Day 5: Guy Maddin, Rodney Ascher, and a Perilous Journey Into the World of Drug Cartels

Rodney Ascher’s “The Nightmare”

Sundance Institute

Just when you thought things were calming down a bit in Park City, with the wild first weekend giving way to a tamer, milder (temperatures reached 50 degrees Fahrenheit), more manageable Monday, two of the most audacious films of the Festival shook things up again at the Library Theater. First came The Forbidden Room, the latest stream-of-celluloid-consciousness feature from the slaphappy genius of Winnipeg, Guy Maddin. And then Rodney Ascher’s documentary horror story The Nightmare proved true to its title, keeping the midnight crowd up even later than advertised. 

The Forbidden Room

by Eric Hynes 

It’s all but impossible to describe all that happens in The Forbidden Room, since it’s all but impossible to track all that’s happening in the moment. So let’s just say it has something to do with a doomed submarine, a woodsman determined to save his beloved from humanoid wolves, a manacled gardener, a soused parachutist attorney, a poisonous skeleton unitard, posthumous drinking buddies, an inner child murderer, and baths, for starters. It’s a film in which digressions aren’t really digressions, but rather thresholds to new flights of fancy, to more and more fervent valentines to lost and imagined cinematic worlds, to beautiful imagery and bawdy jokes.

“I started just be being a little bit tortured or haunted that some lost films by some of our favorite directors couldn’t be watched,” Maddin explained during the post-screening Q&A. “And then I asked Evan [Johnson, the co-director] if he wanted to help me research a bunch of lost film narratives, and then we discovered that we’re sort of glad that these things are lost, because we want to shoot our own versions of them—they sound really good. And then we realized when they were being filtered through the medium of us, and the things that matter to us most, that they all had our voice, and that they all fit together, and that the male characters all tended to be similar in response to female characters, and that there was a kind of jellification of manlinesses as our parents and parents’ parents generations expected men to behave, and then sort of jellified and quivered as much as film emulsions have during the time it took my generation to finally grow up. So it was just a matter of pointing ourselves all in one direction and making sure all the stories rhymed with each other, and fitting them all together.”

Directors Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson.
©Sundance Institute | Jemal Countess

The film makes hay with a full array of early cinematic flourishes, from sprocket jumps and emulsified celluloid to copious intertitles and prominent foley sound, which engendered quite a few questions about process and the material provenance of his mad creation. Maddin confessed the movie was more filmic in spirit than in fact. “I don’t know if I should be giving away recipes, but we just shot digital. I don’t even know if there are any films in the Sundance Film Festival this year,” he said, before continuing in much the same manner as his florid, funny narrative. “But there’s definitely a tribute to emulsion. And since a lot of the stories within the stories within the stories were inspired by lost film stories, it just felt that there should be a nod to emulsion anyway. And just the way that emulsion moves around when it’s aging and buckling and falling apart has always reminded me of what ectoplasm might look like if it moved around—the ectoplasm we know from those old spirit photographs. It just seemed like a nice vertical integration of feelings from start to finish of film history.”

And when asked why he shot in color after working in black-and-white for films such as Brand Upon the Brain! and Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary, he grew mock testy. “I’m done with black-and-white. Black-and-white is so, I don’t know, yesterday. It’s time for color. It’s time for color,” he said. Then Canada’s greatest unrepentant avant-garde film fetishist added, “I’m trying to make a hit here.”

The Nightmare

by Eric Hynes 

A follow-up to his sleeper hit Room 237, in which numerous fanatics of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining offered audio commentary about its hidden meanings (it debuted at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival), The Nightmare is also a polyphonic tapestry, though this time the subjects appear on camera, and the subject is the horrifically mysterious phenomenon of sleep paralysis. Ascher, who mentions on camera that he’s also suffered from the malady, toggles between eight subjects whose testimonies are both unique and eerily similar—almost invariably it involves a kind of paralyzed liminal state in which a shadowy presence taunts their motionless body. The film dramatizes these experiences with a tone that slides between horror and comedy, documentary and fantasy. After the screening, Ascher asked how many in the audience had experienced sleep paralysis, and about 50 people raised their hands, eliciting gasps from the rest of the crowd.       

“When it happened to me, the Internet wasn’t what it is, so it took 2 years before I found out that it was a condition that happened to other people, and that had a name, and that was hugely comforting to me,” Ascher said. “But now, because of where we are with social media, everybody’s able to share their stories and reach out, and I instantly got sucked into the rabbit hole. The amount of thought and difference of opinion was really fascinating to me. I was spending so much time reading that stuff that it made sense to start doing it on the clock.” 

“The Nightmare”

Ascher said he looked into the science, psychology, history and folklore of the condition, but ultimately decided to focus entirely on the experiences of those victimized by it. “I was just most interested in first-person accounts, eyewitness testimonies of how they’re trying to make sense of it,” he said. “I’m absolutely certain that people see these things—I know, because I’ve seen them. But whether they’re something that’s generated internally or something we’re externally sensitive to I tend to be kind of agnostic about.” He said they found their subjects by both pursuing people who shared their stories on the Internet, and from people who heard about the project and wanted to become involved. “We had to hire two researchers just to pour through the responses,” he said.  

Though it’s all based on actual testimony, the intensity and absurdity of much of the testimony and imagery conjured allowed for Ascher to make a documentary unlike any other—one with both punchlines and terrifying jolts. “I love horror, I love comedy, I love documentary—any good story, no matter what the subject matter, you’ve got to hit those different notes,” he said. To illustrate Ascher’s unique personality and approach, producer Ross Dinerstein described one day of shooting that realized a subject’s vision of a giant metal claw digging into his groin. 

“We shot the claw scene, and I just kept saying ‘more blood, more blood’,” he said. “It was Rodney’s birthday the day we shot it, and when we wrapped Rodney almost had tears in his eyes, and he says, ‘There’s no place in the world that I’d rather be than here right now.’ And literally there’s blood everywhere, and there’s this giant claw. And I’m like—that is one weird dude. And I’m sure glad I got involved with this project.”

Cartel Land

by Jeremy Kinser

Introducing director Matthew Heineman before the premiere of Cartel Land, programmer David Courier told the packed house at the Library Theater he’s happy Matthew is still alive. Heineman, whose 2012 Sundance doc Escape Fire offered a compelling expose on healthcare reform, returns with another tale that blurs the lines between good and evil. Within minutes of watching the chilling chronicle of two Mexican drug cartels, which screened in the U.S. Documentary Competition, the audience understood and shared Courier’s relief that the director survived the incredibly dangerous situations in which he placed himself.

Heineman gained unprecedented and often shocking access to vigilante groups in both north and south of the U.S./Mexican border—a war zone on both sides. Dr. Jose Mireles, a kindly physician known as “El Doctor” in the the state of Michoacán, heads the Autodefensas, an armed citizen’s group dedicated to driving the savage Knights Templar drug cartels out of their towns. Across the border in Arizona’s Altar Valley, known as “Cocaine Alley,” we’re introduced to Tim “Nailer” Foley, a charismatic American vet and former meth addict, who heads a paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon, determined to prevent Mexico’s drug wars from crossing onto U.S. soil.

“Cartel Land”

In an opening sequence, which could have been lifted from Breaking Bad, Heineman records a team of masked Mexican men cooking meth in the desert in the middle of the night. One of the men explains they they’d like to go straight but being impoverished provides them with no alternative. Heineman embeds himself with the Autodefensas as they fight back against the cartels, capturing harrowing footage of shootouts and speaks with victims affected by the violence.

During the Q&A after the screening, Heineman revealed Cartel Land differs from the film he initially set out to make, which would focus solely on the Nailer and his vigilantes. “Four or five months later someone sent me an article about Mexican vigilantes,” he said. “I realized it could become an amazing parallel structure. A few days later we were in Mexico filming.”

He admitted that the story evolved in ways he could never have imagined. “No one had ever spoken out against the cartel or stood in the square front of of the cartel and said we’re coming after you,” he said, adding “I originally thought I was telling a story of good vs. evil. It became more gray, more complex.”

Asked how to win the war on drugs, Heineman paused while some in the audience laughed at the simplicity of the question. “If I had that answer I wouldn’t be standing in front of you,” he eventually answered. 

Take Me to the River

by Jeremy Kinser

With Take Me to the River, director Matt Sobel delivers not only an atypical take on the coming-of-age story, but one of the most original movies at the festival—a button-pushing mindfuck about adolescent sexuality and family secrets that veers between comedy, drama, and thriller sometimes within the same scene. It’s not an easily accessible film, but as described by programmer David Courier during his introduction, it’s the kind that defines what the NEXT section of the festival is about. “It’s a richly textured movie,” he added.

Sobel’s debut feature follows Ryder (Logan Miller, who also stars in The Stanford Prison Experiment), an artistic gay California teen, completely comfortable with his orientation, who travels with his parents (Robin Weigert, Richard Schiff) for a family reunion in the Nebraska farmland. With his shaggy hair, sunglasses and bright red short-shorts, Ryan stands apart from his redneck relatives and is immediately greeted with derision during a cookout. His young cousin Molly (a remarkable Ursula Parker) becomes immediately infatuated and when something offscreen happens in a barn, Ryder becomes the target of suspicion and is further made an outcast by his uncle (a quietly menacing Josh Hamilton), and a long-buried family secret is soon unearthed. 

“Take Me to the River”

Sobel, who also wrote the screenplay, said his inspiration came from his own family reunions in Nebraska which he emphasized were far less dramatic than the one depicted in the film. “I had a vivid nightmare about being falsely accused of something at one of these reunions and when i woke up I couldn’t remember exactly what it was,” he shared. “I remembered the feeling of not being able to defend myself and feeling like any sort of logic I’d use to defend myself would just get me in deeper. It became my goal to inject that feeling in a film.”mHe said the opening scene in which Ryder discusses whether he should come out to his conservative relatives was meant to set up audiences to expect a simplistic story, which would later be complicated. “At the end it doesn’t matter if he comes out because that’s not what the story is about anymore,” he added.

Some in the audience seemed unsettled by the complexity of Molly, and wondered if she’s a pre-teen seductress. Weigert, who seemed very knowledgable about sociological behavior, disagreed and said she sees Molly as being in a natural phase of development. “Both children are in a state of innocence together,” she suggested. “You see it written on their faces. There’s tremendous gentleness and you don’t see a child being hurt in this movie. You see a child exploring and the parents and adults around the child freaking out and needing to demonize someone for it.” 

Breaking the Silence, Breaking the Cycle

by Christine Benjamin 

This year, Sundance received an overwhelming amount of submissions dealing with stories of transformation. More specifically, films centered around sexual trauma, assault, and recovery. It’s no wonder that Caroline Libresco (Director, Special Programs and Senior Programmer, Sundance Film Festival) introduced yesterday’s panel “Breaking the Silence, Breaking the Cycle” with the question that seems to be on everyone’s mind: “So what’s going on here?”

What’s going on is that we’ve been afraid to have conversations surrounding these heavy topics, but storytellers from around the world are pushing forward, determined to make us more aware. With films such as The Hunting Ground, Pervert Park, and Dreamcatcher, it’s hard to ignore the thematic elements bubbling to the surface. Individuals such as Kirby Dick, Kim Longinotto, Frida Barkfors, Lasse Barkfors, and Regina Scully are working tirelessly to help us get out of this cycle we’ve grown accustomed to. The cycle of denial and the cycle of abuse encompass the whole complexity of this social issue.

Panelists at “Breaking the Silence, Breaking the Cycle”
©Sundance Institute | Ashley Lindsey

“We need to start to talk about these issues. We can’t come up with solutions until the taboos melt away. That’s why storytellers are all my heros.” Regina Scully so graciously motioned to the audience as she applauded all those on stage with her. The films we have seen in the festival and elsewhere are just the beginning of the conversations that need to take place. That’s why we are using the hashtag #BreakingTheSilence. It’s time to get these stories out there and listen to those who are brave enough to share their voices.

Pat Mitchell, Sundance Institute’s own Chair of the Board and the moderator of yesterday’s discussion, summed it up perfectly as the panel came to a close: “It begins here. It begins with knowledge and knowing, then the outrage. Out of the outrage there are actions that can be taken.”

10 Days of Independence

We’re celebrating 10 Days of Independence at the Sundance Film Festival with 10 Sundance Institute Members. Check the Daily Roundup to meet a new member each day and find out what they’re here to see, what they’re talking about and what Sundance film character they want to compete against in a dance-off. Most likely, you’ll find them to be a reflection of the organization they support – independent and inspiring.

You can celebrate 10 Days of Independence too. Join Sundance Institute today at Today’s member of the day is Deborah A. from Dublin, CA. 

Deborah A. from Dublin, CA.

What are you excited to see?

I am most excited to see what’s new at the Festival this year.

Which Sundance filmmaker would you hope to share a shuttle with?

I would like to share a shuttle with Robert Redford.

What’s your favorite Sundance movie?

My favorite Sundance film is Whiplash.

Why are you a Sundance member?

I am Sundance member because I support Independent films,

Which favorite Sundance film character would you want to compete against in a dance-off?

Kevin Bacon bring it on! I can do mash potatoes and I can do the twist.


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