Sundance 2012: Blog entry #1: The Sundance experience, and buzzed-about films
“In the course of ten days, Sundanceis a great exercise in prioritizing and decision making. Follow your instincts or the buzz of the crowd, watch the truly independent films in the competition line up that desperately need an audience or get lured by publicists and hot parties. It’s business as usual here in Park City, although the festival and the crowds seem a little mellow in comparison to recent years. Most of the time Sundance is just what you get from it and that often seems to derive from what you came here to do. The festival offers so many forums and outlets that it can be a different experience for everyone depending on what type of badge they are wearing.
One of the best parts of the Sundance experience is not just the thrill of searching for what I call my Sundance film this year, the gems we make the yearly pilgrimage to these mountains for, but also the search and discovery of the festival’s recurring theme. This year’s theme is not the most apparent, but judging by the opening weekend films, I’m sensing the program is looking at all that is wrong with humanity and with the times we are living. It is not at all a flattering view, neither is it a defeated one, but rather more contemplative, and even accepting of our human reality, limitations, and how far we still need to go to improve our inner and outer human condition. Although many of the films show deeply flawed institutions, it is not the bureaucracies we look at but the people in them. Sundance 2012 films seem to point at the inevitability of things going seriously wrong wherever you put humans into the mix. Is our human nature so inherently flawed and our evolution so slow that we must resign to do what we can while we learn who we are and where the cosmic flow is taking us? We exploit and consume what’s around us and too often live lives that lead to self-destruction, and ultimately emptiness and discontent. Ten days at Sundance and you can’t help but examine life, the one within and the one around us. Interpretations of a human reality being told through the magic of film, albeit poetically and always showing us the improbable beauty of the darkest places.
If Sundance comes together as a reflection of the artistic voices of our times, I think these voices are telling us that we are just very bad. Some seem defeated in a here we are so let’s accept it and move forward kind of way, while others couldn’t be more loud in their relentless pursuit for justice and the now cliché cinematic triumph of the human spirit. Above all, Sundance celebrates those who rise above our dark reality.
It might be too early to tell, but my first impression that Sundance 2012 wasn’t a program as strong as it is shown in the past 5 year remains. As I write that, I hear the echo of John Cooper’s voice, Sundance festival’s director, resonate, saying: “Look Again!” Look Again, this year’s slogan, couldn’t have been more perfect. After all, Sundance’s program absorbs the mood of the world at large in a given year. Look again at the way this otherwise familiar story is being told, or look again if you don’t find the wonder you expected in this or that piece of work. These are new avenues we’re being shown. Pauses for reflection for 2012.
The festival’s role as a champion for independent cinema and independent artists has made an even stronger commitment to fulfilling its mission this year. Some of the films in both the US and World Dramatic competition slates are decidedly understated, simple, yet beautiful despite their low prospects for wide audience acceptance or acquisition deals. Yet, Sundance still gives them a place, and once again both the festival and its parent institute are utopian, free, open, ideal, and full of opportunity for anyone with a voice until you put humans in the mix with swag lounges and parties full of celebrities and we’re back to our inescapable realities.
NEW FRONTIER PROGRAM
One of the highlights of this year is the ever provoking, awe inspiring New Frontier program. Highlighting work that pushes the boundaries of storytelling and moving image, New Frontier focuses on the convergence of film, art, and new media technologies as a hotbed for cinematic innovation. An impressively conceived program of media installations, performances, transmedia experiences, panel discussions and feature films, New Frontier feels as a nest where new ideas begin. It is a prescient look into a future that might never come but is definitely possible. A precious opportunity to take a look at a side of the human psychic that so often goes unnoticed, New Frontier is a great gift.
OPENING WEEKEND BUZZ
The opening weekend films that are getting the most buzz are Searching for Sugarman, Beasts of the Southern Wild, West of Memphis, and The Queen of Versailles. It’s not Sundance without controversy and this year it is brought to us courtesy of The Queen of Versailles, a film in the US Documentary competition line up. Other films like, Compliance, which has 30-50 people walking out of films at screenings due to extreme content, and Excision, who made the decision of handing out a certain female hygiene product at their screening, are also part of the dirty talk.
The films I’ve seen in both the US Dramatic and World Dramatic categories have not been very impressive. I firmly believe that every film one sees at Sundance has at least some form of artistic merit or special quality, but this year’s films seem to fall short so far. The dramatic competition seems to be going on those certain roads of the intellectually absurd, impenetrable charm and sublimity that escape me, making it hard to be attracted to or be affected by them. The World Cinema Documentary competition, in contrast, is shaping up to be the most contested one this year, with films like Five Broken Cameras, Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, Searching for Sugar Man, ½ A Revolution and The Ambassador, all opening to popular and critical acclaim.
It’s only day five of the festival. I’ll keep searching for that special Sundance 2012 film and writing mostly about the festival’s competition slate.