A Young Catholic Filmmaker’s Reflections from Sundance

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– By James Powers –

The past week or so has been rough; I’ve spent it trying and largely failing to land on my feet after spending the prior week in Utah. For Sundance. Yes, that Sundance. And no, I don’t know how I ended up there either. But at any rate I am now very tired and scatterbrained, however much the directors I’m producing for might wish otherwise. To be clear, I had a blast; devoting an entire week to movies is objectively glorious, regardless of how weird said movies are. I’m really not one for binge-watching, so be impressed when I say that I plowed through 16 features over the course of 6 days. Some were hilarious, some tedious, some touching, some visceral. A couple were just very strange, one downright pornographic, and most of them frustrating to some degree or other – much as I wanted to be blown away, there wasn’t anything that quite did it for me. Well, except for that 20th-anniversary screening of The Blair Witch Project, which I’ve now decided is one of the most terrifying movies ever, haters be danged. But that doesn’t count.

Moral of the story, I guess, is that there’s no one film from the festival that I could point to as my favorite. But there was a lot of intriguing stuff nonetheless, and although I’m often tempted to roll my eyes at all the lip-service paid to indie cinema as being “risky,” “uncompromising,” etc. etc., I can honestly say that many of these films did indeed go in directions I’d not seen before. Even if they didn’t do so as effectively as I might have liked, they nonetheless made bold choices – in terms of both style and subject matter – that I hope will be rewarded down the line. And a good number of them have already been rewarded with distribution deals, so if you keep your eyes peeled (see the appendix below, or check here for an updated list) you’ll be able to watch them and decide for yourself. In the meantime, here’s a few general observations of mine from Sundance 2019 – bearing in mind that I saw only a very small percentage of what was on offer there.

Yes, It Is Who You Know

As I mentioned above, one of the highlights of the fest for me was a 20th-anniversary screening of Sundance alum The Blair Witch Project. That movie is a serious fluke because, despite its enormous success both commercially and (in my opinion) artistically, it was made by absolute nobodies both in front of and behind the camera. For that reason it’s always served as the quintessential example of what Sundance can supposedly do for previously-unknown filmmakers – but such an image is slightly deceiving. Not to say that Sundance doesn’t actually launch careers. But most if not all of this year’s top hits had major star power in front of the camera lending clout to whomever was behind it. It was just as true at Sundance as at the multiplex: the bigger the name on the poster, the bigger the lines for tickets. Zac Efron, Emma Thompson, Adam Driver, Naomi Watts, Shia LaBeouf – these are just a few of the names that sealed the festival’s biggest deals. In fact, I think I can count on one hand the number of narrative features that got picked up for distribution without an A-lister in a major role. I should admit that the festival’s biggest sale – Blinded By the Light, picked up by New Line for $15 (zoinks) million – starred precisely nobody I had ever heard of. But its director, despite also being no one I’d ever heard of, nonetheless has her own impressive track record.

Not to say that Sundance’s affair with mainstream Hollywood is a bad thing. If I can just gloat for a second, my experience of the festival squares very nicely with what I wrote about in my last post before taking off for Utah. Art and economics go hand in hand, even at an indie-Mecca like Park City. Most if not all of these star-powered Sundance films were very quirky, imaginative, risky and original – but that originality would have never made it to a premier without, you know, the stars. So, moral of the story is that I’m not gonna bother submitting the $100,000 feature I slap together a few years from now to Sundance. Rather, I’ll use it to convince some investors farther down the road that I know what I’m doing, and then I’ll make a $500,000 film, and that one will catch, um…let’s say John Krasinski’s eye. And then I’m set – $20 million budget and Sundance premiere, here we come.

…Ok, don’t hold me to that. But as one high-flying producer there told me and my classmates, filmmaking is all about the long game. There are no overnight successes, despite the allure of getting “discovered” at a film festival, an acting gig…or even just on social media.  

A Different Sort of Diversity

I really wasn’t expecting this, but the thematic tenor of a lot of the Sundance programming struck me as rather heartening. I went in half-dreading that those crazy Hollywood libs would be pushing all manner of identity-politics propaganda down my throat; that, in a frenzy of opposition to TrUmP’s AmERiCa, the filmmakers would forget to tell actual stories. And granted, there definitely was some propaganda. But I was pleasantly surprised by the way in which many films handled matters of race and gender. That is, these questions emerged organically from character and story, rather than being shoehorned in as an excuse for heavy-handed polemics. The example that springs most readily to mind is the drama-thriller Luce, in which a white couple find themselves questioning what they thought they knew about their son – a former child soldier adopted from Eritrea. The film touches on just about every flashpoint of racial and even sexual politics that you can imagine, but it isn’t really about those issues. Rather, it has us think about the inscrutable mystery that lives within every individual, regardless of their tribe or background. And to that end, director/co-writer Julius Onah is concerned above all else with letting his audience encounter the characters, rather than telling us what we should think about them.

Another great example, although I had major beef with it in other respects, was Clemency, in which an embattled death row warden must come to terms with the moral conundrum at the center of her job. Her job. When I think of the “prison warden” sort of character, I immediately picture a loutish military-cut white man, rather like the antagonist in The Shawshank Redemption. But this one is a woman, a black woman at that, and not once does the film ask how such a stereotypically disenfranchised person ended up in such an authoritative position. Although the film (in my somewhat unpopular opinion) really fumbles its handling of the protagonist in other respects, the fact that it doesn’t feel the need to explain her blackness or her femaleness – while at the same time not awkwardly trying to ignore them –  is very refreshing.

Finally, in The Nightingale, victims of oppression from both sides of the color spectrum – an Irish maidservant and an Aboriginal outcast – join forces in savage battle against a villain who embodies the absolute worst of British colonialism. Director Jennifer Kent, telling a story that’s steeped in the bloody history of her native Australia, sees the protagonists Clare and Billy as very much themselves, rather than mere stand-ins for the tribes they come from. Not that Clare isn’t thoroughly Irish, or Billy thoroughly Aboriginal. But these identities aren’t the most important thing about them. What’s important is what happens to these characters, and what they do, which communicates loudly enough by itself without any socio-political lectures.

The Kids Might Actually Be Alright

Perhaps my favorite thing about the films I saw was their unexpected focus on family. There’s a lot of talk about how individualistic our Western culture is, how this is tied up with the collapse of the family, and how our media are largely to blame for this. All of which is very true, but it seems to me that many of this year’s Sundance films pushed back against that. The bond between parent and child takes on an almost sacred significance in many of them; from the anguish of a bereaved couple in Kafka-esque thriller Koko-di Koko-da, to Jim Gaffigan’s hilarious turn as the doting father of an eccentric girl scout in Troop Zero. Horror-comedy Little Monsters sees a self-absorbed loser find redemption when he must act as surrogate father to a kindergarten class besieged by zombies – and Lupita Nyong’o alternatively glows and kicks ass as the kids’ stand-in mother. One Child Nation, the almost shockingly pro-life Grand Jury Prize winner for best documentary, takes a hard look at the consequences of communist China’s family planning policies (admittedly, I didn’t see that one myself, hearing about it instead from classmates, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for when it drops on Amazon). And I have to reference The Nightingale again, wherein the almost primal importance of marriage and motherhood – and the horrors inflicted when both are attacked – is brought to life with ferocious intensity. These are some standout examples, but I would add The Lodge, Honey Boy, Luce, Divine Love and The Farewell as films all likewise entangled in the curses and blessings of marriage, parenthood and even extended family.

Caveat spectator, however: despite their thematic concerns, few of these films are what you would call “family-friendly” (as is the case with most everything coming out of Sundance, at the risk of stating the obvious). Troop Zero is a rare PG gem that’s  loads of fun for kids and adults alike, provided you can look past some of its political undertones. But by and large the Sundance programming is aimed squarely at adults, be they parents, or aspiring parents, or flaky millennials trying not to think about the prospect of parenthood, or whomever else. For example, Divine Love – a Brazilian sci-fi drama somewhat in the vein of Hermakes fascinating observations about marriage, motherhood and spirituality. But it’s also probably the most sexually graphic film I’ve ever seen. Slow-burning psychological horror The Lodge is entirely about family and religious devotion – but specifically about how they can go bad, deriving a lot of its tension in particular from the trauma inflicted by divorce. Finally, Little Monsters is a very sweet-natured film at heart, ultimately about adults’ responsibility to safeguard the innocence of children. But it’s still a horror comedy, and so that sweetness is hidden under a lot of gore and extremely crass humor.

All of which, I guess, is to say that my experience of Sundance confirms the cliche that indie film really is the wild west, to be approached with a certain degree of caution. Even when it’s bankrolled by A-listers, a Sundance film is just as likely as not to be very strange if not downright abrasive (one of this year’s biggest hits, after all, was a Ted Bundy biopic very straightforwardly titled Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile). But I think this wild west is very much worth exploring nonetheless. Obviously my classmates and I went into it expecting a certain amount of…adventure from the outset. And we weren’t disappointed – throughout the week we made a lot of jokes about how our little band of Catholic school ambassadors was doomed to come back from the festival corrupted. But as far as I know, in the time since we’ve returned I don’t think any of us has renounced the faith, donated to Planned Parenthood or taken up heavy drinking. In fact, for myself at any rate, the overall experience was very much in harmony with my experience as a student at JPCatholic in general.

What I mean is that those of us who desire to “impact culture for Christ” must first start by encountering the Christ who is already present in culture. To again reference my favorite line from St. Paul, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). During our week in Utah, my classmates and I spent a lot of time at the Windrider Forum, a conference of Christian media professionals and film geeks that runs concurrently with the Festival. And I was sometimes startled, but also encouraged, by the ways in which these people were discovering truth, justice, excellence and loveliness in the panoply of weird indie films. I found myself among kindred spirits, and it gave me some assurance that, perhaps, we aren’t crazy for seeing film as a vocation in its own way.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

All Distribution Deals to Date:


(see IMDB for most updated list):

Amazon
One Child Nation
Honey Boy
Brittany Runs a Marathon
Late Night
Troop Zero
The Report

Netflix
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
American Factory
Delhi Crime
Knock Down the House
I Am Mother

Neon
The Lodge
Monos
Honeyland
Luce [with Topic] Little Monsters [with Hulu]

Hulu
Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary
Little Monsters [with Neon] Ask Dr. Ruth [with AGC]

A24
The Farewell
The Souvenir

IFC
Official Secrets
The Nightingale

The Orchard
Them That Follow [with 1091] Halston

HBO
Share
Native Son

Majors/Mini-majors
Where’s My Roy Cohn? – Sony Pictures Classics
David Crosby: Remember My Name – Sony Pictures Classics
The Sound of Silence – Sony Worldwide
Lavender – Fox Searchlight
Blinded By The Light – New Line / WB

Misc.
Hala – Apple
Sea of Shadows – National Geographic
Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen – ARRAY
We Are Boats – Breaking Glass
The Brink – Magnolia
Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men – Showtime
The Tomorrow Man – Bleecker Street
The Mountain – Kino Lorber
Photograph – various international distributors


About the Author

James Powers is currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.

For all articles by James, click here.

Article Image Credit: Instagram @adam_on_ig

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