So this morning marks the dawn of the Fourth Reich, during which the coronation of the 45th President will take place; and 2,100 miles west in Park City, UT, nearly 40,000 out-of-towners converging for the start of the Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals will look on the TV with trepidation — the announcement yesterday that the incoming administration has designs of hacking $10.5 trillion from the federal budget, including the planned privatization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the elimination of both the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities must surely be on the minds of many here in Park City. For those who apparently care not a whit for documentary film or activist cinema — that mood is a bit harder to gauge. I’m sure that in the coming days, some opinions will coalesce. About that inauguration…for today, what fucking EVER. I got movies I wanna talk about.
The weekend of double-features continued last night, as I took in a couple of competition features: an World Competition selection, POP AYE by Kirsten Tan; and a U.S. Documentary Competition selection, WHOSE STREETS? by Sabaah Folayan.
Director Tan, who hails from Singapore, locates her debut feature in the little-seen countryside of northern Thailand and essays the story of Thana, an elderly architect whose once-illustrious career and marriage seem to be slipping away as a young guard moves in to take over his projects. While driving his wife around town, he espies a circus elephant that he recognizes as Popeye, a childhood companion that was sold to the circus to pay for his college education. Now a marginalized worker at the very firm he helped found, Thana re-unites with Popeye with designs of taking him back to his hometown of Loei to return him to Uncle Peak, who raised the aging pachyderm. A different kind of road movie altogether, POP AYE is a charmer, a wistful drama that doesn’t let issues of urban renewal and gentrification (issues that are on the minds of many back home in Los Angeles) stay too far from the front burner. Thana and Popeye’s destination could not end as one would expect, but for the two, it can be said to be nostalgic, and fitting. Apparently, that nostalgia can also repair a marriage: as Thana and his wife sneak into a soon-to-be-demolished shopping plaza, his first major architectural achievement, a story emerges of a time when Thana’s wife was shopping in his building at the time a major earthquake shook Bangkok. While others ran for the exits in panic, she just kept on shopping, so confident she was in her husband’s architectural design that the building would never fall. What a reassuring memory, that.
Director Folayan’s WHOSE STREETS? is cut from a different brand of cloth, yet the effect is positively incendiary. Charting the 2014 Ferguson, MO uprising incited by the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown at the hands of the Ferguson police, director Folayan and screenwriter Damon Davis offer an unflinching look at the events immediately after the shooting through to the verdict determining if the officer who pulled the trigger would stand trial. Told through the stories of the activists and leaders hungry for justice and for an end of police violence against Black Americans, WHOSE STREETS? tells its stories through news footage of the riots that followed, the National Guard crackdown, cellphone cameras, home movie footage, and SMS messages. While the trajectory of this story has been infamously played out over the broadcast and online airwaves and over social media, director Folayan casts an eye on parents, artists, and teachers whose activism has been galvanized by the Brown killing, in effect observing the growth of a new generation of fully engaged, politically and socially conscious activist who are truly interested in breaking a cycle of institutionalized racism and disenfranchisement. Along the way, there are lives that have to be lived, children to be raised, same-sex couples to be wed. WHOSE STREETS? goes way beyond the surface sloganeering of “hands up! Don’t shoot!” that defined this emerging generation of consciousness. It casts an eye on a revolution in the making, one that is being forged by equal parts defiance and hope.
It snowed yesterday, but as I walked out of the theatre following the screening of WHOSE STREETS?, the sky cleared in Park City. A sign, perhaps?