January 21-30 marked the twenty-sixth Sundance Film Festival in the US, and the first under the festival directorship of John Cooper. One of Cooper’s goals was to bring more of an indie feel back to Park City, which over the years has conceded slots to more mainstream fare. The “rebel” theme permeated the psyche of this year’s festival and featured prominently on festival merchandise and in promotional trailers. Of all the festival’s sections – which included world documentary and narrative competitions – two sections most comprehensively embodied the rebel theme: the brand new NEXT programme, featuring low-to-no-budget filmmaking, and New Frontier, which champions innovative cinematic storytelling.
New Frontier is both installation space and film section. The installation space showcases media works that straddle the boundaries between art, cinema, and new technology, with panels tackling current issues such as Web 3.0 and creative ways of financing. Sundance kicked off the festivalwith a press reception at New Frontier, and right out of the gate the biggest buzzword of this year’s festival surfaced: “transmedia”, a word that is pulsing through the indie film world as intensely as iPhones and crowd sourcing are shaking the citadel of traditional filmmaking. The New Frontier film programme shone the spotlight on visionary filmmakers.
A perfect example of a New Frontier film was Double Take by Belgian filmmaker Johan Grimonprez (Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y) which also received the award for the hardest film to categorize out of any I’ve seen in years. Double Take embodies the mantra of New Frontier storytelling, challenging viewers at every edit, interweaving multiple documentary strands, adding narrative elements, creating film art and political commentary that exceed the sum of their parts: doppelgangers, propaganda, nuclear apocalypse, Alfred Hitchcock, even the advent of instant coffee:
It’s 1960s America, and the Cold War is in full swing. Nixon and Khruschev jockey for power in the Kitchen Debate, it’s John F. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, Diana Ross and the Supremes herald women’s liberation while advertisers teach housewives how to keep their husbands happy with the best cup of coffee ever. Grimonprez mashes up remarkable archive footage to convey society’s fears and people locked in duels over power and control. Interwoven throughout are selected threads from Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense-thriller The Birds – which adds point and counterpoint to the doomsday theme, even as Grimonprez invites us to question the verisimilitude of Hitchcock himself through the use of hired actors and reallife doubles.
Double Take is original, it’s artistic, it’s subversive in bringing connections to light that lie buried in our unconscious, which once unearthed invite us to face our collective anxieties – if we dare. Or maybe we want to escape back to the refuge of entertainment, the kind that makes us cringe in our seats, leaving the culture-making to the advertisers and politicians. Grimonprez based the screenplay for Double Take in part on a story by Tom McCarthy, which in turn was based on the essay 25 August, 1983 by Jorge Luis Borges. This complex genesis makes sense for a film that demands our undivided attention for eighty minutes. It wasn’t until about twenty minutes in that I stopped fighting for a clean narrative – what’s going on? Am I missing something? – and managed to adjust my analytical-brain settings – Ok, so there’s something else going on here, something to experience. In this way, Grimonprex epitomizes the “rebel” theme, forcing us out of routine spectatorship, elevating the “art imitating life or vice versa?” conundrum to a conscious level.
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