2017 Slamdance Fest Preview: 10 Feature Film Picks From An Appropriately Eccentric Lineup

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If you’re going to Sundance, you’re going to Slamdance.

And if you’re going to Slamdance, you’re going to Sundance. These two sentences jointly illustrate for indie lovers what logicians and philosophers—and boy, don’t we need more of those these days, and especially on January 20, the day Slamdance begins and the new President-Elect is sworn in—call biconditional logic. Each implies the other, just as the lucky chosen filmmakers need your patronage and buzz to begin the horserace that is the annual awards season.

The anarchic cousin-turned-symbiotic relative of the more prominent January Park City festival once again brings you a lineup that is sure to catalyze rapture for your inner cinephile. MovieMaker spoke to Slamdance’s long time Narrative Feature Captain (or lead programmer) Drea Clark to get her insights and favorites, so that you can make the most of your wintry week in Utah.

The selection below is features-only, from the two competition categories (Narrative and Documentary) as well as the Special Screenings and Beyond categories. What is distinctive about Slamdance’s competition categories is that they are reserved for debut feature filmmakers chosen 100 percent from blind submissions. Further, competition films need to have been made for less than a $1 million and can’t yet have secured distribution.

So, if you’re going to Slamdance, logically, you’ll be going with Moviemaker‘s recs for what to see on hand. Here are the films to look out for in Park City this Friday.

Kuro

Dir: Joji Koyama and Tujiko Noriko

Kuro

This capacious narrative composed largely of voiceover and images, about a Japanese woman living in Paris and narrating to her paraplegic lover a mysterious and dark story of the time they had once spent in Japan, was homespun by director duo Koyama and Noriko, and shot in large part in Noriko’s apartment. Directors describe an intimate process of working on the script, built on the foundation of their decade-long friendship and their sifting through their respective backgrounds in visual art and design on the one hand and singing and music on the other.

The end result is what Slamdance lead programmer Drea Clark calls a “new angle of filmic storytelling,” with lyrical use of voiceover stitched within and without images in the editing process and what the directors observe as having plenty of space for audience interpretation and reconstruction, much like a photo book whose pace and rhythm of reading is decided by the viewer, influenced in this case by the film’s themes of mythmaking, homes away from home and ultimately, the allure of unknowability.

[Tickets]

The Modern Jungle

Dir: Charles Fairbanks and Saul Kak

The Modern Jungle

A documentary that teeters between being ethnographic film and a less than detached commentary on what Clark observes is the messy “transactional nature between director and subject,” The Modern Jungle follows don Juan, a Mexican (and in particular, a Zoque) shaman through a fevered dream in the thick fog of La Selva Negra region of Mexico.

Another directorial collaboration, the film is about the encounter of an indigenous people with globalization’s pyramid schemes and general commodity fetishism. Fairbanks insists on incorporating dreams within the documentary, and using candlelight to illuminate the dark underbelly of consumerism. Clark raves about the hugeness of the film’s undertaking, whereas Fairbanks is candid about the figure of the documentary director as a perpetrator of capitalism who nevertheless seeks to represent cultures caught up in faceless neoliberal regimes.

[Tickets]

 

Wexford Plaza

Dir: Joyce Wong

Wexford Plaza

A female security guard who works at a decrepit strip mall—Wexford Plaza is an actual half-empty site writer-director Joyce Wong and her team found in the greater Toronto area, which was going to be torn down within weeks; the owner agreed to let them shoot for free—hooks up with a charming bartender. Both characters are struggling to make sense of their lives and not be left behind. Their unplanned encounter leads their lives to unravel in this “heartbreaking” story of “loneliness” and people “figuring how to connect” that Clark says appealed to her precisely because the characters are those that you would see in the background in most movies. The lead character, Betty, played by a film student-actress-turned-dog groomer Reid Asselstine, would have been cast typically as the “unappealing best friend.” Here, her perspective and diminishing sense of agency are brought upfront in the first half of the film, whereas in the second half we understand the narrative through the eyes of Danny, the loser lover, played by Darrel Gamotin.

[Tickets]

 

Bogalusa Charm

Dir: Stephen Richardson 

Bogalusa Charm

A portrait of modern day Bogalusa, Louisiana, founded at the site of the world’s largest lumber mill, from documentarian Stephen Richardson who died at age 62 while making it (his friends, including writer-editor Jennifer Harrington, completed the doc for him), Bogalusa Charm captures the last days of a “charm school” led by a Miss Dixie Gallaspy, who teaches young girls to become “ladies” by showing them how to properly fold napkins and how to carry themselves from a formal dinner to an outside barbeque. Clark says of the antiquated “charm” of this doc: “It gives you an insight about a time and a place that you had no clue about,” and it smartly explores the problematic intersection of socioeconomic class and race one long associates with the deep South. “You’re like, those [the charm school] still happen? And it’s been happening for 30 years.”

[Tickets]

 

What Lies Upstream

Dir: Cullen Hoback

What Lies Upstream

Director and editor Cullen Hoback (Terms and Conditions May Apply) explores themes at the intersection of technology and law in this documentary about a mysterious chemical that invaded West Virginia’s drinking water in 2014, creating one of the largest water contaminations in recent memory. His fond childhood memories of the state drew him back and inadvertently fall into a set of problems of national scope spurred by deregulation, lobbyism and public health, problems that implicate Flint, Michigan and several other communities and which he addressed by asking, “Why is the system to protect drinking water in America broken?”

What Lies Upstream is the opening night film at Slamdance 2017. Clark observes that there is a glut of ecological docs, many of which are not done well, but she was very enthusiastic about Hoback’s talent and insight as well as the detective story approach he takes in this doc. Hoback states that the crew had to adapt to the routine of taking bottled water showers for several months, an indication of their commitment as well as the extent of the problem in West Virginia a lot of people aren’t aware about.

[Tickets]

 

Suck It Up

Dir: Jordan Canning

Suck It Up

Faye has lost the love of her life, who also happened to be Ronnie’s brother. Ronnie has taken to heavy drinking to cope with this loss, so Faye kidnaps her for a recovery road trip to the lake towns of British Columbia. What ensues in Suck It Up, in the well-trod manner of such indies, is debauchery, button pushing, a secret surfacing from the past and ultimately, revelation. The film reminds Clark of Lynn Shelton’s work and she admires the deep female connection at its center.

Director Jordan Canning and writer Julia Hoff both rave about working on a project with so many female collaborators (including production designer Sarah Hayden Roy and editor Simone Smith) and observe that the subject matter resonated very deeply with them. For instance, weeks before Canning read the script, her boyfriend had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. She says that Suck It Up has run parallel to a lot of terrible sadness in her personal life, and has provided the opportunity for beauty, growth and catharsis.

[Tickets]

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3 Comments

  1. Sean

    January 24, 2017 at 9:29 am

    Always inspiring to see the work of filmmakers who truly want to perfect their craft. Every year sundance inspires me and now, after all that’s happened with the election, it’s incredible to see people turning their feelings into art. Time for film to take a stance on the issues of social justice. With the environmental films and progressive storylines, it’s good seeing films that won’t back down in the face of oppression. Keep making art.

  2. Mei Phillips

    January 19, 2017 at 3:19 pm

    There appears to be many promising features in the ranks..

    I like the sounds of “Suck it Up” that has a kind of road trip setting.
    reminds me in a way a bit of “Safety Not Guaranteed” which I loved but with a feminist twist.

    also, nice little background on the actual events occurring during the time of filming. I think that this personal, emotional connection at the heart of many indie films is definitely what shines through and separates it from other genres.

  3. Anna W

    January 19, 2017 at 3:11 pm

    Very excited to see What Lies Upstream, something actually focused on a topic that demand’s America’s attention! With all the progress that has been made in terms of conservation and environmental protection, it’s frustrating to know that this progress might very well be torn down in the face of our country’s new administration! Already the regulations limiting greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide emissions have been lifted, and who knows how our laws on drinking water will change!
    Films and docu-dramas of this sort are serving as crucial methods of raising awareness in this day and age, and despite the obstacles we face, the public does have the potential to gain a handle on national and global issues.

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