- words spoken by a Northern Ugandan child from the award winning documentary WARDANCE.
I couldn't think of a better way to begin this article. This year at Sundance was an extraordinary mirror of the struggles in the world, both past and present. Through documentaries, as well as stories based on true events, the Sundance programming staff chose many films with a conscious eye toward spreading awareness of the world's conflicts, those known as well as those under-reported greatly by the media.
It is in this manner it seemed, at least to this viewer that there was a mindful effort toward being responsible stewards within the scope of this renowned film festival. From Robert Redford's politically charged remarks at the opening film, (CHICAGO 10), to the awards presentation honoring films for their subject matter as well as filmmaker prowess, Sundance can once again take pride in its role of informing the public through film. More people will now have access to these important films, and that's the type of trickle down theory that makes a lot of sense.
This is not to say that there weren't the requisite number of films about a myriad of diverse subjects and personalities outside the political arena. In fact, all in all, there were more films that weren't about politics, war, and social issues, but in an uncanny way, it seemed as if it was the other way around. Among a wide array of films about the human condition, odd couples, video gaming, heroes, villains, waitresses, punk rock icons, gangsters, eagles, sharks, angels, and dogs, as well as the films about world events, Sundance did not disappoint no matter what type of film floated your film loving boat.
A DAY IN THE LIFE.
This was my second year at Sundance, second year as a Theater Team Leader and first year at The Prospector Theater. A management type position (next in line to Manager and Assistant Manager), the Theater Team Leader is responsible for making sure all the volunteers are where they're supposed to be, doing what they're supposed to do, to put it simply. Therefore, it is also the job that hands out those assignments, provides training, and oversees the theater team, all for the good of smooth theater operations, resulting in films starting on schedule and maintaining happy-go-lucky patrons. Our 380 seat theater had mostly documentaries, panels and SPECTRUM, which are feature films by up and coming filmmakers. We may not have had as much star power as the big ECCLES Theater where all the premieres were screened to 1300 quite filled seats, but we had great filmmakers in the house as well as the likes of Ira Glass from NPR doing a panel about his show THIS AMERICAN LIFE moving to T.V., and Mandy Moore and Steve Buschemi to name a few.
When you work at Sundance, you work at Sundance. Full time, every day. It is technically considered a volunteer position, but it is also considered staff. Go figure. No matter though, the work is fun, challenging, educational, interesting, exciting, gratifying, and then some. The hours are long, but they shift around somewhat, leaving some time throughout the days and/or evenings to see films, and experience everything else Sundance. Full time staff receives accommodations in lovely (for the most part) condos all over Park City. Yup, Sundance pretty much rents out every condo usually taken up by skiers and snowboarders the rest of the winter. So despite the fact that one can't pay bills with the perks received at Sundance, it's still a pretty sweet deal and it's fascinating to be an integral part of such a celebrated film festival. With the housing, plus a stipend (received after acceptable completion of the assigned job), plus all the other perks, including admittance to all films, (space permitting), and cool film associated venues, (space permitting), the cool and warm Sundance coat/vest combo special, plus ridiculous amounts of swag on Main Street, it's nothing short of a great and worthwhile adventure.
And the adventure begins.......in the sweet little small town of Park City, Utah, that Sundance really has outgrown, but don't tell them that, besides, it adds to the charm. It is filled with filmmakers, volunteers, friends, patrons, Sundance staff, bus drivers, sponsors, actors, producers, publicists, and entourage covering the streets most of the time, except for early morning of course. That is, unless you're the proud owner of what's called the ADRENALINE pass, which for a price that's pretty steep, but not nearly as steep as the other ticket packages, you can see any film before 10 am, and after 10 pm. For those of you that can't believe films start as early as 10 am, you're right, they don't. They actually start at 8:30 am. Yup, they don't call it adrenaline for nothing.
Back to the show....the people we worked with were nothing short of wonderful. From the managers to the rest of the theater team, we had many revolving volunteers who were dedicated, smart, and made the days all the more fun to walk into, even for those 7 am shifts! And once again, friendships were born that will last beyond the 10 'daze' of Sundance. Our team handled questions, answers, load-ins, load-outs, ticket holders, ticket buyers, pass holders, wait list numbers, wait list lines, queues, more queues, projectionists, print runners, production staff, panel set-ups, panel tear-downs, people passing out in the theater (one was hypoglycemic, the other was drunk at 11 am, and wanted his money back after we wouldn't let him back in the theater), Q & A's, green rooms, filmmakers, publicists, producers, writers, entourage, box office, training volunteers, daily mini-meetings, scrambling when we were short on volunteers, putting out fires (not real ones, but you knew that), handing out walkie-talkies, trying to fix broken walkie-talkies, readying the theater for the next screening, roping off entourage seats, and of course, there are always the other five seats that stay roped off for Mr. Redford. Not that he was ever in attendance, but they are always there. Just in case. Keeps the mystery alive. I suggested that we not refer to them as the REDFORD seats while on radio, so rumors wouldn't be spread. It seems that each theater handled this in their own way, but at the Prospector Theater, we referred to them as the RED seats (thanks Myra!).
I suppose one of the biggest highlights on the job was introducing films. Toward the end of the festival, and especially for the awards film screenings, the programmers and filmmakers weren't around as much, so I was asked to introduce some films. Call me silly, but it was a thrill to be able to participate in this manner.
And now, the films. I saw 12 all in all, and though that's a pretty good amount considering my work schedule, I would've loved to have seen another hundred. Hence, after these mini-reviews is a list of those films I wish I'd seen, along with a list of award winners. I thoroughly enjoyed every film I saw, albeit for different reasons, and would recommend them all. So enjoy, and see you at the movies!
Seemingly, a cliche' subject.....man down on his luck, owing money to mobsters all over Paris, decides to jump off a bridge. Gorgeous woman is about to jump off the same bridge. She jumps first, causing him to jump in and save her. That's where the cliche' ends. Beautifully shot in black and white (more like blueblack and white) with great juxtapositions of height as the woman is about a foot taller than the man, and oh so exotic looking. French filmmaker Luc Besson takes us on a journey about life, the human condition, believing in ones self, and possibly angels. One of my favorite films of this festival.
BLACK SNAKE MOAN
Christina Ricci goes on a real departure for her role in this film by Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow). Set in a small Tennessee town, she plays a tough young woman who is all about surviving any way she can, from loving her man who is leaving for war, to loving other men who aren't. After suffering being attacked, she is found on the side of the road by Samuel Jackson's character, Lazarus. He takes her in, and provides comfort and protection, albeit in his own unique manner, causing her to become open to what is possible. This film is cloaked in luscious blues music of a by-gone era, as well as Samuel Jackson bringing modern day blues into the subtext of the story with his own voice.
The despair of the situation in Sierra Leon is depicted in this frightening yet tender story. Ezra is abducted and forced into being a child soldier. The instinct is to survive and the result places Ezra in the middle of a Truth and Reconciliation Council. His sister is one of the victims who desperately wants Ezra to confess what he has done in order to move on. One of the many films this year told through a story rather than a documentary, but based on true events.
GRACE IS GONE (Dramatic Audience Award and Screenwriting Award)
If you're accustomed to John Cusak playing one of his signature characters, you may be surprised at this particular role. It is a departure for Cusak, and one that he takes on with subtle, yet great command. He plays Stanley Phillips, and his wife Grace is killed while serving in Iraq. How he chooses to tell his children becomes the core of the story, and the interactions with Stanley and the children become the heart and soul of this poignant film. Bring tissues.
THE GREAT WORLD OF SOUND
This is a highly entertaining film with great character roles, but it's about a subject that has remained fairly protected up until now. For every legitimate music producer out there, there is one or more that are pure salesmen, with no musical experience whatsoever, hired by fly-by-night companies to take advantage of unsuspecting hopeful singers and musicians. Granted, let the buyer beware and all that jazz, but it can be easy to be taken in by these scam artists, who operate on the hard edge of legal. It's about time someone exposed these creeps for who they are and THE GREAT WORLD OF SOUND takes them on. Ok, maybe I shouldn't sugarcoat it. As a musician, I've received countless scam letters over the years about "making it big in the music business!" All you have to do is send money. Don't send the money, but see the film.
HOTHOUSE (Special Jury Prize)
Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan receives unparalleled access in this documentary about Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli high security prison. These men and women share chilling accounts of terrorist activities, suicide bombings, and future plans for more attacks, as they sit around drinking coffee, watching Oprah, discussing their multiple life sentences, and leaving the audience in utter disbelief that this could be happening in plain sight. It is at this point that the audience begins to realize that the prisons are really a breeding ground for terrorism. Some of the prisoners talk about their desire for peace and how to negotiate getting there, while others share startling testimony about their roles in the attacks. Woven in and around these tales are descriptions of the advanced educational degrees of some of the prisoners, and what it's like when their families come for very rare visiting days. It was amazing to bear witness to these men and women tell their stories of terror, when by all other accounts they appear intelligent and quizzically human. The most bizarre part of watching this film for me was the body language and facial expressions. There was no anger on their faces, no defensive posturing, etc. If you didn't know what the subject matter was on the screen, it almost looked like they were just sitting around talking about sports, etc. One can't help but be shocked at the sheer candidness of the prisoners, most especially the women, as they shared their chilling accounts of driving suicide bombers to their target locations, all in the name of "freedom".
HOW SHE MOVE
A film about hip-hop, dance, the streets, survival, and love. Though I might not recommend it to someone who doesn't like the sort of "modern day music and dance film", I loved it and thought it touched chords that were universal. Brilliant dancing throughout this film, and no, it's not just like all the others like "Stomp the Yard", though people could not help comparing the two. The actors were humble and sincere in the Q & A. Would love to see this film go places.
NO END IN SIGHT (Special Jury Prize)
A captivating expose on how the Bush administration has conducted operations in Iraq with special focus on the brazen lack of planning for post war Iraq. With raw footage, and on the ground reporting, this film stands out for its courage and depth. Even among a sea of other films and documentaries about Iraq, the uncompromising references to the quagmire that continues today comes through with full force. Through documented explanations and accounts of the blatant mistakes and poor decisions made by high ranking officials, NO END IN SIGHT goes into great detail about how the United States Government and the Bush administration participated in causing the insurgency. www.noendinsightmovie.com
ONCE (World Dramatic Audience Award)
A lovely and lyrical film about a struggling singer/songwriter/vacuum cleaner repairman who meets a beguiling woman while busking in Dublin. She happens to have a broken vacuum cleaner and they strike up a friendship. Turns out she's also a musician, and he recruits her to help record a CD. The film is very music driven and the original songs played by these unlikely actors bring a musical landscape to the storyline. A great film about the spirit of music, friendship, and finding your way. The musicians were there for the Q & A and sang. Also, they were the actual musicians, and weren't really actors when they were hired for the film. They were quite natural, giving the film a very raw authenticity.
Human trafficking. In this well written and poignant story featuring Kevin Kline, the Russian mafia is trafficking young girls from Mexico City to New Jersey to be auctioned on the internet. Even when you see a film portraying this unspeakable crime, there is still a part of you that remains in denial. Perhaps that's the problem. Not enough people knowing that it exists and is prevalent around the world and close to home, as portrayed in this important film.
WARDANCE (Documentary Directing Award)
Probably my favorite film of this festival. I saw it after the awards were announced and though it deserved more recognition overall, the award for Documentary direction in this stunningly beautiful film is more than well earned. In civil war torn Uganda, there are thousands of people forced to leave their ancestral homes because of rebel attacks and children being abducted by the rebel army. The refugees live in camps that are protected 24/7 by the Ugandan military. The children in these camps have witnessed their families being killed in ways one should never have to describe, let alone be forced to watch. Despite the unbearable accounts, the children find a saving grace through music and dance as they prepare to compete in Uganda's National Music and Dance Festival. The power of music is truly unparalleled in how it helps these children. In fact, as a viewer and musician, my tears fell when the children smiled and found joy in the music and dance, even while living their tragic stories. Somehow they found a way, spoken so truthfully by one of the children: "When I dance, my problems vanish".
YEAR OF THE DOG
Just when you think it's a light film about puppy dogs, you find out it's more about the human condition and rescue, albeit relating to puppy dogs. There are a lot of levels to this film, and it's more complex than it seems going in. Starring Molly Shannon, of Saturday Night Live fame.
Films I didn't get to see but were high on the list:
ENEMIES OF HAPPINESS (World Documentary Jury Prize)
About a 27 year old woman running for Parliament in Afghanistan if you can imagine that. A true pioneer in a country filled with "enemies of happiness, peace, women, and democracy" to say the least.
No doubt the buzziest film of this year, mostly because of something one would expect to see in a film, not in real life. The filmmaker/actress, ADRIENNE SHELLEY, was murdered in New York just 2 months ago, in November, 2006. She also plays a small part in the film as does her daughter. Her husband was in residence during the Q & A, and spoke of Adrienne and a foundation being started to help women in film. In addition, the film stood alone as an audience favorite.
EAGLE VS. SHARK
This looked too charming for words. Girl meets boy, albeit dressed in a shark suit at the time. 'Course the guy might just be dressed as an eagle. Go figure.
AUTISM EVERY DAY
Though it's practically reaching epidemic levels, autism still remains a mystery to many. However, the subject of autism is finally being talked about, and this film is doing its part to spread awareness and educate people through first hand accounts. Filmmaker Lauren Thierry who herself has a child with autism, takes us inside the lives of 8 families of children with autism, and how they face struggles and challenges one day at a time.
BLAME IT ON FIDEL
Looking inside a family and how they are shaped by experiences and political consciousness. Anna the daughter gallantly sorts through the wide field of her parent's radical activism, while simultaneously trying to discover her own place in the family.
A love story of sorts, filled with unique characters, entertainers, chaos, and a one-hit wonder.
An important and unique depiction of the arrests and resulting trial of the Chicago 7 during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when luminaries such as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin led protests of the Vietnam War. Filmmaker Brett Morgan brings a distinctive look to the screen as he uses archival footage mixed with original animation and music of the times to portray the details of this infamous conspiracy trial.
CROSSING THE LINE
In 1962, a 19 year old American soldier serving in the Korean DMZ, deserts the U.S. Army and becomes one of only four American defectors to North Korea during the Cold War. He is out of his element to say the least, and is compelled by the North Koreans to be used in their propaganda against the United States, through films where he plays the "evil American". Over 40 years later, he is still there.
A film about Global Warming, complete with prophet types trying desperately to convince the citizenry of the dire situation and launch them into taking action amidst their seeming complacency. Woven in this tale are the innovative ideas of a biodiesel entrepreneur, and an Inuit Alaskan community who must decide whether they should stay in their native community where they may get washed away into the sea. The climate shift takes shape as America finally begins to "get it".
The much anticipated Hal Hartley follow up to Henry Fool. Hal and I went to the same college and were in the same class (S.U.N.Y. Purchase, class of 1984), so it was exciting to see him return to Sundance. Apparently, people were perplexed by the film, but liked it nonetheless.
GHOSTS OF ABU GHRAIB
Candid interviews, Geneva Conventions ignored, and the rest, unfortunately is history.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON (World Cinema Documentary Audience Award)
I would have loved to have seen this film, which shows extraordinary and never before seen NASA footage of the Apollo space program. All the remaining crew members from the Apollo missions are interviewed, sharing their stories in their own words. A rare inside look into the vast scope of the experience, knowledge, and extraordinary first hand accounts of being in the shadow of the moon.
2007 SUNDANCE AWARD WINNERS...
DRAMATIC GRAND JURY PRIZE: PADRE NUESTRO
WORLD DRAMATIC JURY PRIZE: SWEET MUD
DOCUMENTARY GRAND JURY PRIZE: MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET)
WORLD DOCUMENTARY JURY PRIZE: ENEMIES OF HAPPINESS
WORLD DRAMATIC AUDIENCE AWARD: ONCE
DRAMATIC AUDIENCE AWARD: GRACE IS GONE
DOCUMENTARY AUDIENCE AWARD: HEAR AND NOW
WORLD DOCUMENTARY AUDIENCE AWARD: IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON
DOCUMENTARY DIRECTING AWARD: WARDANCE
DRAMATIC DIRECTING AWARD: ROCKET SCIENCE
SPECIAL JURY PRIZES:
NO END IN SIGHT, INDEPENDENT FILM COMPETITION, DOCUMENTARY
"In recognition of the film as timely work that clearly illuminates the misguided policy decision that have led to the catastrophic quagmire of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq" - Sundance Award Committee
HOTHOUSE, WORLD CINEMA COMPETITION, DOCUMENTARY
THE LEGACY, WORLD CINEMA COMPETITION, DRAMATIC
ALFRED P. SLOAN
ALFRED P. SLOAN AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY:
DOCUMENTARY EDITING AWARD:
WALDO SALT SCREENWRITING AWARD
GRACE IS GONE
EXCELLENCE IN CINEMATOGRAPHY
DOCUMENTARY: MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET)
SPECIAL JURY PRIZE FOR ACTING:
JESS WEXLER in TEETH.
TAMARA PODEMSKI in FOUR SHETS TO THE WIND
SPECIAL JURY PRIZE FOR SINGULARITY OF VISION:
JURY PRIZE, SHORT FILMMAKING:
EVERYTHING WILL BE OK
JURY PRIZE, INTERNATIONAL SHORT FILMMAKING:
THE TUBE WITH A HAT
SPECIAL SHORTS JURY PRIZE: