Sundance 2023: Fantastic Machine, Milithusando, The Eternal Memory

Film, by its very nature, is a lens used to view the world. How we see the events happening around us, ultimately bending, distorting and reporting their meaning, is what makes the cinematic language not just one of sound and moving images, but one that compels us to still questioning our interpretation of the thoughts, feelings and memories. we go in. Three such works premiered in the World Documentary Section this year, and they all play with our expectations to give a clearer picture of the meaning we get from our presentation of history.

It begins most clearly with directors Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck’s cutting investigation”Fantastic machine.” In it, the filmmakers recount how humans have altered and often perverted the living image to rewrite reality, from the oldest photograph (taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1827) to the contemporary fascination with monetizing the cropped images of our life to cultural cache.

Sometimes their observations can turn to mockery, as when they make fun of how Eurovision, by virtue of a green screen, makes it seem as if their presenters are in different countries, when in fact they are all in the same studio. At other points, the directors are jarring, such as when they present an archival interview with Ted Turner celebrates his philosophy behind the kind of escapism that makes “Beverly Hillbillies” and exploiting cable news coverage as allied forms of entertainment.

These moments, in a film that loves itself a montage, can put truth to power and comedy to video. But this searing and shocking examination of our popular culture, where content is king, is strongest when it frightens the viewer. Consider how the directors use real b-roll of ISIS terrorists shooting a propaganda video. The terrorists bring props and a script. And it’s even initially played for laughs when the ISIS member can’t remember his lines. But then “Fantastic Machine” goes a step further: In another sequence, the directors combine the sights of the German director Leni Riefenstahl shows how she created Nazi propaganda (she’s basically giddy and shows off her technical expertise in promoting genocide) heavily edited against how Sidney Bernstein viewed his duty in trying to capture accurate images of the Holocaust.

“Fantastic Machine” reflects on the manipulation of truth in our current news landscape: anyone with a microphone, a camera and a YouTube channel can call themselves a reporter. And anyone with a big enough mouth can shout “Fake News”. But what is even more fascinating is the ending, which considers the Voyager Golden Record, launched into space in 1977, as a welcome alien record of human existence. We know about the included sound. But did you know we included images that showed the best of humanity without war, poverty and strife? In this striking conclusion, our obsession with commanding the truth behind the image is not a new disease. That’s just the human condition.

“I have to be very careful about remembering my memories,” says Milisuthando Bongela, the introspective director behind the searing, highly personal documentary, “Milisuthando.” In Bongela’s poignant memoir lies complexity and confusion, layers of trauma interlaced with accepted doubts and truths about her childhood, her country and her home. Her thoughts begin with a grainy video dating back to 2014 of a black woman in Johannesburg, South Africa, exposing herself naked in front of Nelson Mandela‘s statue, and ends with the burial of her relatives. Between these two laments lies a penetrating interrogation of history, ancestry, nationalism and the remnants of apartheid.

Bongela comes from the defunct country of Transkie, an experimental state in South Africa that lasted between 1976 and 1994, which toyed with the idea of ​​creating a separate but equal homeland for Africans that would give them their own spaces, schools and identities – and most importantly, put them far away from white. During a visit to her grandmother, in the small pink home Bongela considers the true place of her upbringing, she struggles with the historical toxic residue left by the imagination behind her former country: How could her youth be filled with racism when the existence of Transkie – filled with a blurry swirl of smiles, wholesome services, vibrant fashion and heartfelt traditions – never felt outwardly racist? What does it mean for her to exist in relation to white power? And how can she allow her ancestors to exist through her? These are just some of the big questions, divided into chapters narrated by Bongela, which the director quizzes unwraps.

In “Milisuthando,” too, there is a stream of indelible images: a montage of supposed progress—of flowers blooming, children playing, and families communicating—told with a similar thematic thrust of the oncoming danger felt in Terrence Malicks”The new world” by setting the scene Richard Wagner “Das Rheingold.” And there are unforgettable words, such as a candid conversation between Bongela and her white producer and friend, Marion Isaacs, that touch on the often unspoken scars of apartheid. Eloquently shot and crisply edited by Hankyeol Lee; thematically shocking and emotionally unrelenting as Rebecca Hunt‘s”Baby,” Bongela’s “Milisuthando” intertwines the injustices of her personal past with the systemic flaws they were forged into to swing a sledgehammer against history.

The Chilean director Maite Alberdi has made a career out of portraying the elderly in films such as “The mole agent” and “Te Time” (La Once). Similar to her short “I’m Not from Here” (Yo no soy de aquí), her latest film, “The eternal memory,” delves deep into the life of someone battling Alzheimer’s disease. In this case, it is Chilean reporter Augusto Góngora. The journalist has spent a large part of his life following Augusto Pinochet’s violent dictatorship, recording Chile’s emotional and political memory. With his own memory now failing, his wife Paulina, an actress and former president of the National Council of Culture and the Arts, is his caregiver.

Alberdi doesn’t give much background on the early arc of Augusto’s illness: we don’t know how much time has passed between his diagnosis and what we see on screen; and we learn even less about how much time is currently passing. Instead, day-to-day footage of Paulina taking care of Augusto marks the time: we see the walks the couple take, her reading books to him, and him watching her theater performances. We absorb the love that fuels them and feel the fear, pain and anguish that envelops Augusto as he rejects. It is not a light watch. Similar to other Alzheimer’s documentaries such as “Dick Johnson is Dead” and “Our time machine,” in our small but inevitable way, we get to feel the grief their healthy loved one experiences.

But outside of the built-in heartbreak of this story, Alberdi adds very few other layers. She tries to run Augusto’s amnesia as a parallel to the slippery memory of the Pinochet government that Chileans had to confront if they wanted to remake their national identity. The footage of his reporting is unfortunately not woven through enough to land this metaphorical arc. While the obstacles depicted in “Everlasting Memory” are certainly a testament to this couple’s love, their acute ordeal is only half the picture in terms of the film’s goals.

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