Sundance 2023 Dispatch One: The Preview

Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Well, it’s a new year, and with that comes a new excursion to Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. However, as COVID-19 remains on the top of most people’s minds, the festival returns to doing both in person and digital events. So, over the next two weeks, we will be bringing you dispatches from the festival, hoping to introduce you to films that you may be hearing more about over the next few months:

First up on this list is one of the festival’s more important and urgent documentaries. Entitled 20 Days in Mariupol, director Mstyslav Chernov places viewers squarely in the center of the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. With bombs falling and bullets ringing out at every corner, the film follows a team of journalists (the sole international journalists remaining in the area) as they attempt to bring to light the atrocities taking place at the outbreak of war.

A harrowing yet utterly essential portrait of modern conflict, 20 Days in Mariupol is an explosive piece of war journalism. An impossibly difficult watch at some points, the film pulls zero punches, using this footage to document the death and destruction that hit the region. It’s very difficult to discuss the film from a qualitative perspective given how unimportant that feels when discussing such a topic, the film is impressively made, with Chernov and his team placed squarely at the center of the conflict. It’s a provocative, emotionally devastating work that proves just how powerful the meshing of journalistic and cinematic worlds can truly be.

Staying in the world of documentary, D. Smith’s Kokomo City is an essential and provocative dive into the lives of four transgender sex workers, exploring their relationship to the larger black community as a whole. D. Smith’s debut feature, Kokomo City is a gorgeous black-and-white exploration of the area between race and sexuality, exploring the dichotomy between the Trans and Black communities as told through the eyes of four sex workers from across the country.

For a debut feature, this is a rather impressive effort. The film rightly gives its subjects room to breathe, allowing each woman time and space to explain their lived experiences with empathy and nuance. The film portrays a community that’s at constant conflict between traditional values and a world that’s endlessly evolving, using these four specific experiences of life on the periphery to discuss any and all topics. The real beauty of the film comes from its lack of “polish,” Smith giving her subjects the chance to speak freely and openly, with the hopes of creating an urgent and intimate documentary. There’s a tactile humanity here that’s rather startling, with each subject speaking with shocking candor. This is a must-see documentary.

The final documentary on this list will be absolute catnip for cinephiles. Entitled Kim’s Video, the film is directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin and focuses on Redmon and his attempt to locate the historic collection of videos from legendary rental house Kim’s Video. For those who may not know, Kim’s Video was an iconic staple of New York cinephile culture, itself playing home to over 55,000 different movies, making it one of the largest collections of videos ever assembled.

In Redmon and Sabin’s documentary, viewers are made privy of Redmon’s attempt to hunt down just what happened to that cache of videos, itself almost turning into a small-scale espionage thriller. Viewers watch as Redmon crosses the globe, going from South Korea, hoping to find the titular Mr. Kim himself, to ending up embroiled in local politics when traveling to Sicily. With credits like 2011’s brilliant and harrowing Girl Model to their names, Redmon and Sabin remain some of the more talented documentarians working today, and Kim’s Video does nothing to stop that momentum. It’s at once a playful rumination on the increasingly niche idea of collecting videos as well as a love letter to a past that cinephiles are still trying to replace to this day. It’s also just one hell of a crowd-pleasing picture.

Closing out this list are a pair of fiction features, both of which are more than worthy of your time. First up is Slow, which is potentially one of the very best films showing in Park City this year. Directed by Marija Kavtaradze, Slow tells the story of Elena (Greta Grineviciute) and Dovydas (Kestutis Cicenas), a dancer and sign language interpreter respectively, who meet and create a union that they find to new difficulties in navigating at each turn, it seems.

Largely a film about human connection and intimacy, Slow is a touching and provocative portrait of something rarely really seen on screens, asexuality. Driven by powerful, textured performances, this is a heartbreaking study in human relationships that, at just 90 minutes, breezes by thanks to Kavtaradze’s intimate and urgent direction. The cinematography here is startling, capturing these intimate moments with surprising nuance and humanity. Slow is a deeply felt, gorgeously crafted study of human sexuality and intimacy and is easily one of the biggest surprises from Sundance 2023.

Finally we end on another debut feature, this time from director Aduira Onashile. Entitled Girl, the film stars Le’Shantey Bonsu and Deborah Lukumuena as the mother-daughter team of Ama and Grace, as they attempt to create a life safe from the world around them. However, things are upended when Ama begins to yearn for more, and the film evolves into more of a character study about both a daughter coming of age and a mother struggling to cope with that growth.

A showcase for the two lead performances, Girl is one of the more accomplished films from an acting perspective here at the festival. Both performances are superb, particularly Bonsou who plays the 11-year-old Ama with an urgency and energy that’s both decidedly specific to this experience and yet strangely relatable in her growing anxiety. Also, Lukumuena’s Grace is a well-textured character, subverting the “helicopter parent” trope and turning her character into something with far more flesh and blood to her. Direction here is quiet, yet muscular, with little in the way of flights of fancy, leaning much more into the realm of neo-realism. It’s really a sight to be seen.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.