Maya Arulpragasam — the controversial musician known as M.I.A. and the subject of Stephen Loveridge’s new documentary “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” — was shellshocked after the film’s Sundance world premiere, and not in the good way. “It’s so long,” she told the sold-out crowd, mere seconds after watching the movie for the first time. Then, turning to her understandably ashen director without even the slightest hint of a smile, she just said: “I’m surprised people didn’t walk out.” If anyone had, they would have missed one of the festival’s defining moments.
The Q&A that followed was one for the ages. For 20 rivetingly awkward minutes, Arulpragasam poked at the man who had made a movie out of her life, bending each of the broad questions she was asked back to her supposed collaborator. Despite knowing the outspoken iconoclast since meeting her in art school in the ’90s, Loveridge didn’t seem the least bit prepared for her reaction; he stood there rooted in place, looking ready to die even before his old friend accused him of absconding to America with years of her home video footage and editing this intimate portrait without her input. Nobody in the crowd expected the outspoken artist to sugarcoat her feelings after the show (we’re talking about someone who flipped off the entire world during a Super Bowl halftime show just for the hell of it), but we could never have anticipated that M.I.A. would turn out to be her own film’s harshest critic.
“He took all my cool out,” she told the audience. “I didn’t know that my music wouldn’t really be a part of this. I find that to be a little hard, because that is my life. It’s not the film that I would have made.”
And so the question becomes: What is the film that she would have made? And then: Would it necessarily have been a better or more honest one than the fleet, semi-linear, lightly hagiographic biography that we got to watch instead?
The tensions between stories and the people telling them was a major theme at this year’s festival. The world is sideways right now, and so Sundance 2018 was always going to be a loaded affair; it was always going to test how responsive the movies could be. Very, it turns out. The documentaries naturally confronted the most urgent issues of the day, from police corruption (“Crime + Punishment”), to systemic injustices (“The Sentence”), unchecked xenophobia (“Bisbee ’17”), the ineffable humanity of underrepresented peoples (“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” and “On Her Shoulders”), and, of course, the racist mouth-breather in chief (“Our New President”).
At this year’s festival, however, the “fiction” films were just as engaged with the moment at hand, and the usual emphasis on new “it” stars and storytellers was complemented (if not outright replaced) by a heightened attention to the nature of stories themselves, whose we get to see, and who gets to tell them. Underwriting a strong and eclectic roster of works about race, class, sexuality, abuse, misogyny, mental illness, and — most harrowing of all — being 13 in the age of Instagram, was the shared recognition of a world in which people struggle to control their own narratives. Watching everything from a masterful horror film about a haunted family (“Hereditary”) to a landmark cine-memoir about the ghosts in one woman’s attic (“The Tale”) made it more evident than ever that movies are on the front lines of that fight.
But Sundance 2018 didn’t merely argue for the importance of the movies, it also provided an opportunity for cinema to reassess its purpose and redefine its power. These particular movies didn’t simply contend that people should tell their own stories; they also examined how fallible and myopic that approach can be. They didn’t only castigate people for telling someone else’s story; they also celebrated film as a collaborative medium, and illustrated why a little outside perspective can go a long way. The festival returned our focus to this fact: At a time when identity is more fraught than ever before, the storyteller is an inextricable part of the stories they tell.
Tellingly (and/or conveniently), the two best films at the fest were also the ones that spoke to this idea most explicitly, and with the greatest force. Josephine Decker’s extraordinary “Madeline’s Madeline” is a freeform opus about a teenage girl (Helena Howard) struggling with an undefined mental illness, and the two women who are projecting their narratives onto her for different reasons. Madeline’s exasperated mother (Miranda July) is just trying to make sense of her daughter, desperate to pierce the whispering veil between them. Meanwhile, the hegemonic mastermind of Madeline’s experimental theater troupe (Molly Parker) begins subtly — and then not so subtly — using the girl’s trauma as an unwitting backdrop for a new immersive project.
Over the course of the movie, Madeline is seen as a prop or a vessel, but seldom is she granted the agency required to assert her own identity. “You don’t know myself,” Madeline eventually snaps at someone, or everyone. “I am being myself.” In paving the way for her protagonist to explore what that means, Decker questions her own anxieties as a storyteller, particularly when issues of age, race, and experience might suggest that certain members of her cast have a stronger claim over these stories than she does. The result is a new kind of emotionally direct cinema that challenges the limits of control and wonders how, in an age when identity has become a veritable bloodsport, movies can reconcile the seemingly incompatible forces of empathy and representation.
How can they function as both a window and a mirror at a time when they so urgently need to be both? Is it even possible for a filmmaker to get inside someone else’s head, or are they ultimately only using other people as a screen for the stories they’re projecting onto them?
“The Tale,” a staggeringly powerful work of self-expression, approaches those same questions from the inside out rather than from the outside in. It finds a someone telling her own story in order to plumb the potential dangers of telling their own story. Written and directed by Jennifer Fox (and adapted from an essay she wrote in grade school), this explicitly autobiographical film uses the grammar of fiction cinema to unpack how its creator deceived herself into believing that her childhood rape was an act of love.
Casting Laura Dern as herself — and coercing her proxy into a direct confrontation with the past — Fox exhumes the most traumatic episode of her entire life in order to illustrate how the beautiful tale she told herself for 40 years diverted from reality. This is a dense and immensely personal work that speaks to many facets of the filmmaker’s journey, but it triple underlines the fact that Fox needed a small army of other people to help reach her truth. She needed her mother (Ellen Burstyn) to rediscover the story, her fiancée (Common) to push her toward investigating it, and a dozen other people from her distant past to corroborate what she found. “The Tale” is a story that nobody else could tell, but it’s also one that Fox couldn’t tell by herself.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Throughout the Sundance lineup, the distance between storytellers and their subjects became the incredibly fertile no man’s land that defined the films of the festival. That trend was there from day one, when Bo Burnham’s widely beloved “Eighth Grade” established itself as one of the first clear hits of the year. The most striking thing about the movie wasn’t that it so vividly captured how junior high school has become “Black Mirror,” or that it approached modern adolescence with the same raw tenderness that typified the throwback charms of “Lady Bird.”
No, the thing that most critics couldn’t stop talking about was how a 27-year-old male YouTube star managed to paint such a knowing and excruciatingly specific portrait of a 13-year-old girl. There was something beautiful to how Burnham used his digital savvy — his deep-seeded understanding of how people use the internet to project the confidence they can’t muster in person — as a conduit to see the world from a very different perspective. The result is a film that should work for parents as well as their kids; fathers as well as their daughters.
Sandi Tan’s autobiographical documentary “Shirkers” darkly inverted that dynamic, taking us back to her teenage years in Singapore circa 1992. Tan and her friends made a wildly idiosyncratic independent film with the help of an older American dude who served as their mentor… and then vanished with all of the footage. It was as if he hadn’t just stolen Tan’s story, but also her ability to tell stories at all; “Shirkers” is the first feature-length movie she’s made since then, a beguiling personal odyssey about a woman closing the distance between herself and her art. “Colette,” a frothy biopic about a French writer during the Belle Epoque who was famously denied credit for her work, also had plenty of fun minding that gap.
Sara Colangelo’s “The Kindergarten Teacher” took a more harrowing approach to appropriation. A remake of the Israeli film of the same name, her nail-biting moral thriller follows a woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who takes a very special interest in her most talented pupil, claiming the five-year-old’s poetry as her own before insinuating herself between the boy and his family because she thinks she knows what’s best for him. Maybe she does, and maybe she doesn’t. Is this her kid to raise? Is this her story to tell? “The Kindergarten Teacher” remains ambivalent, but the film is ultimately much less interested in answering that question than it is in reinforcing the need to ask it in the first place.
It was the perfect grace note for a festival where the best work affirmed why it’s never been more futile or pointless to try and separate the art from the artist. In a world where identity is the most valuable currency that many of us have, that relationship is going to prove absolutely fundamental to the future of the movies, and focusing on it will continue to shine light on whatever voices are missing from the medium. Maybe anyone can tell any story so long as everyone is allowed to tell them too, but it will always be worth asking who actually did.