of life as a teenager. Some stuck to a vérité approach. Some opted for hybrid forms that blurred the distinctions between fiction, non-fiction and genre.

The wealth of documentaries at the festival meant we couldn't catch all of them, but we caught enough to know which films will drive the conversations in the months to come. While this year may not have generated instant "masterpiece" buzz at par with Time (in 2020) or Honeyland (in 2019), there were many that came close to it. Rounding up our week-long escape to the virtual Sundance, here's a selection of five unmissable documentaries.

Flee

Sundance 2021 Five unmissable documentaries from Flee Summer Of Soul to The Sparks Brothers

A still from Flee by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Danish documentarian Jonas Poher Rasmussen examines the unfathomable human cost of Middle East's refugee crisis in a way the news ticker crawling below screaming TV anchors cannot ever capture. A gay Afghan refugee recounts the story of his family's escape from the Mujahideen to Moscow before finding refuge in Denmark. When we meet Amin Nawabi (name changed to preserve his anonymity) as a young boy, we see him in his sister's dress running around Kabul with unfettered joy to a-ha's "Take on Me". When the Anil Kapoor on his sister's playing cards and the Jean-Claude Van Damme on his room's poster winks at him, you realise he's becoming aware of his budding sexuality. But things change overnight as the Taliban take over the country, his father is presumed killed, and the family must flee to Moscow. There, corruption and bureaucracy of post-Soviet Russia impede their plans to migrate to Sweden, where his older brother had fled years before. Rasmussen reconstructs Amin's memories with hand-drawn animation, interspersed with news footage where necessary. In its abstractions, animation offers the perfect device to piece together the traumatised workings of a fractured consciousness, especially from a distance of 20 years. It also affords Amin the anonymity he needs. More importantly, Flee doubles as couch therapy for Amin as it gives voice and image to a truth long-buried. 

At The Ready

Sundance 2021 Five unmissable documentaries from Flee Summer Of Soul to The Sparks Brothers

A still from At the Ready by Maisie Crow, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Maisie Crow's new documentary is a thought-provoking inquiry into the generational changing-of-the-guard in law enforcement — and all the qualms that come with it — under Trump's reign. Ten miles from the US-Mexico border in El Paso is Horizon High School. Like many schools in Texas, Horizon offers teenagers a program to fast-track a career in law enforcement. Supplied with tactical gear and fake guns, these students are given practical training in drug busts, active shooter and hostage rescue operations. Crow follows three Mexican-American students from this after-school program: Cristina, a 2018 graduate who has just joined US Border Patrol; Kassy, a senior who wants to join its tactical unit; and Cesar, a senior who wants to become a Customs officer. As Cristina takes her first step towards her "dream career," Kassy and Cesar train to face off against other high schools in the Border Challenge Competition. From the iMovie-cut recruitment video to the repeated promise of gainful employment, we get a snapshot of how American youth are being indoctrinated into a law enforcement culture to ensure they conform to its belief system when they come of age. For Cristina, Kassy and Cesar, skepticism begins to creep in when their president vows to deport immigrants and build walls. It turns into shock when the immigration policy endorses the separation of thousands of children from their parents. With family ties across the Mexican border, these students realise a career as a Border Patrol officer or an ICE agent does not insulate them from these terrible circumstances. If they choose to continue down their career path, how will they negotiate and reconcile allegiance and identity when it's not simply a matter of individual choice? 

Cusp

Sundance 2021 Five unmissable documentaries from Flee Summer Of Soul to The Sparks Brothers

A still from Cusp by Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Also set in Texas but in a much smaller town is Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt's stark portrait of the minefield that is teenage life. Trying to navigate it without stepping on any landmines are three 15-year-old girls: Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni. The documentary crew are invited into their inner circles, as the girls spend their summer break drinking and partying. But when they are by themselves, we hear troubling accounts of being molested by family friends, and being pressured into sex by older boyfriends. Soon, you sense a pattern to a plague which isn't local or arbitrary, but entirely systematic. If you look at parties as a concentrated microcosm of such a society, this cultural affliction becomes clear when one of the boys says, "It's not rape if they're both intoxicated." Hill and Bethencourt chronicle the lives of these young girls so organically and tenderly that by the end they have empowered them with the kind of intimately realised profiles you wouldn't find in the most sobering of teen dramas.

The Sparks Brothers

Sundance 2021 Five unmissable documentaries from Flee Summer Of Soul to The Sparks Brothers

A still from The Sparks Brothers by Edgar Wright, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jake Polonsky.

Edgar Wright (director of musically rich films like Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver) hosts a symposium, convening the who's who in the worlds of music, cinema, literature and art to share their common love for a beloved band: Sparks. The cult pop duo, often referred to as the "best British group to come out of America", gets an affectionate tribute in a decade-spanning account of their rise and fall and rise again. We go on a journey that begins in 1960s Los Angeles, where brothers Ron and Russell Mael grew up, to the recording of their 23rd studio album Hippopotamus (their 24th, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, came out last year). Archival footage, animated interludes and anecdotes (from former bands members to current) sketch their life behind-the-scenes. Contemporary musicians like Flea, Beck, Jack Antonoff and "Weird Al" Yankovic fondly remember Sparks' formative influence on their work. Neil Gaiman, Patton Oswalt and Amy Sherman-Palladino among others too drop by to weigh in on their favourites. For fans of the band, the film presents a rare opportunity to hang out and geek out over one of the most overlooked bands in music history. Wright's film is marked by the same virtues that embodied Sparks themselves: it's a shape-shifting beast with a winning sense of humour.

Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Sundance 2021 Five unmissable documentaries from Flee Summer Of Soul to The Sparks Brothers

A still from Summer Of Soul (Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Mass Distraction Media.

If there was a revolution but no one saw it on TV, did it really happen? In a study of Black history erasure, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson unearths never-before-seen footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival, which ran almost in parallel to Woodstock in 1969. The musical extravaganza featured performances from some of the greatest Black artists: BB King, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, and Sly and the Family Stone. Yet, few people have heard of it. In the wake of its 50th anniversary, Questlove captures a time and place that has so far lived only in the memories of festival attendees. These men and women recount stories of Black Panthers providing security in the police's absence, and relate the joy of watching their favourite musicians. Though many of these performances have been condensed in a two-hour documentary, all the musical icons get their moment in the spotlight. In 1969, the Black community was still reeling from the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. As one of the attendees notes, the "goal of the festival may very well have been to keep black folks from burning up the city." Tapping into the zeitgeist and turning their gaze inward, these musicians gave voice to a new Black consciousness.

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