From Long Night’s Journey Into Day to Children Underground to Daughter From Danang, the nonfiction cinema supported by the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund exposes social injustices and personal tragedies from around the globe. In “Sundance at MOMA: Illuminated Voices”—the first of an annual collaboration between the two institutions—the best films continue the tradition of resonant political and emotional work.
Take Mercedes Moncada Rodríguez’s The Passion of María Elena, a poetic account of one indigenous woman’s fight against prejudice in northwestern Mexico. After her three-year-old son is hit and killed by a truck driven by a “white” Mexican, María Elena seeks retribution, turning to both her local Raramuri community in the Sierra Taramura canyon and the city government of neighboring Chihuahua. María Elena’s pursuit provides narrative drive, but the film’s strength comes from its sensitivity and luminous imagery. When justice finally arrives for María Elena, it is on terms that defy Western sensibilities.
According to program director Diane Weyermann, María Elena epitomizes the type of project the fund aims to help. “Because it is very filmic with untraditional narrative storytelling,” she says, describing the doc’s formal mirroring of the Raramuri spiritual views on death and destiny, “it would not have been financed by television.” The other truly cinematic documentary is Ferenc Moldoványi’s Children (Kosovo, 2000), which alternates lyrical visual passages with utterly devastating testimonials from Albanian and Serbian children about their murdered fathers and raped siblings.
Such divided communities dominate the selection. Anat Even and Ada Ushpiz’s distressing Detained chronicles three Palestinian widows in Hebron who inhabit an apartment building controlled by Israeli soldiers (and literally share a roof with their snipers), while Amit Goren’s Golan interviews Israeli settlers in the Golan Heights. Both films show, at best, an underlying mistrust between the two peoples, and at worse, a blazing hatred. Rwanda’s situation appears similarly dire. Anne Aghion’s Gacaca, Living Together Again in Rwanda looks at a post-genocide community-based tribunal reminiscent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but the bitter, traumatized participants experience little truth or reconciliation.
The increasing ideological gap within Iran is explored in two films. Maziar Bahari’s And Along Came a Spider is a collection of chilling interviews with a man who murdered 16 prostitutes (he calls himself an “anti-street-woman activist”) and shocking conversations with friends and family who support his actions. For a more general cultural survey Thierry Michel’s Iran: Veiled Appearances documents religious fanaticism side by side with university students denouncing the Islamic revolution as a “disaster.” The most sensationalistic of the bunch, John Friedman and Eric Nadler’s Stealing the Fire spins a worthwhile investigation of centrifuge technology and nuclear proliferation into inflammatory agitprop insinuating a German-Iraqi plot against Israel.
For a little hope, turn to Belkacem Hadjadj’s A Female Cabby in Sidi Bel-Abbès, which follows the only female taxi driver in the violent Algerian city. Despite rampant sexism and death threats, the charismatic, fearless widow and mother of three keeps on cabbing. And then there’s Georgie Girl, a portrait of New Zealander Georgina Beyer, the world’s first transgender person to hold national office. Aided by stellar ’70s stock footage and campy ’80s video of the drag diva, director Annie Goldson charts the personable Maori member of Parliament’s inspiring rise from cabaret queen and prostitute to heralded local leader. “Imagine putting a transsexual in our [legislature],” Weyermann notes. It might solve much of the world’s divisiveness.