By Thomas M. Puhr.

‘Disrupting the status quo’ through diverse selections…. their documentary choices – including a feel-good athlete biography and a harrowing portrait of religious faith in a maximum security prison – exhibit a similar variety.”

Ranging from a comedy-drama about the pitfalls of parenthood to a genre-hopping eco-parable/musical, the narrative films from this year’s Slamdance Film Festival embody the ethos of “disrupting the status quo” through diverse selections. Their documentary choices – including a feel-good athlete biography and a harrowing portrait of religious faith in a maximum security prison – exhibit a similar variety.

The cumulative impact, however, is not that of a patchwork. Be it because of a mental or physical disability, the social stigma of incarceration, or the displacement caused by big business, all the people in the below films (fiction and non-fiction alike) strive for self-actualization in a world that ignores them out of convenience, fear, or malice. And so those usually relegated to the sidelines have the privilege of sharing the spotlight on Slamdance’s stage, one where “artists with divergent voices [are] accessible to everyone.”

James Di Martino’s short film Baby (2024) opens with a beautifully choreographed single take: Piercing the distorted warbling of birds and a nearby couple’s violent argument, a black car twice careens around a cul-de-sac, as if from a glitchy videogame, and smashes into another vehicle. Bystanders drag a pregnant woman from the wreck. For one of these witnesses, Mikaela (Erin Kearns), this moment is one of epiphany. “It was right then,” she says, watching the pregnant woman get CPR, “I knew that I wanted my very own beautiful baby.” It’s a hell of an expository scene, and it instantly establishes an off-kilter world.

Mikaela and her boyfriend Eric (Michael Buxton) both have Down syndrome, so their road to parenthood is especially fraught. In addition to Mikaela’s caring but skeptical sister, Jess (Yiana Pandelis), the couple must also contend with the possibility that child services will intervene (Jess insists they keep the pregnancy a secret until she can figure out what to do). Baby skillfully avoids heavy-handedness thanks to writer Llewellyn Michael Bates’ sly humor (Mikaela and Eric are obsessed with You are the Father, a Maury-esque trash TV show in which negative paternity test results are treated like lotto tickets) and its leads’ sunny performances. Crucially, the ending satisfies without descending into the mawkish. Baby is a feel-good movie that also feels true.   

As far as films with niche audiences go, you can’t get much niche-r than Trygve Luktvasslimo’s The Bitcoin Car (Bitcoinbilen, 2023): an ecological, surreal musical-comedy in which the titular vehicle is perhaps the least odd element. Siblings Gloria (Sunniva Birkeland Johansen) and Lukas (Henrik Paus) – an organic farmer and fashion model, respectively – join forces with power company worker Viljami (Johannes Winther Farstad) to take down the evil ValBORG, a literal bitcoin “mine” resting atop the beloved village cemetery and polluting the soil. For every clever non-sequitur (“They shower,” Gloria says of her hippie friends, “just not with evil, multinational soap”), viewers are inundated with absurdist, weird-for-the-sake-of-weird jokes: farm animals named after STDs (Klamydia, Syfi-Liss, etc.), a Musk-esque tech billionaire clad in a knight’s helmet and pajamas, and even a trio of singing, gold-robed electron puppets released from a broken power cable. (Okay, I’ll admit the singing electrons made me chuckle, though I’d lost my patience with them by their third appearance.)

The Bitcoin Car

Buried under all the forced whimsy is an earnest message about becoming better stewards of both the Earth and one another (“Love is forever, memory doesn’t fade,” a recurring lyric reminds us), but this simple idea can’t bear the weight of the film’s scatology. Gestures toward something resembling character development are made – a blooming romance between Gloria and Viljami, for example – but rarely followed through, and the end product feels more like a series of loosely connected skits than it does a coherent, cohesive whole. Some clever wordplay (though mostly in Norwegian, the dialogue incorporates Estonian, Finnish, English, and a dash of Spanish) and bright set designs can’t save The Bitcoin Car from being much more than an exhausting curio.

Filmed between 2018 and 2021, Nina is an Athlete (2023)follows Israeli badminton champion Nina Gorodetsky as she competes in Turkey, Brazil, Spain, Israel, and ultimately Japan, the hosting country for the 2020 Paralympics. This documentary’s requisite game footage is efficiently – if a bit blandly – shot, though director Ravit Markus is more interested in the relationships defining Nina’s personal and professional lives (and their many intersections; her husband, Dor, is also one of her coaches) than she is in the game itself. Nina’s camaraderie with head coach Leon Pugach (both are Russian émigrés) is especially poignant, his acerbic candor providing some welcome, unexpected laughs; when discussing Nina’s able-bodied husband, Leon jokes that “either he’s salt of the earth and there’s no one like him, or he’s a pervert” (this gets a big laugh from his pupil). Nina is equally frank about her disability (a car accident paralyzed her from the waist down when she was 17). “You’re like everyone else,” she says, “but not exactly like everyone. You realize you deserve to be happy like anyone else.” (This latter line, come to think of it, could function as a mission statement for all the Slamdance films I previewed.)

Like many recent documentaries, the film necessarily became a portrait of life during COVID. While in lockdown, Nina juggles Zoom training sessions with Leon, her second pregnancy (coincidentally, she finds out she’s expecting on the exact same date the Paralympics are indefinitely postponed), and her father’s failing health. Looming over everything – including Nina’s decision to have a baby – is the fact that her age could make Tokyo her last shot at Olympic glory.

Clocking in at a crisp 72 minutes, Nina is an Athlete is clear-eyed, empathetic, and not too sentimental. Despite Nina’s exasperated complaints of wanting to finally quit, it’ll come as no surprise to learn that she is training for the 2024 Games. The title says it all: This is who she is.  

Another title from this year’s slate offers an at times harsher, but no less affecting, kind of hope. Though Punishment (Straff, 2024; see top image) is a social documentary, one could be forgiven for initially thinking they’re watching a cubist architectural piece, or a lost Antonioni exercise in ennui; we first see Halden – a maximum security prison in Norway – via a series of stark black-and-white images, the sky blaringly white against the facility’s harsh grey concrete. It’s a gorgeous-looking film about an ugly place: a fitting aesthetic choice for a feature about finding genuine hope at life’s lowest. It’s also unabashedly cinematic, which is to say it belongs in a theater. This quality elevates Punishment above Nine is an Athlete’s utilitarian aesthetics.

Director Øystein Mamen follows four inmates participating in a 21-day silent Christian retreat at a convent built from an old ward. We meet Hasan, whose excitement over an upcoming leave is sullied by an extreme case of institutionalization (“The worst part about my leave was going back to prison afterwards and realizing that I was looking forward to it”); Christian and Bjørn, both in for murder, both wanting a forgiveness they don’t feel they deserve (it would be “too easy,” Christian insists, for him to receive God’s forgiveness for taking another life after “only” 5 years behind bars); and John, a non-believer and self-proclaimed “sinister weed of the flower garden” who explains – somewhat paradoxically – that “I can’t believe…because I’m a doubter. If I’m not allowed to doubt, I can’t believe.” Prison life has afforded these men a lot of time to think.

Like John, one doesn’t have to be a person of faith in order to get something out of this remarkable film. Mamen lets the material speak for itself; by avoiding uplifting non-diegetic music, text-heavy title cards, etc., he invites us to participate in the group’s silence and contemplation (long stretches follow the men sitting around: smoking, nodding, looking past the prison walls and up at the sky). Like the retreat leader – a patient, thoughtful, occasionally quite funny woman named Marit – he neither judges nor offers pat answers to life’s enduring questions. He simply observes. This approach lends a dignified solemnity to scenes that could have felt cloying, such as when Marit and a partner – reenacting a Gospel story between Jesus and his disciples – wash the inmates’ feet.

The director’s approach also elicits an emotional vulnerability from these hardened criminals. As Hasan confesses, “To me, the meaning of life has been to survive, not to live.” The footage surrounding this heartbreaking line captures the participants’ struggles to live with who they are and what they’ve done. The result is an early contender for one of 2024’s best documentaries.

Thomas M. Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.

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