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Ashton Sanders Is on a Collision Course with Tragedy in ‘Native Son’

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Sundance Institute

Native Son

By Jeremy Kinser

Native Son, Richard Wright’s classic novel about the tragedy that befalls a young black man in Chicago, has endured many adaptations into feature films, television movies, and stage productions since its publication in 1940. Rashid Johnson, an influential visual artist who makes a very impressive directorial debut, has updated the story to the present day and created a potent version that speaks to contemporary audiences. Johnson’s nervy take on the material opened the festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition section.

Wright’s antihero Bigger Thomas (a strong portrayal by Ashton Sanders, best-known as the teenaged Chiron in Moonlight) is in his early 20s and living with his family in a rat-infested apartment on the south side of Chicago. An opportunity to become the driver for an affluent white family seems like a godsend to help him escape a looming life of crime, but through a series of regrettable events and a traumatic bad decision, Bigger ends up a criminal after all.

During the Q&A that followed the premiere, Johnson expressed his surprise at his decision to take on Wright’s still-powerful story for his first film. “It’s so complicated but bringing it to this time was quite important,” he said. “Richard Wright allowed us to tell a story about class and race and the existential journey of a young man from a certain background to watch how he functioned when reduced to complicated circumstances.”

To help on the contemporary reworking of Wright’s story, Johnson collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog). “I had all these ideas about how this story functioned, all the existential and philosophical questions,” he told the audience. “I broke down all these concepts and concerns and she said, ‘OK, it’s great to hear all that shit, but we have to tell a story.’”

Parks addressed the continued relevance of the nearly 80-year-old tale. “We all know that stories like this are still happening today, but I think what we lack are the tools to have conversations about those stories,” she said. “A few years ago, some people were saying we live in a post-racist society. We didn’t have ways to talk about the complexities. There are still Bigger Thomases going through their thing. It’s a recurring thing, this systemic cycle of bullshit.”

To readers of the novel, some of the alterations made to the ending of the film by Johnson and Parks might seem jarring. The director revealed that he sought approval from Wright’s family and found they were instantly on board, adding that Wright himself changed the story and the direction of Bigger as a protagonist when he worked on a film adaptation.

“I don’t think it would be fair to him to tell the story in a contemporary fashion and tell it exactly as he told it in 1940,” Johnson said. “Maybe we should think of the world we’re living in today and think about how this character would have to react, what his relationship to poverty would be in this time. We had to do that fearlessly because that’s what storytelling is about and that’s what artists do. We fuck shit up.”

APOLLO 11

By Eric Hynes

On January 24, 2019, opening night at the Sundance Film Festival, The Ray Theatre transformed into a time machine to June 1969. Starting in the quiet, dark hours before launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and ending off the coast of Hawaii nine days later, APOLLO 11 provides a moment-by-moment, stage-by-stage, all-archival reconstruction of man’s first visit to the moon. Comprised of footage shot on 16mm, 35mm, and newly unearthed 65mm (none of it previously synced with sound), APOLLO 11 is the rare film that’s both overwhelmingly experiential—it plays more like a suspense film than an historical reconstruction—and a technical “how did they do that?” marvel.

Director Todd Douglas Miller poses with an “astronaut” at the premiere of “Apollo 11.” © 2019 Sundance Institute | Stephen Speckman

“We wanted to tell Dunkirk in space,” said director Todd Douglas Miller, who after the screening was flanked by over a dozen collaborators, including ace archival producer Stephen Slater and Rick Armstrong, Neil Armstrong’s son. While later missions were more meticulously recorded on film, Miller intimated that the challenges of piecing together this narrative from disparate material made the project creatively fertile. “It wasn’t their mission to document everything. Their mission was to land on the moon and get home safely,” he said. “Our mission as filmmakers is to tell that story.” He said his team’s mission was also to leave the material in good hands for others to tackle in the future, which has long been the tradition and ethic of those working with archival material related to the space program. Several collaborators on APOLLO 11 were independent archivists whose work was enfolded into this ambitious presentation, which was developed in collaboration with CNN Films and Neon.

During the post-screening Q&A, Miller spoke of not only making sure the raw material remains accessible but also of being clear about the decisions made and liberties taken in constructing this film. “I think it’s definitely important to make available to everybody exactly what we used and the reasons why we used it,” he said. “There is much that we [digitally] scanned that isn’t in the film. We’re putting it back into the public domain. I can’t wait to see what other filmmakers make of this material.” He was asked about First Man, Damien Chazelle’s narrative feature from the past year, and said there had been communication between the two projects during development. “There was some resource sharing, but they were doing their own thing,” he said. “Damian wanted to tell a really personal story of Neil and his life, while we were more concerned with making an art film and taking a technical adventure.”

And when asked if, despite the riches of archival material included in APOLLO 11, there was any footage he just couldn’t find, he joked about the long-held rumors of the moon mission being faked. “[What we couldn’t find] was Stanley Kubrick coming in from the background. We did not find it,” Miller said. “So it has to all be real.”

Give Me Liberty

By Dana Kendall

“It becomes very rote at times in the world that we live in [to say] how divided everything is, how important communication and reaching out [are]. This is why we wanted this film to be one to kick off the Festival,” Programmer Charlie Sextro said as he introduced the premiere screening of Give Me Liberty. “It is such an incredibly beautiful tale about the power and the importance of community, and seeking that out and embracing that around you.”

The cast and crew of “Give Me Liberty” attend the film’s premiere. © 2019 Sundance Institute | Weston Bury

The feature debut of director Kirill Mikhanovsky takes us through a bad day that just keeps getting worse for Vic, a young Russian American who drives a medical transport van in Milwaukee. He runs into delay after delay that make him late for his clients, one of whom is Tracy, a young black woman with ALS whose neighborhood is overcome with protests. But even so, he reluctantly agrees to take his grandfather and a dozen other elderly Russians aboard and give them a ride to a funeral.

As the unlikely mix of passengers make their journey and the story spirals into an absurd mess, it finds joy in the ridiculous while poignantly exploring the intersections of culture, age, race, and ability in the neighborhoods of Milwaukee.

The nonprofessional actors who were cast locally give the film a deeply authentic touch—even making it appear like a documentary at times—and the feeling is further enhanced by the improvisation that runs throughout the storyline.

Writer Alice Austen said that during the casting process, “When we met each of [the main actors], we knew. It was instant. It was kind of like we were meeting our characters, and it was incredible.”

The team insisted that they find someone who could relate to Tracy’s character, someone who was in a wheelchair herself, and they found that in Lauren “Lolo” Spencer, whose first experience on a set was one in which everyone but her spoke Russian. Fellow nonprofessional actor Chris Galust, who played Vic, had the least time to prepare out of all the cast. Mikhanovsky explained, “It was basically like throwing a kitten in water and not letting him drown but also demanding from the kitten to swim the fastest.”

“And the kitten swam,” Austen added, noting that he carried the weight of the role with a natural deftness that drove the story.

The filmmakers noted that because of the fluid nature of the way this story was created, they made three totally different films: one in script form, one while shooting, and one while editing. Mikhanovsky said, “Writing a script or conjuring up an image is akin to witchcraft. So we invested so much energy into concocting this, and it materialized.”

After the Wedding

By Jeremy Kinser

With his remake of the Danish melodrama After The Wedding, Bart Freundlich delivers his most ambitious film to date and offers leading ladies Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams the opportunity to each add yet another multi-faced characterization to their resumes.

Michelle Williams attends the premiere of “After the Wedding. © 2019 Sundance Institute | Ryan Kobane

Williams plays Isabelle, an idealistic teacher at an under-funded orphanage in India who is summoned to New York City to meet Theresa (Moore), a wealthy entrepreneur who has expressed interest in investing in the facility. When Isabelle accepts an impromptu wedding invitation, she reconnects with Oscar (Billy Crudup), a boyfriend from her youth and realizes the daughter the couple gave up for adoption (Abby Quinn) was secretly raised by her ex. And that’s just the beginning of the twists and turns of the plot.

In Susanne Bier’s 2006 original, the two leading characters were male. Freundlich says he saw an opportunity to create a compelling new dynamic by changing the gender of the two protagonists.

“Susanne made such a beautiful film that I couldn’t see any reason to remake it unless there was some kind of reinvention,” he said. “[Julianne] looked at that role and said, ‘I’d be interested in playing that role.’ Once it was brought up, I started taking it methodically through the script because it seemed like an impossibility at first.”

Both actresses shared that it was the role reversal that made them sign on to the project.

Moore noted that the gender switch enriches the drama and makes everyone’s actions much more deliberate. “In the original, there’s an idea that anything can happen in life, which is absolutely true,” she said. “The fact that there was an actual child, and people make different decisions about this child and they all thought they were doing the right thing, deepened it for me. There was that deliberateness that I found exciting and interesting to play.”

“In Susanne’s movie, because it’s a man he doesn’t know he has a baby,” Freundlich said. “For us this obstacle ended up working in our favor and creating more complexity emotionally.”

Williams agreed: “My character knows exactly what she’s left behind, and there’s something that she’s trying to run away from that she can never really get away from. It lives with her as much as it creeps up on her. It’s been inside her this entire time.”

Edge of Democracy

By Eric Hynes

An hour after Festival Founder Robert Redford appeared at the Eccles Theater to kick off the 2019 festival and mentioned its humble beginnings as a single-location event held at the Egyptian Theater, senior programmer Caroline Libresco stood on that beloved flagship stage to spiritually ignite things on Main Street. Echoing last year’s opening night film at the Egyptian, Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Our New President, another World Cinema Documentary, Petra Costa’s The Edge of Democracy, confronted the audience with a bracing, thoroughgoing examination of a developing, or devolving, political crisis.

A departure from Costa’s previous two features—the intimate, hybridized theater-world portraiture of Olmo and the Seagull, and the textured personal and performative rumination of Elena—her latest goes deep and wide to trace the past three and a half decades of Brazilian politics. Following endless stretches of military dictatorship, a constitutional democracy, with national elections, arises in 1985. Though a hero to the working class since the 1970s and a consistent candidate, it wasn’t until 2002 that steelworker-turned-activist-turned-politician Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (aka Lula) conceded to an alliance with businessmen that he finally rose to the presidency. After two successful terms, he handed the baton to Dilma Rousseff, a fierce warrior who’d survived torture at the hands of fascists and learned to work within the system much like Lula. However, a confluence of developments would lead to her downfall not long after her second term began in 2014, resulting in a politically-motivated impeachment that has sent the country down a path of right-wing reactionary discord that threatens to dissolve a democracy that, though young, seemed not only solid, but a model for other emerging democracies in South America and beyond.

“The seed of this film was born here at Sundance, because I came as an audience member in 2013, and saw a film called The Square about the Egyptian revolution,” Costa said in her opening remarks. “And I remember walking out of that film and feeling so lucky as a Brazilian to have such a stable democracy. And six years later you will see how the story unfolded.” The film is largely composed of archival material and footage that Costa herself filmed over the past half-decade in the presence of Lula, Dilma, and others. But the director also narrates the film throughout, threading together the fragmented story of the nation with that of her family, which saw a right-leaning, entrepreneurial generation (her grandparents) yielding to a radical one (her parents), and with elements of both still bearing fruit. Costa notes that her birth predates the birth of democracy in Brazil by just a year, making her a fascinating and rueful witness to its seemingly rapid demise.

Costa carefully keeps her focus on the specific developments in Brazil, but it’s not hard to extrapolate from that situation to others taking shape throughout the world. “It’s frankly as much a Greek tragedy as it is a story about our contemporary times,” Libresco said. “And it’s as much about our own country that we’re sitting in as it is about Brazil.”

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Sundance Institute Piloting Direct Individual Support for Mediamakers Through the Sundance Institute | Humanities Sustainability Fellowship

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in general, and halted production and distribution for many creatives, the nonfiction field was plagued by issues of sustainability. For several years, sustainability has been an urgent and vigorous topic of study, debate, and organizing, as more and more filmmakers find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living solely on the basis of their creative work. 

In Memoriam: Diane Weyermann (1955–2021)

A singular force within the documentary film world with a global reach, Diane Weyermann passed away at age 66 after battling cancer. Over the course of her 30-year career as a funder and an executive, her work elevated the documentary form and expanded its cultural impact.

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