Sundance 2014: In Redford vs. the Academy I think we know the winner

Posted on January 22, 2014

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Photos by Eric Raddatz

The Sundance Film Festival and Cheryl McCormick, a hardworking waitress at Belgian Waffle in Sandy, Utah, share something in common. They’ve both been at it for 30 years now.

The 24-hour restaurant she works for also shares an interesting similarity. It operates with a sense of independence. “We’re the only one like it in town. We aren’t a chain,” Cheryl reminded me as she poured me a warm cup of coffee on the cold early morning in the snow-capped community, kicking off eleven days of movies, music, stars, panels and more movies at the film festival that rules as the biggest and best in the world.

“During the recession many of the chains went under but we kept a going,” Cheryl recollected with a few more colorful stories on what working the late shift entailed.

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John Cooper, Keri Putnam, Robert Redford and moderator Sean Means during a press conference at the Egyptian Theatre January 16, 2014 kicking off the Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Eric Raddatz

John Cooper, Director of Sundance, also commented to what it was like working through a time when the financials weren’t as in the black as they are today. “We did like most Americans are doing now, pulling up their bootstraps and tightening up. But we keep moving forward.”

To the founder, the beyond legendary Robert Redford, it isn’t about the money, as he reiterated alongside Cooper during the opening day press conference for the festival taking place Jan. 16-26, 2014 in Park City, Utah. “We’re a non-profit. We’re not interested in the money,” he punctuated during a discussion that included the fact that the film festival has brought in an estimated $350,000,000 into the local economy over the last 5 years.

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Snow capped community of Park City, Utah during 2014 Sundance. Photo by Eric Raddatz

Redford, fresh off an Oscar nomination snub for his film All is Lost, which premiered at Cannes last year, is focused on the bigger mission. “I don’t want it to detract from all we are doing here this week. I’ve done the Hollywood thing. I’m fine with it,” he concluded with the audience applauding. “I think we know how the audience feels,” moderator Sean P. Means from the Salt Lake City Tribune  had to say.

Redford seemed so “fine” with it, actually, the question as to if the value of such a nomination, or even an Academy Award, were of any real significance in comparison to what he’s accomplished over the last 30 years with this festival. There was a cautious whisper in the audience. ‘Robert Redford has accomplished more than the Academy ever has. I mean what do they do? They hand out statues.’ Ok, that might have just been me thinking.

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The 2014 Sundance Film Festival opening night January 16, 2014 closed with a party at Legacy Lodge at Park City Mountain Resort. Photo by Eric Raddatz

Surely Redford is aware of the directors, actors and producers who cut their teeth at Sundance screenings and at the Sundance institute labs.  In the category of documentary of the five Oscar nominations this year, for example, four played at Sundance last year. But the bigger revelation is the penetration into our society and the relevance with which films from Sundance affect our world.

The Invisible War, a documentary that played last year at Sundance, about rape in the U.S. military led the Defense Department to make policy changes. Blackfish, last year’s edgy doc by Gabriela Cowperthwaite about the way orca whales are kept at SeaWorld, has caused huge waves changing the way the entire world sees animals kept in captivity. There has been a huge backlash with dozens of performers cancelling their appearances at the tourist attraction to show solidarity against how the organization treat whales.

Redford’s importance versus the Academy’s could very well be an indie film that would win popular accolades. Redford, with Sundance’s existence, surely trumps whatever metal statue you can get or give, and just about everyone attending the kick-off press conference seemed to realize this.

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Eric Raddatz with Michael Rossato-Bennett at Sundance 2014 for the film Alive Inside.

Not to mention New Frontier, Sundance labs, panels and q&as. Simply put, while Redford’s team is working hard creatively, the Academy throws a decent party for such creators.

There were others who had films in the festival who shared such an understanding that they may have ever greater importance and meaning than silly gold statues.

Michael Rossato-Bennett, producer of the film Alive Inside described how his film screening at the festival is a once in a lifetime excitement for him. He, who admitted always wanted to be a bit of a Steven Spielberg, realized that he, in fact, was no Spielberg. His film focuses on Dan Cohen a volunteer at a nursing home who decides to introduce iPods to those with Alzheimer’s and dementia with positive results. It was certainly a standout of the films I got to sample while there.

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Outside the Eccles Theatre during Sundance Film Festival 2014. Photo by Eric Raddatz

The documentary shows several elderly patients who after listening to music from their younger years, discover a happier disposition, get engaged in a conversation and start recalling and discussing things very articulately.

Experts appearing in the movie detail that in their years of research, development and advancement there is nothing that compares to what the work of Dan Cohen is doing. Independently. The movement has spurred Mr. Cohen to start Music & Memory to bring a simple iPod and headphones to every American in nursing home facility.

Was it possible that Rossato-Bennett will make a greater difference than his much esteemed Spielberg ever did? “No, I mean, he made Shindler’s List and ET,” he answered and then slowed down to think about it a second.

His team weren’t the only ones independently making a difference with films at the festival this year though.

Green Prince, a documentary by Nadav Schirman, shows the real life story about the relationship that develops between Palestinian Mosab Hassan Yousef and his Shin Bet handler Gonen. Mosab is the son of a Hamas leader, arrested for smuggling guns is interrogated by Israel’s security service. The usual tensions between Israel and Palestine are shown in this developing relationship with clips over the last decade that color the story that unfolds to show how humanity and friendship can develop in the most interesting of places.

The documentary was filmed with mostly dialogue and footage from news sources and interviews and shows Palestineans and Isrealis uniting in a very strange and unusual way—between these two anyway.

Independent to the policies, politics, religions and otherwise the film shows the humanity underlying this, in one of the worlds most trifling of regions. This green prince is surely greater than the red carpet that partying stars will walk in March this year, I promise you.

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Inside the Eccles Theatre an audience readies to see Dinosaur 13 during Sundance Film Festival 2014. Photo by Eric Raddatz

Another film in the festival in the epicenter of another trouble spot in the world riled with controversy is Kristen Stewart’s Camp X-Ray. Instead of tackling all of the sides in whether or not the U.S. should have detainees in Guantanamo Bay, whether they should have trials or be freed, or whether it should have been closed, director Peter Sattler approaches the topic from the point of view of a fresh new guard and one of the prisoners.  Stewart , the guard who still looks hot in camouflage and hat, manages to play tough and cute strongly in this, one of the most anticipated films during the week. Stewart manages also to show a naive and compassionate character, who comes from Moore Haven, Florida, no less, in a way that makes the viewer again question the humanity underlying every soldier in uniform.

She plays it with enough naivete to make me wonder … ‘Oh man, is this a Florida rip?’ Our state has such a great reputation in our nation.

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Kweku Mandela at screening of Beyond Right & Wrong: Stories of Justice and Forgiveness which showed in Salt Lake City and Park City during the festival. Photo by Eric Raddatz

Beyond Right & Wrong: Stories of Justice and Forgiveness is a film that attracted the support of a Mandela. It wasn’t an official selection but showed in Salt Lake City and Park City during the festival. Promoting the message with director Lekha Singh was Kweku Mandela, the grandson of Nelson Manela.

The film develops the peaceful relationships that have developed from the tragedies of the Rwandan genocide, the  Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and troubles in Northern Ireland conflict. Mandela took questions at the Leonardo in Salt Lake City at a private screening. When Kweku was asked what his favorite quote of his grandfather’s was, he said “He would say we are not born to hate. We learn to hate. If we can learn to hate, then we can learn to love.” The film is being distributed online already.

Another theme, which seemed kind of, I don’t know, indie libertarian—was that there were things our U.S. government is doing that could not be explained.  For example, why would 30 FBI agents feel the need to storm, arrest and confiscate dinosaur remains from the museum of 5 passionate paleontological students? Why did they generate hundreds of charges against them and why did one of them have to spend years in federal prison? Dinosaur 13 leaves the question hanging in a movie about ‘Sue,’ the largest T-Rex remains ever found.  Peter Larson, who made the screening with filmmaker Todd Miller and his attorneys, wished for nothing but the preservation of this historically significant find, but somehow ‘pissed someone off’ according to his attorney Patrick Duffy. The remains eventually sold for 7.6 million dollars. Larson, and team, never got a dime. Why? “Let’s just say that the research that was confiscated later turned up in as governmental research and never returned to the team,” Duffy said.

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Cast, crew and attorneys take questions after the screening of Dinosaur 13 at Eccles Theatre premiere in Park City, Utah during Sundance 2014. Photo by Eric Raddatz

The film got picked up by CNN Films and Lionsgate the day after the opening.“Our acquisition of Dinosaur 13 is a great way for us to kick off the festival this year, and we think our audience is going to love learning the incredible story of Sue,” said Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide.  You will see this one in wide release.

In Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bolger, a movie by Joe Berlinger and CNN films, we get footage and telephone conversations between the incarcerated Irish mafia leader and his attorney Jay Carney that we simply have never seen and heard before.  Stephen Rakes, a witness to testify in the trial, who was suspiciously found dead before he could, was featured in interviews prior to the incident. Why was he killed? What did he know? Why wont the FBI comment as to what involvement they had in the decades of mob crime in South Boston? Why doesn’t the government want Bolger to testify. We are left to wonder. “To those who are aware of the case this movie is very superficial,” director Berlinger told me after the screening when asked if there were areas of the story he was afraid to ‘go.’ “There is just so much we will never hear about. This just scratches the surface.” Attorney to Bolger,  Jay Carney, said of all of the films ever done this one “gets the closest to truth we’ve ever seen.” Bolger remains in jail and did not make the screening.

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Joe Berlinger after the screening of Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bolger, a movie by Joe Berlinger and CNN films, where we get footage and telephone conversations between the incarcerated Irish mafia leader and his attorney Jay Carney that we simply have never seen and heard before. Photo by Eric Raddatz

Berlinger who did the documentary Metallica—Some Kind of Monster in 2004 seems to have kept them as friends as music from the group accompanies the soundtrack and at least one member, Lars Ulrich, sitting with him at the screening and seen around town during the festival.

Another thing kept hidden is the face of Frank, a quirky musician who holes himself away in a cabin in the woods with bandmates who include Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in the film Frank. Why do we have so many masked musicians? Why do they do it? From GWAR to Slipknot to Deadmau5 to Daft Punk, musicians who hide their faces in head gear are mildly jabbed in a very comedic and wonderfully original film about perception and discovery by Lenny Abrahamson.

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Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy take questions after the premiere of Frank at the Eccles Theatre in Park City, Utah during Sundance Film Festival 2014. Photo by Eric Raddatz

DeNiro had a movie there. DeNiro Sr. that is. A telling movie about actor Robert DeNiro’s gay father, an artist who trained in New York City alongside contemporaries including Jackson  Pollock and Willem de Kooning. “It is my responsibility to tell my father’s story” Robert said in the film.

Michael Cera’s presence was felt in this year’s festival in Gregory Go Boom. A short story about a paraplegic who tries to date. It is sad and funny all at once. I felt bad laughing though. This is one of a few films you can find online already at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LE8kTPtLftI . I will not reveal the ending but he does blow himself up at the end.

The movie Mitt seemed interesting but I decided not to bother wasting my time watching it because right on the fliers for it is says “On Netflix Jan. 24.” Yeah squeezing all of the films that will never get in distribution during the week is tough enough so I’ll catch that one online later. Romney was out at the premiere though with his wife and large crowds.

I had an impossible time getting into the first screening Skeleton Twins this year, starring Bill Heder and Kristen Wiig. Reminds me of Don Jon last year, will probably be a big breakout.

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Micheal Cera in Gregory Go Boom at the Sundance Film Festival 2014. Shot in screening room by Eric Raddatz

Others around town making big waves during the festival were Glen Close, Ethan Hawke, Rachel McAdams, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Deniro,  Rose McGowan, Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Stewart, Mitt Romney, Jesse Eisenberg, Zach Braff, Luke Wilson, George Takei, Steven Spielberg, Elle Fanning and oh so many more.

Safe to say that while the Academy may award filmmakers, Sundance is where the real creative fun exists. Should give Redford something to consider.

I hope he already knows.

He must.

—Eric Raddatz is the film curator at the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center, the founder of the Naples and Fort  Myers Film Festivals and the Presentation Editor at Florida Weekly. Follow him here or on twitter at www.twitter.com/ericraddatz

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