Day One at the Sundance Film Festival

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Aaron Barcelo plays the guitar on Main Street at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, January 25. Jim Urquhart/Reuters

Frenzied filmmakers, fans and friends descend upon the picturesque mountain town of Park City, Utah every January for the Sundance Film Festival. (They also occasionally visit neighboring cities Salt Lake City and Ogden, and the town of Sundance itself.) Founded in 1978, Sundance is notable for more than just being the first major independent film festival of the calendar year: It also often serves as a barometer for the most innovative, peculiar and celebrated films that’ll make the rounds on the festival circuit, potentially receive distribution and even reap their fair share of awards (such as 2015 flicks Diary of a Teenage Girl and Tangerine).

It’s also the only place where tourists, locals, industry folks, media and celebrities hobnob together in a local high school auditorium in order to catch a premiere. It’s where the best parties aren’t at late-night clubs, but rather at clandestine lodges nestled in the Wasatch mountains above the town, where chili is doled out in hot tubs. It’s a place where you can see films that never end up being distributed or even being shown elsewhere. And it’s a place where after someone slips in slush and face-plants into the stale snow, you might see her get up and scream: “I love Sundance! It’s like a punk rock show but for movies!”

This is some of what I encounter the very first day of the festival—and, mind you, Thursday is the slowest it’ll be for the next 10 days. Strolling through Park City’s fairy-lit Main Street (which is somehow more quaint than it sounds), there’s a feeling of being on the grounds of a festival when stages are being set up. It’s when the early birds are here, eagle-eyed, to check out everything before the big crowds arrive.

Naturally, it’s the day with the least amount of screenings, so it’ll be somewhat easier than the next couple of days, when I’ll be forced to make some difficult scheduling decisions.

First, I duck into Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary about the prolific television producer Norman Lear, the mind behind All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Mary Hartman Mary Hartman and many other ‘70s mainstays. A confession: I’ve never seen an episode of any of these classic shows. It’s partially my fault for not checking them out, and it’s somewhat of a generational gap. Yet it’s mostly because what I watched in my household while growing up, with my Colombian parents, was centered on Latin American staples like El Chavo del Ocho and the telenovela my second cousin Manuela landed a role in, Lolita . So seeing the foul-mouthed bigot Archie Bunker, and his creator’s trail-blazing panache for melding satire and comedy, was new to me.

I’m glad I took the plunge: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You doesn’t just rely on the traditional interview/flashback format of documentaries. It has those, of course, but also features an actor playing Lear as a 9-year-old throughout, and features a parallel narrative: The story of America in the throes of revolution and radically shifting thought. Lear’s boundary-breaking approach to television is threaded through very real issues, such as the Vietnam War and abortion, which he dared to address on the tube despite receiving death threats from some conservative folks. (“No state seceded from the union,” he quipped, following the episode of Maude where she decides to go through with an abortion.) At 93, he’s also livelier than most people I’ve encountered, and someone who truly took to heart George Orwell’s advice: “See what is obvious, and tell us about it.”

From there, I jetted off to the majestic Egyptian theater on Main to catch the first selection of short films. By this point I’ve somehow eaten all of the snacks provided in the press bag, so doing great so far. Walking into the theater, I ran into a man who I’d seen on my flight over to Salt Lake City the night before. (embarrassingly I’d asked him if he was from Boston, because he was a dead ringer for my friend Arthur.) Turns out this man is one of the programmers for the Shorts Program. He and his colleague tell me that they select from roughly 8,700 submissions to get the handful of films that are shown at the festival. The program has several iterations, including even a documentary and animation selection, and the two-hour selection that I saw Thursday night featured one potent short after another.

So Good to See You, the first short, tackled a real-life nightmare: What happens when the very people you’re shit-talking before a dinner party hear what you’re saying. The short, starring Sienna Miller, devolves into a comedy of errors featuring plumed helmets and too much wine, while driving home a salient point: Careful what you say about your “friends,” and don’t be a jerk. You never know who’s listening.

The second short, the coming-of-age Killer, focuses on a pack of teenage boys grappling with their identities and their changing bodies. It finds them contending with an odd urban legend: If you touch yourself, does someone die, because mom said so? The results are horrific, funny and strange in this short, which evoked the biggest laughs of the night.

The shortest short came in the form of Mobilize, a powerful Canadian film by Caroline Monnet, probing the harrowing journey of people attempting to make sense of urbanization, and thus grappling with indigenous identity. The next film, It’s Not You, tightened throats with its montage depiction of couples en route to and breaking up at an infamous “breakup spot,” and includes every line you’ve heard (or used) before: It’s not you, you’re too good for me and so we should just be friends, etc. This one gets bonus points for its incredible score, including a masterful usage of the Canadian jazz-hop trio BADBADNOTGOOD’s cover of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love.”

One of the most harrowing films that audiences may see at this year’s Sundance—and maybe even all year—is the Laura Poitras-produced, AJ Schnack-directed  Speaking Is Difficult. It seems that the topical issue of the gun violence epidemic in America is cropping up often this year in Sundance’s selections, but the way this short probes tragedy after tragedy, as well as our desensitization to it, is something I’ve not seen before. In descending order by day and year, the film features exterior shots and stills of places that have experienced high-profile gun violence (Aurora, Colorado; San Bernardino, California; Newtown, Connecticut; Fort Hood, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina) and many others that either did not receive much coverage or are already resigned to distant memory, like Hialeah, Florida. The audio features phone calls that police received from people reporting the attacks, all of them in shock, many of them breathless and shivering with tears, and some occasionally ending on a dial tone as the line goes dead. It ends on the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona, but the point is this: There is no end in sight for the gun violence epidemic, unless people step up.

Maman(s), the following film, centered on a very different kind of trauma: Violence within the home, and the upheaval a Senegalese family in France experiences when the patriarch brings a new wife and baby home with him to live with his son, daughter and first wife. The protagonist is Aida, a young woman who is hurting after seeing her mother so distraught, and having her first brush with womanhood to boot.

The night ended on a tearfully uplifting note, with the Japanese film The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere. The curious story follows a financially failing horse track in Kochi, Japan, and the headstrong horse Haru Urara (meaning “glorious spring,” because the name Mary Jane was already taken, according to her trainer). Several years ago Haru Urara became an inspirational figure for the hopeless in Japan. But it wasn’t for the expected winning streak; it was for consecutive losses: 113 in total. No wins, but she ran and ran and ran, inspiring slogans for people to “never give up” and attracting a cult legion of fans. It was her losses, in fact, that allowed the race track to stay open, and gave birth to the idea that perhaps society doesn’t only value winning. That’s an idea to hold closely and tightly.

Afterward, I follow my stomach to a Japanese joint on Main Street, Shabu, that’s spinning endless David Bowie songs and has a welcoming, familial vibe to it. I’m so absorbed in inhaling a steaming bowl of ramen that I don’t even notice Slash — yes, that Slash — walk by me. I suspect this won’t be the strangest thing to happen in my days here.

 

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the film Speaking Is Difficult. The article has been amended to reflect that change.