Sundance Time Again, Pt. 5: American Voices

Back in Park City, I resume a long day of screenings of both independent cinema as well as works that probably were positioned for television. No matter…having stayed away from Swag Avenue (eg.: Main Street), I’m pretty much able to concentrate, as I have the whole week, on the movies, which is the intended point of festival organizers here in the first place. Another nice day — it’s gotten so warm here in Park City that by the time I arrive for the packed late-night premiere screening of CALIFORNIA SOLO, the bone-chilling cold that befell the festival most nights was no-where to be found.

First, some business: an interview with director Yung Chang, whose CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT was one of my favorites, then a quick visit to Park City TV to introduce myself to directors Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi of the absolutely arresting 5 BROKEN CAMERAS. Whew! I’ve come to the conclusion that the International Documentary Competition here is going to be among the very best sections of the festival, and these two works are turing out to be among the most exceptional. It’s good to be able to see such good stuff here, and to meet such committed yet humble filmmaking talents.

Somewhere during this long day, I meet up with Ivy Lam, a news person who handles advertising accounts for The Hollywood Reporter, to take in the many exhibits at the New Frontiers component of the Sundance Film Festival. Composed of a variety of site-specific installations and gaming consoles that range over the scope of alternative and trans-media based cinema. Ivy took in an environmental video from Singapore complete with cloud effects and ear-splitting audio effects (she said she fell asleep during part of it!) while I obsess on the gaming consoles that comment on the ways that corporations stay profitable while avoiding the pitfalls of capitalism (I bankrupt both McDonald’s and Exxon, proving that I don’t have the skills to be a 1-percenter. I hate losing games, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing that I single-handedly took down a couple of huge corporations, if only through video games.).

And then, to more films: probably the most commercial-looking of the films I screen this week would have to be ETHEL, director Rory Kennedy’s portrait of her mother Ethel Kennedy, the wife of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and a sweeping portrait that is at turns humorous, touching, and inspiring. Ethel, a member of a large, successful and Republican family, grows into a vivacious and seemingly well-rounded college coed who is wooed and eventually marries Robert Kennedy, a charming if somewhat withdrawn member of a prominent upper-class Massachusetts family. As told by Ethel and most of her 11 children with Kennedy, her transformation from Republican firecracker to Democratic campaigner was due to the ideals of the day — that women were supposed to stand by and support their husbands — as well as to Ethel’s savvy cultivation of women in the political process, not an easy task during a time in American history when civil rights, the war in Vietnam, and changing societal attitudes were accelerating as a dizzying pace. While Ethel largely demurs at recounting the events surrounding the deaths of her brother-in law, Pres. John F. Kennedy, and her own husband in 1968 just as the Democratic Presidential nomination was in sight, her children — themselves active participants in their parents’ ongoing political activity — fill in the blanks, and most crucially, flesh out the larger impact of their mother’s influence on her family and their legacy of public service and activism as adults. I’ll say it — there were times during the screening of ETHEL that I found myself tearing up a bit. I suspect that that always happens while watching stories of inspiring people. ETHEL could have been just another insider portrait of a member of the Kennedy clan. Instead, it casts a well-deserved spotlight on the life and times of an extraordinary forward-thinking 20th Century woman.

I also take in a screening of Aurora Guerrero’s MOSQUITA Y MARI, a different kind of L.A. story about two very different high school teens from Huntington Park, a Chicano neighborhood located somewhere south of downtown. A bit unique from old-school East L.A. stories, Guerrero’s steady and knowing direction allows an unvarnished yet honest look a the growing relationship between straight-A student Yolanda and hard-bitten Mari. And later in the evening, I make my first and only visit to Eccles High School Theater to screening the world premiere of CALIFORNIA SOLO, yet another Cherry Sky Films production that was produced by Mynette Louie (CHILDREN OF INVENTION). The story of a washed-up rocker turned produce farmer in L.A.’s Antelope Valley whose crumbling immigration status complicates his already fractured life is another kind of L.A. story altogether, one far away from the urban shine of Hollywood, or even the surrounding San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys.

Probably my most arresting screening experience of the day, indeed of the whole festival, was Musa Syeed’s VALLEY OF SAINTS, a deceptively poetic, lyrical, and tender relationship story set against a backdrop of periodic sectarian violence. In the aquatic community surrounding Kashmir’s Lake Dal, Gulzar, a working-class boatman, makes plans to skip town with his best friend, but plans go awry when a weeklong military curfew descends on the town. With nowhere to go, Gulzar takes a job assisting Asifa, a beautiful scientist conducting an environmental study of the lake. When Asifa’s research reveals that the lake is becoming choked with pollutants, Gulzar is forced to rethink not only his budding relationship with Asifa, but his own relationship to Lake Dal and its community, and ultimately, his own life. Leisurely and lush even for its 82-minute run time, VALLEY OF SAINTS is a sly love story on so many levels, as well as a work that, in its quiet and unhurried way, makes a powerful environmental statement. As villagers clash with soldiers over the curfew, the more intimate drama at the core of the film provides its emotional center, and makes for a satisfying filmgoing experience. Ahh, yes…THIS is what I come to Sundance for, and why I put up with my uniquely love/hate relationship with this film festival.

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