Among the LGBTQ+ highlights at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was an eclectic lineup of short films and series, which James Kleinmann reviews below.
A wild patience has taken me here/Uma Paciência Selvagem me Trouxe Até Aqui ★★★★
As the film opens we meet Vange (Zélia Duncan), a cat-owning middle-aged motorcyclist who lives alone. She reflects back on her love life, leading to a stunning opening credits montage filled with images of Brazilian lesbian history captured in personal photographs, accompanied by a gorgeous electronic score by Natália Carrera. While sitting outside a bar, Vange observes four high-spirited young queer women, Rô (Bruna Linzmeyer), Alice (Camila Rocha), Granado (Clarissa Ribeiro), and Ângela (Lorre Motta) as they document the start of their night out with social media videos that fill the screen.
Unexpectedly, the five women end up spending the evening together, with the younger women opening up their home to Vange. In what will likely be one of the hottest, most sensual sex scenes of the year, that vibrates with collective energy, cinematographer Cris Lyra captures the women as they enjoy each other’s bodies. It’s beautiful to look at without being voyeuristic, and more about coveying the women’s pleasure than titillating the viewer. Which is why it’s so hot. Then Vange rides off into the sunrise with Rô in a romantic, stylishly shot magenta-hued motorcycle sequence.
Throughout the film at various points, each of the four younger women speak directly to camera about the first time that they became aware of lesbians, either in their own lives or on television. While Vange recalls what lesbian life was like for her in her younger years, remembering all the long gone queer bars and clubs that filled the neighbourhood thirty years ago. She views the younger women, who dance and kiss in public, as being able to be so much more open about their sexuality than she was. With a lightness of touch, writer-director Érica Sarmet uses this intergenerational meeting to create a rich and engaging narrative of sisterhood, as well as a touching tribute to the lesbians who paved the way for today’s young queer women. A wild patience has taken me here received Sundance’s Short Film Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast.
Egúngún (Masquerade) ★★★1/2
Salewa (Sheila Chukwulozie), a Nigerian woman living with her wife in London, reluctantly returns to Lagos alone for her mother’s funeral and spends time with Ebun (Teniola Aladese) who she was close with as a teenager. Much of the film focuses on the reunion between the two women. Firstly, and rather awkwardly, in the presence of Ebun’s husband Bode (Justin Ubong-Abasi) who has a bandaged eye seeping with blood, and later as they manage to steal some time alone. Chukwulozie gives a nuanced central performance as her anger and resentment softens, and there’s palpable chemistry between her and Aladese that makes the delicate scenes between them compelling.
In just 15 minutes, and on a tight budget, writer-director Olive Nwosu, who was nominated for a British Independent Film Award for Egúngún, creates a poignant film, rich with the history of a queer relationship that was never given the chance to bloom in the open. She also establishes the tension between Salewa and her late mother (Elizabeth Popoola) who is briefly seen in a flashback sequence, and—although it’s unseen—gives us a vivid impression of her starkly contrasting life in London. Well-paced, Nwosu immerses us in the atmosphere of her native Logas, from a frustrating if vibrantly colorful traffic jam to more tranquil home life. I’m looking forward to her first feature which is currently in development with Film4.
F^¢K ’€M R!GHT B@¢K ★★★1/2
Emmanuel ‘DDm’ Williams co-writes and stars in F^¢K ’€M R!GHT B@¢K as Sammy, a charismatic performer attempting to launch his rap career in a queer dive bar in Baltimore where one of the patrons thinks he’s doing karaoke and interrupts him mid-song to request their track. When a one-night stand with a sexy stranger leads to Sammy mistakenly eating an edible—he thought it was just a tasty looking cake—he risks losing his day job when he’s late for work and his uptight boss Sheila (Catherine Curtin) threatens to give him “a random” on the spot drug test. Thankfully he has his colleague and bff Yolanda (Kara Young) on hand to help him evade his boss and get the drugs out of his system before he returns to work.
With a kinetic soundtrack, written and performed by DDm, vibrant costumes and a great cast, including fun cameos from Baltimore queens Washington Heights and Stealya Manz, F^¢K ’€M R!GHT B@¢K is a total blast. DDm as Sammy makes for an adorable lead and I’d love to see what other trouble he could get himself out of if this was extended into a feature by co-writer and director Harris Doran.
Makassar Is A City For Football Fans ★★★1/2
In an attempt to fit in with his college friends in his hometown of Makassar, Indonesia, Akbar (Sabri Sahafuddin) feigns passion for football as he tries to conceal being queer. We see him alone as he musters himself in the stadium restroom before watching a match, with audible homophobic chants coming from the crowd. As we spend more time with them, it’s clear that the group of young men he’s fallen in with are the epitome of toxic masculinity, at one point threatening sexual violence to a woman who passes them in the street.
In the thick of this bro culture though, writer-director Khozy Rizal subtly gives us a sense that it’s not just Akbar who is performing, but that they’re all doing it to a degree, trying to out-masc one another by saying what they think will impress the others and conforming in this patriarchal, heteronormative society. That doesn’t diminish the discomfort that we feel for Akbar in the midst of their relentless bravado though.
Sahafuddin is an engaging, beautifully expressive actor, letting us in on how Akbar’s feeling as he tries to conceal his thoughts from the football lads and we can see the pressure of pretending to be something he’s not getting to him. Thankfully there is some relief in a wonderfully sweet and tender moment of connection between Akbar and one of the other guys, Sakti (Muh. Saleh Hasanuddin), as they caress each other’s faces. Rizal’s sensitive character study leaves us with a glimmer of hope.
Prayers For Sweet Waters ★★★1/2
Elijah Ndoumbe’s raw and intimate documentary short, Prayers For Sweet Waters, offers three delicate portraits of trans sex workers in Cape Town, South Africa. First we meet 22-year-old Wes, who is non-binary, and talks about becoming comfortable with their body through their work and contemplating how their job has given them an understanding of the concept of family, describing Cape Town’s sex workers as a “very tight-knit, very caring, open community”.
For Gulam, sex work has allowed her to “carve out an existence” for herself “against all life’s odds”. She is insightful, beautifully poetic, and philosophical about life and talks about the struggle of surviving through the pandemic when the early months of it took away all of her clients. Lastly, we observe Flavi’s close relationship with her accepting mother. The film’s strength is the way that filmmaker and multidisciplinary artist Ndoumbe, who clearly gained the trust of their subjects, allows them to speak for themselves. It feels like they each have real ownership of their stories as they share their private thoughts, which is powerful in itself given that trans sex workers are so readily stigmatized and silenced.
Writer-director Antonio Marziale gives an electrifying drag performance that builds to a gripping and powerfully moving climax in this audacious queer revenge thriller tackling the abuse of power in Hollywood which received its world premiere at Sundance and now heads to this month’s Berlinale. As the film opens we meet a young-looking aspiring movie star (Cole Doman) as he arrives at the impressive yet soulless home of a wealthy Hollywood director (an unnerving, suitably creepy Jonathan Slavin). With the promise of launching the actor’s screen career hanging in the balance, the older man enlists him to fulfill his schoolboy fetish sexual fantasies, involving protective plastic covering on the bedroom floor.
Role play in the bedroom moves to role play of another form with the young man forced into an awkward impromptu audition over dinner for a small role in a PG-rated film the director is set to shoot in Utah. One questions how many young men the director has “auditioned” for similar (likely non-existent) roles over the years, particularly once Marziale arrives at the house portraying one of the filmmaker’s discarded former twink-ingenus. Doman brings an emotional vulnerability to the role, allowing us to see flickers of the steeliness behind his character’s submissive demeanor, and there’s a wonderfully charged chemistry between Doman and Marziale as they pull off a thrilling stunt.
With a confronting, darkly comic tone that put me in mind of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, cinematographer Matthew Potheir creates a sense of voyeuristic intimacy which shifts along with the power dynamics as the film progresses, while composers James William Blades and Taul Katz help maintain an uneasy tension with their eerie, beautifully erratic score. An impressive directing debut that’s as arresting and bold as its title.
Writer-director Dania Bdeir’s Warsha, which received the Short Film Jury Award for International Fiction at Sundance 2022, follows a Syrian migrant worker, Mohammad (Khansa), as he heads to a construction site in Beirut. With the project’s previous crane operator having died in an accident on the job, Mohammad bravely volunteers to replace him and we go with him as he makes his ascent up to the top of a perilously high crane. With convincing visual effects, using projected footage captured in camera, Shadi Chaaban creates some heart-stoppingly vertiginous images using terrific aerial drone footage as Mohammad takes his seat in the sky.
The construction site itself feels authentic, with Bdeir filling the non-speaking roles with real workers. Living in close quarters, the men not only sleep en masse but Mohammad can’t even get a moment to himself in the bathroom, unable to lock the door without complaints. So rather than being nervous or uncomfortable in his new solitary work environment, he instead finds the freedom of expression he doesn’t have on the ground, or at least a chance for his inner-self to be unshackled.
It’s a freedom that we see manifested in an astounding sequence, with Mohammad suddenly outside the crane’s operating cabin and performing a sensuous dance enveloped in the chains at the end of the crane itself, swinging hundreds of feet above Beirut in red stiletto heels. The movement piece is a captivatingly beautiful mix of tenderness and strength, performed and choreographed by Khansa, making an indelible screen debut. With no dialogue—just some fierce lip-syncing—Khansa is wonderfully expressive in these two contrasting worlds of having to fit in down on the ground and being able to be himself up in the clouds. Towards the end, the quietly poetic image of Mohammad praying at the top of the crane is just as impactful in its own way as the astonishing dance sequence that proceeds it. A sensitive, visually breathtaking film that made my heart soar. I can’t wait to see more from both Bdeir and Khansa.
Gabi (Marisela Zumbado), a young queer Latina woman who is struggling to get over a recent breakup, drifts into memories of happier days with her girlfriend, which we see in gorgeously rendered impressionistic sequences shot on film by cinematographer Melinda James. While Gabi works her office job as a freelance editor, shot naturalistically by James, she’s distracted and enraged by social media posts of her ex-girlfriend on the beach with a new partner. Frustrated, she decides to take a shift at the underground lap dancing club where she used to work.
Whereas other films might frame this as a character’s life spiraling out of control by returning to the sex industry, instead writer-director April Maxey immerses us in that world in a clear-eyed, nonjudgemental way that presents what Gabi is doing as just another job, and moreover something that helps her to rediscover herself post-breakup. There are some nice details, like how punctual the women are expected to be and that the dancers themselves have to pay upfront for their spot. At one point we see Gabi standing around waiting for clients, before getting turned down by one, and then having to be a therapist of sorts for a client who’s talking about a breakup mid-lap dance. All of which contrasts to the usual movie representation of lap dancing that’s generally simultaneously salacious and disapproving.
Similarly, James’ camera shots in the club place the POV, not with the male clientele or with us as viewers, but with the women themselves, connecting with their emotional reaction to their environment. These sequences make for a great example of female filmmakers subverting the traditional male gaze and focus on male pleasure that’s dominated so much of Hollywood filmmaking, as explored by Nina Menkes’ feature documentary Brainwashed Sex-Camera-Power which also premiered at Sundance.
Along with a cameo by Genera+ion star Nava Mau, one of the film’s producers, Maxey has cast some real dancers in background roles to give the scenes added authenticity. During the evening, Gabi is reunited with an old friend, Max (Elaine Whae), and there’s a compelling scene, filled with palpable sexual tension, where the two women dance together for the enjoyment of an older gentleman, but are clearly more focused on each other as he blurs into the background. There’s great chemistry between Zumbado and Whae in their scenes, and Zumbado makes for an engaging lead creating an intriguing character who we immediately care about. The entire production team of Work was made up by queer people, people of color, and female filmmakers, and Maxey and James are definitely names to look out for.
My Trip to Spain ★★★1/2
In My Trip to Spain, which world premiered as part of Sundance’s indie episodic program, we meet Alexis (Theda Hammel, who also writes and directs), a trans woman on the morning of her planned trip to Spain to get cosmetic facial surgery. Her neighbour Bruno (Gordon Landenberger) is busily—and noisily—working on renovations to the garden when Alexis’ embittered gay friend Charlie (Search Party’s John Early) arrives to housesit. Over a leisurely-paced half hour episode, with an appealingly dry humour, Hammel establishes her endearingly imperfect characters and creates a delightfully offbeat tone. Cinematographer Arlene Muller makes us aware of her camera—which almost feels like another character in itself—with 70s movie style zoom-ins, and pulling away from the action at certain moments, that give the piece a fly-on-the-wall aesthetic. All the performances are nicely underplayed and natural and Hammel and Early have an absorbing on screen rapport as their characters rub up against one another.
Charlie, whose mental health—and sex life—has suffered due to the isolation of the pandemic, attempts to dissuade Alexis from getting the surgery, as we question how altruistic his concerns are. As the two battle against the sound of Bruno’s buzzsaw, the conversation becomes a great example of trans humour, created by a trans creative herself, that unlike a well-publicized comedy special, is gently observational and not dangerous or degrading. Alexis’ voice-over adds another layer to what’s unfolding on screen in this delightfully gentle, low-key and thought-provoking comedy. I’d love to see where Hammel might take these characters if she expanded it into a full series.
By James Kleinmann
Catch up on our other Sundance reviews including Sam Max’s Chaperone starring Zachary Quinto, Gabriel Martins’ Mars One (Marte Um), Nina Menkes’ Brainwashed Sex-Camera-Power, Chase Joynt’s award-winning Framing Ages, Jesse Eisenberg’s When You Finish Saving The World, Rita Baghdadi’s Sirens, Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne’s Am I OK?, Jono McLeod’s My Old School featuring Alan Cumming, and Queer Palm-winning Moffie filmmaker Oliver Hermanus’ Living. Read our exclusive conversation with Oscar-nominated Carol screenwriter Phyllis Nagy about her latest feature Call Jane, which received its world premiere at the festival.