A cinematic rebellion

by Keith Barber

A cinematic rebellion

Early on, it became clear the prefix “RE” would be the motif of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford called for the festival to return to its roots as a platform for the world’s top emerging filmmakers. Whether Redford achieved his goal remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: In its 26 th year, the festival still draws the cream of the crop of independent cinema.

More than 9,000 filmmakers from around the globe submitted films for consideration, but only 190 films made the cut. Roughly 120 features and 70 shorts entertained, enlightened and provoked audiences for 10 spectacular days. More than 25,000 festivalgoers screened films in 10 categories: US Documentary Competition, US Dramatic Competition, World Cinema Documentary Competition, World Cinema Dramatic Competition, Premieres, Spotlight, NEXT, Park City at Midnight, New Frontier and Shorts.

I had the opportunity to screen nearly 20 films during my 10-day adventure. Here are my top three movie picks in no particular order:

• Waiting for Superman — Davis Guggenheim’s searing indictment of America’s public education system is one of the most skillfully crafted documentaries to grace a Sundance screen in many a year. The man who brought us An Inconvenient Truth examines the myriad of reasons why America’s education system — once hailed as the best in the world — has been consistently ranked near the bottom of the list of developed nations in recent years. Guggenheim introduces us to the children who are the victims of federal mandates like No Child Left Behind, and teachers unions that appear to have lost their way. By giving public education a human face, Guggenheim engages the viewer’s emotions. Guggenheim does a marvelous job showing us the dire consequences of all of us failing these outstanding young people. As in Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim issues a call to action, and the audience is left feeling outraged and compelled to do its part.

• Waste Land — Director Lucy Walker achieved a feat beyond comprehension at this year’s festival. The enormously talented British documentary filmmaker had two films in competition — Countdown to Zero and Waste Land. Walker hit it out of the park with Waste Land, the REBEL. This is the renewed rebellion. This is the recharged fight against the establishment of the expected. This is the rebirth of the battle for brave new ideas. This is Sundance, reminded. And this is your call to join us. — 2010 Sundance Film Festival film guide story of Brazilian artist Vik Muniz and his odyssey to chronicle the lives of the catadores — pickers of recyclable materials — of Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janiero. Walker successfully captures the humanity that perseveres even in places like Jardim Gramacho. As Vik finds subjects for his photographs, the audience joins him on a journey that is equally spiritual and artistic. The catadores share their personal stories, and the audience becomes a willing participant in the unfolding drama. Vik makes each photograph a giant canvas where he constructs art from the recyclable materials recovered from Gramacho. As Vik completes his work, we witness the transformation of his subjects, and we are reminded of the ability of art to elevate the human spirit.

• Lucky — Director Jeffrey Blitz has been delighting Sundance audiences since his fantastic documentary Spellbound premiered at the festival in 2002. Blitz won the festival’s top director prize for his first dramatic film, Rocket Science, in 2007. In Lucky, Blitz profiles lottery winners from all over the US and each story reminds us of the veracity of the old axiom that success doesn’t change a man’s character, it merely reveals it. A Vietnamese immigrant shares his fortune with his entire extended family in his home country by building a home that can house nearly 80 relatives. Another winner spends his money as quickly as possible and winds up in worse shape than before he bought the winning ticket. He also discovers a conspiracy by family members to have him killed. A middle-class couple relocates after they experience deep resentment from their friends. A loner sells his house and moves into a seedy roadside motel to simplify his life. Blitz offers a snapshot of America while examining our obsession with the lottery. The stories of these “winners” underscores that money can’t buy happiness, but it can almost certainly bring heartache.

Sundance is simply cinema nirvana. If you love movies, you owe it to yourself to make the pilgrimage to Utah next January. For independent film lovers, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the best 10 days of the year. It’s impossible to see every fantastic movie at Sundance, but it’s so much fun to try. This is my call to you. Join us for Sundance 2011!

Amir Bar-Lev (left), director of I’m Pat Tillman!, speaks with Michael Moore after Bar-Lev’s film screened at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 23. [photo by Keith T. Barber]