Sundance Celebrates Silver Year of Cinema

Considering it was the silver anniversary for the Sundance Film Festival this year, the annual event held from January 15-25 in Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah was a rather subdued affair.

The most significant film festival of its kind in the world, this year’s Sundance was plagued by a sagging economy, a Proposition 8 boycott against Mormons by the GLBT community, and a low turnout. The festival also faced competition from one of the most significant presidential inaugurations in history. Clearly the vibe was that this was not the time for fame and fashion so much as it was about finances, fun, and film.

Although the official stance is that Sundance is not a political film festival—but, rather, a cultural organization fostering good storytellers—there was no shortage of political films this year. Here are just a few examples.

The Cove – Winner of the Sundance audience award for best U.S. documentary, director Louie Psihoyos’s espionage thriller about exposing a town of dolphin killers is a benign call to activist arms. The trainer of TV’s Flipper, Ric O’Barry, had become the biggest nemesis of the "ocean parks" (e.g., Sea World) business and the worldwide trade in captive dolphins. Angered by the mistreatment of these highly sentient beings, O’Barry does not stop at the law to do what is right. Fed up with the bloodshed, he and Psihoyos hire an Ocean’s Eleven crew and head into a secret area where dolphins are slaughtered for no good reason. If this wonderful documentary manages to swim in the same fiscal waters as March of the Penguins, we can expect a change in how America spends its money on entertainment and seafood.

Earth Days – Directed by Robert Stone (Oswald’s Ghost), this documentary recounts the early history of the modern American environmental movement from the mid-20th century through the Reagan years. Stone’s wide focus brings nine primary voices to cover nearly 50 years of political history via biology, ecology, ideology, and mythology in 101 minutes. The result is a tepid recount of grand moments in American history.

According to reliable resources there were plenty of environmental films like this submitted to Sundance this year, yet this one made it. Why? Earth Days is not a complete waste of time, but one could spend their finite existence environmentally elsewhere.

The End of the Line – In just a few decades there will be almost no more fish to eat. Technology and greed are wiping out the ocean’s population. Money is to be made. Stomachs are to be filled. Ecological destruction is on the way. Those are the warnings of Rupert Murray’s half-baked documentary. To its credit, Murray illustrates through science, scientists, and other data how the current rates of fishing and consumption have diminished the ocean’s sea population already. He also shows how cruel the fishing can be. What he fails to examine is our right to eat fish in the first place or the environmental impact of operating a fishing vessel (those boats do not get good MPG). For the participants in the film, the answer is not to stop eating fish altogether, but, essentially, how to rebuild the seafood population so that future generations may enjoy the cuisine of their slaughter.

Endgame – As South Africa plans, wheels, and deals in preparation for the World Cup next year, it is helpful to remember the recent political climate. Just decades ago, the black majority of South Africa’s people were second class citizens who fought and negotiated for equal rights by any means necessary. In this drama by Peter Travis, sanctions are killing the economy, ANC attacks are escalating, and cops are cracking down on the poor. Focusing on the UK talks, Endgame is a riveting recreation of those tumultuous times that changed a nation, generation, and the world. William Hurt, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jonny Lee Miller, and Mark Strong are the featured players.

I Love You Phillip Morris – Based "80 percent on reality" according to co-directors/co-writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, this stranger-than-fiction tale features Jim Carrey as Steve Russell, a person who never knew who he was, but wanted people to love him nonetheless. A professional Lone Star conman running amuck while Dubya was the Texas governor, after a series of misadventures, Russell winds up in the Texas big house where he meets the love of his life, Phillip Morris (Ewan McCregor). A gentle soul always being taken advantage of (so he says), Morris gives Russell a new look on life. However, once out of prison, Russell is back to his old tricks, taking down his lover in the process. A hilarious romp taking more than a few sweet shots at the legal system of "fucking Texas," this film has all the makings of a commercial hit despite the inevitable homophobic reactions. What Carrey fans will make of it is hard to tell (there’s a lot of hugging and a kissing between men), but this film has everything going for it: passion, story, timing, sincerity, and some of the funniest moments of any film I have seen so far this year.

O’er the Land – The public screening of Deborah Stratman’s O’er the Land had more early departures than any other film I attended. This was a New Frontier selection, described in the Sundance program as "Stratman’s meditation on freedom and technological approaches to manifest destiny." From that description, I don’t think audiences were expecting a story about a nerd with a cool name or U2 in 3D. What they got was images of outsiders doing the strangest, and sometimes noisiest, of jobs—such as putting out fires in the middle of monstrous factories or putting out fires in seemingly nowhere. In one story-line, Colonel William Rankin recounts his 40-minute fall from the sky after ejecting from a plane (holy hell, what an anecdote) while clouds and noise roll by. Stratman also draws attention to Americans getting off on senseless destruction with machine gun rentals, fire-gun painting, and other narratives of people or ontology one rarely notices in the reel or real life. Upon closer inspection these say a lot about the human condition, the American one in particular. While Stratman is a bit too obsessed with the, sometimes, banal order of things for my taste, her lingering images are refreshing alternatives to macro and micro mediums of expression.

Shouting Fire – The McCarthy era, political incorrectness, PATRIOT Act—without the First Amendment, all other rights fail. Yet too many Americans are willing to sacrifice free speech when people in power say it is in their best interest. When the New York Times tried to publish the "Pentagon Papers," the government sued. When Nazis insisted on marching, their ignorant hatred was marched right out the doors of law. When a Colorado professor dared to challenge the jingoistic jingles of American policy after 9/11, he was fired. When a woman who speaks Arabic tried to open a bilingual school, her resignation was in demand. They are just a few of those who said and did the wrong thing at the wrong time. Staging historical cases, film clips, and interviews with her father, legendary lawyer Martin Garbus, Liz Garbus tells how America often finds itself fighting for its most important right. At 74-minutes, Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Speech is a quick and entertaining reminder that those who are willing to sacrifice free speech in the name of security are asking for a personal/political cap in the arse.

Wounded Knee – Examining the circumstances leading to the seizure of a few major buildings on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on February 27, 1973, Stanley Nelson’s 90-minute documentary does not reveal much new information about the occupation of Wounded Knee, so much as it reminds us how this country was founded on the genocide of its native inhabitants and how their descendants still know no peace.


John Esther is a freelance writer whose reviews and interviews have appeared in Cineaste, Paris Herald, and Lesbian News Magazine.