Sundance gives voice: the 2018 festival

Posted on January 29, 2018


By Eric Raddatz

“Do you hear what they are saying?” Robin Williams asks of the living — not only a roomful of his students, but us. Then he whispers the answer, pointing to those who once filled their seats gazing silently and eternally from photos on the wall: “‘Carpe Diem.’ Seize the day!”

That clip from the 1990 movie, “Dead Poets Society,” lends a haunting poignancy to the tender new Alex Gibney film, “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind,” one of 110 movies selected from a field of 13,468 submissions to screen last month at Sundance 2018, the celebrated Utah film festival founded and still shaped by actor Robert Redford.

The late Mr. Williams won “Best Actor” in a “Best Picture” film for delivering that advice, first given by the Roman poet Horace, who added these words: “… quam minimum credula postero” — put little stock in the future. Those who brought their artistry to Sundance had taken the advice: Seize the day, and speak, yes. But also listen. To all the voices.

As for putting stock in the future, Hollywood dealmakers and distributors ignored Horace and Robin Williams to keep their eyes firmly on their investments at Sundance, jostling to find that one great indy film that could make them millions.

I traveled to Park City, home of Sundance, not for the jostling or the deal, but for the art — to see scores of talented filmmakers deliver sometimes compelling movies that give voice and image to the marginalized lives of women, Native Americans, immigrants and African Americans.

This year, in particular, seems to cry out for those who can speak for the once ignored, a fact not lost on Mr. Redford now or in the past. Riding the crest of American political turmoil that includes such powerful social movements as #metoo and Black Lives Matter, they seized the day and spoke.

“We need to support you by creating a platform so your voices don’t stay in the margins,” Mr. Redford told the crowd of filmmakers, actors, and industry professionals, kicking off the 2018 festival at the Egyptian Theater in Park City. “We will support you aggressively and let you know: Your voices really do count.”

A lifelong horseman and skier who founded the Sundance Mountain Resort in the Rockies in 1969, Mr. Redford set up a film lab at Sundance in 1980 to encourage marginalized voices and talent. Then he created a “mechanism” to let those independent filmmakers find audiences.

“The voices … could be heard, but there was nowhere to go,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘If we had a theater or place where they could show each other’s work, we might create a community that would grow to a larger audience.’ That was 1985. It took a while for it to catch on, but when it did, it caught fire.”

This year’s field modeled that vision. Here are some of the films that moved me.

Directed by Carlos Lopez Estrade, the film follows a black man, Collin, living in Oakland and counting down the days of his probation. He’s constantly anxious, worried about even the smallest infraction that could land him back in jail. But fate intervenes when he witnesses a police officer shooting another black man. Suddenly he has to decide: Get involved and speak up, possibly jeopardizing his freedom, or remain silent, forever marked by selfish restraint and the injustice it would surrender to?

Sundance director John Cooper introduced the film to a packed house as “sassy” — but to my mind it’s significantly more powerful and troubling.

‘Monsters and Men’
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, benefactor of the Sundance Institute Directors and Screenwriters Lab, the film’s protagonist, Manny Ortega, captures the murder of a black man in New York City on a cellphone. Like the lead character in “Blindspotting,” he must decide whether to make the video public, putting himself at risk from the cops, or whether to remain silent. One of those cops is a black NYPD officer who regularly gets pulled over by white cops, and begins to resent the injustice of a justice system he defends with his life daily. Mr. Green’s sensitive approach to storytelling offers nuanced and complex voices both to those who are black, marginalized and afraid to speak, and to good police officers too often lumped together with a few bad ones.

‘Jane Fonda in Five Acts,’ ‘Seeing Allred,’ and especially ‘RBG’
The festival also happened to coincide with the women’s march, which brought hundreds out in the fresh snow blanketing Park City to commemorate the millions who marched with a unified voice following Donald Trump’s inauguration a year earlier. The brisk morning protest was powered by such resistors as Jane Fonda and Gloria Allred, whose voices now echo worldwide, thanks in part to films in contention at the fest.

But more than to any filmmaker or star of the silver screen, the day belonged to a progressive feminist who has proven time and again to be a final voice for the disenfranchised in our nation: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On the eve of the women’s march, festival organizers premiered the CNN documentary “RBG.”

Tracing Justice Ginsberg’s rise from her early days in Brooklyn to the Supreme Court where she gives judicial voice to every woman in the nation, the film also captures the endearingly sweet personal life she shared with her late husband, who did all the cooking (who knew?). And it shows her modestly adorable reaction to the rise of her popularity among millennials, many who embrace her occasional notoriety or her charming eccentricities (she’s been known to fall asleep during speeches), referring to her affectionately as “RBG.”

The importance of this film and of women in contemporary society — not to mention the age of Justice Ginsberg, who will turn 85 on March 15 this year — was lost on none of the hundreds who crowded into one of the two largest venues in town, Park City’s Municipal Athletic & Recreation Center, or MARC, to see and hear her speak for the occasion.

I was fortunate to sit close to her, only a few feet away. And I was even more fortunate to be able to ask her a question — realizing as I did, I would likely never have another chance to query a Supreme Court Justice of the United States.

“What’s left on your bucket list?” I said — “What’s left that you still want to accomplish and see?”

She answered slowly, so that all could hear.

“I’d like to see this court do the job that it has been doing for over 200 years. To do it in a way that’s faithful to a constitution I believe was meant to govern us through the ages, from one generation to the next.”

She paused. “I have said many times that our constitution starts, ‘We the People of the United States in order to form a more perfect union…’ I hope I can continue to be a part of making that more perfect union.

“Think of where we started. Who were the founders? Who were the people that counted and voted? They were all white male and property owners. I feel the genius of our constitution is that over the course of (more than) two centuries, ‘We the people’ now includes people who were left out at the start. People who were held in human bondage. Half of the population. Women, Native Americans.

“None of them counted in the beginning. So the idea of a constitution that is still being perfected, that is ever more inclusive … (It) is a tremendous honor that I have this job, and a huge responsibility.”

That’s Robert Redford’s idea in film, too. But he’s only 81.

‘Inventing Tomorrow’
Laura Nix’s aptly named documentary gives a voice to science — now under siege by those who would undermine it for gain or religion, or simply dismiss it, as some officials in the Trump administration have done, including the president, and as Florida Gov. Rick Scott did in 2015 when he directed state agencies not to use the term “climate change.”

Young inventors from Indonesia, India, Mexico and Hawaii look to save the world by exploring scientific solutions to our biggest environmental challenges, all participating in ISEF, the International Science and Engineering Fair. These young people had flown in to attend Sundance 2018, rousing and inspiring the crowd.

‘The Devil We Know’
This troubling documentary follows the legal cause and battle that trial attorney Mike Papantonio took on for many who were stiff-armed and ignored by DuPont. The corporation had used a chemical known as C8 to make the polymer Teflon since the 1940s. Some families who used products containing the chemical suffered, having children with birth defects, developing cancer, and enduring other awful effects.
“The importance of the movie is that it is something corporate media ignored for over 50 years,” Mr. Papantonio said, speaking from his office in Pensacola.

“It is the first time the story has been told outside of the courtroom. This is a documentary that is going to uncover a lot of stuff that has been ignored.”
Deposition videos and disturbing footage from those harmed show decades of neglect and point to corporate knowledge that C8 was causing irreparable damage.

To make the film, director Stephanie Soechtig of “Fed Up” and “Bowling for Columbine” fame got nearly 400 backers from an Indiegogo page. They raised nearly $40,000, a pittance in filmmaking that may nevertheless have a potent impact on callous corporate injustice.

‘Game changers’
The new documentary by Academy Award-winning director Louis Psihoyos and executive producers James and Suzy Cameron took on the meat industry by looking closely at the science of plant-based eaters who dominate in their sports fields.

From elite special forces trainer and “Ultimate Fighter” champion James Wilks to world record-holding strongman Patrik Baboumian, surfer Tia Blanco, Olympic Silver Medalist Dotsie Bausch, ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, NFL wide receiver Griff Whalen or boxing heavyweight title contender Bryant Jennings, one thing seemed sure: The old wisdom about needing meat protein to excel physically is myth.

But in addition to helping athletes achieve success, the film reveals, lessening animal consumption by humans could also help preserve the earth, since 15 percent of our water is used for livestock we eat, and CO2 emissions from flatulent cows on the planet contribute significantly to greenhouse gasses.

“One of the best ways to help animals is to stop putting them in our mouths,” suggests strongman Patrik Baboumian.

“Someone asked me, ‘How can you get as strong as an ox without eating any meat?’ I said, ‘Have you ever seen an ox eating meat?’”

‘Our New President’
Moscow-born director Maxim Pozdorovkin, who with Mike Lerner made the British documentary “Pussy Riot: A Pink Prayer” about the court cases of the feminist, anti-Putin Russian rock group Pussy Riot, now tells the story of Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency completely through the voices of Russian media.

He includes personal YouTube videos of Russians who support Mr. Trump in the hope it will bring peace for their families, and he adds footage from Russia Today.

Put in place by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Russia Today is the only media allowed and recognized by the country. The channel embraces its role as propagandist and pushes stories that represent Russian patriotism, even offering some rather theatrical takes on the American election of 2016: a Siberian mummy cursing Hillary Clinton, for example, and an accredited doctor reporting on air that Mrs. Clinton suffers from retardation.

Staying true to the telling of this story even if it’s totally fake, the film opens with a nutshell quote from the late science fiction author, Phillip Dick, who wrote a novel that became the 1982 film “Blade Runner.”

“Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves.”

And finally in what seems to be a classic parable about what happens to those who don’t listen, Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart star together as Lizzie Borden and a live-in maid, Bridget, based on the true story. We see Lizzie rising up and killing her abusive, learning-resistant father and step mom — yes, with the famous hatchet.
Oh, if only that man had taken the time to listen.

—Eric Raddatz is the presentation editor at Florida Weekly and founder of the Naples and Fort Myers Film Festivals. He currently directs the latter.


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