Sundance: Opening Day, Thursday, 1/17/08

Dispatch direct from Sundance
By Cathleen Rountree, critic and film journalist

Greetings from Sundance ‘o8 in 20-degree Park City, Utah, where the first of 10 days of enticing, thought-provoking, exhilarating, sobering, revelatory, and epiphanic domestic and world narrative, documentary, experimental, and short films begins today.

During the two-hour direct flight yesterday morning, I devoured the catalogue descriptions of the 207 films screening in a variety of Festival venues from the fine old Egyptian Theatre on Main Street that seats 266, to the 1270-seat Eccles Theatre two miles away. Films begin at 8 A.M. each morning, and the die-hard could find herself slouching toward her condo the next morning at 2 A.M., with just a few hours of sleep before repeating her mad immersion in cinema for nine consecutive days.

This year’s Festival theme is PLACE, as in, film takes place –– psychologically and physically. Robert Redford, the founder of the Sundance Institute, puts it this way: “[Film] begins in the way that an individual filmmaker imagines an idea within a certain space, be it home or a city or a rural landscape. So you begin with an interior place and move to the exterior. The interior and exterior blend into the stories and onto the screen, where they become the experience of the viewer and create a new life altogether: a new space.”

Within that new space or consciousness, we as viewers may discover something new, or even recognize something about ourselves, “some truth,” as Redford observes, “a place [we’ve] never been before.”

The following are a few of the documentary “places” (in terms of political and social consciousness) I found potentially the most captivating, motivating, and perhaps even transformative:

“Fields of Fuel” (U.S.), director, Josh Tickell. With the price of oil at $100 a barrel, Tickell uncovers a desperately needed alternative for a decentralized, sustainable energy infrastructure, like a new Brooklyn biodiesel plant serving three states, a miraculous Arizona algae-based fuel farm, and the Swedish public voting to be petroleum free by 2020. Tickell’s passionate film tracks the rising domination of the petrochemical industry in the second half of the 20th century and, concurrently, summons citizens’ action.

“Flow: For Love of Water” (U.S.), director, Irena Salina. While, contrary to conventional belief, we can live without oil, water remains our most crucial resource (remember Frank Herbert’s “Dune”?). Given the goal of privatization by billion-dollar water companies, impoverished nations could be headed for extinction. But people around the world are fighting back (the Cochabamba protests of 2000, also know as “The Cochabamba Water Wars,” were a series of triumphant protests that took place in Bolivia’s third largest city because of the privatization of the municipal water supply threatened by the World Bank). Salina interviews African plumbers who secretly reconnect shantytown water pipes to ensure a community’s survival; a California scientist who exposes toxic public water supplies; and a “water guru” who promotes community-based initiatives to provide water throughout India.

“I.O.U.S.A.” (U.S.), director, Patrick Creadon. In spite of (or because of?) Bush and Bernanke’s (and Schwartzenegger’s) persistent and unsustainable tax cuts, the U.S. economy is on the brink of a meltdown. The over-burdened social-security system, the ever-expanding industrial-military-complex, and growing debts to foreign interests foreshadow a future of national economic (not to mention) spiritual bankruptcy. But Creadon, moving beyond partisan entanglements, suggests sound solutions for a future fiscally sound nation.

“The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo” (U.S.), director Lisa F. Jackson sees Congolese women’s bodies as a wartime battleground; in fact, rape is a key destabilizing method in a corrupt cycle. Jackson interviewed women who survived rape in war-ravaged remote villages of the Congo, thereby, giving us an intimate glimpse into the atrocities that dominate their lives.

“An American Soldier” (U.S.), directed and written by Edet Belzberg. Five years into the war in Iraq, with no mandatory draft to fill its depleting ranks, the U.S. Army is more dependent than ever on persuasive recruiters to lure young would-be soldiers to the front lines. Enter Sergeant First Class Clay Usie, from Louisiana, one of the most successful recruiters in America today. In vérité-style, Belzberg chronicles Usie’s activities during a nine-month period. To high school youths facing a future of unemployment, or low-paying jobs, Usie appears to offer a reasonable alternative –– until their deployment to Iraq.

“Bigger, Stronger, Faster” (U.S.), director, Christopher Bell; co-written with Alexander Buono and Tamsin Rawady. With Barry Bonds, Marion Jones, and Roger Clemens in the news and, worse, Chris Benoit’s “’roid rage” slaying of his wife and 7-year-old son, and subsequent self-hanging last year, Bell examines America’s win-at-all-cost malady by exposing his two brothers’ membership in the steroid subculture. The film opens with images of 1980s super-heroes: Rambo, Conan, and Hulk Hogan, but then analyzes the extent of (even rappers and R & B stars admit to using steroids and human-growth-hormones) and deeper issues surrounding these drugs: ethics in sports and the ramifications on both psychological and physical health.

TBC . . .

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