(The First Look Festival runs March 15-19 at Astoria New York’s Museum of the Moving Image. Check out this movie review of A Common Sequence. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
Individually, filmmakers Mary Helena Clark and Mike Gibiser have made a handful of the most distinctive and rewarding works of the past decade. Collaboratively, they’ve crafted one of the most fantastic documentaries of the year (and, although the year is still relatively young, it will undoubtedly remain among the most compelling of films over the many months ahead).
A Common Sequence ventures to Pátzcuaro (Michoacán, Mexico), Prosser (Washington, U.S.) and the sovereign lands of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (in the midst of South Dakota, U.S.), a trio of North American locations with a common thread, each dealing with disruptive changes in the way life has been lived for ages. What follows, sequentially, is a figurative blueprint for everything in the midst of going astray everywhere.
After a brief interlude of beautifully composed images, the tripartite film opens on the threshold of seeing. This darkness, glacially shifting into eventual light, serves as an apt visual representation of their method ahead: all things will be gradually revealed. Or rather, on the threshold of understanding, what is visible becomes clear in successive layers. One element leads to another. All is interconnected.
In its initial sequence, fishermen of the Lago de Pátzcuaro, not far from Morelia, are on the hunt for achoque—a salamander native to the area—used for the production of a syrup at a nearby Dominican nunnery. Sister Ofelia Morales Francisco of the Basilica de la Nuestra Señora de la Salud describes the unique process while Pūrépecha fisherman Don Maurico discusses the near-extinction of this amphibian with peculiar qualities. It seems unbelievable but belief is the lone aspect that holds this practice together.
A handful of these Maurico-related fishermen ultimately travel north to Eastern Washington for the prospect of agricultural work. The area surrounding Horse Heaven Hills is known for its apples (and, these days, its grapes as well). However, machine-learning has found its way to the orchard and the picking of apples is now aided by AI. Over time, in theory, much of the picking of apples will be done by machines, reducing the need for farmworkers in the fields.
With the arrival of the third thread, researcher Joseph Yracheta addresses the ethical issues surrounding the commercialization of Native American DNA. This data mining represents yet another exploitation of the indigenous community whereby unseen others generate income from the bodies of individuals who derive little (if any) benefit. Yracheta, also of Pūrépecha descent, speaks eloquently of the harm and unintended consequences of these efforts. The theme reverberates throughout the entire film.
We see these assorted individuals yet we rarely see them speak. Their discussions occur largely in voiceover, primarily in Spanish (with brief moments of English on occasion), mostly subtitled or, otherwise, translated by a surrogate or not at all. A Common Sequence is a work that asks its audience to remain an engaged participant in its construction, making connections to these three threads which appear unrelated at first glance. It is a wonder that the film perpetuates awe of the ways in which these disparate aspects all depend (and are informed) by the others. It remains compelling throughout.
For those fortunate enough to attend the screening at First Look in New York or at its earlier premiere at Sundance, the experience is certainly rewarding. For those individuals elsewhere, ideally this unconventionally exceptional documentary will find its way to your neighbourhood relatively soon. Seek it out as the film overflowing with one astonishing image after another deserves to be seen on the largest screen.
[Many thanks to everyone associated with First Look and MoMI (in particular, in this case, Sonia Epstein) for including this wonderful film—among others—in their remarkable program.]
— Jonathan Marlow (@aliasMarlow)
A COMMON SEQUENCE (2023) dir. Mary Helena Clark + Mike Gibiser [78min.]