The best film festivals, it seems, have some of the worst movie clunkers. That's probably because the best festivals are bulging with great films and that makes the clunkers seem even more horrible.
Back in January at Sundance, The Fence was so deeply flawed that only the lobotomized could get into it -- well, that's probably a tad too much. But come on, the film excluded a critical voice from the story. If Independent films do not include the voices of the voiceless, what is the purpose of making Indie film? Just go make the big bucks!
Then at the South by Southwest Festival in Texas, I watched Haynesville: A Nation's Hunt For Energy. While The Fence ignored the voice of poor whites and minorities in the debate over illegal immigration, Haynesville ignored the mounting evidence that natural gas drilling is dangerous for all of us. And sure enough, what Haynesville ignored has recently hit the front page: More than 100 homes' drinking water has been cut off in Louisiana because of pollution from the drilling for natural gas. If the purpose of Indie film is not to inform those in danger, to side with the powerful and wealthy against regular people, what is the purpose of Indie films?
Now at Tribeca Film Festival -- the third of this country's big three film festivals -- I walked into Beware the Gonzo and was confronted by another dismal clunker. Set in a suburban high school, there are the insensitive bullies and the sensitive nerds who struggle for self-respect and revenge against the tough bullies. The characters are celluloid cut-outs and the plot so worn that it's deeper than the San Andreas Fault. This is shallow entertainment for bored youth who know real excitement will never burst into their lives. It's not only horrible, it's depressing.
The purposes of serious indie film include giving voice to the voiceless, revealing what is being suppressed, and telling gripping stories that pry open minds and skyrocket emotions. If your film echoes the status quo, if it sides with the powerful or rehashes old stories, it has no right to be taken seriously. It should join those who specialize in clunkers: the Hollywood studios.
But let's remember, clunkers are rarities at American film festivals; the vast majority of the films run from good to fantastic and are crafted for audiences that want to be challenged and expanded. Filmgoers at festivals come to feel more human, to think deeper. So the dumbing down and the broadening to a mass audience doesn't sit well with the indie community. After walking out of Beware the Gonzo, I walked right into the fantastic Sons of Perdition.
Although the teenagers in this documentary can, on the surface, appear normal, they are far from normal. This is not fantasy rebellion while living in the cocoon of middle-class security. This is teenage rebellion that leads to a complete break from their community and family, the leaving of their past lives, a dislocation from their identities. This is having the courage to leave their cocoon. To go from Beware the Gonzo to Sons of Perdition is to zip from the unimaginatively frivolous to wrenching life-decisions and excruciating high costs. I went from clunker to the glory of Independent Film.
Sons of Perdition focuses on three teenage boys who have left their homes in the secretive, repressive, dictatorial religious community -- a cult actually -- of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). On the border of Utah and Arizona, the cult practices polygamy -- believing it is the only way into heaven. The outside world is demonized. Members are estranged from everyone but each other. Education is warped into a tool for ignorance and dominance. A teenage girl in the film does not know the name of the capital of the United States. Led by the now incarcerated Warren Jeffs, the FLDS is one of the strangest and most stringent cults in this country.
Once people leave the FLDS community, they are barred for life, barred from their families and friends, and supposedly barred from heaven. Yet, there are young people in the FLDS who cannot tolerate the heavy restrictions and demanding conformity. They must leave. The psychological and emotional toll in being uprooted from their former narrow lives and struggling to create a new life in a new world is profound.
Directors Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten have done an excellent job in delivering an intimate picture of these teenagers and in exposing the larger context, using the eerie voice of "prophet" Warren Jeffs to emphasize that this religion has been perverted and warped. So what is the solution? Teenagers running away from their homes and struggling to find themselves in a broader and freer world are not the solution for the larger problem of the cultist FLDS community.
The States of Utah and Arizona as well as the Federal Government need to require proper education for these children. The leadership of FLDS may want to reject America, but their community is still in this country. Their home-schooling is a program to shape and condition the children to be obedient to a cult and genuine education is the best antidote for minds stunted and trained to follow. To allow this modern day slavery to continue is a crime that States' Rights and Religious Freedom cannot justify. It is a crime that we should not allow to continue.
Sons of Perdition delivers voices that are strong and a story that is gripping. This is a serious film for serious filmgoers. This is Indie Film as fantastic film: informative and compelling and poignant. It took Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten four long years to make Sons of Perdition. It will stand for many more years as an example of a penetrating, insightful, and riveting documentary.