Sundance Film Festival preview: creating dialogue through storytelling disciplines
Caroline Libresco, senior programmer for the Sundance Film Festival, has seen the Sundance Institute embrace more and more storytelling media in the past 15 years.
Libresco, who is also the director of Sundance Catalyst and of the Sundance Women’s Program, said the advent of new digital technology has spurred that shift.
“It’s all about creating a dialogue with all the different disciplines of storytelling — whether it’s New Frontier works that are sculptural VR installations or a straightforward comedy, drama, documentary or episodic films,” Libresco said. “We’re about wherever the story is.”
She said the increased diversity of works will be evident during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, which runs from Jan. 24 through Feb. 3 in Park City, Salt Lake City and the Sundance Resort.
One way the festival has helped artists tell their stories is by embracing technology, which moved from 16mm and 35mm film to video in the 1990s to the present digital landscape, according to Libresco.
“The question we asked was would technology democratize filmmaking,” she said. “Would access to new technology platforms change who would make independent film?”
The answer appears to be “yes,” she said.
“Since I started in 2002, I have seen a doubling of submissions, especially in the shorts submissions,” Libresco said.
One of those films is Hassan Fazili’s “Midnight Traveler,” which is part of the World Cinema Documentary category. The film wasn’t shot with an expensive cinema camera.
“The filmmakers chronicled their own family’s migration (from Taliban-controlled territory) through Afghanistan to Europe on a cell phone,” Libresco said. “If that’s not a huge outcome to access to filmmaking and storytelling, then what is? That’s been a huge change in the past 12 years.”
In addition to films like “Midnight Traveler,” Sundance has beefed up its New Frontier offerings with the New Frontier Central, a new hub located at 950 Iron Horse Drive, Libresco said. New Frontier showcases works in non-traditional mediums like virtual reality, among others.
“We have square feet where we can share these works with everyone,” Libresco said.
Another way Sundance Institute has tried to help filmmakers tell their stories is by broadening their pipelines through various programs.
This is especially helpful for women, Native American and LGBTQ filmmakers, Libresco said.
“I still think there are major, complex obstacles for women filmmakers, as well as for other underrepresented filmmakers, that are very real,” she said. “Some of those issues include unconscious bias and access to financing and power that are very real. Sundance hasn’t solved those things, but we are a pipeline to Hollywood. The more we commit ourselves to women and these other filmmakers, the better their odds are for them to get access to bigger budgets and getting their films done.”
Of the 112 features and 73 shorts that will screen during the festival, 47 percent of them were directed by women, Libresco said.
“If you still take out the shorts, 39 percent of the films were directed by women, who take an unflinching look at the world,” she said. “While it’s so hard to tell the story in massive movements and filmmaking, I think, and this is my interpretation, social shifts in society right now are emboldening women to tell their stories.”
Other changes have also influenced filmmakers and their stories, especially in the documentary categories, Libresco said.
“Documentaries look at the issues of our times, so there are a few films about the rise of the political right (wing),” she said.
Some of those films include the Alyson Klayman’s documentary “‘The Brink,” about former Trump staffer and Breitbart editor Steve Bannon, Matt Tyrnauer’s “Where’s by Roy Cohn?,” a film about President Donald Trump’s earliest political mentor, and Peter Costa’s Brazilian documentary, “The Edge of Democracy,” which covers Brazil’s recent political turmoil and the resultant election of nationalist president Jair Bolsonaro.
There are screenings about journalism, she said, exemplified by Ursula Macfarlane’s “Untouchable,” which tells the story of the reporters who revealed Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct to the world.
Another is Janice Engel’s “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins.” Ivins, a Pulitzer nominee who died in 2007, was an “unflinching” columnist for the Texas Observer and the Dallas Times Herald newspapers, Libresco said.
“(Molly) is one of our great writers in her heyday,” she said. “The film looks at what she was able to carve out in her spot in Austin, Texas.”
Then there is Avi Belkin’s “Mike Wallace Is Here.”
“This film looks at the first primetime journalist who played with the ideas of entertainment and journalism in the confrontational interviews he did,” Libresco said.
The topics of journalism and the reemergence of the far right weren’t originally sought when programming the screenings, Libresco said.
“When we curate the festivals, our job is to respond to and select what we think are the strongest pieces,” she said. “That said, when we finish making those hard choices, we do step back and see some interesting threads in the films.”
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More than 240 films will be screened during Sundance, but audiences will experience some of the most groundbreaking work not on the big screen but rather through high-tech equipment like VR headsets in the festival’s New Frontier program.