Photobombing Sundance: It’s Still About the Indie Filmmaker

For all its reputation of glitz, glamour, and celebrity sightings, Sundance still has a place for folks like us on its red carpet. I returned to the hallowed film festival last month for the first time since The Movement played there in 2012. It was high-octane fuel for my creative engines. “Why haven’t I done this sooner?” I asked myself.

To be fair, it’s a tough festival for filmmakers strapped for money and time. Several things made it possible this year: former Warren Miller road crew stud, Dave Studdert, and his family kindly hosted us for the first weekend. Kevin Kerndt, Power of the River‘s titles and motion designer, provided the car and most of the driving that weekend. Our composer Stefan Smulovitz booked his flights and somehow crowbarred in a four-day break from his intense work schedule to join us. The second weekend, AirB&B hosts Kristopher and Katrina offered me and Kim a room for peanuts. Still in the honeymoon phaseKim kindly tolerated my eagerness to see three back-to-back films in one day— and then gracefully declined when I tried to shoehorn in a fourth show (she was right: we needed time to process). And the Sundance Institute kicked it all off by offering me a free alumni credential— and some perks as a supporting member that helped us get tickets to the shows we’d most hoped to see. Just the push I needed.

In the end I saw eight feature films, eleven shorts, and took part in one powerful virtual reality small-group experience (called ‘VR_I’ – check out this 3-minute teaser). We caught a couple parties, had a meeting with the team behind Sundance’s Creative Distribution Initiative (I’m in competition for their CDI Fellowship this year: please send me good juju!), and soaked in the general vibe of the flagship event of the Sundance brand.

Flagship event? To listen to Bob Redford talk about it, Sundance is less about the fest and more about its labs, its direct support of independent artists who tell stories from underrepresented perspectives. I’ve noticed in recent years that support seems to be accelerating, filling in holes that may actually empower me and my fellow indie storytellers in the early stages of the process (rather than picking at the leftovers after filmmakers have taken all the risk and invested all the effort to get a film finished). I’m most excited about initiatives like Sundance’s CDI, their Creative Producing Fellowship, and the Discovery Impact Fellowship which led, in part, to Jeff Orlowski’s new film: the gorgeous and powerful Chasing Coral.

Kailash | Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Derk Doneen

Several of the films we saw this year had a common thread that was apparent to me: Audience engagement that starts right in your theater seat. Kailash could have been a simple celebratory biopic about a hero who has dedicated his life to freeing child slaves in India. But instead it swept the audience along through the dramatic, breathless action of a factory raid— in the style of The Cove. It balanced this intense drama with uplifting scenes from the raids’ aftermath: rescued children being given a second chance at the innocence and joy all children should have the opportunity to enjoy. This uplift was tempered by concerns that some of these kids might get sucked back into the same vexing cycle that put them in the factories in the first place. And then the ultimate audience engagement: a finger pointing back at our packed theatre audience there in downtown Salt Lake City, emphasizing that just one of the U.N. member nations has not ratified its Convention on the Rights of the Child: The U.S.A. There was a collective groan from the audience as we realized that our own country is not off the hook— and is almost certainly complicit. Kailash Satyarthi himself, and the momentum he’s building with his life’s work, stands out as compelling reason for hope. It was amazing to trace that rollercoaster of emotions through one single film. The standing ovation, as this Nobel Peace Prize recipient himself came on stage, was perhaps the longest I’ve ever witnessed at a film screening.

Bisbee ’17 | Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jarred Alterman/4th Row Films

Engaging an audience in a documentary from just about the very first shot has become a hallmark of Robert Greene films. His new offering Bisbee ’17 follows in the footsteps of his brilliantly challenging Kate Plays Christine. Both films grapple with a sordid legacy from the past and its impact on present society. In the director’s commentary for Kate, Greene admits to consciously aiming to frustrate audiences. Odd choice for a storyteller, right? Breaking multiple conventions of the form, he includes actors in his documentaries, he creates deliberately flawed historical recreations, and he acknowledges his film crew’s intrusion into the story he’s telling— all wonderful deconstructions of the boundaries between observer and subject, between slick storytelling and unvarnished reality. Somewhere in the middle is the truth that Greene seeks— and the effort always galvanizes lively conversation.

A Woman Captured | Courtesy of Syndicado

For me, this year’s best example of a filmmaker engaging the audience was the surprising A Woman Captured. Filmmaker Bernadett Tuza-Ritter spent an agonizing series of months in claustrophobically close quarters, filming her subject Marish who is essentially a modern-day domestic slave. Ultimately the filmmaker can’t resist intervening, offering assistance to Marish in her escape. An emotional hug between subject and observer, as the camera continues rolling, brings us all together into one big group hug of solidarity. I thank Marish (a.k.a. Edith) willing to trust the filmmaker; and I thank Tuza-Ritter who acknowledged her own empathy and humanity over myths of “journalistic objectivity” and “distance from the subject.” It was a compelling example of film bringing us together.

Each in their own way, these films are true independents. I’m honored to be an alum of the Sundance organization and excited that it continues to support art that challenges conventions, breaks taboos, and moves audiences in meaningful directions.

Thanks for reading!


Warren’s Dream Lives On in Freedom Seekers Everywhere

He was one of the world’s greatest proponents of freedom: that sort of freedom that releases butterflies in your belly, like the feeling of gliding down a fresh field of powder snow. Yesterday Warren Miller rode his last lift. In his 93 years he carved deep arcs onto a blank canvas that has influenced many of us fellow freedom chasers.

He was one of the first, and certainly the most prolific, filmmaker to point his lens toward people who brought truly different talents to mountain sports. While his early films may have ruffled feminist feathers, his later fare did a much better job (better than the industry as a whole) at highlighting brilliant female skiers. He crossed hundreds of cultural borders— skis strapped to camels or yaks or sputtering Kazakh mopeds— quipping “if everyone skied there would be no wars.”

I’m certain no other filmmaker has devoted more footage to people with disabilities finding freedom through sports. There is a long way to go in making sports more accessible, and films more representative, but Warren elevated the art of ski films well beyond entertainment only for “Nearly Normal Norman.” As one example, when narrating The Movement, Warren went off script and told us about the best skier he ever met:

When I tell this story in front of people I start crying— you know, which is kind of silly for an 80-year-old guy. They ask me who was the best skier I ever filmed and I’ve told them the Traci Taylor story.

The admiration is mutual for this little girl who found in Warren a kindred spirit unwilling to be held back. She received the most dire of prognoses, born three months premature with a rare disease and missing the lower part of her spine. Traci writes me tonight about how Warren scooped her up so she could experience skiing, eventually starring in one of his films:

He truly gave me the gift of freedom when he provided me with the knowledge and the opportunity to “hit the slopes” for the first time (and every time after). His kind heart allowed mine to grow with the wonderment of being able to do a sport that I thought was not an option for me. I am humbled by his kind demeanor and his witty humor. He was a giant among men on many levels. He is deeply missed. I see him in the snowflakes and hear his voice in the whistling wind. Ski on!

For all his championing of freedom, Warren had one hell of a work ethic. I once asked him: “Warren Miller, the original ski bum, says: Get a job?!” and he replied: “You only get out of life whatever it is you go after.” His instinct for chasing ambitious dreams is truly the stuff of legend— and laughter, for it was rarely an easy path. He calls it “lurching from one near disaster to another.” In reading his new biography, I sensed the roots of my own yearnings. Like Warren I’ve eschewed corporate jobs. I’ve taken his advice and moved to a ski town. I make films. I work my butt off to fill movie theaters. In his life story I found a cryptic treasure map, perhaps one that can never be followed again in exactly the same way, toward a life well lived.

Below I’ll share a few favorite Warrenisms (please add yours in the comments below) and leave you with the wish that, like Warren, you’ll point your lens at joy, live your life with gusto, and chase freedom till the day you die.

“Roller skiing was invented by the guy that changes the water in the think tank.” [Click for video proof] – Ski Country (1984)

“The thing with skiing is you can’t think negative thoughts while you’re making turns on snow. Every time you get to the bottom of a hill, you experience what I call—and you probably can’t print this—a wonderful psychological enema.” – Warren’s Wisdom (2008)
Q&A with Warren Miller from 2008

“Movements are more than good ideas, a movement needs people. It’s an uprising, a rebellion against the status quo, a groundswell of momentum. It must mean something and it must be worth fighting for.” The Movement (2011)

Warren, rest in peace knowing that legions of freedom chasers carry your torch forward. Speaking only for my own work, the lurching shall continue from one near disaster to another. Thank you for a lifetime of inspiration.


Love, Light, and Environmental Film

A sense of hope, an environmental film festival, and our nation’s capital: who’d have thunk all three could come together now?

Sure enough, my fiancé and I hit town and caught film after film, with their panels of filmmakers and scientists, all providing a surprising mood of optimism. There’s nothing passive or Pollyanna here: an unmistakable fire fuels that optimism.

Kim and I sat on the floor for a packed-house premiere of Before the Flood and the atmosphere crackled. In the panel that followed, marine ecologist Jeremy Jackson reminded us that the movement for civil rights was hard fought, but that it ultimately made meaningful strides. His fellow panelist, climatologist Dr. Michael Mann was quick to add that the country’s first-ever march on Washington for science would take place this Earth Day: “Out of the lab and into the streets.”

From archival films about the Galapagos (somehow lost till now) to the modern plight of the dairy farmer, we discovered films filled with education, inspiration, and humor. At our sold-out Power of the River premiere, I was thrilled to hear laughter in all the places I’d hoped for. There were oohs and groans when our adventure turned a bit dicey. The audience questions afterward revealed a thirst to explore and protect places on our planet like those we visited in Bhutan. The discussion ran late in the theater and spilled over into events we organized at the Patagonia store.

Our experience in D.C. was different than any other fest I’ve ever attended. There was something, ahem, monumental about it. Navigating the city means passing embassies of 177 nations; massive buildings dedicated to education or to women in the arts; and monuments to men like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At the latter we found his words inscribed:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” (1963)

At this year’s Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, we found that sort of love and light among filmmakers, event organizers, and guests. There is much more to come, so join the fest through this Sunday, March 26, 2017:

Thanks for reading! Cheers,