Tag Archives: Sundance

#TBT: Why Sundance’s Maddening “A Woman Captured” is a Fiction Film in Documentary Clothing

“A Woman Captured” is an engrossing, maddening film. It bills itself as a story about modern-day slavery, following 52-year-old Marish who finds herself trapped in contemporary Hungary serving a vile master named Eta. (The film premiered at Sundance 2018).

Visually, the film reflects Marish’s small world via unwavering extreme close ups. It’s enamoring, because her visage, like that of an old-world gypsy, is haggard and telegenic. The result is intimate and raw.


Sundance premiere A Woman Captured

In fact, film critics fell under its spell. The Hollywood Reporter calls it, “more than promising as a debut.” Variety calls it “shiveringly effective.”

Initially at least, I’m on board for the ride. Marish’s quest is believable, which she announces early on: to escape from her situation, get her own place, and reunite with her 16 year-old daughter.

Where this film breaks down is the accumulating sense that Hungarian filmmaker Bernadett Tuz-Ritter is withholding vital information. After all, some 69 minutes pass before we see anybody besides Marish! Throughout Act 2, I have an increasingly strong sense that I’m being manipulated.

There’s no back story forthcoming. As a result, the early rush of being immersed in Marish’s suffering is subsumed by a realization that everybody—Tuz-Ritter, Marish, and Eta—all have a lot more facts than I do.

We’re deep in Act 3, minutes before the over-the-top conclusion, before we learn bits and pieces about how Marish arrived in her current situation. This is way too late.

Sundance premiere A Woman Captured

What about Marish’s relationships? Is she estranged from her husband and children? If so, why? And for how long? And did this precede her descent into “modern-day slavery?” …Come again, does Marish really have 5 adult children nearby?!

Alternatively, perhaps this film is actually an experiment, testing my own expectations for more backstory and exposition? Is the joke is on me? Is this a postmodern work of art? Is it a fiction film in documentary clothing?

A third possibility is that Marish is actually suffering from some sort gargantuan lack of confidence that entraps her at an emotional level. How else can you really explain that she’s simply unable to walk down the street to seek help from one of her children, or a work colleague, or a social service organization?

If this is the case, wouldn’t have Tuz-Ritter tried let us in on this gradually during Act 2? Some sort of revelation that Marish’s health or choices have played a role in her current situation?

Cue Act 3. When Marish calls the “institution” where her daughter is staying, she gets through to the director easily and talks with him at length. She obviously has a pre-existing relationship with him. What is this institution? Where is the daughter? What’s the backstory there?

Most important, the conclusion is an emotional house of mirrors. Tuz-Ritter builds up Marish’s reunion with her daughter as the emotional peak of the film. But for this to matter, I need to understand what circumstances caused their separation. But the explanation is insufficient and I’m frustrated.

After the film, I talk with several Sundance filmgoers around me. Most of them love the film. They want to discuss modern-day slavery and how horrible it is.

But for me, “A Woman Captured” has the trappings of a film—an interesting character, an underlying quest, a structure and a resolution of sorts—but ultimately, it is manipulative gibberish.

Without exploring in greater depth why Marish’s family doesn’t help her escape, then the film isn’t honest or authentic.

The Hollywood Reporter piece called “A Woman Captured” “more conspiratorial than observational.” I suppose that’s spot on. And it raises a vital question: at what threshold of conspiracy does a documentary film cease to be a documentary film?

For more Los Angeles documentary film production, click here.



Sundance 2018: Nothin’ but Docs!

Sundance is even better than I anticipated. I watched nine documentaries in three days, met a hero of mine, braved the cold, boxed for photos, and soaked up Main Street life in the snow.

Main Street, a little tomfoolery

I arrived Tuesday excited. Sundance is, after all, atop the pantheon of North American film festivals for documentaries, along with Tribeca, SXSW, Full Frame, New York Film Festival, True/False, and Hot Docs.

For years, I was hoping my first time would be with my own doc. Being invited to a festival with your film is awesome, because you mingle with other filmmakers and share your work with a live audience! When Volcanic Sprint played at the Jackson Hole Film Festival, it was unforgettable! And when Shattered Sky premiered at the DC Environmental Film Fest, it was the culmination of four years of passion, labor, and learning. It was epic.

But before I’m a filmmaker, I’m a huge fan of documentary, and now that I live in Los Angeles, it was just a hop over to Park City, Utah. I snapped up a cheap Jet Blue flight out of Long Beach and took an Uber to my AirBnB near downtown. 

Update: Here’s Sundance winners. Now, loosely in order of how I liked them, what I watched:

Minding the Gap, directed by Bing Lui, was the first film I took in, and my favorite. I like how it evolved from a buddy movie to a mystery to an indictment of toxic masculinity. Structurally, it’s some of the best storytelling I’ve seen. Much more than a skateboarding picture, Minding the Gap has really stuck with me. Just go watch it; I can’t do it justice in words.

America to Me is Steve James’ new 10-part episodic documentary series that was acquired by Starz for $5 million during the festival. In a feat of endurance and patience—which James himself alluded to jokingly, before, during, and after the 6-hour session—we watched the first five episodes. It was stellar, and to be honest I could’ve easily stayed another five hours to watch the final five episodes! Like you’d expect from a James production (he is the director of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters), you get strong, authentic characters navigating issues of class and race. It was a huge pleasure to talk with James afterwards. When organizers kicked us out of the theater for the next screening, he invited us all to keep chatting nearby. No trace of self-importance, James took all questions and earnestly answered. Likeable, smart guy. Legendary documentary professional. This is why I love going to festivals.

With a hero of mine, Director Steve James

Shirkers is a one-of-a-kind entertaining documentary by Sandi Tan. It’s quirky first-person filmmaking at its best. In the early 1990s, Tan makes Singapore’s first indie flick, but then her mentor and professor steals the footage. More than 20 years later, she gets her hands on the footage again, which sends her on a journey of memory and belonging. Tan announces herself as a new voice.

Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is the story of the global hip hop artist. It pieces together raw home movies revealing the vulnerable, ernest activist behind the famous star. I definitely would’ve liked to see more about how she became such an accomplished writer, beat-maker, and dancer, but that’s a credit to Director Steven Loveridge’s storytelling. The artist comes off as a very likable, normal person, with a big heart and a legitimate desire to help her people. I read in Billboard that M.I.A. wasn’t sure she liked the movie. Well, I like her a lot more now that I’ve seen it.

Kailash won the Sundance grand jury prize, but it wasn’t even in my top three. The issue it highlights is important (child slavery), and the film was very well done, particularly for a first-time filmmaker. But it’s hard to elevate hagiography, particularly when most of it is in the past tense. This was a solid and motivating film, but you sort of knew where it was going.

Hal celebrates the under-appreciated 1970s director Hal Ashby, who made 7 films in 9 years, including the enduring Harold and Maude, Being There, Shampoo, and others. I really enjoyed this one.

Sundance featured a slew of documentaries. They seemed to fall into three categories. First, personal stories with strong points of view: Minding the Gap and Shirkers. Second, famous people doing big things: Kailash and Hal. Third, legendary filmmakers coming back to Sundance: America to Me.

I watched nine in three days, and was in hog heaven. I’m a little ashamed that every doc in this blog I gave four out of four stars! Hey, I’m not a critic: I’m a lover of documentaries!

See you next year!

Hamming it up with Michael Aisner, eating some Olomomo nuts between films …