Each January the makers, buyers, and lovers of cinema gather in Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah to showcase the year in independent filmmaking. Sundance is one of the largest film festivals in the world, with over 60,000 guests in attendance. And for good reason. Over 100 films are selected to screen during the 10 day festival, an honor that marks creators’ achievements to the indie film world.
I arrived at Sundance as a festival newbie with no expectation other than watching quality flicks for a week. Some of my favorite movies of 2017 (Call Me By Your Name, Mudbound and Get Out) had their start at Sundance, so I knew I was in for a treat. Even still, I had no clue what I would encounter outside of the hours spent in the theater. Fortunately, what I found during my week in Park City was a tribe of humans committed to storytelling and a marketplace for those stories to thrive.
Sundance is a magical place.
It’s a micro-universe built to take its film-loving guests for a ride. Whether you’re watching a film or exploring the festival grounds, Sundance will transport you to new heights and faraway worlds. The heart of the festival is Park City’s Main Street, a five block strip of pop-up shops and temporary exhibitions dedicated to cinema. Park City is situated 7,000 feet above sea level, which only adds to the heightened experience of the festival. I’m not sure if it’s the proximity to the sun or the proximity to Hollywood stars, but being at Sundance feels like an elevated existence. My days were spent bopping between movie screenings, panels, parties and film tech playgrounds. I got to hear stories behind the filmmaking process, play with new camera gear, and dance the night away with some of my favorite humans of Hollywood.
The Sundance experience is curated to keep guests forever lost in a story. Every day at the festival is spent ebbing between two worlds, the world depicted onscreen and the physical world in which we live During Sundance, neither worlds feel real. There is a certain emotional stamina that forms when you spend a week watching three films per day. The line between the film world and the actual world starts to blur. That’s the problem with well-made movies - they pit themselves so deeply in conversation with reality that it isn’t always clear which world is the real one.
Where does reality end and fiction begin?
Take Loveling, for example. The Brazilian film is an intimate portrait of a mother struggling to cope with the hardships of everyday life as her eldest son leaves the nest. It stars Brazilian actress Karine Teles and co-stars two of her biological children. The film is directed by Gustavo Pizzi, the father of Teles’ twin sons. Teles and Pizzi co-wrote the story. Watching Loveling, it is impossible to ignore the truths that are projected onscreen. The deep bond between Teles’ character, Ines, and her sons is immediately apparent, as is their deep sense of interdependent trust and love. As the audience enters her mind’s eye, we experience her reality, her fear, her loss of control. The emotional effectiveness of Loveling is no doubt a testament to Teles’ abilities as an actor, and her ex-husband’s talents as a director. But it’s also a tribute to the magic that occurs when artists tell stories that are most true to their reality.
For some Sundance projects, the reality line is blurred not with lived experiences but within the truths of identity. I had the pleasure of watching the world premiere of Yardie, a narrative that follows a young Jamaican man living in England as he fights to avenge his older brother’s murder. In his directorial debut, Idris Elba had the foresight to attach a cast that was almost entirely Jamaican. He understood the value in authenticity, the power of nuanced storytelling.
Another shining example is the documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening. I know, by definition, documentaries lend themselves to truth. Nevertheless, a certain openness and vulnerability occurs when a filmmaker truly understands their subjects on a cultural level. Director RaMell Ross lived in Hale County for three years prior to making this film. He met his protagonists, Daniel and Quincy, while coaching basketball and teaching GED classes at a neighborhood school. As the audience meets them on screen, we benefit from the camaraderie and brotherhood that RaMell shares with them. We are allowed to effortlessly maneuver through their lives as young black men living in the south because of the trust that RaMell has built with the Hale County community. This bond provides access to Daniel and Quincy during their most intimate moments - the death of Daniel’s infant child among them. Hale County has its heartbreaking moments and joyous ones, too. Above all, though, the film moves audiences with its simple depictions of a humanity that is often neglected in our culture. Its success lies within its demands for a place in our recorded cultural history.
My Sundance experience wrapped on Sunday night, with the premiere of bio doc RBG. Here we have a film about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the most formidable advocate for legal protection of women in America, created by two female directors with the support of a mostly female crew. Not a single person in that audience was left unmoved. The film traces Justice Ginsburg’s evolution from a young student at Harvard Law to a passionate litigator and eventual Supreme Court Justice. It was inspiring to say the least. She took the mic at the close of the film and shared her thoughts about the progress of gender equality in our nation. In response to a mother in the audience asking for advice to offer her daughter in the era of Trump’s America, Justice Ginsburg simply stated, “Just look how far we have come”.
After a week at Sundance, one thing is apparent - the best films place viewers in discourse with societal truths. The power of the moving image lies within a filmmaker’s ability to wow us, to make us laugh or cry or think or question. To make us feel. The stories that transformed me personally did so by developing a world that feels critical and true, regardless of genre. To put your reality onscreen is no easy task. It involves a certain vulnerability, an exploration of human needs and wants, and a deep understanding of a narrative's place within the worlds in which films reside. The blending of reality and fiction, the melding of the cinematic and corporal worlds.
As a filmmaker, this gives me great hope. I left Utah feeling energized by the magnitude of stories featured in this year's festival. There's room for movies about female leaders, space to explore both public figures and ordinary everyday women. There's room for films made about black men and women, whether the director is a Hollywood titan or a high school basketball coach. There's room for us all. Representing all subsets of human existence onscreen is not just possible, it's inevitable. And it starts with manifesting our multi-varied, multi-ethnic, and multi-gendered voices behind the camera.