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.