While the film selections and celebrities shift at the Sundance Film Festival from year to year, the focus and celebration of independent film does not. Sure, the "indie" tag has become more of a genre in recent years as Hollywood conglomerates such as Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, and Paramount Vantage have emerged to blur the lines. And while Sundance prides itself on its detachment from big finance and studio politics, it does not take long before you realize the nation's largest film festival is not immune from corporate influence and the "who-knows-who" game of Hollywood.
I recently returned from my fifth trip to Sundance in the last six years, and am convinced that the festival continues to be an advocate and incubator of (independent) storytelling and visual expression. Each year, amid the smattering of alumni filmmakers and cast that make their way back to the event, a new class emerges worthy of recognition.
Here are some highlights from 18 different films I watched last week.
One of the festival's most talked-about films has no one you've ever heard of attached to the project—and that is its beauty. First-time director Behn Zeitlin leads this unassuming cast in a tale of survival within one of America's poorest communities, a frequently flooded and evacuated section of Southern Louisiana known as "The Bathtub." While most "coming-of-age" films take place in the teen years, this one occurs through a six-year-old named "Hushpuppy" (Quvenzhané Wallis), the heart and soul of the story. If Sundance gave out Best Actress awards, Quvenzhané's performance would be hard to beat.
Beasts of the Southern Wild received my top vote of the festival and apparently did the same for a few others as well; it won Sundance's top award, the Grand Jury Prize, making it Sundance's next poster-child of true independent film. It was also one of the first to be acquired (Fox Searchlight). Look for it in theaters in 2012.
Social change is a frequent focus at Sundance and this year's headliner is artist and activist Ai Weiwei, one of the most popular and influential voices in mainland China. And though Ai's life is the centerpiece of this documentary, first time director Alison Klayman tells just as much of a compelling story about social communication, particularly Twitter, Ai's preferred medium of discourse (and dissent).
The film seems to be the right mix of narrative, hype, and social angst to land itself an Oscar nomination next year; it appropriately won Sundance's "U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance" award.
Christian faith is no stranger to the Sundance screens, this time making a prominent splash via the story of Bishop Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church's first openly-gay appointed bishop. While previous Sundance documentaries (2007's For the Bible Tells Me So) have tackled the homosexuality-and-church debate through scriptural and theological argument, director Macky Alston chooses to simply put a name and face to the subject matter and let the story speak for itself. Love Free or Die won the "U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize for Grace Under Pressure."
There is little doubt the LGBT community is looking for dialogue and reconciliation with the same evangelical circles that have largely ignored and alienated them. Fortunately, at Sundance, Christians are up for the dialogue—largely due to a few visionaries that make up the Windrider Forum (a partnership between The Priddy Brothers, Fuller Theological Seminary, the Angelus Student Film Festival, and Dick Staub's The Kindling's Muse), who not only attend Sundance annually and welcome the conversation, but hosted a post-film discussion with Bishop Robinson and director Macky Alston in a community forum.