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Craven: Sundance

The Sundance Film Festival is really the only U.S. festival that doubles as a market. Sometimes, it sets trends. Other years, it provides an opportunity to simply note new developments, especially in distribution. For the independent filmmaker with a hot title, it’s the place where distributors stay up late, competing with each other at the bargaining table. But this year’s top bidders were not the traditional indie distributors hoping for an art house hit with the potential for Academy Award nominations and crossover to the mainstream. This year, the major players at the table with big money to spend were the streaming services Netflix and Amazon.

Nate Parker’s powerful ante-bellum drama, “Birth of a Nation” was this year’s award winner and sold to Fox's Searchlight for a Sundance record-shattering price of $17.5 million. Compared to a studio picture, where production costs average $60 million with another $60 million for marketing, “Birth of a Nation,” is a modest acquisition. But independent films always sell for less. Benh Zeitlin’s magical realist New Orleans tale, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” grabbed four Academy Award nominations - but it earned just $1 million in the 2012 deal made at Sundance.

“Birth of a Nation” follows rebel slave and preacher Nat Turner from his boyhood to his incitement of an uprising that resulted in the killing of fifty whites and more than 200 blacks. Parker wrote, directed and renders a nuanced and potent performance as Turner. The film’s title is taken from cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film that inflamed racial feelings and was later credited in reviving the Ku Klux Klan. The new “Birth of a Nation” also elicits strong emotions, in the manner of last year’s Oscar winner, “12 Years a Slave.” Sundance audiences were moved to their feet by this affecting and sadly relevant story.

Vermont connections at this year’s Sundance included Stowe native Andrew Neel’s picture “Goat” about hazing at a college fraternity - another tradition steeped in violence. Neel says he hopes the film will spur cathartic dialogues around this thorny problem. And Tim Sutton, who recently taught at Marlboro College, unspooled his elegant new film, “Dark Night” – a visually arresting form of hybrid narrative and documentary inspired by the Aurora movie theater shootings. Unlike the other pictures I’ve mentioned, Sutton shows no violence, but creates taut suspense by following disaffected people tangled in strands of isolation, stagnation, crowd culture - and a media frenzy that loses its way as it appropriates the moment’s marketable sensation.

Jay Craven is a filmmaker who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and directs Kingdom County Productions
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