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Sundance: Pleasure

The idea of making money from pleasure is an intoxicating one. Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), has traveled from her home in Sweden to Los Angeles, to do just that. She aspires to break into the lucrative porn industry. Newcomers are embraced quickly with their first porn shoot which is packaged and sold as an enticing first experience video. But once that cherry has been popped, it’s more difficult to climb the ranks. Bella has the looks, the body but soon discovers that’s not enough. She’s timid, awkward and reluctant to do more advanced techniques. But she’s also got drive. She wants he top talent agent, the lucrative shoots, the best hair and makeup and the chance to climb to the top. Along the way she discovers how abusive her work really is and in order to make it she needs to not only take that abuse but to give it as well.

Directed by Ninja Thyberg, Pleasure is an expansion of her short film by the same name, Pleasure (2013), which premiered at Cannes and also screened at the Sundance Film Festival. Every industry is toxic in one way or another but the porn industry has a cycle of abuse that can be particularly damaging. Thyberg adeptly explores this in her film and casts a critical eye on how the industry treats young women. Kappel offers the viewer a sense of unease that fits with her character.

Pleasure is rooted in realism. There is plenty of nudity and borderline pornographic scenes. Many of the actors are actually porn stars and real porn genres and brand names are used throughout.

I recommend Rashida Jones’ Hot Girls Wanted, a breakout documentary that premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and is available to watch on Netflix. Pleasure is almost like a fictionalized version of Jones’ film.

Pleasure premiered at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival as part of their World Cinema Dramatic Competition.


“You make things hard for yourself, don’t you?”

Izzy Alden (Isabelle Barbier) needs to get laid. She promised herself that she’d lose her virginity by the end of her freshman year in college. And with finals just around the corner, she’s running out of time. The problem with Izzy is that she’s hopelessly awkward. She doesn’t have the same natural confidence and social intelligence that her two best friends Fiona (Sadie Scott) and Anuka (Deeksha Ketkar) do. Fiona works at the local bowling alley and is lusting after the popular lesbian on campus. Anuka is Izzy’s closest ally but is dealing with her own drama of her complicated feelings for her long-distance boyfriend Juju (Dylan Rogers) and the hot blonde guy she spotted in the cafeteria. Izzy is determined to get an invite to a Crush party, where only people who are submitted as a crush can attend. But Izzy keeps sabotaging herself by putting her friendships at risk and ignoring the one guy, Oliver (Raph Fineberg), who is genuinely interested in her.

CRSHD is a quirky and authentic coming-of-age story that speaks directly to social media savvy youth. Director Emily Cohn wrote the script at age 21, produced it at 22 and wrapped up post-production by 24. She incorporates social media, texting and dating app technology into her film by having the characters act out the communications on screen. Having a young cast and crew working on the film makes the end result more relevant to its intended audience. Cohn and her team have assembled a fine cast of players. Barbier, Ketkar and Scott have natural chemistry with each other. Viewers will feel like they’re watching three friends rather than watching three actors playing friends.

“As a filmmaker, I’ve been interested in finding ways to make a computer or tablet or phone act not only as a prop, but also as a scene partner, since these devices often carry the weight of human emotion but lack the cinematic nuance to convey it.”

Director Emily Cohn

The cast is diverse with different races, ethnicities and sexual orientations represented. There has been a lot of discussion about diversity in film and TV as being forced to meet certain criteria. I appreciate films like CRSHD that demonstrate that this is a natural way of things. It also deconstructs beauty standards and highlights how beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder and should not to be mandated by some artificial cultural norms.

CRSHD is available via virtual cinemas May 8th. Visit the official website for more information.

SXSW: I’ll Meet You There

“The yearning of the dance was the yearning of the spirit to be reconnected with god.”

Written and directed by Iram Parveen Bilal, I’ll Meet You There is a moving portrayal of a family trying to reconnect with each other. The story follows three generations of a Pakistani-American family living in Chicago. Majeed (Faran Tahir) is a city cop tasked with investigating the local mosque’s potential terrorist ties. It’s a great opportunity for his career but it also means he’ll have to bridge the divide between himself and his faith while also betraying his community. Majeed is a widower trying to raise his teenage daughter Dua (Nikita Tewani) on his own. Dua is a dancer, something she inherited from her mom, who teaches dance at a local nursing home and is preparing to audition for Julliard. But as she connects with her Muslim faith she realizes that her culture and passion for dance are at odds with each other. She takes private lessons with her aunt Shonali (Sheetal Sheth) to learn the dance style her mother used to perform. Dua must hide her freer lifestyle from her grandfather Baba (Qavi Khan). Baba has been estranged from his son Majeed since the death of his daughter Fatima, Dua’s mother. Baba’s traditional ways are at odds with Dua’s more modern lifestyle and Majeed finds himself in the middle of a contentious family dynamic. At the heart of it all is their love for each other which transcends the generational divide.

“I’m a better filmmaker and human being because this film exists; by its existence, this project is questioning mainstream discourse on Muslim American identity, immigrant assimilation and the question of nationalism.”

Iram Parveen Bilal

I’ll Meet You There is a heartfelt film with complex characters who grow and change as the story progresses. It’s a sweet, sensitive film that adeptly explores all the nuances of Pakistani culture and the Muslim community. For Pakistani-Americans it offers a mirror and for everyone else a window into a culture that is not our own. I’m drawn to films like this one that explore the family dynamic and how individuals forge their own destinies. I highly recommend I’ll Meet You There to anyone who wants to broaden their horizons or just wants a sincere family tale.

I’ll Meet You There was set to premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. 

SXSW: Finding Yingying

“Life is too short to be ordinary.”

Yingying Zhang

26-year old PhD student Yingying Zhang went missing on June 9th, 2017. After graduating from Peking University, Yingying traveled from China to study Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois. Yingying was full of wonder and hope. She was in a loving relationship with her boyfriend Xiaolin and excited about this new phase in life. She documented those early days in the US in her journal. Mere weeks after she arrived, she made the fatal mistake of getting into a car with a stranger. She had missed the bus and was late for an appointment. A man claiming to be an off-duty cop offered her a ride. Yingying has never been heard from again.

Directed and produced by Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, Finding Yingying is a sensitive portrayal of a young woman with a bright future and a family struggling to come to terms with their loss. The documentary features extensive interviews and footage of Yingying’s boyfriend, parents, brother, aunt and friends as they search for answers and prepare for the criminal trial that would come two years later.  Filmmaker Shi graduated from the same university as Yingying. Although they had never met, when Jiayan heard of Yingying’s disappearance she felt an immediate connection and a strong desire to help. About her filmmaking approach, Shi said:

Finding Yingying was made in a vérité observational filmmaking style… I wanted to allow the audience to feel that they were experiencing the painful and challenging journey along with the family.”

Jiayan “Jenny” Shi

Shi humanizes her subject. As is the case with many true crime stories, violent acts and perpetrators are glorified to satisfy the audience’s hunger for salacious details. This is not the case with Finding Yingying. In fact, this documentary is the complete opposite of that. The majority of the film is focused solely on Yingying and her family. We learn that Yingying was inquisitive, thoughtful and kind. Her parents traveled to the US for the first time to help search for Yingying and held out hope that she was still alive. Shi becomes a living representative of Yingying through this film. She reads segments of Yingying’s diary, bringing her voice to the forefront. Shi said:

“my voice and presence are integrated into the film to show my deep personal connection to Yingying, and my deep desire to tell  her and her family’s story beyond the headlines. I want to preserve her legacy.”

Jiayan “Jenny” Shi

The murderer, fellow PhD student Brend Christensen is given very little attention, as he should be. We learn as much as we need to about the investigation, how the FBI tracked him down with surveillance footage and how they employed his girlfriend to secretly record Christensen. The details of Yingying’s murder are kept to a minimum.

Finding Yingying turns the focus away from the murder and on to the victim, an inquisitive, thoughtful and kind young woman who brought joy to those around her. It’s a beautiful documentary that will make you think twice about how true crime films portray victims.

To learn more information about Finding Yingying, please visit the official website: 

Slamdance: There Were Four of Us

Who did it? Four figures are in a room that is enclosed yet constantly shifting in shape, form and color. The question appears “who did it?” and one of the figures confesses. The vision of the room shifts into other shapes and imaginings. Everything and everyone is awash in bright ’80s retro colors. A narrator whose barely registerable voice becomes clearer as the dream continues tells us a story of loss and the need for closure. Dreams help us process trauma and pain. Even when they give us no clear answers.

Cassie Shao’s experimental short film There Were Four of Us transports the viewer into a chaotic dream world that is sad, beautiful and hypnotizing. Inspired by the passing of her grandfather and a dream she had about four people in a room, Shao’s film gives us a filtered lens that peaks into her mind and soul.

“In the dream we each shared a moment in our life and realised that the symbol of death connected all of us together; that we were essentially one. This dream served as the structure of the film.”

Cassie Shao

There Were Four of Us is an animated short, just under 7 minutes and Shao combines digital 2D characters, 3D graphic elements, pastels, silkscreens and paint and sand on glass to create her visuals.

I love experimental short films because they allow me to dive into the mind of a creator and watch their imagination at work.

There Were Four of Us screened at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival.

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