My First Sundance: A Bright Ray of Light in a Storm of Darkness

02/08/2017 02:47 pm ET

It has only been two weeks since I returned from Sundance and already I can hardly wait until next year, although it’s hard to imagine anything matching the drama and spectacle of SFF 2017. And that’s just from what happened outside the theaters.

At the closing Awards Ceremony Festival Director John Cooper said, “This has been one of the wildest, wackiest and most rewarding in recent memory. From a new government to the independently organized Women’s March on Main, to power outages, a cyber attack and record levels of snow, the work of our artists rose above it all.”

With a surreal Presidential Inauguration and a storm of protests across the country, those back-to-back national events set the stage for the festival’s spirited kickoff at 7,000 feet. Turnout for the Women’s March in Park City was more than twice was what expected when Chelsea Handler announced she would be leading the charge. A handful of notables joined her, including musician John Legend and social activist Dolores Huerta, whose film about her life debuted to rave reviews.

It was my first time attending and armed with a full festival media pass, warm boots and a strong desire to take my mind off what was coming down in Washington, it was an entirely satisfying adventure. The thought provoking documentaries, and attendant events, were the perfect distraction to the show going on in D.C.

It was the debut of the New Climate Program that got me to Sundance. Twenty years of covering green news and views on local, national and Internet radio finally paid off. The lure of seeing Al Gore’s sequel to An Inconvenient Truth six months ahead of its public release was just too tempting to miss, as a climate denier was taking office and filling his cabinet with like-minded appointees. The opportunity to be immersed in environmental films was a welcome diversion from the man with America’s biggest ego, and eco-footprint, moving into the White House.

I was not disappointed. Not only did I get to see An Inconvenient Sequel –Truth to Power as well as Chasing Ice’s sequel, Chasing Coral, also about the effects of climate change, I was also able to hear Al Gore, Robert Redford, Jeff Skoll, David Suzuki and President Mohamed Nasheed, formerly of the sinking Maldives, in a timely panel discussion. (Speaking of presidents, I almost got to see Malia Obama, missing her and a girlfriend in a consignment store by only five minutes. Can you imagine Ivanka buying second hand? Neither can I.)

The March was also a highlight. An estimated 8,000 strong -- women, men and children -- braved a snowstorm, many in bright pink hats, carrying signs that ranged from clever to crude (but still clever). We marched, or rather trudged, in the wind and snow, holding hands to keep each other, and our cell phones, from freezing. As a longtime environmental journalist, Trump’s election hit hard since he appears fixated on inflicting lethal blows to both the planet and the Press. As was the case for millions of others, this mass revolt against the bombastic billionaire -- repeated across the country and world -- reignited my hope, activism and spirit. It’s a good thing because most of the films I watched were a downer, but like Trump has done, they also got me fired up.

Many of the films moved me because they were substantive, well made, timely and troubling, if not downright terrifying. In the terrifying category, Chasing Coral was a stunner, both visually and for what it portends. Director Jeff Orlowski has done for coral reefs what he did for Arctic glaciers five years earlier; captured on camera through time-lapse photography their demise. Bringing the sobering reality of rapid planetary change that’s occurring “out there” to the big screen “right here” hits home, hits hard and is impossible to dismiss once you’ve witnessed it.

I cannot forget seeing the video of an older woman, a self-proclaimed “die-hard Fox Bill O’Reilly fan” leaving the theatre in tears after viewing Chasing Ice. The woman told an interviewer that she’d come to “laugh about global warming” but now that she’d seen it with her own eyes, was intent on letting everyone she’d previously argued with about climate change know of her pivot in opinion. She vowed to tell friends she was wrong and very sorry “for kicking them out of her house.” That’s the power of media done well and I’d love to track her down for an update! The link can be found here: https://youtu.be/S9xVS9bXMFc

Watching the transformation of coral reefs was equally dramatic. During a three year period the film was colorful, pulsating live organisms morphed into tangled brown carcasses. This is due primarily to warming ocean temperatures at a rate that is both dizzying and sickening. Orlowski and his intrepid crew visited several continents to bear witness to the destruction offshore and to share with the world what it means for our future. An estimated one-quarter of all sea life feed on coral reefs, the underwater canary. During the festival it was announced that Netflix picked up worldwide rights to distribute Chasing Coral, which hopefully will mean millions get to see this alarming wake-up call. It also won an Audience Award in the U.S. Documentary category.

Al Gore’s newly produced An Inconvenient Sequel -- Truth to Power premiered on the Festival’s opening night to much fanfare and a few standing ovations with Gore on hand for a Q & A. The film focused on the rapid rise of renewable energy and lowering of costs to help propel growth, especially in the solar sector. But it also showed evidence of mounting threats like rising sea levels, with Miami streets under several feet of water, as well as cause for rising political concern.

Gore’s sequel, like the original 11 years earlier, was part lecture, part travelogue, and part personal journey. The man who would be President is still using some old lines, with references to a “nature hike through the Book of Revelations.” But thankfully, especially for those of us who have spent days with him in his climate training, he also had some chuckle-worthy fresh lines.

Producers Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen worked with Participant Media to make the sequel, which has now been picked up by Paramount for distribution this summer. Disappointing that we have to wait until July for what will hopefully be another cinematic game changer. At the least It should provide a much needed reality check against the deny-osphere in D.C.

The film included cuts of Trump uttering ridiculous comments about climate change, signaling a dark period ahead. That is unless Al Gore, Elon Musk, Rex Tillerson, or someone can get to Trump before too many of Obama’s hard fought victories are reversed. It says a lot that Tillerson, former head of ExxonMobil -- the company that covered up climate data for decades -- is the bright spot in Trump’s “basket of deplorables.” That is because he has expressed openness to a revenue-neutral carbon tax, which scientists (and some prominent Republicans, such as former Secretary of State James Baker and George Schultz agree is our best, perhaps only, real hope to avoid carbon catastrophe and climate collapse.

Additional offerings in the new environmental track included Plastic China, Trophy and Water and Power – A California Heist.

Plastic China was a heartbreaker, zooming in on a poor Chinese family forced to make a living picking plastic debris (some from American brands) out of the adjacent landfill to melt down for the Chinese-equivalent of pennies. The father was suffering health problems as a result, and his children didn’t know any other reality, including school.

Trophy, an excellent film by Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, focused its lens on the sport of big game hunting and the all too lucrative business of poaching. Although it did an excellent job of connecting the dots to extinction threats for species like rhinos and elephants, it also provided a balanced and plausible analysis; the competing interests of natives trying to make a living against conservationists working to save endangered animals. In the case of one South African man, that means using his personal resources to protect rhinos by capturing and breeding them. John Hume prevents them from being killed by cutting off and selling their tusks allowing them to survive, though perhaps not thrive. Hume, advancing in age and a bit battle weary, worries that “his rhinos” will perish after he dies. On the day of Trophy’s World Premiere, The Orchard and CNN Films picked up North American and television rights to distribute the movie. That is encouraging when you consider what CNN’s repeat airings of Blackfish did to rally public outrage against Sea World which ultimately led to a phase-out ban on keeping Orcas in captivity.

The final film I screened in the environmental category was Marina Zenovich’s Water and Power: A California Heist. The producers follow the trail and plumb the depths of water wars in scenes reminiscent of Chinatown. This movie is about a real life crisis and shows the impacts on local citizens who suffer through shortages during drought years while private interests profit by manipulating the law. Imagine my chagrin to learn that the Wonderful Company, which makes my favorite pomegranate beverage, is one of the brands benefitting. Locals are forced to drink bottled water and travel to take a shower while paying five dollars for the “privilege.” Not so Wonderful though California’s current deluge eased some of my guilt.

Perhaps the best news...Sundance Board Chair, Pat Mitchell, announced at the “Artist At A Table” dinner on opening night that the Institute plans to continue A New Climate next year. With the current administration taking aim at the EPA, environmental regulations and global climate agreements not boding well for our planet -- at least their regressive actions should yield a bumper crop of compelling new films!

What struck me while at Sundance, and left a lasting impression, was how ebullient everyone was to be there. I guess that’s what happens when you mix 40-thousand film fanatics, creative artists, movie-makers and wanna be’s in snow globe of a town. For political progressives, this Rocky Mountain High surrounded by a sea of misery provided welcome refuge.

In the end, attending Sundance 2017 was a guilty pleasure, getting to see a film at 9:00 am on a weekday in a dark screening room and going late into the evening with screenings, sponsor receptions and media parties. But I came to the conclusion that it’s a worthy pursuit to immerse oneself in thoughtful documentaries around the clock for a week, as social change is needed now more than ever.

Oh how I savored being in that Sundance bubble, hiding out in dark theatres knowing soon enough I’d be back to the new reality of shock and awe. But first please pass the popcorn.

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