5 to See: Docs at Sundance

We review some of the best feature-length and short documentaries shown in Park City, UT, this year.

Still from Pahokee.

Dir. Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan
110 mins

Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan’s Pahokeeinvites us into a small Floridian community and the longer we watch this intimate portrait unfold, the harder it becomes to leave behind those characters we meet. Yet, leaving – and the responsibilities that come with leaving after living your whole life in a small rural community is a major part of what Pahokee is about. The film follows four high-school students, Na’Kerria, Jocabed, Junior and BJ as they prepare for life after school. Despite severe economic hardship and a never-ending cycle of tragic events, each student shows an almost implausible resilience and determination to succeed. Bresnan’s stunning cinematography heightens this implausibility, homing in on and framing those moments of beauty in a small town on the shore of Lake Okeechobee. It’s hard to imagine watching a more poignant documentary in 2019.

Still from The Magic Life of V.

The Magic Life of V
Dir. Tonislav Hristov
87 mins

For his latest feature documentary, Bulgarian Director Tonislav Hristov asks a series of urgent questions to do with the triadic relationship between documentary filmmaking, mental health and the ethics of storytelling. The Magic Life of Vtracks the life of Vera, whose problems at home force her to construct elaborate fantasy worlds in order to mitigate the searing psychological pain she endures every day. To cast off the trauma that for so long has cast a shadow over her life, she becomes more and more involved with LARP (live-action role-play), in which she creates a fictional persona: V. As V, Vera can more easily tackle the problems that otherwise look impossible to surmount. Set in Finland, The Magic Life of Vis a non-fictional paean to fiction and the way it can transform our lives.

Still from Walden.

Dir. Daniel Zimmerman
106 mins

Featured in the New Frontiers category of Sundance 2019, artist Daniel Zimmerman’s Walden is a startlingly original feat of documentary cinema, which uses 360-degree panning shots, allowing us to inhabit an all-seeing perspective. In a forest in Austria, a fir tree is felled and processed into planks of wood. By train, truck, boat and finally by hand, the stack is transported across continents to a mysterious destination far away. A sensory experience of the highest order, Walden takes us to 13 different stops on the journey from the forest through numerous cities, as we see weather conditions and the modes of transportation change. The film’s meditative commentary suggests the absurdity of the economic rationale that fuels our globalised world – and with each narrative segment, we realise we are headed in a direction we never expected.

Still from All Inclusive.

All Inclusive
Dir. Corina Schwingruber Ili?
10 mins

The shorts programming was as strong as ever at Sundance with two documentary shorts standing out in particular. The show opened with Corina Schwingruber Ili?’s wild, raucous All Inclusive, a sensory overload that captures the surreal phenomenon of package-holidayers partying aboard a cruise ship. We’re never told where the boat is going. But the closing shot of the boat’s stern heading towards a vast emptiness of blue suggests something we intuit right from the start: perhaps those onboard don’t know where they’re really going either. 

Still from Life in Miniature.

Life in Miniature
Dir. Ellen Evans
5 mins

Following All Inclusive was young British director Ellen Evans’ perfectly crafted Life in Miniature, which tells the story of Kath Holden, a miniaturist living in the North of England. The 5-minute short manages to tell the story of someone’s life and their worldview in the smallest, most succinct form as possible.  The title Life in Miniature is a pun, Evans explained: “it both refers to Kath’s life as a miniaturist and the story of her life in miniature in the form of a short film.”

Christopher Webb

Sundance Film Festival ran 24 January – 3 February. For more information, click here.

Lead Image: Still from Pahokee.