For the last two weeks, Park City, Utah, has been abuzz with filmmakers, press and eager audiences, all in great enthusiasm for the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. As a member of the Wisconsin Union Directorate Film Committee, I had the opportunity to attend the festival with six other committee members to scope out films for The Marquee in Union South.
Between the seven of us, we saw over 100 films. My group was at the box office early every morning to wait in line for tickets. We then journeyed off to see anywhere between four and six films in a given day. Some films started as early as 8 a.m. or as late as midnight. When tickets were sold out, which was often the case, we anxiously stood in waitlist lines, hoping for a last-minute pass into a feature. This is just a glimpse of some of the great cinema that premiered at Sundance.
Documentary films are split into three different categories at Sundance: U.S. Documentary, World Documentary and Documentary Premieres. After seeing at least one in each category, my personal favorite was “Gideon’s Army,” by debut director Dawn Porter. The film premiered at the festival and is scheduled to air through HBO.
The film describes how 1963’s Gideon v. Wainwright Supreme Court decision decided all U.S. citizens should be allowed legal representation, even if they cannot afford a lawyer.
The documentary follows three public defenders from the southern United States as they tirelessly work in harsh conditions to represent their clients. The three lawyers struggle to avoid reaching their breaking points from an overwhelming amount of cases they receive on their first day without adequate training.
But the defenders are committed to upholding this fair and just law, even if their jobs involve low pay and long hours.
The film goes deep into the work of the three lawyers inside and outside the courtroom and showcases the obstacles they face trying to represent those that no one else wants to. Audiences are treated to a realistic glimpse of what happens in the courtroom, not what Hollywood wants us to believe takes place.
Near the end of the film, audiences find themselves in an unusual position. As the film portrays each defender working on a specific case, however they are treated during their time onscreen, the audience wants them to succeed. Ironically, that also means supporting the client on trial. Porter puts audiences in a thoughtful position that raises questions about morals and general opinions.
This emotionally intense and eye-opening documentary was well-received by Sundance audiences, receiving a standing ovation as the credits rolled — a gesture rarely earned at the festival.
Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale,” winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award of the U.S. Dramatic Competition, has potential for more attention as the year progresses. Co-produced by Forest Whitaker (“The Last Stand”), the film depicts the true story of Oscar Grant, an innocent victim who was shot to death by a police officer at a train station in the Bay Area in 2009. The shooting caused a regional outrage whose consequential social movement made international headlines.
The film walks audiences through a dramatic account of the events of Grant’s final day. Coogler, available for a Q&A session following a presentation of the film, explained every scene in which Grant communicates with another character in the film is based on accounts by Grant’s friends and family to ensure accuracy.
Grant’s death sparked protests, both peaceful and violent, after commuters present at the scene recorded the event and uploaded footage onto the Internet. Although the officer responsible for Grant’s death was put in jail, he was released just two years afterwards on parole.
The timeline and sequence of events was well done, presented with quick, clear editing that flashes back and forth between Grant’s past and his final hours. In this unique manner, Coogler includes many aspects of Grant’s life, particularly mistakes from his past. Although not necessary for the storyline of his last day alive, these imperfections help make Grant’s character more human and relatable to audiences.
The entire cast of the film gave raw and soulful performances, including Academy Award winning actress Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) and “The Help” co-star Ahna O’Reilly. However, Coogler praises Michael B. Jordan (“Chronicle”) for his performance as Grant, explaining he truly represents the charismatic character who was Oscar Grant.
This film seeks to be a voice against police brutality. Although Grant’s death gives some closure to “Fruitvale,” the film is left open-ended because, to this day, the issue of over-aggressive police forces persists.
One final film to look for in the next couple of months received few critical accolades, but was talked about by many Sundance audience members as one of the most charming films at the festival. “In a World…” explores the narrative behind the voices often heard in movie trailers.
Lake Bell (“It’s Complicated”) directed the film; his screenplay received the 2013 Sundance Film Festival’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Bell also plays Carol, an aspiring movie trailer voice-over often overlooked because she is a women. And, when her big break finally comes, many have doubts about her ability, including her father, who works in the same profession.
The award-winning screenplay moves quickly with fast, humorous scenes and witty remarks by all the characters throughout. Although Bell offers numerous entertaining instances where she uses accents and impersonations, the supporting cast does not go unnoticed.
Additional cast members include Demetri Martin (“Contagion”) as Carol’s awkward and shy co-worker who seeks to develop a more meaningful, and potentially romantic, relationship with her. Jeff Garlin has a small appearance in the film as himself. Lastly, Geena Davis (TV’s “Commander in Chief”) plays a minor but influential role in a scene in which her message to Bell’s character cannot go unheard.
The narrative offers a number of different messages that make the story appealing to all audiences. Themes include family relationships, feminism and career aspirations that, combined with the minor romance and excess comedy, could make “In a World…” quite popular if buzz about the film grows.
These were just three of many films not only programmed at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, but ones that I particularly enjoyed. For these films, Sundance was just their premiere; it is difficult to know where they will go beyond the festival. For example, last year’s U.S. Dramatic winner, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” is one of nine films up for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. Any of these three films, or others played at Sundance, could reach the same level of acclaim. It all depends on how word of these films spreads.