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Sundance 2018: Shirkers, Generation Wealth, Colette

Sometimes you see certain movies at festivals and you know they are bound to be someone’s favorite film. That’s undoubtedly the case with Sandi Tan’s documentary “Shirkers” (which won a Directing award from this year's festival), which tells Tan’s life story as a punk rock, film-loving young woman in 1990s Singapore, who wanted to make a movie with her friends. And that they did, working under the direction an older American man named Georges who guided them in the way of filmmaking. But like previous great women in film history, Tan’s efforts were also virtually erased by a man, with Georges vanishing with the unedited footage. “Shirkers” is half the story of Tan making her film, and half the story of Tan’s life after it, including an investigation into who Georges was. Tan presents her multifaceted life story—vibrant, unbelievable, and full of such incredible women—as a dazzling tapestry that’s unlike many narrative or documentary films. 

There is an endless amount of things to love about this film, starting with its vivid documentary storytelling. We get to see a lot of footage of the original “Shirkers” (though no sound track was saved) and it makes for a fascinating time capsule of her life in ‘90s fashion, with a cold coolness that predates “Ghost World.” With the film footage already displaying a bright color palette and a fantastical narrative where Tan plays an assassin, it inspires a dreaminess itself about creativity and filmmaking. Tan matches this energy with an extensive amount of archival material from her days of writing and collecting magazines as she talks about growing up. With sharp cuts and a concise voiceover, Tan creates a lively sense of her unique coming-of-age, loving film and music, while showing how a young woman from Singapore would be so excited to take on filmmaking, even if it's mostly a white dude’s game. Better yet, Tan expands her visual memoir with the experiences of her equally pioneer friends Sophie and Jasmine, who have their own dreams of doing something grandiose with film. 

But as the journey of “Shirkers” is always unpredictable and layered, so does its second half become more powerful when it explores someone else’s life, busting a ghost that haunted Tan throughout the years that followed the disappearance of “Shirkers.” A lot of documentaries are thrown off by taking an additional focus or unexpected development, but “Shirkers” sharply incorporates the mystery of Georges (articulated by Tan’s modern day investigation into people who knew him) into its larger interest in Tan’s life as a woman in film, while showing the differences between a pioneer and a fraud. Throughout this absolutely incredible documentary, Tan takes back “Shirkers” and makes it even more wonderful than her original script in the '90s could have ever dreamed it would be.

It would be a fascinating trend if more documentarians followed the footsteps of Lauren Greenfield and her new film, “Generation Wealth.” Essentially, photographer/filmmaker Greenfield has put all of her life’s work as an observer into a single piece that examines our societal fascination with excess, just as much as it examines her life documenting it. Through ambitious editing, seemingly endless footage and years worth of footage and photos, Greenfield makes a deep emotional impression about her pursuits by sharing her process and thoughts behind he projects, as reflected upon her status as a hard-working mother and daughter. 

As it goes back through her different photo projects and documentaries (like “The Queen of Versailles,” and "Generation Wealth" is the name of a photo project), this documentary is all the more evidence of Greenfield's masterful eye for people. Within her own biography, Greenfield contains the life stories of numerous subjects, like the smiling billionaire who talks about his lust for money, or a hard-working business woman who is obsessed with her status and has no time for family. Through Greenfield's time filming them, they learn lessons that can only be understood by being a witness to them. All the while, Greenfield retraces her own history on different assignments, being a busy mother, seemingly always filming her sons, and witnessing extraordinary things around the world at the risk of not being home. 

Though its storytelling approach can seem scattered or broad, "Generation Wealth" brings everything together when framed as Greenfield’s story first and foremost, of which she has learned many things she wants to share with an audience that is obsessed with excess and detached from what matters most. And as this becomes much more than an economic issue doc (though it is that, sporadically), it’s impressive to see talking head interviews that inform about our civilization’s downfall re-contextualized as more of  a tragedy for all humanity. Through her dedication to other people's lives, and with such open-book storytelling of her own, Greenfield is able to make a stunningly deeply resonant documentary about notions as seemingly obvious as the value of love over wealth itself.

Worry not, those who might a tad weary of period pieces, even if we’re talking about ones starring the great Keira Knightley. Co-writer/director's Wash Westmoreland’s “Colette” is not your rickety carriage ride back to a different time, nor is its inspiration, the French author who fought for her stories and embodied progressiveness in more ways than one, a typical protagonist. 

Knightley plays 20th century women's rights pioneer Colette with full aplomb. She valiantly introduces, or reminds, the world about a woman who was a true rebel when it came to sexual politics and a woman’s autonomy. In the film’s albeit slow first act, she establishes a complicated relationship with her hot-shot author husband Willy (Dominic West, excellently irritable), who she catches with other women but still stays married to him. When he realizes her ability for storytelling, they "collaborate" on novels about a character named Cotille, creating a success strictly under his name. 

The relationship between Colette and Willy makes for a terse dynamic, especially when Colette starts to take specific radical steps where she learns of liberation. She has her own flings with women, she embraces her sexuality, and she soon fights to not be erased from credit herself. With all of these passions, specifically for a woman’s voice and her sexual freedom, there are of course moments where the film gets preachy. But Knightley is clearly such a tried-and-true entertainer in this story that she knows how to fortify the drama, while blowing people's minds with a woman who defined wokeness in the early 20th century. 

Westmoreland’s film has an additional grace with its usage of period details, in which it seems genuinely interested in the growing technology of the time. In small but colorful moments among its incredible sets and costumes, it draws the viewer's attention to the invention of light switches, the evolution of bicycles, etc. As a period film that's more than ready for 2018, “Colette” embodies the power of thinking forward in more ways than one.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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