A Sundance Film Festival that was colored, gripped and sometimes overshadowed by the early days of the Donald Trump administration saw a slew of feminist films win big at the gathering’s awards. Multiple female filmmakers nabbed top prizes, while a tale of a woman reasserting control over her life scored the festival’s highest honor.
Macon Blair’s “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore,” in which Melanie Lynskey plays an ordinary woman who becomes empowered as a detective-avenger after she is robbed, won the U.S. grand jury prize in the dramatic category. To its fans, the genre-tinged film, which Netflix will release next month, serves as a tonic to the perceived anti-female policies of the Trump administration.
And Eliza Hittman’s gay-oriented coming-of-age story “Beach Rats” won the directing award for the U.S. dramatic section – ensuring that a gathering that began with a march down Main Street that championed feminist values closed out with the same motif.
“There’s nothing more taboo in this country than a woman with ambition,” Hittman said in her acceptance speech. “I’m going to work my way through a system that’s completely discriminatory toward women. Hollywood, I’m coming for you,” she finished to loud cheers.
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Hittman joined “Step’s” Amanda Lipitz, “Winnie’s” Pascale Lamche and “Novitiate’s” Maggie Betts, among others, as female filmmakers receiving top honors Saturday night.
Meanwhile, a pair of issue-oriented movies took the top two audience prizes in U.S. sections. Matt Ruskin’s tale of wrongful imprisonment, “Crown Heights,” about a real-life Trinidadian immigrant who fought for 20 years to exonerate his friend, took the audience award in the U.S. dramatic section, while “Chasing Coral,” Jeff Orlowski’s environmentally oriented story about a disappearing natural resource, won for documentary.
“Can we have a shout-out to science?” Orlowski said, accepting the prize, adding, “Climate change and science shouldn’t be political.”
Meanwhile in U.S. documentary, “Dina,” Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini’s unconventional love story, won the grand jury prize. Joe Piscatella’s “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower,” about a teenage dissident in Hong Kong, won the audience award in world documentary.
Sundance awards can bestow a kind of pixie dust on films; three years ago, “Whiplash” won both U.S. jury and audience awards and went on to break out in the awards season that followed.
But currency in Utah doesn’t always translate outside the festival bubble. Last year’s double winner “The Birth of a Nation” and 2015’s twofer title-holder “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” both sputtered, for different reasons, when released commercially. This marked the first time in five years that jury and audience prizes did not go to the same film in the U.S. dramatic category.
President Donald Trump’s executive order banning visitors from some Muslim-heavy countries also came up repeatedly at the ceremony Saturday night, held at an event space about five miles away from the festival’s hub.
On the podium, Sundance Institute chief Keri Putnam saluted the “artists and subjects from Muslim-majority countries who joined us at this year’s festival.”
She continued, to a standing ovation, “Closing our borders to these and other international artists will stop the flow of ideas and inspiration that are so vital to the global community. We stand with you and we stand with all people risking their lives for our values or seeking refuge from persecution.”
Winners also invoked the issue. The world documentary grand jury prize went to Firas Fayyad and Steen Johannessen’s Syria-themed “Last Men in Aleppo”; the former made a plea to people in the U.S. to help fight for the rights of Syrians, noting a need for “freedom and justice.”
Later, the grand jury prize for world cinema dramatic went to the Egypt-set “The Nile Hilton Incident,” a detective story set against the backdrop of the Arab Spring from director Tarik Saleh – who told a story about a security agent at Los Angeles International Airport who allowed him to board a plane to Sundance despite the director’s forgetting his passport at a hotel.
“It wasn’t the majority that voted for (Trump),” Saleh said. “I just want to say that.”
Meanwhile, accepting a cinematographer prize for his documentary about a textile factory in India, “Machines” director Rahul Jain noted, “The smell at the detention center at the airport. It’s not fun. You feel like a rat. You feel like you smell for something you didn’t do. Now many people are going to have to smell the smell of fear.”
Throughout much of the night, statements about the Muslim ban shared the spotlight with feminist issues. “Step,” Lipitz’s documentary examination of the senior class at an all-girls charter school in an African American section of Baltimore, won a special jury prize for inspirational filmmaking.
“Being a young woman today isn’t easy,” Lipitz said. “These girls show nothing is impossible when you surround yourself with a group of powerful women. So let’s keep doing that.”
Earlier, accepting the world documentary prize for director, “Winnie’s” Lamche noted that “for those who know, history is not made by great men.” A story of unheralded women is told in the period convent drama “Novitiate,” for which Betts won a special prize for breakthrough director in U.S. dramatic.
And comedic performer Jessica Williams, who hosted the ceremony, paired Trump and feminism when she quipped, “The audience award – when you think about the election, that’s sort of the award that Hillary Clinton won.”
“Gook,” Justin Chon’s story set against the backdrop of the 1992 L.A. riots, won the Next audience prize; he accepted by embracing concrete action on diversity. “To me, a lot of times it’s been just talk,” he said. “The most effective way I can make a difference is to create.”
As many directors offered political statements, festival director John Cooper suggested a lesson for beyond the fest.
“Let’s take this into the future as we head off the mountain,” he said. “Our strength is in our number and our power is in our ideas.”
But the most stirring speech of the night came from Yance Ford, director of the criminal justice documentary “Strong Island,” which won a special jury prize for storytelling in U.S. documentary.
Ford, whose movie examines the killing of his brother and the injustice that followed, cited Elie Wiesel’s line that “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim,” then said:
“That moment is now. When we leave this place we must interfere, disrupt, document and prevent our nation from folding in upon itself,” he told the film community, both inside the room and outside it. “Summon your courage. Gather your cameras.”