Sundance Lessons: How the Trump Era Has Focused Indie Filmmakers’ Lens

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Sundance 2020: A sense of loss in the Trump era and a longing for escape from our current reality suffused the festival

The ties between political currents and the movies are never direct, at the Sundance Film Festival or anywhere else. Except, perhaps, when a reality-show huckster runs for president, wins and starts assaulting the values that touch independent filmmakers: freedom of expression, equal rights, due process, environmental protections, reproductive rights, gay rights and crony capitalism, to name a few.

In movies from “The Dissident” to “Bad Hair” to a four-part docuseries on Hillary Clinton, a sense of loss in the Trump era and a longing for escape from our current reality suffused not only the films in the festival, but many of the public panels and private discussions around Park City, Utah.

“You’re seeing films that are reflecting that our society is pushing back against less opportunity and less freedom,” said Paula Silver, a producer who was at the festival with “The Glorias,” a biopic of feminist icon Gloria Steinem starring Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander directed by Julie Taymor.

Silver pointed to “Crip Camp,” the opening-night documentary by directors Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, about a camp founded in 1971 for disabled teenagers that became a driving force in the movement for disability rights.

crip camp Sundance Film Festival

Similarly, the documentary “Boys State” — acquired by Sony Pictures Classics — follows 1,000 17-year-old boys from across Texas who gather to learn how to build a representative government from the ground up, experimenting in building democracy and exploring its core principles.

“People want to feel included and to connect,” Silver explained

“The Glorias” too was part of the sense of nostalgia and longing for a time when liberal values were on the march. Steinem, 85, attended the festival and urged all and sundry to get involved in the 2020 presidential election, reminding us that the majority of the country embraces abortion rights and many other norms under challenge in the Trump era. (A WaxWord video interview with her to follow.)

Interestingly, the president’s impeachment trial — coinciding head-on with the festival — was not a topic of interest. There were no viewing parties of the presidential accusers or his defenders up and down Main Street as they held forth through the weekend into this week.

But the sense of looming catastrophe that has accompanied the Trump administration’s reversal of policies new and old — from environmental standards to immigrant rights — was palpable.

Documentaries were most obviously driven by the policy moves of the Trump administration. “The Fight” focused on the American Civil Liberties Union battle against the Muslim ban and harsh  immigration policies at the border. Producer and actress-activist Kerry Washington championed this topic with the directors and ACLU lawyers at the center of the film.

Some films at Sundance fell into more personal categories, including several that looked at relationships and marriage. There’s hardly a thematic throughline to the films that have been screening in Park City this year, though it’s impossible to ignore the arrival in greater numbers of female directors, LGBTQ stories and those of other marginalized communities, like the disabled.

Bad Hair Courtesy of Sundance Institute

But even a horror film like “Bad Hair” — written by Justin Simien and dedicated to his mother and aunts who, he said at the premiere, battled the politics of black hair — played as social satire, with lead Elle Lorraine submitting her very identity to the demands of white society’s expectations of her tresses. (The tresses get very weird.)

Overall, filmmakers repeatedly evoked the sense of urgency and focus that the Trump era has driven over the past three years, as they came to TheWrap’s media studio to discuss their films.

It’s a sign of the times said producer Bronwyn Cornelius.

“A lot of conversations I heard were around indigenous and disabled populations,” she told TheWrap. “There seems to be a focus I’ve never seen before — in panels and films, people talking about projects and even with brands, that really struck me as important.”