The last of my World Cinema Documentary Competition dispatches for this year’s Sundance Film Festival is the most eclectic of the bunch in terms of country of origin, ranging from East Ukraine to India, Finland and Lebanon. There’s no clear theme binding all four selections together (though the first three films do feature people trying to help the lives of others, and three of the four do concern war-torn regions). But that variety of subjects, places, and themes has always made this program, in particular, so rewarding. It’s fitting to conclude Sundance on these four envelope-pushing works.
There’s a giant worn-down condominium, located in Lysychansk, Eastern Ukraine, 20 kilometers from the frontline, that doesn’t house soldiers but contains people who’ve similarly been marked by the fog of war. It is a temporary housing situation for orphans as they await a system deciding whether they can return home, find new families, or be turned over to an orphanage. Simon Lereng Wilmont’s “A House Made of Splinters,” a bleak chronicling of the abandoned children orphaned by the Russo-Ukrainian War, explains how not all casualties appear on the battlefield.
The film follows four unrelated children—Sasha, Eva, Kolya, and Alina, with many, many more populating the background—as they navigate the temporary accommodations. They come from alcoholic parents, guardians self-medicating to cope with despair. Each kid initially appears unencumbered by their respective situation, but Wilmont slowly peels back the cycles—drinking, self-harm, violence, and so forth—that these children have either fallen into or are dangerously close to becoming habitual. Simmering underneath the flicker of their smiles, the glint of their laughs, are old souls forced to grow up far too soon.
The film’s emphasis rarely ventures to the tireless adults trying to nourish a healthy, fun environment. They go all-out celebrating Christmas and other holidays, dressing up in costumes, and providing emotional comfort to the kids. Wilmont’s lens, however, stays with the children. Sometimes that scope leaves the details of this system light: what are the perils of going to an orphanage? What will happen to the children there as opposed to a foster family? By following Koyla’s journey we get a slight sense of it, but not enough to wholly understand its dramatic weight.
Still, every detail needn’t be spelled out to feel the film’s pathos. This is an empathetic lens, one that with its respectful distance never crosses the line of mining tragedy for consumption. Rather, even among the seemingly unavoidable bleak futures awaiting some, “A House Made of Splinters” nourishes hope in an at times hopeless war.
Hla, a Buddhist clinic owner, and Ny Nyo, her apprentice, live in Rakhine, a state in the war-torn country of Myanmar. There, the state-backed ethnic cleansing of Muslims has pushed many into hiding, exile or death. “Midwives,” Hnin Ei Hlaing’s candid, visually sumptuous five-year recording of their fraught partnership, captures the bid by these two women to provide healthcare and other services to a populace barely surviving amidst a genocidal regime.
Hla and Nyo are an unlikely pairing. A dedicated, frank physician, Hla is short on bedside manner. The foul-mouth midwife, a product of her country’s divisions, often patronizes her Muslim patients, and uses racial slurs to chastise Nyo. Even so, in a country where merely treating Muslims is punishable, where neighbors report on neighbors, Hla is taking a big risk. In the face of opposition, her and her husband rebelliously continue providing healthcare to pregnant Muslim women and their children. Nyo, a young mother and wife, endures Hla’s ill-placed tough love because she desperately wants to help her own people. Nyo and her husband teach the local kids, and she hopes to establish her own clinic.
To depict the religious conflict afflicting the country, Hlaing not only follows these unshakeable midwives, she silently juxtaposes haunting landscapes of the impenetrable fog surrounding mountains with the vivid verdant stalk of the village’s idyllic paddy fields. Sometimes the poignant piano-based score accompanying lighthearted montages of children at play—ignoring the war around them—renders those sequences maudlin. But the unmistakable threats stalking this tiny village, the bombs exploding and the guns fired by local roadsides, are never minimized. Through Hla and Nyo’s grit and their unwillingness to abandon people in need, Hlaing’s “Midwives” is an inspiring celebration of these two unbreakable women.
Every year, the Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon Church) dispatches thousands of young missionaries around the globe to preach the gospel. Tania Anderson’s interrogation of the process, “The Mission,” follows four teens’ journey to Finland where they’re expected to spend nearly two years away from families and friends, learning the language and making new, hopefully lifelong friends and converts. While accompanying the inner lives of young Mormons provides intriguing revelations, “The Mission” can lack a dramatic arc.
The four missionaries, Elders Davis and Pauole and Sisters Field and Bills, are true believers, ready to do their part in Finland. Typically, in a narrative featuring diehards, a crucible, which tests their fate, happens. The plucky adventurers lose some enthusiasm for their calling when faced with real headwinds—some of the funniest scenes find these dedicated teens on the streets of Helsinki fielding apathetic glances from passersby. Despite the stark compositions of contemplative missionaries questioning their faith, the heat of this crucible never rises above a low simmer because these teens, for the most part, remain undaunted.
Rather Anderson really wants to examine a far more pervasive element to their journey: the way this trip serves as each missionary’s own conversion. While in Finland, for instance, the teens are expected to switch preaching companions every nine weeks. Though they’re of the same sex, through them learning how to resolve conflicts and tensions now, they’re acquiring the tools for successful marriages within the church for later in life. Other obstacles serve as tests to reaffirm their faith: the nonbelievers they encounter on the street and the adversity that comes with the failure of converting anyone.
The subtlety in Anderson’s aim, often in lieu of capturing the teen’s tiny tribulations, withers even with the presence of Mikko Joensuu’s eerie organ score. “The Mission,” ironically, feels too subversive to be noticed.
In Lebanon, a country beset by homophobia and revolution, thrash metal isn’t exactly at the top of everyone’s Spotify. Especially metal played by women. But there’s a group trying to smash through those barriers—through the eyes of guitarists Lilas and Shery, director Rita Baghdadi’s engaging, sometimes myopic documentary “Sirens” shares the story of the Lebanese band Slave to Sirens, the first and only all-woman thrash metal group in the Middle East.
Lilas and Shery, two songwriting guitarists and best friends, are captivating subjects who live in each other’s pockets. Their once close relationship, however, is beginning to disintegrate. Lilas is trying to date another woman named Ayaa without her doting mother finding out. But Sherry knows a bigger chasm between her and Lilas exists.
Baghdadi nimbly loops these two songwriters’ struggles with concurrent conflicts in their country. Their petty arguments become metaphors for Lebanon’s rolling blackouts, which often affect Lilas at her home, the protestors filling the streets and bombs making impact in residential sections. Each is dealing with the traumas that a ceaseless war and a restrictive society can wrought. Baghdadi often melds the band’s music with the ongoing destruction happening around them. The best instance sees a camera mounted on a rooftop, while tidal wave of rubble careens toward the lens as the group’s riffs roar.
But for a documentary concerning such a singular thrash metal band, Baghdadi provides very little information about the band apart from Lilas and Shery’s tumultuous friendship. Instead the other players go relatively nameless with almost no scenes focusing on them as entities separate from the squabbling Lilas and Shery. Moreover, Baghdadi never gives a sense of the group’s popularity within the Middle East. It therefore comes as a shock, when following Shery’s lamentation about their lack of fans, for them to suddenly be playing on national television without any explanation for how they got there.
It makes total sense why Baghdadi zeroes in on Lilas and Shery, even to the detriment of a more inclusive narrative. They provide so many memorable gestures dedicated to their friendship; the scene where protesters stream by while an unfazed Lilas and Shery discuss women they find attractive being a highlight. But without expanding the narrative beyond the group’s two charismatic guitarists, you barely get a sense for how a metal band operates in Lebanon or the ties that bind all of these women together. The band in Baghdadi’s “Sirens” seems just out of reach.