On the 2017 Sundance Film Festival

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 02/02/2017

Sundance is truly the mark of a new year for me each January: I head from generally favorable weather conditions in New Orleans to the snowy mountains of Park City, Utah, and spend six days doing nothing but watching and talking about films. I was able to catch 24 films this year, focusing primarily on the documentary selections. Sundance is very important to what we do here in New Orleans: the festival allows me to meet with filmmakers and industry professionals forge new relationships and share information about our organization, and of course, scout A LOT of films that we could potentially program. While we’re still quite early in our programming process for the year, I wanted to spotlight a few of the films that made a strong impression on me.

Casting JonBenet
A fascinating examination of grief, this documentary features Boulder residents auditioning to play roles in the Ramsey family, whose daughter JonBenet was mysteriously murdered there in 1996. The auditions themselves are wonderfully awkward, but the most memorable parts are when the actors share intimate details about both their relationship to the Ramsey family and their own personal tragedies. These moments reveal how we understand trauma and grief, and how personal experiences can shape our judgment of others.

Call Me By Your Name
There are films that suck you in so completely, you don’t want them to end: this was my experience with Call Me By Your Name. Set in northern Italy in the 1980s, 17-year old Elio (a standout performance by Timothée Chalamet) is spending his summer coming to terms with his sexual identity when American graduate student Oliver (played by what can only be described as an impossibly dreamy Armie Hammer) arrives to spend the summer as an assistant to Elio’s father’s research. To tell you much more is unnecessary: from the hand-drawn opening credits to the perfectly agonizing end credits, Call Me By Your Name is a wonderful example of how a seemingly simple story can be told with nuance, beauty, and power.

Following Christopher “Quest” and his wife Christine’a “Ma Quest” Rainey over an eight-year period, Quest is a sobering yet hopeful look into the life of one family in north Philadelphia. Beginning with the election of Barack Obama, which coincided with the Raineys’ wedding (they had been a couple for over twenty years before getting married), the film moves gracefully through the years by capturing pivotal moments in the family’s life: from a cancer diagnosis, to gun violence, to the birth of a grandchild, the documentary balances tragedy with the light the Raineys bring to everyone they interact with. What’s most striking about this family is their ability to always be present in everyone’s lives: they demonstrate such an intensely strong connection to their biological family, as well as their community members, and filmmaker Jonathan Olshefski handles the family with respect and care.

City of Ghosts
Sundance programmed three documentaries examining different parts of Syria’s ongoing civil war. City of Ghosts focuses on the citizen journalists of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). The members of RBSS work to disseminate images and video from inside Raqqa, currently controlled by ISIS. Their work is incredibly harrowing, and the film doesn’t shy away from what’s at stake both for the journalists and the civilians who are trapped. Filmmaker Matthew Heineman, whose previous film Cartel Land we screened in 2015, combines his and RBSS journalists’ footage from inside Raqqa with footage from the various locations in Europe where the most public members of RBSS are hiding and working. The work RBSS is doing, and also Heineman’s creation of this film, feel particularly crucial when considering who is affected by Trump’s immigration ban.


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