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.
We asked our three Ebert Fellows to share their thoughts on their Sundance 2018 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.
It was incredible to see filmmakers striving for new verticals within subjective storytelling at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Telling a story from the subjective emotional perspective of a character is more than showing an audience what a character feels, but striving to have the audience feel the emotional plight of the character themselves. Through the cinematography, sound, editing, etc. we as viewers can be transported into their world. At the festival we were witnessing the spark of new forms and brave voices opening us to new ways of seeing: directors like Josephine Decker in "Madeline’s Madeline," Reed Morano in "I Think We’re Alone Now," Boots Riley in "Sorry to Bother You" and RaMell Ross in "Hale County This Morning, This Evening." Each film in their own individual way, not only featured characters not often represented, but also pushed past mere representation. They each strove to build new visual language to bring you, the audience, into the emotional subconscious of the characters.
Decker’s "Madeline’s Madeline" dealt with mental illness, but not in the ways we have seen it before. The subjectivity of the storytelling was so incredibly strong that it did not feel as if I was witnessing the events but steeped in them. The difference here being that it was more focused on the feeling of the experience than showing the audience the spectacle of the fallout. The ways in which events were presented I was often confused and questioned my own judgment of people’s motivations scene to scene. I was left feeling how debilitating some mental conditions may feel. As a viewer you felt as if you were missing pieces of the puzzle and were working off of a different script than any of the other characters. This added a deep humanity to the plight of the protagonist.
In a similar way, Reed Morano’s photography of "I Think We’re Alone Now" brought me into her protagonist's inner life. The untouched beauty of the imagery inspired in me the deep loneliness being felt by the character. Reed also found ways to capture spaces from the point of view of a man who had not seen another human in years. Faces were often shrouded in darkness and eyes unseen. It was due to this that the motivations of characters were often unseen in their facial performances, which made you question their motives as a viewer. This deep uncertainty felt aligned with Del’s own uncertainties. I felt emotionally closer to the character as I felt I was experiencing the events in tandem with him rather than merely watching him experience them on the screen.
Subjective storytelling is so important because I think it inspires compassion in an onlooker. You are challenged not only to see the story, but feel it. In this way I believe we form a closer bond with the protagonist and dare to see the world through their eyes. Free of our own personal judgment—we meet the character where they are. Towards structuring a more empathetic society, I believe these forms of art are particularly essential. I felt grateful to have had the opportunity to experience so many different forms of it at this year’s festival.
As the plane landed on the runway and the Salt Lake City lights passed by, I felt a chill of excitement run down my spine. I couldn’t believe I was here. As a child, I dreamed of attending Sundance and the Ebert Fellowship made that dream a reality. Chaz’s generosity felt unreal, yet here I was with a camera in hand and breathing in the cool mountain air. Film was my addiction; I couldn’t get enough of it.
Being around all these amazing films was overwhelming. I was like a kid in a candy store with eyes bigger than my stomach as I tried to watch as many as I could. Of all the films I was fortunate to see, Anthony Mandler’s “Monster” really resonated with me. The cinematography, characters, and story made me feel a strong sense of self because this was my reality. I saw myself, my friends, and my family in the lives of these characters. Never have I related to a film more and this experience will forever stick out to me.
Aside from the movies, I also loved exploring the streets of Park City. The enormous mountains engulfing the area like a bowl. Attending Blackhouse panels felt like home because I was surrounded by extremely talented people who looked like me. However, the best part of the festival to me were my roommates Jomo and Gary. While I was insecure initially to be in the presence of two talented artists much further in their career than me, I quickly befriended both. Spending time with Jomo and Gary was always an enlightening experience as we discussed life, careers, and films. Every day I learned something new and I’m all the better for it.
GARY WILKERSON, JR
My first night at Sundance, I grabbed my badge and jumped in line to see the premiere of "Generation Wealth," a documentary directed by Lauren Greenfield that is part career retrospective and part investigation into the subject of wealth over the last twenty-five years. But I digress. I was standing in line when someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was a Sundance volunteer there to tell me that my pass only got me into press screenings. This screening was only for ticketed viewers only. She saw the embarrassment on my face and reassured me that I was welcome to stand in the waitlist line for a chance to grab tickets if the theater wasn’t full.
As I waited in my new line, feeling like I screwed up my first Sundance experience, a woman in front of me turned around and smiled. Now I’m used to LA, where people look past you, so you could imagine my surprise when we spent 45 minutes talking to each other. I learned she had been living in Park City for two years and just loves to watch movies. This was like the circus coming to town for her. This dispelled the preconceived notion in my head that the festival was filled with movie buffs and mucky mucks. But don’t worry, I ran into a few later. Soon after, the announcement was made that they would start allowing people into the theater. She went into her purse and pulled out cash. Cash? I need cash for this? She told me I needed $20 to buy a ticket. I looked at a sign that read, “CASH ONLY” and immediately checked my wallet. Three dollars. I had 4 minutes to get $20. I locked eyes with my new friend and she knew exactly what was up. She dug in her wallet and handed me the money. I insisted that I couldn't take her money. She demanded I do and promise her one thing, “Pay it forward to someone else at the festival.”
This was a part of the festival I didn’t expect. The amount of generosity that people feel when it’s 20 degrees out and they’re 7,000 ft. above sea level. Sundance was just a collection of people who love to have fun and watch movies. Every Lyft I got in, every bus I got on, every line I waited in had a person that wanted to talk to pass the time. And there were a lot of lines to wait in. I’d even go out on a limb and say, 30% of Sundance is waiting in a line. But even that was okay because this was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. As an artist, this will always be the time I remember seeing people make the things I always talk about making. Listening to Spike Lee and Issa Rae on panels telling me to get my s**t together and make something. Issa implied it, Spike said it.
By the end of the 10-day festival, I saw 15 movies. I saw docs that were more unnerving than any narrative I’ve seen: a poisonous chemical from Teflon pans found in the bloodstream of most Americans; triplets separated at birth finding each other years later; what actually happened at Studio 54. But by the end of the festival, my hands down favorite film ended up winning the dramatic grand jury prize; "The Miseducation of Cameron Post." Set in 1993, Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) gets caught, by her boyfriend, having sex with the prom queen. Her aunt then sends her to a gay conversion therapy center. The film found a way to break your heart as it simultaneously warmed it. I remember having a conversation with someone about how the film was populated. Had this actually been filmed in 1993 the cast would look a lot different. But because it was made today it was filled with the beauty of people: hues, backgrounds, shapes, and sizes. It actually represented what the world looks like. So, while the story tore me apart emotionally, I couldn’t help but see the future of cinema.
It was a beautiful, snowy 10-day experience and I was able to meet some amazing people. Now, there’s an ending to the story of my first night at Sundance. Picture me back in line with my "Generation Wealth" line buddy, each holding our $20. A couple in the ticket line waves us down like they know us. They don’t. The wife tells us they bought four tickets but two of their friends couldn’t make it. Did we want them? I couldn’t believe I was in this weird paradox of nice older white people. We thanked them and said of course we would take them. We hopped in their line, to the chagrin of all the other waitlisters. We thanked them once more and the wife said, “No problem. Just pay it forward to someone else at the festival.” My eyes widened. That’s exactly what the other lady said. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had the thought that I was in "Get Out." Better yet, "Get Out 2: Park City." But you can rest assured that I made it out alive. There’s no Wi-Fi in the sunken place.
Ebert Fellows Table of Contents
Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade" Perfectly Captures Imperfect Adolescence by Gary Wilkerson, Jr.
"Emergency" Stands Out in Shorts Program by Brandon Towns
A Filmmaker's Point of View by Jomo Fray
Sundance Goes From #MeToo to What’s Next by Gary Wilkerson Jr.
To read all of RogerEbert.com's coverage from this year's Sundance, click here.
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