Park City, UT– While technically Day 2, today truly felt like the first day in action, since it is both the first full day as well as the day that I start my shift for the rest of the festival. From here on out, I’ll be posted up at the Prospector Bus Stop every day from 9:30-1:30. Stop by and I’ll help make sure you aren’t lost! I can’t even begin to say how much warmer and more fun volunteering during the day is as opposed to last night – I’ll be very happy to keep this shift every day for the rest of the fest. Tomorrow, I’ll be sure to bring more snacks though!
After my shift, I booked it over to the MARC theater to take my first stab at getting volunteer tickets for regular movies, and to my delight, it is rather easy! I was there an hour early and was first in line for my first movie, The Hunting Ground.
The Hunting Ground (US)
Director: Kirby Dick
Writer: Kirby Dick
Stars: Diane Rosenfeld
My first documentary could not have been a better choice to start with. The title might not mean anything now but believe me by the end of the year it will be one that is long remembered. The film’s director, Kirby Dick, has tackled numerous hot-button topics and is a master at using documentary as an exposé to current problems in our country that are hidden in plain sight. His last film, The Invisible War, focused on the US military’s problem with sexual assault (available to stream on Netflix). He also directed a personal favorite doc of mine called This Film is Not Yet Rated.
The Hunting Ground tackles sexual assault in college campuses nationwide, and specifically why they are being covered up more often than properly prosecuted. I am still in college and sincerely believe this is something that anyone in college needs to see. While most people are aware of the high number of sexual assaults that are committed, the real shock factor of the documentary is how little the schools are doing to help victims, and that in many cases it is in the university’s best interest to not help the victim at all. These are the types of documentaries that have made Sundance a mecca for films that cover such poignant topics, and reveal more details on something that people need to know. It’s undeniable how important this film is, especially for people my age and younger, and I look forward to championing it for the rest of the year. The one area that I would like to see get more emphasis is not only on helping the victims but on changing the institutionalized culture that has indirectly encouraged rape. The film could have easily been incredibly depressing and morbid, but instead is actually optimistic about potentially making an impact in the future. Ideally, all documentaries on a subject this important would have this type of positive message.
This was also my first world premiere at the festival this year, so the energy in the audience was palpable and not only were all the filmmakers present but many of the subjects of the documentary were present as well. I sat next to two women who work for CNN films, the company that will be releasing the film. Unfortunately, the Q+A was cut short because the film got a late start, and one woman wasted a question to platform herself. Otherwise, the film is truly remarkable and I hope that other people get to experience it soon.
Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (US)
Director: Stanley Nelson
Writer: Stanley Nelson
Because the screening went late and bus traffic back to Prospector was bad, I honestly wasn’t sure I was going to make it back in time for this one, but fortunately I made it with just minutes to spare! I chose the film because of my interest (and lack of knowledge) on the subject and because I had seen one film by director Stanley Nelson – Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple.
This documentary style represents something very different than my previous film. Using entirely historical footage mixed with interviews, Black Panthers is more similar to something you would watch for historical information than for current events. It attempts to tell the entire journey of the Black Panthers from beginning to end, starting with an analogy showing that everyone has their own view of how the events transpired. There is no doubt that I walked away with an entire piece of US history that I otherwise would have never learned. Indeed, these documentaries are crucial in telling the parts of American history that we aren’t taught in schools, often because they aren’t pretty or because they were the stories of minorities. So for that alone, this was a worthwhile film to view for anyone interested in the subject. However, because the film follows multiple protagonists over the course of ten years, the information is not always as concise as it could be, and at times this gave the film a disjointed feel. Unlike Jonestown, which worked well in this format because it escalated to a shocking conclusion, Black Panthers doesn’t have as clear of a through-line in the story. The one area that needed more explanation was how the Panthers jumped from being just in Oakland to being a nationwide party – this happens very fast in the film. However, it is fortunate the film was made when it was, because as a result there are many interviewees who witnessed it firsthand. It’s a long documentary, and I can imagine there is enough material to make a mini-series, but just know going into the film that this one is a more conventional historical documentary than some of the more modern styled ones that also play at the festival.
Ten Thousand Saints (US)
Directors: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Writers: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Hailee Steinfeld, Asa Butterfield
Lastly, I caught a third straight world premiere at the Eccles theater (the massive 1200 person theater for anyone reading from home) of Ten Thousand Saints, a high profile film in the “Premieres” category. Again, one of the joys of Sundance is seeing a film without any idea where the story is going, and this one was especially good for that because it ends up being a film about something much different than one would initially expect. The drama features a high profile cast including Ethan Hawke, Asa Butterfield (Hugo), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), Emile Hirsch, and Emily Mortimer among others. The first thing I’ll say (and Ethan Hawke said something similar in the Q+A after) is that it is very clear this dramatic story came from a book because the characters are each rich and flawed individuals who I can imagine are given a lot more time to learn about in the book. I will also say that from the beginning I sincerely expected to dislike the film, which begins as a rather typical teenage angst and family drama, but builds into a more layered story. The fact that it overcame an initial distaste and ended up being a somewhat emotional film is pretty remarkable. The closest comparable film is The Wackness, which similarly deals with a pot-dealing teenager in New York, but this film has a larger cast of protagonists which gives it a different flavor. I will also say that the film’s story is risky and not something you’d see in mainstream Hollywood, and is a reminder of why we need film festivals because otherwise stories with more controversial subjects won’t get proper treatment. Overall, it’s a very solid film with some great performances and a pleasant surprise all around.
An especially busy day of movies kept me away from Main Street and all the socializing amongst insiders, but perhaps that can happen tomorrow. Now we’re getting into the swing of things!