Screening struggles: The most gripping films at the virtual Sundance festival

A still from Fire in the Mountains.

A still from Fire in the Mountains.

In his novel Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin wrote, “Nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.”

The same devastating feeling is experienced by Amin Nawabi, the young gay subject of the new documentary Flee (2021), who escaped from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as a child in 1996 and sought asylum in Denmark. He arrives in the new country, having survived the brutality of political upheaval and circuitous human trafficking. It leaves him fast on his feet, slow to trust people, and suspicious of the very “safety” he had been pursuing.

At 36, the protagonist lowers the guard and shares his story for the first time with his high school friend and filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen. The resulting film, which is masterfully animated with very brief portions of archival and shot footage, won the world documentary competition in the recently concluded Sundance Film Festival. The illustrated visuals, besides protecting Amin’s identity, evoke his hardship and humiliations with sensitivity.

Gripping tales

Can asylum seekers — their lives labelled “legal” or “illegal”, their narratives critiqued as “credible” or “not credible” — ever feel truly safe? Like so many others, Amin makes up parts of his statement to immigration officers but his lies come from lived pains. Flee peels layer after layer of Amin’s secret emotional burdens. Particularly harrowing are sequences of refugees walking nights through shadowy forests in Russia, later stranded in a flooding ship on the way to Sweden.

Lost childhoods are rightly mourned but the film reminds you to feel also for the elderly whose final years are spent in such uncertainty. By contrast, Amin’s hesitant and eventless coming out to his family is among the bright spots in the journey. As are vignettes from his childhood — running with kites, braiding his sisters’ hair, crushing on Jean-Claude Van Damme — and the story of how he came to have the gold chain he always wears around his neck.

The first virtual Sundance made it possible to access the best of global independent cinema from an apartment in Thane and to hit pause whenever one was overcome with tears. As doleful as the prolonged separation from big screens has been, this is how we watch films now. Having exactly four hours to finish a movie from the moment you start it did recreate the rushed air of film festivals. The winning entries of the festival will no doubt be some of the most-discussed titles of the year.

There is Hive, written and directed by first-time filmmaker Blerta Basholli, and set in the Balkan town of Krusha e Madhe, where hundreds of men were either massacred or went missing in the Kosovo war. As chances of them returning grow bleak and their families grow poorer, the women who are left behind, led by a stoic protagonist Fahrije Hoti, repair their circumstances by making and selling bottled ajvar, a local red pepper jam. Their co-operative takes off slowly and shakily because the last of the patriarchs in the region still demonise women for working and driving.

Inspirational stories

This kind of inspirational story might have easily ended up being loud, but under Basholli’s admirably controlled watch, none of the lines sound unnatural, no moment seems too manipulated, even the touches of humour are as mellow as in life. With very little dialogue, and mainly by walking and simmering, Yllka Gashi (playing Hoti) conveys her character’s desperation and determination in this worthy winner of the world dramatic film competition.

The American dramatic film winner CODA is less restrained. Ruby, a teenaged child of deaf adults and the only hearing member in the family, discovers a talent for singing. Her parents and brother must come to terms with her practicing an art they cannot appreciate.

Tropes of the standard high school drama — mean kids, that supportive professor, a stage performance or two — are thoughtfully elevated, but only briefly, by the larger context of disability and inclusion.

The more interesting piece of the story is Ruby’s family’s fight to revolutionise the fishing industry, in which they have toiled for generations and which is reeling under corruption. Through sign and song, the film shows why the balance between leaning on and letting go is so hard to strike among loved ones.

In Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), debutant filmmaker Ahmir Questlove Thompson proves that the Harlem Cultural Festival did indeed happen. Whereas 1969 is popularly associated with the much-documented Woodstock music festival, contemporary performances in Harlem — including Mavis Staples, Stevie Wonder and Sly among others — were infuriatingly forgotten outside of African American circles.

Questlove Thompson’s winning documentary, which shows footage from the event for the first time ever and has performers and festival goers recount the zeitgeist of the period, is an important act of resurrection.

It takes us to Harlem at the height of the Black Power movement, a year after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, where young blacks are pronouncing pride in their blackness, in their African-ness. The fashion, hair, and vocabulary of the community is changing. When Nina Simone, looking “like an African Princess” as one festival attendee notes in the film, sings “Are you ready, black people?” over and over again, the viewer has no choice but to be charged by the electricity of meaning, memory and music.

Closer home, one woman struggles against superstitions and systems in Ajitpal Singh’s minutely observed, carefully constructed Fire in the Mountains.

She tends to her son’s broken legs and runs a homestay in a picturesque yet punishing part of the Kumaon range. The money she has eked out to build a road leading to the hospital is imperilled by her husband who would rather spend it on a religious ritual to rid his son of what he believes is a curse. That such damaging blind faith thrives among us stirs pain and anger, which are echoed in the film’s staggering conclusion.