“You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives . . . Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.” – Luis Buñuel
If ever there were words to live by, they might be Buñuel's warning of a life without a past. So, why am I starting a review on a modern day science fiction film with this quote - one from a well-known surrealist Spanish filmmaker?! Consider what Buñuel's 1929 non-narrative experimental short "Un Chien Andalou" did for cinema studies. It used film as a playground for illogical dream-text, playing with memory, fantasy, and everything in-between. Though totally different material, “Sankofa” also has a sense of self-awareness to film as a medium and what it means to human memory. A low budget film with a high budget look and concept, Berlin-based filmmaker Kaleb Wentzel-Fisher’s feature spins us a geniusly crafted narrative on what happens to the recorded history of humanity after the end of the world. It's a film that displays both the importance of documentation to connectedness as well as the danger it poses to simple human relationships. Embrace the irony of watching a film that shows how crucial filmmaking is to our past, present and future all the while critiquing it, too. This is the antidote to overdosing on today’s regurgitated blockbuster plots, slowly becoming a narrative with distant yet familiar moments that will touch you far after the credits roll. When life comes to an end, what will be your story? Will it be recorded and left behind or will you live freely and fully with no distractions and no visual legacy? With both its pros and cons, this is a film that truly explores what it means to be human.
We start on a ship, after the end of Earth as we know it. Uninhabited by man, life from our planet has almost ceased to exist. The “chosen ones” - by successful application through the Earth Abroad Program - left for Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Along with them came a carefully curated collection of humanity’s remnants, creating an archive to teach future generations about Earth. However, as these things go, an accident occurred, leaving the spaceships damaged, most of the archive destroyed, and like a cancer, a growing memory loss amongst the survivors. No history, no memory and stranded away from Earth, a single woman named Sally (Allie Hankins) is chosen to set out and reclaim the human story. A librarian of sorts, complete with an implanted camera in her eye, Sally is sent back to Earth on a solo mission, along with one single crate from the lost archive that she must catalog. Most of the contents of this box, including a documentary film about alien looking Yugoslavian war monuments (Spomeniks), belonged to Jim (Kaleb Wentzel-Fisher), a filmmaker whose fate Sally works to figure out. What did these relics mean to him and were they enough to earn him a spot on the ship to Titan? The more Sally discovers about this man, the more she begins to doubt her mission.
After walking out of the “Sankofa” screening at ISFF 2016, the crowd wasn’t just commenting on the film as a whole. They were stunned by the usage of these Yugoslavian memorials as a device to tell the inner story of the film. Like Sally, we watch the documentary footage as if it were a part of her story. If you don't know about the existence of these monuments, they really need to be seen to be believed. Because of them, "Sankofa" truly acts as a two for one special - a narrative juggling a documentary core. Wentzel-Fisher is currently working on “Concrete Empire”, a documentary about Albania’s 750,000 bunkers, built for a paranoid war that never happened. Like his character Jim, he's also a filmmaker interested in exploring the intricacies of untold human stories. Whether via offbeat cultural documentaries or science fiction films, Wentzel-Fisher is doing a damn good job of it all.
If you value personal legacy, the importance of archiving history, irony, 20th-century architecture or even just supporting underrated indie films, there's something here for you. As Founder and President of Indie Street Jay Webb puts it, “Sankofa is a film that represents the essence of what makes Independent film creation so inspiring. Wentzel-Fisher paints a meaningful landscape of passion, love, and connectivity, that has the audience entrenched in the timelessness and fleeting nature of their own existence. A low-budget masterpiece that we hope is also archived for future space travelers to discover and cherish!” If someone decides, like our filmmaker-in-a-crate, to live behind or in front of a camera rather than away from it altogether, what do they lose from life? Is there something to gain from documentation vs. living in the moment? “Sankofa” strives to answers these questions in an almost melodic way. The pacing is like a crescendoing orchestral piece, building and fading to moments that reveal themselves like memories do over time.
Ask yourself: Do you truly understand what was and what will become of the life around you? Like Buñuel said, without our memory we are nothing. It's our feeling, action, reason, connectedness - everything. It's time to start living and connecting while we still can.