Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sundance Film Festival

2014 marked the 30th anniversary of the Sundance Film Festival, a festival that has been the launching pad for many exciting cinematic voices over the years. The festival’s importance in discovering new directors was nicely highlighted by the trailer shown before all the films which gave a glimpse of some of the stellar titles that played at the festival. The first Sundance was held in 1985 but it is acknowledged that the festival shot into the limelight in 1989 with Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotapes which changed the perception of the festival. Besides being the launching pad for Soderbergh, Sundance ushered the discovery of many other American directors including Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, 1992), Kevin Smith (Clerks, 1994), Kelly Reichardt (River of Grass, 1994), Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, 1996) and Darren Aronofsky (Pi, 1998). All of these directors, plus many more, have made the jump from Independent to Commercial cinema thanks to their discovery at Sundance. Even James Wan’s Saw premiered at Sundance before it transformed into a multiplex franchise. 

The success of certain Sundance films or genre means the media attention seems to gravitate towards a similar subset of the festival’s output. One hears plenty about how a certain work is a “Sundance film”, words which paint the festival in a single light. In recent years, that term has been associated with Little Miss Sunshine or Sunshine Cleaning, two films that seem to embody the kind of films that Sundance loves. But these films are not representative of the entire body of carefully programmed films that make up the Sundance film festival. Over the years, documentaries and a growing list of foreign films have premiered at the festival. Although, one would not know that from the media coverage. As this year showed, the films at Sundance represented a multi-tiered global outlook, not only in terms of the foreign film selections but the topics covered in many American films as well. Even though many films were American productions, they were shot in foreign locations or featured topics that were universal in theme. And as it turned out, through a series of intriguing choices, I ended up with many films which were tied together despite coming from different parts of the world. The 13 films I saw can be grouped together in the following 5 categories.

The Arab Spring 

Talal Derki’s Return to Homs embodies the characteristics of the “Direct Cinema” movement that originated in the 1950-60’s. Just like the pioneers of Direct Cinema, including Michel Brault, Derki shared the same quarters as his subjects and thereby put himself in harm’s way to get footage of the Syrian Revolution. Once the Syrian Revolution started in 2011, most of the Syrian media were not allowed in the country. Derki was a rare person who was able to capture the events which makes the footage essential in understanding what went on while the rest of the world continued to sleep. Derki and his crew continued filming even when bullets were fired in their direction. Such vérité footage results in many gut wrenching moments when people are on the verge of dying on-screen. By keeping the focus on a few key people, Return to Homs shows the human impact a revolution has on people. But one can also extrapolate these personal experiences to a larger scale and understand what motivates people to act the way they do. In essence, the film focuses on a few streets in a city but this microscopic focus helps shed a light on similar struggles going on in other streets not only across Syria but the rest of the Middle East.

While Return to Homs views the Arab Spring from a street level, We Are the Giant takes a few steps back and looks at the Arab Spring from a bird’s eye view not only in the present but even from the past. We Are the Giant inserts quotes and pictures from the past which frames the Arab Spring in context of past revolutions and the inclusion of tweets and social media footage shows the currency of protests. Social media is the new weapon of protest. Previously, the printing press allowed people’s revolutionary messages to be distributed but as We Are the Giant shows, social media manages to accelerate the revolutionary process by distributing live video with text to portray events in real time. And just like how the printing press threatened those in power, the same applies for tweets and blog posts. A blog post or a single tweet can land a person in jail and subsequent torture as shown by We Are the Giant. The film examines the Arab Spring from a larger scope but it highlights three stories about families from Libya, Syria and Bahrain whose loved ones are impacted. The stories are shattering but help one to understand the reason why the Arab Spring revolution started and why people are taking to the streets. We Are The Giant is the only Sundance film that I saw which got a standing ovation for its director, Greg Barker, which it rightly deserved.

Return to Homs and We Are the Giant pack a heavy emotional punch but both are essential viewing that allows one to see the world in a new light. In 2013, The Square, a documentary about the Egyptian revolution, premiered at Sundance. 2014 saw the world premiere of We Are the Giant while Return to Homs got a North American premiere. The programming of these three films shows a different side to Sundance, one that is going beyond the traditional media coverage to highlight relevant stories.

Neo-Noir: blood spilled to defend a family 

Blue Ruin (USA) and To Kill a Man (Chile/France) come from different countries but they compliment each other and present a complete picture of what happens in a society where the innocent are left to protect themselves.

An alternate title for Blue Ruin could easily be “To Kill a Man” because a killing takes place early on in the film. Dwight (Macon Blair) has no choice but to kill in order to protect his family. The killing dates back to a family feud and his murder is a further addition in a cyclic act of an “eye for an eye”. Blue Ruin wastes no time in jumping right into events and moves at a rapid pace while maintaining the tension on a knife’s edge for much of the film. A few moments of humor are sprinkled throughout the film which provide a welcome relief as the humor releases some of the tension. Blue Ruin is a perfectly realized neo-noir that depicts some of the same spirit that has made Justified such a worthy show. The film debuted in Cannes 2013 but will only get a wider American release in April 2014. As it stands, Blue Ruin is the best American film of 2013 that I have seen.

To Kill a Man can be called a precursor to Blue Ruin because the film shows the path a man is forced to undertake when contemplating murder. Jorge (Daniel Candia) is bullied and humiliated by a local gang to the extent that his family is no longer safe. The law cannot act fast enough and as a result, Jorge has no choice but to take matters into his own hands. To Kill a Man contains many sequences which defy belief and just when one expects the film to end, it continues and further astounds. When all is said and done, the words “Based on a true story” appear just before the closing credits. The decision to show these words at the end of the film is masterful as it manages to put the entire film in a different light. Without the appearance of those words, one would question the decisions that took place in the film. Yet those words lend reality to the events and instead manage to make the film a larger case study of what can happen in a society where the innocent can no longer be protected by the law, the same law which makes it easier for the guilty to always evade capture.

Hostile World, defending oneself 

Liar’s Dice and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, debut films directed by women, also depict a hostile world where women are potential prey to men. But the two films take radically different approaches in how the female characters handle their situation.

In Geethu Mohandas’ Liar’s Dice, Kamala (Geetanjali Thapa, mesmerizing) travels from Chitkul to Delhi in order to find her husband whom she has not heard from in 5 months. She takes her daughter and their family goat along the journey. However, a woman traveling without a male companion in India, especially in Delhi, is never safe from men’s constantly prying eyes; a fact that has gained a lot more exposure in the last 2 years with the huge number of documented rape cases. Kamala meets a completely untrustworthy stranger (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) but the film shows that given the dangerous setting, even this stranger becomes a rope to cling on. Liar’s Dice manages to stay away from the usual romantic attitude that Bollywood and foreign films depict India in. Instead, harsh reality is allowed to filter in. The cinematography is breathtaking and shows snowy parts of Northern India rarely seen on screen. The acting is also memorable with Geetanjali Thapa properly expressing her character’s anger and fear while Nawazuddin plays his dishonest persona to perfection.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night beautifully turns the table from a girl who could be an easy prey and makes her the hunter instead. As per the title, a girl does walk alone but she is not the one in danger. Instead, every man in her sight is. This is because the black and white Iranian film is a contemporary take on a Vampire story. The fact that the girl wears a hijab when attacking men can clearly be read as a subtext on the treatment of women not only in Iran but the Middle East. But instead of being subdued by the men, the girl bites back. Ana Lily Amirpour’s film is seductive and features a pulsating soundtrack which combined with the Californian setting gives the entire work an American feel, except that it is in Farsi and takes place in a fictitious place called “Bad City”. Plenty of touches of Jim Jarmusch can be found plus a nod towards early David Lynch as well.

Natural Resources: Corporations, Cycle of Boom and Bust 

A few films highlighted the methods that corporations go about in extracting natural resources from nations and the impact it has on local residents of a city/nation.

In Marmato, the gold mining methods in a small Colombian town are shown and how the Canadian corporation’s decisions play a part in the resident’s lives. The town residents have been gold miners for centuries and they live close to the mines on the mountains. However, the corporation wants to instead use an open mining technique which would level the mountain, thereby displacing the residents. The residents try to fight the corporation but their plight faces a tough political battle as depicted by the film. One could easily replace gold with oil, shale, silver or any other natural resource and the film would still be relevant in the unfolding of events.

We Come as Friends examines the newly formed nation of South Sudan and depicts how colonialism still exists but hides in a new mask related to resource exploitation. In the film, the resource in question is oil which governs the level of foreign interest in the nation. One can imagine that the rest of the world would not have have cared about what happened if there was no oil.

The cycle of boom and bust related to resource discovery has been repeated throughout history and many films have shown towns that fall in either categories. The Overnighters shows the impact on the local economy when an influx of workers arrives. Williston, North Dakota is the site for a new gold rush to speak, that of shale gas. The town cannot accommodate the hundreds of new arriving workers who have no place to sleep. On top of that, the residents of Williston are wary and fearful of the strangers, who are Americans moving from different states.

A local pastor, Jay Reinke, puts up as many workers in his church as possible and helps find accommodations for others. But some of the workers are ex-convicts or felons which causes the town residents to fear them more. Reinke goes out of his way to treat every worker equally but that puts his reputation on the line. As the film progresses, the pressure of the town and the overnighters takes its toll on Jay Reinke, who is almost on the brink of losing everything, his faith and reputation. In fact, events threaten to make Reinke an overnighter as well. The film shifts from the larger focus of the town to a personal story about the pastor’s life because what happens is not foreseeable. The film was awarded a Special Jury Prize for intuitive filmmaking and that is justified as events take an unexpected turn but director Jesse Moss trusted his instincts and continued filming. Also, Jay Reinke and his family deserve credit for allowing the camera to stay on in their households even though many personal conversations were taking place. In many moments, Moss achieves a Direct Cinema style of intimacy and the camera becomes one with Reinke’s household. When all is said and done, The Overnighters leaves one shaken at what they have just witnessed. Such was the case with many audience members at the sold out show.

Young Ones shows a future when water has become a scarce resource and where humans fight for every drop of water. The film is sci-fi but the desert surroundings and theme of revenge evoke a Western genre. The story unfolds in three chapters, with each chapter highlighting a key character. Michael Shannon stars as the father, who is willing to fight for his family’s benefit, a theme shown in other films at the festival. The film highlights the battle of survival that ensues when a society is on the verge of collapse.

Cutter Hodierne’s Fishing Without Nets shows a Somali village where all jobs have dried up and the only real money that can be made is by piracy. The film covers a similar topic to Captain Phillips and A Hijacking but Fishing Without Nets is told entirely from a Somali perspective. The feature film is an expansion of Cutter Hodierne’s award winning 2012 short film by the same name which also debuted at Sundance. It is a wonderful time in cinema when three films such as A Hijacking, Captain Phillips, Fishing Without Nets can exist in a similar timeframe. The three films are directed by men from three separate countries but they present a 360 degree view of events. There are many scenes where the three films directly reference each other and show an opposing perspective. For example, in Captain Phillips, events are seen from Tom Hanks’ character’s point of view such as when he sees the pirates approaching on boats and boarding the ship. In Fishing Without Nets, the camera is instead in the pirate boats and events unfold from the pirates’ perspective when they are climbing onto the ship. Another example is regarding the negotiations between the pirates and the shipping company. A Hijacking shows the parent ship company offices when the pirates phone to demand ransom while in Fishing Without Nets, only the pirates are shown talking on the phone and we never get to see the company on the other side. Therefore, these three films paint a complete picture of the entire piracy operation including the men who fund the process and provide supplies to those who kidnap the hostage and those that make the deals.

Portrait of an Artist 

Tim Sutton’s Memphis is a beautiful contemplative film set in the city that has fulfilled many musical dreams. However, the film is not about an artist who is on the verge of discovery. Instead, it looks at an artist’s life when the lyrics stop. Willis Earl Beal plays a famous musician who is struggling to finish his new album. He is told by his agent that he needs to come up with something but as Willis indicates, lyrics escape him. He is suffering from the equivalent of a writer’s block and as a result, the film applies to any artist struggling to produce a work. Willis procrastinates, wanders the city and manages to find solace among the unemployed people who can barely make ends meet. Yet, Willis has a talent. A close friend advises him that Willis has a responsibility to God, to realize his artistic duty. Willis has the keys to the kingdom, he is at the state that thousands other want to be. But he decides to turn in his keys to the kingdom and goes on a less traveled but difficult journey. Casting Willis is quite the coup as the film shatters the boundary between reality and fiction. The film is not autobiographical but there are some moments which depict Willis’ working methods regarding his music recording. The decision to withhold music for most of the film is also smart because that makes one thirst for Willis’ songs. And when we finally listen to Willis’ voice, it is magical! The music and words of “Too Dry to Cry” are sprinkled throughout the film, elevating the film and giving the entire work a soulful momentum. Memphis is a worthy addition to Contemporary Contemplative Cinema and is one of the most original American film in years.

Mr. Leos CaraX is a documentary that demystifies Leos Carax and allows a window into his style. The film is an ode to the director and includes plenty of clips and interviews which help shed a light on Carax’s references and usage of citations. Denis Lavant is featured prominently and his interview is quite useful in understanding his growth as an actor over the years in working with Carax. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Harmony Korine, Richard Brody, Kent Jones, Gilles Jacob also provide insightful critical analyses. Tessa Louise-Salomé’s documentary makes one want to revisit Carax’s films while eagerly awaiting his new work; which hopefully is not another decade away.

Top 5 Films: a tie for 5th means 6 films

1. Return to Homs (Talal Derki)
2. Memphis (Tim Sutton)
3. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
4. We Are the Giant (Greg Barker)
5. The Overnighters (Jesse Moss) and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)

I missed many other wonderful films due to scheduling conflicts or sold out shows. Whiplash (winner of both Jury and Audience Award for US Dramatic film), Imperial Dreams (Audience Award, Best of NEXT) and The Green Prince (Audience Award, World Documentary) were high on my see list. Discussing with dozens of other cinephiles, there were a few common titles that popped up on many other top lists. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was #1 on many lists as was Mike Cahill’s I-Origins, talking about which made some people giddy with excitement. I-Origins was the winner of Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, a prize which Cahill also won at Sundance back in 2011 with his first feature Another Earth. Raid 2 was #1 on few lists and almost everyone was certain that the film’s extreme violence meant the film would not be released without some cuts in North American cinemas. Other films that got plenty of buzz were E-TEAM (Winner of the Cinematography Award: US Documentary), Wetlands, Watchers in the Sky (Winner of two awards for Animation usage and Editing), Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory (Audience Award for US Documentary) and Happy Christmas. We Are the Giant is the only film from my list that featured on two other’s list at #1.

An overall festival experience is made or broken by one’s choices. In this regard, almost all my choices delivered, which helped! Of the 5 films that I bought advance tickets to, 3 won top prizes. To Kill a Man won the Jury Prize for World Cinema Dramatic category, Return to Homs won the Jury prize for World Documentary while Fishing Without Nets bagged the Best Directing prize. Along with Return to Homs, Memphis, Blue Ruin and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night were on my must-see list before the festival started. Therefore, it was especially delightful to discover that these films were worth attending.

The only disappointments were Young Ones and We Come as Friends, but only because the films could not build on an early impressive setup. In the case of We Come As Friends that is understandable as the film was clearly impacted by the degrading situation in South Sudan. The film won a Special Jury Prize for Cinematic Bravery which recognizes the effort of director Hubert Sauper who tired to cover as many different angles to the South Sudan nation creation story as possible. We Come As Friends shows that making a documentary in a dynamic and constantly changing landscape can be challenging. This was also demonstrated in Marmato when the situation of the town residents worsened. However, Marmato ends before the tensions rose to a boil. One of the producers mentioned that they had to leave the country when there were concerns about their safety, something which helped give the film a natural ending. In the case of The Overnighters, the reason why the change in direction worked was because the main subject Jay Reinke was part of the film early on. As a result, he provided a continuation thread when the film changed course.

Return to Homs, We Are the Giant, We Come as Friends and Marmato depict a window into current events which are getting worse and changing constantly. As a result, these films don’t offer a natural conclusion because the ending of these struggles has not yet been written. But these films are essential because they serve as a living breathing digital document.

Sundance is interchangeable with American cinema and will always be a place where new American directors will be discovered. However, as this year’s festival showed, Sundance is giving a peek into the wider world outside of American shores by including films which are relevant and timely. No matter what category a film was programmed in and how different it was, it still fit in the overall program and showed that there was careful attention paid to ensuring all the films had a purpose.

The festival gets a lot of attention for its distribution side along with the celebrity presence. There are many private parties around the festival which feature celebrities and grab a lot of media coverage. This gives the appearance of a large closed-off film festival. But that is not the case as the festival has successfully managed to bridge its larger media aspect with a smaller independent feel. This is evident not only from the film selections but from some of the panels. I attended the Film Church on the final day of the festival where the Festival Director John Cooper and Director of Programming Trevor Groth talked about their festival highlights. Both John and Trevor were candid about some of their programming decisions and challenges that took place. The panel made it hard to believe that Sundance is the media crazy festival that some publications make it appear. Instead, Sundance felt like an intimate festival that is open to film lovers from all walks of life. This is also reinforced by talking to many of the volunteers and other festival patrons. There were many volunteers and patrons who have been attending for decades and shared a zest for cinema. In fact, every single volunteer I came across was a bona-fide cinephile, something I have not seen at another festival. One of the volunteers was a documentary maker and I learned that many of the volunteers working at one of the venues also worked regularly at the Toronto International Film Festival. Overall, Sundance proved to be a more open and inviting festival than I expected. And the variety of programming choices meant the festival balanced both artistic and commercial cinema while keeping its ears tuned to global events.

Cross-published at Wonders in the Dark.


Sam Juliano said...

Once again the tenacious Sachin Gandhi, that troubadour of all things cinematic, has accomplished another milestone with his attendance at one of the world’s pre-eminent festivals. I envy him, but far more importantly I applaud him for this amazing venture, and his equally fabulous performance in seeing such a high number of the screenings. As I am unfamiliar with the lot, I can only say that I can’t wait to see MEMPHIS particularly, but also BLUE RUIN, RETURN TO HOMS and the documentary on Leos Carax. Apparently there were only a few disappointments, and all in all with some of the films seen winning awards this was a winning experience. I know well the downside of “schedule conflicts” that drive one batty when trying to fit in everything that is desired. But really, this was a movie goer’s dream my friend! Terrific overview of the Festival and it's status and significance in recent years!

Sachin said...

Thanks so much for your kind and humble words Sam. I really hope you get a chance to see these films this year. Most of them should get distribution, although a few still don't have one.