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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Sundance at the cutting edge, and a slice of Slamdance

Gerald Schmitz

If there was any doubt the Sundance Film Festival has become as important a world cinema destination as Cannes, it was erased by the 32nd edition of Jan. 21 - 31. Minus the superficial glitz, glamour, and beaches, the snowy venues of Park City, Utah, showcased a global cornucopia of breakout and heavyweight talent in 123 feature-length and 72 short films, most world premieres, drawn from almost 13,000 submissions. Better still, Sundance gives documentaries equal billing with dramas and its dedication to independent and diverse voices (49 first-time filmmakers and 41 female filmmakers in the feature categories) keeps it at the cutting edge.

Moreover, the festival continues to expand its range of cinematic innovation. The New Frontier section featured both films like documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s haunting photographic memoir Cameraperson, and virtual reality installations including, from Canada’s National Film Board, The Unknown Photographer, a strikingly surreal exploration of battlefield topography drawn from First World War images.

Among a range of special events, Sundance is also recognizing the cinematic qualities of the best new work that is being made for television. J.J. Abrams came to the festival not to talk about the new Star Wars blockbuster he helmed but as executive producer of a new nine-hour series, “11.22.63,” which was mostly shot in Ontario. Directed by Kevin Macdonald, it’s based on Stephen King’s “what if?” book about averting the 1963 Kennedy assassination. Sundance screened the two-hour pilot episode of the series that has begun showing on Hulu in the U.S. The festival also screened the entire miniseries O.J.: Made in America about that notorious murder case which is now showing on the FX channel in the U.S. and Canada.

The very extensive off-screen program of events covered all aspects of the creative filmmaking experience. Even as the ongoing digital revolution opens up new possibilities it also presents challenges for established as well as aspiring independent filmmakers. A “power of story” panel on The Art of Film held in the historic Egyptian Theatre celebrated the virtues of preserving the option to shoot on traditional celluloid. It featured a stimulating conversation among actor-director Alex Ross Perry (who appeared in the U.S. dramatic selection Joshy), writer-directors Christopher Nolan (Interstellar) and Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World), and cinematographer Rachel Morrison (who lensed the Oscar-nominated documentary What Happened Miss Simone?).

The promise of the festival was evident from the opening day press conference in the same theatre with festival director John Cooper, Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam, and Institute president and founder Robert Redford. The reason the festival has become such a destination festival of discovery is that it is constantly pushing the cinematic boundaries.

Sundance sees itself not as an advocacy organization but as a platform for supporting artists who are expanding the form for telling great stories; in the case of documentaries addressing important issues and human situations in ways that engage audiences. Cooper observed that this is a time of tremendous evolution in the world of filmmaking both on the production side and in the proliferation of ways that cinematic content is being consumed. At the same time, new technologies have to be judged in terms of what they contribute to the cinematic experience. That goes for being able to watch movies on a smartphone or invent fancy special effects.

As Redford put it: “I guess I’m old-fashioned enough to believe you can’t really replace the value of gathering as a community in the dark and being transported,” adding, “to me the most important thing is the story.”

The benefit of collective audience response certainly held true for the competition feature that quickly became the talk of the festival following its Jan. 25th premiere. The Birth of a Nation is the result of a seven-year Sundance-supported passion project by 36-year-old Nate Parker who is the writer, director, co-producer and principal actor in a searing drama that tells the story of Nat Turner, the charismatic leader of an 1831 slave revolt that took place in Southampton, Virginia. For Parker, “Nat Turner was my hero long before I became an artist.” But as Parker explained in emotional post-screening question and answer sessions, although he grew up near where those events took place, what was missing was an honest historical portrayal of these narratives of resistance. (Like many African Americans, Parker is sharply critical of William Styron’s 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner.)

Parker, who is remarkable in the role of the adult Turner, clearly chose the title as a century-later rebuke to the iconic eponymous 1915 epic by D.W. Griffith. As he told Filmmaker Magazine: “From sanitized truths about our forefathers to mis-education regarding this country’s dark days of slavery, we have refused to honestly confront the many afflictions of our past. This disease of denial has served as a massive stumbling block on our way to healing from those wounds. Addressing Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is one of the many steps necessary in treating this disease. Griffith’s film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance. Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today. I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.”

Not since the 2014 Oscar best-picture winner 12 Years a Slave have African-American women as well as men had such prominent roles in a major movie. The timing could hardly be more fortuitous given the controversy over the “so white” nature of the current Oscar nominations. With Fox Searchlight spending a record $17.5 million to acquire distribution rights, a wide release can be expected. It was no surprise to anyone when the film took both the U.S. dramatic competition’s grand jury and audience awards.

I’ll do a full review later but suffice it to say that The Birth of a Nation is an extremely impressive first feature and a personal triumph for Parker. From the beginning, Nat Turner is marked as a special boy with a prophetic mission. Unusually literate, he will grow up to become a Baptist preacher and then an almost messianic figure, finally an agent of divine wrath against the manifest evils of slaveholding leading to an explosion of bloodshed. The violence depicted in the movie is extremely graphic but does not overshadow Parker’s attention to Turner’s character development, the role of strong women around him and his complicated relationship with the plantation owners. However doomed the actual revolt, this epic recreation resonates powerfully as a symbol of struggle against racial oppression.


Before highlighting more significant dramas and documentaries from the Sundance lineup, worth noting are several features among a dozen seen from the less-hyped ultra-independent Slamdance festival that runs concurrently in Park City. I thoroughly enjoyed the narrative award winner with the unlikely title Honey Buddies. When David’s fiancé cancels their wedding, his German best friend/best man Flula arrives to convince him to go along on the planned “honeymoon” hiking trip, with wacky and witty results.

I wasn’t much taken with the Canadian entries: from Quebec “Mes ennemis” (My Enemies) — a bizarre morose affair involving a depressed young man’s attraction to an elderly pianist played by veteran Louise Marleau; from Ontario the Telefilm-supported How to Plan an Orgy in a Small Town, a rather embarrassing sex farce set in the fictional Beaver’s Ridge.

There was better news on the documentary side with the Canadian selection Myrtle Beach, an absorbing cinema vérité look at the lives of some eccentric permanent residents of this Carolina coastal resort town during the tourist off-season. Jury and audience award winner The Million Dollar Duck explored an equally eccentric subculture — that of wildlife artists who compete to have their paintings of migratory birds chosen in the U.S. government’s conservation-motivated “duck stamp contest.”

A special jury mention was given to The Art of the Prank, an affectionate look at the master of media hoaxes, Joey Skaggs, who paved the way for activist pranksters like the Yes Men. Skaggs has long used the media to expose its own manipulations. Now a senior citizen with long flowing hair and beard, he’s still at it, gathering a team on the Hawaiian island of Kauai to target the gene-manipulation technologies being exploited by corporate giants like Monsanto. When the fake mini-documentary they created, Pandora’s Hope, was shown at several film festivals, with its credibility unchallenged, they even organized their own protests against it to draw attention to the issues. The Slamdance curtain-raiser was a timely reminder to viewers to cultivate the art of critical perception.