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20 Honest Observations from the Sundance Film Festival

Whose Streets

by
in Columns, Festivals & Events
on Feb 3, 2017

Twenty —

It’s the first Friday of the Sundance Film Festival and I’m sitting in the lobby of the Park City Marriott. I’m making small talk with some friends about the festival and the election and the films we’re excited to see. There’s a TV mounted on the wall behind me live broadcasting Trump’s inaugural address. Someone makes a joke about how he’s doing everything he can to avoid looking up at the screen. I do the same, pivoting my body and adjusting my eyeline so as to avoid catching a glimpse of our new President’s grinning face.

By being here, by participating in this festival, I’m aware that I’m hiding from reality. This is a sentiment I hear expressed throughout the week. Sundance 2017 is a sanctuary of art, thought, expression, empowerment. Sundance 2017 is a distraction from the real world. Sundance 2017 is Disneyland for film nerds. We’re lucky to have it.

Nineteen —

Sundance is a festival of narratives piled up on top of one another. The first narrative occurs when Sundance locks its program. In 2017, that program features 121 feature films, 68 short films, 17 VR pieces, 11 art exhibits, and 24 assorted special events. But approximately nobody has the time to view and take in that complete picture so alternative narratives are constructed in what each attendee chooses to focus on.

Complicating the picture are the external forces of commerce and business competing for control of the narrative. Films with money and power at their disposal hire publicists and sales agents to flood the internet, to manufacture hype by laying the seeds of expectation. Of breakout performances and buzzy sales titles. This manufacturing of reality then wills itself into actual reality. Hype as a cycle of narrative-building. Hype meant to prime a film for a big sale, which then in turn builds more hype.

When you attend Sundance as press and opt to include your email address in the festival’s contact sheet, your inbox is flooded with hundreds of mass email press releases, announcements, and media “opportunities” offered by publicists, brands, and corporate entities who are paid to rise their narrative above the fray of competing voices.

In this Sundance inbox, every third subject line is cap-locked. Towards the end of the festival, one publicist labels a mass email about an added documentary screening as “URGENT.”

Eighteen —

Amman Abbasi’s Davyeon follows a 13-year-old African American boy growing up in an economically depressed, gang-ridden, rural Alabama town.

It’s a beautiful, lyrical work, opting for naturalism over sculpted drama. The film relishes in its scenery. We pause to listen to crickets, to watch water drift in the wind. Abbasi makes the decision to shoot in 4:3, a tactic that creates distance between the viewer and the screen, and reminds us that we are outsiders to this world. It’s just a snapshot.

About halfway through the film I start to consider it primarily as a reflection on gravity. The physical and emotional ways in which one can be tethered.

Seventeen –

Here’s something that isn’t said much amidst the Sundance scramble: many reported sales numbers at this festival are bullshit.

I’m in line to buy some grocery store fried chicken (mmm), and I run into a distributor friend. I congratulate him on a just-announced purchase and mention the reported dollar amount of the sale. My friend laughs out loud, and says that he has no idea where this number came from.

Later at a party, I discuss this phenomenon with another friend (a producer) whose film just sold. The produce confides that the reported sales number for their film was off by no less than seven-figures, and that they have no idea who has misreported this number and why. I ask if they’re open to being cited by name in a piece about this phenomenon. They decline.

I’ve been hearing this from distributors and producers for years. Why does this happen? Who’s doing the misreporting? Perhaps there’s something to the fact that I’ve never heard of sales numbers being misreported lower than reality.

Sixteen —

At first I feel hesitant about attending the Women’s March on Main Street. I am ashamed to not be in Washington D.C., and my gut reaction to a political rally in the middle of Sundance is one of cynicism. I make dark jokes about attendees treating the march as a networking event.

But I suppress my cynicism. It’s 2017 and I’m starting to recognize the ways in which I use cynicism as a crutch and a shoddy excuse for inaction. An enabler of incapacitation.

I wake up on the morning of the march to a blizzard. I bundle up and rush out of the house. The streets are white and there are hundreds of people trudging down Park Avenue heading towards Main St. I join the crowd and keep my eyes down. It’s impossible to walk quickly or really in any way that can’t be described as “lumbering.” As we approach Main Street the crowd is growing in density, overpowering the surrounding white of the blizzard. We’re dots filled in on a canvas.

Like many, the march lends me strength and comfort. For those hours the world suddenly seems to have some hope left in it again. I find it easiest to chant when my voice is one of many among the crowd. That’s when I feel least self-conscious.

Fifteen –

I always get annoyed by people using their cell phones and talking through movies. Even though I’m too neurotic to enjoy confrontation, I’m starting to make a habit of politely asking people to put their phones away or to be quiet in a movie theater. I only do this during public screenings — if you’ve ever been to a Sundance press and industry screening, you know that trying to get people to put their phones away in there would be a futile effort.

I have three confrontations total, and get mixed results.

First, I “shhh” a guy sitting behind me at David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, who whispers to his wife no less than half a dozen times during one single long shot. “Relax,” he growls back at me. But then? He doesn’t make a peep for the rest of the film.

Second, a guy in front of me at Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits literally does not look up from his cell phone for 25 minutes straight. I’m enjoying the film but finding it hard to concentrate with this distracting light in my periphery. I lean forward and ask him to please put his phone away. He apologizes profusely, his tone afraid like a kid who’s been caught stealing a cookie. He shoves his phone back into his pocket and doesn’t take it out again.

Finally, a middle-aged woman spends the first 15 minutes of Whose Streets, a documentary about the Black Lives Matter movement, texting. I ask her quietly if she wouldn’t mind putting her phone away. She snaps back at me that her husband is having an “emergency.” I’m automatically filled with shame.

On further reflection, shame is the shared factor between all three interactions. But clearly there is no fixed universal rule about who should or will feel shame in these sorts of interactions.

Fourteen —

Back to Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits. It’s a rigorous, brutal film. It’s also about something that I’ve never seen a film ponder before (and never really pondered myself before I saw the film): the ways in which human interaction is largely an effort to canonize ourselves in the mind of others. Every decision we make, Perry posits, every interaction, it’s all just one big effort to be remembered in a certain light. To achieve, as the title suggests, a golden exit.

It’s one of those films that makes you see, hear, and experience the world differently for hours after leaving the theater. Thankfully the sensation fades by the end of the day.

Thirteen —

The Q&A after the world premiere of Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats is a heated one. Hittman’s excellent sophomore feature is about the toxic masculinity of a working-class South Brooklyn neighborhood, and the main character is a closeted young man wrestling against his homosexuality. The film is quite dark in its exploration of the personal and communal effects of repression, and resists ending on a positive or transformative note. Like Hittman’s equally excellent debut It Felt Like Love, I found watching it to be a draining experience.

During the Q&A, several homosexual audience members articulate frustration. The first speaker shares that he found the film to be quite well-made, but that it upset him to still be seeing stories of closeted homosexuality being made in 2017, and especially by a straight director. The hesitation seems to be twofold: doesn’t representing stories of sexual repression on screen perpetuate sexual repression? And why should Hittman tell such a story when she herself has never experienced the reality of living as a closeted homsexual?

Hittman counters articulately, arguing that it is her job as a storyteller to tell stories and represent the human experience authentically, not to, as she put it, make “afterschool specials.” Further, she argues, empathetic filmmakers should be able to tell stories about people of different genders, races, and sexual orientations. You wouldn’t for instance, deny a female filmmaker’s right to tell a story with a male protagonist, would you?

It was a respectful debate, argued from an open and personal place by both sides. It ended in general disagreement and unresolved tension.

Twelve —

The night that follows the morning of the Women’s March I’m standing in a line that isn’t moving waiting to get into a premiere party. The snow’s still falling. The line hasn’t moved in at least ten minutes, and my hat is coated with at least an inch of snow. My hands are cold and my feet are wet. Eventually I’m going to give up and go home.

But before I do I witness a guy leading two women past the line and straight up to the bouncer. This guy’s shirt is open several buttons, his chest hair exposed to the snow. His haircut can only be described accurately as a jewfro held in shape by what I’d estimate to be at least half a tub of hair gel.

Anyway, this guy attempts to cut the line, and the rest of us can hear him citing Very Important Person status to the bouncers at the door. They’re having none of it though. They shut him down, point him and his plus ones back to the end of the line. The guy argues back, getting furious, making a show of it, and at this point everyone in line can hear him screaming at the bouncers that this is bullshit and do you know who he is and he they better let in immediately.

This interaction, which might as well be a parody of itself, plays out in front of me, and I wonder what this guy was doing this morning. Did he march? Will he at any point in this tirade register how his temper tantrum looks to those of us waiting on line? Or think about where this grave injustice must surely fall on the scale of all injustice?

And then I remember that I too almost didn’t go to the march, and that I have spent a lot of time and energy at this festival getting pissy about minor injustices like people using their cell phones during movies.

Who knows who this guy is and what he’s been through. Or how important him getting into that party actually is. He could even be the director of the film that this party is celebrating. I didn’t see the film, so how should I know?

Eleven —

At this festival I find myself obsessed with the dual concepts of truth and honesty. When I watch and appraise movies, this is the main scale with which I judge them. How truthfully does each movie represent the human experience? Does this film feel honest? Aesthetics, passion, craft, plot, commercial potential, all that is secondary or subservient to questions about truth and honest. This is my version of Sundance, the narrative I choose to focus on. It’s the only way I can imbue the festival and the concept of art with any meaning and relevance in today’s world.

No film I see at the festival has a more interesting relationship with these concepts than Kitty Green’s Casting Jon Benet. A postmodern meditation on the True Crime genre, the documentary depicts the (real) casting process for a (fake) movie about the unsolved Jon Benet Ramsay murder case. Green interviews potential actors as they try out for roles in the (fake) film. Her subjects inevitably recount the gritty details of the Ramsey case while they try out, and speculate in increasingly far-fetched ways about who the killer might be.

Rather than being about the case itself, Green’s film is about our culture of predatory speculation, a culture in which facts and truths are valued far less than twists and turns. The film also asks the viewer to question his or her own reactions to the people on screen. Just as the participants in the film feel the impulse to judge and assess the Ramsey family without any hope of having the full picture, the audience enjoys judging those on screen without knowing their full stories. This is a cycle, a food chain, and the real mystery at the heart of Green’s film is where our appetite and hunger for this sort of speculation arises from.

Ten —

I see a friend at a party whose movie has just sold overnight for quite a large sum of money. He shrugs and sleepily recounts the surreal experience. The midnight condo stuffed with lawyers and sales agents, the negotiating into the wee hours, the champagne. Another friend in the conversation smiles and nods and says, “You just had the Sundance experience.”

Sales at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival was an arm’s race between two tech giants. Netflix and Amazon bought films at a furious pace, and at consistently staggering price tags. As the dust settled on the final night of the festival, Netflix walked away with 11 purchases, and Amazon with five.

Sales figures were not reported for many titles, but the ones that were announced by these two companies ranged from low seven figures to low 8 figures. Amazon fired the opening shot by acquiring Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick (the most hyped acquisition title going into the festival) for a reported $12 million dollars (besting their $10 million dollar offering on last year’s Manchester by the Sea). Netflix countered with a sea of smaller (but by no means small) purchases throughout the festival, culminating in the announcement on Sunday night that they had acquired Dee Rees’ Mudbound for $12.5 million dollars. I’d imagine that it was important to them to claim the title of “biggest sale of Sundance,” that extra “$.5” meant to send a message to their competitor.

Let’s conservatively estimate that these two companies spent a combined $50 million dollars this year at the festival. That’s a lot of money to be pumping into the industry, and surely this is not a bad thing, right? When there is a healthy sales climate, a healthy financing climate will naturally follow. It becomes easier to get work made.

But what is the longterm impact of such aggressive tactics on the part of two major, billion-dollar technology companies? To show strength, to drive up the price-tag on films at the festival, and to muscle smaller distributors out of the game and eventually out of business. Soon you don’t have a dozen companies competing for films. You have two.

One anonymous “veteran acquisition executive” comments on this in a recent Mashable article, speculating that “the indie U.S. distributors are on the precipice of being on a dangerous tipping point because Netflix and Amazon are driving up the prices into a realm where only a couple of companies can buy movies, and they have to buy them on a worldwide basis.”

Nine –

Kuso is the craziest film that I have ever seen at the Sundance Film Festival. The directorial debut of experimental musician Flying Lotus (credited as Steven Ellison), Kuso is a wildly experimental, unapologetically vile and gleefully profane endurance test. Imagine if there was a Pornhub channel broadcast from the Eraserhead radiator, and you’ll start to have an idea of what you’re in for. The film is an endurance test — its artistry, craft, and sheer audacity damn impressive, even while I can’t claim to have “enjoyed” watched it,

Apparently the film prompted walkouts during public screenings at the festival. Ellison countered on Twitter that the walkouts were minimal. I can report that the walkouts at the film’s press and industry screening were not minimal. By the time the end credits rolled, the vast majority of the audience had long since left. There were maybe ten of us who made it through.

And that’s okay. Because as much as I have to give props to the Sundance Film Festival for programming Kuso, it’s pretty obvious that this was not a film made for the festival’s target audience. It’s way too avant garde, an unfiltered assault that has little in common with the more traditional genre titles making up the rest of the Midnight section.

The good news is that all press is good press, at least in this case. Ellison has a passionate audience of music fans primed in his experimental style. Though they might not be film nerds, they will be ready to meet his film on its own terms. Most of these fans understand what Sundance is and how it matters in the most basic of terms. The walkout narrative will become a marketing hook. The film will attain a cult notoriety. It will have a long life.

Eight –

Pepsi is here.

The soft drink conglomerate’s newly launched Creators League Studio is a Sustaining Sponsor of the festival this year. Per a Variety article called PepsiCo Hits Sundance Looking for Partners and Films to Buy, the Creators League Studio (by the way, it can’t be easy to become both a league and a studio, can it?) is at Sundance looking to fund and acquire projects.

As the article notes, one of the feature films showing at Sundance this year was actually “co-produced” (a euphemism for “co-funded”) by the soft drink brand. That would be Give Me Future, a documentary about the band Major Lazer playing a concert in Cuba. I am willing to bet that you won’t see any Coke bottles in the shots of the crowd during the film.  

“We have a huge portfolio of brands, and what I’m looking for are stories that relate to what each of our brands stand for,” Pepsico SVP of global brand development Kristin Patrick tells Variety. So… sugar and profit?

Later she makes an important distinction when discussing the company’s evolving perspective on that age=old question: what sells more soda, advertising or “branded content?”

“We’re not going to make people sip Pepsi,” she says. “It has to be naturally ingrained into the film.”

Seven –

At Saturday’s march, filmmaker Janicza Bravo, whose experimental comedy Lemon is premiering at the festival, gives a haunting speech. Bravo begins by admitting that she’s never addressed a crowd this large. Her voice is quiet as she recounts a personal and disturbing story about being attacked by a mentally-ill man in a London metro station. Bravo recounts the horror of this moment, and specifically the realization that though this was all happening in a busy public place, no one moved to help her.

As powerful as the PA system at the march is, it’s not quite carrying Bravo’s voice towards the far reaches of the crowd. Certain audience members get annoyed at not being able to hear Bravo’s words. They have no qualms interrupting and soon a chorus of aggressive “LOUDER!” chants ring into the air. It’s as if the audience has decided that their need to hear clearly has taken precedence over the comfort of the speaker on stage.

Charlotte Wells’ stirring short film Laps, which premieres at the festival and wins an editing award, concerns itself with similar subject matter. The dialogue-free short depicts a woman’s sexual assault in broad daylight on a crowded NYC subway car.

The human capacity for willful blindness is an incredible one, and is little more than a coping mechanism.

Six –

I have a social media addiction. That’s especially apparent at Sundance. In the audience at a world premiere, the moment a film ends, I can’t wait to log onto Twitter and read the reaction tweets posted within seconds by “tastemakers” and “film critics.” It’s like everyone’s racing to fire the first opinion of the film out into the ether, to take control of the narrative and canonize the film’s significance or lack thereof.

In the back of the theater sales agents and publicists reload Twitter alongside me, all pins and needles to find out how their product will be greeted upon arrival.

Five —

Jordan Peele’s horror film Get Out is the festival’s Secret Midnight Screening, though by the time the Universal logo crosses the screen it’s not really much of a secret (on my way into the theater I pass a seat labeled “RESERVED – PEELE’ for all to see). The film is a bold satire about liberal racism. In his intro to the film, Peele expresses astonishment that such a transgressive film ever got made, and I have to agree. If not for Peele’s rabid Comedy Central fanbase, I can’t imagine such a discomforting look at racial politics ever making it very far through the studio system. The lesson I suppose is that audience is power.

Watching the film, I consider how simple and brilliant the premise is: it is basically all about the terror a black man faces in meeting his white girlfriend’s inlaws. Genre films have always represented real life horror through the fantastic. How could such a fertile, no-brainer premise has never been attempted before?

I hope Get Out makes 100 million dollars.

Four —

While I’m out here the Trump administration declares open war on free speech. Anyone paying attention could have seen this move coming a mile away, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer calls an emergency briefing and openly lies about the size of Trump’s inauguration audience. Kellyanne Conway quickly defends these assertions on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press,’ coining the term ‘alternative facts.’ Steve Bannon (who, as of Saturday now has the power to legally order the assassination of any US Citizen without any oversight or probable cause) tells the press it better “keep its mouth shut.”

Three —

I do not have the data to compare against years past, but it feels to be that there’s an usually large number of non-independent short films premiering at the festival this year. I’m referring specifically to films that are not funded by the filmmakers but instead by major for-profit distributors and online content platforms. Of the 31 U.S. short films premiering at the festival, 11 shorts fit this bill. Two shorts were funded by Refinery29, one by Cartoon Network, two by Time Warner’s content incubator OneFifty, one by A24, one by the NY Times, two by SuperDeluxe (a YouTube-focused entertainment studio owned by Turner Broadcasting), one by FullScreen (another digital entertainment studio, this one funded by AT&T and The Chernin Group) and one by Spotify.

In pointing this out, I don’t mean to imply that these shorts are in any way artistically compromised or that they don’t each individually deserve a spot at the festival. I unabashedly loved many of them. I also don’t see an issue with Sundance sometimes highlighting work that’s funded by bigger companies. In many ways an increase in this sort of work in the shorts category feels like a natural response to the “digital content” industry that has sprung up over the last few years during YouTube’s ascent to power.

But on the other hand, the short film section at Sundance has classically been one of the festival’s purest platforms for discovery, where filmmakers with next-to-no industry connections can break through and launch careers with nothing more to show than strong work. Classically this has resulted in a cycle that leads from a spot in the shorts program at Sundance to deals for new projects with major financiers and distributors. But if such a large percentage of American shorts coming to the festival arrive via these very sources, has the cycle of discovery been reversed?

Drawn and Recorded: Teen Spirit, the Spotify-funded documentary short at the festival recounts the little-known origin story behind the famous Nirvana song. Apparently Kurt Cobain first heard the phrase ‘Teen Spirit’ from Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna and wrote it into his colossally popular song because he felt it expressed his rebellious and independent nature. He was oblivious to the fact that the phrase was actually the name of a well-known deodorant product, which, it almost goes without saying, profited massively off of Cobain’s inadvertent plug.

“Capitalism,” the short’s narrator intones, “is very resilient.”

Two —

The movie that moves me the most at the festival this year is Whose Streets, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ first-hand chronicle of the Ferguson protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. The footage is stunning, depicting an American war zone with unflinching humanity and lending platform to the men and women fighting for equality against an endlessly powerful system. But this film is not propaganda, not even journalism. It’s pure artistry.

The film is so powerful that the screening feels like a therapy session. The audience is moved to applause frequently throughout. I am too. As the film concludes I imagine the impulse to tweet out a response, to include the film on a Top Ten list, to assign it a star-allotment or a numerical grade, to try to place it into the larger context of the festival or the other work premiering at the festival or the other films made in 2017. Such an impulse seem absolutely absurd.

One —

A few hours after the Women’s March on Main St. concludes, Variety reports that the Sundance Film Festival has been hacked.

The festival’s box office is down for a few hours and the Sundance staff blame a “cyberattack” for the outage.

The source of the hack is never publicly identified, and we are left to speculate about the who and the how and the why: was this an attack carried out by Putin in retaliation for Icarus, an explosive documentary premiering at the festival about a Russian whistleblower? Or maybe this was the work of the Chinese government pissed at the citizen-journalism doc Joshua: Teenager vs. Super Power? Or maybe it was some neo-Nazi troll hacker trying to take a shot at what he or she perceived to be the epicenter of Hollywood liberal elitism? Or heck, what if this was Anonymous or some other radical ally of free-speech sending a warning to the festival about just how easily their walls could be infiltrated?

Regardless of who is to blame, within a few hours the system is back up and running and the controversy subsides. Just another minor insanity in a 24/7 media cycle full of ever-escalating insanity. The truth of what happened remains obscured and a gray cloud of general unease continues its slow takeover of the sky. Raining down paranoia and terror and lots of snow.  

In their official statement just minutes after the attack, Sundance asserts that “our artist’s voices will be heard and the show will go on.” I’d love to share such steely resolve. But at this precarious moment in history, I’m not sure this is a truth we can state conclusively.

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