1/29/2011 - Saturday was my last day in Park City, and I made the most of it. It was the best of my four days spent at Sundance. All three of the movies I saw were amazing. At each of them I met one fascinating moviegoer after another. What's more, the day was spent finally getting meet a number of filmmakers and film critics, not to mention getting my picture taken with a few of them. All pictures will be uploaded in a later blog post, once I get them uploaded on my computer.
The day began in the afternoon with a Film School Roundtable at the Sundance House, which I had been invited to because I was carrying my Film School pass. At the Roundtable, various directors of films at the festival sat onstage and told us stories about how they got their movies made. Once it was time for a Q & A, I asked them that dreaded question: what kind of day jobs did you all have to take in order to raise the money to get your movies made?
"I was a stripper," deadpanned Kinyarwanda director Alrick Brown.
I took extensive notes because I knew their advice would probably come in handy. Some of them told me that had taken jobs as preschool teachers or tech company operators, some told me they had taken jobs in the industry. Many of them told me that they didn't have cars and that they had had to live with their parents for a number of years--a concept I found absolutely terrifying!
Then some of the directors came over to our tables and had inside conversations with us. I got to meet Todd Rohal, the director of The Catechism Cataclysm, which I hadn't gotten the chance to see--but his stories about it make me definitely want to check it out. I also got to meet Thomas De Napoli, who is a music video director, as well as Orlando von Einsiedel, a filmmaker from the UK who had entered a short film into the festival.
"What was it about?" I asked von Einsiedel.
"It was about skateboarding kids in Afghanistan," he replied.
My jaw dropped. "Hey, I saw that one!" I exclaimed. "It premiered before The Green Wave, didn't it?"
He laughed, and nodded. I told him my favorite part of his film (which was entitled Skateistan: To Live And Skate Kabul) involved interviews with a young Afghan girl who freely expresses her love of skateboarding despite the male disdain in her community. I then asked him whether he had actually traveled to Afghanistan to do all the interviews, since not every documentary filmmaker actually conducts their own interviews; think Scorsese with No Direction Home: Boby Dylan. But von Einsiedel confirmed that he conducted all of the interviews himself. When I told him that I was from St. Louis, he asked where that was. I told him it was a big city in-between Missouri and Illinois; I had a heck of a time raising my arms in the air in an attempt to form a shape of the Gateway Arch. Then again, I'm not sure the Arch is recognized all around the world.
That evening, I saw the wonderful romantic drama Jess + Moss, which I had had to Wait List for--but man, was it worth it. The film is not your average romantic drama, as it involves the strained rleationship between a 12-year old boy and an 18-year old girl who spend their days frolicking in the Kentucky fields and backwoods, creating their own dreamworld that is isolated entirely from the society outside.
Because Jess + Moss has all the aura of a Robert Mulligan coming-of-age drama, I asked the film's director, Clay Jeter, whether Mulligan had been an influence. Jeter was amused with my insights but replied that he was more influenced by the likes of Terrence Malick and David Lynch and added that, storywise, he had been influenced heavily by Carson McCullers' novel of The Member of the Wedding. After the Q & A, I got my picture taken with Jeter and his girlfriend, Sarah Hagan--who plays Jess in the film.
Up on Main Street I was able to buy tickets from a guy selling tickets for the movie that was going to win the U.S. Documentary award. "Which movie is it going to be?" I asked him. He said we wouldn't know until shortly before the screening. Heading over to the Library Centre to stand in the insanely long lines (that Library Centre is HUGE), we eventually all found out that the movie would be How to Die in Oregon. Once we were all seated, director Peter D. Richardson came out, and the audience broke into applause in congratulating him for winning the award.
I felt myself welling up with tears throughout How to Die in Oregon. It's a touching, eye-opening account of the physician-assisted suicide system that is legal in Oregon and has recently been legalized in Washington and Montana. The movie's narrative is centered around a woman in her 50's by the name of Cody Curtis, who has been diagnosed with a terminal liver cancer and spends the next six months pondering over whether she should appoint the Death With Dignity program to end her life early and spare her family any more needless pain.
Watching the movie, I keep wondering what I should ask Richardson during the Q & A afterwards. So moved was I by the film that I wanted to stand up and declare my hope that the Death With Dignity program be legalized in my home state of Missouri and others like it--but I feared this would be too political a comment. Finally, after the film was over and Richardson called upon me, I mustered up the courage and asked him what was probably the most difficult question anybody could ask a filmmaker who would take the enormous responsibility of directing such a risky film.
"I just want to start by saying that what I love most about this movie," I started, "is that it honors these people. It doesn't portray them as cowards. It portrays them as brave people who have fought as hard as they can against their diseases, and it honors their right to choose."
An audience member behind me mmhmed in agreement.
Then I proceeded to ask Richardson the harder part of the question: "But, if you don't mind, I'm going to play Devil's Advocate for a minute--because it occured to me, while watching, that this film is probably going to be attacked by politically-oriented critics, from either side of the spectrum, who might charge that this movie exploits these people, or that it takes advantage of the decision they are in. If people start saying things like this, how would you respond?"
Richardson replied with a very thoughtful answer. He told me that he was aware going in to make the movie that he knew the movie might open wounds. The basic point he addressed, however, is that he hopes that Cody's story, as told in the film, will offer a feeling of comfort for any Americans watching the film who are experiencing her same situation. "I hope that answers your question," he added sincerely.
It most certainly did.
The night ended with a midnight screening of Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, an Oregon Trail thriller starring Michelle Williams. None of us in the audience were prepared for the kind of film it would actually turn out to be: an extremely slow-moving study of what it means to be lost in the wilderness, with minimal character development in favor of a strong emphasis on abandonment by civilization and God.
Kelly Reichardt could not be at the screening, which disappointed me a great deal: there were so many questions I would have liked to ask her about the film. At the same time, Reichardt might have done herself a favor by not attending; some of the audience members were so bored with Meek's Cutoff that they walked out halfway through the picture. So uncertain is the movie that [spoilers] it even ends on a note of sheer uncertainty, with the characters still lost in the wilderness--their situation still unresolved.
I turned to a new friend of mine, Andreas Wappel of Austria, and told him that I thought the ending could have been better.
"What ending?" he responded.
This is the feeling that most of the audience members had. A few people told us that they felt like their $15 had been wasted. Many were dumbfounded when I attempted to try to make a case for the film. While I didn't think Meek's Cutoff was perfect--I wanted to know a little more about the characters, and wasn't sure about how successful the ending was--I talked about how much I admired the way the movie emphasizes that feeling of being so utterly lost. I couldn't think of another film where I had felt that. I even told Andreas that it was like the "Dawn of Man" sequence from 2001 stretched out for 2 hours.
So, on Sunday morning, I said goodbye to my aunt and uncle and flew back to St. Louis. Before departure, I happened to run into Orlando von Einsiedel in the security lines, which was a most pleasant surprise. He was flying back to the UK. I recalled my hilarious conversation with him about where St. Louis was. Then, I was back in St. Louis--with my memorabilia and my memories.
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