Sundance Film Festival

by B. Ruby Rich

from Film Quarterly Winter 2012, Vol. 66, No. 2

A film festival isn’t the most logical occasion for considering the end of cinema, yet the Sundance Film Festival this year offered grounds for just such an inquiry. The universe of screens large and small, single and multiple, has undergone dramatic changes in recent months from the full arrival of DCP (the Digital Cinema Package) in movie theaters to competition from streaming and mobile deliveries. Sundance has never been a slouch when it comes to technology: It was one of the first major festivals to embrace digital. This year, though, Sundance’s choices confirmed my hunch that the transformations of “film” (whatever that word means to you, dear reader) are accelerating on all fronts. Interestingly, there’s no dominance yet: Massive change is taking place simultaneously with the perseverance of traditional models, as reflected in the festival’s competition and premiere sections, the number of distributors bidding for movies and celebrities still descending on Park City, albeit with less swag than before.

The 2013 edition marked my personal silver anniversary, my 25th pilgrimage to Sundance, and as usual I got some things right and some wrong, discovering gems overlooked by other critics and ignoring some of the hits. Yet no matter which screenings any writer chose this year, what holds true is the change of tone that took hold when John Cooper ascended to the top job of directing the festival four years ago: it’s a kinder, gentler Sundance, less distracted by commercial hijinks, more committed than ever to films of conscience and to a world-view that holds fast to the festival’s indie origins and love for outsiders. The surprise this year was that the return to basics yielded more deals than ever and at least as many outstanding moments in the movie theaters. More about them in a minute.

Susan Sontag lamented the “decay of cinema” in a famous 1996 New York Times Magazine article. While many have jumped onto that particular bandwagon in the intervening years, reviving a cult of cinephilia and bemoaning successive threats, this year’s Sundance made clear just how exciting digital images and narrative unfolding can be in frames other than the cinematic. So it was that, in a year full of pronouncements that television is the new movie theater, the most thrilling “film” I saw at Sundance was a television series. At a festival that requires the dedicated critic to race from theater to theater in search of buzz, I willingly chose to devote seven straight hours to sitting in the venerable Egyptian Theater for a marathon screening of legendary director Jane Campion’s first television series, Top of the Lake.

Campion’s six-part drama stars Elisabeth (Mad Men) Moss as a detective on the hunt. Although Campion has referenced The Killing as a model, the kind of horrors that show up are more reminiscent of the Twin Peaks era with a touch of Winter’s Bone grimness. Moss plays Robin Griffin, a local cop who happens to be in town visiting her dying mother, happens to be a sex-crime specialist, and is clearly relieved to leave messy emotions behind to investigate the case of a young girl who has turned up pregnant, suicidal, and mute. Detective Griffin, who specializes in sex crimes, gets down to work, and before long she’s uncovering layer upon layer of deception, murder, and criminal doings of all kinds. She’s also engulfed in her own past histories, which bubble to the surface alongside sex, drinking, and enough plot twists to keep every seat occupied all day in the sold-out Egyptian.

Moss does a great job of throwing off her Peggy persona, in part by channeling Jody Foster’s Clarice fierceness. She’s driven and determined, with the requisite woman-private-eye’s fondness for belting back the alcohol and indulging in sexual dalliance. Like Foster’s detective, though, she tracks the scent of a crime with the best of them, and like Clarice, won’t quit until she’s saved every young woman in peril. Because it’s a Campion film, Top of the Lake isn’t simple- or single-minded in its preoccupations. Holly Hunter shows up in the hilarious guise of a cult leader with an unlikely troupe of acolytes, all women of a certain age bent on purging themselves of bad men, sex addiction, and outdated attitudes — all this on a patch of land called Paradise that the local criminal kingpin covets for himself.

It’s been twenty years since Jane Campion last shot a film (The Piano) in her native New Zealand. The homecoming has clearly been good for her: This is Campion back at the top of her form. With cowriter Gerard Lee and codirector Garth Davis, Campion has clearly found a form to contain interests sidelined too long by feature-film constraints. In fact, Top of the Lake deserves a theatrical release in exactly this one-time-only format. Because it was produced by and for the Sundance Channel (with the BBC and Australia’s UKTV), that’s unlikely to happen in advance of its slated mid-March television premiere. But it should! There’s a grand tradition of epic films presented with intermissions — that’s how this was shown at Sundance, with a box lunch and a coffee break — as event screenings filled with excitement and community dedication. Surely there are a few theaters still willing to be adventurous.

That said, the status of Campion’s film as a television series is not incidental, nor a financing convenience. There are so many filmmakers working in television now, and with technologies crossing between the spheres, genres are mutating and boundaries blurring. Further, television series are now responding to emotional needs that feature films cannot. In a time of heightened anxiety, viewers increasingly crave the reassurance of episodic television that will never leave them, ratings permitting. Only episodic television can promise continuity, narrative without closure, and characters week after week with whom to identify with week after week, season after season.

Film festivals, of course, represent the opposite of episodic fulfillment: singular one-of-a-kind events that can’t be missed with filmmakers in person and stars in the making. Here, too, Sundance didn’t disappoint. Film qua film rolled happily on. And I happily followed. Except when I didn’t. For the first time in twenty years, I managed to miss the fiction film that swept the awards: Fruitvale by the San Francisco Bay Area’s newest star, Ryan Coogler. In all fairness, I didn’t skip it by choice. The dramatic film treats the last day in the young life of Oscar Grant, the unarmed 22-year-old shot to death by a transit policeman on New Year’s Day of 2009 at a BART train station named Fruitvale. It was so high on my list, I failed to realize just how high it was on everyone else’s, and I was shut out of the screening.

Fruitvale won both the jury and audience awards, a rare feat. When a heated competition by distributors ensued, it landed a deal with Harvey Weinstein for a reported $2 million. Here’s the takeaway: I may have missed it, but you won’t. Fruitvale may well do something for Oscar Grant that all the Oakland organizing committees and Occupied chants haven’t yet accomplished: make him a household name and a symbol of injustice. As for reorganizing Oakland’s police force or BART’s transit police force, well, even the Sundance magic may meet its limits there.

There was plenty of buzz around other dramatic films as well. Probably the most scandalous was Interior: Leather Bar, a film by Travis Matthews and James Franco (yes, him) purporting to restage the censored footage removed from William Friedkin’s notorious cop drama, Cruising, for its 1980 release. Once the object of gay fury, Cruising has become a beloved artifact of the bygone days of leather bars in the pre-AIDS era. Matthews teamed with Franco to create a hall-of-mirrors film that places its faux-reenactment squarely within today’s world of movie careers, agents, heterosexual actors willing to play gay (Val Lauren), and anxieties over old-school sex. Only the hope of seeing Franco in an X-rated scene could explain a theater packed to the gills for a late-night screening of a one-hour experimental movie. But the frustration of that draw was one of Interior‘s most clever tricks. Matthews made a sophisticated bit of sexual time-travel that allowed Franco to create another bit of self-reflection.


Interior: Leather Bar

With queerness long baked into the Sundance DNA, it’s become routine to find outstanding examples. This year yielded two dramatic features. Writer-director Stacie Passon’s debut Concussion featured TV actress Robin Weigert as a bored lesbian housewife and stay-at-home mom who transforms from real-estate developer into call girl after being hit in the head by a baseball. That’s a crazy set-up, but this is one part screwball comedy, one part sex romp, so it works. With New Queer Cinema royalty Rose Troche on board as producer, Concussion managed to thrill its audience with a combination of sexy set-ups and sense of humor. Perhaps it’s not fair to dub this The Moms Are Alright, because its vision of lesbian suburbia is bound to raise some ire while pleasing those folks who bristled at the earlier film’s lesbian-bed-death storyline.

Yen Tan’s Pit Stop, on the other hand, is set in a gritty Texas town where two gay men live parallel lives, coping with heartbreak and yearning for new love. Malaysian-born Austin filmmaker Yen Tan, with a script cowritten with David Lowery, based his film on glimpses of life at truck stops across Texas. Like 2011’s Weekend, Pit Stop is a tender look at gay male longing. Pit Stop offers up no villains, only missed chances and expired choices. Luckily, with Bill Heck and Marcus DeAnda on board as the star-crossed working stiffs, there’s something to root for. Yen Tan’s gift for long takes and his comfort with silences makes demands on the audience that films ought to make — and pays them back with a surprising happy ending.

Documentaries are usually the standout category at Sundance, and this year maintained the tradition. Add that the rapturous “Sundance moment” when a documentary’s characters come on stage, live, after the credits to rapturous receptions and standing ovations, and there’s nothing like it.

Frieda Mock’s Anita was no exception. At the premiere, Anita Hill herself basked in the adulation, uncannily timed in the run-up to Obama’s second inauguration. Arriving in the aftermath of the twentieth anniversary (October 1991) of the Clarence Thomas hearings for Supreme Court confirmation by the Senate judicial committee, Anita cannily opened instead with a sort-of event of October 2010: a digital telephone call with the voice of Ginni Thomas on the soundtrack hectoring Anita Hill to apologize to her husband.

Wow. It’s a smart entry: What has happened in the past twenty years to Anita Hill? And what’s changed in the public discourse surrounding sexual behavior in the workplace? Anita‘s ace in the hole is its archival footage, especially the riveting scenes of Hill’s original testimony, her 79-year-old parents’ arrival at the hearing, and the heroine’s homecoming she receives at the University of Oklahoma Law School after her savaging in D.C. The men of the Senate blithely ignored her testimony and confirmed Thomas, a decision that shapes the Supreme Court to this day.

At the screening, I met many women who, like me, still have the VHS tapes of those hearings on a bookshelf, next to a VCR for playback. For a generation that wasn’t around to watch the first time, the power of seeing that archival footage in context is reason enough to watch Anita. True, the film’s momentum bogs down in too many “We believe you, Anita” celebrations and twentieth-anniversary tributes, yet the documentary earns our attention with one chilling reminder. Who was the villain who chaired the Senate judicial committee, allowed the disgracing of Hill and the ram-rodding of Thomas, and lacked the courage to stand up for decency and justice? Alas, it was Joe Biden.


If the scales are firmly tilted against the righteous in Anita, they tilt further to the right in Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s After Tiller, a revelatory documentary that takes us behind the lines of abortion services in America. Since the targeted assassination of Dr. George Tiller in 2009, a title announces, only four doctors remain in the United States who perform third-trimester abortions. This portrayal of their work, dedication, and grace under pressure is heart-breaking in so many ways. Two of the film’s subjects, Dr. Susan Robinson and Dr. LeRoy Carhart, were present for the Sundance premiere; hopefully the cheers and tears of the crowd will help sustain them through the lonely battles back in their clinics.

What has happened in this country, anyway? Here are astonishingly humble, dedicated professionals who work under the worst of conditions, unsupported and threatened on a daily basis, and yet they display remarkable humanity as they enact their service at the highest standards of medical excellence. Nothing is taken lightly, no action ill-considered. And if their impossible situation isn’t enough to melt hearts, the tragic stories of their patients will. These are women tortured by their own decisions and ill-equipped to live with the consequences. Nobody is gaily heading out the door; nobody would do this if she didn’t absolutely have to. The cruel anti-abortion rhetoric charging irresponsibility and wanton behavior evaporates the minute these women enter the clinics and explain their plights, wringing their hands and thanking their doctors. It’s appalling that it’s come to this. As often happens at Sundance, one leaves the theater thinking maybe this will help; maybe this one film can make a difference.

Critics become curators simply by picking one film over another, and so it was that God Loves Uganda came to complete my inadvertent right-wing-conspiracy trilogy. Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams set out to investigate Uganda’s wave of homophobia, as churches and government officials pushed to criminalize homosexuality and even punish gay people with death. Unsatisfied with a news-hour view, Williams drills deeper into a little-known sect that exports hate and blithely prays away its results. Enter IHOP, the International House of Prayer; the pancake folks ought to sue for copyright infringement. From a strip mall base in Kansas City, the IHOP Christian evangelicals launch crusades against the LGBT peoples of Uganda, a country they call the “pearl of Africa.” Planeloads of ignorant, provincial white youngsters buoyed by religious zeal play follow-the-leader all the way to Ugandan villages, praying for the souls of villagers.

God Loves Uganda

God Loves Uganda

With God Loves Uganda, Williams gives us a front-row seat at something akin to the Salem witch trials or the Crusades. From the gruesome murder of gay activist David Kato in 2011 (last year’s Call Me Kuchi covered that case in detail) to the corrupt ministers made rich by hate, Williams shows the IHOP campaign’s effects. His greater contribution is to shine a light on the puppet-masters from Lou Engle, the church leader who smiles while dispensing lethal bromides, to Jo Anna Watson, the missionary mentor filled with zeal as she spreads her fatal gospel. Late in the film, each dolefully admits to overcoming their own past “urges.” We also meet two very different church leaders, both Ugandan Christians who rejected the hatred to fight bigotry: Anglican Rev. Kapya Kaoma, forced into exile and living in straitened circumstances in the Boston area, and retired Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, still in Uganda ministering to its LGBT communities despite church censure and ongoing threats.

This year’s crop of documentaries confronted urgent issues and brought to Park City evidence of growing social movements worldwide. In Google and the World Brain, possibly the best-funded documentary, Ben Lewis traces the unfolding fight over copyright as Google, attempting to corner the future(s) market on books as well as data by means of its library digitalization program, runs up against an unlikely alliance of scholars and netizens. Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (of Trouble the Water fame) brought Citizen Koch, their look at the effect on U.S. politics of the Citizens United case. They uncover the complications of Wisconsin and detour through Buddy Roemer’s failed presidential bid; they could have used some Google-strength data-mining into the well-protected Koch empire, but their populist credit shines through. Jehane Nezhat brought The Square, just in time for the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. The ink wasn’t dry, so to speak, and clearly the editing wasn’t finished either, yet the passions captured over 24 months by Nezhat’s cameras and a battalion of local chroniclers were undeniable: thrilling, raw, heart-breaking, and always enlightening.

From the UK came two well-known British documentary filmmakers, both returning to Sundance with new films on prominent figures: John Akomfrah and Kim Longinotto.

Akomfrah brought a documentary quite different from most on offer. The Stuart Hall Project dives into the archives to sketch the contours of a remarkable and well-documented life. As I settled in to watch, I was surprised at the need to identify Stuart Hall to Sundancers. The founder of cultural studies? Ally of Raymond Williams? One of the most famous and influential figures in modern academia? No, the name didn’t ring a bell. The Stuart Hall Project may not solve that problem. While it’s superb on the early years of Hall’s childhood and arrival at Oxford escorted by his mom, his cofounding of the New Left Review and leadership role in the anti-nuclear campaign, Akomfrah’s complete reliance on found footage and Miles Davis music makes the arcs difficult to follow. In the end, audiences not well versed in the intricacies of Hall’s career, and even some who are, will be lost — but then found through the remarkable scenes and sounds of a lifetime of Hall speeches, television interviews, and thoughts.

Longinotto brought Salma, a much more straightforward portrait, about the celebrated Tamil woman poet who writes under the pseudonym of Salma. Filmed in the domestic spaces and gathering sites of traditional Muslim villages, Salma is a haunting look at one remarkable woman’s survival and triumph. In a culture that consigns its women to improvised jail cells at puberty, then disappears them into restrictive marriages, Salma found her freedom through verse, and through her writing, built a more open life in society and even politics. Salma was at Sundance in person, a force of inspiration, if a bit overwhelmed by the occasion.

While Lewis and Akomfrah were pushing against documentary’s boundaries, there were enough others doing something similar that the festival offered a panel discussion with a catchy title Imitation of Life, moderated by yours truly. Young Canadian actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley was the star of the show, as was her stunning new documentary The Stories We Tell, about her search to answer life’s most fundamental question: Who’s your daddy? In her case, more than a decade after her mother’s death, Polley heard enough jokes and rumors to decide to follow the scent with a camera. Her dad, luckily, was game; he’d heard the stories, too, and he turned out to be a remarkably genial and adaptive collaborator (especially given the nature of her quest). Polley assembles quite a cast of characters: her family, her mother’s best friend, and a range of other would-be informants and prospective fathers. Every time, just as the trail runs cold, another turn of events points elsewhere. This is a hard film to write about without giving away either the means or the end. In fact, the treasure trove of home-movie footage of mom turns out to be somewhat less than authentic. But the pay-off that Polley leads us to is real enough to hang a movie on.

Matching her on the panel were Brazilian-Spanish filmmaker Sergio Oksman, whose experimental short A Story for the Modlins is a not-quite-fictional family’s saga as told by its cast-off detritus, and Michael Polish, whose Big Sur is a fiction film wrestled into being through historical research into Jack Kerouac and a reliance on documentary-like locations and rhythms. Both filmmakers ended up as foils to Polley’s audience-friendly brilliance, though their films are well worth watching; all three sparked an awareness of drama and documentary’s interconnectedness and the impossibility of truly separating their elements in a digital age. Or of separating screens at all. The “transmedia” gets its own temple at Sundance: the New Frontier building, where immersive cinema, augmented cinema, transmedia, and installations of all kinds are on display. Every year, I visit its nomadic location to check out the brave new worlds inevitably on their way.

This year, two installations wowed me, both ground-breaking in their ideas and delivery mechanisms. One was “What’s He Building in There?” a simple night-time projection onto the outside of the New Frontier building itself by the KLIP Collective and artist Ricardo Rivera. Timed to a Tom Waits song, it magically conjured an illusory industrial age, with a mad inventor hard at work inside this very venue manufacturing some mysterious products. Despite the cold, it was a favorite hangout all week.

Inside, by contrast, Lynette Wallworth’s “Coral Rekindling Venus” featured a gallery hung with slightly depressing posters of dead coral fitted out in a heavy Victorian style. But a gallery-goer with Wallworth’s RKV app installed could hold a smartphone up to a “dead” image and see it come to life with fabulously colorful coral deep in the ocean, with all manner of fish swimming through it, courtesy of 3D Augmented Reality animation. The next trick? Wallworth tied that to a data feed from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch project reporting on the perilous state of coral region by region.Pointing a mobile device at an inanimate poster triggered a deep lesson in oceanography delivered form within its own subject: the ocean’s depths.

In addition, Wallworth set up a dome in the middle of the gallery that bold visitors could crawl into for a planetarium-like experience: Instead of seeing the stars, we found ourselves underwater, deep down, with creatures swimming and floating above us and ambient music-of-the-depths playing all around. A startling bit of role-reversal took place as the viewer coped with the unfamiliar perspective, and moments of thrill and awe ensued. If I found myself thinking back to the days of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable experiments, I also realized that this traveling immersive dome was bound for more urgent service than grooviness or mind-expansion: It’s set on saving the ocean, one gallery or film festival at a time.

Saving the world? How about just changing it? At the end of Sundance’s opening weekend, specially arranged shuttles carried people up into the hills, far above the theaters and galleries and streets swarming with critics and filmmakers, buyers and sellers, tourists and festival badge-holders. There, in an elegant getaway with a view of the valley, the Sundance Institute presented its collaboration with Women in Film Los Angeles: the Women Filmmakers Initiative. Professor Stacy L. Smith of the University of Southern California presented the research that she conducted with the Initiative, called “Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers.” The crowd of women alternately cheered and booed, clapped and groaned, as facts and figures marched across the screen and brunch tables emptied of treats. Even Jane Campion was there!


In the end, the statistics were not surprising: The numbers are terrible; Sundance is somewhat better than the rest. This year, astoundingly, half the films in the dramatic competition are by women directors, but there’s work to be done. The report is a meticulous compilation of factors and data, meant to launch arguments and insist on changes. The Sundance Institute is throwing its clout behind the next stage. Any such change will require more than data, of course; it will take money, power, and political will. So the announcement that followed was a cause for hope: a new fund for women filmmakers, Gamechanger, to be headed by respected producer Mary Jane Skalski. The Gamechanger fund has been established in conjunction with two existing funders, Impact Partners and Chicken & Egg, but launched with monies raised by the host of that party on the hill, Jacki Zehner. A board member of the Sundance Institute, Zehner is also president of the renowned Women Moving Millions social-change organization. Right now, of course, Gamechanger is still in the scripting stage. But perhaps next year will be a game changer at Sundance.

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