Sundance 2023 Dispatch 2:
Handle with Care
By Matthew Eng
Amid the streamer-induced surplus of artist and celebrity documentaries, it can be difficult to discern the precious few that actually reckon with the lives and legacies of their central participants. For its first in-person gathering since 2020, the Sundance Film Festival played host to the storied title subjects of Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, Stephen Curry: Underrated, and STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie. Less ballyhooed in the press were documentaries that alighted on deceased figures unable to “take back” their narrative or walk a red carpet, including Korean media artist Nam June Paik (Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV) and gay Black American rock pioneer Little Richard, who never fully got his due for designing the sounds and styles that have informed decades of popular music.
The latter is at the center of director Lisa Cortés’s record-correcting Little Richard: I Am Everything, the first film acquired for theatrical distribution during the festival. Cortés, a onetime collaborator of Lee Daniels, has emerged in the past few years as a valuable mover and shaker in the East Coast documentary film scene, producing another 2023 Sundance selection, Invisible Beauty, a self-portrait of the groundbreaking Black model Bethann Hardison. In Little Richard: I Am Everything, Cortés employs a conventional structure of talking-head interviews—in which scholars like Jason King, Tavia Nyong’o, and Zandria Robinson prove far more perceptive than celebrities like Mick Jagger, Tom Jones, and Billy Porter—interspersed with a vast array of archival clips. The strongest segments occur early as Cortés evocatively illustrates Richard’s upbringing in the cloistered, God-fearing Black community of Macon, Georgia, and his persona-crafting rise on the touring circuit in the forties and fifties, when Richard developed his ferocious rock-and-roll sound and flagrantly but also joyously projected his queerness through sexually voracious lyrics and high-haired, rouge-lipped appearance. As Robinson saliently argues and Cortés’s film makes clear, Richard’s queerness cannot be isolated from his formative years in the Southern Black Belt, itself a site of queer resistance.
Little Richard needs to be witnessed in all his fast-fingered, gender-burning, hormone-fueling glory to be believed. Psychedelic montages aim to encapsulate the effect of Richard’s performances on youthful audiences, but Cortés’s film continues an unfortunate trend in recent music documentaries by refraining to show any of these actual performances in their uninterrupted fullness. Although the cradle-to-grave structure is permeated here with a robust critique of the white music industry’s violent erasure of Black innovation, I left the film wishing yet again that bio-docs like these could attempt a modicum of the artistic risk that their subjects ingeniously and courageously took. There is an inevitable, pre-credits montage of Richard’s musical offspring, ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Harry Styles, but where is the analysis of the shallow, “queer-baiting” dress-up that Styles and others continue to perpetuate more in the name of Bowie than Richard? Despite the film’s look-how-far-we’ve-come positivity, we still can’t quite envision a world that would enable those like Richard to live free and unencumbered, a world capable of holding this one-man riot high, even in his wake.
Nicole Newnham’s The Disappearance of Shere Hite is also a critical reassessment of a diminished cultural figure: the titular sexologist whose 1976 book The Hite Report catapulted candid conversations about the sexual desires and dissatisfactions of American women into the mainstream, much to the chagrin of the men who reviled her. Seldom spoken about today, Hite was a model who turned to academia before finding her niche, away from the fusty pedagogy of Columbia University, as a researcher in the field of female sexuality. She is also one of the more striking and singular characters, real or imagined, encountered at Sundance this year. A statuesque strawberry blonde with an airy, mellifluous speaking voice and a head-turning sense of high femme style, Hite didn’t so much pull as possess the many cameras that captured her in her heyday, like the Carol Aird of second-wave feminism. Incorporating a treasure trove of footage and photography, Newnham (co-director of 2020’s Oscar-nominated Crip Camp) and editor Eileen Meyer allow us to bask in Hite’s glamour and sly, equanimous persona as she uncovered the culture of silence and ignorance that helped enforce the oppression of women.
Newnham’s film uses new interviews, archival materials, and narration culled from Hite’s personal journals (read by executive producer Dakota Johnson) to recreate the exhilaration of the seventies as Hite finds a voice through first-hand involvement in the women’s movement; her awakening occurred in consciousness-raising sessions and on the streets, where she picketed outside the New York offices of the Italian typewriter manufacturer Olivetti, in whose chauvinistic ad campaign she had appeared. At the same time, she labored on The Hite Report, which drew on responses to questionnaires anonymously filled out by over 3,000 women. In the book, Hite famously dismantled myths about the female orgasm and confounded our country’s understanding of women’s sexuality. But she also gave the everyday women who participated a rare outlet to vent their deepest-held feelings about their private lives. When Hite turned her focus to male sexuality in the 1980s, the credibility of her methodology was attacked and her already tenuous reputation imploded beyond repair, leading to a self-imposed exile in Europe, where she lived until her death in 2020. Edited into a fluid, pleasantly lulling arc, Newnham’s film might have further plumbed Hite’s objectives, delving deeper into her texts for details of the more equitable future that Hite’s projects augured. What did Hite want her readers to do with this information and how did she imagine they might implement it into their daily lives? Yes, knowledge is power, but how exactly were readers meant to wield this power—and how might we wield it, still?
These bio-docs pale next to Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, a restlessly creative treatment of the life and art of the legendary Black American poet and activist Nikki Giovanni, which took the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Documentary Competition where all three films debuted. “I remember what’s important, and I make up the rest,” the now 79-year-old Giovanni declares in the film, summing up her practice and the approach adopted by her husband-and-wife directors. Refusing to get bogged down in biographical exactitude or obey a straightforward chronology, Brewster and Stephenson craft a nonfiction portrait that courses along on its subject’s meditative, tough-minded, future-facing wavelength. The first sounds one hears are the creaks of a vessel at sea, evoking the cargo ships that carried many millions of Africans to America across four centuries and contextualizing the basis for Giovanni’s visionary dream of space travel for Black Americans, an Afrofuturist imperative represented in the film by galactic imagery. Giovanni is positioned as a descendant of slaves and dreamers, survivors and perpetrators of dehumanizing violence, all of them trapped in a vicious cycle that she has endeavored to breach with her poetry.
Going to Mars is not a hagiographic valediction but a vital education that enlists its subject as an active participant, albeit one who declines on-camera to answer questions that require repeating herself; I was reminded more than once of Laura Poitras and Nan Goldin’s generative, symbiotic collaboration on last year’s All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. There is unusual honesty on display, as in an uncomfortable conversation between Giovanni and her once-estranged son and teenage granddaughter about how long it has been since their last visit. But this is also, thanks to its subject’s unstinting candor, a humorous film: it is impossible to brace oneself for what Giovanni does and says while lectoring at a Sunday church service in her Virginia town. The film skips along in time with purpose, verve, and visual sophistication, utilizing historical footage as more than mere adornment; in one culminating sequence, a performance at Brooklyn’s Afropunk Festival in 2016 is match-cut with Giovanni reading the same poem on TV in the seventies, poignant evidence of her project’s endurance. (Giovanni’s poetry, some of it recited by executive producer Taraji P. Henson, is mercifully permitted to play more or less in its entirety.)
Clips from a televised, two-hour conversation between a then-28-year-old Giovanni and 47-year-old James Baldwin for a 1971 episode of the public program Soul! linger at first on exchanges of polarized tension; one senses the two struggling to reach each other across their gendered, generational divide. But editors Terra Jean Long and Lawrence Jackman return to the dialogue later in the film, alighting on a key moment where the éminence grise contradicts Giovanni’s assertion that she is pessimistic: “I think you’re pretty realistic. I think you’re pretty cool. I think you’re pretty clear…. [P]essimists are silent; pessimists are the people who have no hope for themselves or for others.” Here, Baldwin, whose framed portrait we see holding a place of prominence in Giovanni’s current home, identifies this emergent artist in her fullness. He sees what Brewster and Stephenson’s film so lucidly and luminously describes: Giovanni’s fierce, unquiet intellect, faster somehow than the speed of light, as well as the persistence of her passion and her abiding investment in the labor that a love for one’s people requires, no matter how bone-deep it resides.
Sundance’s 2023 documentary selection of course featured works uninterested in the eminent. Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker’s The Stroll is a high-spirited history of the transgender sex workers of color who congregated in Manhattan’s once-desolate, now-gentrified Meatpacking District. A harmonious companion piece to festival breakout KOKOMO CITY, D. Smith’s slender yet insight-rich portrait of present-day sex workers, The Stroll relies on a bare-bones structure but crucially benefits from Lovell’s personal connection to the material. She spent a decade working alongside her subjects, her experiences featured in the 2007 documentary short Queer Streets. Disenchanted with past storytellers who failed to grasp the multitudes of workers like herself, Lovell was inspired to take authorial control. The testimonies she elicits from her comrades are the result of collegial, conscientious conversations rather than formal interviews, touching on everything from memorable client kinks to the mobilizing murder of Amanda Milan, one of their own. Interweaving a stinging analysis of the police, politicians, and neighborhood activists who terrorized and banished these women, Lovell and Drucker’s film conveys the many facets of sex work, which was not solely a means of survival but also a sustaining source of identity and community.
Filmmaker Anna Hints earned the Directing Award in the World Cinema Documentary competition for her debut feature, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, which gathers a number of Estonian women in a sauna tucked into the scenic southern countryside. Inside these walls, the film’s sweat-slicked, multigenerational subjects sing folk tunes and wax freely on singledom, sickness, dick pics, virginity, parental abuse and alienation, abortion and a woman’s right to choose, and the painful process of coming out later in life. Sharing words and worlds, these women create a refuge of supportive intimacy that Hints and her cinematographer Ants Tammik capture with a keen eye for the body’s telltale gestures, preserving the privacy of certain subjects who wished to remain anonymous. An unforgettable scene finds one of the women using her arm to shield her face as she speaks about wanting to protect her daughter from the same sexual violence she fell prey to as a teenager. When a cry catches in her voice, another woman, in whose lap the speaker’s head rests, combs her hand through her companion’s hair, a stirring snapshot of women fortifying each other in body and soul.
Luke Lorentzen’s A Still Small Voice concentrates on Mati Engel, an aspiring hospital chaplain taking part in a year-long spiritual care residency at Manhattan’s Mount Sinai during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Engel is introduced as one of four female trainees in a cohort overseen by Reverend David Fleenor, Mount Sinai’s former Director of Education, whose crisis of faith in his own ability to lead becomes just as integral to the film as Engel’s arduous chaplaincy. Lorentzen, who won the U.S. Documentary Award for Directing and also shot and edited the film, ensures A Still Small Voice is something knottier than a heart-rending reminder that our caretakers and spiritual healers are human beings equally vulnerable to hardship, however increasingly necessary that may be. In tandem with his subjects’ self-discoveries and disclosures, Lorentzen contemplates the toll of bearing witness to so much physical and spiritual suffering and what added support is needed for Engel, Fleenor, and their colleagues to do their jobs well, without completely depleting themselves of energy, stability, and hope.
Privileging prolonged speeches from primary subjects, Lorentzen’s approach is rooted in the attentive, delicate nuances of self-expression. Some patients say very little; others strive to make meaning from their pain, to find joy in their stamina. Engel, a progeny of those who survived and perished in the Holocaust, speaks several times, without interruption, about her struggles to not just believe in but also feel a higher Judaic power, while at the same time finding nourishment in a religion that she cannot always uphold. In one transfixing scene, Engel speaks to a deceased patient’s loved one on the phone, keeping her eyes closed for the duration of the call yet speaking with profound lucidity about death and embracing the unknown, sharing thoughts about her own failure to cope after her father’s death. God is in the details here: rooted to Engel’s face, the camera picks up her light winces and inhalations, microscopic movements that allow her to remain entirely attuned to the woman on the other end of the line.
A Still Small Voice doesn’t avoid the thorny reality that all of this soul-searching is unfolding in a profit-motivated “nonprofit” system, complete with labor disputes and a slimy human resources department, a fact thrown into relief when Engel and Fleenor butt heads in a late, abrasive scene. (Days before the film premiered at Sundance, thousands of Mount Sinai nurses ended a three-day strike over staffing shortages and resultant burnout.) Lorentzen, who gave participants the option to alter or remove themselves from the finished film before picture lock, might have amplified the corporate critique that underlines Engel and Fleenor’s argument, though this is admittedly not his chosen focus. Rather than an explanation of a rigidly defined ethics of care, A Still Small Voice is an unsettled inquiry into the practice of developing one, within or ultimately without the parameters of private-sector interests. In its dual narratives, this powerful film causes us to remember that not even the most capable and commanding among us are fixed entities, immune to changes of heart and mind.