There’s always a bit of politics as usual at the Sundance Film Festival, whose independent-minded directors never flinch at tackling tough issues.
This year’s festival, which opened Thursday, is a veritable soapbox as filmmakers sound off on Iraq, North Korea, Tibet, the Gaza Strip, terrorism, the environment, gay rights, immigration issues, censorship, judicial injustice and disenfranchisement of black voters.
Nearly one-fourth of Sundance’s 120 features films are manifestos of varying degrees on serious, timely topics. That’s very different from the complacent late 1990s, when Sundance had a softer edge, reflecting the cushy economic times of the Internet boom.
“A number of years ago in the ’90s, we used to see a world of independent film that was more insular, a more personal world, with genres that tended to be more limited,” said Geoffrey Gilmore, Sundance festival director. “People are very much aware the world they’re living in now is much more polarized. A lot of films in this festival are dealing with moral values in very specific, detailed social and political environments.”
“I think a lot of people in film and the arts themselves feel kind of helpless, and over the last three or four years have turned to their art form as a way to exert some influence,” said Kirby Dick, director of “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” an examination of Hollywood’s movie-ratings system.
On immigration, the festival has “Crossing Arizona,” examining tensions along the U.S.-Mexico border; “La Tragedia de Macario,” a drama about tragedy that ensues after a poor Mexican decides to sneak into the United States; and “God Grew Tired of Us,” which follows three Sudanese refugees through the culture shock of America.
On politics and justice, there are “The Trials of Darryl Hunt,” a documentary about a black man who spent 18 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit; “Forgiven,” a drama about an exonerated death-row inmate and the Senate candidate who prosecuted him; and “American Blackout,” which uses the career of U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia to study historical barriers that have muffled black voters.
On Iraq, Sundance offers “The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends,” a study of the psychological toll the war takes on troops; “Iraq in Fragments,” a look at the turmoil from everyday Iraqis’ perspective; and “The Short Life of Jose Antonio Gutierrez,” the story of the Guatemalan immigrant who was the first U.S. soldier killed in Iraq in March 2003.
Kevin Smith: ’‘The party’s over’“Cinema has always been a mirror, it kind of reflects the culture,” said Kevin Smith, whose career kicked off with the premiere of “Clerks” at Sundance in 1994 and who returns as executive producer of “small town gay bar,” a documentary on homosexuals carving out a place of their own in the South.
“Back in the ’80s, I don’t think everybody had as much on their minds as they do in a post-Sept. 11 climate. It seems like the party’s over to some degree, and I think movies are reflecting that.”
Other Sundance films touching on gay issues include “All Aboard! Rosie’s Family Cruise,” following former talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell as she leads 500 families on a gay and lesbian ocean voyage, and “Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner,” a portrait of the gay Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning writer of “Angels in America.”
Also at Sundance: “angry monk — reflections on tibet,” about an early 20th century Buddhist whose lusty life ran counter to Western concepts of his spiritual land; “5 Days,” a look at the removal of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip last year; “Dear Pyongyang,” a filmmaker’s portrait of her father and his unfailing devotion to North Korean ideology; “Right at Your Door,” a drama about the panic that ensues over reports of bombs and toxic clouds unleashed in Los Angeles; and “An Unreasonable Man,” a documentary about consumer activist Ralph Nader, the former presidential candidate some people consider a spoiler who kept Al Gore from winning in 2000.
Gore also is represented at Sundance with “An Inconvenient Truth,” which chronicles the former vice president’s education campaign on global warming.
“I feel like there’s a growing discontent, and it’s not just the obvious political things,” said Davis Guggenheim, director of “An Inconvenient Truth.” “Even people who fall in the middle of the political spectrum I think are feeling sort of a gap between how they feel and how the news and movies portray the truth out there.”
Other environmental matters open for debate at Sundance include the clash of timber and anti-logging interests depicted in the documentary “Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon” and “Who Killed the Electric Car?,” which investigates why these nonpolluting vehicles never found a market.
Academy Award-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) — who made the Sundance entry “Who Needs Sleep?” (a look at the hazards of sleep deprivation in overworked Hollywood and America at large) — said filmmakers are stepping up to tell stories the public is not getting from government and corporate media.
“I think people are beginning to understand the definition of an artist in times like these, in this time of deceit when even telling the truth can be a challenging act,” Wexler said. “There’s a spirit that’s not dead in America, even if you do look at all the TV channels seeming to say pretty much the same thing.
“There’s a spirit of obligation in a sense, people who want to reverse the flow toward repression of various kinds. What we can do is take up a camera and communicate to other people.”