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.

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):