Sundance Film Festival Panel explores cultural change through ‘Just Art’ |

Sundance Film Festival Panel explores cultural change through ‘Just Art’

Lin-Manuel Miranda, center, speaks during the Power of Story: Just Art panel at the Egyptian Theatre Saturday afternoon, January 25, 2020. Miranda was joined on stage with Carrie Mae Weems, Ai Weiwei, Kerry Washington and Julie Taymor as they explored the practice of artists who use art to push boundaries, provoke, inspire, disorient orthodoxy, and reshape culture.
Tanzi Propst/Park Record

What: Sundance Film Festival

When: Through Feb. 2

Where: Park City, Salt Lake City, Sundance Resort


Partway through the Sundance Film Festival’s Power of Story panel discussion “Just Art” Saturday afternoon at the Egyptian Theatre, Lin-Manuel Miranda broke into the rap, “96,000,” from his musical and upcoming film adaptation, “In The Heights.”

The piece, which Miranda wrote with Quiara Alegria Hudes in 2005, looks at immigration, racism and investing in protests. And he said he didn’t think the lyrics were really political at that time.

“But you could write that now,” he said as the audience, which included Hillary Clinton, burst into applause.

This was one of the many highlights of the panel, moderated by multimedia artist and photographer Carrie Mae Weems, and which included filmmaker and activist Ai Weiwei, actor and producer Kerry Washington and playwright Julie Taymor.

My dare to myself was ‘can we have a musical about us where we are not holding a knife and dancing…’” Lin-Manuel Miranda, playwright and composer

For more than an hour, Weems and the panelists discussed how art can be used to educate and spur sociopolitical change.

Miranda, known for creating and playing the lead role in the Tony-winning musical “Hamilton,” said he didn’t make “In the Heights,” which is set in the mostly Hispanic New York neighborhood of Washington Heights, to be a political work.

“To me it was a sequel to ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” he said. “(It was about) if your parents come from the Dominican Republic, and mine from Puerto Rico and hers from Mexico and hers from Cuba, what are the traditions that we bring with us and what do we pass down to our children if we all live in Manhattan Island?”

Miranda said the idea for “In the Heights” emerged from his love of musical theater and his father Luis, an advocate for Puerto Rico, and subject of one of this year’s Sundance Film Festival documentaries, “Siemper Luis,” by John James.

“I loved ‘West Side Story,’ but never danced well enough to be Bernardo, and then in my senior year in high school, Paul Simon’s ‘The Capeman’ came out, which was also about a Latino/Puerto Rican gang in the 1950s,” Miranda said. “I remember thinking this was a very overrepresented group on Broadway, so when I was a sophomore in college, my dare to myself was ‘can we have a musical about us where we are not holding a knife and dancing?’”

Weiwei said his approach to making his Sundance documentary “Vivos” was to tell the truth.

“There is not much profound ideas behind my films,” he said. “I try to be honest, which is not easy. It is difficult to be honest, because we are all not so honest and we all know it.”

“Vivos” recounts the 2014 disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College, who were abducted by Mexican police forces and masked kidnappers.

In the aftermath, the Mexican government said the incident was carried out by dirty cops, but Weiwei has his doubts about the explanation, and decided to focus his films on the families that were left behind.

“They are really fighting for justice, but justice may never arrive,” Weiwei said. “It’s been my experience in this world that justice doesn’t really arrive in many cases. We pretend we are living in a society where fairness and justice is commonly being talked about. (But) if you really deeply look at it, it is all questionable.”

Truth is also a topic that is close to Washington’s heart. She is at Sundance with a documentary called “The Fight,” which is about the American Civil Liberties Union.

Washington, who teamed with Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, the duo behind “Weiner,” the 2016 documentary about Anthony Weiner’s campaign for New York Mayor, gained unprecedented access to the ACLU for three years to make “The Fight.”

Throughout the shoot, Washington was awestruck at the ACLU’s relentlessness, and decided they were superheroes.

“We were on the ground for the battle of reproductive rights,” she said. “(They) were at the border and worked a lot with separated families. (They worked on) voting rights and the question of putting citizenship on the census, and the LQBTQ in the military.”

“The Fight,” like Miranda’s “In the Heights,” is a good example of showing how true-to-life heroes can be male and female, cisgender and trans or older and younger, Washington said.

“They may be somebody whose story is not traditionally thought of as being deserving as center,” she said. “If our heroes look like more than one person, we might, if we see it, can be it. We have the potential to be the superheroes of our own lives and transform our own communities.”

Washington said there is a catch-22 when it comes to representation.

“Being a woman of color, anytime I stepped into the center of the story, it was a political act,” she said. But I don’t want all the heroes to look like me, either.”

Taymor, whose Sundance film “The Glorias” is an experimental biopic about journalist and feminist Gloria Steinem, looks at film’s representation of women in the same way Miranda views musical theater’s representation of Latinos — stereotypical and shallow.

“‘The Glorias’ is about women working together in a positive niche, and not eyeing each other like many movies have done by pitting one woman against another,” she said. “Someone the other day asked me, ‘What is feminism? And I wanted to say it’s humanism. It’s equality.’ At this time, we need inspiration. We need positive models of what women can do together.”

That idea was planted in Taymor’s mind when in the 1960s. She was 8 years old and her mother, Betty, ran for Congress in Massachusetts.

“I grew up watching my mother struggle in the women-not-supporting-women moment,” she said. “We would canvas a neighborhood and the women would get angry and furious, and say, ‘Go take care of your children’ or they would be angry because she was an attractive woman and slam the door in her face.”

In addition to representation, truth and storytelling, the panel also discussed the difference between misappropriation and colonialism.

“We are all in a privileged position and we’re able to tell stories that a lot of people aren’t able to tell,” Weems said. “Who has the right to tell another person’s story, and how do you take that right?”

Taymor, who co-wrote the Tony-winning musical “The Lion King,” said her works are cross-cultural and healing.

“I think there has been great healing within the community of artists to be able to identify appropriation when it happens, but I think where the focus of appropriation has been is that the intention of borrowing from other cultures has not always been with the same integrity and heart as you,” Washington said about Taymor. “It’s different when that privilege of cross cultural exploration is allowed to some and not to others. I think that’s why there is anxiety around having one community tell the story of another.”

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