Film

At Sundance, Examining the Relationships Between People and Their Governments

Documentaries at the festival looked at ordinary people in Cuba, journalists in the Philippines, and lawyers for the ACLU.

From Epicentro (all images courtesy Sundance Institute)

“What does utopia mean?”
“The exact meaning I don’t know. It’s Cuba”

Thus begins Hubert Sauper’s Epicentro, which recently won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. “Utopia means both good place and no place,” Sauper explains as his camera travels through Havana, “Where nobody owns anything and yet everyone has enough.” As the waters by the Malecón esplanade rise and fall in symphony, Sauper’s meditative voiceover explains how the idea of Cuba emerges from the intersections of machine guns, movies, and American hegemony.

The sinking of the USS Maine, which led to the Spanish-American War and the subsequent American colonization of Cuba, came soon after the birth of cinema. While historians continue to debate whether the Spanish army was truly responsible for the sinking of the ship, footage of its wreckage was convenient for yellow journalism and American war propaganda. Sauper walks with people, often children whom he calls “little prophets,” and listens to them as they tell him their versions of history and the truth.

From A Thousand Cuts

“The people is one thing, the government is another,” one subject tells Sauper, who sides with the people’s narratives. Ramona Diaz does something similar with A Thousand Cuts, about journalist Maria Ressa and the Philippines’s ever-decreasing press freedom. Diaz initially set out to make a documentary on President Duterte’s fascist war on drugs, but soon shifted to focus on his administration’s weaponization of the media. It’s been more than a century since the fable of the USS Maine, but governments continue to blur the lines between news and lies. When Rappler Media, Ressa’s outlet, tried to hold authorities accountable for the rampant murders of supposed drug dealers, rape and death threats started pouring in. Ressa has been arrested several times. The film catalogs the bold defiance she and her co-workers muster in the face of this persecution.

From The Fight

Leonelis Arango Salas, one of Sauper’s little prophets, watches the American president on TV. “Trump does not want Guatemalans to enter USA,” she says, “because he is mean and racist.” Lee Gelernt might want to meet her one day. A lawyer who serves as Deputy Director of the ACLU’s National Immigrants’ Rights Project, she’s one of the leads in Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres’s The Fight. The ACLU has often been considered a monolith that people on either side of the political divide ask for help whenever their rights are curtailed. While incessant news cycles often dehumanize monoliths, The Fight does the work of uncovering the human faces and the immense emotional and intellectual labor that make up the organization. They listen to Tom Petty, drink wine, play with their children, and get anxious over dying phone batteries. While the documentary follows a fairly predictable structure, it recalls a quote from Filipino activist Leandro Legara Alejandro in A Thousand Cuts: “The line of fire is a place of honor.”

Both The Fight and A Thousand Cuts tell familiar stories of how governments overrun or deceive their to serve racist, misogynist, and imperialist ideals. But the story never ends there. There are always people who resist. People who hope. As the waters of the Malecón flood the streets of Havana, an old man wonders if this is the end of the world. Sauper’s little prophets gather around and jump on the flooded streets. “Not today. The end of the world will be much later,” one asserts.

The Fight has been acquired by Magnolia Pictures and Topic Studios for release later this year. A Thousand Cuts and Epicentro are still seeking distribution.

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