Knock Down the House

For film critics, covering the Sundance Film Festival is practically a rite of passage. Sundance has aimed to nurture independent filmmaking since its inception, and its continued success has meant that the films it chooses to accept (and the directors behind them) can be made or broken there. Attendance means audiences get to view potential blockbusters and stars before they get launched into the stratosphere. Everyone’s either looking for emerging trends and talent, or just the latest offering from industry veterans. Given the current administration, I was expecting a politically charged atmosphere, but what I found was something more complicated. This year attendees seemed less interested in more loud and blatant protests than more long-term, complicated change, the kind that is less headline grabbing, but no less essential. Here are the my takeaways from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance is putting its money where its mouth is.

There’s a lot of bad news involving female directors right now, namely that their numbers actually shrunk in 2018, and the Oscars once again snubbed all of the great films directed by women, such as Leave No Trace, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Rider, and You Were Never Really Here. And that’s just to name a few. But at Sundance, 45 percent of the films were directed by women. There was also the Press Inclusion Initiative, in which Rotten Tomatoes partnered with Sundance to grant stipends to critics from underrepresented groups. (I received one.)

Objectivity is dead.

There was a time when respectable documentary filmmakers were expected to take a fly-on-the-wall approach and keep themselves out of the story as much as possible in order to be taken seriously. It’s a rather odd approach considering that the supposedly unobtrusive director is actually the one shaping the story and determining how the audience will view the subjects in question. The trend wherein directors shed all preconceived notions of detachment seems to have arrived, as last year alone gave us many excellent docs which took an unabashedly partisan view, such as RBG, Minding the Gap, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Likewise, the new documentaries I saw at the film festival were all about how the director became fascinated with something, whether it was a person, subculture, event, or a movement, and created a film to explore this interest, typically with his or her viewpoint front and center. Apollo 11 used archival footage to tell the story of the successful moon landing, Hail Satan? explored the rise of the Satanic Temple, Bedlam explored the mental health crisis in America, partly by telling the story of the director’s own sister, who also suffered from mental illness, Knock Down the House followed many outsider, inexperienced female candidates who were running for the first time (including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), and Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins chronicled the life of the titular journalist.

Intersectionality is essential.

This is a word that’s been tossed around a lot. It’s usually preceded by the word “should,” as if remembering to include women who identify as something other than cis and white is a kind of courtesy that should be benevolently extended. Time was, feminist movies were typically about white women, with any people (or more commonly, person) of color thrown in more for purposes of tokenism that having an actual discussion about the complexities of women’s experiences. We clearly have a long way to go, but as evidenced by documentaries such as This Is Personal, which mostly followed feminist-minded activist women of color—white feminism is continually being called out. If you aren’t allowing for diverse perspectives in your stories, then there’s no room for yours.

Risk was emphasized.

Let’s face it, big studios still view diversity, both in front and behind the camera, as a kind of risk, even if numerous studies and statistics prove that movies with diverse casts bring in more money at the box office. Ironically, it means that the filmmakers whose movies will probably bring in more of a profit for telling those undertold stories still have to risk more and fight for their vision, which the crowd at Sundance seemed to acknowledge. At the Gurinder Chadha, the director of the Sundance film Blinded by the Light, described at the Women’s Brunch how hard she had to fight to get her critically and commercially successful 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham made (as well as other films she made that also focused on Asian characters), and how it felt when a director asked her outright where she was going to “find a girl who can kick a ball like Beckham.” (Fun fact: After that story, 90-year-old Dr. Ruth seemed to know the audience needed to let off some steam when it was her turn to take the podium. So she decided to lead us all in yelling the word “orgasm.”)

<i>Ask Dr. Ruth</i>
Ask Dr. Ruth

Lasting change is the goal.

There’ve been plenty of times when the industry has seemed to welcome diversity, such as the 90s indie boom which saw many directors of color enjoy a brief period of mainstream success, only for the pendulum to swing the other way. What many at Sundance emphasized was lasting change, with practical steps to hire more women so conversations would actually lead to action. Everyone knew the trickle-down effect from the current administration was very real. Racist, sexist rhetoric had already become frighteningly prevalent during Trump’s campaign, with his supporters happily following his example. His election saw an immediate surge in hate crimes, and Trump’s policy seemed to be to deprive minorities, especially immigrants, of any and all rights. The silver lining was that such overt hatred seemed to trigger a new kind of response, a willingness to not only speak truth to power, but take it on. A number of women, whether it was Tessa Thompson in her talk with Jane Campion in the Cinema Cafe, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the documentary Knock Down The House, spoke of taking up space. Women aren’t only giving—rather than receiving—permission to themselves to be in the same space as men, they’re making a conscious decision to fully occupy it.

It was clear that it wasn’t so much whether this would catch on in Hollywood as whether the rest of the country would catch up. Outsider filmmakers have begun to stop asking to be let in. Many of them don’t need to be let in to make money, since streaming platforms have increased options and access. Those who have adapted to a changing industry, such as Disney, have allowed minority filmmakers to tell their own stories and have reaped the rewards, evidenced by global smash hits like Black Panther. As a result, they’ve helped shape the cultural conversation rather than merely reacted to it. In a sense, people still want the same thing, which is good movies. In Shia LaBeouf’s Sundance film Honey Boy, which he wrote and starred in (and also marks the feature directing debut of documentary filmmaker Alma Har’el), his character said, “The only thing that lives on is stories and fables and dreams.” It’s correct, and thus essential that no one group has any monopoly on the dreams that continue to shape our lives.   v