Sundance 2017—Climate at the forefront

Posted on January 27, 2017

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Humans—we have a problem. We. Are. All. Going. To. Die.

Yes, this is a scientific fact. Am I still allowed to publish scientific fact? Anyway, it is indisputable. It also is the frightening reality portrayed in many of the films at this year’s Sundance lineup. With issues of climate at the forefront of the programming, the reality our certain inevitability coming sooner than later is blamed squarely on none other than ourselves. Humans. We are destroying ourselves.

The overriding consensus amongst a group of what seemed to be mostly creative liberals I bumped shoulders with this week, is that the administration taking shape under U.S. President Donald Trump will deserve a full brunt of  the responsibility —not even a week into the start of his White House run. The thought is that because he is an open climate denier, that most every effort our country has made to reduce carbon emissions and to spearhead and utilize renewable and sustainability energy sources will be scrapped, lost, destroyed. This will lead to global destruction. It is kind of protested at levels comparable to global terrorism. Of course, there were a list of other concerns problematic to the new administration as well, with executive orders flying quickly onto the nation during this usual celebration of independent film and filmmakers.

There were no interruptions or outbursts during a press conference at the opening of the festival when, in the middle of a question to Sundance Film Festival’s founder Robert Redford, a reporter asking a question about self-censorship out of fear. He started— “We’re entering into a very dark period …” Pretty much everyone nodded along.  I notice festival director John Cooper kind of crossed his legs and look up and to the right as if that was kind of an unsubstantiated statement.

There were no Trumpsters, however, contending the statement uttered in a follow-up question from another reporter asking Redford to compare today’s administration to Nixon’s when he starred in “All the President’s Men” this way —“In the dark times that we are talking about right now …”

There were no sharp corrections from Redford, who pointed out that while it seems darkness is surrounding us we look to the light—the light featured in solid storytelling and filmmaking.  Good spin, Bob.

He did indicate that he felt that in this current dialogue, things will try to be taken away from us and that those directly affected will wake up and do something. “I hope and think it’s going to be followed by a movement,” he punctuated. With citizen activism at levels we haven’t seen since Vietnam with issues combating the survival of the species, second only to a nuclear war, he said he has always shown integrity to two things— filmmaking and the environment. He further answered the question observing some of the congressional hearings under the Nixon administration that he was reviewing recently, he saw a time where both Democrats and Republicans worked together to get to the truth of a matter. “There was a time when two sides did work together,” he concluded. “That’s what makes you depressed about today.”

The festival did kind of make a deeply dramatic statement by opening with the film “An Inconvenient Sequel” a follow-up to the 2006 Oscar Award winning movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” Ten years later former vice-president Al Gore is still at it. The movie dives even deeper into the kind of serious trouble our earth is in now. The film contends that warming has put our planet in the deepest, darkest era with an outcome that was hard to watch at times. While our country has been the biggest violator of carbon emissions, we also have had leaders, including Gore and former President Obama, work hard to come to a global consensus in a fully supported Paris Agreement, signed to reduce warming internationally. The end of the film addresses the potential obstacles in a Trump administration. When questioned Gore says he still has hope. But his face looks worried. When asked about the administration’s selection of Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, for example, who spent many years with Exxon Mobil, he pauses in silence for nearly 15 seconds before calculatively answering that oil corporations like these have advanced climate denial and that it is “deeply unethical.” He also refused to bash Trump after being peppered with questions lured to have him do so. He said he will keep his conversations with President Trump confidential and communication open as he has often seen naysayers change their tune. Overall he, and his film, wanted to bring attention to things such as costs coming down so rapidly that a sustainability revolution is possible, with a breadth and scope of the industrial revolution and speed of the information revolution. “While I was still learning about the climate, Bob Redford was already acting on the climate issues to solve it,” he insisted on reminding the audience while many heaped praise to his efforts.

Sitting next to him in a panel celebrating Sundance’s New Climate program was producer of “Inconvenient Truth” and “Inconvenient Sequel, “ Jeff Skoll. “Clean energy is the least expensive power source period,” he punctuated. “The first film sparked a conversation. Now we have solutions.” The collaboration between Sundance Institute and The Redford Center—showcased 14 feature docs, short films and virtual reality experiences that focus on environmental matters.

One of those movies “Chasing Coral” by Jeff Orlowski explored the dying coral reefs attributed to carbon emissions warming the seas. This coral bleaching has significantly risen over the last decades with facts that hopefully will not keep the audience sitting idle for long, especially Floridians.

Susan Froemke brought “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman” to the festival, spending time going over the very detailed reasons for the need to be globally responsible through the eyes of a Montana rancher, a Kansas farmer and Florida fisherman. It was compelling and offered hope amidst a slew of other films, which seemed to indicate there isn’t much left.

When I bumped into Alex Gibney, of “Going Clear” fame, I trembled and bowed. He found out quickly what an inspiration he has been to me personally. The National Geographic party was the second best one I attended. Not just because it was flooded with brilliant stars, filmmakers and producers like Gibney, whose film collaboration with NatGeo “Water & Power: A California Heist” screened, but also because a huge announcement was made regarding a big partnership. National Geographic utilized the party to announce that they are collaborating with Sundance Institute to launch a Further Filmmaker Fellowship which will provide grant money to  filmmakers who fit their definition of visionary storytelling and embarking on projects that explore the world and all that is in it, staying hungry for more. This gave me hope and I was hungry for more of the mini-burgers by the warm cider bar.

When it came to parties there was only one other that trumped this one. And I’m not talking about the Trump protests where Park City women, stars and filmmakers flooded the streets with the rest of the nation, upping the total number marching to over 4 million. No, that wasn’t a party, that was a statement and maybe a beginning of a large movement.

No, the best party of the fest was hosted by John Legend after a screening of WGN’s “Underground” at the legendary Riverhorse on Main St. He had several things to say about the march and the president, as did many at the party.  “He says he is going to make America great but what does he mean by that,” the velvety sweet voice questioned to press in attendance. He is already known as one of America’s most brilliant voices for his music but he is starting to also be known for having a political voice for those who may not.  He is the co-executive producer of the television series set in 1850s Georgia where plantation slaves fight for their live, futures and freedoms by traveling the Underground Railroad. Sound familiar? The cast and crew in attendance wined and dined in such a sumptuous setting, one quite a stretch from the series they star in. Here, there was a line of every drink imaginable with a spread of food so delicious you could not ignore it like many of the spreads at movie parties. Stars from many of the other films in the fest made the party including Adam Shapiro, “L.A. Times,” and Medalion Rahimi, “Before I Fall,” who joined in getting their groove on with the WGN stars including the likes of super-handsome star Aldis Hodge who exhilarated the crowd on the floor as DJ spun “Wobble Wobble.” I grabbed Underground Producer Mike Jackson in the middle of this and said “Man, I’m definitely going to write about this.” There, I did.

Buzzing on the trolley ride back to the hotel I bumped into familiar face I’ve seen over and over Jessie Cohen. “It’s like we’re family now after all these years,” she mentioned and I agreed. The friendly faces of the directors, programmers and volunteers are a reason this festival is one of the best. They hold on to the people that make it great. She invited me to her curation at Sundance’s New Frontier including a piece “NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism,” where I could enter Brook’s Salon, a beauty salon of the future and get a set of “Octavia Electrodes,” transcranial extensions designed to make the brain’s synapses more excitable, primed to increase neuroplasticity. It’s a way to help Hyphen Labs better explore the neurocognitive impact of your visit.

I felt as if my neurocognitive capabilties had reached its limit at this very early hour of the morning—on Mountain Standard Time no less. “I will do my best to check it out” I promised Jessie, who also seemed to have reached her neurocognitive limit for the day as well. We rode the bus deep into the morning, kind of like the cast of Toy Story 3 characters at the end of the movie, who all accepted their doomed fate, their destiny, still happy to be in the company of family and friends through it all.

—Eric Raddatz is Presentation Editor at Florida weekly, the founder of Naples and Fort Myers Film Festivals and host/curator of T.G.I.M, SWFL’s indie film show. You can follow him at www.twitter.com/ericraddatz

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