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.
Day One Press Conference
Nate von Zumwalt
There was a stubborn elephant in the room at yesterday’s Day One Press Conference, the official commencement of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Robert Redford gently, gracefully escorted it on its way.
The Sundance Institute President and Founder’s name was absent from an early morning announcement of the 2014 Oscar nominees for his role in All Is Lost, creating a seemingly unavoidable motif. “First of all,” began Redford, “I don’t want that to get in the way of why we’re here. Would it have been wonderful to be nominated? Of course. But I’m not disturbed by it or upset by it.” With that business behind him, the actor and director shifted to a more reflective tone as he discussed the 30th Anniversary of the Festival, acknowledging its changes even amidst a steadfast mission.
“Change is inevitable. You either resist it – we know who those people are – or you go with it. We want to ride with that wave.” It’s a notion that was echoed by his partners on stage, which included Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam and Festival Director John Cooper.
“I don’t think the mission has really changed at all in the last 30 years,” offered Putnam. “We have seen a really remarkable evolution of the programs in terms of finding different types of storytellers to support.” That evolution is marked by an expansion of artist programs to include 18 Labs and 400 artists supported annually by the Institute. “Sundance Institute has grown, but its mission remains the same.”
Cooper, now in his 25th year with the Festival, addressed the notion in the context of the 10-day event and its nearly 200 films. “What I’ve seen from the Festival side is just an increased excellence in originality and creativity in the artists themselves. We’ve seen the birth of a community,” he said. That community continues to extend its reach globally with 37 countries represented in the 2014 program. As the man at the Festival’s helm so succinctly put it: “Please pay attention to the World Cinema Competition.”
Despite its many vicissitudes, three spirited decades of them, the Sundance Film Festival still fits the bill for Redford’s original vision. “The obvious place to take a festival like this would have been either New York or Los Angeles. Well I said, ‘Let’s go to Utah, and let’s put it in the middle of winter—make it weird.’ But also, and probably more important, it was a place to put this new concept of independent film.” That concept is no longer as revolutionary as it was in 1984, but Sundance remains wintry, weird, and full of independent film.
A few hours after their annual press conference officially opened this year’s Festival, both Robert Redford and John Cooper were on hand at the Eccles Theater to kick things off for real, introducing the world premiere of U.S. Dramatic Competition film Whiplash.
In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Festival he created from scratch, Redford said he’d proposed starting the night in style. “Oh I got an idea—how about we roll a big cake onto the stage, and the I jump out of it?” he said. “But that got shot down pretty fast.” But Cooper, who followed him at the podium moments later, disputed that narrative. “Just for the record I did not veto the cake. I was into it,” he said.
Based on an award-winning short that screened at the Festival just last year—“the fastest turnaround we’ve ever had for a short to a feature,” Cooper said—Whiplash centers on a student-mentor relationship that gets out of hand. Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) plays Andrew, a freshman and aspiring jazz drummer at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York, where the forbidding Mr. Fletcher (a fierce, be-muscled J.K. Simmons) conducts the top college jazz outfit in the country. What proceeds is a runaway tête-à-tête between a demanding (to the point of abusive) teacher and his ambitious and impressionable protégé. Nearly every scene is dramatized through music, which comes off as both exhilarating and terrifying, and often at the same time. Few films have ever captured the discipline and bloody-palmed physical grind of musicianship as well as Whiplash.
“I’m a drummer myself, and I was in a Jazz ensemble in high school with a conductor who was kind of in this vein,” director Damien Chazelle said after the screening. “It had always been a fun hobby for me, and for four years it became a source of constant dread, terror and anxiety. Looking back it was an interesting experience, because I became a much better drummer than I knew I ever would have, but I also didn’t enjoy it at all.”
For Teller, who had experience as a drummer but never played jazz, the great challenge of the role was practicing to become an authority at the kit. “The most important thing was the drumming, because it would be hard for me to sit in a room knowing that, well, Damien is a better drummer than me, this other guy is a better drummer than me, I think that grip guy is a better drummer than me,” he said. “So for my own confidence I had to feel pretty good on it.”
When someone from the audience asked who’s playing the drums in the film, Chazelle was quick to respond. “It’s Miles,” he said, which elicited sustained applause. Though there were passages of pre-recorded music and some post-work involving other musicians, “the through-line, and 99% of the visuals, is Miles.” The hard work, it would certainly seem, paid off. “Yeah, I play,” said Teller, with a sneakily proud shrug.
Opening night at the Eccles Theatre continued with the world premiere of Dinosaur 13, presented as part of the U.S. Documentary Competition. Directed by Todd Miller, the film tells the incredible true-life tale of the Larson family, a group of paleontologists who made the unprecedented discovery of the largely intact remains of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton near the Ruth Mason Quarry in South Dakota in 1992. Two years after removing the fossils—which they named “Sue” in honor of Susan Hendrickson, who happened upon them—to the Black Hills Institution in Hill City, SD, where they studied their findings and displayed them for the public, the FBI showed up in force to seize them. What proceeds is an infuriating, labyrinthine odyssey through the U.S. legal system, involving land rights, Native American claims, governmental trusts, distrust between the independent and institutional science communities, and strangely vindictive federal practices. Before the dust settles in this documentary thriller, not only are the Larsons left grieving over their confiscated discovery, but Peter Larson spends nearly two years behind bars for what would seem like petty, and debatable, document-filing crimes.
More than a decade and a half removed from the events of the film, Larson expressed relief that Sue was at least in good hands, having been purchased through Sotheby’s by the Field Museum in Chicago. “She’s with her foster parents now and her foster parents are doing a fantastic job,” he said.
But his attorney, Patrick Duffy, was as passionate an advocate for his client in person as he proved to be in the film. “I will say this: there was no justice to be had at all. Believe it or not, you only saw the tip of the sharkfin in this movie,” he said. Riding the wave of enthusiasm from the opening night crowd, Duffy pushed for the debut of the film to play a key role in making real-world amends. “I’d like to ask you one big favor—help me. Because my next step is to get my client a pardon from president Barack Obama,” he said to sustained applause. “This movie, to be frank with you, will be exhibit A.”
The Green Prince
Mosab Hassan Yousef’s story is an unbelievably harrowing tale. As the cherished son of one of the key leaders of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, Yousef was arrested and imprisoned at 17 for buying illegal weapons, and eventually recruited to work as an informant on his father for Shin Bet, Israeli’s secret service, for over a decade.
The Green Prince, the intense third documentary from Nadav Schirman (The Champagne Spy, In the Dark), contains a narrative so gripping, and filled with enough political intrigue, deceit and unimaginable choices that it plays at times like a thrilling companion piece to Zero Dark Thirty.
Yousef, who now resides in Southern California, allowed Schirman to adapt his 2010 autobiography Son of Hamas for the film, because he really wanted his story to reach a wider audience through documentary filmmaking. “Nadav understood the dimensions of the story,” Yousef said. “It was very hard for someone from a foreign culture. The nature of the story is universal, but it took place in the Middle East and Nadav was capable of reading the story correctly and I was encouraged after meeting with him.”
Yousef’s Israeli handler Gonen Ben Yitzhak joined the two men following the World Documentary screening Thursday night at the Marc Theatre to discuss their collaboration. Yitzhak confessed that he initially had reservations about participating in the documentary. “In the beginning I didn’t want to do the project because I had enough troubles with Shin Bet,” he said. “I think after my first meeting with Nadav I knew I’d met an extraordinary person and this was his project and I said I’d do it.”
Yousef, who watched the film with an audience for the first time, described the experience as very humbling and understands the potential impact of his story. “How many times do you hear the son of Hamas come forward and say he works for Isaraeli intelligence?” he asked, adding he hopes his story will help stop the madness in the Middle East. “It makes me look much better than I am,” he told the audience. “I just hope I can bring some truth and love to that region.”
Lilting, the first feature from writer/director Hong Khaou, is an affecting, intimate drama about how it feels to live as a foreigner in a country with no grasp of the language and your only lifeline to the outside world around you is suddenly gone forever.
The drama gracefully and sometimes humorously centers on June, a Cambodian-Chinese mother (played by iconic Hong Kong action heroine Cheng Pei Pei), who lives in London but has never assimilated to the culture of her new home. She lives in a retirement home, mourns the untimely death of her beloved only son Kai, and is courted by a fellow retiree, an Englishman with whom she cannot communicate.
When Richard (Ben Whishaw, in a remarkably moving performance), the young British man who, unbeknownst to her, was Kai’s lover, visits with a translator, the two deeply-bereaved souls are able to forge a bond that transcends the language barriers.
Khaou, also Cambodian-Chinese and whose family has lived in Britain for 30 years, said he wanted to use language as an analogy to comment on the challenges of communication. As a child he translated TV shows for his mother and a few years ago he decided it would make a premise for a film. He began to wonder, “What would she do if her lifeline to the outside was gone?”
Khaou, whose short film Spring premiered at Sundance in 2011, counts John Sayles’ drama Lone Star as a primary influence on his film.
That’s a wrap on Day One.