Forty Years of Snow and Cinema: Independent Selects from Sundance 2024

by M. Sellers Johnson Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 13 minutes (3114 words)

In the Land of Brothers (photo source, Sundance Institute)

For over forty years, Sundance has been a flagship film festival in its provision of independent US and international cinema. In its fledgling years (1978-1983) this annual programming operated under the titles Utah/US Film Festival and the US Film and Video Festival, before finally being organized in 1984 under the Sundance Institute. Under the auspices of this Sundance Institute, the Sundance Film Festival has hosted numerous seminal films and emerging filmmakers throughout the past few decades. Notable premieres from the 1990s and early aughts include recognizable titles such as Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991), The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999), Girlfight (Karyn Kusama, 2000), and Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009). 2004 was an especially formative year for independent Sundance debuts with premieres of Shane Carruth’s microbudget sci-fi thriller Primer, Debra Granik’s visceral drama Down to the Bone, cults classics Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess) and Garden State (Zach Braff), and the acclaimed music documentary on The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Dig! (Ondi Timoner)—which was digitally remastered and reimagined at this year’s Festival under the revised title Dig! XX (2024).

While this year seems to showcase a slightly smaller pool of film screenings, Sundance 2024 continues in its ethos of independent film provision by providing a platform for socially relevant topics, such as Palestinian-English Drag culture in the UK with Amrou Al-Kadhi’s Layla, Rose Glass’s Queer romantic thriller Love Lies Bleeding, and scholar/filmmaker Jules Rosskam’s hybrid documentary Desires Lines, which charts archival histories and imaginations of female-to-male trans-experiences. Nested in the Wasatch Mountain Range east of Salt Lake City, Sundance’s annual home in Park City is packed each January with skiers, snowboarders, and film enthusiasts. The regional and economic exclusivity of the Festival is mostly offset by the airs of amicability and excitement aglow in Park City. For better or worse, Sundance is certainly a destination for film activity as one of the first major film festivals each new year, setting the tone for a myriad of other international festivals to come throughout the year. Below, I detail four select independent debuts that each stand in testament to the value and provision of independent filmmaking, and Sundance exhibition.

In the Land of Brothers (Raha Amirfazli and Alireza Ghasemi)

In the Land of Brothers (photo source, Sundance Institute)

An astounding feature from the World Cinema Dramatic Competition this year is In the Land of Brothers. The title refers to the complicated fraternal notion of Afghani and Iranian peoples and their transnational connections. The story itself centers around Afghani refugee experiences abroad in Iran. Structured as a triptych, In the Land of Brothers explores three interconnected stories about Afghani men and women, struggling to make a home against the fraught institutional impositions present within Iran.

The film contains three chapters over the course of thirty years and details the personal immigrant journeys of Mohammad (Mohammad Hosseini), Leila (Hamideh Jafari), and Qasem (Bashir Nikzad). Major themes within the film cover immigration insecurities, death, sexual assault, and the complicated interrelations between Afghanistan and Iran. Beginning in 2001, the first chapter introduces us to the adolescent Mohammad, as he navigates the threats and complications of refugee life and his early yearnings of love. Teenage Mohammad is first shown harvesting tomatoes during the wintertime in a greenhouse, where the young Leila also works. Their furtive glances early in the film signal promises of love, but these aspirations prove difficult under the pressures of refugee life. Leila shares in his affections, but she is promised to another young man. However, this doesn’t stop the two from sharing private evenings in the greenhouse, where Mohammad tutors Leila in English. Unfortunately, Mohammad is soon taken away from the safe space of their greenhouse, as the local Iranian police blackmail him into performing labor for them, under the threat of deportation. This judicial abuse soon gives way to an incident of physical and sexual assault from the policeman Behnam (Mehran Vosoughi). The traumatized Mohammad subsequently hides this abuse from his school and family; finally inflicting self-harm upon himself in order to escape labor enlistment and his abuser.

Ten years pass and we find an adult Leila working as a live-in housekeeper for an affluent Iranian family. She shares this home with her sickly husband and young child. Upon discovering her deceased husband in their apartment, she desperately tries to veil the body from her employers, which is problematized further by a group of invited guests who visit their shared home amidst a holiday week. Leila’s fear of deportation at the discovery of her husband’s passing leads her to perform a series of clandestine acts, in effort to safeguard the refugee status of herself and her son.

In the Land of Brothers (photo source, Sundance Institute)

The final chapter begins in 2021 with Mohammad’s father Qasem. Upon learning about the death of his son, (who claimed to be working in Turkey, but died under military service) Qasem, like Leila, tries to hide this death to protect his family. The situation is also complicated by his family’s promise of national citizenship, lending a bitter irony to their loss. As he reconciles this tragedy with his young daughter and deaf wife, Qasem struggles to remain steadfast in the wake of his familial loss and Afghan-Iranian sense of identity.

Co-writer-directors Raha Amirfazli and Alireza Ghasemi have a number of acclaimed shorts in their mutual filmography, but their inaugural feature further augurs their talent for longer form filmmaking. As one of the strongest international entries of the Festival, In the Land of Brothers is a beautifully shot film, featuring powerful performances from each of the main actors. Its final moments invoke strength and solidarity, but its strong sense of pathos lingers long after the lights go up.

Love Me (Sam and Andy Zuchero)

Love Me (photo source, Sundance Institute)

Kristen Stewart’s involvement in Love Lies Bleeding made her one of the main honorary attendees of this year’s Festival. This, coupled by her performance with Steven Yeun in Love Me (a film pitched as a love story between a buoy and a satellite), made this project one of the most anticipated films of Sundance 2024; and it doesn’t disappoint. The film’s world premiere, at the Eccles Center/Park City High School, featured a defining and inventive debut from partners Sam and Andy Zuchero. Set in the distant future, after the end of humanity, Love Me imagines a love story between two relics of AI technology that endure and discover one another long after the end of human life on Earth.

The story begins with SB350 Smart Buoy (Kristen Stewart) thawing from an ice sheet and powering on with her/their eyes fixed on the atmosphere. SB350 soon notices a sole satellite (Steven Yeun) orbiting the planet and they digital connect with one another. Yeun’s satellite harbors petabytes of digital information which they share with SB350 about the bygone era of humanity. Smart Buoy’s exposure to search engines, video archives via YouTube, and social media inspires her to form a new identity ‘Me’ based on past influencers Deja (Stewart) and her partner Liam (Yeun). Satellite’s correspondence with Me inspires his own name ‘Iam,’ and the two entities begin a romantic relationship based on the dynamics of influencer culture and emulating the digital archives of Deja and Liam. While Me initially deceives Iam by hiding knowledge of her inspiration from the 2024-era influencers, her intentions are genuine, as they learn to evolve together by gauging the online relics of human behavior. Throughout the story, Me and Iam explore these inequities and the challenges of curating one’s identity through a performative self, versus a genuine self.

The admittedly odd conceit of this narrative—a love story between a buoy and a satellite, certainly belies a sense of cheekiness. And Love Me absolutely is, in the best way. The film’s emotional spectrum of humor and existential inquiry is, perhaps, much deeper than its face value. The themes of social formation, emotional discovery, oversaturation of social media, miscommunication, and the telos of ‘humanity’ all converge in the transformative journeys of Me and Iam. The filmmaking techniques present here also include a collage of game engine animation, live-action footage, and practical animatronics to visually articulate these human-computer interactions.

Over a billion years after the death of humanity, love endures in the form of these residual AI technologies. Curiously, Love Me’s central plot revolves around the distant, intimate romance between Me (born from the sea) and Iam (a satellite of human memory inspired by NASA’s Voyager program). Upon discovering the presence of one another, they form concrete identities in consolation for their burgeoning relationship. During the Q&A for the film’s inaugural screening, the Zucheros discuss their intention to make a movie about ‘us’ through the eyes of AI, while also emphasizing explorations of self and the preservational self. Crucially, Love Me stands as a beacon and a declaration of spiritual endurance, despite the finitude of both humanity and technology. Andy Zuchero expresses:

At its heart, it’s a love story about transformation. Sci-fi aside, the real story is watching two characters who begin as new beings – not even humans, but the AI in two machines – as they evolve into virtual avatars and then into a simulated world that is as real as our own, as they discover what it means to be alive and in love […] We wanted to make a movie that made you feel big and small at the same time. Our story spans billions of years, but the relationship at the heart of the film is fleeting. It’s as explosive and immediate as first loves feel.

Viscerally, this independent feature imagines the often-explosive feelings of new love and how self-awareness and identity can be deeply shaped by our connections to others, despite physical and emotional differences.

Through its intimate and expansive love story, Love Me is a cosmic chamber drama that reflects on the nature of affection, consciousness, finitude, and the beyond. Stewart and Yeun’s commitment to this daring and inventive project further assures value in emerging independent filmmakers. Inspired by Carl Sagan’s famous Pale Blue Dot photograph (taken by Voyager 1), Love Me muses over how humanity, its cultures, and its technologies will endure and be measured in the vast history of our local star system—and, indeed, across the greater cosmos. And while the sun will one day engulf the Earth, long after our own self-destruction, this film evokes its very name as both a charge and a wilful statement that is as deeply wishful as it is profound: love transcends all.

A New Kind of Wilderness (Silje Evensmo Jacobsen)

A New Kind of Wilderness (photo source, Sundance Institute)

The World Cinema Documentary Competition for this year boasted several strong selections, including Benjamin Ree’s audience hit Ibelin and Lucy Lawless’s debut documentary on Kiwi CNN photojournalist Margaret Moth. However, few carried the level of pathos present in Silje Evensmo Jacobsen’s A New Kind of Wilderness. Years ago, Jacobsen came across Norwegian photographer Maria Gros Vatne and her blog WildandFree.no. While Jacobsen originally sought to document Vatne’s family and their sustainable, off-the-grid farm lifestyle, Maria’s untimely death amid the early stages of the project led Jacobsen to continue with the film and follow Vatne’s family as they dealt with the sorrow from the loss of their matriarch, while also contending with new life changes that challenged their idyllic, agrarian lifestyle. While the eldest daughter, Ronja Breda Vatne, leaves to live with her birth father in the city after her mother’s passing, Maria’s partner Nik Payne and their youngest three children (Freja, Falk, Ulv) must vacate their farm home in the Norwegian countryside, as Nik can no longer financially support the family on their modest agricultural income.

While the family finds a home still in the country, Nik must seek out more dependent work, and thus, Freja, Falk, and Ulv can no longer be home-schooled and must adjust to life in primary school. These challenges that the Vatne Payne family faces are palpable, and Nik’s underlying melancholy forms a major tonality throughout of the narrative. As Jacobsen expresses in her notes on A New Kind of Wilderness, ‘It’s also a story about loss, how people experience loss in different ways, what roles you take in a family, and how we see and understand children in grief.’ Through maternal loss, the family must reconcile the inevitable changes that reshape their familiar, self-sufficient lifestyle, and discover how to honor the memory of their mother while also adjusting to their increasing connection to urban worlds.

A New Kind of Wilderness (photo source, Sundance Institute)

The outstanding visual language of the film (in terms of editing and cinematography) delicately captures the natural rhythms of Nordic rural life, while also respectfully following the Vatne Payne family as they separate from their farm home and transition into the socio-economic institutions of primary school for the children and a ‘proper’ job for Nik. Though Maria is only featured regularly in the opening moments of the film, her memory, and spiritual presence resonate acutely throughout the narrative. As a vocational photographer, her photos and videos also provide an archive of Maria’s earlier experience with Nik and their children.

Nik and his children’s acceptance in continuing to participate in the documentary, even after Maria’s death, owe to their previous relationship with Jacobsen and the will to honor Maria’s faith in the project. The meaning of Jacobsen’s title also denotes an article that Maria once posted on her website about her personal journey with cervical cancer, as well as the family’s evolving relationship with their connection to nature. This continuing reverence for the natural world provides a healing habitat for the family, even as they begin to meld with more standardized social activities.

While many viewers familiar with the fiction feature Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross, 2016) will likely draw connections between the Viggo Mortensen film and the Vatne Payne family story—trading Washington state for Norway—A New Kind of Wilderness stands as the superlative project. As the recipient winner of the World Cinema Documentary Competition, Jacobsen’s film surely attests to this. Formed by its verisimilitude and powerful story of the family’s fortitude, A New Kind of Wilderness prevails as an exceptional documentary for this year’s Sundance. To conclude with a quote Maria from her original article, ‘[W]e are facing a new kind of wilderness instead: The bushy road of healing.’

Handling the Undead (Thea Hvistendahl)

Handling the Undead (photo source, Sundance Institute)

Norway features once more in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition with the confounding and mesmerizing debut from Thea Hvistendahl, with Handling the Undead. This quietly unnerving and atmospheric film is adapted from the 2005 novel by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also famously penned contemporary horror classic Let the Right One In (2004). Touching on the central themes of bereavement and familial loss present in the novel, Handling the Undead follows three grieving families who experience the sudden return of their lost loved ones. Like Love Me, Hvistendahl and Lindqvist’s odd narrative resounds more thoughtfully and unexpectedly than one might first presume. While the plot of Love Me advances with a strong sense of kineticism, Hvistendahl’s film moves along at a more measured, observational pace.

The cause of the undead resurfacing is never explicitly shared; however, it is the sense and effect of this haunting circumstance that proves most crucial. As the stirring score from composer Peter Raeburn builds slowly over the first act of the film, small electric happenings begin to signal a pending shift in the spiritual ecosystem. At a crucial moment early in the film, the tone and tension rise in the soundscape and Hvistendahl conjures a dubious phenomenon. An electromagnetic current tremors and surges across the cityscape, like spectral defibrillation, jumpstarting the reanimation of the deceased. This occurrence with the narrative echoes Robin Campillo’s feature debut, They Came Back, two decades prior, trading a nondescript French municipality for Oslo. In both tales, the living must reconcile with their grief and contend with the equivocal inversion of death and loss.

In discussing the aural essence of the film, Raeburn expresses an intention to allow audiences to feel through his score, and not to tell them how they should feel. Regarding the horror-esque aspects of Handling the Undead, he adds that it was his motive to ‘find where that line is. Not falling into horror, but certainly falling into throbbing terror.’ Even the scarcity of music in the first act of the film correlates with major themes of the narrative, with Raeburn sharing how ‘grief is not a very musical thing.’ Through the impressive musical quality of the film, from the opening choir music to the diegetic playback of Nina Simone’s cover of ‘Ne me quitte pas,’ music and sound play integral roles in creating the ‘decomposing mood’ of Handling the Undead.

Handling the Undead (photo source, Sundance Institute)

Other formal qualities of Handling the Undead augment the overall self-assurance of the film, including Renate Reinsve’s quiet, albeit perceptive portrayal of Anna, who is the film’s emotional centerpiece. Her screen time, along with fellow veteran actor Anders Danielsen Lie, are some of the more outstanding moments of the film. But it is Anna’s father Mahler (Bjørn Sundquist) who quietly steals the show, as the first character we meet in the film and arguably the most tragic. While apparent similarities can also be drawn between this film and those of Joachim Trier (in terms of acting talent) Hvistendahl and her cinematographer Pal Ulvik Rokseth also have an acute sensibility for filming beautiful sequences steeped within twilight and dawn—the vulnerable melancholy moments of magic hour.

While this adaptation is scattered with acts of abrupt violence and disturbing imagery, Handling the Undead renders a deeply unsettling tonality on the uncanny nature of grief, muted expression, and feelings of unrest. The initial ambivalence of the trio of stories eventually belies more conventional, malevolent perceptions of the horror genre. And yet, Hvistendahl grounds her singular voice as an artistic, perceptive, and promising filmmaker. From her keen expressions through genre-blending, subtly impactful editing, and provocative themes touching on (universal) grief, Thea Hvistendahl embodies the mantra of Sundance 2024: ‘All Eyes on Independents.’

M. Sellers Johnson (he/him) is a graduate student from Te Herenga Waka (Victoria University of Wellington) where he received his Master’s in Film in the spring of 2021. He previously completed his Bachelor of Arts in Film Studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington in December 2018. M. Sellers shares interests in film-philosophy, French cinema, American art cinema, historiography, and film aesthetics. He has written for New Review of Film and Televisions Studies, Film-Philosophy, Film Cred, The Philosophical Quarterly, and Film Matters. As an aspiring researcher, he also aims to continue his studies at a doctoral level.

Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 Festival Reports   iranian cinema   kirsten stewart   norwegian cinema   sundance film festival   swedish cinema