Sundance Films, Day 3 – Look Again

This is the third 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 (possibly) recordings of many of the discussions had there by members of the Fuller community.

In case you were wondering, it is possible to see four films in one day in four different theaters. It’s even possible to see four films in one day in four different theaters when you don’t see your first film until noon, but you’re going to be worn out by the time the day is done.

The day began with Windrider Q&As with Ava Duvernay, the writer/director of Middle of Nowhere, and Michael and Edward James Olmos from Filly Brown. These Q&As are really what set the Windrider experience a step above the general festival-going experience. In them, we get to delve into the deeper spiritual themes in the films we see. (We recorded these conversations, and as the films are released in theaters, we will make the recordings available here on our site.) As soon as the discussion with the Olmoses ended, I hurried across town to the famed Egyptian Theater, which is the theater you most often see depicted in relation to Sundance. (Its marquee is the thumb image for these Sundance articles, actually.)

My first film of the day was Beasts of the Southern Wild, a fantasy/folk-tale about a future America when the polar ice caps have begun to melt. The U.S. has installed a huge levee as far north as Missouri and ordered all its citizens across it. A small community of people have refused to move, however, and have set up their own society on a newly created island a few miles south of the levee. The story centers on a young girl and her attempts to deal with the loss of her mother and make her way in the world.

At least I think that’s what the movie is about. It’s an incredibly strange film. There are prehistoric creatures newly freed from the melting icecaps roaming the countryside, shrimp and crawfish feasts that will either make you hungry or turn your stomach, and fires, floods, and explosions that seem to have marginal effect on the island-dwellers’ world. Imagine if Spike Lee’s documentary about Hurricane Katrina (When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts) was more like Spike Jonze’s mythic coming of age tale, Where the Wild Things Are.

Even if I didn’t always know exactly why things were happening in the story, I never felt like I didn’t know what was happening. The story has continuity, and the emotional payoff is profound. Stripped of all its quirks, Beasts is the story of a young girl’s coming of age. As she learns to accept her mother’s death and takes her place as a full member of her community, I was deeply moved.

The scenes of her community celebrating together are particularly profound. Theirs is a devastated world, and yet they revel in the good they have. There is something remarkably Ecclesial about that urge. Beasts of the Southern Wild, just like Ecclesiastes, is at times painfully aware of the heartache of life, and rejoices in life anyway. Considering its hopeful, human message, and its engaging quirkiness, it’s easy to see why this film won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s festival.

After Beasts ended, I hurried across town to catch Finding North, a documentary about hunger in the United States. The film paints with a broad brush, attempting to show that hunger affects families across the nation in a diversity of cultural contexts from ranching towns in Colorado to the ghettos of New York City. It points an accusatory finger at government policies in particular, and suggest that the best way to fix the problem is to elect the right people who will change our broken programs.

The film is most moving as it focuses on individuals and specific communities. One community in Colorado seems especially stricken by hunger, and the variety of ways they deal with their problem is fascinating. The film also presents faith-based organizations in a remarkably favorable light, while still implying that their actions are not and will never be enough.

Finding North is the kind of documentary that causes arguments, because it is very determined in its proposed solutions, and at times, the stories don’t back up the critiques. For example, the teleplay shows a church doing remarkable work in that Colorado ranch town, but the narration simply claims they can’t do enough and that the government should step in to pick up the slack. There is no evidence given for this solution, however. Finding North is a well made documentary, I was always engaged, but I left feeling helpless and hopeless instead of empowered by new knowledge and optimistic for change.

Following Finding North, I hurried across town once again to make it to my screening of I Am Not A Hipster. This is a narrative film set in San Diego about a semi-famous singer/songwriter struggling to come to grips with his mother’s death and maintain his relationships as he learns to grieve. The film is Once-like in the way it incorporates music into its narrative, and it is humorous and poignant in turns. I loved it. I Am Not A Hipster was my second favorite film of the festival.

I, admittedly, have a soft spot for San Diego, but I also adore films that have a strong sense of place. I have spent much of the last few years in San Diego and plan to move there soon to join friends church planting in the area. There are many people whom I love in the city and its suburbs. I Am Not A Hipster captures the city very well.

It also captures the philosophical difficulties faced by all conscientious artists as they struggle to find meaning in their art-making in light of death and sorrow. Why write songs when people are drowning in Japan and mothers are dying of cancer in Iowa? Grief and loss casts a shadow over all our joyous pursuits. Do we focus on the shadows or on the light causing them to be cast? The film’s protagonist has to learn to find joy in the midst of heartache just like the people in Beasts of the Southern Wild. He just does so in San Diego instead of a mythical land south of a continent-crossing levee.

After I Am Not A Hipster, I procured a quick dinner, called my girlfriend, and stood in line for what became my favorite film of the festival – Room 237.

Room 237 is a documentary about conspiracy theories about the Stanley Kubrick film The Shining. You might need to read that sentence twice to really get it. This documentary isn’t about the people who have theories about what is “really” going on in The Shining. It’s about the theories. The film is nothing but two hours of clips from The Shining and other Kubrick films with voice narration by the various theorists demonstrating the symbolism, juxtapositions, and layers they believe are inherent in the classic horror film.

The theories are diverse. They range from symbolic historical apologies for the United States’ mistreatment of Native Americans to meditations on the nature of memory and the past to an expose on how the U.S. faked the Apollo 11 moon landing to something to do with minotaurs and star people. Every theory is explained and demonstrated and dissected and deconstructed ad nauseum, and as the film continues, the audience is dropped deeper and deeper into this complex world of suspicion and circumstance surrounding The Shining.

As I watched, I was struck with the religious devotion and meaning these theorists derive from this horror film. The Shining, for each of them, helps them better understand the world and their place in it. They all consider it to be the most complex and expertly crafted film of all time, and in some cases, the high point of all artistic achievement. Most of them don’t even like the movie as purely a movie, but they are each overawed at the perceived mastery of intention displayed by Stanley Kubrick.

In the post-screening discussion with the director and producer, one audience member raised his hand and said, “What struck me about your film was the way these people have absolute confidence in the intelligence and internality of Kubrick. If something doesn’t seem to fit, if there is what we would normally call a ‘continuity error,’ they have to fit that inconsistency into their theory of what The Shining is really about” (paraphrase). At this point, the producer, who hadn’t said anything up to this point during the Q&A, took the microphone and said, “Exactly! It’s just like people who believe in Biblical inerrancy.” The four of us Fuller students in attendance turned to each other in shock as a brief discussion on an explicitly Christian theological concept broke out at 2 AM in a theater at Sundance after a movie about crazy theories about a horror film from 1980.

This is what film is in our society. Movies are a way we deal with all kinds of issues that impact our world, including things like Biblical inerrancy. If Christians fail to take seriously the films they and the rest of society are seeing, we miss out on conversations that have the potential to have profound effects on individuals’ lives. Room 237 is about The Shining, but moreso, it is about the way we make meaning from movies. These stories affect us and therefore affect our world.

Pay attention, or, as the 2012 Sundance Film Festival itself phrased it, “Look again.”