“The real me is not photographable.” That’s the claim made by Benedetta Barzini in The Disappearance of My Mother, one of several memorable documentaries in this year’s Sundance Film Festival. A former Italian supermodel, Barzini (born in 1943) inhabits various roles in the movie, which was directed and primarily shot by her son Beniamino Barrese. Now in her 70s — and after years of being a photographically fetishized subject — Barzini has decided that she would like to disappear. “The work we’re doing,” she says to her son, “is a work of separation.”
Deeply personal and shot through with fascinating contradictions, The Disappearance of My Mother is a portrait of a woman in rebellion. Born into privilege — her father was a well-regarded writer and her mother an heiress — Barzini survived anorexia and indifferent parenting, and began modeling in New York in the early 1960s after catching the eye of Diana Vreeland, who was then at Vogue. Barzini worked alongside Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, but soon expanded her horizons: She studied with Lee Strasberg, befriended Salvador Dalí and hung out at Andy Warhol’s Factory, posing with Marcel Duchamp for one of Warhol’s short “Screen Test” films.
In The Disappearance of My Mother, Barrese selectively grazes over Barzini’s past and incorporates archival still and moving images into the mix, including some fabulous footage of her on the job. (Her geometric poses fluidly enhance the lines of the clothing.) Most of the images, though, were taken by Barrese, an obsessive chronicler of his mother. He began shooting her when he was young, turning his photographic gaze on a woman who, as she grew older, became more and more tired of being in front of the camera, to the point of hostility. She continues to model, strolling one catwalk with hauteur that edges into contempt, but it’s complicated.
Those complications surface in the documentary piecemeal. Barzini is Barrese’s subject (and apparent muse), but she’s also his mother, which creates some productive friction. A feminist and Marxist who now also teaches, Barzini is a severe, unsparing critic of the commodification and exploitation of the female body by men, which greatly complicates her son’s insistent, at times intrusive gaze. It also deepens the movie, making the personal ferociously political. He’s forever shooting her and she routinely swats him away, asking and sometimes yelling at him to stop. Yet she also poses for him, and as her face brightens, it seems she’s not ready to vanish just yet.
Sundance is well known for its documentary selections — there are separate American and international competitions — that include celebrity profiles, personal essays, advocacy movies and journalistic investigations. These tend to be formally familiar, and too many this year contain drone imagery (cue the camera swooping over a location) that generally registers as a tedious, meaningless visual tic. That said, the diversity of subjects in the documentary selections can also make these titles feel more adventurous and expansive than those in the fiction lineup. (One small mercy: There are fewer coming-of-age stories about alienated, misunderstood teens.)
Two of the most powerful documentaries in the festival, American Factory and One Child Nation, focus on China. They would make a knockout double bill. Directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, American Factory explores the cultural and political complications that emerge when Cao Dewang, a Chinese billionaire, opens an auto-glass factory in a shuttered General Motors plant near Dayton, Ohio. The filmmakers were already familiar with the site from their short 2009 documentary The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant. They go longer and deeper in the new movie’s gripping two hours.
It can be startling when documentarians are granted the kind of extraordinary access that Bognar and Reichert managed to get while making American Factory. However they did it, the filmmakers made the most of their freedom in a documentary that begins in sorrow with the GM closure and quickly turns buoyant with the arrival of Fuyao, the world’s largest manufacturer of auto glass, which brings hundreds of Chinese workers with it. Elegantly shot and edited, the movie closely tracks the new factory’s growing pains, which turn increasingly factious as the company’s management practices clash with the expectations of American workers accustomed to hard-won labor rights.
Bognar and Reichert personalize this tale of globalization and its discontents by focusing on individuals, including a young Chinese man separated from his family and an older American who shows off his gun collection to his (receptive) Chinese colleagues. The anxious optimism expressed by all the workers, domestic and imported, can be heartbreaking, and it’s impossible not to root for the plant’s success, even when the company — which brutally overworks its employees in China and tries to do the same in Ohio — is at its most villainous. It’s no surprise that the Chinese government is involved in Fuyao’s venture, which underlines the larger, complex geopolitical stakes.
I haven’t been able to shake One Child Nation, an essential, often harrowing exploration of China’s decadeslong one-child policy, which officially ended in 2015. Directed by Nanfu Wang (Hooligan Sparrow) and Jialing Zhang, the documentary probes the experiment in social engineering that China adopted around the same time it made its great leap forward into late capitalism. (The country’s former leader, Deng Xiaoping, once explained that the policy was necessary so that “the fruits of economic growth are not devoured by population growth.”) For Wang, who was born in China and now lives in New York, the story could not be more personal.
At once an insistently feminist memoir and a far-reaching social critique, One Child Nation follows Wang as she returns to China with her infant daughter. There, she begins exploring the one-child policy, speaking with family members and neighbors, as well as former workers who performed forced sterilizations, abortions and labor induction for China’s family-planning program. Some of this can be almost too hard to bear; there are images of discarded fetuses and a story about a pregnant woman’s attempted escape. As the filmmakers chart the evolution of the policy, which grew to include international adoptions, the movie evolves into an unsparing rebuke of totalitarian rule.
Sundance gives out awards like Halloween candy, but sometimes selections truly deserve the honor, which is the case with One Child Nation (the U.S. grand jury prize) and American Factory (the U.S. directing prize). Other commendable winners include Knock Down the House, which unsurprisingly snagged an audience award; directed by Rachel Lears, it is one of a handful of movies in the festival that together offer a vivid collective portrait of the United States in its current historical moment. Fast and efficient, it follows four women who were part of the wave of female candidates running for Congress in 2018 with little money or establishment support.
One of those women (lucky, lucky filmmaker) was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Although the movie focuses on Ocasio-Cortez — a vivid screen presence whether she’s on the move or delivering a deft, funny take on the semiotics of campaigning — Knock Down the House works because it looks at political action from the ground up. It makes an instructive contrast with The Brink, Alison Klayman’s intimate, intelligent documentary on Steve Bannon, who helped put President Donald Trump into the White House. Together these two documentaries would make a perfect triple bill with Hail Satan?, Penny Lane’s hilarious movie about the Satanic Temple and its devilish role in the culture wars.