The Sundance Film Festival, held every January in Park City, Utah, is a respite and a space where artistic expression and progressive ideals are welcomed. This year, #MeToo showed up loud and proud. Sundance updated its code of conduct to include new guidelines aimed at preventing sexual harassment. Of the 122 feature films premiering at the festival, 37 per cent were directed by women – well ahead of industry stats. And off-screen, Main Street was the site of a «Respect Rally» marking the one year anniversary of the international Women’s Marches.
Overall, the slate at Sundance was packed with timely work. I selected two films that speak to the current social and political climate: RBG and Minding The Gap.
The «Notorious RBG»
As I begin writing this story, a live stream plays in the window of the Washington Post website open in my browser. It’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg being interviewed. «Picking a favorite case that advanced gender equality is like picking a favorite grandchild,» she says. I figure this line is good place to start my review of RBG – a definitive portrait of the United States Supreme Court Justice that screened in this year’s Documentary Premieres section.
«Younger generations venerate Ginsburg because she speaks truth to power.»
For those not familiar with Ginsburg, here’s an entry point into why RBG matters, by way of the film’s opening audio montage. «This witch … this evil doer … this monster … she’s one of the most vile human beings … wicked … a zombie, that woman’s a zombie!»
Why would a petite octogenarian elicit such hateful commentary? Well, if you add that Ginsburg is a liberal member of the United States Supreme Court (the highest court in the land) who in a previous incarnation was an attorney who fought tirelessly for equal protection for women under the law, then the vitriol from certain corners of society (sadly) makes sense.
Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen move seamlessly through RBG’s set-up with an ease you’d expect from seasoned documentarians. After a fun montage about Ginsburg’s celebrity status, we’re dropped into Ginsburg’s working-class beginnings in Brooklyn, New York. We learn about values her mother instilled in her—a key one is «don’t allow yourself to be overcome by useless emotions, like anger.»
The filmmaking is solid and balanced. Perfectly culled archive and vérité footage is woven together with commentary from family and colleagues and we feel like we’re with Ginsburg reliving her formidable moments. Like when she’s admitted to Harvard Law School as one of nine women in a class of over 500 men, and the story of her life, the stakes, take shape. How did that feel? «You felt you were constantly on display,» says Ginsburg. Back then, in the 1950s, women were not even allowed to enter certain rooms of the library.
And then when Ginsburg graduated at the top of her class from Columbia Law School – and after she was even the first female member of the Harvard Law Review – no law firm in New York City would hire her. It’s clear how these experiences, these inequities, morph into Ginsburg’s life work fighting gender-based discrimination, righting injustices for women and minorities, making America a more equitable place. «She’s the closest thing to a superhero I know,» says feminist icon Gloria Steinem.
RBG offers several entry points. It’s a history lesson, for instance, detailing Ginsburg’s Supreme Court litigation that successfully expanded Constitutional rights for women. And it’s a primer in American jurisprudence, showing how federal cases move up from district to circuit to the U.S. Supreme Court.
RBG is also a love story. Her husband Marty plays a starring role in the film and in Ginsburg’s life. Bring tissues, his dogged support of his wife and their abiding love, seen through poignant home videos, may affect you like it did when it comes to everyone I know. Ginsburg is also beloved by millennials. They’ve turned her into a pop culture icon—or should I say «Notorious RBG». That’s right, Ginsburg has a rap name (the book «Notorious RBG» is worth the read) and there’s plenty of YouTube videos, wild memes, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg tattoos out there. Younger generations venerate Ginsburg because she speaks truth to power.
Minding the Gap
Next on my list is Minding the Gap, which touches on truth and power in a personal, less public way. Newcomer Bing Liu flashed onto the scene at Sundance with this stellar doc that snapped up the U.S. Documentary Competition Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking.
Vivacity, freshness and dazzling sequences – it’s all in there, a complete film package pulled off by a 24-year-old in his feature debut. But what is Minding the Gap about? On face it’s a story about three friends who grow up together, about hidden traumas, about skateboarding. On a deeper level, it’s about socio-economic divides, toxic masculinity, cycles of abuse, and the possibilities of healing. «Gap» takes on many meanings in this film – gaps between fathers/sons, childhood/adulthood, the wealthy/working class, speaking up/remaining silent, and of course the empty spaces that skateboarders jump and otherwise fly over to get safely to the other side.
«From the opening scene, we know we’re going to be taken on a ride worth coming along for.»
From the opening scene, we know we’re going to be taken on a ride worth coming along for. We’re introduced to our main characters with a richness of intimacy (in a scene I don’t want to spoil) and soon we’re whizzing along with them through the streets like we’re strapped to a skateboard ourselves. The camera work is pulled off by Liu with the kind of tweaking-to-get-the-shot-right that only comes from a camera geek. What sets the film apart, and what warrants its breakthrough status, is how Liu pierces through the surface to the worlds that live underneath.
Boys growing into men
Zack, Keire and Liu have been friends, and skate buddies, since childhood. Liu has the footage to prove it. From kick flips to board slides, falls to near-misses, Liu tracks Zack and Keire’s skating progress through the parks and streets of Rockford, Illinois – a former industrial town two hours from Chicago. But it’s the other tracking that’s going on, of boys growing into men, of bonds that deepen and hit walls, that’s at the core of the film. And, all the while, the detritus of absentee and abusive fathers starts rearing its head. How will Zack, Keire and Liu deal with their childhood wounds? Will they thrive or stay stuck in the cycle of abuse?
In a film this masterful it would be a mistake to isolate any one element as the reason for its success. Sure, the sheer amount of footage, shot over the course of a decade, and the quality of it stand out. The access that Liu offers up is another lesson in filmmaking. Liu pointed out how the lack of a crew (he was on his own shooting most of the time) created an intimate and trusting environment in which his characters could feel comfortable opening up. And it’s true. The conversations can feel like confessionals, even therapy sessions. But as the film digs in, we realize it’s Liu’s own vulnerability, his willingness to access himself and unearth his own traumas—with a determination to break free—that creates an invitation for others, including us viewers, to do the same.
It’s interesting to look at RBG and Minding the Gap as windows into American culture. In one pane we see impassioned advocates, in the other young adults finding their foothold. We observe men and women, young and old, responding to challenges –whether born of gender, class, race, violence, economic disparity, inner or outer turmoil –and expressing their voices in individual and collective ways. This is our American citizenry, parts of the whole that shapes our future.