Credit: Tribeca Film Festival
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Tribeca Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 5: Lakota Nation vs. United States, In Her Name, January

June 23, 2022

Lakota Nation vs. United States

“U.S. history is a branch of a larger tree of history… but it’s that covetous branch that thinks it’s the tree.” Proffered somewhere partway through Lakota Nation vs. United States, this assertion operates as a rough thesis for Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli’s excellent new film. Employing a similar lens through which to view American history as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States — that of settler colonialism; “a state based on the ideology of white supremacy… and a policy of genocide and land theft” — Lakota Nation is a clear-eyed and incendiary unpacking of the ouroboros logic of the country’s fundamentally racist, colonizer historiography. As the title implies, this documentary is most specifically focused on the history of Lakota peoples, particularly their relation to the Black Hills of South Dakota as a cultural and spiritual mecca, but it’s still effortlessly illustrative as a synecdoche of the larger Indigenous history of displacement and dehumanization at the hands of white American hegemony. It follows, then, that the portrait the co-directors present isn’t only one of persecution and persistence on the part of Indigenous populations, but also a mining of the white rage — to connect this to another recent, essential work of sociological inquiry — that has existed and bloomed since the United States’ founding. But the duo are also savvy enough to keep Lakota Nation from slipping into a purely academic exercise: platformed here are a bevy of diverse Dakotan voices, from activists to scholars to laypeople — or is to be Indigenous in America its own eternal activism? — expertly blending personal, cultural, and national histories. It’s a remarkably comprehensive work, but leverages its discursive vein to emotional ends, as edifying as it is empathetic. 

Guiding all this through is Oglala poet Layli Long Soldier, whose 2017 collection Whereas, written as a response to the dubious, blanket congressional apology to native peoples signed by Obama in 2009, is perhaps the essential work of 21st century poetry, Indigenous or otherwise. Operating as both screenwriter and narrator, Long Soldier’s lyrical presence here is the first indication of Short Bull and Tomaselli’s intent on crafting not just a forceful essay film — which it is — but also a work of commanding formalism. While mostly deferring to a roster of passionate voices, Long Soldier pops up in an interstitial capacity across the film’s two-hour runtime, her decelerated cadence almost metronomical as she recites poems built on linguistic repetition, a thematic reflection of the centuries of calculated, ceaseless persecution of Indigenous populations. This careful sonic texture is carried over to the film’s soundtrack, which is largely built on sustained droning and fuzzy ambience, the past and present engaged with here fittingly enveloped in a certain ominousness, and then occasionally ruptured with colonizer songs like “Star Spangled Banner” and “Home on the Range.” If these choices seem overly obvious on paper, they are precisely implemented throughout, never used for cheap irony but instead as devastating reinforcements of the white American exceptionalism that the United States is fundamentally built upon.

To some degree, all documentaries must justify their existence as a visual medium. After all, there are plenty of texts that tread the same rhetorical territory, so viewers are right to ask: why am I watching this? It’s a question Short Bull and Tomaselli are thrillingly equipped to answer, employing a variety of techniques to remarkable effect. Lakota Nation takes the shape of a collage doc, accumulating artifacts and archival documents, propagandist cartoons, paintings, and maps to accompany its “text,” all of which are stylishly implemented and formally legible. Elsewhere, crisp digital photography is used to capture modern re-enactments of historical hostilities, articulating the implicit settler lens of such spectacles through an exaggerated artificiality, frequently shooting from low angles and capturing the saturated colors of modern costuming. These and other sequences scan like tableaux of myth, and indeed the directors’ often tend toward a kind of expressionism, specifically in connecting the Lakotas relationship to their land: one memorable shot features a close-up of a sunflower, slowly pulling back to ultimately reveal a massive field of them, eyes adjusting from a single entity to an abstracted whole endlessly dotted with yellow, this while the narration explains the United States’ systematic starvation of Indigenous populations in an effort to create a system of dependency and short-circuit Native sovereignty. (At times, the film even recalls the work of someone like John Gianvito, particularly Her Socialist Smile, with graceful, disembodied voiceover set to lush, thematically resonant natural settings.) Lakota Nation’s compositions are clean and symmetrical, largely images of Dakotan sky meeting land, occasionally blemished by settler iconography (a gas station named Custer, for instance). The directors even take care to gussy up the film’s talking-head subjects, shooting from oblique angles or framing bodies within double-wide door frames. 

The highest compliment one can pay a thesis-driven film of this kind is to observe that its disquisitions would be legible even if watched on mute. In that regard, Lakota Nation vs. United States is an endlessly fascinating formal document, one that would indeed likely afford rich rewards on silent rewatch, the clarity and artistry of its images fairly unmatched in recent documentary filmmaking. Fittingly, then, it ends with an explosive final scene. Earlier in the film, Lakota Nation detailed the construction of Mt. Rushmore, its crushing symbolic weight, and Donald Trump’s fireworks-heavy Independence Day celebration there in 2020, before later moving into its final section detailing current reparational movements, environmental activist efforts, and the role of white allyship. It’s a remarkably moving section, the participants’ rhetoric shifting from a parsing of history to hope for the future, a beautiful assertion of self in a country still mostly operating according to settler ideology. In the film’s final shot, Short Bull and Tomaselli once again turn their focus to fireworks, this time dotting the sky over a Land Back bash, a celebration not of something past but of what and who persist in the present, and a vision of what is still to come.

Writer: Luke Gorham


Credit: Tribeca Film Festival

In Her Name

It may be a hasty judgment, but as soon as we see a young woman painting on a canvas, smoking a cigarette positioned in the corner of her mouth in a series of close-ups — and this just as the opening credits begin to roll in yellow-colored letters across the film’s black-and-white images — it’s quite obvious that the Toronto-born, actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Carter’s directorial feature, In Her Name, is one boasting a sharp, curious eye for visual flair. The film follows the story of two estranged, fiercely incompatible siblings: Fiona (Ciera Danielle) is a dark-haired, timid housewife and mother who, after roughly a decade of radio silence, travels from Minneapolis to Los Angeles to visit her sister Freya (Erin Hammond), a blonde, free-spirited hipster who paints and lives with their terminally-ill artist father, Marv (Philippe Caland) in a family house that Fiona intends to sell before the bank reclaims it. It’s an unexpected visit, one that over the course of a few days hits all the expected beats for a film of this ilk, with surprising events and revelations forecasting a story that leads to the mutual realization of sisterly love and a strengthening of bonds between Fiona and Freya. But it’s in the way that Sarah Carter refashions this familiar narrative into a heartfelt, quirky (but on the right side of) comedy of bittersweet wit and charm that distinguishes it from the indie crowd, riding its summery vibes and small delights to captivating ends.

In relying less on common plot dramas and instead lending the film’s circumstances and emotional content a leisurely authenticity, Carter is able to more meaningfully mine ideas of femininity — rather than opting for any clichéd sociopolitical handling — imbuing her film (semi-inspired by the uncompromising character and art of Lebanese artist Huguette Caland)  with tenderness and considerable dimension. Although predominantly composed of slick, beautiful black-and-white visuals, which could easily manifest as overly mannered and academic, Carter and DP Iain Trimble infuse a certain dynamism into the overall aesthetic, realizing a looseness that keeps this from too-studied territory. In Her Name’s expressive lighting, frequent unusual camera angles, and occasional superimpositions are reminiscent of Hollywood films of the ‘40s, but the film is also noticeably influenced by the early works of independent filmmakers like Shirley Clarke and John Cassavetes. And elsewhere, during a picnic scene where Peter (James Aaron Oliver), one of Marv’s close confidantes, seduces Fiona, it’s tough not to see the sequence as a direct nod to Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country. All these underlying cinephilic touchstones are cut through with something of the counterculture spirit of 1970s New Hollywood, rendering Carter’s portrayal of this hip, new-age subculture of L.A. and its art scene — both appreciated and sent up a bit here — as a West Coast half-sister Frances Ha, an amusing and curious film that offers plenty of exploratory potential for its viewers.

In tackling a veritable smorgasbord of modern-day issues, including womanhood, familial bonds and dysfunctions, (in)fidelity, freedom of individual and artistic expression — best glimpsed in a hilarious, drunken heart-to-heart between the sisters — as well as embracing more the existential concerns of death, identity, and spirituality, Carter’s In Her Name proves to be a peculiar but affectionate cringe-dramedy, simultaneously light-hearted and thoughtful, gentle and provocative. It’s a fine line to walk, but the director manages the balance, and its unique magnetism makes a good deal of sense: after all, the film is conceived of as a portrait of antipodal energies. Beyond the explicit contrasts between Fiona and Freya — the natural, delightful performances from Danielle and Hammond are no small factor in the film’s success — it’s not hard to find other polarized forces made study of here: women and men, peace and tension, the old and the new. Indeed, this last one is essential to the film’s aesthetic, a marriage of vintage and the voguish style, situated somewhere between the serene calm of its fixed compositions and the relatively more complex camera movements at play elsewhere; see too the interplay between environmental (picnic) and architectural spaces (family home, art galleries), the images rich and ambiance minimalist. It’s on the strength of these elements that Carter’s In Her Name proves such a confident, successful debut, a film that both preaches and practices the freedom of artistic expression.

Writer: Ayeen Forootan


January

A coming-of-age story about a sensitive, artistically-minded young man with filmmaking aspirations sounds like a recipe for mawkish solipsism, so it’s nothing short of a miracle that January deftly avoids cliches and easy catharsis. Recently anointed the Best International Narrative Feature by this year’s Tribeca jury, Viesturs Kairišs‘ film is a remarkable document of burgeoning political consciousness that feels authentic and lived-in, a time capsule of the tail-end of the Cold War that is still (unfortunately) relevant to today’s heated geopolitical atmosphere. Beginning in January 1991 in Riga, the capital of Latvia, special units of OMON, or USSR special forces, have occupied press offices to suppress the publishing of any Latvian independence writings. Initially declaring themselves peacekeepers, these agents promise that no violence will take place. But young Jazis (Karlis Arnolds Avots) sees soldiers arresting journalists and immediately begins documenting the events with his small, portable camera. He’s quickly spotted and beaten, returning home to his parents with a bruised and bloodied face.

Jazis is a typical angsty teen, unsure of what to do with himself besides watching films and talking about them with the guy who runs the bootleg VHS kiosk in the subway station. His father is officially a member of the communist party, an increasingly tenuous position that has driven a wedge between him and his wife, Jazis’ mother. For his part, Jazis has resigned himself to submitting to his compulsory military service (“what if you get sent to Afghanistan?” his mother yells repeatedly). Instead, he and a friend wind up enrolling at a local arts academy, where Jazis meets people as movie-mad as himself. Indeed, his first encounter with Anna (Alise Dzene) revolves around her having a copy of the soundtrack to Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. This is familiar stuff, certainly; Jazis and Anna begin a whirlwind romance, while attempting to navigate their families and Anna’s sudden success when she’s chosen to accompany a famed director on a location shoot. The immature, inexperienced Jazis is jealous, of course, but his self-pity is interrupted by a sudden surge of Soviet troops determined to occupy the capital city.  Kairišs has mentioned in interviews that much of this is autobiographical, and the film is full of small details and deft touches that belie the occasional familiarity of the material. Rather than turning to the cozy, well-trod confines of the French New Wave for inspiration,  Kairišs instead looks to Bergman (the first shot of January is a scene from Winter Light playing on an old CRT TV), Tarkovsky, Jarmusch, and a large helping of punk and post-punk music. 

What’s most exciting here is the filmmaking, the skillful weaving together of formats that conjure up some elusive combination of nostalgia and you-are-there verisimilitude. The narrative proper is shot in what appears to be 16mm film, while the footage that Anna and Jazis shoot themselves is Super-8. Eventually, as the conflict escalates and Jazis becomes determined to record it, he uses a period-appropriate VHS camcorder, the fuzzy digital image replacing the gentle, almost opaque textures of the small-gauge film. It’s a poetic excavation of how we not only film the present tense, but then process and re-experience it as reportage, or memories. Working with cinematographer Wojciech Staron and shooting in the confining Academy Ratio, the compositions here are filled with information. There’s constant movement, figures in motion crammed into the frame and enveloped by the cramped environs of small apartments, classrooms, tiny shops, tube stations, etc. Brief expeditions outdoors offer a respite, with Kairišs juxtaposing the young lovers against a vast, frozen body of water that might as well be the surface of the moon. By the end of the film, Jazis has traded shooting music videos for documenting action at the front line of the attempted invasion/occupation. There’s a whole lifetime squeezed into that transition, and when Jazis and Anna return to the water, it’s now thawed. The old adage “you can’t step into the same river twice” comes to mind, as does a sense of awakening, new beginnings, rejuvenation. Kairišs’ talent is in suggesting all of these meanings with just an image, fully aware of its power as both metaphor and political tool. This is sharp, invigorating filmmaking.

Writer: Daniel Gorman


Credit: Kali Films

My Name Is Andrea

While far from the first instance, Pratibha Pramar’s latest documentary My Name Is Andrea is one of the more high profile reclamations that radfem writer/orator Andrea Dworkin has yet attempted. The work feels like an inevitability in this ongoing, decade-plus moment where feminist sentiment has been mainstreamed, divorced from ideological specificities, reducing the eclectic, nuanced bodies of work of a good number of activists and philosophers down to bookstore souvenirs and Etsy trinkets. Dworkin’s writing and persona have thus far managed to resist this type of crass commodification (on a mass scale anyway) mostly thanks to the fact that it’s all founded on a rigid, unyielding belief that the power systems dictating society are propped up by rape, and in turn actively promote and encourage it through pornography and the sex work industry. Dworkin has never wavered from this stance, despite the fact that it alienated her from large swaths of the feminist and queer activist communities and placed her in uneasy alliance with the far-right she was otherwise assailing. A figure still too radical for the Western liberal, but also only further removed from dominant feminist ideology with each passing year, it seems a silly errand to try and repackage Dworkin for 2022 audiences, yet that is precisely Pramar’s project with My Name Is Andrea.

Regardless of the shortcomings and patronizing qualities of her philosophy, Andrea Dworkin is obviously an iconoclast worthy of cinematic depiction, nonfiction or otherwise. An evocative writer with a proportionately fiery speaking style that she’s used to tell the stories behind the statistics, Dworkin is able to describe the pain and traumas associated with sexual and domestic violence with an appropriate ferocity that cuts through our collective numbness. Truly, it’s a remarkable accomplishment that My Name Is Andrea naturally frontloads via a choice selection of rousing archival clips, but the more fraught, contentious elements of the Dworkin ethos are breezed on over, Pramar opting for a more sanitized summation. It also surely doesn’t help that friend and CIA opp Gloria Steinem is on hand as a producer, here to help steer her deceased peer’s legacy, recasting her as a sort of misunderstood everywoman. To get this notion across, Hollywood actresses like Ashley Judd, Amandla Stenberg, and Andrea Riseborough appear in hazy reenactments that have each woman sort of playing Dworkin, but also sort of playing themselves and the women she wrote about. A trite gimmick of recent nonfiction filmmaking, it’s also entirely antithetical to the writer’s proudly unchic personal style and loud rejection of the patriarchal expectations concerning femininity. But My Name Is Andrea is a generally glossy affair, and its authors are invested in delivering a clean product above all else, even when it means forgoing an honest depiction of their subject, who it’s hard to imagine would have cared much for this tribute. Though, of course, it will hardly win over detractors either, as the film’s narrative slyly skates over Dworkin’s objectionable, irresponsible anti-porn work in neutral tone in the closing minutes, while also ignoring her anti-sex work campaigning and criticisms from queer peers altogether. Unlikely to please anyone outside of the committed film festival circuiters, who it’s performed quite well with, My Name Is Andrea fails to transcend the worst cliches of nonfiction, biography filmmaking, only managing a misleading depiction of its subject in exchange.

Writer: M.G. Mailloux