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Sundance 2023: Joonam, A Still Small Voice, Bad Press

Three documentaries in this year’s U.S. Documentary Competition follow women through enormous personal journeys. In Sierra Urich’s “Joonam,” the director explores her place in the Persian diaspora through conversations with her mother and grandmother. In Luke Lorentze's "A Still Small Voice," a chaplain in training named Mati experiences spiritual burnout while completing her residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. In Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler's "Bad Press," a journalist named Angel works to codify Freedom of the Press within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation constitution. 

Named for a common term of endearment in Frasi, Sierra Urich’s “Joonam” is a portrait of three generations of Iranian women. Sierra grew up in Vermont with her American dad Gary and her Iranian mother Mitra, who left Iran in the 1970s to study at the University of Massachusetts, without realizing that choice meant she would not see her parents for another sixteen years. Sierra’s 88-year-old grandmother Behjat, who was an Azerbaijanian married to a Persian man, carries traumatic stories of assassinations and Baháʼí oppression, as well as fond memories of her girlhood in Iran. 

The film is told through a mixture of filmed interviews with the two women, slideshow style montages of their respective pasts, and footage of her own journey of learning Farsi (including conversations with two anonymous tutors, one of which cancels their lessons for the most absurd of reasons) so she can communicate more directly with Behjat. By showing the frayed edges of filmmaking, like a sound and picture test, Urich reveals the complicated dynamics of their relationships with each other. 

The film's most impactful moments are also its most vulnerable. While getting a haircut from a woman of Thai descent, Mitra swaps stories of immigrant parenting and their shared desire to keep the culture of their home countries alive within their children. Yet while the hairdresser had complicated feelings when her daughter visited Thailand, she was happy the girl could have that experience. Tears swell in Mitra's eyes as she tries to explain her deep-rooted fear of what might happen to Sierra if she actually achieves her goal of visiting Iran. 

Mitra's deep fears and swelling emotions are contrasted with Behjat, who is more than happy to share stories of her time in Iran, be they the story of her grandfather's martyrdom or her joyous memory of her marriage at the age of fourteen. As Behjat tells her stories, Urich cuts the tension by interlaying her grandmother's voice over footage of the moon or her mother's potted plants in the window. These choices amplify for the audience just how far away Iran feels for Urich.

While a few scenes feel more staged than Urich planned, overall “Joonam” is a heartfelt exploration of those living within a diaspora, the fractured connection each generation has to their own culture, and the irrevocable bond of shared roots. 

Another personal journey through the past, and in this case also through conflicted spirituality, is found in Luke Lorentze's "A Still Small Voice". Shot during the early years of the pandemic, the film follows Mati, a chaplain in training, as she finishes her yearlong residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. We see Mati as she visits patients; one of which tells her she gets through the day by listening to the calming "still small voice" within herself. We also see Mati in group sessions with the other students and their supervisor Rev. David.

2020 and 2021 were two deadliest years in American history, so everyone in the program is pushed to their breaking point. Lorentze includes footage of Rev. David seeking guidance from his own mentor as he comes to the edge of his rope, as well as his charged 1:1 meetings with Mati. As someone who during quarantine both lost a grandparent and found my workload within a feedback culture job overloaded, many of these scenes resonated on a deeply personal level. I was working in film, so to see this same burnout happen to those whose very job is to guide patients and their families through trauma, though I related on one level, I cannot imagine just how deeply exhausted Mati became on levels I have never operated on. 

During one group session Mati shares the trauma she carries for stories of family members who died in the Holocaust and her deeply fraught relationship with God and spirituality itself. The other members of the group are at loss for words when she finishes sharing. Even Rev. David cannot fathom the load she carries, suggesting they end early for the day and find some sunshine to enjoy. Mati's face as she realizes those around her cannot even engage with her says more than any words could. 

This documentary will be triggering for anyone who has dealt with personal loss. Mati does not just counsel patients, but also bereaved family members. During one such conversation, Mati chooses to reveal a deeply personal story in order to better contextualize her advice. After hearing what she's been through herself, it's no wonder this training has left her completely spent emotionally, physically, and spiritually. 

There have been many documentaries about first responders in the age of Covid, but "A Still Small Voice" may well be the best to examine them within the frame set of the Great Resignation. 

Lastly, "Bad Press," Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler's searing look at how local politics are at odds with the freedom of the press in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma, mostly centers itself on how the fight of one journalist is not just about her job, but the wave of change that could ripple throughout all of Indian country. 

Angel Ellis is a reporter for Mvskoke Media in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. On November 8th, 2018, the members of the National Council voted to repeal the Freedom of the Press Act, which itself had only been ratified in the Nation in 2015. This repeal comes a year after one of Angel's fellow journalists unearthed a sexual harassment scandal on the council, and few months before an upcoming election. 

The doc includes footage of the repeal vote, as well as several other important votes after one council member initiates a motion to codify Freedom of the Press into their constitution (itself only dates back to 1979). Landsberry-Baker and Peeler manage to capture—several times—that pit in your stomach feeling that occurs when you're watching the votes roll in for an election that has steep ramifications depending on its outcome.

Along with Angel and her various co-workers, in tracing the motion's journey towards codification, the filmmakers interview several candidates who are running for Principal Chief, as well as citizens who are inspired to vote for the first time in order to make sure the motion passes. These interviews reveal just how corrupt those who seek to lead often are, or later become, as well as how easily misinformation can spread without a trustworthy news source. 

Although the documentary's focus is solely on the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, its themes echo the various battles fought between the press and governments throughout time. The Mvskoke Media story is a living embodiment of “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors," Justice Hugo Black's opinion on the 1971 Supreme Court decision in New York Times Co. v. United States. That a Freedom of the Press codification for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation could be as big of a landmark decision that would affect other Native American tribes is a driving force for Angel, who just wants journalists to be able to do their job reporting the news, good or bad. 

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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