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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

Gerald Schmitz

Sundance highlights cinema’s challenge of Truth to Power


You want to look for where the light is going to come from.

— Robert Redford, president and founder, Sundance Institute, opening press conference of the 33rd Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 19, 2017

Opening the day before the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president, the timing of the Sundance festival — the world’s premiere showcase for independent cinema, both dramatic and documentary — carried an extra consciousness-raising edge that was evident throughout. The excellent four-hour PBS documentary series Divided States of America that aired just before I flew to Utah for the festival reminded me just how deeply the polarization inflamed by Trump has affected us all. Trump’s hostility to the media, the arts, and the truth in general, was obviously going to become an irresistible target and talking point.

The press conference launching the festival’s 188 feature and short films selections — the great majority world premieres chosen out of nearly 14,000 submissions from over 30 countries — took place in two parts. In the first, founder Robert Redford was in conversation with two filmmakers whose work has benefited from the support of the Sundance Institute: Sydney Freeland, a recipient of the Institute’s Native Lab Fellowship, and Texas writer-director David Lowery. Both had films in the festival’s innovative “NEXT” category — Freeland with Deidra and Laney Rob a Train and Lowery with A Ghost Story. In the second part, Redford appeared with institute executive director Keri Putnam and festival director John Cooper to take questions from the assembled media.

Sundance was not conceived as, nor does it intend to be, an advocacy organization, Redford emphasized. But neither can it be indifferent to the political context. In particular it’s important to reaffirm the values of diversity and inclusion that have always guided the festival when these come under threat. By nurturing independent creative voices through the labs and giving them an opportunity to tell their stories, Sundance contributes to a culture of openness.

The current challenging media environment was on the minds of many. (Among the excellent panels at the Park City Filmmaker Lodge was one on “Post-Truth and Consequences.”) Sundance sees the documentary form as more important than ever in bringing real situations to the attention of audiences. The festival screened 34 feature documentary premieres drawn from some 1,700 submissions. In addition, as part of its special events programming, it presented episodes from promising television documentary series including the Canadian-directed and produced Rise which goes to the frontlines of indigenous peoples resistance. One of the last feature documentaries to be shown, Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset in History, was also adapted from material originally made for television, an indication of the increasing crossover between the big and small screen.

Clearly the arts community has reason to be concerned about developments in America and globally. That was manifested on the streets during the festival’s first snowy Saturday when over 8,000 people — more than the entire permanent population of Park City — came out in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington. Redford expressed the apprehension in the air when he told the press conference that “it looks like a lot of things are going to be taken away, or try to be taken away from us.” That includes U.S. government support for the arts. But he also took heart from the democratic resistance that is galvanizing people to rise up, “to go against whatever choice is made to cut things away that affects people. They’re going to rebel against that. A movement will be created and I think that will be very healthy.”

The trailer that played before every film screening (878 in total, not counting those for press and industry) was both timely and evocative. A young woman of colour lights a lamp with a match that drops to the floor but the flame does not go out. Instead it sparks a thread of light which she follows outside in a blazing zigzag trajectory illuminating the dark woods. As a metaphor for cinematic creation shining a light in the darkness, it could not have been more apt.

That energizing empowering spirit resonated through the festival. While funding for independent film has always been a challenge, in addition to established sources like HBO, the emergence of new digital platforms with a global reach — Netflix, Amazon, YouTube among them — was much in evidence. This year Sundance also presented 20 documentary and narrative virtual reality works, an indication of growing interest in new forms of cinematic expression.

Significantly, the intersection of nature and art, a founding inspiration of Sundance, was given a major renewed impetus with the festival’s “New Climate” program. Headlining its list of impressive film titles was An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, which premiered to a standing ovation from the opening night audience of 1,300 at the Eccles Theatre. Featuring the tireless work of former vice-president Al Gore on climate change issues, it comes a decade after the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth generated both heat and light, attracting the ire of deniers including Donald Trump. Coming on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, one could not help but recall that Gore was the only other presidential candidate in the past century and a half to lose the election while winning the popular vote.

What struck me, however, was how upbeat Gore’s message was about both the fight against climate change and what he sees as a “sustainability revolution” in renewable energy solutions. Gore did not want to elaborate on his post-election meeting with Trump, a brief clip of which appears toward the end of the movie. But as he reassured the Sundance audience: “No one person can stop this. It’s too big now. We are shifting, and we are going to win.” It was a theme he reiterated during a subsequent “Power of Story: The New Climate” panel that included Canada’s David Suzuki.

An Inconvenient Sequel offers both overwhelming evidence of massive changes taking place, such as on Greenland’s ice sheet, and a behind-the-scenes insight into the political obstacles to be overcome at home and abroad. For example, Miami, one of the coastal cities most at risk from sea-level arise, is already experiencing serious street flooding yet the “sunshine state” has put up barriers to solar power. There’s a realization that “in order to address the climate crisis we are going to have to spend some time dealing with the democracy crisis.” The North-South divide also looms large. Gore meets with Pope Francis who worries that “the greatest effects of the climate crisis will be visited on the poorest people.” Yet in a country like India, where millions still lack electricity, many more coal-fired plants will be built unless there are affordable low-carbon alternatives. Gore’s team was active during the tough negotiations at the Paris climate conference, where India was a holdout until a clean-energy technology transfer breakthrough helped bring it onside the historic December 2015 global agreement that Trump has threatened to abandon.

That would be a serious setback, of course. But, watching Gore leading climate leadership training sessions around the world, one gets the sense that this really is an unstoppable movement. And local examples of switching from fossil fuels to renewables are cropping up all over. That includes the most conservative part of Texas where Gore pays a visit to a town that has gone 100 per cent renewable for what it sees as common-sense reasons. He ends the film citing the American poet Wallace Stevens: “After the last no comes a yes, and on that yes the future of the world depends.”

That defiant optimism was displayed at the “Power of Story” panel several days later (livestreamed and available to watch online at Introduced by Robert Redford and his filmmaker son Jamie, it included Canadian-born Jeff Skoll of Participant Media, which was instrumental in backing An Inconvenient Truth. The role of independent film continues to be critical in getting the climate crisis story into the public sphere. Responding to the anxiety over Trump, Gore was encouraged that “we are seeing the beginning of the biggest outpouring of citizen activism since the Vietnam War.”

Another panel member, Heather Rae, a Native American filmmaker and former head of the Sundance Institute’s Native Program, spoke passionately about the role of indigenous peoples at the forefront of climate action, such as at Standing Rock where protests continue against the Dakota Access Pipeline (since approved by President Trump). “As media makers and storytellers we find ourselves woven into the narrative of resistance,” she said. David Suzuki also stressed the value of the indigenous contribution to what is a global struggle, noting with irony that “the people we tried to stamp out are the ones taking the lead.”

Before that panel closed it was addressed from the floor by David Archambault, tribal chair of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. The Standing Rock opposition to a pipeline development threatening the Lakota’s traditional land and waters are the subject of two of the first three episodes of Rise, the eight-part Canadian-produced documentary series that has begun airing on Viceland, the new television channel of Vice Media. Sundance provided a world premiere platform for these episodes — Apache Stronghold, Sacred Water, Red Power — directed by Toronto-based indigenous filmmaker Michelle Latimer and narrated by indigenous host Sarain Carson-Fox.

I was able to interview Ms. Latimer after the Power of Story panel and will have more to say in a future column on indigenous perspectives in film. What deserves highlighting at this point is the truly impressive emergence of indigenous voices, notably those of women and youth, in telling their own stories and bringing them to the screen. Kudos to Sundance for recognizing and supporting this exciting development.

A single column only scratches the surface of Sundance’s rich harvest. So watch for more highlights from its feast of dramatic and documentary features.