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.

Films in Abundance

The actors Jon Hamm and Tim Robbins presenting the movie Marjorie Prime at Sundance Film Festival
The actors Jon Hamm and Tim Robbins presenting the movie Marjorie Prime at Sundance Film Festival
The movie Crown Heights being presented at Sundance Film Festival with both the cast and Colin Warner himself (with family), who wrongfully served 21 years in prison in USA
The movie Crown Heights being presented at Sundance Film Festival with both the cast and Colin Warner himself (with family), who wrongfully served 21 years in prison in USA
The director Mark Pellington and the actress Shirley MacLaine talking about the movie The Last Word at Sundance Filme Festival
The director Mark Pellington and the actress Shirley MacLaine talking about the movie The Last Word at Sundance Filme Festival

I have just returned from a week full of excellent movies. As usual at the end of January, I have attended this year’s Sundance Film Festival. And as usual it’s a week full of stress to be able to see as many movies as possible, getting from one venue to another in time, eating whatever you can get to in between movies, trying to figure out which movies to watch among close to 120 movies, navigating piles of snow, high altitude, freezing temperatures, even getting some time to go skiing in Utah’s famous powder snow and finally throw in some hours of sleep in between.

This year we watched 23 films (the record is 37) during the week we spent in Park City where the Sundance Film Festival takes place. It’s probably the best and biggest festival for indie films in the world, this year no exception. In fact, I don’t know if we just were able to pick the better films or if the level was even higher than usual this year. But we did see some amazing movies, both dramas and documentaries.

I would like to recommend a few of these movies, which hopefully will make it out into the world over the next couple of months. It’s not possible—or it wouldn’t be advisable—to review all the movies we watched. Instead, I will briefly describe what I regard as the best in each category that are showcased at Sundance.

In the Premier category, for me, the strongest movie was without doubt Wind River. Not the most pleasant film, but intense, honest, direct and powerful. On a basic level it’s about a murder of a young woman in Native American reservation, but what really makes the movie stand out are the tough characters and their not always unproblematic relationships. This is probably the best movie I watched at Sundance this year.

In the US Dramatic Competition the movie Crown Heights stood out. A dramatisation of a true story, about Colin Warner who was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. It is also a film about how the US justice system does everything to prove itself an injustice system, rather—particularly when you are black and poor. Personally, it was an amazing experience to witness Lakeith Stanfield who played Warner as well as Colin Warner himself presenting the film at Sundance.

In the World Cinema Dramatic Competition the Mexican movie Sueño in otro ideoma or I Dream in Another Language totally captivated me. A beautiful movie, magical and both funny and sensitive at the same time. It’s about old languages disappearing, it’s about getting old, it’s about love and the ever divergence between being outside and inside a community.

In the US Documentary Competition, there were quite a few strong movies. My favourite was Bending the Arc about the extraordinary doctors and activists whose work 30 years ago to save lives in a rural Haitian village grew into a global battle in the halls of power for the right to health for all. One of the doctors ended up becoming the director of World Bank. Extremely powerful.

My favourite in the World Cinema Documentary Competition was 500 Years. It is a film about the fight in Guatemala to get rid of presidents who were responsible for genocide in the last decades of previous century. The title refers to the struggle for the indigenous Maya population against the white oppressors who have ruled the country since the Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado conquered Guatemala.

If you ever get a chance, these five movies I all strongly recommend.

On a different note, I want to remind you that you could win a free participation in my online photo workshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice». It’s an eight weeks workshop that starts up May 22nd. Just send me an email, stating your name and why you would like to attend the online workshop and you will be in for the draw. But remember, you will have to enter before the end of January. In other words, only few days left. I will present the winner next week.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon EOS-1D Mark II and either a 24-105 mm lens or a 100-400 mm. The photos were processed in Lightroom.

Movie Week

On the way to Sundance Film Festival flying over Mount Rainier
On the way to Sundance Film Festival flying over Mount Rainier
The director Stephanie Soechtig (to the far left) and some of her crew behind the documentary Fed Up
The director Stephanie Soechtig (to the far left) and some of her crew behind the documentary Fed Up
The Norwegian film crew  are having fun at the premier of Dead Snow - Red vs. Dead
The Norwegian film crew are having fun at the premier of Dead Snow – Red vs. Dead
When tired of movies one can always have fun on the ski slopes around Park City
When tired of movies one can always have fun on the ski slopes around Park City
The British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon presents their new film The Trip to Italy
The British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon present their new film The Trip to Italy
William H. Macy  has directed the emotionally very strong movie Rudderless
William H. Macy has directed the emotionally very strong movie Rudderless

Once again I have covered Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, USA, the independent movie festival initiated by Robert Redford. And as always it’s a both fun and intense week. It leaves you with strong impressions and wonderful insight to how they work, those most creative filmmakers in the world. I watched movies – of course, I photograph people in the film business presenting their work during the festival and I try to get some time up in the ski slopes above Park City as well. The better of two worlds in other words – some skiing and loads of movies. This time, though, I only watched 26 films compared to my old record of 37 movies in a week. Still plenty enough and not leaving much time for ordinary tasks such as eating and sleeping.

As always I am impressed by the high level of the films presented at Sundance Film Festival. There at lots of excellent films from all over the world, and unfortunately it’s only possible to watch a small fraction of what is offered. I wish I had had more time, but then again another week with such intensity would probably not have been very good for my health, neither physically nor mentally. But it certainly leaves anyone attending the festival – included me – with the dilemma of what to watch and what to leave out. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t, but still you never encounter uninteresting movies even if they might not be of your taste.

A handful of favourite films I watched this time:
Rudderless – A poignant and very emotional drama directed by William H. Macy (who also has a small role in the movie). It deals with the terrible shock when a father experiences a school shooting where his son is a student. Billy Crudup does an astonishing job portraying the father. One of the movies that really stands out.

Fed Up – A very strong documentary that shows how the food industry is destroying our lives with their unhealthy processed food. You think you eat healthy? After having watched this film you will surely re-evaluate your eating habits. It’s shocking, no less. Hopefully it will make it to the cinemas or the TV-station. Another one to watch.

The Trip to Italy – If you want a brilliant and hilarious funny movie, this is for you. The British actors and comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon travel around in Italy, eat excellently and are just unbelievable funny.

Dead Snow – Red vs. Dead – Maybe not for everyone. Actually only recommended if you have a macabre sense of humour and don’t mind gore and blood completely over the top. An army of Nazi zombies meets an army of resurrected Soviet soldiers in Northern Norway. This is the sequel to the original Dead Snow, which gained cult status after it was released at Sundance in 2009.

Enough movies – on a different note I will just apologize to those of you who didn’t get a spot attending my new eWorkshop I launched before I took off to Park City. It only took two days before the workshop fully booked. I promise the workshops will be launched again at some later point. I hope to see you then.

Too Many Great Movies

Flying to Utah and Sundance Film Festival
Flying to Utah and Sundance Film Festival
Kevin Pearce, family members and film crew present The Crash Reel
Kevin Pearce, family members and film crew present The Crash Reel
Director, writer and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt present the comedy Don Jon's Addiction
Director, writer and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt presents the comedy Don Jon’s Addiction
Waiting in line for one of the many venues during Sundance Film Festival
Waiting in line for one of the many venues during Sundance Film Festival
The main cast of the movie Stoker; Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode and Mia Wasikowska
The main cast of the movie Stoker; Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode and Mia Wasikowska

Last week was an intense week. Once again I covered Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and once again it was a week full of strong impressions and great movies. With something in the close range of 200 films being displayed it’s almost despairing, knowing no matter what you will only be able to see a handful of the lot. So you do your best to pick the ones you think will be the best, and you know you will miss some many. But that’s just the game of any film festival. Having done this for almost the tenth time now, we do get better at picking the right ones, but still it isn’t possible to get to all the ones you pick, simply because the puzzle of time schedules and venues won’t fit together. And this time we even slowed down a bit and finally «only» watched a little less than 30 movies. Still enough to make your brain go dead and feel oversaturated, so much that one would think we would have had enough movies for some time. But guess what, I had hardly gotten back from Sundance Film Festival before I put on a DVD…

The whole experience of a film festival is quite exhausting, but it’s also incredible inspiring. You see so much creativity and cutting edge artwork almost on an explosive level that it makes your own creative mind go skyrocketing. It’s truly what Julian Cameron calls replenishing the creative well.

My four favourite movies from this year’s Sundance Film Festival are:
The Crash Reel – A documentary about the almost fatal accident of half-pipe legend Kevin Pearce and his recovery.

Stoker – Probably the best vampire movie I have ever seen. Very subtle, very intelligent and with beautiful cinematography.

The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman – A bizarre, dark and beautiful love story, as well as a story about finding a meaning to life.

Don Jon’s Addiction – A hilarious funny movie about sexual archetypes and why relationships often end up being screwed up.

Movies to Watch

Since I have just returned from Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, this post will be a little different than usual. In a sense it will still be about creativity and imagery, but this time taken from the film industry. This post is in a way a tribute to all those great movies that were showcased through the week of the festival. Sundance Film Festival is the biggest festival for independent film in US, and as such is both a great manifestation of the creative forces outside of mainstream Hollywood and an intense experience of the best movies the whole world are able to muster. This is the 7th time I cover Sundance Film Festival and the quality of films being showcased was – once again – amazing. Here is a little summary of my favorite movies from this year’s festival.

Let me start with my two absolute favourites. First of all The Ambassador emerges as an outstanding document of the problems facing Africa. Behind the film stands the Danish journalist Mads Brügger. He bought himself a diplomatic title and passport from Liberia and entered the Central African Republic as their ambassador. The purpose was to expose the trading of blood diamonds in this maybe most corrupt of all African countries. Mads Brügger plays the role with wit and an almost naïve approach, like an arrogant, postcolonial, upper class, white diplomat, sporting dark glasses, riding boots and a cigarette holder. He ominously uncovers the comprehensive corruption, among Africans and Westerners alike. Really one to watch.

The second of my favourite films is a drama that takes place in Kashmir. Valley of Saints is a delightful, beautiful, enlightening and sweet story about Gulzar, a working-class boatman on Dal Lake, that falls in love with a pretty biology scientists and how he gradually realizes that the ecology of the lake faces an alarming threat. The lovely story takes place against a background of political uprising and a weeklong military curfew. The landscape is serene; the acting honest and wonderful – even though none of them are actually actors, and the cinematography simply outstanding. If you have to have some moments of hard action to be able to enjoy a film, this might not be the one for you, but otherwise it’s one of the best I have seen in a long time.

Other movies in the dramatic category I really enjoyed, was My Brother, the Devil, a Muslim gangbanger film with a gay twist taken place in London. It’s a film rich in beauty, humility, authenticity and depth. The Words is another dramatic film about a young writer who suddenly achieves success after having found a complete manuscript that he passes on as his own. When he meets an old man that turns out to be the one who wrote the manuscript, his whole life changes dramatically. This is a well crafted and subtle tale that examines how overwhelming desire can lead to unforeseen and unwanted consequences.

Two recommendation in the documentary category: In 5 Broken Cameras the Palestinian Emad Burnat tells the story of how his village of farmers fights Israeli settlers who take over their land. During filming 5 cameras are lost and broken due to violence by Israeli soldiers. Finding North is a shocking document about hunger in USA. It reveals that one out of six (or 50 millions) US citizens suffer from food insecurity – they don’t know if they have food for the next meal. It reveals the disgrace of US politicians who rather subsidise corporate agriculture that produces unhealthy products with high content of starch and sugar, instead of helping their own people get food on the table.

Two movies for those who enjoy humour: First of all; 2 Days in New York is a movie by French Julie Delpy that heightens cultural differences to comedic extremes. A hilarious film – featuring Chris Rock. Sleepwalk with Me is an autobiographical movie about the comedian Mike Birbiglia – based on his successful one-man show. Great fun.

I have to mention two movies in their own class, both way out there and rather weird. Wrong is a movie I absolutely didn’t like, but I met many who were equally delighted about it. So if you don’t have the same taste as me, I will recommend it. And if you don’t know my taste, I guess you will have to take a chance. 100 per cent weird. The exact opposite can be said about Excision. This one I really liked. Macabre and really bizarre.

My last recommendation is going to be Under African Skies about Paul Simon and the making of his album Graceland with South African musicians during UN’s cultural ban of South Africa which resulted in protests from all of the world as well as ANC. It follows Paul Simon back to South Africa 25 years later, a return which ends with a reconciliation with ANC. A delightful movie.

Hopefully these movies will hit the cinemas of the world one day. Let me round up this post with a little digression; a picture of me enjoying something else than movies in Park City (© Pat O’Rourke):