The debilitating genetic disorder Xeroderma Pigmentosum makes sunlight fatal to those afflicted with it from a young age and leads to a dwindling neurological condition that eventually culminates with death. Medical specialists usually discuss it as an extremely rare condition that surfaces among one in a million people, but compared to the larger population, its occurrences among descendants of Navajo clans virtually form an epidemic. The American Indian has never had it easy, which makes the recurrences of XP into an eloquent distillation for the greater struggles of a long-suffering minority. Maya Stark and Adi Lavy’s documentary “Sun Kissed” does just that to extremely powerful effect, as it follows a couple in search of the cause for their children’s fatal condition and forced to confront the nature of their entire history.
Shot in the desolate Navajo reservation in New Mexico, “Sun Kissed” is largely narrated by Yolanda Sandoval, who gave birth to two children with XP in succession. As the movie begins, their son has already passed away from the disease while their daughter Leandra remains barely alive and under their constant care, conscious to some degree but largely relegated to the status of a vegetable. Sandoval finds an outlet for coping with her family’s plight by searching the community for others enduring the same condition — and finds that many in fact do. Her ongoing investigation into the nature of the disease and its potential causes reveal the tension between the Navajo’s ancient traditions and its lingering tensions with modern American society. Not since Kent Mackenzie’s 1961 drama “The Exiles” has a movie so eloquently displayed the lingering effects of white oppression on Native American life.
However, Stark and Lavi avoid structuring their movie as an indictment. Instead, it becomes gradually clear over the course of Sandoval’s conversations with fellow Navajos, doctors and historians that one cause for XP stands out more than any other: Setting aside the possibility of spiritual punishment routinely suggested by Navajo medicine men, there appears no greater culprit than the Long Walk, the infamous forced relocation of Navajo tribes by the U.S. government in the mid-nineteenth century. During that period of mass execution and upheaval, Navajo Indians were forced into disease-infested quarters of concentration camps, creating a bottleneck effect that likely enlarged the possible occurrences of the XP’s recessive gene.
As the shadow of the Long Walk gradually encroaches on the narrative, “Sun Kissed” masterfully shifts from an unbearably intimate portrait of a family under duress to encompass the much broader framework of scars reverberating throughout the Navajo community. Medicine men attribute the disease to nature’s payback against parents guilty for pithy sins against it (killing ants chief among them). The Sandovals struggle to process the mystical explanation even as more practical causes bubble to the surface, and the filmmakers capture this mounting uneasiness with a somber eye. No image, however, transcends the power generated by seeing the faces of XP’s victims, whose zombie-like gaze is belied by close-ups of eyes hinting at some remaining semblance of intellect. With the XP symptoms putting a literal face on centuries of struggle, “Sun Kissed” barrels toward a poetic finish that includes the most devastating non-fiction deathbed scene since “How to Die in Oregon.”
By situating the movie from the limited perspective of Leandra’s parents, the movie maintains a fairly uncomplicated discourse on its hugely provocative topic, which makes it both accessible and at times simpler than the kind of treatment the material begs for. The lack of scientific details hampers the prospects of a deeper investigative inquiry into its topic. But that hardly matters by the time “Sun Kissed” reaches its weighty conclusion, not resolving anything but nevertheless displaying the Navajo’s continuing resolve with a majestic ride into the sunset. The footage speaks for itself.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? PBS? The movie’s topicality and historical dimensions should help it play to great reception along the festival circuit, and it could benefit tremendously from a grassroots distribution strategy that targets communities interested in learning more about XP’s causes. It airs on PBS in October.