Film: 2013 Sundance Film Festival

by H. Clent Bowers

Magazine     >    Reviews

Written by H. Clent Bowers for THE ARTISTS FORUM MAGAZINE
Edited by
Courtesy of Sundance Film Fest / Highlight section by Monteque Pope-La Beau

5 out of 5 stars


PARK CITY, UTAH (January 17, 2013) This year is beginning with one of the greatest experiences a journalist can have when writing about the art of film making. The independent filmmaker remains the pioneer of the future of the art form. Robert Redford, founder of the Sundance Film Festival, keeps a firm, though quiet eye on his organization. It is said that during the festival he may show up at anytime in disguise just to see how the operation is going. He is also not a fan of showoffs or people who come to take advantage of the setting. This year, Paris Hilton showed up with her entourage and caused quite a stir just to be seen and get giveaways. The major problem is that she didn’t have a film nor was she in a film at the festival. On the other hand, many celebrities did attend, all of whom behaved as just another student of the art, setting good examples of what being popular means.

The Sundance Film Festival takes place each year during the last week in January, in a little historical village in the valley of a mountain near Salt Lake City, Utah, called Park City. Park City is a ski resort where many convene to snowboard and travel the slopes on skis during the winter months. But, the huge masses of people who descend on Park City during this week are here for one thing only — to celebrate and discover what’s new in the art of storytelling and independent film.

From the moment we drove over the quiet snow capped hilltops and arrived in the village, the electricity from all the eclectic artistic energy was in full force. This was the first day of the festival and the founder and his co-chairs were about to hold a press conference. Volunteers in red down vests are everywhere, giving out directions to buses, headquarters, theaters, restaurants, and anything you might need to know. The temperature is a chilly yet comfortable 22 degrees, and everything was clean and covered in white snow — the air brisk and fresh. When I arrived at headquarters in the Marriott Hotel, the volunteers and film makers of all ages were in high gear and full of energy. They crowded the lobby, standing, sitting, eating, or drinking Starbucks while meeting one another, looking at schedules, or on their communication devices in excited double time, organizing their next event.  Everyone was getting ready for the communion of wonderful storytelling ahead to wow us. I can tell you now I was not disappointed.

The next 10 days would be filled with a cornucopia of artistic expression from 8am until 2am every day, all of which were virtually sold out. Here are a few links you may enjoy, beginning with the press conference. Notice how Redford stresses that this is a time of change, of new ideas. Also, take special note of the beautiful diversity of films and filmmakers that the Sundance Film Festival encourages.

Press Conference:
Interviews and Events:
The Winners:

Here are some reviews and picks of my favorite experiences and must-see choices. These are but a handful of all the wonderful pictures presented this year at Sundance and just a sample of the ones I was able to attend:

Danai Gurira as Adenike in “Mother of George”

Cinematography Award: U. S. Dramatic
Director: Andrew Dosunmu
Writer: Darci Picoult
Stars: Danai Gurira, Isaach De Bankolé, Yaya Alafia, Anthony Okungbowa, Bukky Ajayi

5 out of 5 stars

This beautiful film is coming of age story involving a young married woman in a patriarchal society.  We begin with a wedding in African style, complete with all the traditional colorful rituals. The colors fill the screen like a magnificent rainbow. The beautiful textiles against brown skin almost make your heart stop. They are so breath taking.  The Groom, Biyi Balogen (Anthony Okungbowa), is dressed in a beautiful ceremonial dashiki with matching pants. The Bride, Adenike Olumide Balogen (Danai Gurlra), was elegantly dressed in a beautiful ashore or bubo dress. Her mother-in-law, Ma Ayo Balogun (Bukky Ajayi), his brother, Ayodele Balogun (Isaach De Bankol’e), and her mother, Ma Nike (Ang’elique Kidjo), were also in attendance.

The couple will live in Brooklyn, New York in an African area.  They own a restaurant and the brother, who lives in town with his Americanized girlfriend, Sade Bakare (Yaya Alfalfa), works for them at the restaurant as a prep cook.  Adenine stays home and keeps the apartment, cooks dinner, takes her husband lunch, and prepares her life as wife and one day mother. The mother-in-law is a constant presence and is always asking for pregnancy updates.  It is here where old traditions and the new world will clash. After a time without pregnancy, Ma Ayo becomes suspicious that her new daughter-in-law is barren.

Adenine begins to panic as we begin to understand what this might mean in their custom. The old tradition demands an offspring, even if it means that another woman steps in and provides it for them.  This terrifies Adenike, even though her husband Biyi has told her not to worry. He has said if they do not have children it is fine with him. But, his mother doesn’t let up, stressing to her daughter-in-law the duties of a wife. Finally, after seeing a doctor, our young bride discovers that there isn’t any reason she can’t get pregnant. As she approaches her mother-in-law, with concerns that maybe it is her son who has the problem, she is dismissed incredulously. The husband refuses to be tested as he also believes there is nothing wrong with him. What happens next is unbelievable. This entry won the 2013 Cinematography Award: U. S. Dramatic at Sundance. A joyful experience complete to the last frame.

Steve Hoover and Rocky Braat in “Blood Brother”

Audience Award: U.S. Documentary presented by Acura
Director: Steve Hoover
Writers: Phinehas Hodges, Steve Hoover
Music : Danny Bracken
Stars: Rocky Braat, Steve Hoover

5 out of 5 stars

This documentary is cathartic on so many heartfelt levels.  It is the story of childhood friendship and what happens when you’ve grown older. It is a story about the commitment of devoting yourself to that friend for life. That’s the oath you take when, as a kid, you take a knife, or for girls stick pin, and cut or prick yourself enough to draw blood and press the openings together to mix the blood and become blood brothers.  Forevermore, you have your pal cursing through your veins as a part of you.  Then, when you grow older and life takes you in separate directions, you look in on your friend to see what happened to them. Normally, you have a short visit,  acknowledge your wins and losses in life, and rekindle that good feeling that you had as youths, discussing what your plans are for the future and promise to keep in touch from here on out.

In Blood Brothers, we’re also talking about a different kind of commitment — a spiral bound between brothers and sisters who have been cast aside and vow to hold fast to each other through the pain. Rocky Braat, the real life blood brother of director Steve Hoover, became disillusioned with his home life in America. He loved his friendship with his best friend Steve, but hated his relationship with his father who was very unkind to him. One can see why Rocky never wanted to grow up to be what his father was. At the Q&A, we saw that Rocky is still in many ways a child  living in a grown-up’s body. But make no mistake, Rocky the man is right  in there with him pulling the strings.

After college, Rocky takes off to India to volunteer to help out in a small village where orphaned children with HIV are dying almost daily. His buddy, Steve, takes us to India in this documentary to chronicle his best friends experience. We, as a result, witness this visceral account of children struggling for their lives. We witness parents who have lost hope for the lives of these young ones, but still pray for a miracle. The majority whose parents have passed on are all but forgotten by the town.  There is one nurse who works there. She and Rocky show these children continual selfless giving of love.

Rocky finds his purpose there. He makes a huge fatherly impression on the children who call him Big Brother.  Rocky eventually marries the nurse, mother of the children, and the two of them still live in a little cement shack, caring for the dying children. I watched many films this week at Sundance. This was the first unanimous standing ovation I experienced,  not only for the film but for Steve, Rocky, his wife, and the crew who were all present — three standing ovations in less than 25 minutes. Truly life affirming.

Backing singers in “Twenty Feet from Stardom”

Morgan Neville
Producers: Gil Friesen, Caitrin Rogers
Associate Producer: Caryn Capotosto
Cinematographers: Graham Willoughby, Nicola Marsh
Editors: Jason Zeldes, Kevin Klauber, Douglas Blush

5 out of 5 stars

What is a successful singer? Is it the one you see or hear out front?  Is it the person in church that makes you cry every time you hear “that song?” Perhaps it is the voice of your mother singing you to sleep. As a singer, I have come to realize that all songbirds are unique and beautiful in their own right — that it is the essence and content of the message, and the degree in which it is understood and delivered that sets us as singers apart from one another. We each have our own equipment to use and experience to share. So, with that in mind, all of us are equal in gift. Some singers have a little extra something that is right for the time they live in. This quality, along with all the other surrounding circumstances, moves them forward. These people often become stars.

The group of stars celebrated in this documentary are the backup singers few ever give a second thought to.  These singers are usually stars in their own right. Just like you have famous drummers and guitarist or horn players in a band, these artists excel in a group sound or an additional vocal excitement that is key to a production. Some of them go on to become headliners like Luther Vandross, while others get over looked until someone realizes their body of work, like Darlene Love. This documentary is their story. The exciting story of the singers behind the singers who make the music work.  These singers normally can out sing the person in front — Mary Clayton and Darlene Love to name but a few.

Darlene Love (left) sings with background singers in “Twenty Feet from Stardom”

It is a story of how they somehow become pigeon-holed in this position and never complete the dream of being out front. Every rose on a bush is magnificent but not every one gets picked to be put on display. All the elements, along with ones drive, have to be in your favor, and even then, you are walking on hope and faith.  The women in this documentary have brightened up our lives in recordings for years without us knowing it. They have lived in the limelight 20 feet from the main spotlight of fame in this business. This is a beautiful and touching look at their lives, their music, their struggles and dreams, as well as their triumphs.

Jack Dalton as Elliot in “Escape to Tomorrow”

Director: Randy Moore
Screenwriter: Randy Moore
Producers: Soojin Chung, Gioia Marchese
Cinematographer: Lucas Lee Graham
Editor: Soojin Chung
Production Designers: Sean Kaysen, Lawrence Kim
Composer: Abel Korzeniowski
Sound Design: Paul André Fonarev, David Lankton
Principal Cast: Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, Katelynn Rodriguez, Annet Mahendru, Danielle Safady, Alison Lees-Taylor

5 out of 5 stars

Director Randy Moore has given us one of the scariest nightmares in the form of a guerrilla film made in Disneyland/World. With a knock out cast and crew, this piece has caused a lot of controversy.

First of all, how do you get into the Magic Kingdom and get away with making a feature without getting caught, and then once done how do you get away with turning the wonderful world of color for children into a nightmare of The Shining in black and white. On it’s premiere, we all sat stunned as moment after moment we pulled for our protagonist/antagonist to wake from his nightmare and take care of his wife and children.

Lost? Ok I will help you out. Jim (masterfully played by Roy Abramsohn) has taken his wife, Emily (Elena Schuber, also beautifully performed), his two children, Sara (the beautiful Katelynn Rodriguez), and poster “red-rum” boy, Elliot (the awesome Jack Dalton), for a Disney weekend (the same place our director would go with his dad when visiting him in Florida). Upon arrival to the theme park hotel, Jim gets a call from work. While his family unpacks and excitedly prepare to attend the park, Jim is receiving the news that he has been let go. Devastated he decides to hold this information to himself until after the vacation.

This well laid plan starts to unravel as he begins to take a drink or two to calm himself down.  As the alcohol takes effect, the park starts to take on a darker character — peoples faces become demonic and park characters begin to  take Jim into another reality.  His son is afraid of his father’s strangeness while the daughter is totally trusting of the daddy she loves. The wife, Emily, is your typical anchor in the storm, wondering why her husband is acting like an idiot and seemingly regressing around all the adolescent teenagers.  Meanwhile, Jim is being chased by a park patron who might be an employee, but turns out to be the Wicked Witch who wants to take him to bed… and she succeeds. Her main goal is to get to the innocent daughter and take the power of her innocence away.  Then, there is a viral germ going around the park and Jim must keep his family and himself from catching it. This germ is deadly and turns people into felines. The nightmare continues and builds to a climax that will resemble another great horror movie of our time.

I liked this film, especially the work of cast and crew. Roy Abramsohn has a ball playing almost every note in his arsenal and doing a fine job. The look on little Jack Dolton’s face is worthy of the cover, especially since it may represent the director. After talking with the director, we understand that his father used to frighten him when he’d go to visit and they’d  go to Disney World.  They are still distant to this day.  Randy Moore said that Disney World still has a foreboding quality about it when there with his own kids.

Hopefully this cathartic journey, if witnessed by his dad, will bring about some resolutions.  Here’s also a nod to the crew who pulled off some wonderful shots right under the park officials nose without getting caught. We hear that Disney has been in touch with the filmmakers and may grant a release as it is questionable whether any major laws were really broken.

Jason DaSilva (left) in “When I Walk”

Director: Jason DaSilva
Starring: Jason DaSilva, Alice Cook

5 out of 5 stars

This, another life affirming documentary, is the true life account of a young man, a fellow artist and filmmaker, selflessly taking us along on his journey from diagnosis of MS to the onslaught of the disease.

We watch and experience Jason DaSilva, as day by day, his physical abilities decline. We witness him lose the ability to do the everyday tasks we take for granted, which become concentrated procedures for him. But what we also witness is the love of those around him feeding him spiritual/mental food and loving patience. With that love, we watch Jason find the confidence to seek out a relationship. Though there are difficult times we witness with Jason — times of great despair and misfortune– through perseverance and fortitude, we see that Jason will soon be a father and continue to live out his dream as a filmmaker. He and his very pregnant wife, Alice, were around for a Q&A after the movie, and yes, another well deserved standing ovation was given. Jason is preparing to start his next film… a narrative I believe. Please continue to inspire us Jason, Alice, and Jason’s super supportive parents.

Idris and Michèle Stephenson in “American Promise”

Directors: Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson
Executive Producers: Simon Kilmurry, Dan Cogan
Producers: Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson
Associate Producer: Nicole London
Cinematographers: Errol Webber, Alfredo Alcantara, Margaret Byrne, Jon Stuyvesant
Editors: Erin Casper, Mary Manhardt, Andrew Siwoff
Composer: Miriam Cutler

5 out of 5 stars

In 1999, filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson turned the camera on themselves and began filming their five-year-old son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun. American Promise is a timely documentary about the private and public school systems, and their son, his best friend, and his parents, battle through the American school system to insure their son’s educational future. This documentary puts it all out there for you to see. Is this a matter of boys will be boys or is there some deep seated issues that we as Americans need to take a better look at? Disturbing is the best way to describe some of the obstacles both the parents and the children are confronted with. But that is only part of the documentary.

When we discover some learning problems with Seun, we relax as if to say, “OK, now we know why he seems a bit slower than his friend.”  But the question that begs, is this learning impediment part of his racial make up? Of course it isn’t because the very same conditions are found in all races of children. But that doesn’t stop the innuendo suggested by the silence and pauses in the speech of the teachers or the fact that Idris excels. Does that have to do with the light skin of his mother mixed with the brown skin of his father. Of course not, but it doesn’t keep you from thinking it.

Acting white or talking black comes up for Idris but not for Seun. Perhaps it is because as a lighter skinned person, the children who approach him are wondering just what he is and why he acts and speaks slightly differently. The fascinating thing that happens later in the youths lives is how they handle approaching adulthood and college. Both young men have had some difficulty reaching the goals their parents set out for them. Seun kicked into gear when he witnessed personal tragedy nearly miss his family. And, Idris found that his own ability to fight back with his parents made him have to settle for a college less than he had hoped for. But both young men are going to college and both young men are doing well. I would say to the parents in the documentary, “well done” on raising their children, and on opening the door for a discussion that can aid in higher education for more young men like themselves.

J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash”

Short Film Jury Award: US Fiction
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenwriter: Damien Chazelle
Executive Producers: Jason Reitman, Jason Blum
Producers: Nicholas Britell, Helen Estabrook, Couper Samuelson
Cinematographer: Edd Lukas
Editor: Tom Cross
Production Designer: Stephanie Haas
Music Supervisor: Anna Granucci
Principal Cast: J. K. Simmons, Johnny Simmons

5 out of 5 stars

Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, is by far one of the best produced shorts I have ever had the pleasure to view.  J. K. Simmons is the quintessential drill sergeant of a jazz band leader I have ever seen. The new guy a young drummer played by Johnny Simmons (no doubt the son of J.K.) is about to get the most important lesson in competitiveness and giving a winning performance in his life. Our teacher uses fear and a death by fire approach to get his well intended point across. The result? A fearless technician (i.e. nothing can be as scary as his college jazz band instructor). Brilliant. Damien, I do hope you find the means to make this into a feature.

Filmmaker Ryan Coogler accepts the Sundance Film Festival 2013 US Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize Award for his film “Fruitvale”

US Dramatic Competition
Grand Jury Prize:
Ryan Coogler for “Fruitvale”

The climax was the awards ceremony (See the link below for winners and the streaming of the awards ceremonies). This was also our first night having a blizzard that would continue through the last 2 days of the festival. The party had food and drink and music and lots of wonderful closing conversations between new found friends. Every film enthusiast should experience, at least once, the wonder that Robert Redford‘s Sundance exudes. Expensive? Yes. But you somehow find away to make it. You share or barter, you rent a bedroom or you sleep in the lobby and make it work. If you are more mature as I am and have some difficulties as I do,  then it is not a bad Idea to have a companion who is there to help you manage. Either a person to help out or a driver to get you around from venue to venue.  My friend and volunteer assistant was the incomparable Monique Pope La Bough! You were of great assistance and comfort. Also thank you Alex Hyde White, who gave us transport and residence. Sundance is a huge campus of filmmakers on winter conference enjoying the work — our movies. With any luck I will see you there next year.

Filmmaker Ryan Coogler:
Fruitvale stars Octavia Spencer and Michael B. Jordan:
Ryan Coogler accepts award:

For more information about the 2013 Sundance Film Festival Winners, visit:

by Monteque Pope-La Beau

Robert Redford (center) with colleagues at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival
Scenic Park City, Utah
Nighttime in Park City, Utah
Attendees lounge around the Welcome Area at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival

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