Sundance 2019: Power of Story—Pushing Boundaries

The 2019 installment of the longstanding “Power of Story” series rolled at Sundance with some great conversations, including the “Power of Story: Pushing Boundaries,” an insightful lecture that gathered filmmakers Rick Alverson (“The Mountain”), Mads Brügger (“Cold Case Hammarskjöld”), Kitty Green (“Casting JonBenet”), Penny Lane (“Hail Satan?”) and Asad J. Malik (“A Jester’s Tale”) alongside moderator John Horn (“The Frame”) for a conversation on pushing boundaries conceptually, formally and morally. Here are some highlights.

Penny Lane, director of Hail Satan?, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Joseph Michael Lopez.

On discussing different ways of telling stories and following formulas (such as the three-act structure), all the filmmakers admitted that they did not adhere to any specific ways of making their films. “I was doing a lot of that stuff intuitively,” Lane revealed. “I think that these forms of storytelling are already deeply embedded within us.”

“Both my parents excelled in traditional hardcore journalism, and I applied to the Danish school of journalism but was not accepted—then I watched all types of films, such as German expressionism from the ’30s, content that gave me my take on storytelling,” added Brügger on what informed his work beyond the basics.

Rick Alverson, director of The Mountain, an official selection of the Spotlight program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

“I was brought up on Spielberg and TV,” Alverson said. “Then, when I saw Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ I realized what a powerful medium film could be.”

Meanwhile, Malik quipped, “So, you are saying there are rules? Because I work with augmented reality. It’s an interesting question whether you use the rules that film has already established, or do you try to start with something new?”

John Horn questioned how audiences expect stories to be told today. Lane answered first: “I want to be confused and taken out of reality. I feel that cinema is one way for us to communicate with each other. I want to be educated, get upset and thrown off balance.”

Brügger responded that, “If you are lucky enough to have a film financed you must at least make it as unique as possible and remove it as much from the middle of the road because that will always attract an audience.”

Asad J. Malik, lead artist of A Jester’s Tale, an official selection of the New Frontier Programs at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Hrach Sargsyan.

Malik also discussed the storytelling role of AR and VR, noting that, “AR and VR present the opportunity to show a lot more visceral material with no real requirement of linear storylines.”

Referencing the fact that many films ask questions and look for truths, but most films are not comfortable answering those questions, Lane expressed that, “Nothing makes me more insane than someone who watches a 70-min documentary and suddenly thinks that they know everything about the subject matter. If you’ve made a film, then you know, more than anyone, about all the things that you’ve left out.”

Looking from a new-media perspective, Malik responded mentioning that sometimes a “privileged” response can result from a VR experience: “Half the time VR gives you a 360-degree video for five minutes in, say, a refugee camp,” he explains. “People often come out of that experience with a delusional sense of moral superiority that they know how it feels to be in their shoes.”

Brügger also discussed his film “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” and the role of appearing as an actor while directing. (The film just captured the Directing Award for World Cinema Documentary):

“I like the idea of showing yourself as a filmmaker,” he remarked. “I like performance and taking part in it. I did this from very early on. I would write feature stories—there was one where I infiltrated a clown convention, going undercover as a clown. I thought it was very funny because I was going undercover at an undercover clown gathering.”

As always, the biggest challenge for any independent filmmaker is funding the project. How do you get investors to believe in your vision? “It’s just hard,” said Lane. “All four of my features I’ve had to push hard. We were scraping money together for ‘Hail Satan?’ before more financing came — but it’s a movie about Satanism so we started from a very obscure position.”

“I mean it’s tedious,” concluded Alverson. “Most filmmakers in the independent space spend their time thinking about how to get their films made. inevitably it means compromise—but it’s finding what compromises are interesting, and which are a stealthy way to engage with your material.”

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