Written and directed by Morrisa Maltz, The Unknown Country stars Lily Gladstone as Tana, a young native woman who, upon learning of her grandmother’s death, sets out in her car to travel from Minnesota to Texas. She’s been estranged from her Oglala Lakota family and this journey is a way to reconnect with her roots and herself. Set against the backdrop of the 2016 election, Tana navigates vast open space of the midwest and southwest. Along the way she reconnects with her community, interacts with strangers, attends a friends wedding, develops a romantic connection and even has a couple of scares.
There is a poetic beauty to this film. The cinematography is absolutely stunning with some fantastic shots of the open highway, wintry landscapes and the Gladstone traversing the natural space of her final destination. The Unknown Country takes a hybrid approach melding elements of a feature film and a documentary. Tana’s story is fictional but the events happening around her are real. Interspersed throughout the film are documentary vignettes that tell the story of real people Tana meets during her travels.
Made over three years, the project began with a concept of a beginning and ending and everything in the middle came to be organically. In Morrisa Maltz’s director’s statement she writes:
“We feel very proud that the film shows people and aspects of humanity in the American Midwest that are often overlooked. In such a continuously divided America, we did our best to create a film that shows a patchwork of people and places that can bring us together as humans, rather than to further divide us.”
Unknown Country had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
A group of SoundCloud rappers live in isolation in the desert of Crestone, Colorado. The end of the world is nigh and this group of friends spend those final days making music, getting tattoos, eating the last of their food stores and smoking weed. In Crestone they reconnect with themselves and their music. Their seclusion sparks their creativity. However, they ignore the warning signs that they must flee their remote haven. In the midst of it all, a woman director is filming them for her documentary, capturing their spirited rebellion.
“Performing and being became indistinguishable.”
“What does music sound like if there is no one left to repost and share it?”
Directed and co-written by Marnie Ellen Hertzler, Crestone is a hybrid feature film/documentary putting real SoundCloud rappers (Huckleberry, Keem, Mijo Mehico, Benz Rowm, RyBundy, Sadboytrapps, Champloo Sloppy, and Phong Winna) in an imaginary pre-apocalyptic world. Crestone is Hertzler’s debut feature film and it’s quite an auspicious start. Hertzler mixes filmmaking styles, enhances visuals with added designs and creates an inherently contradictory cinematic world by placing internet musicians in a remote natural landscape. So many of us right now are living in seclusion as the coronavirus spreads across the globe. In a weird way, I felt a connection with this group of rappers whose lifestyle is so completely different from my own with the exception of that I too am stuck in isolation and working on my craft.
“I am drawn to this group of people as a filmmaker because of their ability to completely and confidently reinvent themselves over and over. Their transformation isn’t simply a wardrobe change or a new playlist; it is an entire upheaval of their previous lives.”
Marnie Ellen Hertzler
Crestone was set to have its world premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. Visit the official website for more information about this movie.
Joshua Magor’s We Are Thankful is a meta docufiction movie about a young man from the KwaZulu Natal region of South Africa, who aspires to become a professional actor. Siyabonga “Siya” Majola dreams of a career and life outside of his small township of Mphopomeni. When he hears that a director, Joshua Magor, is shooting a film in a nearby town he sets out to meet him. We follow Siya as he navigates thrown his township, borrowing Wi-Fi, getting help writing an e-mail in English, asking locals for funds to help pay for his trip, etc. He finally meets the director who is interested in Siya and his story. Majola and Magor play themselves as they reenact the circumstances that led up to their meeting. Magor was going to film another story but was inspired by Majola’s journey that he decided to make the film about the making of the film instead.
We Are Thankful is an interesting experiment in blending documentary and narrative feature in a self-referential way. It’s only confusing if you think too much about this aspect of the film. Accept it as is and enjoy the journey. Dwelling too much on its existence will take you out of the story.
The cinematography in We Are Thankful is stunning. There are lots of great shots of the township and in one scene the camera lingers on a waterfall allowing the viewer to take in the beauty of the setting. This gave the film a strong sense of place. It’s very much a slice of life kind of movie and a way for the viewer to experience Siya’s world. It’s a quiet film and some might find that off-putting. Not much happens and the pace of the story is rather slow. Settle in, be patient and you just might be rewarded.
We Are Thankful/Siyabonga was part of Slamdance 25 as a Narrative Feature Official Selection.
What drives us? What motivates us to create? Is it love, loss, joy, pain, fear, wonder… Or is it all the above?
In Jennifer Alleyn latest film Impetus, a hybrid narrative drama and documentary, she examines the creative process through existential angst. It’s a free-form exploration of the philosophical ideas behind our impulses. The film transitions back and forth between French and English, between Montreal and New York City. Creativity has no firm place, has no set language. It’s fluid and the story structure, or lack thereof, reflects that. It’s up to us to give our imagination a shape for others, and for ourselves. Sometimes that easy but more often than not its a struggle.
There is the filmmaker (Jennifer Alleyn), who is nursing a broken heart and has lost sight of the character in her upcoming movie. Then there is John (J. Reissner), her musician friend whose dealing with the effects of age and loss of those near and dear to him. Rudolf (Emmanuel Schwartz) is the filmmaker’s lead actor who, like a reptile, wants to shed his old skin to begin again. Then there is the filmmaker’s lead actress Pascale (Pascale Bussieres) who is eager to please but feels a deep loneliness that disconnects her from her art and her happiness. A pianist Esfir (Esfir Dyachkov) who refused to play the piano by herself after her son’s untimely death. And taxi driver (Besik Kazarian) whose face we don’t see but whose astute observations on life brings Pascale to tears.
The movie shares a lot of deep thoughts on creativity and love as the driving force in our lives.
“The character are there. We don’t always see them.”
There is a reptilian theme that I found thought-provoking and effective. Pascale and Rudolf housesit for a traveling artist, taking care of his reptile, a gecko. We see the creature in the terrarium, peeking through the plants. Then in different scenes the audiences sees various other plants with human subjects behind them, as though the filmmaking process is like looking into a terrarium. Rudolf (Emmanuel Schwartz) reenacts the movements of a reptile in a scarily convincing way. The movie goes into the filmmaker’s creation and draws us back out to the process. When the reptile loses its tail it will grow a new one, representing loss and the creative process. One character says, that while the tail will grow back, a scar will remain; “there will always be a difference between the old and the new one.”
Impetus is an inventive exploration of the metaphysical. However it struggles to keep the viewer’s attention. While the story got away from me the philosophical ideas stuck.
Impetus had its US premiere at Slamdance 25 as part of the Narrative Feature Competition.