My participation at SXSW22 has once again been online only. Prepping for a move to Mississippi and to teach a course the week before I leave made a few days in Austin close to impossible. While I was bummed to miss out on Everything Everywhere All at Once and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, both IRL screenings only, the online portal has offered easy access to plenty of good films (Sundance should take note). Two documentaries introduce us to some courageous people that go where few–if any–of us would dare to tread.
FIRE OF LOVE
Sundance winner Fire of Love tells the story of volcanologists Maurice and Katia Krafft, a couple who dedicated their careers, and ultimately gave their lives to, the pursuit of volcanic eruptions. Growing up less than an hour apart, the two took comfort in nature living in the destruction of post WWII Alsace. Mining their extensive photo and video collection, the film bounces back and forth between their earliest days together and their subsequent expeditions, which seem to have been quite newsworthy in France and other parts of Europe.
This is a quirky documentary full of heart, beauty, and questions about the meaning of life. The Kraffts were pursuing nothing less than the earth’s heartbeat and, in the process, might well have found their own. The contemplative script is narrated to great effect by Miranda July, and the film’s aesthetic feels very much like a real life version of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, complete with the couple’s cute red woolies. I can’t stress how absolutely stunning this footage is, especially when paired with the risks that the Kraffts (and other members of their expeditions) took to get it.
National Geographic acquired the film out of Sundance so you’ll likely be able to see it later this year when it will almost certainly be a contender for next year’s best documentary feature.
The Australian documentary Clean takes us places we don’t normally go (nor hope to be) as it follows a trauma cleaning service, whose employees clean out homes of hoarders, murder scenes, suicides and fatal accidents. It centers on Sandra Pankhurst, who was herself a childhood victim of abandonment and abuse and who later in life contracts COPD from working this job without proper PPE. When she becomes too ill to work, Sandra begins a search for her birth mother.
While the film sometimes feels like a commercial for Sandra’s company, it still contains some touching moments, especially when her employees reflect on what it takes to do a job like this and what they have learned from their years in the business. As one employee puts it, trauma cleaners must leave their prejudices and judgments at the door. As a result, these assignments become profound experiences that fuel empathy and compassion for the suffering of others. After all, these cleaners work in the most sacred of spaces, that liminal realm between life and death.