February 9, 2021


World cinema highlights from Sundance 2021

By Shane Danielsen
Image of Yllka Gashi, Molikë Maxhuni, Kaona Sylejmani and Blerta Ismajli in Blerta Basholli’s Hive.

Yllka Gashi, Molikë Maxhuni, Kaona Sylejmani and Blerta Ismajli appear in Blerta Basholli’s Hive. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Alexander Bloom.

Films by Ronny Trocker, Ninja Thyberg, Sean Ellis and Blerta Basholli are standouts from this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival

Most film festivals have national sections, and as a rule they’re usually best avoided: a dumping-ground for work inadequate for the main line-up. But Sundance presents a particular challenge in this respect, since its national showcase is also its main competition. And by and large it is not good – either blandly “inspirational”, calculatedly crowd-pleasing, or simply wretched in that particular, private way only total sincerity of motives can allow. 

So for Sundance’s online 2021 edition, I chose instead to concentrate mostly on its World Cinema Dramatic Competition, which tends to be rather less self-congratulatory and insular. The four films below were the highlights; all are strongly recommended.

Nina (Sabine Timoteo) and Jan (Mark Waschke) run an advertising firm in Germany; as Ronny Trocker’s Human Factors begins, they’ve taken their two children for a break at their holiday house by the Belgian seaside. But even as their car pulls up outside, Klemens Hufnagl’s camera is already on the move, prowling restlessly through the empty hallways like the intruders who may or may not already be inside, and whose presence (or the intimation of same) provides the fissure that shatters all their carefully constructed, surprisingly fragile lives. 

Jan, we learn, has recently taken on the account of a major European political party, against his wife’s wishes. Is the family being targeted by its opponents? Is the party right-wing? (I immediately suspected it was Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland.) And more crucially: was there even anyone in the house at all?

There are intimations of other films here – Jan’s initial hesitation, when he hears his wife’s scream, recalls the central act of cowardice in Ruben Östlund’s acclaimed Force Majeure. And the gloomy shadow of Michael Haneke hangs heavy over proceedings, like a storm cloud filled with piss. But Trocker, more compassionate than the Austrian master (you don’t sense, as one occasionally did in Caché, that these people are being punished mostly for not reading the right books) is also more interested in the broader societal forces at play, beyond the simple pressures and hypocrisies of bourgeois life. 

Hufnagl’s cinematography is frequently gorgeous, but best of all is the complex, fugue-like structure of Trocker’s script, which keeps looping backward to depict the central incident – the family’s arrival at the house – from a variety of perspectives, broadening our understanding of events with each new retelling. The end, when it comes, is slightly less satisfying than the journey, but even so this is a remarkably assured and gripping feature.

Swedish filmmaker Ninja Thyberg premiered her short Pleasure – about an encounter on a porn set – at Cannes in 2013; eight years later, she’s retained the title and returned to the same milieu for her feature debut. Nineteen-year-old Swede Linnéa (screen newcomer Sofia Kappel) flies into LAX, renames herself Bella Cherry, and sets about finding an agent. Before long she’s living in a “model house”, a squalid bungalow in the Valley shared with three other aspiring starlets. She wants to be “the biggest porn star in the world”, but you sense she doesn’t really know what that means, much less what it requires. Alas, events quickly confirm this suspicion.

But if the film’s narrative trajectory is wearily familiar (hungry neophyte climbs the ladder, only to lose her soul) every detail, for once, feels well-researched and true, right down to appearances from real-life pornstars Evelyn Claire, Dana DeArmond and Kendra Spade – and even super-agent Mark Spiegler, here playing himself with an almost supernatural lack of vanity. Confronted with the brittle allure of his “Spiegler girls”, Bella quickly realises that she’s just another C-list wannabe, and so signs up for an interracial double-anal scene (for blacked.com – another subtle little display of verisimilitude), in order to boost her notoriety and increase her market value. 

The resulting sequence is almost as painful to watch as it would be, in real life, to endure – but even that pales beside a later shoot when, having decided that she’s a submissive, she agrees to some “rough stuff”, only to find herself suddenly, terrifyingly out of her depth, broken by abuse both physical (from her fellow performers) and emotional (from an increasingly exasperated director), all determined to wrap the scene and get paid. Superbly edited and genuinely harrowing, such moments are undercut only by Thyberg’s decision to cut, at the most charged moments, to sacred choral music – a directorial choice that, amid so much tough reality, seems badly misjudged.

After a callow debut with 2006’s Cashback (a guy with the ability to stop time uses it mostly to undress beautiful women and look at their boobs), British writer-director Sean Ellis has become an accomplished and admirably eclectic genre filmmaker – most notably with Metro Manila (2013), a crime drama with sharp sociopolitical undercurrents, shot in the Philippines with dialogue mostly in Tagalog. 

His latest feature, Eight for Silver (screening not in World Cinema Dramatic, but in Premieres), is another unexpected detour: a Gothic horror story set in the late 18th century, on a kind of British enclave in western France. Landowner Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) orders the slaughter of a band of Roma when they lay claim to his estate, only to then suffer the consequences of their curse: a werewolf-like creature that first claims his young son, then threatens his community, his workers, and finally his wife and daughter.

Apart from anything else, it’s the most successful updating of the classic 1960s Hammer Horror aesthetic I’ve seen, all fogbound moors and gloomy, candlelit interiors – not to mention some quietly lavish costumes, courtesy of designer Madeline Fontaine. Ellis, who began his career as a fashion photographer, is behind the camera here, and his long shots, in particular, have an almost painterly pictorial elegance. The massacre at the Roma encampment – filmed from a distance in a single extended take, the action unfolding like a tableau painting – is as superbly staged a sequence as I can remember. 

The slow-burn telling won’t be to all tastes, a couple of the narrative strands go unresolved and I’m not entirely convinced by Boyd Holbrook as a hunky pathologist-detective with firsthand knowledge of la Bête du Gévaudan, which this creature may or may not be. Nevertheless, this is an engrossing monster movie: richly atmospheric, yet unafraid to show its teeth when the need arises.

Coming out of Kosovo, Blerta Basholli’s debut feature Hive won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize and also walked away with the section’s Audience Award. Based on real-life events, it’s a terse, plain-spoken study of female empowerment, and a work of quiet but steady power.

Seven years on from the March 1999 massacre in the Kosova village of Krusha e Madhe, an atrocity that left 240 dead or missing, many of the locals remain suspended in a kind of purgatorial stasis, unsure of the fate of their loved ones. Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) lost her husband Agim, and now supports not only their two teenage children, but her crippled father-in-law Haxhi (Çun Lajçi) as well. Though reluctant to admit Agim is dead, she’s also learnt to be tough, earning some money from selling jars of honey in the market, a sideline she decides to turn into a small business, preparing homemade ajvar, a roasted red pepper relish, and enlisting the help of other widows – a kind of factory of sorrowful souls. But this plan soon earns her enemies among the patriarchal elders of the town, who feel Fahrije should devote herself to mourning, raising her kids and knowing her place.

Events unfold in the methodical, matter-of-fact manner of contemporary Euro realism. There’s nothing flashy about Basholli’s technique; a few brief dream sequences, scattered amid the action, are about the only overt concessions to “style” here. But the blank, oppressive weight of medieval male attitudes fuels the narrative with urgency and outrage. Fahrije’s car windows are smashed, her workshop wrecked. She’s called a whore, nearly raped. Meanwhile, her co-workers are nervous that their fathers will beat them – and perhaps worse – should they commit the unimaginable sin of obtaining a driver’s licence. Watching, you may feel a vein throbbing in your temple.

And yet, for all that, this is a quietly optimistic film; its popularity with the Sundance audience, by the end, makes complete sense. (Not least for Kumrije Hoxha’s quietly scene-stealing turn as Nazmije, the no-nonsense older woman with whom Fahrije partners. A kind of Balkan Blanche Devereaux, her erotic reminisces, at one point, have the other women begging her to shut up.) Still, it’s Yllka Gashi’s central performance – stern, watchful, defiantly proud – that holds this together. An activist in real life, a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, she’s little short of magnetic onscreen. She and her director are each names to watch.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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