Outstanding innovations in thematic treatment are prevalent in numerous feature-length narratives in the Utah Film’s Center’s 18th annual Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival. Two of the most compelling examples are Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, which premiered at this year’s Sundance, and tthe Brazilian film Madalena, directed by Madiano Marcheti.
Both films are available for streaming on demand through July 18.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
The creepy, darkening vibes of Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, a feature-length debut for the nonbinary filmmaker, are mesmerizing but never gratuitous. And, they amplify brilliantly the themes behind the story of Casey (played spectacularly by Anna Cobb), a female teen who explores and experiments with her identity through an online horror game with numerous players.
Indeed, the film likely will extract some of the most insightful reviews and observations from viewers of Casey’s generation, especially those who are processing how to define the space of their multidimensional identities and deal with dysphoria, among other concerns. The ubiquitous presence of digital communication and a whole spectrum of channels to explore and experiment with, hopefully mitigating and avoiding the risks and fears of being preyed upon, harassed, ostracized, undermined, dismissed or diminished. Another element is imposter syndrome, which becomes critical to a development in.the film’s story. To reveal more details would be unfair to those who have yet to view the film.
Schoenbrun leaves many instrumental and improvisational spaces throughout the film so that its viewers can navigate, choose and process their own narratives, regardless of how much its reflects, parallels, echoes or differentiates from the boundaries of the epiphanies that emerge in the film.
The film opens with Casey taking the World’s Fair challenge, an approximately eight-minute sequence in which she prepares to record a video for YouTube, She follows the instructions: say “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times and prick a finger and then smear the blood on the computer screen followed by watching a video and then wait for the changes to occur. The viewer sees Casey throughout the film nearly exclusively through her online activity and interaction, all of which takes place in her dimly lit bedroom. It is an intriguing orientation for viewers to fill in the spaces, as they see appropriate or relevant to their own experiences. The story’s timespan, too, is not defined specifically so again viewers can interpret on their own whether or not Casey is really changing and just how real or imagined a transformation might be happening.
Just as intriguing are the numerous examples of videos that become part of the film, which all but one were made for World’s Fair. The exception was a YouTube video from the musical artist Slight Sounds ASMR. Other videos were made by the production team. A surprising appearance in one of the videos was documentarian Theo Anthony, whose Rat Film was featured last year in a Utah Film Center screening and whose latest documentary All Light, Everywhere won a Special Jury Prize in the U.S. Documentary competition at this year’s Sundance.
One elucidating context for appreciating the film comes from a Le Cinéma Club post in which Schoenbrun mentions five film classics that guided her toward the technical aesthetics as well as character and thematic development she strived for in the making of World’s Fair. The cosmopolitan eclectic list includes The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928), Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001), All about Lily Chou-Chou (Shunji Iwai, 2001), Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997) and August in the Water (Gakuryû Ishii, 1995).
Brazilian films have been featured in previous Damn These Heels festival slates but the brilliant Madalena, directed by Madiano Marcheti, another director meaning his feature-length debut, stands out for notable reasons. Many Brazilian offerings for queer cinema have been shot in or near the country’s largest urban centers or coastal regions. In this instance, where the film’s closing credits invoke the plainspoken fact that “Brazil has the highest number of transsexual murders in the world,” the story is set in the rural heart of Brazil’s agricultural economy.
It is that agricultural setting which sets up the film’s intersecting themes, which elevate the story behind the murder of a transgender woman from what would have been a predictable crime drama and investigation to an essential, enlightening rendering of how a single traumatic event reveals more about how various members of the community respond to and grieve the loss of Madalena.
Thus, Marcheti offers the viewers three character storylines whose lives ultimately converge on the significance of Madalena and the moment when her body was discovered in a massive green soybean field. The viewer learns practically nothing about the events of how Madalena was murdered. There is no sign of a police investigation, no interrogation of witnesses and no evidence that the case was or will ever be solved. The mystery of her murder frankly is irrelevant to what Marcheti seeks to achieve in this film. Such an omission perhaps says more about the weak, ineffectual circumstances of the legal institutions in Brazil, where the country’s highest court has ordered that violent acts committed against gay and transgender citizens should be prosecuted as well as affirming the constitutionality of legislation seeking to assure basic rights for queer citizens. The response to progressive steps has been marked instead by an increase in violence, as the film’s closing credits indicate.
The three character storylines capture different dimensions of Madalena’s life, each with expanded Impact on the film’s epiphany. One surrounds Luziane, who is trying to find Madalena to settle an outstanding debt. The second character line is particularly telling in thematic heft about society’s indifference and intolerance to providing dignity for its most marginalized and disenfranchised segments. Cristiano, who is part of the region’s wealthiest agricultural enterprises and families, accidentally finds Madalena’s body but instead decides to keep it secret, fearing that the news and presence of murder investigators will derail his mother’s political campaign.
The final character line revolves around Bianca, also a transgender woman and Madalena’s friend, and two friends who go to an isolated spot in the country for a picnic and swim. While the entire film is understated in effect and mood, this final scene stands out for its placid setting for solace and genuine friendship. It is a unique moment of redemption at least for those who are the only ones to grieve sincerely for the loss of Madalena. They instinctively comprehend the gravity of what affects their community far more than those who are like Luziane and Cristiano. At the moment, they are the only ones who have not been desensitized totally to the dynamics that make them so vulnerable to violence and oppression.