The Sundance Film Festival may have started out as the place where independent movie dreams came true, but as with many other forward-thinking institutions, it has adapted with the times. The rise of documentaries over the past two decades — driven not only by box office success, but also by more online distribution outlets like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video — means that non-fiction movies are now taking many of the top prizes at the festival. The ubiquity and progress of technology has also found its way to Sundance, and unlike, say, a tech conference that showcases the gee-whiz aspects of a new device, technology or format, Sundance still focuses on how technology can be used to tell a story, whether it’s via social media, online webisodes, drones, smartphone apps, or virtual reality (VR).
But one indie principle that runs through the festival as much today as it did in the past is the idea of low budgets. “Try to keep a lid on the budget so you can have realistic expectations for success”, said Mark and Jay Duplass at a panel discussion at the Airbnb Haus. “The whole ecosystem needs to stay in business.” No surprise, then, that these Sundance veterans were the producers behind one of the most talked-about features at the festival, Tangerine, a Kickstarter-funded feature that was shot entirely on three iPhones with the $8 Filmic Pro app.
Sundance’s New Frontiers track focused more overtly on technology and its influence in the film arts. VR featured prominently here, but rather than the video-game-meets-Hollywood-action-blockbuster-style demos at CES, SXSW and other tech conferences, the VR at Sundance was in many cases solidly indie and storytelling-focused. No surprise, then, that Oculus chose to announce its Oculus Story Studio VR storytelling unit here, as well as show a few projects.
All this next-gen storytelling wasn’t just fictional — some of the more compelling projects were documentaries in VR format.
Some of the most captivating VR work was by Felix and Paul Studios for Samsung Gear VR. In Wild – the Experience, inspired by Wild, the movie, viewers sit in a forest clearing sandwiched between Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon, having a conversation. Even more mesmerizing and realistic is Herders, a series of 360-degree scenes featuring Mongolian sheepherders and Native Americans, in which the viewer is sitting in the middle of a yurt while Mongolian cuisine is cooked and others sip and eat all around, while another is set in the middle of a field on a hill as horses walk all around the viewer. It’s alternately trippy, dreamy and realistic.
Also cool: Birdly, a full-body contraption in which the viewer lies face-down flat and put their arms in moveable wing-like controllers that must be flapped in the real world to control the flying in the virtual, city skyline experience.
In Perspective, Chapter 1: The Party, the viewer sees a date rape from the perspective of both the perpetrator and the victim (in succession). This one gets an “A” for concept, but the lack of 360 somehow made it feel like a 3D movie, or an interactive multimedia cutscene, rather than immersive virtual reality.
But all this next-gen storytelling wasn’t just fictional. Some of the more compelling projects were documentaries in VR format, including Darfung Dennis’s Zero Point, a 20-minute documentary about the history of virtual reality that includes plenty of talking head interviews, but also immersive examples such as one in which you sit in the middle of a Camp Pendleton combat training simulation and a VR timelapse on the streets of San Francisco. It could have done a better job with identifying the interviewees, but it’s nevertheless a unique, first-of-its-kind prototype for immersive documentary and journalistic endeavors in the future.
Speaking of documentaries, we saw a few when we weren’t busy sticking our faces into virtual reality devices.
Climber and adventure photographer extraordinaire Jimmy Chin’s first full-length documentary feature, which won the festival’s Audience Award, starts off like many an alpinist movie about challenges in scaling the uniquely treacherous Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru in the Himalayas with Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk. Then, it journeys way beyond expected action to demonstrate an inspiring and universal lesson: picking up the pieces after you’ve been knocked down is best achieved by doubling down on risk and doing something harder than you’ve ever done before. Stunning, suspenseful, and occasionally gross footage — everything from Chin’s survival in a live avalanche to trench foot — demonstrates just how obsessive these guys are.
Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
Started by a group of Harvard Lampoon editors, the National Lampoon was one of the most successful magazines in the late ’60s and early-to-mid-’70s. The rag was full of biting, incisive, no-holds-barred satire and spawned a radio and live show that were the precursors to Saturday Night Live (and launched the careers of Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest and many others). Featuring interviews with Chase, Guest, and many of the original editors, illustrators and writers, as well as Tim Matheson, Kevin Bacon and Chris Miller (costars and writer, respectively, of Animal House), director Doug Tirola’s documentary is a captivating look at a time when print magazines could still launch a media empire, as well as an early history of SNL. And in this Je Suis Charlie era wherein no-holds-barred satire is held sacred and under threat, it’s also a reminder of how outlets like this tragically don’t exist anymore in the United States.
A crowd favorite and winner of the Grand Jury Prize: US Documentary award, Crystal Moselle’s film documents the bizarre and unsettling true story of six brothers and one sister and mother who are essentially locked into their apartment by an agoraphobic and alcoholic father. For more than 15 years the dad allowed only a handful of trips outside, until the eldest decided to venture out as a teenager. It’s a weird and sometimes unsettling tale, but the family, even the father, does eventually get out of the house and acclimate, which demonstrates the moral of taking control of your life no matter how oppressive your surroundings.
Welcome to Leith
As the world points fingers at Europe’s growing ethnic extremist movements, it’s a good time to be reminded that there are plenty of racists stateside, too. By focusing on infamous white supremacist Craig Cobb’s attempt to take over the small North Dakota town of Leith through real estate purchases, this documentary shines a light on the devils in our midst, while simultaneously raising tough questions about free speech and First Amendment rights. Haunting, atmospheric cinematography by director Michael Beach Nichol and moody, ambient music by T. Griffin, respectively, lend just the right amount of darkness and creepiness to the whole experience.
The Russian Woodpecker
Winner of the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize, this captivating and at turns funny and suspenseful movie by Chad Garcia follows Ukrainian artist Fedor Alexandrovich, who was only four years old when the 1986 Chernobyl disaster struck. Going on a hunch, Alexandrovich interviews real former Soviet officials and uncovers some possible truths, as well as some borderline conspiracy theories about what really might have happened and why. The perspective takes on an even greater significance given the current events in Ukraine.
Misery Loves Comedy
Actor, comedian and director Kevin Pollack interviewed seemingly every funny person under the sun (with a few notable exceptions like Louis C.K. and the late Joan Rivers and Robin Williams), which probably says more about how booming the comedy business is these days than about who belongs in a documentary about comedy. The movie bursts with hilarious commentary, but also explores some of the psychological reasons that drive someone to become a standup, from the addictive power of getting a concert hall of people to laugh, to the persistent depression that begets brilliant zingers. The footage that was left on the cutting room floor suggests this film may get blown out into a TV or online series.