Our annual Sundance Curiosities column takes a look at various movies and filmmakers from the upcoming Park City festival worthy of anticipation. This year, the column is being written by members of the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship for Film Criticism, who will also review films during the festival.
Sundance has long been known not only as a showcase for innovation but also as a place for the celebration of it. Well before the introduction of the NEXT section in 2010 — the subset of the festival dedicated to low budget films with unique approaches to storytelling — Sundance already provided an outlet for individualized approaches to the medium. Now, as technological developments mandate new approaches to creativity, the festival is on the brink of being more tech-savvy than ever before.
This is partly because it has taken extra steps to complicate traditional definitions of the medium. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s collaborative project “hitRECord” returns to the New Frontier lineup after making its debut in 2010, this time premiering the first three episodes of the television variety show-incarnation. The show draws on thousands of amateur contributors. But experimental approaches can be found in less obvious places as well: Legendary performing artist Marina Abramovic appears in a heady use of 3-D technology in the short film “130919: a Portrait of Marina Abramovic,” a 7-minute project that captures the artist at work in a single long take.
All of this is to say that technological developments are at the forefront of the festival’s cutting edge titles. But they’re also found in the main competitions, where one can single out a pair of documentaries about tragic figures afflicted with internet and gaming dependence. As described on the festival’s site:
Love Child: In 2010, a South Korean baby named Sarang died…because her parents were playing games online. Ordinarily, this would be a clear case of negligence, but…the film then expands from this tragedy to examine the way that South Korea’s place as the world leader of Internet infrastructure has adversely affected its communal society.
Web Junkie: As the unorthodox psychological sessions continue and the teenage boys begin to share with their parents the reasons why they feel more connected to disassociated voices in cyberspace than to their families, Web Junkie chronicles the results of a nation going through one of most drastic transformations in human history.
Both promise to deliver vital insights into our contemporary social climate. Their descriptions suggest not activism but rather attempts to reflect a world wrestling with changes that its societies have not yet fully understood.
However, the presence of these documentaries arrive at the tail-end of conversations that have persisted for years: The global mental health community has been prodding the condition’s legitimacy for over a decade, with China actually initiating its first “deprogramming” center — the sort of facility at the forefront of “Web Junkie” — in 2004. Though still a bit of a fringe diagnosis, excessive gaming has proven to be a noteworthy concern for healthcare professionals. Just last year, the U.S. opened its first inpatient internet addiction treatment center, but to even receive the diagnosis, a patient must also qualify for a dual diagnosis with another psychiatric condition. The lack of an assertive, independent diagnosis suggests something more systemic than people falling to the seduction of virtual realities. Why the compulsion for such radical escapism?
When considered as part of a larger sentiment, these movies point to the collective fears symbolized by the internet today. To many of us, the unknown can be terrifying no matter what shape it takes — especially if it forces us to reshape our thoughts and behaviors. Movies allow us to meditate on these issues more clearly: What choices did the couple in “Love Child” make that we wouldn’t have and why? What, in the constant dialogue between oneself and his world, compels a boy — just like the three at the heart “Web Junkie” — to all but abandon society for a virtual alternative? The filmmakers behind this pair of Sundance documentaries might just give us a peak behind the canvas of a great contemporary mystery.