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Sundance 2012: Trophies And Laurels

in Filmmaking
on Jan 29, 2012

Sundance announced their award winners on Saturday night and, as usual, the festival’s mission of inclusivity was in full bloom; over 25 films were handed a prize from the podium, which is great for everyone involved. There is no harm in recognizing great work, and the more Sundance laurels on trailers and posters going forward, the better for all, but given the festival’s reliance on very specific categories and competitions (World Dramatic, World Documentary, U.S. Dramatic, U.S. Documentary, Next, Midnight, Spotlight, New Frontiers and Shorts), several great films went unrecognized. I am not sure if the festival’s programming categories are especially meaningful anymore, other than allowing jurors to compare apples to apples and baffling the common man  trying to find a film title in the festival’s Film Guide; it may be that, in a year when some of the best films in the festival were located outside the festival’s competitive categories, Sundance, which has done such a great job of refocusing the festival on filmmaking these past few years, may want to re-imagine the structure of its program.

Two of this year’s best films– Craig Zobel’s Compliance (which I discussed in depth here) and Rodney Ascher’s Room 237— were programmed outside of competitive categories, leaving audiences the opportunity to vote for them but all but ensuring their names would be left off the list of Sundance winners.  This is not new; I remember 2006, when Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy was excluded from the U.S. Dramatic competition, leaving that highly-regarded film outside of the awards conversation. As a programmer, I’ve had to make difficult choices as well, so I completely understand the problem– so many films you like, limited slots, the sense that a film fits better among one group of films than another. It’s not even that the power of the Sundance prize, in the immediate aftermath of the festival, can be a help; the list of big winners not finding an audience is legion. It is more that, whenever there is a competition, there is the feeling that the festival categories have become more and more blurry over the years.

Take, for example, Room 237, a documentary film that examines alternative interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Director Rodney Ascher uses footage from the original film, clips from other films, and ephemeral footage to illustrate the complex (often strange) readings of Kubrick’s horror masterpiece (my favorite scary movie of all time). Unlike so many other documentaries, which seek to examine and advocate specific political or cultural positions, Room 237 celebrates the interpretive act, allowing multiple meanings to compete for primacy in the mind of the viewer. If there is anything documentary film could use more of, it is uncertainty; Room 237 not only celebrates the complexity of subjective readings, but embraces the beauty of multiple meanings, of close reading a film as a visual text. This is a film about cinema itself, about the power and richness of images to spark associations, to provoke thinking.

The Shining

In the documentary awards universe, Room 237; doesn’t seem to stand much of a chance against the overwhelming tide of films that are dedicated to presenting conclusions, which is what makes it so special. But for me, the film stood shoulder to shoulder with the best films of Sundance;  I guess electrifying audiences and fans of Kubrick’s original is its own reward.

Of course, not everything about the awards was problematic; when a film like Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of The Southern Wild walks away with significant recognition, there is a lot for which to be thankful. It is the film everyone at the festival could not stop talking about and, having played very early on, was the benchmark against which all other films at Sundance would be measured. As days and screenings flew by, it became clear hat Zeitlin and his Court 13 collective were operating on an entirely different plane of narrative storytelling than anyone else in the festival. That is not to disparage the work of others, but Beasts of The Southern Wild screens like it is coming from another planet. The story of a young girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry), a pair who live their lives in poverty in The Bathtub, a low-lying island off the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, the film uses Hushpuppy’s perspective to create a fantastic world of danger, heartbreak and empowerment.

The most incredible thing about Beasts is the way in which the film harnesses the natural world, storms and rivers, trees and animals, to animate the human concerns of the film’s characters. This includes Zeitlin’s incredible production design, which ranges from hand crafted set pieces (a floating house festooned with wooden spikes, a car chassis that doubles as a motor boat) to ancient CGI beasts, who arrive straight from Hushpuppy’s nightmares into the landscape of her physical reality. The film, a fable of self-reliance in the post-Katrina south, will play anywhere, its animating spirit at once life affirming and terrifying.


Looking back across the festival, there were so many films about which I did not get to write; the enthralling personal storytelling on display in Indie Game: The Movie, the emotionally ambitious Nobody Walks, and so many more. While Twitter was flooded with instantaneous critical reactions from the festival and often smug dismissals from those who don’t find much to like about Sundance, it should be stated that, in a nation like ours, one that has relegated support for filmmaking to the free market (as opposed to the heavily subsidized filmmaking communities around the world), Sundance remains a vitally important festival for supporting the art of film. You can laugh at Robert Redford’s annual defense of Sundance’s mission-focused support of filmmakers, but it is no laughing matter; without Sundance and the Institute, the art of film in this country would be something much, much different. If anything, Sundance 2012 was a strong testament to the importance of fostering film, of treating young and emerging filmmakers like artists in a world with dollar signs in its eyes.

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