The Many Personal Stories Being Told in the Films at Sundance 2018
by Alex Billington
January 26, 2018
"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." –Maya Angelou. The official "tagline" (or motto or whatever it is) for the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is: "The Story Lives in You." This line of text is emblazoned upon all the banners, and shows up during the opening intro video before every single screening at the festival. At first I thought it was just a nice tagline, but after seeing over 30+ films here, I realize it's the very central theme of the festival. Almost every film I've seen has something to do with telling a very personal, intimate story. Yes, every film has a story to tell, that's what filmmaking is all about. But the more films I see here, the more I realize there is something unique about telling a personal story, expressing what's inside of you and your own experiences, and turning that into cinematic art. It's inspiring.
There are a few different kinds of filmmaking that are about expressing the story/stories that "live in you." One version of this is being autobiographical and making a film about your life or your own experiences - as is the case with Jennifer Fox's film The Tale, which is one of the best films of the festival. It's a brilliant, unsettling examination of sexual abuse, and starts when the main character finds a letter she wrote when she was 13 and has to think back on her life. Fox explained that this actually happened to her - she wrote a letter, and did find it later in life, and did have to process everything. The result is a profound, provocative film that challenges and questions everything, and will be talked about for the entire year. This is one of the centerpiece features from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival epitomizing the idea that "the story lives in you."
Another example of the way filmmakers express their own stories is by working their personal experiences into the film, even though it's not expressly about their life or their story. Jason Reitman's Tully is about a mother dealing with the stress and exhaustion and work of raising three kids. Reitman is a father, and screenwriter Diablo Cody is a mother, and their own lives definitely influenced the writing and storytelling found in this outstanding film (read my full review). There are also many talented minority/POC filmmakers at Sundance who have made films that breakdown and criticize racism in today's society, including Sorry to Bother You from director Boots Riley, and Monsters and Men from director Reinaldo Marcus Green.
Next up, there are films where the filmmaker has met people and decided to tell their story the best way they can by making feature films - Crystal Moselle's Skate Kitchen, featuring real-life teenager skater girls from NYC. Filmmaker Crystal Moselle (of The Wolfpack previously) met them on the subway and decided to make a film about them. Sebastián Silva's Tyrel is actually based on a real story where a friend of Silva's posted a photo to social media of a weekend get together which included a bunch of white friends and one black man in the group. Desiree Akhavan's The Miseducation of Cameron Post is adapted from a novel (of the same name) that is loosely based on the true story of a kid who is sent to a "de-gaying" camp after his parents discover he is gay. These are all very personal stories told about the colorful lives of these people.
Of course, there are tons of films where an individual characters goes through something and must learn to deal with it or accept the experience or learn from it or whatever. This theme is strong because there are films where the main character is going through something so unbelievable, and the filmmaking allows to see a perspective that we might've missed or might never see if we hadn't taken a closer look. Carlos López Estrada's Blindspotting, for example, is about a guy from Oakland getting out of prison who is trying to clean up his life and get everything back on track. Tamara Jenkins's Private Life is about the struggles a woman has trying to get pregnant, and how hard it is on her, something that many usually keep privately to themselves. Gustav Möller's The Guilty is about a man learning about and questioning his own instincts.
Finally, many of the documentaries I've seen this year actually involve the filmmaker - playing into the film either as an important part of the story, or as someone who gets involved to help tell the story of someone else (or other various people). Bing Liu's Minding the Gap is about Bing's friends, but is also about Bing and his own family life. It's one of my favorite documentaries of the festival, and I hope it finds an audience upon release. Elan Bogarin & Jonathan Bogarin's 306 Hollywood is about Elan and Jonathan exploring their grandma's house and discovering what was in it, looking back at their own lives as well. Dan Reynolds' Believer is about the Imagine Dragons frontman's own personal experiences with the Mormon church, including confronting them about their stance on same-sex relationships. Not all doc filmmakers like to put themselves into their film, and sometimes it can cause problems, but sometimes the film turns out amazing.
Not every last film at Sundance fits into this mold, or follows this theme, but many of them do. So why does this matter? What is it about storytelling and finding that personal story inside of all of us? How does this theme go beyond just Sundance, how does it connect to each and everyone of us? Well, it's pretty cliche and makes sense to say this - but we all have stories to tell. No matter who you are. No matter what kind of life you've lived. Even if you think you don't have a story to tell, you do. Bart Layton's American Animals is about four kids who tried too hard to have a story to tell about their life, screwing up the perfect heist they planned. Yet they do still have a story to tell - but this one is about how everything went wrong, how they ended up in jail, and how they now have different lives than they were hoping. It's still a good story to tell.
So that's what Sundance's "The Story Lives in You" is all about. There's something about you, and your own personal experiences (good or bad), that defines who you are and becomes the story of your life. And within each of these stories about our life, there is always something important to learn or something we can teach others about or something we hope others will recognize and accept. Whether it's about being a minority and experiencing racism, or the struggles of various difficult lives, or the passionate desire to be outspoken and insistent, to change the world for the better. Cinema provides an opportunity to tell stories so many different ways, and provides a chance for all of us to experience empathy together, and to learn by giving us a glimpse at other lives. "Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger." –Ben Okri.