truth – sundance style

sundance film festival spiritual movies

I think the fact that The Passion of Christ worked so well in the marketplace is actually a negative sign of our times,” says senior Sundance Film Festival programmer, Caroline Libresco, at the start of our conversation. Not exactly what I expect to hear from someone who spends her days searching and championing thought-provoking films. And, frankly, it’s somewhat disconcerting in light of my plans to write about the trends of spirituality and consciousness in independent film. However, since she has a Masters in history of religion from Harvard and I don’t, I’m intrigued to hear her logic. 

“There’s a reason that films haven’t told the great stories of religions,” she continues. “Because they end up being too literal (like The Passion). People aren’t willing to live in the metaphorical realm…they’re unsteady and scared, which is why they need a literal representation of a story that’s meant to be transcendent.” Sounding refreshingly more like a modern-day philosopher than a film programmer, “transcendent” and “truth” are two words that Libresco uses over and over during our conversation. The word she doesn’t use is “trend.” That’s because as far as she’s concerned, there aren’t any. Therefore, the column I had planned to write flies out the window, and we end up talking not about spiritual movies, but rather, how movies affect us in a profound, spiritual way.

Affecting audiences in a profound way is something Sundance has been trying to do since 1981, when Robert Redford became the patron saint of all struggling filmmakers by starting the Sundance Institute for “the development of artists of independent vision.” In 1985, the Institute took over the fledging Utah/United States Film Festival and renamed it. Every January since then, swarms of filmmakers, film lovers, and Hollywood agents with cell phones surgically attached to their ears, have descended upon bucolic Park City, Utah to attend what has come to be known as “the premier U.S. showcase for American and international independent film.”   

Over the years, films such as sex, lies and videotape, Hoop Dreams and Hustle & Flow were discovered at the Festival. Getting in isn’t easy-last year there were 6500 submissions for 202 spots, but as many lucky filmmakers have found, it can be the start of a very successful career. Sundance movies offer a refreshing alternative to the Hollywood studio system and its predilection for blockbusters with fairy-tale endings. Smaller in scope, with a raw, unflinching honesty that can sometimes be painful to watch, films like those at Sundance seem to resonate more strongly with those committed to leading a conscious life. “We see films that have a transformative nature in the fact that they are grappling very deeply with truths””truthful emotions and truthful characters,” says Libresco. 

Despite the lack of discernible trends seen at the Festival year to year, there are, according to Libresco, certain hallmarks that the programmers look for when selecting films. “The strongest stories are those that are absolutely specific, but then also reach to the universal,” she says. “Sort of more mythic in quality?” I ask. The answer is yes. “People are always saying there are only a few stories to tell,” says Libresco. “Personally, I think there’s the story of love, the story of hate, and the story of family dysfunction, which is civil war,” she says.

Many Sundance movies over the years have dealt with family dysfunction (The Myth of Fingerprints and The House of Yes immediately come to mind), but if there is a trend that can be pointed to, it’s that civil war in the literal sense is a subject that today’s filmmakers are tackling. “There are plenty of documentaries that are grappling with the culture clashes that are going on right now in the Middle East, such as the Iraq war, which is inherently about Christianity versus Islam,” says Libresco. 

As the head of the World Cinema program, Libresco sees thousands of films from around the world each year. While she may not be seeing an influx of spiritually-based American films, Libresco says, “from certain Asian cinemas, Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies leak into the aesthetics.” She cites Tony Takitani, a Japanese film directed by Jun Ichikawa based on a Haruki Murakami short story. “Murakami writes in a very spare and profound way and the film really reflected the writing – it was a very Zen experience watching it.” So, is it film as a spiritual experience rather than spiritual experience as film? Yes. “Aesthetics and film from itself can be working with consciousness and spiritual ideas – not just the content itself,” she says. “In this case, the film was not necessarily about spiritual themes, but the film itself, in watching it, was absolutely a spiritual experience.”

She also brings up a film called Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring about a monk living through the cycles of life on a tiny island in a lake. Directed by Korean director Ki-Duk Kim, the film has a moving meditation quality that stays with you long after it’s over and premiered at last year’s festival to a very positive audience response before being acquired for distribution by Sony Classics. I’m also reminded of a film I saw at the 1998 festival called After Life, done by Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, based on the premise that after you die, you go to a weigh station where you have a week to pick one memory to bring with you into eternity. 

As transcendent and uplifting as spirituality can be, we know all too well from the news that it can have also have a shadow side. Last year’s Sundance documentary, Twist of Faith, about a Toledo fireman who had been sexually abused by a Catholic priest during his adolescence, brilliantly demonstrated this. “What’s so incredible is that [filmmaker] Kirby Dick found a character to embody the issue and created a really trusting relationship and, in turn, the character is incredibly generous about what he’s willing to reveal on camera and the journey he’s willing to take.” 

The film may be difficult to watch at times, but it’s nothing if not truthful, which is what Libresco and her colleagues are always looking for. “Truth is what makes people cry or laugh, or change their minds. We have to keep challenging ourselves to stay with the truth,” she says.