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CategoryFemale Filmmakers

Slamdance: The Ritual to Beauty

“What happens to brown girls who never learn who to love themselves brown?”

Dominicans have a long and tortured relationship with their hair. As a Dominican-American woman I know this all too well. My mother and grandmother were both hairstylists who specialized in relaxing Dominican hair to a more culturally appealing state.  Wearing one’s hair “natural” was looked down upon. The pain of not being something acceptable and having to change yourself to fit an aesthetic is passed on from generation and the harm lingers for years.

This is why I’m grateful for the precious gift that is The Ritual of Beauty (2022). Directed by Shenny De Los Angeles and Maria Marrone, is a short documentary that sheds light on the social custom of straightening hair and how it keeps Dominican women from loving themselves. The doc focuses on a young Dominican woman who is on a journey to embrace her natural hair. And in doing so, she examines the stories of her mother and grandmother whose different relationships with their own hair spoke volumes of what they thought about themselves. The doc is haunting and poetic and revealing. A truly amazing film.

The Ritual to Beauty was part of the 2022 Slamdance FIlm Festival line-up.

Slamdance: Paris is in Harlem

“Jazz is the soundtrack of New York.”

The year is 2017 and the Cabaret Law is still in effect in New York City. Enacted in 1926 during Prohibition, the law states that any business serving food and drink must pay for a license in order to also allow their patrons to dance. This prohibitive law proved to be inherently racist as it hurt minority run businesses in poorer neighborhoods, especially those who couldn’t afford the fee. And now the days of this obscure but hurtful law are numbered.

Written and directed Christina Kallas, Paris is in Harlem takes place during the final days of the Cabaret Law. It follows various characters, all of whom eventually visit the Paris Blues, a legendary Jazz bar in Harlem once run by Samuel Hargress Jr. to whom the film is dedicated. Much like with Kallas’ film The Rainbow Experiment, Paris is in Harlem employs split screens, cuts and varying perspectives to offer the viewer a multi-character mosaic. While there are many storylines, everything is anchored by the ongoing angst caused by institutional racism, the threat of gun violence, cancel culture and the Cabaret Law. Even tackling these heavy subjects, Paris is in Harlem is a film brimming with hope and joy. It serves as a reminder the power of community and human connection.

Paris is in Harlem premiered at the 2022 Slamdance Film Festival.

Sundance: Last Flight Home

Documentary filmmaker Ondi Timoner has given us all a precious gift with her deeply personal film Last Flight Home. Her father Eli Timoner is the focus of this moving documentary about dying with dignity. He was the co-founder of Air Florida and with his wife Elissa they raised three children. A stroke in the early 1980s left Eli disabled. With the prejudice that came with a noticeable disability and some bad luck, Eli and his family eventually went bankrupt. Eli held onto the shame of this for many years. And for the last few weeks of his life, his family helped guide him in his journey to release this shame and to realize that his great success was the love he both gave and received.

Last Flight Home follows Eli and his family during his time at home in hospice. Because the family was based in California, he was able to opt for death with dignity so that he could pass away on his own terms. Timoner generously lets the viewer in, allowing us to feel like we are part of this very loving family. Death is a difficult subject to tackle but the more we know, the more we’re empowered to help each other and to help ourselves in this last journey in life. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as moved by  a documentary as I have with this one. Thank you to the Timoner family for letting us be part of Eli’s last flight home.

Last Flight Home premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance: Alice

“Doing the right thing is never wrong.”

Alice

Alice (Keke Palmer) has caught the eye of tyrant plantation owner Paul Bennet (Johnny Lee Miller). He teaches her to read and favors her but will not allow her to marry a fellow slave. When her love Joseph (Gaius Charles) tries to escape, Alice lashes out. After enduring a brutal punishment, she escapes through a secret portal in the woods traveling from antebellum Georgia to the early 1970s. She’s found by the side of the road by truck driver Frank (Common) who takes her in and shields her from potential internment at a sanitarium. Alice discovers what the world is like decades later, an improvement from her previous life but with progress still needing to be made. She must find the courage in herself to help her family back home and to inspire Frank to rediscover his activist roots.

Directed by debut filmmaker Krystin Ver Linden, Alice is a highly rewarding time-travel drama.  Keke Palmer is superb in the title role. Time travel elements are tricky but I found that Palmer did great job conveying the fish-out-of-water experience while also demonstrating her characters inner strength. Excellent performance by Johnny Lee Miller is truly terrifying in his role. This is sure to be a crowd pleaser especially when through Alice’s POV we get to fight back with her. There are several references in the film to Pam Grier and her character Coffy. The film is set and shot in Georgia which gives the film a great southern Gothic vibe. The soundtrack features some wonderful 1970s jams.

Alice premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance: The Mission

Directed by Tania Anderson, The Mission follows a group of young Mormon missionaries as they travel to Finland to proselytize. The missionaries work in twos of the same gender, a way to protect each other but also maintain purity and keep tabs on each other. The film follows the young  elders and sisters as they struggle to learn Finnish, deal with resistance from the locals and connect with other Mormons. 

Anderson’s documentary is very straightforward. There are no formal interviews, no narration, no history lessons, no opinion or debate. The Mormon missionaries are presented in a way that is enlightening and respectful. Sometimes you just need the subjects to tell their own story and Anderson recognized this and gave the missionaries space to do so.

As someone who used to be in a religion that put emphasis on proselytizing, I really felt for the elder who had to cut his mission short because he was suffering from panic attacks. I went through the same thing and I hope he’s able to find help and an escape from his situation.

The Mission premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

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