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Sundance blog 7: Inspiring winners and meeting a hero

  • Sundance Closing Night 2015

Sundance 2015's closing night party

January 2015

Edward Lawrenson and Pia Borg attended the Sundance Film Festival to present their short film Abandoned Goods. Ed is also sharing his Sundance diary, and in this final instalment he reports from the winners' ceremony and on meeting one of his heroes, Ross McElwee.

The Sundance Film Festival closed on Saturday night with a big awards ceremony in a hangar-sized convention centre on the outskirts of Park City. It was an opportunity to say goodbye to the remaining short filmmakers, swap contact details with other people we met, and just enjoy the atmosphere: relaxed, dressed-down, focused on the films themselves.

Two things stood out for me. Director Chad Garcia won the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize for The Russian Woodpecker, a fascinating, dazzlingly original portrait of Ukrainian performance artist Fodor Alexandrovich, made in the lead-up and during the recent Maidan protests.

On stage to receive the award Fodor was joined by Artem Ryzhykov, a fellow Ukrainian who shot the film. These two men made trenchant speeches about Russia’s violent crackdown of Ukrainian artists. It was an electrifying moment.

Later the parents of Jordan Davis came up to the podium. A young unarmed African American, Jordan was shot dead by a white driver in the forecourt of a Florida gas station for playing his music too loud, and director Marc Silver’s sombre, angry documentary 3 1/2 Minutes told the story of his case (and won the US Documentary Special Jury Award for Social Impact). To a stirring reception, Jordan’s parents spoke movingly about their memory of their son and urged continued political action on the issues raised by the case.

Both speeches were vivid illustrations of Sundance's commitment to work that is politically engaged and focussed on social change; but what's impressive is that these films explored timely issues without dogma, and with cinematic flair and emotional sophistication. In fact they were among the two films I liked most here.

Earlier in the day we went to a panel on documentaries that Sundance had organised under its Art of Film weekend. This exploration of the craft of filmmaking got started on January 29, with the big guns of Robert Redford and George Lucas in discussion about their careers.

If this pairing was the headline act, Saturday’s documentary debate with filmmakers Sam Greene and Ross McElwee was the one that meant the most to me. I’ve been a fan of McElwee for the longest time – his 1993 memoir Time Indefinite is, for my money, a masterpiece of American cinema – so attending this talk was a spot of obligatory hero-worship. (I nervously introduced myself to him afterwards, and he gently demolished the old adage about never meeting your heroes by being friendly and talkative). The panel itself was terrific: McElwee and Greene lined up a bank of clips which they showed us, then discussed. It was loose and relaxed (in a distinctively Sundance way) but unfailingly insightful.

As well as prompting debate on the existing art of film, Sundance was also encouraging a dialogue about how the artform might develop with changing technology. The New Frontier exhibition space on Main Street was devoted to installations that drew on virtual reality devices. I didn’t get a chance to explore the major pieces – the queues were too long – but I did check out a low-fi contraption, made from cardboard, that turned your smart phone into a virtual-reality viewer. The immersive experience was technically extraordinary, and it pointed out interesting directions for new forms of storytelling.

Not that I had any reasons to fear for the current state of ‘traditional’ cinema. Along with the networking events, the Q&As, the parties, Sundance has been a wonderful opportunity for us to catch up with new films. Inspired, thrilled, a little daunted by the range and originality of the work we’ve shown alongside, we caught a bus back to Salt Lake City airport on Sunday morning to start our journey home.

You can also read part onepart twopart threepart fourpart five and part six of Ed's Sundance diary.

Ed and Pia were attending Sundance thanks in part to a Short Film Travel Grant from British Council and BFI. More information about the grants can be found here.

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