Sundance Dispatch 4: Key Takeaways from Festival's Grown up 2016 Edition

ScreenerBlog

There are still two more days to go until the end of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but my marathon–after 29 films I was able to view–has come to an end as of yesterday morning. As in any big festival with an immense lineup, it’s rare for any two people to have the same exact Sundance experience. Priorities, curiosities and personal stamina come in to play in making tough decisions towards extracting the most out of this cold, temporary cinematic playground where the air is thin, shuttles are packed, lines are long, venues are VERY spread out and grounds are snowy. It’s all good fun, but eventually, everyone hits a wall of exhaustion.

As a general rule of thumb, one has to keep an open mind while in Park City, with eyes on Twitter and an ear pressed on the ground to remain up to speed with the favorites of the film community. It’s tough to establish a balance between eagerly anticipated competition and premiere titles and off-the-grid films flying under the radar. And I do have personal regrets. I could have surely done better with documentaries (and I definitely would have, had I stayed for the full duration). And I foolishly slept on the more-popular-than-ever “New Frontier” section, which is dedicated to exploring emerging forms of storytelling at the intersection of film and new media, with a strong focus on Virtual Reality (VR) this year. A week is simply not enough to form a healthy sample of the varied experiences even when (as I and many frequently did) one is fully prepared to give up on sleep and a half-decent meal. It’s no wonder on around Day 3 of the festival, a bowl of chili in the Eccles tent starts seeming like a plate of delicacies served by a Michelin-starred restaurant, and scoring a seat in a legroom row makes you feel like the luckiest person on Earth.

With a few exceptions here and there, I have reported on almost every film I was lucky enough to see through Tuesday in my dispatches that covered the first two days, the weekend and the start of the week that gave us the record-breaking The Birth of a Nation. Since then, I viewed four additional films and OK, joined in on this fun little Twitter prank that somehow found its way to Criticwire. It was a good laugh that crystallized (and to a degree, made fun of) the phenomenon of extreme overnight hype Twitter is able to create out of festivals.

Now for the final set of “real” films I was able to see on my last day… Screened in the Premieres section (and to my surprise, somewhat quietly), Anne Fontaine’s post World War II-era, Poland-set Agnus Dei (Les Innocentes) proved to be a gently potent drama, telling the story of a French Red Cross nurse (played by the superb Lou de Laâge) who discovers a convent of nuns raped and impregnated by Russian soldiers. Charged by the complex clash of faith and guilt, Agnus Dei is a beautifully shot period film with a cold-to-the-touch palette and a purposefully slow cadence. Lou de Laâge is convincing in the role of the liberal nurse who continues to help the Polish nuns and eventually–following a tragic revelation–spearheads efforts to turn the convent into an orphanage, so the nuns can raise their own children without fear.

Antonio Campos’ Christine delivered upon its festival buzz, with an enigmatic, darkly persuasive performance by Rebecca Hall in the role of Christine Chubbuck. I know it’s frowned upon to throw around hyperbole at festivals, but this could easily be a career-best role for the massively talented actress who vigorously explores the gloomy journey buried within the depths of Chubbuck’s mind. Even though the roleplay and identity crisis at the heart of Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine are also very much present here, Greene’s is the superior Christine Chubbuck film that came out of Sundance this year. Yet, it was still fascinating to embark on the same journey from two distinct POVs within such proximity to each other.

It wouldn’t be Sundance without at least one quirky comedy dwelling on relationship problems of various upper-middle-class couples. This year’s slot was filled with actor-turned-director Clea DuVall’s Intervention, in which a group of friends come together to confront a constantly bickering, unhappily married couple (Vincent Piazza and Cobie Smulders) and convince them to get a divorce. It has its guilty pleasures–the chief of them is watching a delightful, often-drunk Melanie Lynskey, playing a character who is in more severe need of a wake-up call–yet Intervention didn’t go much further for me than being a welcome break from heaps of dark, serious material.

As for my final screening, I couldn’t have picked a more bizarre, improbably entertaining and unexpectedly dark and twisted film than the exposé documentary Tickled, co-directed by New Zealand pop-culture journalist David Farrier and Dylan Reeve. It all starts with Farrier coming across a peculiar event taking place in Los Angeles, called “Competitive Endurance Tickling.” Not knowing this was even a fetish (to be honest, I didn’t either), he decides to dig deeper, only to find himself in the midst of a corrupt world that involves fraudulence, criminals, cyber-bullies and exploitation. To call Tickled–a documentary that is somewhat tough to write about sans spoilers–one of the weirdest Sundance experiences wouldn’t be an overstatement. I saw it at an uneventful press screening. Yet, I got word later on that Thursday’s public screening saw the attendance of one of the villains of the story, who reportedly frantically took notes and left the theatre in anger before the Q&A. According to my Twitter feed, there was a sigh of relief when he left. And authorities were on standby until he departed.

There is “Change” in the Air.

If my four years at Sundance have taught me anything, it is that “change” is festival founder Robert Redford’s favorite topic of conversation at the opening-day press conference. And this year, it was impossible to ignore a flesh-and-blood “change” unfolding before our eyes. My own Sundance was bookended and centered by the hints of it, in small personal ways. The day before the festival kickoff, I listened to fascinating stories of the old Sundance days from festival veterans like Eugene Hernandez of The Film Society of Lincoln Center (he has been attending for over two decades), Basil Tsiokos (the documentary programming associate of this year’s festival) and Brian Brooks during an informal dinner, which also included The Guardian’s Nigel M. Smith and me. As a newbie who was just about to kick off her fourth Sundance, I vicariously felt nostalgic and perhaps had a slight envy/sadness knowing that things would never be the same in the now giant and overcrowded festival (a slight problem, also acknowledged by Redford himself). On my final night, during an impromptu drinks gathering at the Yarrow with Thompson-On-Hollywood’s Anne Thompson (always great to see), Indiewire’s Eric Kohn and Time Out New York’s Joshua Rothkopf, the news of Indiewire’s sale briefly came up, along with all the excitement and inevitable questions it brings. I realized that was “change” in action. It’s exciting. It’s ripe with opportunity. Yet (as in every case of change), it’s somewhat mystifying.

The screens of Sundance will soon go dark across festival venues, but the effects of a few trends and narratives that emerged throughout its run will be felt for months and even years to come.

Here is what stood out this year:

1. There is good news when it comes to the future of diversity in filmmaking.

Taking a cue from the always-eloquent Ava DuVernay–who spoke at the lunch jointly hosted by Array and Indiegogo in Sundance–let’s start calling it “inclusion” or “belonging.” The lack of it in Hollywood was the talk of the town in Sundance. But the festival lineup hinted towards some good news as a long-term remedy. During my time there, while one part of my Twitter feed (not in attendance at Sundance) heatedly continued to examine the root of the lily-white Oscars, another part lit up in celebration of films by the likes of Nate Parker (once again, his film broke records with its $17.5 million sale to Fox Searchlight), So Yong Kim, Meera Menon, Tahir Jetter and stories driven by women and PoC, such as Certain Women, Southside with You and Morris from America. A more inclusive future was in the making and it was extraordinary to witness it.

2. Amazon and Netflix are big players with good taste and deep pockets.

And this is good news, because while traditional companies stick with an understandably conservative approach towards purchasing films, Amazon and Netflix have money to spend and therefore can afford to take risks with seemingly less commercial titles. Netflix thus far grabbed Tallulah, Fundamentals of Caring, Under the ShadowAudrie & Daisy and Brahman Naman. Amazon on the other hand–who famously hired top film critic Scott Foundas as part of their acquisitions team–snagged the rights to Weiner-Dog, Manchester by the Sea (another big sale out of this year), Complete Unknown, Love & Friendship and Author: The JT Leroy Story.

3. Female voices and stories are plentiful.

Yes, I was slightly disappointed by the female-made/driven Wall Street thriller Equity, but that doesn’t mean I am undermining the miracle of its existence or that I’m not ecstatic by its sale to Sony Pictures Classics. It’s easy to identify a large number of great white male narratives every year when the big majority of the films greenlit and made cater to that demographic to begin with. It’s tougher to do that with women’s stories: We get a very limited number of them (and when we do, they need to be labeled with “female directed/driven), and the consequent weight each of them carries becomes significantly higher. This year, I am happy we had many women’s stories to choose from including Equity, Elite Zexer’s Sandstorm, So Yong Kim’s Lovesong, Anne Fontaine’s Agnus Dei, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl and Antonio Campos' Christine, among others.

4. A more grown-up Sundance?

This is surely debatable, since (once again) no two people can have an identical schedule or experience at a festival as vast as Sundance. Yet, this year (with exceptions like the entertaining Sing Street) has not been marked by paint-by-numbers coming-of-age films. Instead, historical dramas, adult stories about grief and depression and even a Jane Austen adaptation from the likes of Kenneth Lonergan, Ira Sachs, Robert Greene, Kelly Reichardt and Whit Stillman generated the loudest buzz. Even titles dealing with youth-oriented themes–such as White Girl, The Eyes of My Mother and Goat–took the audiences through dark avenues. The big winners of the festival will be announced tomorrow, and you can bet money on the fact that we won’t be looking at a film about a young white boy who still has some growing up to do.

Here's to another incredible year, with sincere thanks to all those whose company I deeply cherished during a tough and hectic week.