Snapshots from Sundance: A look at two films from the Sundance Film Festival satellite program at Amherst Cinema

  • Eunice and her brother, Devinho, in a scene from “Marte Um,” a Brazilian film from the Sundance Film Festival that debuted in a satellite program at the Amherst Cinema last weekend. Image courtesy Sundance Film Festival

  • Devinho dreams of being an astrophysicist in the Brazilian drama “Marte Um.” Sundance Film Festival

  • The documentary “Free Chol Soo Lee,” which just played at the Amherst Cinema as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s Satellite program, examines a case of wrongful conviction of a Korean immigrant in California in the 1970s. Sundance Film Festival

Staff Writer
Published: 2/4/2022 3:25:22 PM
Modified: 2/4/2022 3:23:52 PM

Amherst Cinema screened several films from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival last weekend as part of a satellite program the festival launched with a handful of independent movie houses in the U.S.

Weather and COVID held down attendance in some cases, but Yasmin Eisenhauer, Amherst Cinema executive director, says she and staff members were buoyed by the overall experience of hosting the Sundance films (see sidebar).

Here’s a look at two of the films the Gazette had the chance to see.

Marte Um (Mars One)

 This Brazilian family drama, which opened the Sundance Satellite program at Amherst Cinema, begins with one of the main characters, young teenager Devinho, gazing up at the night sky as he watches fireworks explode and listens to some people cheering in celebration of the election of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new president, in late 2018.

It’s a symbolic moment of sorts: Devinho dreams of becoming an astrophysicist, but as a member of a working class Black family that now faces the uncertainty of life under a white authoritarian president with a history of racist comments, how realistic are his hopes?

Yet if the start of “Marte Um” suggests that a politically charged examination of class struggle is about to follow, writer-director Gabriel Martins instead offers a warm and even optimistic look at family bonds and struggles, rooted in the day-to-day life and aspirations of ordinary people whose lives are far removed from Brazil’s halls of power.

Devinho is the younger child of Wellington and Tércia, who live in a small home in the outskirts of the city of Contagem. Wellington, four years sober after joining Alcoholics Anonymous, is a caretaker in an upscale apartment complex; Tércia works part time as a house cleaner. Their daughter, Eunice, is a university student who still lives at home but longs to move out and find some independence.

The kids are also keeping secrets from mom and dad. Eunice is a lesbian who hides the fact she has a girlfriend, and Devinho keeps his fascination with astronomy and space exploration, including plans to colonize Mars, to himself. Wellington is banking on his son, a talented soccer player, becoming a professional one day — a sure ticket, he thinks, to a better life, even if it’s not one Devinho is really interested in.

The episodic story develops a troubled note when Tércia, eating lunch in a cafe one day, becomes the victim of a TV prank crew — a man there threatens to kill himself and sets off a fake bomb — that leaves her with headaches and a belief she might be cursed and will bring back luck to her family.

Though Bolsonaro’s name is barely mentioned in the film, there’s an undercurrent of racial and class tension bubbling at times as Black workers face snubs. The underpaid Wellington is asked to do all manner of extra work at his job and at one point gets paid for this, not with money, but a bag of flour. But his job is all he has, and he resists suggestions from a younger co-worker that they demand better pay and stop letting the rich push them around.

“Marte Um” focuses on the family dynamics and developing all four of the main characters, something both Martins’ script and the four principal actors do with considerable skill. The scenes between Eunice (Camilla Damião) and Devinho (Cícero Lucas) are especially good, and Damião shines as well as a young woman who wants to be accepted for who she is by her conventional parents.

“Marte Um” also offers a number of hilarious scenes. When Tércia sees that same TV prankster who’s messed up her life try to pull another stunt in public, watch out. And when Eunice brings her girlfriend home to introduce her to Wellington and Tércia, the look on her parents’ faces — wide open mouths and shocked eyes — as the two young women hold hands is priceless.

Martins shows much empathy to all his characters. Indeed, in a short taped interview that preceded the film, he said he conceived the movie “as a love letter to the Brazilian people, especially Black people, and a hope for a better future.”

 Free Chol Soo Lee

Co-directed by Julie Ha and Eugene Yi, “Free Chol Soo Lee” is a taut documentary of a Korean immigrant who was falsely convicted of murder in San Francisco in 1973 and spent 10 years in prison, the last four on death row — before a pan-Asian American grassroots movement helped free him, making him a symbol of the power of public activism and Asian American solidarity.

Yet the young man at the center of the drama, Chol Soo Lee, struggled with the effort to live up to that public image, and the film becomes an indictment of incarceration in America, as well as a sensitive portrait of one person who was ensnared in that system.

Using a wealth of archival TV footage and photos as well as contemporary interviews with some of the principals in the story, Ha and Yi revisit the killing of Yip Yee Tak, a San Francisco Chinatown gang leader, who was gunned down on the street in early June 1973. Lee, who was 21 at the time, was arrested days later after he was picked out of a lineup by a handful of white witnesses to the crime.

As the film makes clear, Lee was nowhere near the scene of the shooting. Yet San Francisco police failed to follow up with any of his alibi witnesses; they did not interview a single Asian American in the case. Lee was later convicted partly on a faulty ballistics report and because he was, by his own admission, kind of a “street punk” who had had some previous brushes with the law.

The filmmakers say police were eager to make a conviction, even if flawed, and that they displayed anti-Asian bias, making no distinction between Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, or other “Orientals,” as one detective refers to them in the documentary.

A Korean-American journalist in California, K.W. Lee, later examined the case, interviewed Chol Soo Lee in prison, and wrote a number of articles raising doubts about his conviction. Those articles helped galvanize Asian American college students in the Bay area and then hundreds of other people to petition for a new trial for Lee.

Following the ups and downs of that effort and its eventual success is one strength of the documentary. But “Free Chol Soo Lee” also shines in filling in Lee’s background, including his painful childhood and adolescence — his unwed mother was impregnated by an American soldier during the Korean War — as well as his difficult reentry to society after 1983.

Lee, who died in 2014 at age 62, would serve time again for other reasons, clearly damaged by his previous stint in prison, even though he shared his story with college students and others in public talks.

The film is partly narrated by another Korean-American man who reads from a memoir Lee wrote about his experience, but Lee himself, in earlier interviews, is the star of the film: affable, good-looking, and quite articulate about his case and about the scars left by wrongful conviction. You’re left wondering how his life might have turned out if he’d had more luck — and love — as a younger man.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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