Courtesy of the Sundance Institute​

Hope, Unease, and a Whole Lot of Politics at Sundance

From prize-winning docs like 'Last Men in Aleppo' to awards speeches, politics dominated this year's festival.

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Feb 1 2017, 3:58pm

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute​

"The world is falling apart," said Peter Dinklage who was onstage to present the 2017 Sundance Film Festival's last award. "We are treating others not how we would treat ourselves. We are at a breaking point. And it's a brilliant and hilarious ride." He raised a hand to the suddenly confused crowd. "Just a second," he said. "Don't worry. I'm talking about our Grand Jury Prize Winner." After thanking the cast and crew, writer-director Macon Blair, whose film I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore took that final and most-coveted prize, said, "My mom and dad had a small part in this movie and last week went to DC to protest the incoming administration, and, on the same day, there was the rally here, and those things were very hopeful to me in the face of all this craven, regressive, cruel bullshit that's going on."

"Of course, I'm so grateful for the award," he added, over email. "But, to be honest, I did feel a little frivolous, promoting a goofy little comedy movie while the new administration began going berserk on people's lives. But, on the other hand, it was extremely inspiring and hopeful to be around so many people who are just as angry and freaked out as I am, but are far more intelligent and worldly and armed with plans to resist. The best part was listening to what they had to say."

It was a fitting way to end a festival that, in many ways, appeared uneasy with itself all week. The mood veered between hope and doubt (and, occasionally, fear) regarding the power of protest and art's ability to effect political change. 

The very first question posed to founder Robert Redford at the festival's opening press conference asked him to account for what political involvement Sundance would have moving forward. "Presidents come and go," responded Redford, who might, as the famous face of the festival, be legally bound to neutrality. "The pendulum swings back-and-forth. Always has, always will. We don't occupy ourselves with politics. We stay focused on stories being told by artists. If politics comes up in the stories the filmmakers are telling, then so be it. But we don't play advocacy. We do not take a position." A later question addressed the news that Trump intended to cut funding to the NEA, a major sponsor of the festival. Executive director Keri Putnam replied, "This isn't just an issue for filmmakers, it's a human issue. This is about free expression, and it's about what role the arts play. From what I understand, the total amount of the cuts equates to .016 percent of the federal budget, so it feels hard to believe that's a real budget-cut measure. It feels more like a statement about the arts."

"I think that there is only one way to address political issues, that is in how you live your life."—Timothée Chalamet

It took no time at all for journalists and audience members to demand answers from artists, writers, and filmmakers as to what they thought art's obligations were post-inauguration. Nearly every response I heard fit into two distinct categories: Those who felt that art should retain ultimate freedom and not be tied to politics and those who saw no way for art to avoid politics in some form. Writer-director David Lowery, whose wholly original film, A Ghost Story, drew the most excitement and argument of the festival, fell into the latter camp, saying, "Every film is political. I think it is important to think about things that matter to you, and what you want to say, especially in light of current events. That doesn't mean I'll make films that are didactic." Sharing the stage with Lowery was director Sydney Freeland (Diedra and Laney Rob a Train) who wasn't willing to go quite so far. "I try not to make it soapbox," she said, "because story is paramount."

Still from 'I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore.' Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Festival director John Cooper cried during his introduction at the premiere of Call Me by Your Name, a coming-of-age film that focuses on a passionate summer romance between two young men played by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer. Through tears, John Cooper referenced the power message of acceptance at the film's center. "When we watched this film, it was a big deal for us," he said. "It's just so beautiful." Director Luca Guadagnino stepped in, saying, "I hope the countryside of Italy will help you forget the inauguration." 

"Any context in which this film could progress political causes is good," Chalamet said later, when I had the chance to speak to him offstage. He looked over to Guadaningo, who added, "I think that there is only one way to address political issues, that is in how you live your life. And if there is a lesson to be taken from these dark years ahead of us, it is to confront fiercely the narcissism and denial that those evil forces are endorsing right now."

In contrast, André Aciman, who wrote the 2007 novel on which the film is based, expressed to me his reservations regarding art's role in the political sphere. "Some of the greatest movies that we love, that have given us the greatest pleasure were made during the harshest times in history," Aciman said, over the phone. "If you think of World War II and all the great movies that were produced then, they have no connection to the world at war. Art in general sometimes shrugs its shoulders at current events. My philosophy has always been that art has no business with the hard facts of life."

"The problem is that there is very little humanity in politics. And I think our job is, 'How do I reveal more about the human experience?'"—Mark Palansky

This hesitation was shared, at least in part, by Peter Dinklage, star of Rememory, who told me, "With my art, with movies, once there's a little bit of a political wink in there, I put up a wall. I don't want to be pressured to put politics in art. It's a slippery slope. I'm not a huge Brecht fan. Kill me." His director, Mark Palansky, nodded and added, "The problem is that there is very little humanity in politics, and I think our job—although I don't consciously think about this stuff when we're making a film—is, 'How do I reveal more about the human experience?'"

The political themes continued all the way through the end of the festival, dominating all that was said at the awards ceremony on the closing night awards, which began with a standing ovation for filmmakers from Muslim-majority countries. This continued with grand jury prize-winning Last Men in Aleppo director Feras Fayyad, who said, gravely, "We are Syrian. We are not ashamed. We do our best to fight for the freedom of speech, for humanity, for justice. I trust in the US. It can change. It can fight like we fight. We need freedom and justice and justice and justice." Before presenting the US documentary grand jury prize to Dina, Larry Wilmore referenced solidarity with "all my Muslim brothers and sisters. Even though I grew up Catholic, today, I am a Muslim." Once the applause quieted, the comedian added, "Tomorrow I have to go to the airport, so I'll be Catholic again."

It's important to ask what, if anything, art can do for us right now. I'm invested in the answer as a belief in art's power has been one that's guided me for decades, and if I have to give it up, then fine, I'll give it up, but I want to do it on my own terms and not because of the actions of Donald Trump.

"Independent perspectives in film and documentary matter," Keri Putnam said in the festival's closing remarks. "They bring humanity and dimension to our understanding of the world at a time when binary and divisive rhetoric and actions are too often prevailing. The founding values of Sundance Institute—upholding free expression, amplifying diverse voices, and affirming the power of artistic creativity to propel us forward—feel more important now than ever. I hope we're all going to take the energy you feel here at the festival and bring it out of Park City to advocate for the culture we want to see."

Judging by the applause coming after these words, she wasn't alone.

Follow Chloé Cooper Jones on Twitter.

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