Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 28th, 2023
The 2023 Slamdance Film Festival began on Friday, January 20, and ends on Sunday, January 29 (tomorrow). While my attention has been focused more on the concurrent Sundance Film Festival (I am covering both virtually), I nevertheless managed to catch four documentaries, two of which just won awards. What follows are brief capsule reviews of each.
Cisco Kid (Emily Kaye Allen, 2022)
“Take nothing but pictures. Be respectful, for fuck’s sake.” Such is the sign that greets visitors upon entering Cisco, Utah, population 1 (most of the time). The sole resident is Eileen, who spends their time doing maintenance on the remaining structures of what is essentially a ghost town or, every once in a while, hanging out with similarly queer friends. In recent memory, Cisco is probably most famous for making a brief appearance in the 1991 Thelma & Louise. Isolated as the place may be, plenty of people stop by to check it out, and lest we worry about Eileen, they pack a big pistol off to one side, clearly visible. These are just some of the surface details in Emily Kaye Allen’s debut feature, and through the information fascinates, what makes the movie truly work is the deceptively casual way the director edits the seemingly mundane into a stunning celebration of life. This dusty Western landscape is an oasis of cinematic beauty.
Silent Love (Marek Kozakiewicz, 2022): Honorable Mention, Jury Prize for Documentary Feature
Life in Poland for LGBTQ+ folks is increasingly fraught, the conservative government in this largely Catholic country passing anti-gay legislation as it wishes (though there is, at least for now, good news on that front). Culturally, no one needs laws to create a hostile climate for those who live outside the heteronormative model. Enter Agnieszka, a thirtysomething woman with a girlfriend, Majka, who resides, for now, in Germany. When first we meet her, she is beginning the legal process of obtaining custody of her much younger brother, since their mother just died. It’s the honorable thing to do, but she also very much loves him. At 14, Milosz is everything you expect a teenager to be, though still on the sweet side. He adores Majka, whose visits are a highlight, and this despite the man-woman dichotomy pressed on him at school. We can only hope he will continue to be so open as time goes on. In this perceptive documentary, director Marek Kozakiewicz follows the main characters as they go about their daily existence, in all its quotidian glory. Small events resonate to big effect, but always, the greatest joy comes from daily doses of unvarnished love.
Starring Jerry as Himself (Law Chen, 2023): Winner of both the Audience Award and Jury Prize for Documentary Feature
Much of Law Chen’s Starring Jerry as Himself is more reenactment than cinema verité, our titular protagonist walking us through some pretty spectacular misfortune. So much of this is recreation, in fact, that it begs the question of whether this really qualifies as a documentary. Nevertheless, it’s engrossing. We follow what happens when the retired Jerry, a divorced Taiwanese immigrant now living in Orlando, has the bad luck to answer a call purportedly from the Chinese police. One thing leads to another and soon Jerry is being given all kinds of sketchy instructions to transfer money out of his savings and into unknown accounts. It’s not hard to guess at the unfortunate outcome, and this despite the presence of three adult sons and an ex-wife all close to him and invested in his well-being. Comic and deeply sad, all at the same time, the movie is a PSA for aging sexagenarians (and above) to think twice about who is on the line. Jaunty despite the often-disturbing subject matter, Starring Jerry as Himself very much features its subject as he walks through what not to do. Don’t try this at home.
Sweetheart Deal (Elisa Levine/Gabriel Miller, 2022)
A documentary that took over 8 years to make—so long that co-director and cinematographer Gabriel Miller is no longer with us, having passed away in 2019—Sweetheart Deal offers a major twist in its final third that is a worthwhile emotional payoff to the often difficult-to-watch footage that comes before. Set in Seattle’s Aurora Street area, home to drug dealers and sex workers, the movie follows a number of characters through time, among them Laughn “Elliott” Doescher, a sixtysomething seeming Good Samaritan who offers his trailer to women in need as a refuge from abusive clients, pimps, and more. The fact that he also sleeps with many of them is initially treated as a passing tidbit, but it later very much comes back in full dramatic force. By the end, we come to know these women’s stories in intimate detail; Sara, Amy, Kristine, Tammy, and others are all deserving of our full attention, much more so than the so-called “Mayor of Aurora,” as Elliott is known. It’s a slice of brisk and very real life like we rarely get to see on screen.