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Looking back at Sundance Film Festival 2016

Looking back at Sundance Film Festival 2016

By: William Alexander

As Sundance has drawn to a close we’ve decided to reflect on this years festival and fill you in with what’s been hot on the screen.

As Sundance has drawn to a close we’ve decided to reflect on this years festival and fill you in with what’s been hot on the screen. What’s so special and important about this festival is that for decades Sundance has given risk-taking storytellers a stand for their art to be seen by film aficionados all over the map who travel to Utah annually. It’s never mattered how established the filmmaker is or where they’ve been before; the cream always rises. Sundance is a “discovery institute”, according to the festival director John Cooper, and it’s true because it invests in stories that matter and should be told. Often these films will poke at a relevant societal and historical issue that we simply cannot ignore nor brush aside and that’s why 2016’s filmmakers Nate Parker, Dawn Porter, Stephanie Soechtig and Pieter-Jan De Pue are here. They’ve given us thought-provoking entertainment powerful enough to encourage change in an age where the film medium is already doing so – and for the right reasons. It’s been a brilliant ten days of festivities in Park City, Utah and we thought we’d keep you in check by having a look at the handful of films that have premiered and will surely leave a lasting mark on you. 

Under the Gun

This year we saw three premieres tackle gun violence in America with each film ventilating the issue in its own controlled way. Director Stephanie Soechtig and producer Katie Couric teamed up to present us with Under The Gun which screened on Sunday 24th and gives a heart-shattering view of gun violence in America in recent times. This documentary narrows its focal point on the NRA (National Rifle Association) and is cut in with stories told by grieving families through a succession of touching interviews. Whenever a mass shooting has taken place we’ve been well aware on the other side of the pond but we’ve needed a documentary like Under The Gun to dive deeper into just how ruinous these events have been, hearing it straight from the mouths of families who have suffered the unimaginable. Tim Sutton’s Dark Night also premiered and it fictionalises America’s cataclysmic outbreak of gun violence in a branched narrative that proves both gripping and disconcerting. The director spoke after the screening about how his film “is observational” and is about “feeling something for these people, projecting your own lives up on the screen”. Dark Night is an interesting one insofar that it doesn’t scream yes or no to gun legislation; instead it remains somewhat neutral and says, “here are guns”, according to the director.  

Kim A. Snyder and Maria Cuomo Cole’s documentary, Newtown, was screened on the Sunday afternoon at the Temple Theatre and takes us back to Newtown, Connecticut after three long, painful years in order to resurface the tragedy of December 14th 2012 where six members of staff and twenty children were ruthlessly shot dead. There is a calling for a change in this documentary and it cannot be ignored for any longer. In the case of Newtown time hasn’t healed it and to no surprise with nothing having been done. These two deserve considerable praise for earning the trust of the families at a time when they were mourning and hounded by the press. Some of the parents of the victims attended the screening and spoke in depth afterwards about their reaction to seeing the film and, as viewings go, this one must have been incredibly emotional and overwhelming for everybody in the room. 

Life, Animated

More US documentaries included Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated which explores the life of young autistic man Owen Suskind who identifies with Disney characters in order to better his understanding of himself, his reality and everyone else around him. Will Allen’s Holy Hell recounts his time spent in a spiritual community called ‘Buddha Field’, which unveils its dark, twisted secrets while on the other hand Dawn Porter’s Trapped scopes in on America’s restrictive state laws on abortion as it follows a physician who travels the country helping to keep the medical service available for women. It calls for this highly debated issue to be confronted and it was said that four abortion providers were flown into Park City to make the screening and they were applauded for the risks they have taken. In the world documentary category Pieter-Jan De Pue’s The Land Of The Enlightened shines bright and so does Roksareh Ghaem Maghami’s Sonita: a story of a female rapper in Iran’s capital, Tehran, who dreams big despite living in a highly conservative society with her mother pushing to have her married off for $9,000. Keep Sonita on your watch list for 2016. 


It was announced on Saturday 30th that Nate Parker scooped the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for his remarkable debut Birth Of A Nation. To save confusion this isn’t a remake of D.W. Griffith’s incredibly controversial silent film from 1915 of the same name. No. Nate Parker’s tells the incredible story of Nat Turner who was a black minister during times of slavery in Virginia, America. What Nate Parker has achieved here is extremely commendable. He stepped away from acting for a couple of years, compromising his income, but successfully hurdled all the obstacles that come with attempting to direct your first feature. According to the man himself he “sold the project to investors and cast on legacy” with the intention of “promoting healing” and “starting a conversation” in a society where racism is still transparent and a problem in America. If Nate Parker has proven anything with this historical biopic it’s that if we do not chose to deal with inequity in all corners and get on board to fight for change then we are simply throwing more wood onto the fire. Just know that Birth Of A Nation is here…and it’ll square up to your face. We’ve got high hopes that this one will make it onto the 2017 Oscar run and you can expect a worldwide release later this year from Fox Searchlight who bagged the distribution rights on Tuesday 26th after one hell of a bidding war. 

Birth of a Nation

Other standout dramas included Richard Tanne’s Southside With You, which gives a portrait of Barack Obama and Michelle’s first date in Chicago back in 1989, and also Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl that sees a college girl in New York become wrapped up in a risky drug conundrum. A quick mention of Flying Lotus’ DJ set at Sundance was also completely necessary in how he turned up and held the festival’s music lovers in audiovisual bliss. We’re only touching the surface when we say Sundance 2016 was extra special.  


Watch the awards ceremony here:


W/ www.sundance.org