Sundance Films, Day 1 – Marginalization

This is the first in a series of recaps from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival from Reel Spirituality Co-Director Elijah Davidson. We’ll be publishing these reports weekly, and they’ll include photos of the festival and recordings of many of the discussions had there by members of the Fuller community.

The Sundance Film Festival is the world’s preeminent independent film festival. This is not the place for Hollywood blockbusters or their European equivalents. While most of the films here would love to picked up by a distributer and perhaps rise to Little Miss Sunshine-like esteem in the public eye, these films have been most often made independent of the studio system because the films lack whatever the studios understand as popular appeal.

This typically means the films appeal to a smaller segment of the population. For example, when was the last time you saw a film at your local megaplex that featured an all Latino cast? And what was the last well-known film to feature “black people acting like normal people,” as one filmmaker put it yesterday? Documentaries don’t enter the popular sphere no matter how palpable they are, much less documentaries about an openly gay bishop in the Anglican church. Hollywood makes and distributes films that make money, and this means the films they support have to appeal to as many people as possible, and most Sundance films don’t fit into that system.

Largely, Sundance films are marginalized films about marginalized people. The three films many of us saw yesterday are what some might call “stereotypical” Sundance films, because they focused on seldom-told stories, and they picture their characters as anything but stereotypes.

Michael and Edward James OlmosThe first film of my day was Filly Brown. This fictional film tells the story of a young Latina, the title’s “Filly Brown” or “Malo” as she is known off-stage, in Los Angeles with dreams of being a hip hop star whose mother is in jail for a drug charge. Malo needs money to pay her mother’s lawyer, and the best way she knows to get that money turns out to be her hip hop career. (Director Michael Olmos and his father, Edward James Olmos, who starred in the film, are pictured to the right.)

I was surprised how much I loved the film. All the screenings at Sundance sell out, and those of us in the Sundance class with Fuller had to choose the 10 films we most wanted to see ahead of time. The indomitable director of Fuller’s Colorado Springs campus and director of the Windrider Institute, Will Stoller Lee, does all he can to get us the 10 films we want. This is an impossible task, but he does a fantastic job getting close to all the films we want, and each morning he gets up very early to go stand in the ticket line to buy the tickets Sundance opens up each day that we want. He also picks up a few extras for anyone who wants to catch an extra movie. Filly Brown was a last minute decision for me. It wasn’t on my original list. I thought, “I’m not particularly interested in hip hop, so why should I see this movie?”

I was very wrong. Filly Brown moved me deeply. In my favorite scene, she freestyle raps about what it’s like to grow up in a first and second generation Latino community, noting by the end of her rap that we are all “Latino,” no matter what ethnicity we claim, because we are all trying to honestly survive and make our way in a world that often seems hostile to us. I have friends working in a Latino community, and my mind was flooded with images of their neighbors as Filly rapped. Additionally, the film by the end becomes a beautiful picture of forgiveness and reconciliation within a troubled family on a character learning to tell their story honestly and unashamed of who they are.

The cast and crew of Middle of NowhereThe second film of my day was Middle of Nowhere. The film centers on an African American woman struggling to keep her marriage together while her husband is in prison for seven years. The film is a lovely exploration of the extremes of love and faithfulness, superbly acted, and the soundtrack especially is fantastic. Overall, I found particularly the film’s second half to be slow, but the cinematography and acting is so good, I almost didn’t mind sitting with the film a little longer than the story might have needed me to. (Pictured above are Middle of Nowhere’s writer/director Ava DuVernay, star Emayatzy E. Corinealdi, and other members of the cast and crew.)

In the post-screening Q&A, an audience member asked the film’s director, Ava DuVernay, why she decided to make this film. She replied, “I wanted to make a movie about black people acting like normal people.” I found this comment interesting, because as a white male, I know I probably don’t notice the stereotypes present in many films about African Americans. In a Q&A the following morning, Ms. DuVernay mentioned cultural practices depicted in the film that I didn’t even notice. For instance, the main character, Ruby, wraps her hair before she goes to sleep. This was noted by African American audience members as being true to the black female experience and praised for being presented in a non-showy way. It was so non-showy in fact, that I didn’t notice it at all. As with Filly Brown, Middle of Nowhere voiced the concerns of a particular segment of the population, and allowed me to see into a world with which I am unfamiliar.

Bishop Gene Robinson, Rob Johnston, and Macky AlstonThe final film of the day was a documentary, Love Free of Die, focused on the life of homosexual, Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson in the years following his appointment as the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. The documentary is ok. I prefer films, whether documentary or not, that ask questions more than provide answers, and Love Free of Die is certainly in the later category. It is an opinionated film, but the way it presents its opinions is, at least, compelling. The best documentaries tell stories instead of relying on exposition via “talking heads” or narration. Love Free or Die simply presents Bishop Robinson’s life over the past seven years though it so in a very partisan way with regards to how it depicts the opponents of gay ordination and gay marriage. (Bishop Gene Robinson, Fuller professor Robert Johnston, and director Macky Alston are pictured above.)

As a picture of Bishop Robinson though, the documentary was fascinating. I was persuaded to admire the man even if I was not persuaded to agree with his position on homosexuality or his theology. Bishop Robinson is clearly an open, welcoming, loving man, and in the ways he seeks to always include the outsider and love even his enemies, I see Christ portrayed vibrantly in his life. I’m especially impressed with his commitment to “hold tightly,” as he puts it, to those who do not agree with him concerning homosexuality for the rest of his life even if they never agree with one another. I do not think any of us fully understand God, and so I am willing to offer lots of grace to people seeking God. Also, in the conversation our class was able to have with Bishop Robinson and Love Free or Die‘s filmmaker, Macky Alston, the next day, Bishop Robinson admirably answered very directly that while he has found God through Christ, he does not believe that Christ is the only way to God. I disagree more with with this than I do with his views on homosexuality, however, this is all the more reason to “hold tightly” to him, as I am especially committed to loving those who do not know Christ as I do.

My week at Sundance is proving to be a challenging experience in encountering those different than me. I’m excited to see how it continues.