When your friend says, “Want to join us at Sundance?” The answer is obvious. And so commenced my first experience at the well-renowned and received film festival. The history is such: In 1961 Robert Redford happens upon the utopia of wooded Utah and in 1969 purchases 5,000 acres, naming the land Sundance (after his role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). In 1980 Redford founds the Sundance Institute to focus on the importance of craft, story and human beings in the art and business of making movies, and in 1981 launches the first Lab for independent filmmakers allowing for the development of original and creative storytelling. The first film festival was celebrated in 1985 as a 10-day showcase for new American independent narrative and documentary films, in addition to a program of international films, and the rest is history.
But back to the 2019 festival — it's being heralded as the most inclusive and diversely represented yet, working to highlight more voices by people of color and women. And this is all making good on promises from Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam who said, “This lack of inclusion has real-world implications. So we decided to do something about it.”
Sundance made intentional changes this year: of the accredited press at the festival, 63% of is from underrepresented groups and 40% is women; of 112 films in the official selection, 40% are directed or co-directed by a woman, up 3% from 2018. Among the directors in the four primary competition categories (56 of 112), 39% are people of color — that’s also up 3% from the previous year. Those who identified as LGBTQ directed 13% of the year’s films (it is the first year the festival has reported the stat). Best? No. Better? Yes.
And for me, there certainly was an air of excitement, anticipation and creativity swirling the streets and theaters. I am by no means a film buff, but couldn’t help but be in awe of the work it takes to produce original films. After each viewing there was a Q&A with the director(s) and actors, and this culmination cements the labor of love that each film delivers.
Sundance, your films were incredible and the ski slopes unparalleled. (Yes, when I wasn’t in the theater I was on the mountain.) Thanks for the mental genius and physical exertion. I’ll be back.
And now, a brief review of the two films I saw:
Written and directed by: Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann
Starring: Michael Mosley, Amy Hargreaves, Macon Blair
Sister Aimee is about storytelling and the women who own and inherit cultural and personal narratives. An actual living legend, Sister Aimee Semple McPherson was America’s most famous evangelist in 1926. She was purportedly kidnapped and disappeared, mysteriously re-appearing on the Mexico Arizona border four weeks later. This bit holds true, the rest of the film is imagined — the hows and whys filling in history's holes. Ultimately, Sister Aimee is about female ambition, revolution and immortality. It also explores a person’s right to her own narrative, the stories we inhabit and who has the final say in telling them.
Directed by: Alejandro Landes
Written by: Alejandro Landes and Alexis Dos Santos
Starring: Sofia Buenaventura, Julian Giraldo, Karen Quintero
Monos is as cinematic feat, where the environment is a much a character of the film as the actors. Borrowing themes from The Lord of the Flies, Monos takes its viewers on a journey of anarchy, tension, chaos and heartbreak told from the children who inhabit it. It’s an exploration of movement, bodies in full force and of basic survival. Monos is a loosely held group of young people under The Organization whose sole existence is to keep an American hostage captive and secret. Set in the high hills and jungle, warfare is total and leadership is fragmented. The film is brutal in its telling and questions what we would all do under extreme and terrifying circumstances with no real means of survival.
Also, a few high-profile films picked up by major movie studios (and ones I will make a point to see):