The role of technology in our lives —and in the creative process—showed up as story and backstory in several films at this year’s #Sundance Film Festival. This makes sense since it is 2020 and the iPhone, for instance, is now a viable filmmaking tool. But how do the outsized role phones, and other electronic devices, play in our day-to-day. What can be said about the consequences of our attachment to devices? Can we celebrate the gifts of technology while remaining mindful of the problems of overuse? Two Sundance docs offered lessons on how to strike this balance.
The Social Dilemma
The Social Dilemma is a film that I wandered into kind of agnostically. It looked interesting enough, but I did not think I’d be too affected. I ended up staying, captivated and transfixed. The film directed by Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice), sounds a strong warning about the perils of social media and the slippery slope of civic engagement (or lack thereof) that results from our human need for connection and approval. The resulting silence of thought, the disappearance of discourse, the fostering of fake news, and the implications to democracy, it’s all in this film, cleverly laid out in a storyline that fictionalizes these issues as they are illuminated by the #Silicon Valley# wizards who built the social media tools to begin with. You’ve even got the engineer who helped create #Facebook’s «like» button. These tech innovators acknowledge they created a monster and they want us to wake up before it’s too late. But will we?
I mention Social Dilemma not only as a clarion call documentary about the perils of technology but also because it offers a counterpoint to Saudi Runaway, a standout Sundance 2020 documentary that illuminates the transformational power of technology.
Saudi Runaway is a courageous, life-changing film directed by Swiss-German Susanne Regina Meures. The story focuses on Muna, a young, determined woman who has decided she has had enough of restrictive life she endures as a woman living in #Saudi Arabia#. So, she documents her life, often covertly, with two smartphones. She hatches a plan to leave the country and escape on the eve of her arranged marriage. Everyone was on the edge of their seat watching this film, which plays out like a thriller if you can somehow forget it is actually someone’s life on the line here. You can’t forget that of course—and it’s an emotional ride to sit through because you care so much about Muna. She’s remarkable (and shows great potential as a storyteller as well). There’s so much about Saudi Runaway that is noteworthy, from the filmmaking process and the footage Muna fearlessly records (including that she downloads the footage to Meures via Dropbox). And, of course, the most remarkable element of the film is Muna and her courage—her courage to share her story and her willingness to vision another possible life for herself. Does she get there? You’re going to have to see the film. It will surprise and inspire you as it did all of us at Sundance.
Post-screening discussions were spirited. Director Meures revealed the genesis of the project which made Saudi Runaway even more affecting: she met Muna in an online chat room where women were connecting about their shared plights. Of note, and a Sundance first for me — it seemed like a couple «plants» came to the film to rile up progressive thinkers. At one point in the Q&A, the director shut down a man who asked a dismissive question. The audience howled with applause. No one was going to let gaslighting affect the positive energy created by the film. It was an interesting film festival moment that underscored the power of courageous, transformational filmmaking. Off of the screen and into the minds and hearts of the audience. Palpably.
And about courage and transformational stories, it’s worth mentioning another film at this year’s festival which integrated technology in groundbreaking ways. Welcome to Chechnya, directed by David France (How to Survive a Plague), shadows a group of activists confronting the anti-LGBTQ+ persecution in the Russian republic. Disturbing footage captured by activists and the use of mind-blowing technology to protect the identity of the subjects helps tell this urgent story. Welcome to Chechnya took home a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Editing, and like Social Dilemma and Saudi Runaway— as well as The Painter and the Thief and Spaceship Earth (also reviewed from Sundance this year) — the film ought be on everyone’s must-see list.
Featured Image: The Social Dilemma, a film by Jeff Orlowski | Courtesy of Sundance Institute