On their face, stories concerning a controversial 1990s pop star, three Indian men dedicating their lives to saving birds, and a decades-old massacre shouldn’t connect, but such is the unpredictability of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival. Political unrest connects these three films. Unlikely heroes populate them. And each is more inspiring, more intimate, than the last.
Standing center stage at Madison Square Garden, a defiant Sinead O’Connor, who moments ago was described by Kris Kristofferson as a symbol of “courage and integrity,” consumes the mix of boos and cheers raining down on her at Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert. Weeks earlier she, in protest of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual assault stories, tore a picture of the Pope in half while performing on "Saturday Night Live." Now the whole world seems to hate her.
O’Connor, possibly the most divisive pop star of the 1990s, a napalm bomb of ungodly vocals, is the rebellious subject of Kathryn Ferguson’s intimate “Nothing Compares.”
Ferguson’s recounting of the Irish singer’s life, visually told through reenactments and the singer’s narration, begins with the abuse O’Connor suffered as a child—first from her complicated mother, then at the hands of nuns—to her meteoric rise to stardom and her meteoric fall back to earth. While the movie’s namesake of the star-making song doesn’t appear in the film except in a burst of distorted vocals (the Prince estate denied the tune’s use), its absence thematically works in a movie that concerns how institutions force certain words to be left unsaid.
Through O’Connor’s story, Ferguson explicates how Ireland’s conservative worshipping of the Catholic Church propped up a suffocating patriarchal system that demonized women’s bodies, from the banning of contraceptives to the passage of anti-abortion laws. The director chronicles the singer’s mental health struggles, with precision and empathy, packing in a dense array of themes: her artistic ethos, political views in support of Black artists and against the Gulf War and censorship in America.
Even with a cliché and rushed montage at the end that explains how O’Connor’s influence resonates with artists today, Ferguson’s “Nothing Compares” is as bold as her iconic subject.
Laying low to the ground, a rat scurries past the lens, across a dark, empty lot in Delhi, India. The camera pans across the seeming wasteland, and more rodents, almost innumerable, compete for space. As the cacophony of their squeals pitch to queasy, near unbearable levels, a truth becomes apparent: On this urban patch is much more litter than rats. In Shaunak Sen’s clear-eyed, pensive ecological documentary, “All That Breathes,” the rodents aren’t the problem. It's the overwhelming pollution that’s slowly eroding the population of the region’s primary bird: the Black kite. Two brothers, Saud and Nadeem, and their friend Salik, are desperately trying to save them in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
For the trio who run a clinic for Black kites, the film’s title, “All that Breathes” is an unbreakable ethos. Saud and Nadeem were raised by their mother to respect all living creatures. But after two decades worth of work, a crumbling ecosystem instigated by reckless human activity, is causing kites to fall from those heights. Everyday, in fact, more and more birds require the help of the trio’s strained and modest operations, located in a shabby garage.
Poetic flourishes, as elegant as a bird’s flight, pervades Sen’s study; an acute depth of field centers the creatures—rats, birds, hogs, mosquitos, and so forth—teeming, unnoticed by humans, in the city. One enrapturing scene frames a snail crawling across the frame while the orange glow of a bomb fire rages out-of-focus in the background. Sen melds these small, significant wonders with the big, violent protests breaking across Delhi, which seems to dance on the trio’s periphery, decrying a xenophobic citizenship law. The pace in Sen’s film is never hurried. But the political and ecological aims always feel urgent. Tender and necessary, “All That Breathes” shares another frightening side of nature’s fragile state.
Israelis call it the “War for Independence.” Palestinians refer to it as “Nakba” (the Catastrophe). During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, in Tantura, one of the many forcibly depopulated Palestinian villages, such an atrocity occurred. Nearly 75 years later, however, everyone knows about it, but no one wants to talk. No one except Teddy Katz, a former graduate history student whose controversial Master’s thesis on the massacre led to his school, the Israeli government, and a group of Israeli war veterans discrediting his research. Armed with 140 hours of audio interviews with Jewish and Arab eyewitnesses, Katz is still fighting for the truth to be heard.
Whether a massacre occurred isn’t up for debate in director Alon Schwarz’s infuriating, jaw-dropping documentary “Tantura.” The filmmaker talks with the remaining, pained survivors and the veterans—most of them in the '90s—to mine their memories. Nearly all of the former soldiers deny any war crimes occurred. Schwarz often uses Katz’s audiotapes as a check, akin to the docuseries “The Last Dance,” by handing the interviewees tablets with their own confessions recorded decades ago. Many of them, in blood-boiling fashion, laugh off the stories of murder without any regard for their heinousness.
“Tantura” also covers the methods used by nations to craft their own versions of history. Schwarz unearths propaganda footage filmed by MGM, chilling photos of Arabs in barbed wire enclosures, and aerial images of a possible location of a mass grave. Sometimes his methods—investigative cork boards and images of him combing through maps—border too closely to the theatrical, falling into true crime clichés. And the first hour, too often, redoubles already covered information. But the naked truth, the real haunting stories behind the denials, always rises above the stylistic missteps. Schwarz’s “Tantura,” a haunting unearthing, gives voice to a tragedy that must never be forgotten.