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Big spenders and old names hogged the attention at Sundance, but smaller experiments were more deserving

Of course, you want to read about The Birth of a Nation, the big story out of Sundance 2016, but not one that necessarily will have legs. Nate Parker’s debut feature is a biopic about Nat Turner, a contested figure in American history (when he is not ignored outright). Turner led a slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831 that began and ended in a bloodbath: about 60 white men, women, and children were murdered by Turner and his followers, who in turn were all murdered or driven out by whites, and with them many slaves who had not participated in the uprising. The Birth of a Nation is a mess of a film, but it has ambition (witness its title) and a sense of urgency—qualities that were notably lacking in many films by established independent filmmakers on this year’s Sundance slate.

Easily the festival’s most anticipated event, The Birth of a Nation’s premiere screening began with a standing ovation for Parker (the star as well as the director and screenwriter) and ended with about 50 people on stage: cast, crew, producers, and, in what might have been a Sundance first, a bevy of financial backers. In a statement no less confusing than the film itself, Parker said that he wanted to show that the system (slavery) corrupted everyone, and that he hoped viewers would have their own interpretations of the film’s historical and contemporary relevance, and that it would encourage them all to become “change agents.” Given that the film is less than rigorous about distinguishing religion from politics and the point of view of the filmmaker from that of his protagonist, it is difficult to imagine the change that it might effect. Is it Turner who subjectively confuses the vengeful prophets of the Old Testament with the turn-the-other-cheek Jesus of the New, or is it the filmmaker who, through his use of visual metaphors, likens Turner to Jesus, even after he’s wreaked havoc with his axe and musket?

Such niceties did not deter a bidding war from commencing even before the film ended, involving most of the major Hollywood studios, a few established independents, and the deep-pocketed parvenus, Netflix and Amazon. Panicked and hopefully chastened by the shortage of minorities from the nominations for the Academy Awards, the industry and most of the press saw The Birth of a Nation as the antidote to “Oscars So White.” And since the Hollywood establishment has a history of preferring slavery narratives to contemporary African-American stories, the next award season may prove them right. Parker’s film sold to Fox Searchlight for about $17.5 million, at least $5 million more, adjusted for inflation, than any film in Sundance history. It was widely reported that Netflix bid $20 million, but Parker preferred Searchlight, which had a theatrical success with 12 Years a Slave, propelling the film to the Best Picture Oscar in 2014.

Manchester by the Sea

Searchlight’s victory notwithstanding, Sundance 2016 may be remembered as evidencing a radical transformation of independent distribution and exhibition. The aggressive purchasing strategy of Amazon and Netflix put a damper on such familiar players as Sony Pictures Classics, The Weinstein Company, Magnolia, and IFC. Amazon acquired at least half a dozen titles, among them Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, for which it paid $10 million, the second-largest deal at this year’s festival. By far Lonergan’s strongest movie, it is a New England family saga closer to tragedy than melodrama, devastating in its segues between past and present. Casey Affleck submerges himself in his character—a man who cannot forgive himself for something best not revealed to viewers in advance—and, admirably, Lonergan refuses to sell out the character or the actor by allowing even a trace of uplift or redemption at the end.

Manchester by the Sea was acclaimed as a great classical movie, and while that may be the case, I personally prefer films that show me through their form and/or content something I’ve not seen before. Thus my four favorites of the some 45 films I viewed (I missed about 100) were Elite Zexer’s Sand Storm, which won the World Cinema Dramatic Competition; Aaron Brookner’s Uncle Howard; Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow; and Tim Sutton’s Dark Night. In a curtain-raiser, I flagged the delicate, dread-inducing Dark Night, which captures the undercurrent of anxiety created by the possibility that one’s next-door neighbor could be pushed over the edge and become a mass murderer. On second viewing, Dark Night was even stronger than I originally thought, except for the ill-advised, pointed ending, which turns it into a more familiar kind of whodunit. Another exceptional psychological horror film about the madness of living in an actual war zone, where after a while it becomes impossible to distinguish whether danger is real or imagined, was Under the Shadow. Anvari’s feature debut is set in Tehran in 1988, a city crippled by the bombings of the nearly decade-long Iran-Iraq War and torn by a violent fundamentalist revolution. In Farsi with English subtitles, the film binds political specificity and a chilling feminist critique to horror film tropes. Anvari is of Iranian descent, but the film, a U.K./Jordan/Qatar co-production, will most likely make her persona non grata in Iran if she’s not already. Seeing its worldwide crossover potential, Netflix bought streaming rights to Under the Shadow and a service deal is in place to give the film a theatrical release.

An even richer and more moving film about the oppression of women in a fundamentalist society, Zexer’s Sand Storm is largely a mother-and-daughter narrative set in an impoverished Bedouin village in the Negev desert that here looks like an abandoned industrial wasteland. Zexer is Jewish Israeli, and the film was financed by Israeli money. The cast is a mix of professional Arab actors and men from the actual village. (The tribal leaders didn’t allow Bedouin women to appear in the film.) Sand Storm is as rooted in the details and power dynamics of daily life as a Cassavetes film, and Zexer proves her commitment to her actors through the superb performances of Ruba Blal-Asfour as the mother and Lamis Ammar as the daughter, both trapped by a patriarchal order they despise but cannot escape without sacrificing their ties to each other and to even more vulnerable family members.

Sand Storm

You know Sundance has thrown its weight behind a film when it debuts on the huge screen in the Eccles Theatre, but this year many of these selections were thin or safe, among them Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, which is ill-served by a one-note performance by Kate Beckinsale and has the larger problem of its lack of clarity about whether it’s satirizing Jane Austen novels or their film adaptations. Other disappointments by Sundance favorites: John Carney’s Sing Street and Ira Sachs’s potentially more interesting Little Men, both focused on adolescent boys. Sachs’s young actors, Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, are wonderfully at ease, but the connection between their characters and the film’s framing story—gentrification and Brooklyn real estate—is, at best, understated. Kelly Reichardt’s three-part Certain Women, adapted from stories by Montana writer Maile Meloy, is both over-plotted and baggy until its transcendent third episode, which soars on the wild desire of a lonely ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) for a teacher (Kristen Stewart). Both actors are extraordinary, as is Reichardt’s direction of them.

Among the strong and varied documentary selections were at least three that honored filmmaking: Brookner’s Uncle Howard, Louis Black and Karen Bernstein’s Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny, and JJ Garvine and Tai Parquet’s Film Hawk. Uncle Howard is a portrait of the filmmaker Howard Brookner by his nephew Aaron Brookner. (Allow me, for clarity, to refer to them as Howard and Aaron.) Lost for decades, Howard’s legendary 1983 documentary Burroughs: The Movie was rediscovered by Aaron in 2012, involving him in a three-year restoration. In the process, he discovered that Howard had left behind an archive, not only of outtakes from Burroughs, but of film and video diaries that capture the post-Beat Downtown mosaic of writers, filmmakers, performers, and artists in the 1970s and ’80s and the devastation of that community by AIDS, which took Howard’s life in 1989. Edited with marvelous fluidity, Uncle Howard weaves material from the archive (the Nova Convention! Robert Wilson rehearsing the aborted L.A. production of The Civil Wars! a twentysomething Jim Jarmusch, Howard’s classmate at NYU, taking sound on Burroughs!) with contemporary interviews, most touchingly with Howard’s mother and Burroughs’s partner James Grauerholz. It’s a work of love and scholarship, the Sundance film I most want to see again

Made for PBS’s American Masters series, Black and Bernstein’s Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny captures something of the work process that this definitive independent filmmaker has sustained for nearly 30 years, particularly his commitment to his base in Austin and to regional filmmaking. The choice of clips highlights aspects of Linklater’s oeuvre not widely recognized. It was, for example, only by seeing Julie Delpy’s at-her-wits-end monologue in Before Midnight back to back with Patricia Arquette’s similar outpouring near the end of Boyhood that I realized how much of a feminist filmmaker Linklater had become. Scruffier, as befits its subject, but covering the same three-decade period, Film Hawk shines a light on an unsung behind-the-scenes force, the indefatigable Bob Hawk, whose eye for film and support of fledgling directors has been essential to the no-budget strand of Amerindie moviemaking. Together, these two docs are worth at least a year in film school tuition.

Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny

One remarkable instance of no-budget ingenuity, Nanfu Wang’s Hooligan Sparrow follows the titular Chinese human-rights activist for three months as she leads protests against a school principal and a government official who allegedly raped six girl students. Like Sparrow, Wang was raised in China in a poor farming community, but she has earned several undergraduate and graduate degrees in the U.S. The film, made in part as her thesis project in NYU’s graduate journalism program, was shot with small, sometimes hidden, digital cameras. Wang doesn’t hide the fact that she put herself at risk, albeit not nearly in the kind of danger faced by Sparrow, who has been jailed multiple times, and other protesters every day. Packing a double whammy, Hooligan Sparrow has the jaunty appeal of a feminist adventure film, while leaving no doubt about the gravity of the human-rights struggle in China, particularly for women. Teenage girls with exceptional athletic performance skills are at the center of two documentary/fiction hybrids: Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits puts a fictionalized framework around what is essentially a study of competitive team dancing in Cincinnati and of one particularly talented youngster, Royalty Hightower. Otto Bell’s thrilling The Eagle Huntress follows a Mongolian 13-year-old as she learns to hunt with a golden eagle and becomes the first female ever to compete in this rigorous, mesmerizingly beautiful sport. But for sheer exuberance, nothing could beat the LGBTQ cast of Sara Jordenö’s documentary Kiki, all of whom bring the same brio to organizing a protest rally as to walking a ball.

The event I shouldn’t have missed: the eight-hour ESPN documentary O.J.: Made in America directed by Ezra Edelman, to be broadcast in June. I did, however, enjoy the first four episodes of The Girlfriend Experience, a Starz series co-directed by Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan with the chilly elegance that is the hallmark of the series’ executive producer, Steven Soderbergh. The place I spent too much time: the New Frontier exhibition of some 40 virtual reality pieces. Sundance is anticipating the future by throwing money and energy into a technology that’s not ready for prime time. At the bottom of Park City’s Main Street, the Acura and the Samsung displays were side by side. No one was allowed to touch the actual car, but you could put on the Samsung headgear and take a virtual ride. At least, that’s what a bewildered Acura lover told me.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor to FILM COMMENT and Artforum.