Credit: Ava Benjamin Shorr
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Sundance Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 5: Framing Agnes, The Exiles, God’s Coming

February 2, 2022

Framing Agnes

Framing Agnes — the second feature-length documentary directed by Chase Joynt, who also co-directed No Ordinary Man (2020) — lays the vast bulk of its most interesting elements and a good deal of its many flaws at the feet of its central conceit. The Agnes of the title is a near-legendary figure among the trans community, who lied about elements of her physical development to UCLA researchers in order to obtain hormones and surgery and then informed them of her deception. In the course of trying to do research on this mythical and misunderstood figure, researchers also found the records and interviews concerning a number of other trans people interviewed in the same study, whose predicaments carried significantly less notoriety.

To capture this, Framing Agnes leans into an askew form of historical reenactment: Joynt himself plays a talk show host (seemingly patterned after Mike Wallace) interviewing each of these people as they sit across from each other at a small desk with a large, old-fashioned microphone, all of which is rendered in black-and-white with rounded televisual corners. The rationalization given in the film is that the talk show in the late 1950s, when the study took place, served as the default public forum for people to express themselves, and that staging the reenacted conversations in such a manner flips the script of the power dynamics of the clinical interview. It’s also pointedly populated by trans people: Joynt, along with historian Jules Gill-Peterson, writer Morgan M Page, and the actors in the reenactments, including Angelica Ross, Max Wolf Valerio, and Zackary Drucker as Agnes; the only person on screen who isn’t trans is sociologist Kristen Schilt.

But the gulf between good intentions and shortsighted execution can be great, and such is the case with Framing Agnes. While the interviews are drawn from the actual transcripts, a certain overt performativity, as encouraged by Joynt’s grandstanding talk show host, clashes with what ought to be cagy and considered replies to questions that can verge on flippant. The distancing of these moments through the relative stylization of black-and-white would also rankle less were it not for the implicit suggestion that it was depicting a different time, one less enlightened than our modern sensibilities, despite the inclusion of news footage of Christine Jorgensen which features interviewers arguably talking more respectfully than the majority of the American public would for decades.

But the viewer is never allowed to sit with Framing Agnes’s interviews, which might take up less than half of the actual film. Instead, there are reams of interviews with the actors themselves, often shot in a way that bizarrely attempts to foreground the recording apparatus — Joynt and Schilt interviewing Gill-Peterson in profile, a camera and C-stand plainly visible; Ross interviewed in a church with a long-shot in profile showing the entire lighting setup and boom microphone; there’s even the intrusion of contemporary 16mm footage with visible sprocket holes (one of the true plagues of this year’s Sundance slate). Though the film arguably deserves to be in the festival’s NEXT section for its genuine attempt to reach for something different in nonfiction filmmaking (though it, the weakest film in competition, won both prizes), it seems to lose its nerve, or at least much of its ability to commit to its thorniest and most potentially insightful elements. This writer admittedly doesn’t have the ability to comment on the specific offenses that trans writers like Esther Rosenfield and Willow Maclay have raised with this film, but the inability to dig deeper into a subject ripe for further study is plain enough to see for the discerning viewer.

Writer: Ryan Swen


Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The Exiles

Quoth Christine Choy, the Oscar-losing documentary filmmaker, notoriously candid NYU professor, and pseudo-subject of Violet Columbus and Ben Klein’s The Exiles: “You know, the thing is, I was not there. I was not sitting in the demonstrations — I was only documenting when they became exiles. So, emotionally, I didn’t have that close connection with it.” Similarly, one could be forgiven for not having the same “close connection” with The Exiles if they haven’t seen the two other films in what’s really a kind of documentary trilogy: Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon’s exhaustive, four-hour procedural look at the 1989 Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, and Michael Apted’s 1994 film Moving the Mountain, a where-are-they-now update on the status of the Chinese protestors and dissidents after having fled their country and resettling in the U.S. and Europe in the early 1990s.

Having at least some of that context, though, The Exiles should resonate as a necessary reconciliation with the 30-plus years of complacency from the world at large that has allowed China to erase a mass murder from their history books. That’s the angrier side of the film, at least, which well utilizes the largely external commentary of Choy — who started making a film about the whirlwind press tour that three of the Tiananmen political exiles found themselves thrust into upon their arrival in the U.S., only to abandon the project when she ran out of money. Choy, who was born in China but has lived in the U.S. since she was a teen, outlines her evolving personal relationship with this material, and with this historical epoch, indicating that the breaking point for her has been encounters with a younger generation of Chinese students at NYU, who all tend to become visibly uncomfortable at just the mere mention of “June 4th.”

Columbus and Klein are attempting a tricky thing here by balancing a documentary that purports to be about Choy — the film starts with a brief history of her work as a filmmaker, including her experience at a typically-white Oscars ceremony where her film Who Killed Vincent Chin was nominated for the Best Documentary award — with a more acute investigation of a historical moment (and a handful of its key players) to which Choy is only tangentially connected. But the twinned focusses here support each other, largely because it’s always clear what fundamental questions keep all of these people up at night: How can we learn from the past if the past is erased? And how did a movement that once saw so much of the world on its side all but disappear?

A more vulnerable side of The Exiles emerges from Choy’s shelved archival footage, which tracks three dissidents of distinct backgrounds: academic Yan Jiaqi (who worked inside and outside the government and as a political commentator through the 1970s reform period in China), Wan Runnan (CEO of Sitong, once China’s most successful private technology company), and Wu’er Kaixi (one of the leading organizers of the student protests in Tiananmen). All three were filmed by Choy as a group and individually — at crowded news conferences and publicity events and in quieter moments by the beach, in living rooms watching news footage of Tiananmen as it was aired in various other countries, and in politically outspoken interviews.

The importance of this footage really registers — thanks to the smart construction of this film — only after the introduction of present-day sequences in which Choy travels to Maryland, Paris, and Taipei (visiting Yan, Wan, and Wu’er, respectively) to hear the individual accounts and memories of these men from the period in their lives that Choy documented. Soon it becomes clear just how little any of the advocates of the Tiananmen protests within the international community were thinking about the psychological state of a group of people who had just been in a veritable warzone. Wu’er Kaixi is particularly eloquent in his present-day exchanges with Choy, informing her that no one ever suggested he see a therapist or receive counseling, while the older Yan and Wan look back ruefully at footage of their individual interviews, and the beaming optimism they expressed at the prospects for the future of the Democracy Movement.

But The Exiles still has one more structural gambit up its sleeve: “Where are you taking this film? What’s next?” Choy asks the camera at around the 70-minute mark, after having wrapped her interview with the last of the three exiles she first met in 1989. The direction things go from here serves to redress the problem alluded to at the start of this review: If someone doesn’t know anything about June 4, 1989 — an outcome that China has worked hard to make into a reality — then how do you get people to really care about a handful of episodes that came after?

The answer to that question becomes the question itself, essentially. Through a sharp combination of Choy’s commentary on the importance of having a “frame of reference” for China, and Columbus and Klein’s archival footage from the Bush and Clinton administrations (especially a visit to Washington by General Chi Haotian, who Clinton gave a 19-gun salute despite his making the claim that “no one died” in Tiananmen), The Exiles builds a damning case against the international political maneuvering that’s not only robbed China of its chance at an effective movement against authoritarianism at home, but that’s also allowed for the Party’s dangerous political position in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and India to develop unimpeded. In this sense, The Exiles is much more than just a film about Tiananmen or about Choy’s forgotten footage — it’s an indictment of the systemic geopolitical forces that have long enabled China to rewrite its own past, and that continue to threaten the stability of its future.

Writer: Sam C. Mac


God’s Country

A classic sort of Sundance film, the type that could probably only fare well in front of zoned-out festival marathoners, Julian HigginsGod’s Country is built off of a prime, program-ready premise that he proceeds to elaborate on to disastrous effect. Expanded from a lower profile, 2015 short starring Raymond J. Berry (and more intriguingly, Vincent Kartheiser and Q’orianka Kilcher), Higgins’ self-described neo-western has been reworked not only in durational terms, but in terms of its thematic scope, swapping Thandiwe Newton into the lead. It’s an appealing choice on paper, but one God’s Country fails to capitalize on, working from a screenplay that has some vague understanding of the complications introduced by race/gender swapping this protagonist, but is ultimately incapable of doing more than pointing them out.

That said, God’s Country doesn’t seem to lack much confidence in its vision, an undeservedly ambitious film that takes on several hot button discourses despite not being able to speak to any of them in a meaningful way. Newton is Sandra, a dour oral communication professor teaching at a college in rural Montana that serves a sizable Native populace. The plot picks up at a particularly conflict-dense moment in Sandra’s life; grieving a deceased mother while pushing for a more diverse tenure track at her school in the face of an entirely white voting committee. Traumas and stresses are aggravated when a group of hunters (all white guys) adopts her driveway as a setting-off point for their outings without asking permission, and a favored TA (a young Native woman) confides in her a sexual harassment accusation pointed toward a friend and fellow professor.

Indeed, God’s Country’s scope is broad, but more for the sake of being broad, all that it takes in struggling to meaningfully cohere. Higgins sets out to comment on white privilege, toxic masculinity, institutional racism, police murders, class privilege, the U.S. government’s failings circa Hurricane Katrina, grooming/workplace harassment, and a good deal more, succeeding in the barest sense, falling short of saying anything essential. More glib than anything else, God’s Country sells itself as a contemporized western, but that hardly registers outside of the setting and one or two standoff sequences. Instead, the film’s action largely comes from narrative twists and upsets, banking on audiences being caught off guard by character revelations meant to subvert what the director assumes we will assume about the participants in God’s Country’s central conflict. It’s all a bit patronizing really, and made all the less worthwhile once you realize the film’s grand thesis is something to the effect of “we all contain multitudes” (rather snidely undercut in a violent, bombastic finale, but still). Modestly accomplished DP Andrew Wheeler brings some much needed cinematic visual flourish to this painfully writerly project, but it’s not nearly enough to balance the arrogant ambitions of Higgins’ script.

Writer: M.G. Mailloux


Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

PIGGY

The pros and cons of virtual festivals have been debated incessantly over the last couple of years, and while accessibility and public safety have (quite reasonably) won out, there’s no denying that certain films lose something with the absence of a crowd. Even the experience of a mediocre midnight movie can be salvaged by an enthusiastic, animated audience, ready and willing to gasp at the bloody, the visceral, the outre. Premiering at Sundance’s second consecutive virtual program, director Carlota Pereda’s Piggy thankfully retains a startling ability to shock with or without the energy of a gaggle of like-minded gorehounds.

Early reviews have compared Piggy to Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat’s early 2000s entry in the so-called New French Extremity cycle, and it’s an apt enough pairing as these things go. Beyond sharing protagonists with fragile psyches exacerbated by weight issues and bullying, each film also foregrounds a kind of free-form, ultimately oppressive sexual anxiety (much more pronounced in the Breillat film, admittedly). As Piggy begins, high schooler Sara (Laura Galán) is already in a deep funk. Overweight and shy, she endures constant ridicule from her callous classmates, a clique of mean girls led by Maca (Claudia Salas) and Roci (Camille Aguilar). There’s also Claudia, a former friend who has largely abandoned Sara and now runs with the cool crowd. The girls mercilessly taunt Sara while showing off for the local boys in short shorts and midriffs. Things reach a boiling point when Sara visits the community pool on an oppressively hot summer day. Thinking she’s alone, Sara strips down to her bathing suit and tentatively hovers near the water. There’s a stranger there (played by the hulking Richard Holmes), glowering menacingly, and as Sara finally sinks beneath the surface, she swims obliviously past a bound and gagged body floating underwater. Maca, Claudia, and Roci then suddenly show up, accosting Sara with a net and almost drowning her, before running off with her clothes and towels. Claudia seems reticent at first, then finally caves to peer pressure and joins in on the cruel taunting. Forced to walk home barefoot and clad only in swimwear, Sara is further debased by a car full of local boys. Shaking with fear and embarrassment, Sara cuts down a backroad only to discover a parked fan with muffled voices emanating from within. The mysterious stranger from the pool has kidnapped Sara’s tormentors and stuffed them inside, Claudia’s bloodied hand banging the back windshield as she begs for help. Sara and the stranger make eye contact, and then he drives away, leaving Sara behind.

It’s hard to know what to make of this at first; likely Sara doesn’t know either. But she casually lies about where she’s been, and once the missing girl’s parents start asking questions, she continues to insist that she doesn’t know anything. It’s a curious, roundabout way to approach the revenge genre — Sara herself hasn’t actually done anything to these young women, but finds herself in a position to withhold information and impede any investigation that might assist in their rescue (if they’re even still alive). Far from relishing her newfound power, Sara seems to be collapsing under the weight of her secret knowledge, and further complicating things is what appears to be her attraction to the brutish stranger, almost as if she has summoned some sort of avenging monstrosity from the dregs of her own damaged subconscious. Pereda and cinematographer Rita Noriega shoot in boxy Academy ratio, turning every available space into a claustrophobic enclosure that seems to be pressing down on Sara. What emerges is a portrait of an entire toxic society, from Sara’s bumbling father and harping mother to the hysterical crowds that gather to gossip and point fingers as more townspeople begin disappearing. Sara seems torn between acquiescing to a serial killer who can tear the whole town apart and resuming her role as a walking punchline. She must eventually make a choice, and the ramifications of that choice lead to a disturbingly visceral final act. Be forewarned: there will be blood.

Writer: Daniel Gorman


Every Day in Kaimuki

Perhaps because artists are so often misfits, unable to easily fit in to the normal currents of society, the slacker remains one of cinema’s enduring subjects. Every Day in Kaimukī, the feature debut of Alika Tengan, finds its own layabout in Naz Kawakami, a radio DJ who lives in the eponymous neighborhood of Honolulu (and who also co-wrote the screenplay). The film very much belongs to a recent substrand of docufiction, in which non-actors play themselves in lightly fictionalized scenarios: here, as in real life, Naz has lived in Hawaiʻi his whole life and is contemplating a move to New York. The film is populated mostly by Naz’s actual friends and acquaintances, with two exceptions: his new radio station protégé Kaden (Holden Mandrial-Santos) and his long-term girlfriend Sloane (Rina White), whose acceptance into a sculpting graduate arts program in New York is providing the latest impetus in a long line of chances for Naz to leave home for the first time.

Every Day in Kaimukī thus operates somewhere in the register of a hangout film, flitting from interaction to interaction as Naz goes skateboarding with his friends and Kaden, has earnest but often wary conversations with Sloane, and makes preparations for leaving, whether by giving away possessions around the house to random people or calling airline representatives to try to figure out how to fly his cat to New York. Particular attention is paid to both his genuine passion and skills — his hosting skills are quite engaging, especially signaled by the superb soundtrack largely culled from his actual experience in radio — and his frequent shortsightedness, wherein things seem to happen to him more often than the opposite, and he frequently forgets to help out around the apartment.

The rotating emphasis on certain friends or friend groups, largely for the better, takes away the more expected focus on Naz and Sloane’s relationship and instead orients Every Day in Kaimukī around both the allure and dissatisfaction that Naz has towards Hawaiʻi. The film itself clearly loves Honolulu, dedicating a good deal of time to simply observing Naz roaming along the streets by day and night, while also recognizing Naz’s legitimate desire to leave while he still can, before he gets further into a rut of routine and contentment. That push-pull between discovery and complacency is further heightened by the pandemic-era setting, which makes the prospect of staying all the more attractive to Sloane and functions as a primary source of conflict.

Every Day in Kaimukī’s narrative can sometimes feel a little too pointed, ushering Naz along the path to where he can feel comfortable setting out for New York on his own, but it’s balanced out by Tengan’s feel for mood, for the rhythm of interactions and images that verge on dreaminess. The largely handheld cinematography is digital but takes place in the Academy ratio and has the general warmth and haziness of 16mm; one especially well-judged tracking shot alternately sticks with and pulls away from Naz as he makes several trips from his apartment to his car and back. Such moments capture the fluidity that the film has in its best stretches, especially in a single night where Naz goes on a tear of drunken insults against nearly every major character previously seen. The resolution to all of this, including his relationship with Sloane, is rather unexpectedly generous and compassionate, a series of moments that cements the film’s feeling for its characters and their place; even the unreasonably cold New York is given its own warmth in both the new (a friendly roommate) and the old (the cat), a dichotomy perfectly in sync with its protagonist’s point of view.

Writer: Ryan Swen


Credit: Rebecca Greenfield/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Meet Me In the Bathroom

Meet Me in the Bathroom, the latest documentary from VICE Studios, dives into the late-’90s/early-2000s New York music scene, drawing on multiple different strands to weave together a portrait of a new generation of musical icons, including The Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and LCD Soundsystem. Meandering their way through the scene and drawing on a mix of intimate behind-the-scenes archival footage and media appearances, directors Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern showcase both the public personas and the private lives of their subjects, focusing on the intersection between the two and the ways in which each drives the other.

With such a daunting cast of subjects, Meet Me in the Bathroom faces the challenge of communicating their practically mythic presences without being crushed under the weight of such personas. Between passionate grassroots fanbases and impressive legacies, it would be easy for Lovelace and Southern to succumb to the navel-gazing impulses that such personalities inspire, but they largely avoid such buying into any hagiographic narratives of genius or idolatry, choosing instead to pursue the more interesting path of studying what impact such narratives have on real people. Rather than glorifying the singular brilliance of Julian Casablancas (of The Strokes), Meet Me in the Bathroom uses its considerable archive access to explore the pressures that came with the level of creative control he exerted, and instead of lionizing Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as one of the few prominent frontwomen on the scene, Lovelace and Southern take time to just how damaging her uniquely gendered experience of fame was. But perhaps most memorable is the exploration of James Murphy’s (LCD Soundsystem) early career, a minor subplot that presents a melancholy, if brief, portrait of a man finding his way to his art.

Painting the scene as a whirlwind encapsulation of post-9/11 Brooklyn, and eventually extending to America writ large, the choice to keep The Strokes at the film’s center does have its drawbacks. Even though plenty of other bands — including The Moldy Peaches, TV on the Radio, and The Rapture — are introduced, with the exception of Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, they are largely cast aside in order to keep attention on the bigger names. This winnowed focus eliminates the possibility for other, more interesting perspectives, for instance limiting female input to Karen O’s deeply mixed experience of the scene despite the presence of other women like Kimya Dawson who could offer other viewpoints. While this narrow scope does aid in precisely tracking the explosion of the scene into mainstream culture, it also inherently limits Lovelace and Southern’s vision, signaling a departure from the subculture that the directors had such intimate access to, and a turn from a vibrant behind-the-scenes music documentary into more conventional, surface-skimming fare.

Writer: Molly Adams