Sundance goes for the "zeitgeist"
January 15, 2016
What could Frank Zappa, Robert Mapplethorpe, Maya Angelou, Michael Jackson, Norman Lear, Gloria Vanderbilt and her son Anderson Cooper possibly have in common? They are all featured in this year’s Sundance Film Festival Documentary Premieres category.
The contrast in cultural constituencies among these iconic artists is emblematic of the broad vision of the Festival’s overall program that includes 123 feature-length films, 72 shorts and a growing list of panel discussions, live performances and new media installations.
The subject matter throughout reflects a diverse and changing landscape in societies around the world, and that applies to the way films are made as well as the stories they tell.
According to Sundance Film Festival Director of Programming Trevor Groth, the richness and variety of subject matter, ultimately, is determined by the filmmakers.
"It is not us, it is the filmmakers whose work we showcase. They are the ones who are responding to the world and telling stories," said Groth, who has been with the festival since 1992.
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During that time, Groth has seen Sundance grow from a small independent festival in the Wild West to a powerhouse on the international film festival stage. He has seen the evolution of documentaries, the introduction of digital media and the expansion of the Sundance Institute’s reach to include festivals in London and Hong Kong.
Through it all though, Groth insists the Institute, which hosts the annual festival in Utah, has not altered its mission — to seek out and grow audiences for new voices.
That is particularly true among the U.S. and World Documentaries this year, said Groth.
As is the case every year, U. S. filmmakers have tapped into some of the nation’s most controversial issues. This year, gun control is central to at least two films — "Newtown" (Kim A. Snyder, U.S. Documentary Competition) and "Under the Gun" (Stephanie Soechtig and Katie Couric, Documentary Premieres).
Another film, "Jim" (Brian Oakes, U.S. Documentary Competition) tries to make sense of the publicly televised execution of American photojournalist Jim Foley.
According to Groth, the film goes beyond the headlines.
"It is an incredibly powerful and very moving film, especially because it was made by one of Jim’s best friends. Not only is it a powerful subject, but it has a very personal connection to it.
"Every year in the filmmaking community there are artists that are out there getting inspiration by current events, being impacted by them and wanting to enlighten people through film. So we at Sundance we respond by trying to help them connect their films with bigger audiences," said Groth.
Groth also expects audiences to be moved by the film "Gleason" (Clay Tweel, U.S. Documentary Competition). It addresses former NFL football player Steve Gleason’s battle with ALS and his efforts to make life better for others with the disease.
"You see the impact that fight has on his personal life. That glimpse of his inner struggle is what makes the film extraordinary," said Groth.
A number of films this year also address women’s rights. According to Groth, Sundance’s efforts to ferret out new voices often leads them to under-represented groups.
"Sundance has always championed those voices, wherever they are coming from, and I do think women’s rights are in the zeitgeist right now."
A prime example, says Groth, is the film "Sonita" (Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, World Documentary Competition).
"That was such a gift to be able to watch that movie. As a programmer you have an inner checklist of all the things you are hoping to find in a film and that one hit so many of those."
Sonita is an 18-year-old refugee from Afghanistan living in Iran who longs to be a rap musician. In the documentary, she composes a daring song about her country’s tradition of forced marriages. Then, with the help of the film’s director, Sonita is offered a scholarship to pursue her dream at a private school in Utah.
"It is an inspirational subject about the power of art and artists to fight against obstacles," Groth added.
In a similar vein, "The Eagle Huntress" (Otto Bell, Sundance Kids) highlights women’s empowerment. The central character is a 13-year-old Mongolian girl who participates in an ancient tradition that for more than 2,000 years has only welcomed men.
"I hear she may be at the festival and I think she is going to be beloved. It will be an incredible experience," Groth said.
In addition to the World Documentaries, Goth suggests that audiences should pay special attention to the World Dramatic Competition this year.
"That is the section we have been trying to grow the most over the last few years and, this year, we had films submitted to us with the caliber we always wanted to have."
As a result, Groth said, it was the hardest list to finalize.
"It made our selection process harder than ever — not because we were having a hard time finding films we wanted but because we had a hard time choosing. There was a real fight because we had different programmers really loving and passionate about different films. In the end it made it stronger than it’s ever been."
Groth credits the Sundance Institute for its efforts to actively seek out filmmakers in other countries. He said one of the impressive films in this year’s World Documentary Competition came to them from a connection made at the Busan International Festival in South Korea.
"I met a Chinese producer there and because of that they submitted the film, "Pleasure. Love" (Yao Huang). It is the filmmaker’s first feature and he has been trying to get it made for 12 years," Groth said, adding, "Indie filmmakers in China have obstacles that make ones here in the U.S. look like nothing."
Groth said he also hopes audiences will continue to embrace the New Frontier section, now in its 10th year and that they will also take time to attend some of the special events, including a free screening of a new CNN documentary series "United Shades of America" featuring the popular political comedian W. Kamau Bell. The screenings will be held at the Festival Base Camp, a tented venue in Swede Alley that will be free and open to the public. Special events also include screenings of new TV and web series works that according to Groth represent "independent stories being told outside of traditional film format."
The Base Camp venue will also house Chris Milk’s installation, "The Treachery of Sanctuary," an interactive visual exhibit, also open to the public.
For more information, screening schedules and ticket availability for all of the Sundance Film Festival activities go to http://www.sundance.org or download the Sundance2016 mobile app from Google Play or the iTunes Store.
Lightning round picks from Trevor Groth
- Funniest film: "Joshy," (Jeff Baena, U.S. Dramatic Competition)
- Most significant social-issue film(s): "Newtown" (Kim A. Snyder, U.S. Documentary Competition) and "Under the Gun" (Stephanie Soechtig and Katie Couric, Documentary Premieres)
- Most uplifting: "Gleason" (Clay Tweel, U.S. Documentary Competition)
- Scariest: "Under the Shadow" (Babak Anvari, Park City at Midnight)
- Most uncomfortable for viewers: "31" (Park City at Midnight)
- Braviest filmmaker: "Catching Up" (Bill Crossland, Shorts)
- Most Surprising: "Swiss Army Man" (Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, U.S. Dramatic Competition)
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