Impressions from Sundance

Young Thomasin McKenzie did brilliant acting in the movie Leave No Trace.
As always, Ben Foster did an outstanding performance in the movie Leave No Trace that premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2018.
The young crew behind the touching and very personal film Minding the Gap.
Actresses Stacey Sargeant and Condola Rashad talk about their involvement in the movie Come Sunday.

Sundance Film Festival is an overwhelming event. With 110 independent movies from 29 countries this year, 16 theatres only in Park City (with additional theatres in Salt Lake City and Sundance Mountain Resort), close to 100,000 visitors and attendees cramping into a small town with only a little more than 7000 residents and a traffic congestion that at times could be worthy of New York City; visiting the film festivals takes mental strength and steady nerves to survive. But, man, is it great fun!

As I have done for the last many years, I once again got a chance to cover Sundance Film Festival. As always, it was a hectic week, to say the least, but also a week full of strong impressions, sharp movies and a stirring community of filmmakers that got a chance to talk about their films and their creative sparks. The films are what we all come for, but what makes the film festival, like Sundance, shine is the meeting between filmmakers and movie lovers. Movies we can always watch at any given time, although it could probably be hard to get to see seven in one day, if that is the desire. However, what really makes the difference is the chance the audience get to hear and experience the thoughts and ideas that the people behind the films—whether filmmakers, actors, writers or producers – put into their projects.

Sundance Film Festival is a festival for independent movies, that is, movies produced under a limited budget and with limited resources, at least compared to the big Hollywood productions. Personally, for me, it usually makes for much more interesting movies. Independent movies are made by people who do it for the love of it. The films are generally stronger, more authentic and more creative than the middle of the road blockbusters.

This year I watched close to 30 movies, and none of them were bad. That is by and large the case for all movies shown at Sundance Film Festival. Although some are better than others, there is such a gap of styles and genres shown at the film festival, that it’s almost impossible to compare. Nevertheless, a couple of films did make a stronger impression – this year, as always.

In particular two documentary films left me shattered and almost in a state of chock—although not really, since I have long stopped believing in a fair and equal world. Both films put a spotlight on underlying currents that in their nature is disrupting democracies—whatever idea we may have about what democracy may entail.

Dark Money will certainly be a shock for anyone who believes USA is a democracy. The filmmakers have visited the State of Montana and shown how big money buys out elections through foul play, and ensures that candidates they have in their pockets get elected, whether it’s in the legislative system or the judicial system. Both politicians and judges are bought, not in a direct, transparent way—because that is after all illegal – but through series of shell companies and clandestine operations. One way they do it is by putting in millions of dollars into slander campaigns. They send out ghastly and untruth allegation leaflets to constituents of candidates the big companies dislike, incriminating them in ways that throws the voters completely off. And of course, it happens shortly before election day, making it impossible for the affected candidates to defend themselves and answer the false allegations before it’s too late.

The filmmakers of Dark Money have dug deep into the material and show what nobody wants to get out in the open—nobody being (mostly) men behind big money. Why Montana? Because the state is the line in the sand, where honest politicians after all have fought hardest to get rid of the influence of big money and where the pressure from big money for the same reason is the hardest.

The Cleaners is another earth-shattering documentary. The cleaners are people who clean up social medias for unwanted posts and entries. All social medias, whether it’s Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter—to name the most influential—audit their users’ feeds. They will never talk about it, but all companies outsource the auditing to companies in foreign countries—The Philippines, with its low-cost labour, being among the leading facilitators. The cleaners delete all inappropriate, immoral and illegal posts on the feeds, with each of the social medias defining what they see as inappropriate. At first sight, it seems reasonable that social medias audit their feeds. However, the way it’s done, in combination with how the social medias work, have a least three destructive implications.

On a personal level, for the cleaners themselves, it has nothing but devastating consequences. For hours to an end, day in and day out, they will have to look through the most appalling posts imaginable, whether it’s child pornography or decapitation of heads. Needless to say, many of them end of with serious mental problems, depressed and losing their humane grounding at the least, and even taking their own lives as the most extreme implication.

On a more overall level, the audit has political consequences that directly affects democracy in societies. In many totalitarian or suppressing countries, social medias have agreed to remove posts from oppositions because that’s the only way they will get access to those countries—and making their money, which is the only driving force for the companies behind social medias. However, also in so-called democratic countries there are political implications by the work done by the cleaners. As an example; last year, Facebook removed the famous photo by Nick Ut, showing a girl running naked on a road after being severely burned on her back by a South Vietnamese napalm attack. All social medias will remove any photo of naked children (and naked people in general). However, Nick Ut’s is not about nakedness, but about the devastating impact the war had in Vietnam. The removal of the photo lead to an outcry among Facebook users and Facebook finally had to allow the photo back again. The moral codex of social medias are as such problematic in themselves. As much I am very much against child pornography, I don’t mind seeing naked people in general. Of course, I know others will appose any nakedness, but for me this goes directly to freedom of speech being limited by social medias. I don’t need them to be moral guardians on my behalf.

The third implication is maybe the most disturbing. As the filmmakers of The Cleaners point out, social medias aren’t “evil” in themselves—or the people behind the new medias being cruel or wanting to inflict any bad activities. But the way the social medias work, is escalating the hatred in the world. The social medias want to drive traffic to their sites—they promote posts that attract the most likes – and nothing drives traffic more than expressions of hate and anger. Thus, social medias encourage more hatred and more stigmatizing in the world.

As for the previous movie I wrote about, the filmmakers of The Cleaners have dug deep into the material and show what nobody wants to get out in the open—this time nobody being the social medias. The German filmmakers were clear about the need for not only changing the whole auditing system, but the social platforms themselves and how they work.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival 2018. Here the director Desiree Akhavan and the actresses Jennifer Ehle, Sasha Lane and Chloë Grace Moretz presents the movie.
Jon Hamm makes an excellent figure in the equally excellent movie Beirut.
Damsel is not the movie for everyone, but the Q&A at Sundance was one of the funnier, with the actor Robert Pattinson and actress Mia Wasikowska, along with director-brothers David Zellner and Nathan Zellner—and their mini pony on stage.
Sundance Film Festival is not only films, but also other activities such as music and here Michael Franti playing at the Music Cafe.

68 thoughts on “Impressions from Sundance

  1. What a privilege it is to experience Sundance vicariously through your eyes, Otto. Both “Dark Money” and “The Cleaners” sound exceptionally disturbing because they peel back the curtain on illusions many of us maintain about the inherent goodness of people (and governments, for that matter). On your recommendation I will watch them both when they’re available, even if I know I will feel rattled for days afterward. Your photos are WONDERFUL too! Thank you for this marvelous post.

  2. Thanks for this look at the film festival in Sundance and for the tips about the documentaries.

  3. Sounds like an amazing experience. Maybe even visual overload?

    Your portraits and broader images are superb. I almost feel like I am sitting in the front row near the stage or standing in front of the actors.

    What lens did you use (out of curiosity)? Did you use a DSLR or one of the newer, more compact cameras. I mean to say, its the photographer who makes the great shot, but I’m always curious about the equipment used.

    1. The best way to approach photography is by curiosity. And I have no problems disclosing what equipment I used – although I agree with you, it’s not the equipment that makes a great photo. I used a DSLR, more specifically a Canon Eos-5, and I switched between a 24-105 mm and a 100-400 mm lens.

  4. Great photos from the festival – and a short insight in what it is all about. It must be a very rewarding task – covering this. Thank you for letting us in!

  5. I know a woman enamored with Robert Redford and cinema. She attends every year and has Redford sightings. You’re fortunate to have the experience, as she tells me her exhilaration from attendance at the event. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  6. What an experience Sundance must be for a participant. But I can feel your pain when you describe the disturbing facts you learned in some of the films. I find it difficult not to get completely cynical when it comes to our species and the societies we have created. How do you deal with the pain, anger, and frustration?

    1. I just go to the next movie… To be honest, it stays with me for a long time. However, as a photo journalist, I feel it’s important that I know what is going on in the world even if it gets painful – or maybe particularly when it gets painful.

  7. Great photo’s – I love the pony! It must have been quite an experience – and a tremendous amount to take in. I am amazed at the way acting has progressed and have a deep respect to someone who can entertain others. I’m sure you are still remember parts of the movies (I know I do when I leave the theater)! Thank you for sharing Otto!

  8. That sounds like such a fun and busy event. Thanks for your reflections on the two documentaries. Now I have to see both (even though I’m likely to feel somewhat depressed after watching). Dark Money doesn’t surprise me at all. And Cleaners is something I that needs more press, I think. Great post, Otto. Thanks.

  9. Wow, that was an experience most of us don’t get to have. I don’t know if I could watch 30 movies. I have a hard enough time sitting still to watch 1. Still, the experience would have been amazing, and in that context I think I would have been able to see at least a handful. You got great images too.

  10. What a wonderful experience, Otto. It would be so difficult for me to choose which movies I wanted to see. The movie, “The Cleaners…” the second to the last paragraph of your post (“The third implication…”). I could not agree with this more, and I believe it is truly a very, very sad fact. Once that has the capability of destroying society.

    Thank you for taking us along with you!

  11. What an exciting place to be, Otto. My husband and I have a routine (now that we are both retired) of going to our favorite independent cinema at least once most weeks. We love supporting independent films and find some true gems along the way! I don’t think I can emotionally afford to see “Dark Money.” I am not hiding from the truth, I just already have such a jaded and loathsome view of our American political structure that I don’t need to cross over into complete despair! I think I would like to see “The Cleaners,” although that’s a tough subject, too. I truly believe that it is some of these writers and creatives who are going to continue bringing valuable information to us, which then may inspire action and choices contributing to greater public responsibility. We need their voices now as much as ever. I’m so pleased to have “news” from Sundance. What an experience that must be!

    1. You are very right in that we need these new voices more than ever. And also, that it’s hard to have to accept and watch that our world is completely corrupted and undemocratic. However, I hope you will get a chance to “enjoy” The Cleaners.

  12. Wow, what a wonderful dual film review to go along with really wonderful portraits of the movers and shakers behind the films. You have great fortitude to survive Sundance during the festival and to keep a clear head after viewing 30 films. I’m glad you picked Dark Money and the Cleaners to feature here. I was particularly intrigued by your commentary on The Cleaners. I wonder, based upon the spam that I find in my WP spam filter, just how that censoring goes with probably underpaid workers from foreign countries. Of course, the images they see would be easy to cull, except of course for the thing’s like Nick Ut’s image, which requires understanding and nuance. But what of the language in written S.M. posts? That seems like it would be devilishly hard to nuance from a foreigner’s perspective. I hope to see these two films.

    1. You raise an interesting question. One would think you need to be skill in a language to be able to sensor it. However, the same can be said about pictures and political standpoints – in the end it all depends on our own understand and moral stand.

  13. Wow, what a neat opportunity to witness this film festival. I was particularly interested in your description of “The Cleaners” and the way it pointed out the way social media escalates hatred in the world. Sad, but I can see that it’s true. It’s much easier to turn a blind eye to your “opponent” and to throw dirt when you’re hiding behind a computer screen. I sometimes wonder if we’re better or worse off with modern technology. The advantages and disadvantages seem about 50/50. :/

  14. Many thanks for your illuminating overview of Sundance, Otto. Its not the sort of experience I would want to expose myself to but I much appreciate your objective perspective.

  15. I’m glad Sundance exists. It has created wonderful opportunities for some of the most creative film makers to find audiences and future backing. I’ll look for the films you suggested. I think I’m cynical enough that I won’t be traumatized by them, but it seems like every day I find out there are people out there who hit new lows. I doubt I’ll ever attend this event so I appreciate getting the front row seat through your lens. Thanks!

  16. I don’t know how you could see so many films in such a short time, but that’s the name of the game, after all, and I appreciate hearing about Dark Money and The Cleaners. (“Dark Money and The Cleaners” the latest rock band!). It must have been wonderful to be up there, surrounded by that incredible landscape of mountains and snow, and then have a concentrated art and people experience on top of it. I’ve always admired Redford for getting Sundance going; it’s great to have an alternative to Hollywood. I especially like the “Miseducation of Cameron Post” photo. Great expressions and flattering, strong processing.

    1. “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” was also one of the many strong movies premiering at Sundance. Are you serious about the band, is there really a band named like that? Anyway, thank you for the comment, Lynn.

  17. I’m wodering when and where Boh Money will air for the rest of us. It sounds like rattling good history to be uncovered.

    It sounds like The Cleaners will be reaffirming that we still don’t know what to do to adequately censor the new global media.

    1. You are right about The Cleaners. As to when Dark Money will be shown outside of festivals, I only know that a European distributor has bought the rights, but so far none in the USA. I guess it’s telling something, too.

  18. Great expose of the two movies that I will keep an eye out for. I know I have had a friend claim that some of her stuff got censored on FB. Michael Franti spent some of his youth here in Edmonton and I saw his band per form here at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. Great description of Sundance as being totally overwhelming as well as fun. I know that I would enjoy the talks between the movie people and audiences. Thanks for sharing about Sundance again. And yes, technology has its benefits and drawbacks

  19. Oh, my gosh, Otto! What a thrill and a pleasure it was to see the expressions you captured, and the words you’ve written. I was moved by what you had said about social media and how it spreads hatred. I agree with you and wish people were less concerned about money/power than being kind to one another. How far off the road of civilization we have fallen; so many lost souls!

  20. It must have been a fantastic experience! And I hope some of the movies will arrive in Europe. You say Dark Money has not (yet?) found a distributors in the US, this reminds me of “The Americans” by Robert Frank who was first published by a French editor, Delpire I think it was in the ’50s.
    There are things which do not change…
    Thanks for this reportage

  21. Thanks, once again, Otto for letting me live vicariously through you and sharing the Sundance Film Festival with us. I look forward to seeing some of the movies you have mentioned, especially the two documentaries.

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