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Five things we learned at Sundance


We made our way to the 2012 Sundance Film Festival this past week in Park City, Utah to get a sense of where the state of independent cinema is going this year. What films we will be talking about? What issues are on the forefront of documentarians’ minds?

What follows are five lessons we learned while slogging through snow, striking up conversations with strangers on the shuttle busses, talking with filmmakers and seeing every film they’d let us.

The State of Independent Cinema is Strong

We’re not talking about “indie” films that are Hollywood-lite fare here, but serious breakout voices in both narrative and documentary productions. Some we have had to take other’s word for: it kills us that we didn’t get a chance to see Grand Jury Dramatic Prize winner Beasts of the Southern Wild from director Benh Zeitlin. That was the movie that everyone was talking about. You think that you’re jealous sitting at your computer watching others talk up a Sundance film? Try freezing your head off after losing your hat and still not being able to get a ticket.

From a business standpoint, indie film (the kind without quotes) is making a comeback as well. There was more than one seven-figure sale this festival, and the formula of simultaneous Video On Demand and theatrical release appears to have put some of the  wind back in the sails of distributors’ acquisitions departments. What does that mean for you? More choices, better production values down the line, and hopefully even better films.

Documentaries are in the Middle of a Renaissance

With Hollywood out of ideas, the best place to look for good stories these days is in the real world. Malik Bendjelloul’s musicologist detective story Searching For Sugarman – which won the World Cinema Audience Award for Documentary is one of those “stranger than fiction” tales. Meanwhile Eugene Jarecki’s powerful look at the cost that the War on Drugs has had on the United States – The House I Live In – took the doc Grand Jury Prize.

The visual language at the disposal of documentarians allows these films to not only examine important issues, but to create experiences that can be just as poetic as any drama. If anything, in this time of obsession with reality television, the documentarian has an advantage over their narrative brethren: we have discovered, collectively, how much we enjoy examining the lives of others.

The Question of Class Warfare is Lurking Under the Surface

There was a hidden thematic through-line in many of the docs we saw. Whether is was the issue of corporate taxation – as in how little corporations pay by moving their money off-shore – in Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce’s We’re Not Broke, or the chilling final analysis Jarecki gives in The House I Live In. Even Searching for Sugarman has elements of this, as it is set in both economically depressed Detroit and apartheid South Africa.

What these films do, respectively, is give us the language to talk about the incredible rift of income inequality in this country, the historical context in which it occurs, and define the best of the human spirit in the face of these cold facts. Even Indie Game: The Movie shares in the theme at an oblique angle, telling the story of little guys in the titanic games industry who are out to make personal expressions in a business that favors mindless repetition.

The Cinematic Impulse is Spreading

Take Bear 71 – the incredibly moving online docu-narrative that tells the story of a tracked bear in the Canadian wilderness. We don’t remember the last time we sat in front of our laptop crying (well, at least that didn’t involve a break-up or 4Chan). The work by Leanne Allison and Jeremy Mendes is a stunning example of what can be achieved when strong storytelling and tech savvy are wedded together. But don’t take our word for it. You can go experience Bear 71 right now. Sundance may have featured a really cool installation of the project– designed with the help of Pandemic 1.0’s Lance Weiler – but its purest form exists online.

The artistic side isn’t slouching either– whether it’s in the form of Terrence Nance’ charming, honest, and very experimental An Oversimplification of Her Beauty or Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Hit Record at the Movies event – the very definition of what independent cinema can be is expanding. In an era when box office receipts are down and every screen in the multiplex has the same disappointing fare it’s great to see bold efforts to make cinema cool again.

The Spirit of Sundance Needs to Expand

The hardest thing about Sundance is leaving. Going back to the “real world” where every person you see doesn’t want to talk about movies (or is a jerky ski rat, but we ignore those). The next time we go to the movies the filmmaker won’t be there to field questions both insightful and insane. Some of the films showed here won’t show up for months, or be available only on VOD, to be watched alone on a screen when they should be viewed in an auditorium. A theatre where the audience isn’t herded out instantaneously, but is allowed to discuss the issues brought up as a community.

Because in the end that’s what Sundance is: a community. Perhaps the community of film lovers and socially aware citizens. What we wouldn’t give to have that community spirit spread everywhere.

This story was originally published on January 30, 2012 on TurnstyleNews.com, where you can read more of Noah J. Nelson’s coverage of the Sundance Film Festival.