On the Film Festival Trail
Image: Jemal Countess / Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Every January, Park City, Utah, hosts the biggest event in independent film: the Sundance Film Festival, founded by Robert Redford in 1978. Two hundred films are selected from thousands of entries to play at the festival. On a typical day at Sundance, a critic can see four movies or more—one day I fit in the Irish musical Sing Street, the drama Christine, the history-making premiere of The Birth of a Nation, and Holy Hell, a documentary about a cult. I spend my spare time sitting cross-legged on the ground in heated tents, writing reviews, waiting for the next movie.

At Sundance, you can also find the Windrider Forum, an educational experience that’s taken place at the festival since 2005. This year, students from ten Christian institutions—universities like Taylor and George Fox, and graduate schools like longtime partner Fuller Seminary—are gathered in Park City. To open the program, Windrider hosts its own mini-festival, showcasing work by student filmmakers. Alumni of this Sundance-within-Sundance have gone on to receive six Oscar nominations in the past six years. Few of the films are self-consciously Christian, but they all fit into Windrider’s guiding belief: movies are important, and it’s crucial that we learn to talk well about the spiritual and religious questions they raise.

During the weeklong program, Windrider participants hear from directors with films playing at Sundance. This year, that includes Roger Ross Williams (Life, Animated), Kim Snyder (Newtown), Andrew Neel (Goat), Will Allen (Holy Hell), and Whit Stillman (Love & Friendship). Only one of these, the Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship, will likely be seen by your average American churchgoer. But Windrider participants embrace the range of films as an opportunity to talk, learn, and grow as Christian engagers of mainstream culture.

As far as I can tell, I am the only critic at Sundance—and at many festivals I attend—representing a Christian publication. The kind of filmmaking Sundance celebrates—films made without financial backing from a major studio—tends to attract filmmakers with an experimental, edgy sensibility that films like God’s Not Dead, War Room, and Left Behind generally avoid.

Yet there are other Christian critics at the festival—Variety’s chief film critic, Justin Chang, shows up for an interview at Windrider. And a few Christian filmmakers are doing industry-leading work. After the premiere of The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker, its director, writer, and star, spoke eloquently of his Christian faith and how it leads him to fight for justice. At Sundance, his quest paid off, literally: the film sparked a bidding war and sold to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, the highest amount ever paid for a finished film at any festival in history.

The Limits of Good Taste

The badge that hangs from my neck all week proclaims my Christianity Today affiliation. Everyone’s curious about what I do, most taking my obvious affiliation as permission to mention their own: “grew up in youth group,” “lapsed Catholic,” “pretty much agnostic,” “don’t really believe in organized religion.” I answer a lot of questions. Do I only write about movies with religious elements? (No.) Do I have to look for “Christ figures” in every movie? (Definitely not.) Do my readers actually care about independent movies? (Some of them do.) Did I like Spotlight? (Yes!)

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