Sundance Film Festival is always a great place to see some great documentaries. I always find some great stories told by great storytellers. Real stories that shine a light on the event that history forgot, or that the history writers ignored. My picks for Sundance 2021 include stories of an iconic beloved Latina actress, an author whose work redefined personal narrative writing, and also look at the life of a trailblazing Black choreographer, dancer, and playwright. We’ve included a look at the psychological theory that mass murderers have used to “explain” their crimes, and an intimate portrait of an impressive group of women who have decided to charge of their own narratives. These five documentaries are my picks of festival.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It
My absolute favorite documentary of the festival is Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It. It is her visual memoir, complete with photos, video of performances, and the colorful, engaging storytelling that we love from the actress. Moreno’s story uses her hope and optimism to help dole out the dark moments in doses that the audiences can swallow. She does not skip over the racism and sexism, even sharing a few moments of sexual assault that, as a young woman, she didn’t have the words for.
A common thread in her narrative is this idea of masking herself to become what the people around her needed. Moreno describes how this started as a way to survive and get work in Hollywood, a hostile place for non-white actresses. The behavior developed into a mechanism that she depended on daily, even to the point where she seemed relieved when her husband died, because she could finally be herself. Her development and reconciliation of this masking theme is something that feminism in film has struggled to depict.
Moreno’s documentary explores this topic and more, using some of the film properties that are the pop culture canon in the US. Westside Story, Oz, and now the One Day at a Time reboot. Audiences will love her candid and humorous delivery. Her gift of storytelling is unmatched, making Rita Moreno as much a staple for film enthusiasts as it is for pop culture junkies and anyone looking for the history of women and Latinos in Hollywood. Moreno gives enough historical markers to help fill in the blanks left by most educational docs.
Rating 5 of 5 stars
I watched Ailey on the day the great Cicely Tyson died. Tyson is the first person we see in the opening of the documentary about Alvin Ailey. Ailey was a trailblazing choreographer, playwright, and dancer who eventually had his own traveling dance company and dance studios that influenced so many Black kids in the 80s and 90s. Ailey’s story begins in the dusty rural backwoods of Texas at a time when being Black was tough enough without also being a gay man and an artist.
Ailey works much like Rita Moreno to chronicle the rise off a legend while also documenting the hardships of performing in the US from the 1950s onward. His works captured and were inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, the death of Fred Hampton and more. The film is peppered with clips of Ailey’s own performances and those of this company, creating moments that will have you seeking out those performances. Here is one from Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation. https://youtu.be/UCsv5QlFo2Q
In addition to covering parts of American history that your history class missed (like references to the Green Book for Negro Motorists for safe places to stay on the road), Ailey touches on some important and intimate parts of the man himself. Alvin Ailey was very creative and driven, yet some of his friends discussed a dark side of the man at times. Seeing this intimate portrait humanizes an icon in a way that no other story has before.
Come for the performances and stay as Ailey opens up a history of the arts that is like none I have seen before. Directed by Barry Jenkins, Ailey will be distributed by Neon.
Rating 5 of 5
Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir
Everyone knows either the movie or the story of The Joy Luck Club. I, kike some of you, believed that story was Amy Tan’s autobiography. It was not. The author held back some pretty big stories about her family, some of which she still seems to be reconciling with. Tan’s family, like many other families of color held some pretty big secrets that, when uncovered, create a story that is much darker, yet much richer than she told in The Joy Luck Club.
Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir takes us on a journey narrated by Tan, her cousins, brother, husband, and others who have close relationships with her. She does so in a way that posits her life as a fictional drama, with her mother as the villain in the story. That’s until the first half of the story. That’s when the family secrets open up and we learn that Tan’s mom was the latest victim of multigeneration trauma and violence. The cycle is one that she wants to end with herself.
Through photos, videos, and stories told by Tan and others, we are guided through this drama that often seems too tragic to be true. Tan’s storytelling abilities shine through, ensuring that each new revelation is grounded in the personal. The audience does get a little time to let one thing sink in before another drops. The pace quickens in the second half as reveals become bombs that shake us up with new explosive drop. This is one documentary that will keep the audience’s attention from beginning to end, leaving everyone with something to talk about afterward.
Rating 4.5 of 5
A Glitch in the Matrix
Since the sci-fi film The Matrix released in the late 90s, pop culture has overflowed with “red pill/blue pill” references, as well as theories on this world being “a Matrix”. These notions are taken lightly by many, however, there are a few exceptions. A Glitch in the Matrix takes on the task of explaining “simulation theory”, where it comes from, what it is, and how so many have used the theory to describe some pretty disturbing behavior.
The film uses people who actually believe in the theory enough to where they used avatars in their interviews. The discussion is tough to get into and seems a bit farfetched, especially with the experts we are given. As the film goes more into origins of the theory, it becomes easier to listen. The filmmakers split things up into parts, like chapters, which are supposed to help segment the information and guide the viewer. They end up becoming the buoys that allow us a moment to pause, breathe, and process what we heard.
The tough parts in the beginning are hearing the author of some of our favorite sci-fi stories (Minority Report, Blade Runner, and Total Recall) Philip K. Dick, explain simulation theory as if it were a religion to him. The film get rougher as later, a reenactment of a mass murder is narrated by the murderer as her connects his undiagnosed mental illness with the appeal of simulation theory to him at the time of his crime. There should be a trigger warning for that part alone.
A Glitch in the Matrix is an oddball of a documentary that takes on a tough subject. It is very informational and covers a lot of material. However, it comes off a little too academic at times, which clash with the person narrative of the mass killings and the experts who appear in part animated form. This is not the documentary for everyone, especially those who are survivors of crimes related to this theory in any way.
Rating 3 of 5
Writing on Fire
There is always a film at Sundance that gets me motivated, my blood pumping and ready for whatever comes next. That is Writing on Fire. The film tells the amazing story of an Indian women from a very low caste and a poor sector of the country, who come together to form their own independent newsroom.
Americans will rail against the evils of social media and cellphones. But, those are the tools through which women of the Uttar Pradesh province used to tell the world about their plight. The women tell the story of how they used these tools to track and finally find rapists and bring them to justice. They follow one story of an unsafe mine that the government will not act to regulate. Their story broke a million views on YouTube and became their signature story. It also warned the news outlets in the region that these newswomen were serious about their work.
The personal stories of each reporter is chronicled, too. Meera juggles home, kids, and a husband who is understanding but still seems to see the newsroom as a fad. Kavita is shown teaching a new class of young women how to use a phone, take a proper picture, and how to report a story. They even learn English. Their digital news publication now has shows hosted by some of the women to go along with the news stories. Called Khabar Lahariya, meaning “woven of news” the organization now has a hierarchy with Meera at the top and more new reporters being trained.
You can see their stories on the Khabar Lahariya YouTube page. The film is about some of the most courageous women going up against the patriarchy to ensure that the voices of the least in their society is heard. If that don’t inspire, then nothing will. Writing on Fire won the Audience Award in the World Cinema Documentary category.
Rating 5 or 5