Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
Editor's note: Gary Wilkerson Jr. is one of three recipients of the Sundance Institute's Roger Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism for 2018.
On Saturday, January 20th, both women and men bundled together on a snowy day in Park City, Utah, to hear the likes of Jane Fonda, Lena Waithe, Common and Nick Offerman offer words of action. Gloria Allred lead the charge, “Resist, insist, persist, elect!” From then on, the rally set the tone that, while we’re in this cultural movement, we must continue to look forward. If we just listen to the stories and do nothing, history is doomed to repeat itself. We must speak up, speak out, and change the way our culture views women. This year, Sundance has at least tried to change with the times through panels, the types of films competing, and policy changes to make it a safer environment.
Sundance has instituted a policy, long-used among their staff, now available to all Sundance attendees. Director of the festival, John Cooper, announced at the opening press conference that new conduct rules could be found on the back of all credentials. It reads, “We value your safety. Sundance Institute is committed to allowing attendees to experience the Sundance Film Festival free of harassment, discrimination, sexism, and threatening behavior. We reserve the right to revoke, without notice of refund, credentials or access to Festival events and venues for those who engage in such conduct. We have partnered with Utah Attorney General’s office to provide a 24-hour live hotline for those who are involved in or witness something that violates this Code of Conduct.” It’s not by mistake that Sundance is trying to be the shining beacon of hope by which other festivals may follow. When Rose McGowan broke her silence about Harvey Weinstein, not only did it send shockwaves throughout Hollywood, but also started a revolution across America. But unfortunately, the incident took place at Sundance nearly 20 years ago. This year at Sundance, they wanted to assert that they condoned none of that behavior.
Octavia Spencer and Issa Rae started off the panel circuit with “Power of Story: Culture Shift.” During the panel, Octavia spoke candidly about the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement. “People know good and bad behavior. Right now, this is a movement and moment that has to happen, it has to occur. But what we can’t allow to happen is that it becomes about women versus men. That’s not what this is about. We have to separate that out and make sure that we understand it’s about people who are being abused and to empower them. The only way to empower them is to hold those people accountable,” Octavia said.
All of the films in the festival were made before the #MeToo movement gained steam, but that didn’t stop a majority of the films from being timely. Documentaries based on the lives of Joan Jett, Jane Fonda, Gloria Allred, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg all premiered this year. They all reminded us that we can’t go back. They accentuated the rich history of women fighting against the status quo because they believe the truth will always come to light. The documentary “On Her Shoulders” follows Nadia Murad, a 23-year-old Yazidi genocide and ISIS sexual slavery survivor, who is determined to break her silence and use her voice to compel the world to do something about this injustice.
There were many, many panels about this topic throughout the festival. Q&A’s were riddled with questions about Harvey, female representation in the industry, and where we go from here in a moment like this. At an ATT DIRECTV and Women in Film event, Tessa Thompson said, “We don’t really want panels about this, we want policy, right?” She added. “This is useful insofar as it gives us a space to get on the same page, to be able to look across the room at our allies who are like-minded … When we talk about the real change that needs to happen on a studio level, to really create some change in our industry, and in the kind of stories that are told and celebrated, that’s kind of what we need to do, right?”
It felt like the festival was making a conscious effort to do just that with its jury picks. With prominent industry female voices like Octavia Spencer, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison; the 12/11 judge split in favor of women showed the festival's push to create change in the people who decide what is worthy. They pushed forward the narrative that Hollywood could stand to learn from, which is, if you can create change not only in front of and behind the camera, but also in the positions that decide the merit of each artists’ work, we will finally be able to see a diverse array of filmmaking represented on large platforms.
You can watch “Power of Story: Culture Shift” below:
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