With the theme of “Look Again” in mind, I arrived in great anticipation to Park City, Utah at the reputable haven for independent filmmaking for the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Droves of eager visitors—programmers like myself and Walker curator Sheryl Mousley, industry folks from Hollywood and Europe, actors, directors, and aspiring filmmakers—made for a motley group that traveled in waves from the Salt Lake City airport to the Sundance headquarters at the Park City Marriott to the festival’s many theater venues in this quaint ski resort town.
As part of the World Documentary Jury along with the charming filmmaker Jean Marie-Teno and BBC Storyville’s Nick Fraser, I had the privilege of watching the 12 films in competition for nine days with packed houses and special insight from the directors at the Q&As. My first screening Searching for Sugar Man kicked off the festival with a bang—a moving portrait of a ‘70s rock musician from Detroit called Rodriguez who fell into obscurity, despite his propensity for making beautiful music, and was largely believed to have been dead. The film follows South African music aficionados motivated by the desire to solve the mystery of Rodriguez’s death, only to discover that he’s alive and well, living a humble existence for the last decades. Rodriguez gets a second wind as he is welcomed with open arms in South Africa and plays to consecutive sold-out concerts. The most beautiful and symbolic moments of the film are of Rodriguez trekking through the Detroit snow—his walk, a distinct gait, is at once deliberate, melancholic, almost noble. A standing ovation greeted Rodriguez as he walked up to the stage and so poetically articulated to the audience: “home is about acceptance.” Thanks to Sony Pictures (who bought the rights to the film) it will be shown widely—look out for it in your local theaters. The film won the Audience Award as well as the Special Jury Prize.
Days two, three, four, and five followed with consecutive film screenings, moving from one theater to the next. Thanks to the kind volunteer drivers like Kyle Richards, we were whisked from screening to screening in a fleet of Audi-sponsored vehicles, with Timberland parkas and boots in hand. Saturday brunch was hosted at the Sundance Resort—a winding hour-long drive up into Park City’s glorious slopes to a luxurious cabin where Robert Redford set up shop decades ago when he bought two acres of land for $500. Addressing the filmmakers, he noted that what happens in Park City is not Sundance (by which he meant the industry folks, the sponsored parties, the celebrity factor), but that independent filmmaking is driven by passion, individual passion by you (the filmmakers)—a simple but powerful statement to make. I had the pleasure of meeting Sam Pollard, who was part of the critical PBS series “Eyes on the Prize” and editor of Spike Lee’s films, who had a new film at the festival called Slavery by Another Name that recounted the disturbing practice of slavery via peonage and convict labor in state-run enterprises decades after abolition. The film was produced by our very own Twin Cities Public Television, which sent representatives to the screening, as well as US Attorney General Eric Holder.
Two films about the complexities of politics and everyday life in Israel and West Bank were especially resonant. The first called The Law in These Parts was a riveting journey into the governance of the West Bank as told through the military judges who justify and administer the blatantly unfair systems of law. Brilliantly crafted and edited by its director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, the film treaded a delicate territory through interviews where each judge is made to take the stand, sitting behind a nondescript, bureaucratic desk. We awarded the film the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize. Fellow juror Nick Fraser was right in saying–it is a great film, a tough film, an unforgiving film, and everyone needs to watch it. 5 Broken Cameras depicts life on the other side, through the tenacious director Emad Burnat who records the everyday life of his Palestinian village Bil’in which famously chose nonviolent resistance to protest the encroachment of their land. Purchasing the first of five cameras to initially record the birth of his son, the film follows his fellow villagers as they come face to face with the Israeli army and the colonists. We awarded the World Documentary Directing Award, deservingly.
Other impressive docs were Big Boys Gone Bananas—a harrowing, real life tale of a documentary filmmaker who was sued by the fruit company Dole for his previous film Bananas* and in the process encounters the the power of corporate America and its influence over the media, and the Queen of Versailles about the utterly enjoyable, tragic film of a couple’s ambitions to build a 90,000 square foot mansion inspired by Versailles.
After sitting for countless, consecutive hours in dark theaters, it was a treat to be invited to the house of art collectors Mihail Lari and Scott Murray who have a beautiful home in Park City, as well as one in Santa Fe. Joined by the director of the Kimball Art Center and collector friends Maria Jose Lopez and Alfonso Medina, we were taken through the sprawling house and their collection of works by Spencer Finch, John McCracken, Michael Light, Sophie Whettnall, Leo Villareal and a beautiful print by Anni Albers. A lovely dinner at the Montage in Deer Valley followed.
Nine days into the festival, with 15 films under my belt, and countless quick meals at Café Trang, came deliberation day. We were summoned to the Sky Lodge and under the guidance of the Sundance triumvirate—John Cooper, the festival’s director; Trevor Groth, the director of programming; and David Courier, senior programmer—were given directions and parameters of the awards for our individual categories. Of notable people on the other juries included director of The Eyes of Tammy Faye Fenton Bailey, the very cool Anthony Mackie of Hurt Locker and 8 Mile (who lives in New Orleans, working on classic cars and has a burgeoning art collection), the elegant actress Julia Ormond, Sheffied Doc/Fest director Heather Croall and Inside Job director Charles Ferguson. Sequestered on individual floors of the Sky Lodge condos (with hot tubs on the terrace enticing us), we deliberated.
Award night was a smattering of unpretentious, good fun—the ceremony was hosted by John Cooper, who stood in for Parker Posey who unexpectedly feel ill, as well as presented by the actor Edward James Olmos who told me that the inimitable film Stand & Deliver, for which he received an Oscar nomination, was recently inducted to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress (congrats!). He is working on a film adaptation of the Korean drama 49 Days. The ceremony was followed by an after-party with Grey Goose cocktails flowing and a dance floor on fire. After what seemed like a marathon in Park City (for someone who isn’t seduced by snowy slopes), the evening ended, as all good ones do, with greasy pizzas from Domino’s.