A Bittersweet Return To Sundance: Great Films and an Even Greater Loss

This year, after an eleven year absence, I made my return to the Sundance Film Festival and yes, there were a lot of changes but as the saying goes, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose! There were new hotels and condos, new restaurants and a much better transportation system but there were also the same old throngs of pseudo celebs and their hangers on that were only there for the gifting suites, club nights and seemed to not even know there were films being screened. Like I said, the more things change….

The Sundance lineup always looks good on paper. There are dozens of films from directors both new and unsung that virtually no one has seen, including one (Amy Berg’s West of Memphis) so fresh that producer Peter Jackson literally hand-carried the print to Utah from New Zealand!

A Singular Doc Experience

An emotional moment at the Q&A for Kirby Dick's "The Invisible War."

By the time the awards were handed out on Saturday night, it seemed like many categories had six or seven favorites, although a few were pretty obvious. One of those obvious winners (to me, anyway) was Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War which won the audience award for documentaries. A heart-breaking and shocking look at rape in the military, Dick’s film details the pain, shame, horror and lasting damage caused by the attacks and the shocking hypocrisy and cover-ups endorsed by the military establishment.

Why was it obvious to me that it would get the audience prize? Simple: I have never seen an audience reaction and a post-screening Q & A like this one. Not in over 20 years and well over 150 film festivals have I seen a crying standing ovation with an audience full of senators, US representatives and celebs, including Mary J. Blige, who is writing an original song for the film. Packed with stories and statistics that can do nothing but inspire action and outrage, The Invisible War is a perfect piece of advocacy filmmaking.

Lest you think it’s nothing more than a one-note polemic, the military establishment, in the persons of current and former directors of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, among others, is given ample opportunity to address the questions raised in the film and does nothing but repeatedly put its collective feet in its collective mouth.

The film’s main subject is Coast Guard seaman E-3 Kori Cioca who was beaten and raped by her supervisor. Her physical injuries were so severe that her jaw was permanently dislocated, she can’t go out in cold weather without severe pain, has been on a soft diet for years and her jaw has been compressing her nerves so badly that she has an irregular EEG reading. Because her attacker was never prosecuted (and because Kori was in the Coast Guard for fewer than two years) five years later the VA still refuses to fix her jaw. After the screening, a random man in the audience walked up to Kori and offered to pay for the surgery at a cost of more than $50,000. A documentary that inspires something like that from a complete stranger is a powerful one indeed.

Some Dramatic Gems
On the narrative side, one film I hoped would get recognized (and did) was Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed, which nabbed the Waldo Salt screenwriting award for Derek Connolly’s hysterical and deeply moving script. Three mis-matched magazine employees are dispatched to an off-season seaside resort town in search of the man who placed an ad in a local paper looking for a partner with whom to travel in time.

This engaging, genuinely touching and wholly offbeat tale of three misfits (Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni) investigating a lonely, possibly paranoid man (Mark Duplass) who may be completely insane is an absolute joy. Plaza, Johnson and Soni are about as mismatched a trio as can be imagined and milk every bit of fun they can from that while learning a significant amount about themselves in the process while Duplass further proves that he’s a first rate actor, expanding his range with every project. What starts off as a puff piece to poke fun at a wacko turns into much, much more.

Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass in "Safety Not Guaranteed."

Another Duplass starrer, Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, screened in Sundance’s  Spotlight section. It was picked up by IFC films after a world premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. I know it’s early, but if it’s not in my top 3 or 4 films of 2012, I’ll be shocked. Shelton and Duplass, along with Emily Blunt and Rosemary DeWitt have crafted a film that is so beautiful, human and honest, that it hurts.

It’s a simple story: One year after his brother’s death, Duplass’s Jack still hasn’t risen  from the emotional depths that can result from such a loss and his best friend Iris (Blunt) suggests some time alone with his thoughts at her father’s empty island cabin. When Jack arrives, he finds that, unbeknownst to Iris, her sister Hannah (DeWitt) has had the same idea after walking out on a seven year relationship. Tequila is had, truths are told when Iris shows up the next morning, things get interesting.

Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt in "Your Sister's Sister"

That’s really only the first 30 minutes or so and that the rest unfolds so naturally and unselfconsciously is a testament to Shelton’s practice of combining a detailed outline with massive amounts of improvisation. So much so that cast members Duplass, DeWitt, Blunt and Mike Birbiglia are listed as creative consultants. Your Sister’s Sister is one of those films that comes along so rarely that when it does, it makes you happy to just be a human being.

IFC Films was one of the more active buyers at this year’s fest and writer/director/actor Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts (the follow-up to his 2010 debut film Happythankyoumoreplease) was in their shopping cart. Jesse (Radnor) is a 35 year-old admissions officer at a New York area college who find his job intellectually and emotionally unfulfilling. When he’s asked to speak at the retirement dinner for a favorite professor at his alma mater (Richard Jenkins) he meets and falls for Zibby (Elizabeth Olson), a bright, exciting and engaging 19 year-old sophomore.

A charming, witty and emotionally adult film, Liberal Arts, manages to avoid being at all icky, which considering the 16 year-age gap between

Elizabeth Olsen and Josh Radnor in "Liberal Arts"

principals is no mean feat. While fans of TV’s How I Met Your Mother already know that Radnor is adept at comedy, those that only know Olson from “Martha Marcy May Marlene” will be pleased with her capable comedy chops. She has a bright and natural screen presence and does a great job capturing the emotional fragility of a 19 year-old college sophomore. A subplot involving Jesse’s reunion with another favorite professor (Allison Janney) as well as one involving a woman Jesse might just be more in tune with  (Elizabeth Reaser) give the film more heft and move it away from “middle-aged male fantasy” to a more realistic and thoroughly enjoyable dramatic romantic comedy.

Two Key Docs
One of the key hurdles us fans of documentary films face is the idea that they are “educational.” That they are some sort of “medicine” and that people watching them will feel like they are being preached to. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that this doesn’t happen, but I will say that at this level, a documentary is something completely different. It has a story. It has heroes and villains, someone to root for and against, moments of humor, sadness and joy, everything that hundreds and thousands of fiction films have but for one difference: Docs are real.

Which brings us to two other exceptional docs from this year’s fest: the aforementioned West of Memphis and Matthew Heinman & Susan Froemke’s Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare.

Peter Jackson at the "West of Memphis" press conference

The former is a story that some of you will be familiar with, that of the West Memphis Three (WM3), which has been the subject of three Paradise Lost documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, including the recent Oscar nominee, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. Berg’s film, which she also produced with Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh as well as one of the West Memphis Three Damien Echols and his wife Lorri Davis, provides a look at the entire 18 year ordeal but focuses on the efforts by Davis, Walsh and Jackson, as well as Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks and others to get new trials for the WM3 and raise awareness about the case. The reason the film was hand-carried to the festival was that they had uncovered new witnesses and were interviewing them literally a week prior to the premiere.

The story of the WM3 is a shocking story of shoddy police work and an Arkansas state court system that appears to prefer letting innocent men rot in prison than admit a mistake. At a reception following the premiere screening, Jackson (who with Walsh also paid for much of the extra DNA testing that some of the new evidence revealed in the film required) told me that they didn’t care about how much the as-yet undistributed film sold for. All that mattered to them was getting the film in front of as many eyes as possible, officially exonerating the WM3 and finding the real killer. [NB: If you have any information pertaining to the real perpetrator of these hideous crimes, call the West Memphis 3 Confidential Tip Line – 501-256-1775.]

At first glance, you might see Escape Fire as yet another screed against corporate greed and the evils of the American health care industry…and you’d be pretty much dead wrong. What it really is, is a measured, intelligent and well thought out look at the way our severely damaged and top-heavy healthcare industry can be fixed and how we can go from what is more accurately called “disease management” to real healthcare. From the adoption by certain military doctors of previously ridiculed (but proven effective) medical techniques such as acupuncture and meditation to the idea of preventive medicine as a way to save money, Escape Fire presents clear, concise and irrefutable evidence that yes, our healthcare system is broken but yes, it can be fixed.

Along the way, the film introduces us to some rather entertaining characters, including Sgt. Robert Yates, a self-described good-old boy who is rehabbing from severe combat injuries and attempting to wean himself off of 32 different pharmaceuticals with the help of an innovative program at Walter Reade Army Medical Center. “I’m a redneck, south Louisiana boy.” Yates says in the film. “I don’t believe in that stuff, you know? Eastern medicine. Anybody else would laugh, you know? They’d be like, ‘What’s that, boy? Hold my beer while I shoot this gator…’ But I decided to give it a shot.” It’s an amazing story of personal strength, resilience and faith in something new.

Also on board is Steve Burd, president and CEO of Safeway, Inc. Faced with rising healthcare costs, Burd applied common sense and offered incentives to workers willing to lose weight, quit smoking and adopt more healthy behaviors. As a result, while most companies had healthcare costs rise 40% from 2005-2009, Safeway’s stayed flat for all 30,000 employees enrolled in the program. Just two of the many smart and simple examples that Escape Fire presents to improve our nation’s health while saving money.

Unless all you’re doing is watching films (no writing, no parties, no panels, etc.) it’s pretty hard to experience it without missing out on some great films. Even then, there are more than 100 feature films screened in 10 days, so no matter how hard you try, films that turn out to be the belles of the ball get missed and you have to catch up with them throughout the year. For this year, those buzz-worthy films that I missed included Beasts of the Southern Wild, The House I Live InAi Weiwei: Never SorryKeep the Lights OnThe Surrogate and Compliance. I promise I will see them all, soon!

A Death in the Family

Bingham Ray and Eugene Hernandez in 2005

On a personal yet very much related note, returning to Sundance for the first time in more than a decade to a festival I love and had attended regularly in the past was to be an exciting and celebratory time, yet only a few days into the festival the entire independent film world was sent into shock with the sudden and untimely death of Bingham Ray. Imagine Bill Clinton passing away suddenly during the Democratic National Convention or Mickey Mantle during the World Series and you’ll get some sense of the effect this had on the goings on in Park City.

If you don’t know who Bingham was (and many outside of the business won’t) do yourself a favor and read this. It’s a short and sweet eulogy for a short and sweet man, written by four friends for one of our most dearly departed. After that, if you are interested in his history and accomplishments (they are legion) Google him. He was one of a kind and his loss will be felt…always. I’m sure I will have more to write about him in the coming days.

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