Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Summarizing Sundance '08

Summarizing Sundance 2008
by Ray Taras

It's the first weekend of Sundance that attracts the media frenzy. The "Cannes of the Indies" looks little like Cannes as temperatures turn frigid and Main Street in Park City is battered by wind and snow. As the second weekend approaches it becomes getaway time for the directors, celebrities, and film industry distributors. Those involved in making a film have already given their best shot at promoting their film. For filmmakers who haven't wrapped up a deal yet the future looks as grim as the Wasatch winter. Pre-screening has meant that some films were already locked up before the Festival but others explode on the Sundance scene and are sold for millions.

Locals can't wait for the tourists to leave. The nearly two-week long Festival pays their bills, but they miss getting out on their boards to ride and skis to schuss while Sundance is on. Volunteers and parking lot attendants who have braved days of cold can begin to relax and replace the constant smiles on their faces with an indulgent frown. The barristas at the Wasatch Pub don't have to explain that the beer is every bit as alcoholic as microbeers anywhere in the U.S. The annual visitors to Park City are convinced there's a Mormon conspiracy to water down their beer. How many visitors know that the 2007 Great American Beer Festival award for Large Brewpub Brewer of the Year was handed down to Redrock Brewing Company down Interstate 80 in Salt Lake?

My motto is make virtue out of necessity. I could only attend the last five days of Sundance, thereby failing to take full advantage of winning the ticket lottery that allowed me an online crack at buying tickets to screenings of my choice. The political scientist in me was drawn to Dinner with the President: A Nation's Journey, the first film I saw at this year's Sundance, at the venerable Egyptian Theatre on Main Street. It is a paean to Pakistan strongman Pervez Musharraf by a Pakistani who believes she is the only woman documentary artist working in the country. Certainly her access to the president is extraordinary, ranging from a dinner invitation at his home to interviewing him after the state of emergency was imposed in late 2007.

The film includes only about 15 minutes of footage showing co-directors -- and husband and wife -- Sabiha Sumar and Sachithanandam Sathananthan dining with the Pakistani leader and his mother. The rest of it is a cinematic social survey of what Pakistanis think of Musharraf -- from mullahs in the Northwest Frontier Province, to affluent Western-educated young people partying on a beach with wine and DJs, to families of poor villagers eating out in the open. It seems most people like the president--or at least feel they enjoy personal freedom under his rule. There is consensus that things are getting better, that women are not treated as harshly as before, that there is more democracy under Musharraf than there was under the democratically-elected leaders of the past -- like Benazhir Bhutto. The directors got it right: Bhutto was not liked by most Pakistanis and her return was a staged event, as the film shows, that was always going to collapse like a house of cards. The film is honest in including interview footage of older mullahs who lament how much they envy Sabiha for her education and worldliness. If only life was fairer to wise old men, these mullahs think.

Sabiha's previous films include Who Will Cast the First Stone? (1990) and Silent Waters (2004) -- activist films decrying the lot of women in her homeland. The first addresses laws -- since rescinded -- that punished women with death by stoning for violations of sexual mores. I asked about what her next film project would be. It will be a narrative about a young girl undergoing an education in modernity -- as Pakistan itself is embarking upon, Sabiha responded. Tongue-in-cheek, I asked whether her next documentary could be about Imran Khan, a Western-leaning politician, founder of a large cancer hospital providing free care for indigent patients in Lahore, and cricketing legend. "He has no importance to Pakistan," Sabiha snapped testily.

In her cinematic narrative about Pakistan, no one other than Musharraf holds importance. Feudalism is one of her favorite terms: Musharraf may suffer from a "democracy deficit" and an "Islamic deficit" but he is against feudal aristocrats like the Bhutto clan and that is all that counts. If she thought that through this film she was educating an ignorant American audience, she stood to be corrected. In the post-film Q & A, an audience member commented that he had said much the same thing about feudalism several years back while reporting for a national TV newscast.

When Sabiha mentioned Condi Rice, much of the audience howled with derision at the U.S. Secretary of State. We all seemed to be white American liberals here. I spotted no South Asians in the early morning audience. Worth noting is that the first two film slots of a typical Sundance day usually play to half-empty theatres with the glitterati appearing only in mid-afternoon.

Directors rush frenetically to complete films in time for Sundance screening. Dinner with the President was partly funded by the Sundance Institute but it appeared it would not be shown because when it first came in, at barely an hour in length, it was too short. The directors hastily inserted outtakes but, to be fair, they were impossible to spot.

Non-documentary foreign films did not have a major impact at this year's Festival. The audience award for best World Cinema Dramatic film went to Captain Abu Raed -- the first independent movie to come out of Jordan. It focuses on an elderly janitor at Amman's international airport who dreams of the faraway places the airline crews are heading for. He makes up stories to the children of his neighborhood and inspires one boy, Murad, to aspire to be a captain. Abu Raed also comes to the rescue of a battered woman living next door to him at great personal danger to himself. The panorama of Amman from his terrace is wondrous. Whether there is enough weight to this film to go beyond an audience award is an open question.

The Peruvian film Máncora -- named after a beach town in the country -- ends up a tangle of stories about hallucinatory South American drugs (ayahuasca), sexual dalliances, and killing. Santiago, the lead character, is overwhelmed by guilt. He was too preoccupied with lovemaking in a public toilet that he did not answer the phone call his dying father made to him. He heads out of Lima for the seaside town and comes across an international cast of characters -- which director Ricardo de Montreuil set out to include in his second feature. Unfortunately the plot runs out of steam and the built-in ambiguities -- did Santiago survive after being thrown into the Pacific? -- remain unresolved. de Montreuil coyly did not try to unravel these in his Q & A session. The coast was clear for a feature film about teenagers playing ping pong to win the Grand Jury Prize in this category (more on this later).

One of the biggest buzzes at Sundance 2008 was around Bottle Shock. The film came out of nowhere. It was shot over a six-week period in Napa and Sonoma, California, in August-September 2007 when the vineyards were sagging with grape varietals and the annual vendange was about to kick off. The director's cut was submitted to Sundance in early November and it was chosen for the Festival just before Thanksgiving. The last of the editing took place the Monday before the Festival opened!

Bottle Shock relates the mostly true story of how California wines won top awards in a French wine-tasting contest -- largely conceived as a publicity stunt by a British wine merchant -- in 1976. The story is surprisingly poorly known to American wine lovers but it is legendary in the northern California vineyards. I have a passing interest in the topic since a member of the family is related to the Jordan family running the celebrated winery of that name in the Alexander valley.

What I did not know about the 1976 Californian wine breakthrough in Paris was that the wine tasting competition was not some annual event but specially staged to include Napa varietals. The French tasters were indeed surprised that they had selected a Napa Chardonnay (which had days earlier been brown in color) as their top white. It was the bicentenary of America's founding and the film hints that some people in the wine industry wanted to give the U.S. a unique birthday gift. As it happened, in the fall of 1976 I worked as a vendangeur in Pauillac, in the Bordeaux. If I had known that the French monopoly on grand cru was about to end, I would have walked off of the tortuous job.

The film is served by great acting performances, none better than that of Alan Rickman (who played in Love Actually and Sense and Sensibility). Another actor, Chris Pine, recruited off an LA theatre stage for this film, has subsequently been cast as James T. Kirk in the about-to-be-released Star Trek. The soundtrack has a lot of 1970s rock favorites and the Doobie Brothers, who got their start in northern California venues, are who we hear most.

Women were not well treated in another recent film about wine, Sideways. In Bottle Shock, too, with the exception of one female who serves as a love interest to two competing male viniculteurs, women are relegated to the background. The wine industry emerges as machismo driven. One red herring in the film is product placement for The Ridge winery which is located in the Santa Cruz mountains (though it does have vineyards in Sonoma). The Ridge was hardly a part of the 1976 story.

Director Randy Miller made clear to us that his is not a film intended to boost American patriotism. The 1976 oenophile paradigm shift might have meant a lot to California winemakers but it leveled the vineyard field for wineries from all over the world. Sundance audiences often ask about a film's budget. "Between that for Waterworld and that for Supersize Me," Randy allowed. "I've been negotiating all this week about rights so how can I give away what the budget was?" The hitherto grouchy filmmaker -- no buzz? late nights? bad sex? -- sitting next to me who had once made a film about the shellfish industry in Chesapeake Bay grunted his approval for such secrecy.

As the Festival was drawing to a close frayed nerves were abundantly on display. But there are always fresh bodies in an audience, some who came specially to see one particular film. Two recent graduates from Berkeley flew in from San Francisco to see their grandfather, who lives in Sonoma, appear as the driver of a Citroen Deux Chevaux in a bit scene of Bottle Shock.

Two Sundance Premieres -- understood as authentic world premieres or merely the latest work from established directors -- I saw were The Visitor and Incendiary, each dealing with topical political subjects. The first portrays a mild-mannered white American economics professor who has become bored with his job. A chance encounter with a couple -- he from Syria, she from Senegal -- struggling to make a life in the U.S. brings him newfound interests: playing drums in Central Park, listening to Fela Kuti's music, pursuing the attractive mother of the Senegalese woman. But he also becomes entangled in a nightmarish immigration case that threatens deportation of his new Syrian friend. Director Tom McCarthy (Station Agent, 2003; Year of the Dog, 2007) deftly tells a complicated story simply. Well acted, polished, and moving, this understated film shows how vicious and pitiless officials charged with policing the U.S. have become since 9/11. The way that racial profiling can spin out of control is a particularly grim lesson given by this narrative.

Incendiary, directed and written by Sharon Maguire (Bridget Jones's Diary, 2001), tackles the worrisome issue of terrorism in England. On a May Day Arsenal's football stadium is blown apart by suicide bombers and a thousand fans are killed. A thousand Zeppelins with the image of the victims are hoisted above London. The principal character is a married woman and mother who loses her husband -- a bomb disposal expert -- and four-year-old son at the stadium. There has probably never been quite been a scene of coitus interruptus in cinema as the one injected into this film. The grieving mother herself has to survive several life-threatening incidents -- let's call it "the character with nine lives" cinematic device -- before coming to the belief that there is no substitute for a dead child like a new pregnancy. It struck me as ironic that the English should be thinking in the same terms as the disadvantaged and destitute parts of the world have -- that only increased birth rates offer consolation for the loss of children.

The film contains multiple false endings. Its overwrought last scenes include an overstated dramatic message delivered by the mother to Osama bin Laden about how London will bounce back. Then there is the cry of the newborn child that will deafen bin Laden. Incendiary disproves one myth -- so much for the idea of English understatement.

Sundance's Spectrum series pays tribute to new voices in independent filmmaking. Other than Bottle Shock, the other film in this series that I saw was Red. A virtuoso performance by Brian Cox (The Bourne Ultimatum, Match Point) delivers an edgy story about Avery, a solitary and sullen widower, coming to grips with outrageously provocative acts committed by some teenagers. It is a gathering gothic confrontation between an older man whose old dog is randomly shot by a punk and the juvenile's influential family. Avery is a modern-day gunslinger seeking justice rather than revenge for the loss of the last love of his life. A simple apology from the boy would suffice. Instead, every act of mercy shown by the dog owner elicits an escalation in violence. It is fortunate that Avery is one of those "characters with nine lives."

Avery had had two sons himself who came to grief in different ways. He was now on a quest to do the right thing -- this time around -- when entangled in a teenager's folly. The audience applauded the scene in which Avery, a Korean war veteran, roughs the punk up. In an ineluctable but low-key way this film turns viewers into stakeholders who demand that rectificatory justice be done. Like the lead character in Captain Abu Raed, then, Avery is an older man who wants to scale the moral high ground before his innings are over.

The movie was begun by director Lucky McKee but other film projects forced him to hand over to Norwegian Trygve Allister Diesen, who makes his American debut with Red. Trygve told us that he wanted as simple a story as possible to explore small-town American society. What is the future for this film? "I wish I knew," Trygve worried.

At Sundance it seems sometimes that little or nothing separates a film leaving the festival as a big winner -- either as a jury or critics' award winner or as a distribution deal success, and one leaving with a murky future. Of about 120 films shown, when the Festival ended only 20 had wrapped up deals with studios for theatre or television release. Take the Swedish entry, King of Ping Pong, which was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Dramatic as well as the corresponding cinematography award. Would anyone other than Swedes living above the Arctic Circle want to go see it? Every bit as dry as the Norwegian-directed Red without its High Noon ambiance, the movie focuses on a lonely boy's embrace of the one game said still to be egalitarian -- where money, politics, or drugs do not taint the sport.

All around Rille, a 16-year-old plump and nerdy boy, life is unfair. His kid brother Erik is popular with the girls and is the glue that holds a teenage gang together. How could two siblings be so different -- one fated for ostracism, the other only for happiness? The twist in the movie plot is that the two boys discover they are only half-brothers. What is more, their respective fathers -- one a glamorous deep-sea rescue diver, the other a dull sports store owner -- are not whom we would have guessed were each boy's father given their different personalities. Mamman, played masterfully by Anne-Sofie Nurmi, is a statement in praise of obesity.

Filmed just below the Arctic Circle around the town of Luleå, this movie brings simple truths home about sibling relationships, youthful fears, and parental angst. In many ways it is the polar opposite of Fucking Åmål (1998, titled Show Me Love in the U.S.), a multiple award winner in Europe which also dealt with the anomie, boredom, and hostility of teenagers living in what is regarded as Sweden's dullest town. Ping pong, swimming, and a chaperoned adolescent dance -- all at the town rec center -- are what teenagers in King of Ping Pong can enjoy. Not surprisingly, the humor of this film -- there is plenty if you watch closely enough -- is very Swedish.

Swedes are experts at marketing their products and King of Ping Pong has a promising future in movie theaters. But it probably won't be as successful at the box office as the film that received the Grand Jury Prize for best U.S. feature. Frozen River is another film shot in winter in a northern location -- this time it is in Plattsburgh, New York, a town I lived in for several years in the 1990s. Maybe I'm flattering my skills of discernment but from the first I thought the ice-covered body of water at the center of the film could only be the shores of Lake Champlain -- which I regularly crossed on an icebreaker ferry in winter on my way to teach at the University of Vermont -- not a river. Indeed I was proved right by the director. Perhaps the Ice Storm that hit the area in 1998 taught all of us to distinguish different varieties of ice. The scenes of backcountry roads with homey wooden cottages interspersed with the occasional mobile home reminded me of my old running route. I found the North Country accents flawless. And the story of smuggling is always in the back of your mind if you have lived up there and regularly crossed into Canada through small border points like Rouses Point, Lacolle, and Mooers.

Courtney Hunt, the film's director and screenwriter, told us her budget came in under $1 million. So having Sony Pictures Classics purchase the rights may represent the biggest Cinderella story of the 2008 Festival. Courtney explained that she became intrigued by women becoming involved in such a bold and risky occupation as human smuggling. The film shows how illegals are brought over from Canada into the U.S. The Mohawk reservations -- sovereign lands spilling over both sides of the frontier -- are obvious conduits for such operations. As a Montrealer, for a long time friends have boasted to me how they buy cartons of tax-free cigarettes from Mohawks in Kahnawake and other reservations close to the U.S. border. Human smuggling is an altogether different proposition, however. And smuggling Pakistanis across with their baggage makes even the casual smuggler worry whether he or she isn't bringing in a terrorist, as a dramatic incident in this film highlights.

Strong and daring women having to raise young children in conditions of abject poverty are the centerpiece of Frozen River. Great performances are given by the two female leads, Melissa Leo and Misty Upham. The Mohawk sense of justice -- say you're sorry and that is enough (as in Red too, curiously) -- stands as a counterpoint to the fear inspired by the immigration authorities. To be sure, these authorities near Massena, New York (where the film is set) act in a humane, civilized way compared to their counterparts in The Visitor.

I had wanted to see a well-received film about Mardi Gras in Mobile -- the city which had Carnival parades, krewes, and balls before New Orleans did. I had heard that the premiere of The Order of Myths was attended by the king and queen of the main Black Mobile Carnival krewe and by the queen of the White one. In their own ways they spoke about the interracial politics of celebrating Carnival. Integrating krewes was not a policy either group wanted, it seemed, and you could feel the exasperation on the part of film director and screenwriter Margaret Brown (Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, 2005). What would be lost if the krewes were racially fully integrated? Black parades were laid back and funky, White ones were concerned with honoring tradition and formality. Each krewe let the good times roll. The filmmaker apparently found racial attitudes at Mardi Gras Carnival both palpable and inscrutable -- a common observation made by liberal outsiders, this one from Austin. Stereotypes of the South are alive and well. Reconstruction of the South is on the minds of so many visitors to the area. Unfortunately I could not catch a screening of the film to see whether the director's cinematic arguments were persuasive.

Nor did I see another film dealing with Blacks in the south living in abject poverty -- Ballast -- which won both directing and cinematographic awards in the U.S. Dramatic category. But I did see a film about nearby New Orleans on the last day of Sundance. Trouble the Water was given the Grand Jury Prize for best U.S. documentary for its story of a young Black couple from the Lower Ninth ward going through hurricane Katrina as it struck The Big Easy, then evacuating to family in Alexandria and Memphis. I was not in the city when the storm struck and to the extent that I have been traumatized it is purely by what I found in the city four months later. I did not think that the critical acclaim lavished on the film by the national media was anything more than a way of making up for the continued guilt that the concerned parts of America feel about the Katrina calamity and its aftermath. So I was overwhelmed by this documentary's take on the storm.

I told Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, the two directors, in the Q & A following the Sunday screening that I believe no other imagery has captured the horror and grief experienced by the poor inhabitants of the city better than their film. No film, including Spike Lee's, unpacks the circumstances under which some two thousand people died horrific deaths and so many others died lingering deaths in the months that followed -- of trauma, frailty, and despair. No document makes clearer who the principal victims were -- and who the victimizing were too. The footage shot in the streets of the Ninth Ward by Kimberly Rivers with a camcorder she had bought the day before Katrina's landfall is harrowing because it brings home how little people knew about the extent of the unfolding crisis. The film also highlights the injustices that continued long after Katrina hit. The symbolic coup de grace is learning that Kimberly and her husband Scott's dog -- which had survived the storm by himself -- was shot by a National Guardsman a year after the storm.

In possession of a Sundance Institute grant, the directors had originally intended to film the return of Louisiana National Guard units from Iraq to their devastated state. They ran into Kimberly and Scott by chance, at a Red Cross center when they couldn't get into the city. The Ninth Ward couple does not come across as destitute -- there is a lot of gold in the teeth, around the neck, and on the fingers. In the film they explain how without education they could never have earned enough money in legal ways to live decently. Indeed, the Park City audience learned that when the couple flew to Sundance for the premiere it was their first time in an airplane. Kimberly attended the premiere, then was rushed to a maternity ward at the University of Utah Medical Center where she gave birth to a daughter, Skyy. She has now been fondly nicknamed the Sundance Kid. The couple returned to New Orleans by car -- award and baby in hand.

I asked what kind of contract was concluded for Trouble the Water to include Kimberly's footage. A very good deal and a lot of love was the answer. Kimberly had always wanted her film to have a worldwide audience and this was the best way for her to get it. Unfortunately, on the last day of Sundance, this film, too, had not been sold and may not therefore be accessible to most of America -- let alone the world. On the other hand, Kimberly's rap soundtrack -- it's "amazin,'" as one of her songs is titled -- is being released soon under her rapper name Black Kold Madina. As Rolling Stone put it, Kimberly is "the real force of nature."

The local man -- grizzly face with a black cowboy hat over it -- that had been sitting beside me left for his condo off Main Street, vacated by renters earlier that day after a lucrative two-week rental. The barrista was getting an early night for a change and would no doubt hit the slopes early next morning. A foot of powder was expected overnight. I left Park City in blustery weather, groppel lashing my face -- the front edge of this particular storm. This isn't the Arctic Circle but, back in Salt Lake 30 minutes later, I found out that an avalanche warning had been issued for the upper elevations overlooking Park City.--Ray Taras

Ray Taras lives in Salt Lake City and New Orleans. He teaches literature courses at Tulane including "Politics, Fiction and Film." This is his third Sundance.