Sundance: Roughs amongst Diamonds

03/25/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Stewart's 3rd Blog from Sundance

Park City, Utah -- Only yesterday, I wrote with brimming self-confidence, every film at Sundance is a gem. Without exception they're all diamonds shinning brightly. Then I went out and saw two stinkers..

Film making is not a science, but an art, and art -- real art! -- pushes the creative boundaries and stretches the imagination and pressures the consumer. Inevitably, this pushing and stretching and pressuring produces some nasty stinkers. If you drive on the edge of the road, don't be surprised if you drive off the road.

My first stinker on my second day at Sundance was Women without Men. Naturally, I thought it was going to be a lesbian porno flick. When it turned out to be otherwise - well, I had problems concentrating on the film.


Women without Men is set in 1950s Iran during a time of raising tensions with its former colonial ruler Britain, with the US, backed a successful coup. Four Iranian women have little in common except they are living lives of hard desperation, particularly hard because Iran in the 1950s, probably today too, is a rigid patriarch Muslim society that places women low on the totem pole of values.

That the film was in Farsi with English subtitles did not help me to connect to the characters. Nor did the lingering effects of last night's party. The pace of the film seemed to crawl, especially for a hungover American. There is the recent news about Iran -- were those Iranian students tortured and abused in prison? How many were killed during the demonstrations? How many more women in Iran are now without men? And men without women? Around the halfway mark of the film, I slipped into some heavy fantasies, which are best not discussed.

Yet, in writing these words I have an uneasy feeling that labeling Women without Men a stinker film might be too much. I should say Women without Men is a qualified stinker. Maybe on a good day I could have connected with Shirin Neshat's first narrative film, made the cultural and psychological mental jumps necessary to get into the film. Or maybe not. All of us can travel only so far from home.

As for the second film, I'm convinced it's a full-blown stinker.

The Fence is about the fence that separates Mexico and Untied States. The narrator, Rory Kenned, a daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, says America "has always been a nation of emigrants" and Americans are too good to have their own "Berlin Wall" - ignoring the difference between walls to imprison a nation's people and walls to prohibit non-citizens from illegally entering a sovereign country - the undocumented workers "only want a better life...."


Yet, when it comes to our most vulnerable Americans, many of whom are minorities, all of whom possess minimal labor skills, there is silence. Where is the voice for those paying a heavy price for this massive immigration? If lawyers or filmmakers were losing their jobs and having their wages driven downward, their voice would be heard clearly and loudly throughout America. And just when did liberals and the Democratic Party begin to ignore the American working class?

If you want a few new statistics, some humorous remarks, understand the wall is too expensive and is worthless, hear the point of view of Mexicans and pro-immigration Americans, you just might find The Fence worthwhile. But The Fence is only one side of a three sided argument over illegal immigration -- the pro and the con and the silent -- two sides for decades have been throwing the same old tired arguments at each other and neither side reaches out to other to move forward. Meanwhile, the voice of American workers is nowhere to be heard.

From Robert Redford down, the mantra for the 26th Sundance Film Festival has been the return to creative roots. Sundance is again unpredictability, we are told. Sundance is again taking risks. Sundance is less Hollywood and much more Indie Wonder -- goodbye Britney Spears, welcome back Leon Gast. The 26th Sundance is a new old Sundance.

With Sundance back on the edge of the creative road, with the nature of art pushing and stretching and challenging, there will be stinker films. Films that individuals for whatever reason cannot connect to because on that day at that time they cannot make the jump. Fine, I have no problem with those films. Film making is an art.

But some films are genuine stinkers. They do not challenge, they do not open the mind -- they contribute to closing the mind -- and they do not give voice to the voiceless. These filmmakers need to think long and hard before they waste good money and time on making another stinker. For those films that I cannot connect to, I need to think hard about my own limitations, my difficulty in climbing foreign walls. It might help if I skipped a Sundance party, even two. Or maybe not.

Time to look for some more diamonds.