Before it found acclaim, Garrett Bradley’s experimental film America debuted as part of Sundance’s New Frontier shorts in 2019, one of several programs bringing attention to new voices in film. This year, Bradley is back at the festival with a feature, Time, which screens along with Crystal Kayiza’s short See You Next Time. While its feature premieres receive most of the attention each year, Sundance also offers viewers brief but powerful glimpses of various worlds. Here are a few highlights from this year’s lineup.
Sophia Nahli Allison’s A Love Song for Latasha collects the memories of family and friends of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl who was fatally shot in a Los Angeles store by a clerk who suspected her of stealing a bottle of orange juice. Harlins’s death was one of the catalysts for the Los Angeles uprising of 1992, but Allison focuses on the emotional history of the event, and how her death continues to affect those close to her. Reenactments give a hazy portrait of her short life — after-school snacks and jukeboxes, days spent gazing at the stained-glass windows in church. As the emotions build, the imagery becomes more chaotic, evolving into abstract, energetic animation illustrating Latasha’s death and its aftermath. These images serve as an alternative history and a loving tribute to a teenager who deserved the chance to grow up.
In See You Next Time, Crystal Kayiza escorts us into the sacred subculture of the New York City nail salon, and the unique bond that exists between manicurists and their clients. It observes the casual conversations between Arrianna, a Black woman who’s a regular at Fancy Nail, an unpretentious neighborhood business, and her Chinese nail technician Judy. In a unique choice, Kayiza doesn’t assume an English-langauge point of view, adding Chinese subtitles to the English dialogue. The salon is painted as a sort of oasis, oversaturated with prismatic colors and the soothing sounds of flowing water and soft classical music. There are languid, ethereal dance interludes featuring duets between Black and Asian women, their movements mimicking the gestural interactions between Judy and Arrianna, elevating their symbiosis.
In Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa, the counselors for the Women’s Medical Fund all refer to themselves as Lisa. They’re answering calls from women living in Pennsylvania, one of the 33 states where, under the Hyde Amendment, it is illegal to allocate federal funds to pay for abortions. Since its ratification in 1976, the amendment has consistently affected poor people who rely on Medicaid. Infuriating archival C-SPAN footage of Representative Henry Hyde shows him arguing that “we cannot save the unborn of the rich … Thank God we can save some of the children of the poor.” In contrast, we listen as woman after woman states their case to a sensitive but stoic attendant: “I’m raising three kids by myself, the father does not help;” “I’ve been living in a domestic violence shelter.” Each “Lisa” has to fight to keep from offering more than they can — only a certain amount of funds are allotted per shift — while trying to give each woman who calls in a small sense of hope.
At one point in Norwegian filmmaker Anders Hammer’s Do Not Split, a cloud of smoke slowly dissipates to reveal a group of umbrellas, one of the more creative tools protesters in Hong Kong have developed to shield themselves from tear gas. Hammer jumps right into the action to give a frenetic, urgent look at the protests that have rocked the city since June 2019. The film captures the precarious conditions the largely student-led protesters encounter as they go head-to-head with police. Often speaking through gas masks, they articulate their commitment to the cause, even amid escalating violence. The short highlights this momentum as it builds, the title a reference to the necessity to push against the police as one unified group.
Simon Liu’s E-Ticket spits out images like a slot machine on overdrive. Over 13 minutes, it presents Liu’s personal image archive at a maddening pace, alternating between moving and still shots on 35mm, in what feels like a trip through someone’s subconscious. The film pulses to a steady percussive soundtrack by Julia Bloop and Gabriel Guma, which evolves into a dreamier rhythm before fading into industrial-like noise. It’s difficult to get your bearings, as shots of people, bicycles, and planes in unnamed locations continue to flash on screen. Right as Liu lingers on a subject long enough to discern what it is, he changes direction. The film could be seen as an inheritor of Godfrey Reggio’s surreal cinematic symphonies, and their use of the language of film to capture a fractured world.
The Sundance Film Festival runs January 23 through February 2 in Park City, Utah.