We asked our three Ebert Fellows to share their thoughts on their Sundance 2016 experience. It was a pleasure and an honor to work with these passionate young writers, and it's doubtful this is the last you'll hear from them. Click on the links below their names to read their individual pieces.
This year’s festival opened and closed with two dramedies, "Other People" and "The Fundamentals of Caring," that do exactly what they say on the tin. They're stories about frustrated creatives—white, male, self-absorbed but still lovable—who are forced out of their ruts by others’ misfortune. Tending to the sick, they heal themselves. The movies are written proficiently and acted with conviction; they have their heartfelt or hilarious moments. But their plots are cutesy machines, chewing up suffering, spewing out lessons. For all the careful naturalism of the scenes, they’re too efficient to let the characters have unpredictable responses or interior experiences. In their way, these movies are very eager to depict empathy, kindness and compassion. They just misunderstand who, or what, those qualities are for.
Between those two, I was struck by how many films plunged into the same wide thematic well: loneliness. Curiously, this year’s programming also seemed to gender that condition. On one side: the much-praised "Manchester by the Sea" (stubble; stoicism), the destined-for-cult-favoritism "Swiss Army Man" (potty humor, a capella) and the likable "Morris from America" (dad and son go to Germany, find each other). On the other: the glacial "Certain Women" (Montana and melancholy)—and, if you squint, "The Eyes of My Mother" and "The Lure" (serial killers and mermaids, respectively), in which the characters’ longing takes us to fantastic, monstrous, places. I don’t know that going to unexpected dimensions of bad feeling—grief, alienation, isolation—is enough to teach us tenderness. But the very best of these movies, in disarming us and reconfiguring our senses, might leave some part of us ready for change.
My most unexpected experience—a public screening of the documentary "Holy Hell," about life in and after a religious cult—came courtesy of the random kindness of a stranger I’d met standing on an early morning wait-list. He had an extra ticket; we went. The last three minutes are so surreal, so spacey and cheesy and unabashedly spiritual, that describing them can’t really spoil them. They involved a song from the band Snow Patrol, and I cried. Later I heard others complain about the movie’s blunt format, and dismiss its narrative as too familiar, too religious, too something to have staying power. But that last blast of unfiltered, unmannered sincerity filled me with a drunk kind of warmth; it made me feel a little stupefied. Despite the nightmarish lost years it depicts, this movie believed in connection.
My first experience at the Sundance Film Festival, by way of the Roger Ebert Fellowship, will serve as a reminder to continue immersing myself in the passionate and ephemeral waters of the film industry. I aspire to be a forever Sundancer, returning to the festival as often as I can.
When I first met Chaz, I was working as a multimedia technician in Illini Union, and listened in on her convocation that spoke at great length about empathy and compassion. These abstractions became very tangible in the screenings I attended at the festival, and I made note of screenings that empathy, kindness, and compassion played major roles in, and ones that didn’t. “When Two Worlds Collide,” a documentary that presented the environmental conflict between Amazonian tribes and the Peruvian government, featured a burdening lack of empathy, kindness, compassion, and even respect the government had towards the native peoples. They conducted under the table deals to market rainforest resources, despite fighting an all-out war with the indigenous population. The film itself was more successful in instilling those feelings in viewers than the Peruvian government was in any regard. The narrative film, “Other People,” was successful in these capacities, with genuine, awkward, and cleverly written interactions between its quintessentially human cast. The biographical documentary “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” revealed many talking heads that were capable of remembering the late photographer with empathic and compassionate considerations, despite the actual subject of Mapplethorpe having very little for anyone besides himself and those that could advance his career. The despondent narrative, “Manchester by the Sea” was entirely contrived of subtleties that played on the main character’s removed display of emotions, until he was pushed into violent bouts of suppressed rage or sadness. The forces that brought out his muzzled feelings came from both peripheral and nuclear cast members, either through agitation or through raw compassion. When attending the screening of "Sonita," I spoke with the woman alongside me and told her how I was just on a streak of seeing sad movies, day after day. She told me, “You know, that’s just Sundance.”
If Sundance were a person, they’d be very friendly, and offer you their business card before you got a chance to offer yours. Sundance would be progressively minded and have a tame party addiction. Sundance would be a good listener, an advocate for individuality, and would know to bring a pair of texting gloves. Sundance would be a relevant writer, a solid interviewer, and an influential producer. Sundance would be a good, kind friend you saw every January, that you shared openly emotional experiences with. Sundance would have a lot of other friends too, after all they are very popular, but still ensured you that you were an important part of them. Sundance lives in a bubble, and has a mild way of living that praised intellectual achievement, living in tandem with wintertime, empathy, and overall compassion.
During my time in Park City, I collected more buttons and business cards in that span of time than ever had. I talked to more strangers more openly than I have anywhere else in my many travels. I smiled a lot, and listened a lot. I was humbled, and honored. Experienced festival friends, who guided me towards more potential adventures in unexplored places, held my hand during instances of uncertainty and encouraged my growth. My open-ended flirtation with film was consummated during my time in Park City, and is now an ongoing affair that I hope to kindle for the rest of my life. The Fellowship program has restored me to this career vein, and for that I am profoundly grateful.
Near the top row in a dark theater, there I was—watching a movie called “White Girl,” having spent my life as a black one. It was the first in a series of industry screenings I’d planned for myself that day: “White Girl,” where girls around my age danced (to electro-pop) and dealt (cocaine) at peak hedonism and “Goat,” the based on a true story-narrative where frat boys question modern conceptions of masculinity, were the day's picks.
In preparing to go to Sundance, I studied thinkpieces critiquing the festival’s tendency to promote specific ideas of minority identities that were often simplistic. Wesley Morris’ Grantland dispatch on last year’s “Dope” was smart on the culture of Sundance and sharp on Sundance and blackness. “Fifteen years of attending this festival allows you to notice that some narratives here are impossible to expand. This is an event that prefers its black men criminal, imprisoned (wrongly and otherwise), or tragically dead,” Morris wrote. This year, Sundance’s programming was a little more nuanced, a little more fresh, with Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation,” Dawn Porter’s “Trapped,” and “Morris from America,” as notable exceptions. It’s only a shame it’s taken so long.
I was in Park City and at Sundance, but I sat through so many movies where I watched versions of people I’d spent my life knowing, only a few times getting a glimpse at my own history or people with my skin. “Goat” and “White Girl” were based on true stories, and I knew versions of their real-life counterparts. “Manchester by the Sea” was masterful, and “Eyes of My Mother” was haunting, both about the loneliness that follows close behind personal trauma. Empathy was easier in those dark, quiet theaters. Compassion for things that were at once familiar and distant continued its hold as I exited, walking out into the sunlight. Oftentimes, though, I entered a theater being asked to feel more and more compassionate, more and more empathetic for male characters. Only something as stunning as as "Manchester" made me forget how tedious this was.
At a Black House panel, Nate Parker talked about “Birth of a Nation” as reclamation—“If you don’t have that empathy, we don’t need you in the room,” he said. I scribbled it down in my notebook, saving it for later. By that point in the week, the conversation was steered by questions about Amazon and Netflix snapping up prestige pictures, and what the future holds for movies that don’t make it to theaters on purpose. Empathy isn’t easy, but the dark recesses of a movie theater allow the “packages” Ebert describe to shrink and lose their shape, eventually falling away during a film’s run time. That darkness, that collectiveness has always felt important to me, and I’m not sure if it will be lost when streaming reigns supreme.
Movies, quite literally, move—emotions, locations, conceptions of reality—but it takes a compact of authenticity between a filmmaker and a viewer for a character or shot to work. As an experience, Sundance was great, a dreamy vacuum in which everything moved by, about, and for film. In real life, away from those 10 days in Park City, I can only hope that the empathy extended to filmmakers and projects can operate in the real world and find a longer life.