Brow Beat

From Sundance, Lessons (and Warnings) for Americans Looking to Resist

Ferguson, Missouri, protestors from the Sundance documentary Whose Streets.

Lucas Alvarado Farrar

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, resistance was in the air. It wasn’t just the Women’s March, which took over Park City’s Main Street on the festival’s first Saturday morning, drawing stars like Jessica Williams away from promoting their movies. It was the movies themselves, which offered a wide range of methods for speaking truth to power—and a few cautionary tales.

“Truth to Power” was, in fact, the subtitle of the festival’s opening-night film, the Al Gore–starring An Inconvenient Sequel. Given that it’s more commonly associated with political activists than career politicians, the phrase, which was added only shortly before the premiere, seemed more designed to capture the spirit of the times than the film itself. Directed by franchise newcomers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk—An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim gets an executive producer credit—Sequel is part instructional video, part travelogue, following Gore around the globe as he consults with climate scientists and gives the newest version of his famous Keynote presentation to new recruits. Although the movie presents Gore as the leader of a movement, with on-screen captions touting the thousands of people he’s personally trained to go and do likewise, it focuses almost exclusively on him, for both better and worse. This Gore is both humbler and more fired-up than the star of the first Inconvenient Truth. He admits that there are times when he considers the environmental movement’s lack of progress to be a “personal failure,” but in other moments there’s a fire in his voice, a low rasp that occasionally breaks through his calming monotone.

In some segments, one wants more of that anger, as when he squares off against James Inhofe, the Senate’s climate denier in chief, and calmly suggests that they might be able to come to an understanding if they could meet away from the lights and the cameras. Perhaps Gore’s offer is itself merely for show, but it goes beyond reaching across the aisle into credulousness: Even suggesting that Inhofe, who wrote a climate-change book called The Greatest Hoax, can be reasoned with legitimizes beliefs—or at least public stances—that ought to fall well outside the Overton window. That goes, too, for Gore’s meeting with Donald Trump, to which An Inconvenient Sequel alludes in its closing frames. Trump’s presence is threaded all through the film, with radio and TV broadcasts serving as periodic reminders that the country has just elected a man who has asserted that climate change was a fiction created by the Chinese government. But Gore took an audience with him anyway, stoking hopes that Trump might be open to alternate points of view—at least until two days later, when Trump announced a virulent anti-environmentalist as his pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency. At Sequel’s Sundance premiere, Gore declined to discuss the specifics of his conversation with Trump, saying “this story has many chapters yet to unfold.” But it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for the wait-and-see approach when Trump is vowing to undo decades of progress, including the Paris Agreement Gore helped broker in 2015 that serves as Sequel’s triumphant climax.

Sundance’s fiction films were mainly active in the realm of cultural politics. Based on the real-life story of co-writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, audience favorite The Big Sick was a deft portrait of a budding romance strained by cultural differences and catastrophic illness: Although Nanjiani, playing himself, battles with his Muslim family over his decision to forgo an arranged marriage for a relationship with a white woman (played in the film by Zoe Kazan), the movie doesn’t caricature either side. Dee Rees’ sprawling Mudbound, which tells the story of two families, one black, one white, as they each struggle to find their footing in the American South after World War II, begins with the sons of an elderly bigot accidentally burying him in a slave’s grave, and the movie is marked by the sense that the legacy of racism is so deeply embedded—literally part of the ground the characters walk on—that it’s impossible for anyone to escape. L.A. Times, a sharp, stylish debut by actor and screenwriter Michelle Morgan, is its virtual inverse, a portrait of privileged, largely white people whose bids for happiness are undermined by their unflagging narcissism. It’s a savage satire, like a Whit Stillman movie without the upper-crust ambivalence, the kind of movie where palm trees are described as “condescending” and a character whose TV is being stolen muses, “It has shitty blacks anyway.” It’s tremendously funny and terribly sad, with a vicious streak just underneath its glossy surface.

Sundance’s documentaries offered plenty of other models for change—or, if you like, #resistance. Sabaah Folayan’s Whose Streets is an on-the-ground chronicle of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that erupted after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Although periodic title cards bring in both national and historical context, charting the protests’ amplification through social media and their resonance with the writings of Frantz Fanon and others, the movie’s perspective is overwhelmingly first-person, without the tidy frames of media reports or official statements. A few characters recur, including David Whitt, a member of the Ferguson chapter of Copwatch, and Brittany Ferrell, of Millennial Activists United, but it’s not a movie that prizes the individual over the collective, just as Black Lives Matter avoids elevating the leader over the group. There’s no climactic victory like the moment where Gore calls the CEO of a solar energy company and gets him to soften the Indian prime minister’s resistance to the Paris accords, but as protests against the current administration continue to spring up at a moment’s notice, it’s easy to see them following the template established by BLM and Occupy Wall Street, who’ve done the groundwork for the anti-Trump movement even if not all their short-term objectives have been met.

Trophy’s John Hume tends to one of “my rhinos.”

Christina Clusiau

That achieving change is harder than calling for it is the subject of Peter Nicks’ documentary The Force, which won Sundance’s documentary directing prize. Shot from 2014 to 2016, the movie follows the attempts to reform the troubled Oakland Police Department after more than a decade under federal supervision. Its point of view is diametrically opposed to the one in Whose Streets: Here, we’re following cops, and civilians are in the background. But Nicks’ POV isn’t wedded to any particular character, which allows him room for both (cautious) praise and cutting criticism. At times, it seems like the OPD is making genuine progress, but then it slips away: They go months without an officer-involved shooting, then several stack up all at once. The Force sometimes loses the thread, especially as the city’s chiefs of police start resigning and being hired faster than the film can keep up. But that disorientation also serves as a warning that positive change is both difficult to achieve and easy to lose, especially when the institutions meant to keep it in place no longer function.

The most genuinely provocative of Sundance’s documentaries was Trophy, directed by Christina Clusiau and Narco Cultura’s Shaul Schwarz, about the world of big-game hunting. Given the subject matter, it could easily have been a movie whose primary purpose is confirm what its viewers already believe: Hunting is inhumane, the people who do it are monsters, etc. But that cozy preconception is challenged by the presence of John Hume, a South African rancher who has dedicated the latter part of his life and apparently all of his substantial fortune to ensuring the survival of the African white rhino. The tricky bit is that he does it by harvesting their horns for sale, at least until the South African government bans the practice in an attempt to thwart poachers. The motto of Hume and his like-minded businessmen is “If it pays, it stays,” meaning that endangered species can be repopulated if there’s a way to turn a profit doing it. But that idea runs afoul of traditional conservationists who see him as no more than a profiteer, increasing the number of rhinos but only on his own private property.

Hume, who weeps as he talks about “my rhinos,” seems sincere in his belief that his is the only viable way to keep them alive, and in the movie’s climactic public debate with a more conventional animal-rights crusader, his pragmatism trumps his opponent’s platitudes, even if he doesn’t win over the audience of British liberals. But that “my” sticks in your throat, as does the movie’s relative lack of black South African characters, who appear mainly as ranch hands and poachers.

But in posing questions larger than the answers it has, Trophy forces us to consider that the most effective solutions may not be the most obvious ones and that achieving them may require making common cause with people whose politics otherwise diverge in every conceivable way. From the plains of South Africa to the streets of Missouri, and Utah, the lesson is the same.