Sundance Review (What I learned while in Park City) Published 2007-02-01 under ,

I have been extremely fortunate to get to attend the Sundance Film Festival. (Thanks Cari, Rob and Linda!) This year's was #5 for me and each year when I return, my friends ask which movies did I see and which were worth paying $10 to see in the theater. (They used to ask me which stars I had seen, but they now know how pathetic I am when it comes to names of celebrities so they no longer ask.) This year I have decided to list some of the events that I attended with a short personal observation. I don't feel qualified to call this a review, but more just my personal thoughts.

What does this have to do with education? Well wait and see...

Very cute movie about a meter maid who asks the question "Is something better than nothing?" as she struggles to find love. Her love interest is completely socially inept, learning how to speak with women from the porno movies he watches online. He is a fantastic character who really makes you cringe as he says (and does) the most stupid things. I really enjoyed the film but feel that it could have done without showing us images from the online porno flick. We got the point without the filmmakers being explicit.

Rocket Science
A well done and enjoyable film about a high school boy who stutters and is asked to join the debate team. This was the second time in a month that the subject of debate has come up for me. The director of New York Doll is working on a documentary on high school debate showing a fascinating world of fast talking youngsters. As must be apparent, how can a boy who struggles to even order a slice a pizza be effective on a debate team. Will love concur his problem? Reece Daniel Thompson does an outstanding job playing the troubled kid.

Grace is Gone
I went to Sundance this year with the explicit idea not to watch any documentaries about the Iraqi war. It is not that I was concerned that I would not agree with the filmmakers' perspective nor do I deny it is an important event worthy of being a part of a documentary. I just needed a break from all of the death. Having said that, I did attend the premier of Grace is Gone, a story about a husband who looses his wife, a casualty of the war. The story was not so much about war but about loss, love, and the innate desire to protect our children from the bad things in his world. John Cusack does an outstanding job playing the father. This was a side of Cusack that I had not seen in film and one worthy of praise.

This documentary is about four men and their individual struggles. What is unique about this film is the filmmaker's ability to interweave these very diverse experiences into a classic story structure. It uses some fantastic puppetry to play out the more general storyline. Each of the four men's story is compelling on its own, but what I really liked was how they were used to demonstrate how to tell a story. In essence, this film acts as a great class in storytelling complete with the theory (from the ancient Greek) and useful examples. You may have trouble finding this film in your neighborhood cinemax, but hopefully it will get a distribution deal and you can get it on Netflix.

Girl 27
Let me start by relating a pet peeve that I have; I don't like documentaries where subject is merely a platform to enhance the filmmaker's celebrity. I loved Roger & Me, but as time went by, it became more about the "Me" [aka Michael Moore] show and with Bowling for Columbine (and Mr. Moore's related public appearances), I have given up on self-promoting films in the guise of documentary. Don't get me wrong. I believe in the principles expounded in Mr. Moore's films, it is the way he does it that bothers me.

With that in mind, Girl 27's director, David Stenn, makes his presence in the story all too important. The film is an interesting look at Hollywood history and I truly enjoyed that aspect of the tale, but the story telling reminded of those shows on the Biography Channel that could have been told in about ten minutes. Instead of the story being about the poor and even criminal treatment women were subject to in early Hollywood, it became about Mr. Stenn's journey to find Girl 27, a chorus girl who pressed charges of rape against MGM and one of its sales reps.

Other movies I saw at Sundance...

  • Four Sheets to the Wind: good acting but the story did not interest me
  • The Good Life: great acting and a good story. We discussed the story quite a bit after the movie though my friend did not enjoy it as much as I.
  • A Very British Gangster: I really enjoyed this look into gangster life in Manchester, England. The filmmaker met an ex-member of the gang featured in the film in Park City and this ex-gangster told us some of his stories during the Q&A after the screening.
  • Bajo Juarez, The City Devouring its Daughters: an interesting look into the tragedy of a city in northern Mexico. The film does a good job letting us feel the frustration of the family and friends of the numerous women molested and murdered in this city and the crimes go unsolved.
  • Black Snake Moan: excellent acting by Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci. While the explicit nature of the film is not suitable for the young, I felt the writer/director, Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow), did an good job not exploiting the sex and nudity, but rather used it as part of the story. It was exciting to hear from the cast and crew at the screening ... well all but Justin Timberlake who made an ass out of himself.

What does this have to do with education...

One way to be a good educator is to be a good story teller. While at Sundance, one has a lot of opportunities to speak with other film buffs, standing in line, ordering your coffee at Starbucks, mingling at a reception, or just waiting for the movie to start. I made a point to find screenwriters and talk to them about what makes a good writer. Here are some of their observations:

  • To be a good writer, "you must write... and write... and write". This really isn't news to educators, but we all know the consequences of assigning too many writing assignments - we have to read them :-( When asked about this, one aspiring screenwriter shared a strategy used by one of his teachers - students were expected to write one story a week in their journal. Then at the end of the semester, they were asked to pick their best work and their worst and write about their choices. The teacher read these descriptions as well as the two selected stories while skimming the other entries in the journal.
  • To be a good writer, "you need to get all kinds of feedback". Almost every writer offered me the opportunity to read one of his/her scripts (the one that didn't, referred me to her publicist). They wanted to hear my thoughts on their work. As one writer put it, "don't write in a vacuum". I initially warned them that I am not a great writer myself and don't know how my comments can help them. But the point, as was explained to me, was to hear a variety of perspectives and to take them for what they are, just thoughts of individuals.
  • To be a good writer, "you need experiences". I was shocked at how many of even the young writers that I met mentioned how important the role of personal experiences played in their writing. It is my guess that everything is relative. Although the youngsters did not have as many life lessons as their more mature (chronologically speaking) counterparts, they saw the value in those experiences that they did have. One writer in particular compared his writing to that in high school and said "I am much more mature now and have seen so much more." Though he was only 23 (I guess), he recognized the importance of those few years on the content of his writing.

One of my goals was to have these writers that I met to reflect on their high school days and offer any recommendations to help educators in producing writers. To my surprise, most offered very little. The occasional "write more" was about the most I got from them. I will admit to being disappointed. I had envisioned a post where I was going to reveal the secret to creating great writers.

Upon reflection, most of these folks were individualists who felt that it was through their own hard work (and talent) that produced the writer in them. I don't think that they saw their development as a product of the educational system, but more from their own drive. Doesn't this sound a bit consistent with a constructionist view of education? A good teacher need not be the one who is remembered as "the one who taught me how to ..." but instead can be remembered as "the teacher in whose class I learned how to ...".

I am not arguing that all of these writers had fantastic teachers (though I am sure most did). Instead, I am suggesting that a successful teacher need not be perceived as the one who taught me how to ... While viewing all of the films and listening to the stories, I came away smarter. I still think about the question raised in Expired, "Is something better than nothing?". Rocket Science reminded me that just because a person cannot express it, does not mean he does not have good ideas. Grace is Gone had me reflect on my role as my child's protector. Protagonist both educated me on story structure. Girl 27 blustered my perception of history and how it is full of buried events that can change our precept ion of the past. All of these stories really made me think, challenged some my values or beliefs, and reinforced my notation that we are always learning - even at the cinema.

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