by B. Ruby Rich
from Film Quarterly Spring 2012, Vol. 65, No. 3
Amid wild mountain weather that alternated ski-denying snowless peaks with crazy blizzard white-outs threatening avalanches, the Sundance Film Festival (January 19–29) managed its annual trick of getting everybody excited about cinema and its offscreen variations.
For this writer, the festival’s U.S. dramatic competition is usually the least exciting section, packed as it can be with formulaic offerings from wannabe directors seeking a contract. But the 2012 edition included one standout exception to this approximate rule. The winner of the jury’s grand prize, Beasts of the Southern Wild, provides an intense vision of community and apocalypse in a Louisiana neighborhood known as the Bathtub. Director Benh Zeitlin, working from a play by his longtime friend and co-scenarist Lucy Alibar, delivers a monumentally original fable set in a place outside of time where a feral sort of civilization does battle with the elements. The film’s six-year-old African American heroine, Hushpuppy, is played by Quvenzhané Wallis. The tiny Wallis audaciously bounded onto the Park City stage after the screening to proclaim her readiness for movie stardom, and indeed she dominates Beasts with fearless energy (and wild hair).
On the “wrong” side of the New Orleans levees, penniless and often inebriated members of an isolated community occupy ramshackle dwellings in the watery flood plains. Black and white folks mix and mingle with such nonchalance that you have to wonder why the world really isn’t that way. Hushpuppy and her daddy Wink (Dwight Henry) face, together and alone, the challenges of life, death, alcohol, floods, and the horror of FEMA-like shelters. Beasts manages to give their trials and tribulations truly mythopoeic proportions as the film’s collaborative crew and nonprofessional actors make this constructed world their own. At one point, Hushpuppy and her pals wash up at a floating brothel named Elysian Fields (really) where a hilarious inversion of whorehouse custom ensues: it’s the children, not men, whom the prostitutes clutch to their breasts. Finally Hushpuppy returns home to face the fierce Aurochs, giant beasts of a primordial past that rampage digitally through the landscapes of her fears. “When you’re small, you gotta fix what you can,” she observes, her voiceovers guiding us through a universe rendered impossibly lush and vibrant by Ben Richardson’s brilliant and jury-rewarded cinematography. How to describe such a film? I herewith abandon adjectives for analogies: Tree of Life meets Whale Rider meets Fellini Satyricon meets Where the Wild Things Are.
Zeitlin’s film resonated uncannily with Julie Dash’s nowclassic Daughters of the Dust, which premiered at Sundance in 1991 and returned in 2012 after a fine UCLA restoration. It remains a magical production that, like newcomer Beasts of the Southern Wild, conjures up a watery universe haunted by the past and threatened by the outside world. Equally poetic and visually original, Daughters of the Dust was ahead of its time: what a difference two decades can make. Beasts, I wanted to say, you’re descended from Daughters.
More familiar beasts appeared in Bear 71, a captivating (in more senses than one) installation in the New Frontiers section. Made by Leanne Allison and Jeremy Mendes and produced by the National Film Board of Canada, it filled a gallery with data screens charting the movements of wild animals tracked by radio-transmission collars. Colored symbols moved incessantly across the walls and screens showed remote footage shot by motion-sensing cameras out in the wild. These animal surveillance tapes recorded moving pictures of a world from which we’re divorced, a world that exists outside of human range. The installation recognized our alienated detachment by incorporating a live feed of visitors into its domain. Accustomed to a position of passivity in festival darkness, we suddenly found ourselves on view, implicated. (For other versions of the project, see: bear71.nfb.ca/#/bear71.)
Another installation, Nonny de la Peña’s Hunger in Los Angeles, also explored audience complicity: any participant who crossed this gallery had to don a helmet and enter an “immersive environment” in which a shocking event outside a food bank in L.A. became the scene of a hyper-real interaction, restaged with real audio and accurate avatars. De la Peña goes way beyond this year’s favorite advance, 3D, to pull participants bodily into the frame, and her audience (if that word still applies) follows.
Back in the cinema, hunger was explored too in Finding North by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush (supported by the influential Participant Media, whose previous credits include An Inconvenient Truth and Fast Food Nation). The filmmakers toured the U.S. to communicate the escalating effects of poverty on people’s basic ability to eat. It was one of a roster of committed, issue-led films that focus on individuals without turning into “character-driven” docs that emphasize human interest at the expense of context and history.
Even more encyclopedic was the elegantly edited, thoroughly researched The House I Live In by Eugene Jarecki, which deservedly took the jury award for best U.S. documentary. The title refers to the beloved Paul Robeson version of a song with lyrics by Lewis Allen, aka Abel Meerapol. With the backing of Danny Glover’s Louverture Films (which brought The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 to Sundance last year–click to read last year’s Sundance Notebook), Jarecki trains his camera on something that few people talk about today: the so-called War on Drugs launched in the Reagan years. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” tagline was a subject of ridicule, but far worse has been the chain reaction of repression and imprisonment set off by her husband’s policies as enacted by local police departments in U.S. cities through the decades. Forty years later, it has cost more than $1 trillion dollars and led to more than forty-five million arrests. House is packed with such shocking statistics, but it also reveals the cost to individuals including Jarecki’s own childhood housekeeper, Nanny Jeter, whose son succumbed to drugs. Her tragic story brings home the film’s wider arguments about the racialization of the drug “war” and the unjust incarcerations carried out in its name, from the era of Nixon to today. After the screening, Nannie Jeter herself came on stage, cane in hand, to deliver a moving testimonial on the need for change and for justice. If documentaries really can make a difference, then we may be permitted a glimmer of hope. But don’t count on it. Jarecki discloses that a passionate campaign managed to reduce the sentencing discrepancy between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Instead of 100:1 it’s now 18:1. That’s progress, U.S. justice style.
Continuing the horror show, Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce’s We’re Not Broke lays bare the legal crimes of U.S. corporations using offshore accounting to avoid paying the taxes that would immediately lift the economy out of its death spiral, if only they’d pay their share: again, the history is shocking, the data stunning. The film’s exposé makes the blood boil and will hopefully help to swell the ranks of the activist movement—presently small and scrappy—against colossal tax evasion.
Just as disturbing, Kirby Dick’s newest documentary, The Invisible War, concerns the rape of military women at the hands of their fellow servicemen. (Inexplicably, all the main subjects are white women, which makes the film oddly myopic.) Truly horrifying, the victims’ stories unfold slowly and build a composite picture of a callous military willing to sacrifice its women to preserve an old-boy network of privilege and pillage: half a million women, twenty percent of all servicewomen, have been sexually assaulted. Leon Panetta, sit up and take notice! The premiere of The Invisible War was a vintage Sundance moment: politicians from Barbara Boxer to Gavin Newsom were in the house, evidencing a show of political will that might actually create legal remedies. Other remedies were on offer as well. An anonymous couple were so shocked that they pledged the money to fund reconstructive surgery for Kori Cioca, whose entire jaw structure was destroyed by her rapist and whose claim was repeatedly rejected by a Veteran Affairs medical system. Mary J. Blige was there, too, and was so moved she offered to write a new song for the film’s soundtrack. Sundance can produce those sorts of Cinderella moments.
Documentaries can raise our awareness, grab our attention, make us furious. But then what do we do? One documentary delivered a lesson from the past: David France’s How to Survive a Plague. It’s an exhaustive chronicle of ACT UP, composed almost entirely of archival footage from amateur camcorders and television news reports, including such amazing clips as the 1992 action in which mourners tossed the ashes of their loved ones onto the White House lawn. After a standing ovation, the Sundance audience chanted its tribute: “Act Up! Fight Back! Fight AIDS!” For anybody who doubts that individuals can combat giant governmental and corporate forces and win, this is a great how-to manual. The Occupy folks could take notes.
One line by a young AIDS activist struck a nerve: “Will the last person left in Chelsea please turn out the lights?” With AIDS then fatal, he logically foresaw the neighborhood emptying out. Instead, Keep the Lights On, the new Ira Sachs film, proffers a title that answers his plaint, and a narrative that captures the nature of life and love among the gay men populating New York’s upscale neighborhood of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Unlike Shame (which screened at Sundance last year), the sex here is easily matter-of-fact: its two young protagonists, Erik the filmmaker (Thure Lindhardt) and Paul the literary agent (Zachary Booth), meet-cute via a phone-sex line. Anonymous sex leads to a decade-long relationship, but as the euphoria fades, crack addiction becomes a rival no lover can ignore. This gay domestic drama is a fascinating turn for Sachs, less flashy than his Forty Shades of Blue which took the grand jury prize at Sundance in 2005 (full disclosure: I was on that jury, more like his debut The Delta). It’s also a roman à clef that had those in the know ID-ing the boyfriend as Bill Clegg, the William Morris agent who already published his Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.
Far from Chelsea, other sexual transgressions unspooled. From Santiago, Chile, came Young and Wild (Joven y Alocada), easily the boldest film at Sundance. Made by young filmmaker Marialy Rivas and based on a co-writer’s blog, it laid bare the unrepentant sexual activities and desires of a high-school girl (Alicia Rodríguez) whose clueless evangelical mother beseeches her to guard her long-gone chastity. It has a fresh style and nervy aesthetic, with blog posts typed across the screen to counsel its heroine and instant messages to provoke abrupt turns of plot. While its sassy narrative, bisexual escapades, and explicit scenes may shock some viewers, Young and Wild is an impressive artistic achievement that etches a lineage back to Lucrecia Martel’s The Holy Girl and Catherine Breillat’s A Real Young Girl.
Sex figured in a movie headed for a mainstream theatrical future, too. The Surrogate, the story of a man (John Hawkes) in an iron lung who decides at thirty-six to lose his virginity by hiring a sex surrogate (that is, a hands-on therapist) played by Helen Hunt. It’s based on a true story that was explored by filmmaker Jessica Yu in her documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien. The film had audiences tearful, drew standing ovations, and got picked up by Fox Searchlight (which also bought Beasts). But it posed a dilemma for me, too—a struggle between its disability-rights narrative and its gender politics. I couldn’t help being appalled at Hunt’s naked onscreen presence in the service of helping his “member” perform. Reverse genders: would there still a movie?
As the festival neared its end, I found myself face to face with something far more obscene than explicit sex: explicit, documented violence, up close and undeniable. 5 Broken Cameras is a documentary that needs to be seen in the U.S. and around the world: its evidence of the campaign of terror waged on Palestinian villages in Gaza by the Israeli military is incontrovertible. Shot in Bil’in and co-directed by the Palestinian–Israeli team of Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, this is neither an ideological film nor one that’s been artfully crafted for theatrical release. It begins with Burnat buying a video camera on the occasion of his son’s birth. His intention to film this young life expands to record the encroachment of illegal settlements and Israeli army raids. When his camera is broken, Burnat gets another; when that’s smashed or shot up, another; and so on and on. Hence the film’s title, which attests to the actions of Israeli soldiers who don’t want their actions filmed. Even more shocking, though, are those who don’t mind being filmed, as if such recordings carry no consequence once the casual brutalizing of human beings has become standard procedure.
In 5 Broken Cameras, Burnat is transformed into an activist, while his newborn son grows into a five-year-old whose first word is “wall” and who, after witnessing his godfather gunned down for no apparent reason, plaintively asks: “Why don’t you kill the soldiers with a knife?” So grows a child in a place where Kafkaesque settlements move closer and olive groves are set on fire, all captured by daddy’s camera(s). This unusual collaboration should make viewers shudder when next listening to news of the region.
This year’s Sundance ended in another kind of sadness on January 23 when word spread that festival stalwart Bingham Ray, independent-film distributor, had died of a stroke. I’d known Ray for decades as a larger-than-life presence on the festival circuit. He’d become Executive Director of the San Francisco International Film Festival a mere ten weeks earlier. As a champion of films from Mike Leigh’s masterworks to Breaking the Waves, he was a guy utterly dedicated to cinema that pushed experience and perception to the edge and over. Ray was only fifty-seven years old, one of the first of the founding indie generation to leave the stage. At an impromptu memorial gathering, an open mike drew tributes from the assembled critics, distributors, festival folks, those whom publicist Laura Kim dubbed “our circus family.”
My favorite of all the stories involved Mike Leigh’s preparing to present an award to Ray, only to be handed a badly mangled script of suggested remarks with the word “anecdote” written as “antidote.” Leigh, of course, finessed the speech: “There is no antidote to Bingham Ray.” And now there never will be.