“The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” ― C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism
Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Sundance Film Festival in Utah as a part of the Windrider forum. Windrider is made up of various Christians in the film industry, who congregate at Sundance annually. This year marked the 10th anniversary of the group. I was fortunate to receive an alumni scholarship from LAFSC where I studied film in 2002, to attend as a representative at Sundance. The Windrider forum allowed me to participate in thoughtful debate, conversation and theology throughout the week concerning the intersection of faith, film and our culture. Attending The Sundance Film Festival and the Windrider forum was a unique way to continue to inspire and motivate my students here at Baymonte and to personally refuel my creative tank. I feel so blessed Baymonte supported and encouraged me to attend this World-class film festival.
Sundance is not for the faint of heart. The films at Sundance are not your typical Hollywood blockbusters, high in budget “feel good” films where the good guy always wins and the robots or aliens get destroyed. Sundance is quite the opposite. Most films are full of independent wisdom, are low budget, artistic, and simple. They share realistic stories, where injustice reigns and have unhappy endings. Depressing, right? Sundance films tend to disturb the peace, while having a strong storyline, which may inspire social justice, thought, and change. Henri Nouwen challenges us to “expand your compassion” in his book about Jesus The Wounded Healer. These types of films portray many wounded people, leaving you wrestling in your thoughts and emotions.
Each day we met as a collective group for dialogue and Q and A with filmmakers in the festival. This time of reflection, debate, and storytelling led to theological and philosophical discussion throughout the week. Each afternoon and evening we attended screenings, and followed this with forums including actors and directors. We also were able to vote on films entered in the various Sundance competition categories. This was a very stimulating, unique and interesting way to view a film, but also exhausting. The major themes of the films I viewed included culturally relevant ideas such as: longing, loneliness, belonging, validation, identity, and the relationship role between parents and teenagers. These films came wrapped in the form of several documentaries, comedies and dramas. I pondered why these themes were so haunting to me all week. Maybe God was trying to tell me something about not only our society, but about my students, along with the future of my children as we shed more light on these issues?
I am not endorsing any of these films specifically. Many won’t be purchased and distributed outside of the Sundance Channel on the cable network. Some of them were difficult to watch, and I shed many tears throughout the week. One of the first films I saw was entitled “Hellion” and at first glance at the title I thought it was going to be a tragic story with no hope of reconciliation. The film followed a family in Texas through a painful period dealing with the tragic death of the mother. The “hellion” teenage boy Jacob was simply grappling with the loss of his mom in a very challenging community alongside a hopelessly depressed father. What stood out to me as an educator was the complete and total absence in the film of anyone trying to intervene and step in when Jacob would go on a destructive rage and vandalize. The theme was responsibility and the main character Jacob had to take ownership for his actions. This was very surprising that he was able to own up to things without the help of a mentor. I was sitting next to two Young Life leaders in our forum that morning and one of them mentioned; “It takes 7-8 non-performance based adults in a teenager’s life to successfully stabilize them emotionally in their adolescent years.” Wow, so that means that a really nice coach or teacher who cares about grades or the outcome on the field would not count? This is something for us all to consider when we are working in the lives of children.
Another film portrayed a young girl wanting to make it on the television show “The Voice”. She tries to do what she can to get out of the small town so she can make it big in Hollywood as a singer. Her single father is an active and vocal citizen of the town eager to complain at the town hall meetings. Ironically he becomes famous through someone who decided to make a YouTube video clip of all of his complaining. The dad becomes a viral sensation and she is left in the end with nothing, and we also find out she has a terrible singing voice. Even though it was a comedy, it left me feeling terrible about how many teens and people today who are searching for validation by how many “likes” they get on their Facebook post, or how many “views” or “hits” they have on a YouTube video. Where is their identity? Shouldn’t our identity be in Christ? Have teens completely lost this thought or concept? Sadly many Christian teens are battling with this today.
One of the most controversial films during the week was a documentary about video game and internet addiction in teenagers. The documentary followed several Chinese families through a very painful process of desperation and “therapy” for the addiction in a military camp-type fashion. It did leave many wondering if these boys with such a disturbing and extreme addiction to video gaming were the results of a dysfunctional home life they were trying to escape? Or were their parents desperate for help from the chaos and tension the addictions their children were dealing with? Once again the themes of loneliness, and wanting to escape and have a reality or identity somewhere else was flowing through yet another film. This film showed teens wanting to connect to someone or something beyond themselves. Even this international film depicted parents unable to do the job, and that kids are in emotional crisis. I feel the weight of immeasurable responsibility to my students, children and our society to do something about these themes and trends in our culture. My head and heart are still processing many lessons taken from my experience.
Lastly, the most profound film I saw was titled “Alive Inside”, which was a documentary on music and memory. A social worker was filmed through various New York City nursing homes where he found through creating personalized playlists for Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients, caused an awaking of memories. The footage of patient after patient “coming alive” and sharing their “lost” memories was chilling. I was emotionally shaken by the footage. Witnessing people who had been silent and breathing, but not really living, come to life, start to sing, talk and share childhood stories, wedding memories etc., all stimulated by specific songs from their past. This personalization of specific music triggered amazing results for these patients. The research for the film explained amazing scientific proof of this link to music memory in the brain and some of the last nerves to see damage from the disease. The task of creating personalized playlists for the millions of nursing home patients is daunting. Think about how we all know of at least one person who we could help make that a reality of healing by giving them an iPod with some of their favorite songs on it. When I shared this experience with my students, many of them were thrilled and excited to see if we could use it as an outreach ministry opportunity here at Baymonte. We agreed that we could go out and help people battling dementia and Alzheimer’s by donating iPods and making playlists for them.
Overwhelmed, blessed, and inspired, Sundance truly was a once in a lifetime experience. When people hear about my trip, many say, “Wow, that is great that Christians are bringing God to Sundance.” I have to smile and think, “Actually God is already at Sundance, and always has been. He is everywhere and I got to see Him reveal Himself in unexpected ways all week long.”
– Ingrid Adams, Middle School English Teacher