What Sundance Film Festival Reveals About Politics

Russ Baker Photo credit: WhoWhatWhy
How festival programmers choose which films to feature tells us a lot about tolerance (or lack thereof) for Deep Politics
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Russ Baker’s commentaries on specific films from Sundance will appear in succeeding days

I recently returned from my first-ever visit to the Sundance Film Festival, which typically has feature films at its core but also an increasingly robust roster of documentaries. Because documentaries are essentially “non-fiction” and hence come closer to our subject matter, I focused almost exclusively on them.

Based on the offerings on the schedule, on conversations with festival-goers and filmmakers, and on the screenings I attended, I came away with an impression:

Even the “best” of the film industry, which Sundance in many respects represents, is more interested in telling human stories that resonate with people than taking on the biggest, most urgent and controversial issues of our time. To be sure, the human stories I saw were all highly effective, moving, provocative. In them you can see artists, musicians, politicians, journalists and others, searching for meaning, coping with scandal and tragedy, celebrating innovation and surprise. And they certainly make you think.

Ultimately, though, these films are the world writ small. Because such human-interest cinema typically comes down to one person’s experience, or a national or global happening as experienced by one person or family.

Why focus on these? It’s an understandable calculation. People love stories they can relate to. And there’s the bottom line imperative: Film, even of the documentary kind, is an expensive medium. You produce what the audience wants — or perish.

Although some documentarians offer chances to engage, via social media, or petitions, or such, usually the film is the experience. It’s not about changing the world.

But humanity is in crisis. And we’re running out of time on a whole lot of fronts. We need to engage audiences with the full extent of the challenges we face, arm them with actionable information and encourage them to act. That has historically been an important purpose of cinema —  take Oliver Stone’s feature JFK, which forced open the JFK assassination records, or Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which mobilized an indifferent public on Climate Change — and it remains so.


If we cannot count on the film festival that styles itself the platform for independent films and unusual, bold, original perspectives, then whom can we count on?

The quality of what I saw was, to be sure, high, and a few films did reach for the stars. Nonetheless, when it came to plutocracy, environmental collapse, war, authoritarianism and corporate abuses, the offerings seemed to vary from minimal to non-existent. (It’s not as if political-issue documentaries are not being made, because they most certainly are.)

Where war, violence and the like were addressed, it was usually in terms of a personal experience. I noticed — in both the question-and-answer sessions with the filmmakers after the screenings and in private conversations — that people were focusing on the storytelling and the human dilemmas. Often, they were not sure what to make of the larger underlying issue — or simply did not seem to be really thinking about it. Now, Sundance is, admittedly, about and for film lovers, but still…..

Almost every film I saw was emotionally effective. Each film hit you in all the chemical centers. And you came out somehow feeling cleansed. Or, as one festival-goer put it, crudely but not inaccurately, “It’s about masturbating your conscience.”

It’s hardly surprising. Though the Sundance Festival is full of treasures, run and staffed by aware, caring people, we are reminded constantly of the sponsorship by large corporations and the funding from establishment foundations. We know that the establishment — journalism, film, academia — simply have never figured out how to level with the people about the very biggest issues and still survive financially.

That puts festivals like Sundance in an awkward place: celebrating their “independence” while being utterly dependent.

The system loves political edginess of the type that too often leads nowhere. It loves issues that we “get” and that engage us and often that divide us: the typical hot button topics of a campaign — guns, abortion, gay marriage, racial strife. These are of course important, but there’s the larger picture to consider.

Power itself — and money, and the nature of our society and its elite institutions. Yet these topics are not the kind that will easily find sponsors.

Yet, unless the dots are fully connected, you end up with a lot of “feeling” but little “doing.”

Related point: We badly need some candor and self-awareness regarding our craving for catharsis. For too many of us, everything is about ourselves (via others) — about feeling emotions more than actually fixing problems. And we cannot fix problems unless we analyze the underlying power structures and systems that cause and perpetuate them.

I am told Sundance has been increasing its commitment to documentaries each year. And, in fact, it seem that docs are the hot thing. Why? Because they cost a fraction of feature films. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu — they love docs. Low risk with the possibility of a decent payday on the back end. So look for more documentaries — and look to see what kind.

I’ll be back at Sundance next year, I hope, and will be interested to see if a festival like this one can find a way to take much bigger risks. It’s what this country and world want — and so desperately need.

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9 responses to “What Sundance Film Festival Reveals About Politics”

  1. Carolyn Lee says:

    Through family, I know personally one of these documentary filmmakers. What she does is to focus on something bad happening to somebody or a couple or a family, then do everything possible onscreen to manipulate the audience’s emotions so they believe that the filmmaker’s version of what happened, (and what to do about it) is the truth.

    Her premise when she began filmmaking was that something bad happened to her that was not her fault, and everybody should change how they behave, to better defend themselves against those people who do bad things. But I think she was not entirely blameless, so everything she says and depicts as a result looks tainted by her denial of her own culpability. Her films justify her own past actions and are not objective, factual analyses of who did what and why. But they are so emotion-laden that they really stir up young audiences to see things her way.

    I think the MSM promotion of all these story-of-my-life films has a hidden agenda: to distract us from the story-of-modern-life films that show the big picture. The method is to hype an individual’s feelings in a way that the audience can identify with, rather than deal with the surrounding facts that would require the audience to think about and digest.

    By way of example – If I get shot having gone into into a war zone halfway around the world, I don’t blame the shooter — he was only doing what he was there for, fighting the war. The
    correction is not for me to wear better armor, rather to better understand why I went there – and maybe even stay away. If I am anti-war, there are ways to work to end it which are more effective and peaceable than making my way onto the battlefield where I will be just another target.

    Maybe the success of Al Gore’s global warming film frightened the powers that be away from promoting any more factual (or supposedly factual) presentations? The filmmaker I speak of, and most of her ilk, gets Govt. and NFP grants to do her work and to salary herself quite comfortably — my tax money working to distract me with tear-jerker documentaries so I won’t spend my time using my brain to figure out what’s really going wrong socially, politically, or economically in my town, my state, my county, the world…

  2. ICFubar says:

    Thanks RB. Now I can not bother with Sundance and not feel I’m missing out or not supporting something important.

  3. Jimmy Walter says:

    Watch the commentaries on the “Dr Strangelove” DVD. They all thought they were going to change the world. They did not. Watch “Bulworth”. It tells it like it is about the political system. It changed nothing. Repetition changes people. Not one film. That is why the mass media is so effective. The dissenters have at best a few mentions. The propaganda flows every day, 365 a year

  4. diogenes says:

    You’re looking to Hollywood — in any form, at any venue — for reality? Or anything close? Whatever you’re smoking, it’s working, cuz you’re out of it.

  5. TractorEngineer says:

    Take a look at the outright fiction being touted as documentaries on Netflix and Amazon streaming video. It’s appalling. Anything political on those channels is progressive liberal drivel.

  6. sfulmer says:

    I followed the hashtag on Russ’ facebook post and saw mountains of articles about Birth of a Nation. I haven’t seen the film, and since I tend to not see films, I don’t plan to see it. However, it seems that there is a racial push trending in media that forces antipathetic feelings toward “the other.” If so, maybe it is because through the media, and through film in this instance, human stories are resonating with people. I would assume that “racial strife” is one of Russ’ “chemical centers.” How could somebody like me make it clear that a film getting tremendous accolades in a context of the edgiest films is also not fully connecting the dots? I would look like a little twerp. Perhaps I am. Maybe Russ is connecting with the wrong audience? But his point is well taken.

  7. PecosinRat says:

    Great points, Russ. Unfortunately, a clear view of how our world actually works is not the shot of adrenalin people need to open the door to taking action. A real understanding of the forces lined up against democratic governance, against an open and caring government, and against any efforts to rein in income inequality is a demotivator.

    The response to that awakening is more like, “Where do I hide” than “Let’s fix that.” Stirring a populus to action requires involvement of the emotions, think “La Marseillaise,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a dozen bagpipers playing battle tunes, or–for me–300 students led by fife and drum joining graying protesters from the ’60s in an anti-war protest meeting.

    Documentaries may elevate the mind, but the effort needed to reform our society now has to come from the raw determination of a gut response. Clear messages about our reality buried in fiction are the opportunity. Star Wars, for example, has already taught generations from all political walks of life about the evils of empire.

    • russbaker says:

      Interesting points with merit. For further discussion….

    • Kevin says:

      I think a major part of the question is what are we rallying toward? You’re writing about an “open and caring government”. We have separation of powers in this country due to a fundamental *mistrust* of government. As for getting people to act, I think it’s only likely to happen when things “hit home”. For example, that recent bill to draft women into the military is probably going to get (at least some) people riled up. I’m a believer that we are facing an impending US Dollar crisis (a significant drop in the buying power of the USD due to price inflation). When people go to sleep rich but wake up poor the next day (and I mean that literally), only then can you be sure then that people are going to start demanding answers and paying a lot closer attention on the stuff that matters.

      Btw, I want to reiterate that I’m highly skeptical of anthropogenic global warming. I hope this site doesn’t become all about that. And I also hope that an open mind is kept if evidence proves AGW to be fake and its proponents to have ulterior motives.

      Additionally, I want to praise WWW for the work it does on the treatment of chickens on factory farms. I hope we get more of this. Food is an obvious fundamental thing in all of our lives but I think the treatment of these animals tells us a lot about our society. I think we have to remember that human beings are animals too. But we are so “removed from our instincts” (e.g. we don’t hunt our food like our ancestors did) that it causes people to get removed from feelings of wanting to be a decent human being. I think if people somehow could “go back to nature” (to some degree at least), people’s instincts would kick in and it might create a more humane society.