Challenging Documentaries And Discussions Keep Star-Studded Sundance Grounded

Socially conscious films and political panels play a key role at the celebrity-soaked festival.

The barrage of images beamed and blogged from the Sundance Film Festival of Lance Bass swagging it up with Lucy Liu might lead one to believe otherwise, but for every star-studded party and A-list premiere at the festival, there is a politically charged panel discussion and socially conscious documentary.

Following the logic that troubled times make for great art, filmmakers, actors and activists flooded the festival. Subjects as diverse as global warming, voter disenfranchisement, civil liberties and the casualties of war all found room to breathe in the rarified air of Park City.

“CSI: New York” star Hill Harper, on hand to participate in a Creative Coalition panel discussion on a wide range of issues dubbed “The Wild West Shootout,” was encouraged by the level of substantive dialogue at the festival.

“Sundance has gotten the reputation of being all about red carpets and premieres and free giveaways,” he said. “But there’s a whole number of young filmmakers and documentarians whose red carpet you never see. They’re here, and they’re doing real films.”

Political commentator (and son of former President Ronald Reagan) Ron Reagan was less enthused, but hopeful.

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“Most people are here to do business, to see movies, to party and to swag,” Reagan said. “But even if a small percentage [of festival goers] are getting into meatier issues, well, you’ve got to start somewhere.”

“Like [author and media critic] Neil Postman says, we’re entertaining ourselves to death,” he continued. “We’re all into our video games and our televisions, but there’s a lot of very disturbing stuff going on.”

“And young people in particular feel like they’re going to live forever,” Reagan continued. “They don’t have a sense of their own future. But what we’re talking about is their own future. These issues will affect them directly in their pocketbooks, in the way they live and certainly in the environment. Take global warming. This administration actually would actually have us believe it’s just a hoax perpetuated by scientists who have nothing better to do!”

Director Davis Guggenheim followed Al Gore around the world as the former vice president (and, as he says in the film, “Once next president of the United States”) presented a highly informed and deeply felt slide show on global warming. The resulting documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” premiered Tuesday night. Having just recently emerged from being “in a bubble with Al Gore for six months desperately hoping that someone would like this film,” the first-time filmmaker was thrilled with the substantive side of Sundance.

“The reception here has been just terrific,” he said. “People have been grabbing me by the shoulders and asking, ’What can I do — now?!’ I just feel so hopeful that people here are rallying around a cause.”

Director Ian Inaba, whose documentary, “American Blackout,” examines minority voter disenfranchisement in the 2000 and 2004 elections, said that audiences are hungry for films — documentary and otherwise — that tackle the big issues.

“The mainstream news has not been delivering the goods,” Inaba said. “It’s been left up to documentary filmmakers to tell those stories that haven’t been told. People want this information, but they’re not getting it when they turn on the TV.”

“There are forces out there that don’t want you to participate,” he continued. “It’s very strategic. Political parties operate by trying to increase their voter base and by trying to oppress their opponents’ voter base.”

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“With our film, we try to offer a story of hope and show that when young people go to the polls and are disenfranchised, they shouldn’t be discouraged,” Inaba explained. “They have to fight and do everything they can to participate.”

But actor and Creative Coalition Co-President Joe Pantoliano said he feels overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of social and political challenges facing the world today.

“What I walk away with is just how depressing our reality is,” he said. “I don’t know what to do about it. I really am numb. … I am beside myself in fear [with] where are we going to be in 10 years.”

Patricia Foulkrod, whose documentary, “The Ground Truth,” illustrates the effects of modern warfare through the eyes of dozens of young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, echoed Pantoliano’s sentiment.

“We’re numb with what happens with drunk driving,” she said. “We’re numb to people that we know who O.D. We’re numb to all the terrible things that happen until it happens to us.

“But at the end of the day, it’s not about whether you join or you don’t join — it’s about whether or not you show up.”

Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford, the elder statesman of the film festival, amplified the message to reporters at the premiere of “An Inconvenient Truth.”

“What’s really going to make these issues work is the people who see these films and decide to do something,” he said.

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