by B. Ruby Rich
from Film Quarterly Spring 2011, Vol. 64, No. 3
When the Sundance Film Festival debuted in the 1980s, it entered a landscape dominated by a small corps of well-established A-list film festivals: New York, Chicago, San Francisco. A scrappy upstart, it quickly crashed the VIP room with the help of Robert Redford’s celebrity. Today that history is barely remembered, erased by three decades of steadily escalating success. The deals, celebrity parties, and high-stakes negotiation may grab headlines in the mainstream media (whose reporters now attend) but they have never truly been central to a festival committed to its carefully curated and juried core: the U.S. and international competitions in drama and documentary.
Ironically, however, the festival’s gains have in recent years been accompanied by accelerating criticisms: never has a film festival been such a victim of its own success. Ever since Peter Biskind’s 2004 screed, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film (Bloomsbury), Sundance has been a punching bag for anyone with a grievance over the direction of “indie” film. Measured against the yardstick of an idealized or even fantasy version of the 1980s, the era when I myself first made the pilgrimage, Sundance today tends to come up short.
2011 may be the year that ends the jinx. New festival director John Cooper (in his second year at the helm) and his team have managed to downplay the festival’s celebrity factor and decrease its dependence on Hollywood launches, while boosting quality and racking up one of the strongest years in terms of sales: at this writing, thirty-five films have been picked up for distribution (according to websites Indiewire and Thompson on Hollywood). Perhaps it was the scant snowfall in Utah, or the New York blizzard that stranded film execs, or the American recession’s supposed fading, but there was a measured optimism pervading the back-to-basics mood of the festival (January 20–30). With the new-media Frontiers section relocated to its own “campus” of three buildings and a food truck, and with a new section, Next, to highlight ultralow-budget films, Sundance 2011 augured a change—the possibility of a new era in which a more level playing field could operate, even perhaps a meritocracy at an altitude and site rarely associated with such a value.
Sundance is not a cinephile’s festival, substituting its own versions of American pragmatism, heterodoxy, and DIY moxie. Writers looking for unifying themes that just might reflect the U.S. zeitgeist settled this year on religion and spirituality. I didn’t find themes, but I certainly found tendencies: documentaries filled with social commitment and advocacy; lesbian filmmakers and characters that are lively and surprising; a fresh new run at science fiction grounded in the quotidian of today’s society; and Latin American cinema (long a Sundance staple) rededicated to characters as a microcosm of society.
An explosion of lesbian filmmaking by a new generation of young filmmakers was absurdly surprising to everyone, coming after weeks of Oscar buzz around The Kids Are All Right. These films couldn’t be more different from it or each other.
Two screened in the dramatic competition category. Pariah is the feature debut by writer–director Dee Rees, a onetime Spike Lee acolyte who got him to sign on as executive director. Hers ain’t the Fort Green that Spike knows. Alike (played exquisitely by Adepero Oduye) is a butch high-school girl struggling to get some action, find a girlfriend, and avoid her churchgoing mother’s wrath, her detective dad’s disappointment, and her kid sister’s snitching. The tone is tragicomic, the genre is coming-of-age, and the execution is impeccable.
At first, Rees seems out to let the audience in on the nuts and bolts of today’s lesbian adolescent: a set of clothes packed to change into at school, a strap-on provided by her butch buddy, and the eternal search for the right club. When Alike finds love, sex, and rejection all at once, Pariah turns explosive. There’s a loopy, loping quality to its editing and line deliveries that captures perfectly the know-it-all innocence of the teenager, just as the alt-rock soundtrack offers a pleasant change from the usual hip-hop rhythms. Pariah may start with the same letter as Precious and may detail the life of an alienated African American young woman, but they are opposite works with opposite sensibilities and aesthetics. While some at Sundance made the terribly facile comparison, Pariah is a film about coming into agency, not about abjection. Rees allows her audience to discover how New York’s mean streets seem when it’s a young butch out for the night instead of the usual guys. Never mind Tyler Perry or Spike Lee: I think Rees has got Scorsese in her blood. And with Focus Features now signed up as distributor, Pariah will actually make it to the streets.
Circumstance, the second lesbian feature competing for the drama prize, takes place very far from Brooklyn. Maryam Keshavarz, its Iranian American writer–director, sets her story of forbidden love between women in modern Tehran where a thriving underground club scene puts a young generation on a collision course with the morality police. Keshavarz’s inspired decision is to situate these social conflicts within one family: liberal parents who long ago had opposed the shah, the daughter Atafeh with a thirst for experience, and her brother Mehran, a born-again fundamentalist. Atafeh’s love for her best friend Shireen plays out in a world of their own making, where friends bond over taboos and how to break them, but the insulation afforded by this private realm proves to be cruelly illusory.
In one hilarious scene, the friends join in a pirate operation dubbing copies of Milk and Sex and the City into Persian. Delivering Harvey Milk’s stirring speeches against intolerance alongside Samantha’s orgasmic screams, they express their desire to belong somewhere else. With an eye for detail and atmosphere reminiscent of Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta, Keshavarz nimbly reworks the diaspora narrative with a fresh, stylish, sexy style, as if Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis had been transformed into a close-to-the-heart story even a toon didn’t dare to tell. Circumstance starts light, then slowly tightens its noose: Dubai is the promised land, but a chilling doom awaits Atafeh and Shireen as they try to reach it.
Both Pariah and Circumstance track exceptional young women in terrible circumstances. But in a galaxy far far away, and outside the competition—at a midnight screening, to be precise—things were different. Dispensing with realism, melodrama, and suffering, writer–director Madeline Olnek’s Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same makes a return to cheesy, 1950s-era science fiction: black-and-white footage, Twilight Zone sound effects, and all. Its central characters are three lesbian extraterrestrials from the planet Zots, sent to earth to get their hearts broken and save their planet. (Don’t ask.) Like their close cousins, the old Saturday Night Live Coneheads, these three voyagers benefit from the curious fact that, despite an otherworldly appearance, nobody actually notices that they’re aliens. Olnek gets to mock hilariously the foibles of lesbian dating and romance while adding her own interplanetary twists: aphrodisiac cheesecake, anyone? Alien Zoinx hooks up with Jane, a sad-sack everywoman who works in a stationary shop and dreams of true love. Romance blooms. Despite an aesthetic borrowed from Mike Kuchar and other tropes lifted from Men in Black, Olnek’s pointed jokes and sweetheart ending mark Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same as a modern-day lesbian fairy tale.
Science fiction isn’t just for jokes. Two other intriguing features, Another Earth by Mike Cahill (picked up quickly by Fox Searchlight) and Scottish director David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense, play with the best kind of futurism: just like today, except for one crucial difference. In Another Earth, it’s a global similarity: another planet which, as it draws closer, seems to be exactly like ours, triggering excitement, then unease, panic, and euphoria, all believably rendered with great economy. Cahill quietly builds tension, exposing the twisted history and emotional damage of his central couple: a middle- aged composer and grieving widower, and a young woman and ex-con who comes to clean his house. In Perfect Sense, the difference takes the form of a mysterious epidemic which robs its victims of their sense of smell, at first, then more. Mackenzie creates a world that spirals so very out of control that even a chef and an epidemiologist (the central couple) can’t save it. Both films pivot on a love affair, so the futurism goes down easy. Even so, Another Earth won the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Award for the best film in the festival on a scientific theme.
I’d been looking forward to Miranda July’s new film, The Future, for ages, and was a huge fan of Me and You and Everyone We Know five years ago. Her writing is genius, she has a way with a web page, and, well, what could go wrong. A lot, as it turns out; but it’s a matter of taste, for the new film already has its champions. The Future features Paw-Paw the talking cat, July herself as Sophie, and Hamish Linklater as her boyfriend Jason. This dead-end couple becomes galvanized in all the wrong ways by the prospect of adopting the cat. Everything unravels, Sophie quits being a children’s dance teacher to go philandering, Jason goes door to door to save the rain forest, and Paw-Paw languishes. Despite the brilliant July touches—a child buried up to her neck in dirt, a lonely old man who seeks company via classified ads, a dad who seems more like a porn star—the tone became too winsome, the narrative too forced, the performances too twee. This is the kind of thing I most dread at film festivals: a confrontation between expectation and reception. Does the deficiency rest with the critic or the film? I’d like to think the latter, but others will disagree.
My favorite dramatic film came from Chile: Pedro Peirano and Sebastian Silva’s Old Cats (Gatos Viejos). A deceptively simple drama, it follows one day in the life of an aged couple, their two cats, and their cluttered apartment. In timeworn cinematic style, their peace is shattered by the unwelcome arrival of their disruptive daughter and her butch lover. A ne’er-do-well and addict, the daughter is bent on stealing the apartment out from under them. While Isadora, the mother, struggles to hide her encroaching dementia, her companion Enrique uses his wits to counter the threat. Then, of course, everything goes awry. A staircase, an elevator, a park all play key roles in the unfolding of the tale. Isadora is played by legendary Chilean actress Bélgica Castro, age ninety; Enrique by renowned actor Alejandro Sieveking; the scheming daughter and her sympathetic sidekick by the same actresses who played the lady and servant in Silva’s The Maid. A masterful cast, patient camera, narrative immediacy, and tremendous compassion all combine to make Old Cats an utter jewel of a drama. I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind.
Sundance for a while threatened to be defined by the celebrity gifts known as “swag” so it was a relief this year to see the goods replaced by the real thing: excitement, discovery, and good news for filmmakers. The biggest development was an unprecedented boost for documentary, provided by three new initiatives. Oprah Winfrey was first out of the box. It was announced at a special reception (attended by Rosie O’Donnell, Gloria Steinem, and a raft of admirers) that her OWN network will be prioritizing documentaries. The declaration spread like wildfire: Oprah wants to do for documentaries what she has done for books. At a less public event, the Ford Foundation’s Orlando Bagwell announced a $50 million, five-year fund for social-change documentary. That news, too, rocketed around town. And then the Economist announced a partnership with PBS Newshour: The Economist Film Project, a showcase for international documentaries on the magazine’s themes (though cut into brief extracts, presumably to satisfy American viewers’ short attention spans). The giddiness over the good news was bolstered by a terrific crop of documentaries on offer.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 is the documentary that had everyone adrenalized. Swedish director Göran Hugo Olsson got access to a treasure trove of 16mm reports on the Black Power movement shot by Swedish TV journalists. Forgotten in an archive for over thirty years, they were ripe for Olson’s reediting. The result is astonishing, for stereotypes have long since replaced the vivid realities of that moment; now, revivified, its actors spin back into action, misconceptions corrected, history set straight.
There are two particularly powerful scenes. In one, Stokely Carmichael interviews his own mother. What a subtle, complex, heartbreaking interview it is: he stubbornly but quietly presses her on why they were so poor, why his father was so often unemployed. She resists and resists, wants to be nice, and then finally: your father used to say it was because he was colored, they laid off the colored man first. Stokely, satisfied at last, sits back, case closed. Carmichael is remembered as a riveting orator: it’s a revelation to see this intimate side of him.
Another amazing interview takes place between a Swedish reporter and Angela Davis in what’s evidently a prison visiting room. She has a tremendous Afro and is keen to explain her positions and ideas but she won’t suffer fools gladly, even here. The journalist tries to challenge her about her position on violence “in the movement,” but is stopped cold. Chapter and verse, Davis delivers a rebuttal: what it was like to grow up black in Birmingham, with the sound of bombs and shots fired by segregationists hellbent on terror. She lived next door to one of the four girls who died in the 1963 church bombing memorialized in Four Little Girls. Every word is spoken with a barely suppressed rage and a totally calm, explanatory voice. It’s a remarkable dissection by one of our foremost thinkers of racism and its effects.
Ingeniously, Olsson made the decision to record contemporary figures (Erykah Badu, Robin Kelley, Talib Kweli, and Angela Davis today) commenting on the epoch represented in the rediscovered footage. He then layered their voices at intervals over the archival clips, without ever showing the speakers’ faces. The result is a moving conversation between past and present, unhampered by modern intrusion, the spell of the past unbroken. His decisions have made it a deeply transformative work.
The other strongest documentaries look unflinchingly at today’s challenges and injustices: old-fashioned approaches with a new power to captivate and, hopefully, motivate. The Interrupters by Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame) tracks a group of ex-gangbangers from the Ceasefire organization as they work to rid their neighborhoods of violence. That’s putting it way too dryly: James worked with Alex Kotlowitz to craft miniature dramas full of passion and the threat of catastrophe, all catalyzed by the extraordinary personalities of the Ceasefire soldiers battling for their communities’ futures. The standout personality is Ameena Matthews, a gangster’s daughter turned Muslim peacemaker, out in her car cruising the streets for trouble so she can intervene. A one-woman peace squad, she burns up the screen whenever she’s on it. But the other figures that James and Kotlowitz track, all men hardened by prison and softened by a love of their communities, won the audience’s heart as well. The Interrupters jumped on stage to applause, just the sort of Revival-show premiere that Sundance so often delivers.
Yoav Potash’s Crime After Crime is a very different film in tone and purpose, yet it too tracks the path of injustice and violence. The story of Deborah Peagler, incarcerated nearly her whole life as an alleged accessory to the murder of her abuser, Crime After Crime is a three-hankie documentary. Telling Peagler’s story through the work of the attorneys who work pro bono to free her, year after year, Potash uncovers the depths of corruption in the L.A. District Attorney’s office. As months and then years of legal action pass by, Peagler becomes a larger-than-life figure of Shakespearian proportions. Potash never gave up, even devising ways to film her in prison, something usually prohibited. The documentary and the case became entangled in fascinating ways and suggest that filmmakers may have more power than they usually think they do.
Lots of people I respect loved A Life In A Day, the first crowd-sourced feature documentary, directed by Kevin Macdonald and produced by Ridley Scott. One part Babies, one part Family of Man, it comprises footage shot and submitted from all over the globe, edited into the kind of sunrise-to-sunset faux chronology typical of the early city-film genre, and sharing its lyricism. The day was July 24, 2010; the producers sent out 500 cameras to countries outside the west, and at Sundance they brought on stage the people who’d shot the best bits, flown in for the occasion. At least, I heard they did. I wasn’t there to see them because I had fled halfway through, breaking the cardinal rule that specifies you must see it all if you want to attack it.
Here’s the thing. Macdonald and Scott certainly know what they’re doing, the film is masterfully assembled, all the heartstrings are pulled in all the right places, the treacle held at just the right temperature to set. Pondering the whole enterprise, it struck me as exactly the cultural version of how the developed world has always treated the developing world: take its natural resources, its raw footage, bring it all back home, and make it into a finished product yourselves that can be sold, marketed, seen, owned. But of course, I didn’t see it all, so I didn’t really say this.
In the New Frontiers section, installations aren’t always time-based, so those rules of engagement don’t apply. Lynn Hershman Leeson took her terrific new documentary, !W.A.R. Women Art Revolution, to the festival, but she also made it into a high-tech installation in which Wii controllers visualized as flashlights could literally illuminate history by activating the film’s databases (its ongoing archive is open for interactive use at rawwar.org). In another building, Mark Boulos installed All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, in which he sandwiched the audience between two walls: on one, guerillas in the Niger Delta denounce foreign oil interests, prepare an intense ritual, and pile into a boat to go murder someone; on the other, traders on the floor of the Chicago futures exchange bid on the price of petroleum, frantically, until the trading reaches a crescendo. The contradictions and interconnections hang in the air, unresolved, as we pass uncomfortably through them, with nary an Interrupter in sight to save the day.
Image detail: Pariah. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.
B. Ruby Rich is Professor of Social Documentation at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She served as a curator and selection committee member for Sundance in the 1980s and 90s and was a member of its competition jury in 2005.