mandatory image width: 1088px

Sundance.org is dispatching its writers to daily screenings and events to capture the 10 days of festivities during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Check back each morning for roundups from the previous day's events.

Gaza Paints a Portrait of Life in Palestine

An antidote to politically-tinged cable news representations, Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell’s Gaza is a visually ripe, kaleidoscopic portrait of everyday life in the Palestinian territory.

Advocate Tracks a Firebrand Activist for Palestinian Rights

When Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel began defending Palestinian clients almost five decades ago, there were no other Israelis on her side.

Gaza

By Eric Hynes

An antidote to politically-tinged cable news representations, Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell’s Gaza is a visually ripe, kaleidoscopic portrait of everyday life in the Palestinian territory. From fishers to ambulance drivers, artists to patriarchs, old folks to young, Mediterranean beaches to embattled border walls, the filmmakers strive to represent the full spectrum of life in Gaza, and allow residents themselves to provide personal perspectives and narratives via voiceover. While they don’t shy away from moments of unrest and conflict, the filmmakers give context for expressions of frustration by people—several million strong—who are effectively permanently trapped and abandoned in a narrow strip of land. Yet most of what’s shown is the material of the everyday.

“The biggest problem we had once we finally got into Gaza was convincing them that their story was worthy enough to be told. They were used to being asked for sound bytes about the war and their troubles, but nobody asked them about just their normal lives,” Keane said during the post-screening Q&A. “We found everyone in Gaza to be warm and welcoming. It was a problem to get a day’s work done because we were stopped every 15 minutes and asked to go to people’s houses to share their food and drink copious amount of tea. I’ve never drunk [so] much tea in my life.”


Filmmakers Andrew McConnell and Garry Keane. © 2019 Sundance Institute | Kelly Mason

The filmmakers repeatedly said their intentions with the film were not political, but that didn’t stop several members of the audience from getting into a back-and-forth about the nature of the problem. When asked what hope there could be for the people of Gaza, Keane replied, “I’m not sure if I can add any more than [what] the characters themselves [said]—because that’s what we tried to do: to let the characters of Gaza tell their own story. Our hope would be to shine a light on a place and a people [for whom], for the most part, politics have failed them. The international community seems to have abandoned them. They’ve become political pawns.”

At that point, someone shouted from the back of the Park Avenue Theatre, “End the occupation! That’s the hope. End the Israeli occupation.”

“There’s no occupation,” shouted someone else.

“Of course there is,” a third voice replied.

“We hoped to shed a light on a situation that is, as far as we’re concerned, inhumane,” Keane interjected. “We’re talking about people; we’re not talking about politics—real people like you and me, who deserve a right to live a decent life, deserve to have the freedom to move and visit their family and friends abroad. They deserve to enjoy all of the freedoms that we enjoy here today. Everyone on this planet, and certainly the people of Gaza, deserve the right to live a normal life.”

Someone asked about their subjects’ feelings about Hamas, the ruling political party in Palestine. “There’s disillusionment with Hamas from most of the people we spoke with, but there’s disillusionment from both sides,” McConnell said. They see a lack of leadership. They don’t see the current leadership offering them any solutions.” Keane added, “The people of Gaza that we came across feel let down by everybody. They feel let down by their own internal political system, they feel let down by the external system, they feel let down by the International community. The political conversation is a different conversation, and many people can make that documentary. We set out to make a documentary about people. And they’re people who are disillusioned by everyone.”


Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins

By Jeremy Kinser

One of America’s most singular writers and political pundits is celebrated in Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins, a rollicking documentary from award-winning filmmaker Janice Engel.

A hard-drinking liberal voice from conservative Texas as well as a fiercely intelligent, fearless journalist, Ivins died from breast cancer a dozen years ago. In the 1970s, Ivins’ colorful writing style landed her a gig to enliven The New York Times. The film earns laughs for detailing her battles with her stuffy editor, who, after Ivins described a chicken slaughter festival in New Mexico as a “gang pluck,” dismissed her to the paper’s Denver bureau. She eventually returned to her native state, where she’d remain the rest of her life. At her peak, her column was syndicated in more than 400 newspapers across the nation.

Most notably, Ivins’ blistering wit remains just as relevant today as it was during the many decades she spent taking down her targets. Her favorites were usually politicians. The film opens with a clip that sets the tone and features Ivins’ appearance on David Letterman’s talk show. When asked about her opinion of former Vice President Dan Quayle, she said, “I found him dumber than advertised.” She added, “If you put that man’s brain in a bumblebee, it would fly backwards.” Another frequent target was her fellow Texan, then-President George W. Bush, about whom she penned a book titled Shrub. It’s a testament to Ivins’ appeal that upon hearing of her death in 2007, Bush issued a statement that read: “I respected her convictions, her passionate belief in the power of words.”

Director Janice Engel at the premiere of "Raise Hell." © 2019 Sundance Institute | Robin Merchant

During the Q&A that followed the screening, Engel revealed that she’d never heard of Ivins until her producer friend James Egan convinced her to see a play about her called Red Hot Patriot, which starred Kathleen Turner. “I was knocked out,” Engel said, adding that she immediately went home to Google her and watch clips of the real thing. “We reached out and got approval from her estate.”

The director sees Ivins’ legacy as a humorous firebrand being carried on today by Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Rachel Maddow, and others. She takes care to distinguish that these television pundits have writing staffs creating their jokes, while Ivins’ biting wit was mostly her own writing.

Ivins was also an unstoppable force. “Even when she was dying of cancer she wrote two columns a week,” Engel noted.


Asked how she thinks Ivins would thrive today with the current president’s war on freedom of speech, Engel said, “She’d be having a field day right now, dining on ‘he who shall not be named’ for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

Engel also laid down some solid advice for other documentarians who are dependent on archival footage. “Hire a clearance person who is a king or queen at it,” she instructed, adding that she had to obtain clearance rights on 1,500 clips in Raising Hell.

Discussing the planned distribution for the film, Egan explained that “Molly traveled the country with the First Amendment,” he said. “Our goal is to get it to as many people as possible across the country before the next election and we’re hoping the ACLU will help us with that process.”

Stieg Larsson — The Man Who Played With Fire

By Dana Kendall

In the Stockholm airport on the way to Park City for the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, director Henrik Georgsson picked up a copy of the book How Democracies Die, written by two Harvard professors. At the premiere screening of his film, he read a quote from it to the audience:

“Democracy no longer ends with a bang—in a revolution or military coup—but with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms.”

Georgsson asked audience members to keep that context in mind while watching his film, Stieg Larsson – The Man Who Played With Fire, which documents the life’s work of the famed crime novelist: fighting the growing neo-Nazi movement in Sweden.

Although Larsson is most known for his hugely popular Millennium Trilogy novels—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, which were adapted into movies—he was actually a dedicated, tenacious investigative journalist who had the foresight to sense the growing threat of neo-Nazism when no one else in 1980s Sweden thought these small, fringe groups were worth any concern. He painstakingly researched and documented as much as he could about each group and individual involved in these racist right-wing organizations—and he exposed them by publishing his findings in books and a magazine he helped start, despite constant death threats from the extremists. The film suggests that he worked so intensely on this endeavor that his untimely death in 2004 might have even been caused in part by the amount of stress he put himself under.

Georgsson wanted to make this film because he “thought that this story about him is more interesting than his books—and it’s kind of like the background to the books. He put all this stuff into his books … [but] we think that he would have liked to be remembered for this work just as much as for the crime novels.” And—noting that the right-wing party in Sweden is still growing, having won 17 percent of the vote in the last election—he hopes that the message will help those in other countries, including the United States, recognize the signs of right-wing extremism before it becomes a threat to democracy.

Sweetheart

By Eric Hynes

Starting with Get Out, which premiered at the Festival in 2017, these have been banner years for applying an independent ethos to the horror genre. And no production house has been more active in that space than Blumhouse Productions, which was responsible for both Jordan Peele’s breakout as well as Sweetheart, which premiered this week in the Midnight section of the Festival. As director JD Dillard would detail in an engaging discussion after a screening at the Park Avenue Theatre on Tuesday night, working on an independent budget when making a monster movie was both creatively stimulating and logistically challenging.

In Sweetheart, a young woman (Kiersey Clemons) wakes up to find herself stranded and alone on a small island. Resourcefully, she learns to provide heat, shelter, and food for herself, only to discover a new challenge: a mysterious beast is emerging from the sea at night, hungry for meat. Her life becomes a nightly plot to avoid being dragged into a hole at the bottom of the ocean.

“Part of what we wanted to do from the get-go was make a retro creature feature,” Dillard said, “that was both creative and practical in the sense that I didn’t have a billion dollars to make our creature. So we wanted to nod to those movies that we love, and obviously [we] watched like 400 hours of Alien behind-the-scenes [footage]. Like, ‘we’ll do that in Fiji!’” he said, alluding to their shooting location in the South Pacific. They built a 100-pound foam latex suit and created a lot of the shots involving the creature using physical, rather than digital, technology. Yet the suit came with a major catch. “We found out you actually can’t get [it] wet. So that was interesting for making an aquatic creature horror movie,” Dillard said.

Kiersey Clemons and JD Dillard. © 2019 Sundance Institute | Stephen Speckman

Shooting on a remote island in the Pacific provided another set of challenges. “We lived on the main island and shot on this island called Bounty Island, which is a 25- to 35-minute commute via boat. It’s an island small enough that you can walk the circumference of in like 15 to 20 minutes,” he said. “Part of what was difficult was that we could only use what we could get to the island. That very quickly determined what equipment we could use. Is it in Australia or New Zealand? Because it has to go in a freighter to get here. And then I just learned all this shit that I had no former understanding of, like, oh, lunar tides are going to screw up our day today. I still don’t know technically what a lunar tide is, but I know it’s not good when you’re trying to shoot.”

While Dillard may not have had any prior knowledge of coastal matters, the idea for the film nevertheless came to him during a visit to the beach. “I was at a friend’s wedding in Virginia Beach, and after the wedding we all went down to the beach and were standing at the water looking out with the moon hitting the waves,” he recalled. “And I was like, you know what would be so unbelievably terrifying is if something stood up and looked at me.” He made a note on his iPhone and called his collaborators the next day, which started the writing process. “Then we found all the important stuff that actually matters. But we started with that.”

When asked if he could offer any advice to aspiring filmmakers, second-time director Dillard was hesitant to speak from a place of mastery. “I still feel aspiring. This is not something I tell my crew because I like to seem confident, but if I painted a painting for you right now I wouldn’t call myself a painter. I’ve made two films and it still feels like I made two paintings,” he said. “I want to get back to set, and in general that’s the move. Keep going back and it doesn’t matter if it’s big or small. You have to make and make and make, so that you can make enough that you can hate your stuff and realize that’s how you can make it better. I feel like you can’t know who you are artistically until you have a trail of dead bodies behind you of things you’ve made that you never want to see again. That’s at least how I’m trying to figure it out.”

Corporate Animals

By Jeremy Kinser

A film about the most awkward corporate retreat ever finds director Patrick Brice (The Overnight) returning to Sundance with Corporate Animals, a story of an office team-building weekend that goes horribly wrong. Known for working on essentially single locations (Creep is another), Brice is well-matched with this claustrophobic dark comedy, which premiered in the Midnight category.

Demi Moore stars as Lucy, the egotistical head of a down-on-its-luck company famous for making edible cutlery. She takes her staff (among them, Jessica Williams, Karan Soni, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) to a retreat in New Mexico where they’ll embark on a caving adventure. An inept guide played by Ed Helms, who also produced, allows the group to venture into a more treacherous path than planned and an earthquake leaves them stranded deep underground where any number of awful things befall them, including being forced to resort to cannibalism to survive.

Programmer Charlie Sextro and director Patrick Brice. © WireImage | George Pimentel

During the Q&A, Brice recalled how he became involved. “What I received was essentially just a one-page treatment which read: a bunch of people get stuck in a cave and eat each other,” he noted with a laugh. “The fact that Sam Bain (best known for the British sitcom Peep Show) was the writer and he’s someone I adore, I jumped on board.”

Since the cast is composed of many comedic heavyweights, the question of improvising surfaced. Williams put that to rest. “I think we were all very excited about the script as it was so there wasn’t need for improvising,” she said. “Sometimes it was collaborative and because Sam was always on set, he’d just go and rewrite some things. We stuck to the script so for the most part it’s what was written.”

Most of the cast agreed that they couldn’t bring themselves to eat a fellow human being, regardless of the purposes. Moore, perhaps revisiting her character for a moment, announced that she could. “You have to be practical,” she yelled to much laughter from the crowd.

Advocate

By Dana Kendall

When Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel began defending Palestinian clients almost five decades ago, there were no other Israelis on her side. “I started as a traitor, a very clear traitor.” But she jokes that, very slowly over the years, her status was promoted slightly from that of a traitor to that of a human rights lawyer.

In Advocate, documentarians Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche introduce us to the fireball of a woman who has been doing this controversial work for her whole adult life. As a young woman, Tsemel was just a “regular Israeli,” who served in the army and went on to study law, until the six-day Israeli-Arab War of 1967 ended. At first, she thought, “The atmosphere was that we can bring about peace now. And very quickly we realized that that’s not what the government wants. … They didn’t want peace—but rather they preferred to have a piece—of Jordan, of Egypt, of Syria.” She became adamantly opposed to the occupation and asked herself how she could continue to live in an occupied territory. It seemed only natural that, as a lawyer, her duty was now to defend the rights of Palestinians.

Directors Philippe Bellaïche and Rachel Leah Jones with Lea Tsemel. © 2019 Sundance Institute | Dan Campbell

Even though many of her clients are guilty of violence against her own people, Tsemel finds compassion for Palestinians through an understanding of the context of the violence that they live in every day under the occupation—and she fights against the egregious double standard of the criminal justice system that creates significantly harsher punishments for Palestinians than for Israelis.

The film revisits seminal cases in Tsemel’s past while also tracking the progress of two current clients facing sentences that are incommensurate with the crimes they committed. Though the subject matter is obviously very serious, Jones and Bellaïche also infuse humor into the story as they juxtapose her deep compassion for her work with her coarse, often-hostile personality that makes for entertaining interactions with frustrated employees.

Jones, who grew up in Israel and moved to the United States as a teenager, first met Tsemel on a visit back to Israel many years ago. After finding that her political views on her home country became very critical while living in the United States, she “felt at some point that I needed to go back there to see if I could reconcile where I was at politically as an adult with my Israeli inner child. And very early on, I met Lea [and her husband], and they worked that one out for me really fast.”

When Tsemel was asked where she gets the strength to continue on with her life-encompassing work, she commented matter-of-factly that she simply follows the Golden Rule (expressing it in Hebrew, which was fitting for the Festival’s Temple Theatre building that serves as a synagogue the rest of the year). It’s a rule that we all instinctively know.

“This is elementary justice,” she said. “You know it on a daily basis. And since this [idea of] justice exists, you have to implement it, and you have to bring it forward, and you have to help it happen. The target is there; you just have to help it happen.”