January 21, 2017: It’s a difficult time at Sundance. The mood here is one of excitement for the films and the event, but also of noticeable despondence. I’ve cried many times in the last 48 hours—heck, in the last two months. Sitting in the Sundance press lounge writing this piece, with CNN updating America on the events of the day—the unspeakably frightening inauguration of Donald Trump—it was impossible to hold back tears. It’s difficult not to notice the television, the news reports, and it’s hard to write this review without stopping and feeling the heaviness of the day. Looking to cinema didn’t help—to make it even more difficult to forget, there was Barack Obama, speaking with his respectful eloquence, in all four US documentaries I’ve seen at Sundance so far. My first four films of the festival, all reminders of a time now lost.
The first, Whose Streets?, is a ground level documentary by Sabaah Folayan that traces the responses of Ferguson, Missouri residents to the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer, and their protest in response to the denial of police brutality. It isn’t a perfect movie by any means, and the in-part guerilla-style assemblage is an unsatisfying presentation of material–but it tries to capture the populist response to Brown’s death and the racism ingrained in society. This is a searing look at a broken society and a broken police infrastructure. It’s necessary viewing.
Included news footage of President Obama speaking after the grand jury decision to not indict police officer Darren Wilson, trying to assuage the anger in Ferguson and across the country, had the same chilling effect as his recent empty assurances that “we’re going to be okay” under his successor’s presidency. At the time, it was an acknowledgement that the situation was not an ideal one, and that unfortunately, some things are beyond the jurisdiction of even the most understanding President. If it’s beyond the jurisdiction of the President, is it beyond the capability of the people? It’s a pertinent question here. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” wrote Martin Luther King, and this truism is included as an intertitle. The most powerful moment in the film recalls this quote, and throughout a long segment of protest these words echo: “We’ve got nothing to lose but our chains.” Keep fighting, no matter what; it’s a key theme here, resonating through the films and the festival atmosphere.
Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, based on the book by Miriam Horn, was a film I had been very excited about, mostly because I wanted to see some cinematography of Montana landscapes. Directed by Susan Froemke and John Hoffman, it was introduced by Sundance associate programmer Harry Vaughn, who described it as an apolitical film refreshing in the current “hyper-partisan times.” It is indeed apolitical, concerned only with the landscape and the land, attempting a poetic portrait of the country that appreciates its beauty. The charismatic star of the film, a rustic Montana rancher named Dusty Crary, appears in the first segment, and he leads the charge to save the Rocky Mountain Front. With his neckerchief and his Stetson, he makes this first segment the highlight, although every subject is alive with a sense of humour. Continuing his family’s tradition on the ranch his family bought in the 1930s, Crary talks of his father’s death, declaring, “He went down with his boots on, working cattle.” It’s a proud claim and, perhaps coincidentally, recalls the title of a Warner Bros. western They Died With Their Boots On (1941), another proud battle charge for the West. This is a film about Americans trying to conserve the natural formation of the country, and conserve the future, against its destruction for economic growth.
Dolores is a documentary by Peter Bratt about the life and activism of Dolores Huerta – a wonderful woman who, now aged 86, is on the organising committee for the Women’s March in Park City to support the major event in Washington D.C, where she spoke on January 21. It’s an inspirational documentary, full of energy, incredible music, and editing attuned to the rhythm of Huerta’s life. It assesses her work, and the bias and oppression she faced with the mantra that “women can’t be written out of history.” It begins with archival footage of Huerta discussing America’s assumed position on inclusive human rights, which she calls a bitter mythology created by those who are “too rich, too powerful, and too racist” to truly support them. There’s an interview with Gloria Steinem, who first associated with Huerta as an activist in the 1960s, describing the assassination of Robert Kennedy – who stood closely with Huerta and the union movement as Presidential candidate – as “the death of the future.” This film provides a glimpse of it.
Give Me Future, Austin Peters’ film about Major Lazer’s 2016 performance in Cuba, had the occasional energy one might experience at a free music gig – especially with depictions of a 400,000-deep crowd on the Havana streets – and the final segment, with footage of the performance, was the clear highlight of the film. Interviews with group members Diplo, Walshy Fire, and Jillionaire, and with managers, attempt to cover issues like Cuba’s political situation and history, but it suffers from unbalanced editing and poorly chosen clips – or interviewers not inquiring deeply enough into answers. A few interesting ideas are raised about youth culture and their desire for live music in Cuba, along with some glimpses of strict surveillance, but in the end this film offers very little as an incisive take on the restoration of US-Cuban diplomatic relations. This, too, is something whose future is uncertain under the new administration.
Perhaps, as resonates through this collection of films, we are living through the death of the future. But at the Women’s March on Washington, civil rights activist Angela Davis told the crowd, and the country, “History cannot be deleted like web pages.” Films like these act as artefacts of their time, given to us to remember and reflect upon. Hopefully, like the history Davis spoke of in Washington, the importance of film itself will never be forgotten.