Pass The Popcorn: The 14 Most Exciting Films To Come Out of Sundance 2014
Last week Okayplayer and Okayafrica took to the freezing streets of Park City, Utah to participate in the annual Sundance Film Festival, where the film we produced, the Fela Kuti documentary Finding Fela premiered. The doc, a rich and nuanced portrait of Fela Kuti, filled with some incredible vintage documentary footage, screened to fantastic reviews (see coverage on Billboard and Entertainment Weekly for more, see Okayafrica's recap here--or just click through this list to get our recap). Our days were ram packed with Fela events and press junkets, but in between we managed to catch a grip of screenings, party at the "Black House," (the hang-out/hub for African American filmmakers) and talk to some of the most promising new filmmakers out there. What follows is a list of what we judged to be the most exciting films that screened at this year's festival, relevant to both Okayplayer and Okayafrica. Some we saw with our own eyeballs, some are included of the strength of word of mouth buzz or co-signatures from homies and colleagues--and a few we are in the process of begging for screeners for after hearing rave reviews. Whatever the source, the proof is in the popcorn. Pass it over this way, put on your 3-Ds and run projector with us on the 14 most exciting new films out of Sundance. - gingerlynn & vanessawithoutborders
1. Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photogarphers and the Emergence of a People
One of the more artistic documentaries that screened at Sundance, Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People--created and directed by award winning filmmaker, journalist, artist and activist--Thomas Allen Harris documents black photographers and black photography, exploring how they have helped to shape black identity. As they say on the website "is a unique examination of the way black photographers—and their subjects—have used the camera as a tool for social change from the time photography was invented to the present." The film features many well known African American photogs such as Carrie Mae Weems, Glenn Ligon, Lyle Ashton Harris, Hank Willis Thomas, Coco Fusco, Anthony Barboza, Clarissa Sligh, Lorna Simpson, Rene Cox and Deborah Willis all of whom have addressed, and often challenged, our ideas of what "blackness" means through their art. Sadly we weren't able to catch the screening for this film, but heard from many of our colleagues that it's definitely on the must-watch hit list. Our good friend Vernon Reid, with Miles Jay, composed the soundtrack, making it essential listening as well as viewing.
2. All The Beautiful Things
Full disclosure: Barron Claiborne is a friend. He's a brilliant photographer. He's wonderful and crazy and always interesting. He can be sweet, and loving. He can be a huge asshole. He calls it how he sees it, all the time, everytime. All in all, he's a character - one of those beautiful New York characters you feel lucky to know. This film, one of the few I actually had a chance to watch, was conceived, created and directed by Barron's best friend, John Harkrider. It follows their friendship, which began when they were just adolescents, through today, highlighting a particularly tumultuous point in their relationship, and taking us through the process of forgiveness without skipping the difficult and uncomfortable parts. Although it began as a traditional documentary, it quickly morphed into a more impressionistic storytelling mode - incorporating John's illustrations, Barron's photographs, and a club setting with a chops-heavy jazz band playing John Coltrane's "Love Supreme" as the backdrop to the story. What really makes this film, however, is not just the interesting story of a friendship that endures--and the unique way in which this story is told--but the fascinating portrait of the character Barron Claiborne himself. I may be biased, it's true, but I think you'll find I'm also right.
3. Dear White People
First-time director Justin Simien made a splash at Sundance with Dear White People, a smart, tongue-in-cheek satire that takes place on an Ivy League-ish college campus, addressing race, black militancy, white ignorance, post-racial fantasies and more within the milieu of elite college life. The film took home the Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Talent, no small feat at Sundance. However, for all the hype we did hear, the general read among our people was that there was too much self-indulgent, hyper-intellectualized dialogue and that this film was clearly not made "for the people," but is instead targeting a very particular cut of the middle class cloth. All that said, we didn't get to see the film ourselves, so we had to rely on some of our third party film-watching partners for this feedback. Awards aside, there was certainly enough positive feedback to keep this film on our to-watch list - if nothing else this is a movie we are going to be talking about this year. Check out the trailer above and let us know what you feel.
4. Freedom Summer
Directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker and MacArthur "Genius" Fellow Stanley Nelson, Freedom Summer documents the hot summer of 1964, commonly referred to as "Freedom Summer." It was the year more than 700 black and white students descended upon Mississippi with the full belief that through consistent community organization and peaceful resistance and demonstration they could effect real change upon the lasting tradition and institution of white supremacy that still plagued Mississippi, the most segregated state in the nation. That summer has gone down in history for it's violence, church burnings, murders of civil rights workers, bombings of homes, and more - but what this film focusses on is the complex, long-term efforts of organization and voter registration in the face of life-threatening violence, and how the dedication of the youth mattered, and ultimately did actually change things - albeit at a price perhaps even steeper than we, as a nation, have yet addressed. Again, this was one of the films we weren't able to view ourselves but the screener is in the mail, so stay tuned for a more robust Pass The Popcorn review of the film coming soon to on Okayplayer.com.
Nominated in the shorts competition program at Sundance, Afronauts --inspired by true events!--is a story about the Zambia Space Academy and its hopes to reach the moon before the U.S.A. gets a chance, set in July of 1969. We weren't able to attend the screening of the shorts program, but heard wonderful things about this film, including it's beautiful cinematography (get a peek in the trailer above). The film was written and directed by Frances Bodomo, a Ghanaian filmmaker who featured a short at last year's Sundance starring Quvenzhané Wallis entitled Boneshaker. Our film-watching friends who did manage to view the short screenings promise this is one to check out.
6. Imperial Dreams
Imperial Dreams is a heartrending story about Bambi, a young writer from L.A.'s gritty Watts neighborhood who has just finished a two-plus year jail sentence. Having just had a story published in McSweeney's, Bambi arrives home to find his young son in his drug-running uncle's house, playing next to Bambi's strung out mother. This is the quintessential inner-city American story – a tale of a kid trying to do right (Bambi's dedication to creating a better life for his son is unwavering) and getting caught by the broken system at every turn. To get a job he needs a driver's license, to get a license he needs to pay child support, to pay child support he needs a job – ultimately the only choice left seems to be to go back to the lifestyle that got Bambi in trouble in the first place. Director Malik Vitthal explains (watch a short clip with him above--no trailer as yet):
"This film is an intimate, visceral, authentic look into a broken home, which mirrors an entire generation - and how they patch it all back together."
With a haunting score by Flying Lotus, the film premiered to a sold-out theater, received a standing ovation, and won the Audience Award: Best of NEXT. There was not a dry eye in the house.
7. We Come As Friends
In 2011, French documentarian Hubert Sauper arrives in the not-yet-formed country of South Sudan by prop plane to investigate the gathering forces of modern economic imperialism. The ironic title of the film (the neocolonialists claim to have South Sudan's best interests at heart) darkly forecasts what he finds there: missionaries enforcing their views on the local population, Chinese industrialists eroding the environment, oil prospectors tricking villages into signing away large swaths of land. While the film takes on the familiar territory of Western interference in developing nations in Africa, the film's beautiful if rough, footage – perhaps for which the film is awarded the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematic Bravery – makes the expected outcome jump into sharp relief: Westerners have once again come in to exploit, extract, plunder, and pillage. It's a searing indictment (much like Sauper's last film, the excellent Darwin's Nightmare) of the hard medicine and snakey motives of neocolonialism. No trailer as yet, but get a look at the film above, including some convo with Sauper via Democracy Now.
8. Concerning Violence
Narrated by Lauryn Hill and guided by the philosophies of Algerian/French intellectual and revolutionary Frantz Fanon, Concerning Violence (full title: Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes From the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense) uses vintage Swedish TV footage to give new voice to the liberation struggles in Africa of the 60's and 70's. Directed by The Black Power Mixtape's Goran Hugo Olsson and produced by Danny Glover, the film illustrates Fanon's existentialist humanist stance on colonization from his classic text The Wretched of the Earth ("Colonialism is violence in its natural state and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.") It's a heady, intellectual film that's likely to appeal most to an audience already well versed in the language of decolonization.
Ethiopian director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari's Difret, which made headlines at the start of Sundance with the addition of executive producer super-humanitarian Angelina Jolie, took home the Audience Award for "World Cinema Dramatic." In the 1996-set drama, based on the true story of the court case that resulted in a law outlawing the tradition (known as “telefa”) of abducting young women for marriage in Ethiopia, Meaza Ashenafi is a workaholic and a tireless advocate for women. The founder of an organization that provides free legal aid services to poor women and children, she operates under the government’s radar until one young girl’s legal case exposes everything and threatens both her career and survival. 14-year-old Hirut Assefa is abducted by a 29-year-old farmer who intends to marry her. Hirut shoots and kills her abductor with his own rifle in an attempt to escape and return to her parents. Charged with murder by the local police and kept in prison without bail, Hirut faces the death penalty despite claiming her actions were in self-defense. After news of the case spreads throughout Ethiopia, Meaza seeks to represent her in the legal proceedings– thereafter embarking on a long battle to save Hirut’s life. It’s worth noting that Difret is the fourth film ever to shoot on 35mm film in Ethiopia; the first to be developed in Mumbai; the first Ethiopian film shot by a female DP; and the first Ethiopian film to have almost half of its crew comprised of women. No trailer has been released as yet.
10. Fishing Without Nets
Filmmaker Cutter Hodierne took home this year’s Directing Award for U.S. Dramatic. The story of Somali pirates told from the perspective of Somali pirates shot using Somali "non-actors" in a documentary style. Originally shot and released as a short film, director Cutter Hodierne‘s award-winning (Sundance’s previous winner of the Grand Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking) drama was picked up by Vice to be re-upped as a feature-length film. The extended version features many of the same actors and remains set during 2009.
Tim Sutton's Memphis is another film we did not get to lay eyes on ourselves but off the strength of Willis Earl Beal's quiet, offbeat on-camera presence alone, this was gonna be on our must-watch list. Add to that an obviously arresting soundtrack and this official Sundance description:
A strange singer with God-given talent drifts through his adopted city of Memphis with its canopy of ancient oak trees, streets of shattered windows, and aura of burning spirituality. Surrounded by beautiful women, legendary musicians, a stone-cold hustler, a righteous preacher, and a wolf pack of kids, the sweet, yet unstable, performer avoids the recording studio, driven by his own form of self-discovery. His journey quickly drags him from love and happiness right to the edge of another dimension.
--and you sign us up for multi-dimensional Memphis.
I am not going to say to much about this short film from director William Oldroyd, because at 5 minutes of run time, you can watch more than half of it yourself above--and that viewing alone experience alone (WARNING: Very Very NSFW) will either sell you on the film's power or...leave you blind and shellshocked. Best was the winner in the short film competition.
13. White Shadow
We actually debated whether to include Noaz Deshe's White Shadow in this round up--with its emphasis on witchcraft and provincial prejudices it plays too easily into the problematic narrative of "Africa" we've all come to recognize in the media. There is no denying, however, that this is absolutely riveting, can't-take-your-eyes-away filmmaking. Just keep your critical filter on when watching.
The recent resurgence of interest in Fela Kuti has come to the big screen: on the heels of the Tony Award-winning broadway show FELA!, the re-release of Fela Kuti's entire music catalog, and the annual Felabration celebrations across the country (and world) comes Finding Fela – a documentary directed by Academy Award-winning Alex Gibney and produced by Jigsaw Productions, Okayplayer, Okayafrica, and Knitting Factory Entertainment. Premiering at Sundance to a sold-out theater (Okayafrica in the house!), Finding Fela follows the cast of FELA! as they go to Lagos to perform the musical for the Kuti family at the The Shrine. Interweaving original vintage footage (including the brilliant sequence of Fela's funeral attended by millions), the musical, mesmerizing performances, and interviews with the family, Gibney illuminates the discovery process of who Fela Kuti really is, his legacy, and the impact he's made on millions of Nigerians. With cameos from ?uestlove, Paul McCartney, Carlos Moore, and Femi, Yeni, and Seun Kuti, Gibney's film reminds of all that music is indeed a weapon.