Both sides now

Poulomi Das | Updated on February 01, 2019 Published on February 01, 2019

Some like it casual: At Sundance, film-makers merge into the crowds, answering questions, conversing, and responding to films, like any other cinegoer   -  ©2019 SUNDANCE INSTITUTE/PHOTO BY NULL

In a world where we go to the movies armed with supplemental awareness that lets us predict every twist and turn, Sundance lets you enter films blind and unacquainted

Every January, over 50,000 people — film-makers, actors, journalists and cinephiles — from across the world descend on Park City, a quaint ski town in Utah with an approximate population of 8,000, to bear witness to an inimitable celebration of cinema: The Sundance Film Festival. This year, I — a film critic from India — was offered the almost implausible chance of being one of those 50,000. So, for a week I have been lodged in a snow-capped American valley 7,000 ft above sea level, watching films that underline diverse voices and perspectives.

Film festivals inevitably remind me of airports. Both brim with the unbridled promise of facilitating a cathartic adventure far away from the endless rigour of daily life. And film festivals, like airports, allow us the luxury of a journey — around the world, into someone’s head and memories, and in the company of acerbic humour or raw pain.

Over the past week that I’ve been at Sundance, I’ve found myself steering toward a multitude of journeys: A mother’s unflinching exposé of China’s systematic, state-sponsored hijacking of women’s reproductive rights (One Child Nation); a troubled star’s memoir of his abusive childhood that demanded the audience peek into the intensity of his intimate pain (Honey Boy); and the legend of a firebrand Israeli lawyer who protests against the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis by defending Palestinian political prisoners (Advocate). I witness the indictment of the collective complicity that abetted a movie mogul abusing actresses for decades, which, incidentally, premièred at the very festival he once frequented (Untouchable); the gentle vignettes of a pre-romance about to lose the battle with India’s uncompromising class politics (Photograph); and the searing exploration of the access to power in a democracy that culminates in one of the biggest upset victories in a primary election (Knock Down the House).

I inhabited the universe in each of these narratives that I encountered here, without any preset notions curated off internet hype or wistful reviews. In a world where we like to go to the movies armed with supplemental awareness that lets us predict every twist and turn, Sundance affords us the privilege of entering films blind and unacquainted. For the most part, Sundance feels like one of the rare film festivals that reiterate the power of “word of mouth” — how else do you explain a female-driven comedy about sexism in Hollywood setting a record for landing the biggest acquisition deal (Late Night)?

Essentially, at Park City this time of the year, movies aren’t just a temporary escape from real life to fantasy. Instead, they metamorphose into a communal preoccupation: For over a week, it’s the movies that dictate every single pursuit through the day, transcending beyond the screen into a shared language.

As I write this from the hotel lobby, thronged by journalists furiously typing away at their laptops, an Amazon Studios executive next to me dissects the slate of documentaries that are yet to be sold. He silently jots down pros and cons — as if the subjective human responses to these films could be singularly boxed — and perfects the figures he believes they deserve ahead of what, I assume, is an acquisition meeting where films are bought and sold.

A frugal supermarket wedged between three theatres doubles as a refuge from gusts of cold winds as well as a snack centre in between film screenings. The shuttle buses ferrying cinegoers to the various venues serve as a makeshift space for freewheeling movie discussions throughout the day. A female director premièring her début feature film (Hala by Minhal Baig) speaks about her short film getting rejected from every film festival, to a packed theatre that hangs onto her every word. And an 80-year-old couple from Salt Lake City are volunteers with 12-hour shifts at the most crowded venue.

Mornings at Sundance — from January 24 to February 3 — are rarely defined by sunrise or ringing alarms. Instead they start off right when the first shuttle for Main Street — the festival headquarters — pulls in. The journey takes about 10 minutes through narrow roads lined with melting snow, and is occasionally interspersed with celebrity sightings. If you’re lucky, the wait at the bus stop remains under two minutes and the shuttle arrives at the exact moment a shiver is about to run down your spine, and you blow a cloud of icy smoke every time you breathe. Film-makers merge into the crowds effortlessly, answering questions, conversing, and responding to films, like any other cinegoer. There is an air of choreographed synchronisation — people here seem to move, watch, and respond in tandem. And everyone drinks too much coffee.

But, more important, Sundance is a fascinating evidence of how movies are designed as a collaborative exercise — it’s as if their plotlines are incomplete without the reactions from the other side of the screen. At Sundance, then, I didn’t just watch films — I also witnessed the dismantling of the conventional system of passive movie-watching that insists we know more about a film before we see it than we do after exiting it.

Poulomi Das is a film and pop-culture writer based in Mumbai

Published on February 01, 2019
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