Sundance spotlights underrepresented creators, stories

A festival volunteer outside of The Ray Theatre. Courtesy of Stephen Speckman.

Slick Hollywood movie series and seven-digit box office smashes have no place at the annual Sundance Film Festival. The independent films showcased at Sundance are candid narratives, interlaced with artistry—audiences don’t need 3D glasses to stay rapt. With the 2020 presidential election looming, this year’s Sundance, which was held in late January, stressed the urgency of bringing unheard voices—those of female directors, disability advocates and young people—into public discourse.

Vulnerability tends to be a theme in movies presented at Sundance. For example, the confessions of yet-to-be independent young adults in Eliza Hittman’s newest drama film expose the financial and societal pressure that goes in hand with limited accessibility to health necessities. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” written and directed by Hittman, follows Autumn, a teenage girl from small-town Pennsylvania, and her cousin Skylar on a journey to New York City to seek a legal abortion. The title comes from the multiple choice ratings of “never,” “rarely,” “sometimes” and “always” patients answer on medical forms. Many women are confined by the limited, generalized choices offered by politicians on what to do with their bodies. The film reveals a contrast between the gravity of the girls’ situation and the mundane dialogues that accepts this cruel system that women face in this world—a juxtaposition Hitmman creates to convey the normalcy around life-changing periods of a women’s life. During Planned Parenthood’s annual reception at Sundance, Hittman states that the film’s objective is not to convey her opinions or partisanship through Autumn’s decisions but instead to focus on the struggles and threats women face when making decisions about their own bodies, and is also an urgent call for policy and regulations to assure women’s safety (The Atlantic, “The Particular Urgency of Sundance’s ‘Issue’ Films,” 01.30.2020).

Above, directors/producers Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht of “Crip Camp,” winners of the U.S. Documentary Audience Award. Courtesy of Caydie McCumber

The Sundance festivals also empower the voices of people with disabilities, bringing their experiences to the big screen. “Crip Camp” transports viewers to a ’70s summer at Camp Jened. Black and white vintage videos show teenagers who are often neglected by the abled industries finding themselves accepted into a community. They play sports, enjoy music and partake in other recreations that able-bodied people often take for granted. Scenes depicting the gentle joy of togetherness at camp transition to the individual battles disabled youths face in the real world—the job interviews, the narrow sidewalks, the stairs. The sudden shift into colored realities made the scenes in 1970s blackand-white seem far and unattainable. Activists and co-directors Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham commented after the film’s screening that “‘Crip Camp’ does for the disabled-rights movement what 1984’s “The Times of Harvey Milk” did for gay rights awareness. For the disabled, it’s been an even longer path to mainstream acceptance.” Efforts like “Crip Camp” continue to expose ongoing inequalities. Many attendees of Camp Jened, includ
ing co-director LeBrecht, pushed for the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. But words on paper don’t automatically generate independent-living options for those with disabilities, and activist films incite audiences to witness the continued urgency of a situation (Forbes, “Can ‘Crip Camp’ Become Next Netflix/Obama Oscar Contender, Or Even More?,” 02.01.2020).

“The Assistant” starts off in Midtown Manhattan with the set of tedious yet questionable duties that Jane, who holds an entry-level job in a big corporation, performs for her respected yet hostile boss. Jane’s chores, such as photocopying pictures of young girls and cleaning out her boss’s office only to find an earring, gradually reveal frightening instances of power abuse and sexual harassment committed by the movie’s unnamed tycoon, who inevitably reminds viewers of Harvey Weinstein. The film’s monotone colors—blunt gray office walls and pale faces—suggest a quietness and passivity, but beneath the muted scenes lie complex and pressing dynamics of power and gender that should not be covered up by silence. Directed by Kitty Green, who is notable for emphasizing feminist movements in her films, “The Assistant” continues to challenge audiences with the question that has stormed the media since the birth of the #MeToo movement: How could the victims continue their work without saying or doing anything? The film’s tension comes from Jane vacillating between the responsibility of being an employee and the need to stand up for herself and other women (The Atlantic, “‘The Assistant’ Is a Subtle Horror Film for the #MeToo Era,” 02.01.2020).

This year’s Sundance epitomizes activism through art. The featured directors use film to inform and inspire audiences, tapping into their lived experiences. The authenticity of these films forces audiences to look cruel structures in the face, but also propels them to consider a different, kinder future—and what they can do to bring such a future to life.

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