By Peg Aloi
These three Sundance films provided very intense viewing experiences. One of them has already won a prestigious festival prize. All will have wider releases soon, so keep an eye out for them.
At Shaunak Sen’s anything that breathes was one of the first movies I chose to see on the program because it was about urban wildlife rescue. It’s a breathtaking documentary that follows Saud and Nadeem, two brothers who run a bird rehabilitation center out of the garage of their humble home in New Delhi, India. When they were little, they loved to watch huge kites fly overhead. Now they are dedicated to rescuing these scavenger birds, helping them when they are injured and sick. Among the dangers hanging over these local birds: many of them fall from the sky, overcome by the toxic fumes of the city’s pollution, and are injured during their fall. Poor air quality also affects humanity. The brothers’ family members comment on this threat, as well as other challenges faced by those who live, amidst poverty and overcrowding, in a majestic but struggling city. The thoughtful movement of the camera across the landscape is a perfect counterpoint to the soft-spoken brothers as they go about their daily lives, working at jobs they don’t love, but doing their best to save the birds as they dream of a better future for all. (Winner: World Cinema Jury Grand Prize: Documentary)
God’s country is a thriller set in Montana. Cassandra (Thandiwe Newton) mourns the recent death of her mother, sorting through her belongings, enjoying the peace and quiet of the rural home where she was a caregiver for the past few years. When two hunters enter his property, his polite request to park elsewhere is met with rudeness and their encounters continue to escalate. Meanwhile, her job teaching writing at the local college has its share of difficulties, not least because she is one of the few women of color to teach there. A new assignment on the hiring committee is fraught with pitfalls and insincere compliments.
Cassandra’s department manager lives down the road and isn’t much help in the hunter’s situation, which makes her feel uncomfortable. There is only one sheriff (Russian doll‘s Jeremy Bobb) assigned to a wide geographic area, so there’s not much hope he’ll convince hunters to give up their increasingly threatening behavior. Cassandra tries to show compassion for these men whose lives are not easy, but their ingrained toxic masculinity proves to be a towering obstacle. There are some terrific performances here, especially from Newton as a woman pushed too far. Julian Higgins’ self-assured debut is a disturbing look at the prejudice and cruelty that can exist in the most beautiful places.
Located in 19and century Macedoniayou won’t be alone is a brilliant debut from Australian-Macedonian filmmaker Goran Stolekvski. A witch known as Old Maid Maria (Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca, in a delightful role) tries to take a baby girl from her mother, but her mother makes the witch agree to wait until she is 16 . The child is raised in a cave for his own protection, watching the weather and animals and seeing almost no one. When Maria keeps her promise, the teenager is also turned into a witch and begins an unusual journey that finds her inhabiting the bodies of different people.
The newly created witch narrates in a soft, breathy voiceover, using impressionistic language she learned herself in the cave, which is beautifully rendered via the film’s English subtitles. The casting conceit is smart, using a range of different actors to portray the witch through her various incarnations, including Noomi Rapace and Alice Englert. This film is an unspeakably beautiful meditation on nature and the fleeting quality of human existence, even though it contains scenes of brutal horror. You won’t be alone haunted me more than any other film at the festival, with its dreamlike imagery and bizarre story, both fairy tale and existential epic.
Then comes the criticism of Descending, My old schooland porcine.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for boston phoenix and Fellow of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes about film, television and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Restlessness, microphone, Orlando Weekly, twisted marqueeand Bloody disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.