So I’ve been a bit logistically challenged here at Sundance, meaning that I have missed a films and been shut out of others. That’s the way it goes here. You have to surrender to it. But the one thing that you can get at Sundance in spades is inspiration. You can find it in the movies, or in the people.
I have been finding inspiration all over the place. First in the movies. I cannot say enough amazing things about "Sonita," "Eagle Huntress" and "Trapped." (Full disclosure: "Trapped" will open the Athena Film Festival next month.)
Directed by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, "Sonita" tells the story of an Afghan-Iranian rapper. She is about to hit the age (mid-teens) when her family wants to marry her off — a process the film depicts as basically selling her to another family. And Sonita’s parents need to get a good price for her, because they in turn need the money to pay for their son’s bride. So the movie is about girls being sold to purchase other girls. Sonita is living in Iran (which is progressive compared to Afghanistan), going to school and desperate not to have this happen to her. She does these amazing rap songs about the value that the world places on these girls lives, and it is amazing and heartbreaking at the same time. Her value? According to her family, $9000. According to the movie: priceless. Read our interview with director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami.
If you’ve seen me over the last couple of days, you have heard me talking about "Eagle Huntress." This film is my new obsession. Aside from being one of the most beautifully shot movies I have ever seen, this movie tells an incredible story of the first-ever girl trained to be an Eagle Hunter. This tradition has been passed down over time by and to men in remote villages in Mongolia, but 13-year-old Aisholpan Nurgalv has the calling. So her dad trains her to hunt. First step: she needs an eagle. Director Otto Bell, who found out about the eagle huntress from a BBC story and showed up on their doorstep to learn more about her, takes us on Aisholpan’s journey in her first time out hunting, as well as being a part of a large fair where all the eagle hunters compete. I dare you not to be inspired.
"Trapped," on the other hand, is an American story, though it often feels like 1956 instead of 2016. Director Dawn Porter goes into clinics in the South that are being subjected to TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws, which endanger our right to choice. This is way beyond protestors at clinics — who, by the way, are still there. This is about the systemic stripping of fundamental rights to control your own body. The lawmakers and judges across this country are successfully closing clinics by creating undue burdens upon them. The heroes of this film — the clinic owners, the clinic staff, the doctors and the lawyers — are working everyday to help women get the medical care they need. This is a powerful and infuriating look at how insidious the right wing in America has become. And yet, most of the public does not know this is happening. We need to start shouting these stories from the rooftop.
These movies and the ones I’ve written about previously have lit a fire in me. But there is no one around who gets me more excited nowadays about the future of film than Ava DuVernay. If she’s going to be somewhere I can be, I will be there. The woman exudes passion, and her work and her words show it. She held a small event for her company Array, in partnership with Indiegogo, for industry influencers to connect with each other. I was honored to be a part of it. I met amazing people doing work to make the industry more inclusive and to help amplify different stories.
Ava has a way of challenging you to do better, to think differently. She talked about how when she first started directing, the only places receptive to her work were black film festivals. She has built Array, which is now distributing films by people of color and women. The film festivals they work with are key anchors in cities, so when she goes to distribute a film, she knows she can put bodies in seats. That is important. She also spoke about how after "Selma," the movies she was offered were only about the first black _____ [fill in the blank]. But that’s not what she wanted; she wanted someone to trust her and ask her what she wanted to do. The good news is that this has happened. Stay tuned for an announcement when they are ready.
And last but not least is the Horizon Awards, the brainchild of Cassian Elwes, Christine Vachon, Lynette Howell Taylor and many others, who brought four women directors at the beginning of their careers to Sundance to meet with people, screen their films and get industry professionals to look at their work. This is a full-on forward step to plug a hole in the leaky pipeline from festival to industry by giving women access to the people who can help them advance their careers. These four women — Macarena Gaona, Juliette Gosselin, Shanice Malakai Johnson and Florence Pelletier — also get a financial grant from the Adrienne Shelly Foundation.
Inspiration is everywhere at Sundance. You just need to know where to find it.