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.
This documentary came to life through an unlikely relationship between Palestinian cameraman Emad Burnat and Israeli filmmaker Guy David. Presenting some of the most raw and captivating footage of the West Bank, the audience has no choice but to sit in the complexity of this historic struggle. And though five years' worth of visceral footage takes center stage, the narrative thread might be the most creative one at Sundance this year. The story takes place in five acts based on the vantage point and lifespan of five (eventually broken) cameras.
No distributor yet, but it would seem to be an appropriate fit for something like HBO. Burnat and David won the coveted "World Cinema Documentary Directing Award."
The World Dramatic (a.k.a foreign) competition at Sundance comes without the hype, but that doesn't negate the quality and depth of the films. Father's Chair (Brazil) is the story of an overworked father named Theo and the imminent collapse of his family. As the awkward stages of a divorce unfold, 15-year-old son Pedro disappears, shifting the parents from retreat to pursuit as the Theo sets out across Brazil to find his son. But along the way, he seems to find himself. This story of broken relationships and grace was a personal favorite within the category.
If you like "This American Life," you are likely familiar with this story already. Produced by storytelling great and show host Ira Glass, Sleepwalk with Me tells the (true) account of writer/director Mike Birbiglia's relational and sleepwalking misfortunes. The story originally aired on TAL's "Fear of Sleep" episode in 2008 and is widely considered one of the funniest stories in the show's collection.
It might be too niche to get acquired, but look for some creative distribution via the "This American Life" fan base. The film won the "Best of NEXT Audience Award."
Although Sundance will continue to highlight independent artists and film, this is not its only gift to the public. To many, the true beauty of Sundance is the space for conversation(s). It happens during the post-film Q&A. It happens in the forums. It happens on the bus. It happens in line. And after 18 movies in four days, the films themselves have taken a back seat to the dialogue that has ensued. What do you think about the Israeli-Palestinian situation? How far should a social activist go for freedom of speech? Should gay representation be a priority for the church?
Sundance's 2012 theme was to "Look Again." And while such statements are often lost in the hype, this one seems worthy of reflection. A call to peer beyond the image. A call to dialogue. And a call that is, interestingly enough, theologically appropriate.
Isn't this what Christ was encouraging when questioned about his own storytelling (Matthew 13:10)? That we actually open our eyes and take a second look? That we might have a chance to actually see the kingdom at work right in front of us?
Whatever movies you may watch in the days ahead—big studio or indie—you may heed that call to take the time to pause, wonder, and look (again).
Bob Davidson, who received a Masters of Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, is the Creative Producer at Rule29 and co-founder of Project rednoW, a theological conversation via the art of wonder.
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