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Sundance Film Festival: Oprah, Belafonte, and some indie gems in drama and documentary

Oprah launched her documentary film club and Belafonte carries on his social activism full tilt at the Sundance Film Festival, which was abuzz with talk about the digital future of film as much as the indie films themselves.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / January 28, 2011

Cast members of ‘Margin Call’ including Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany and Simon Baker watch a clip from their movie "Margin Call" after it received The Creative Coalition's 2011 Spotlight Initiative Award during the Sundance Film Festival.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters


The Sundance Film Festival, which wraps up its 11-day run this weekend, screens 115 feature-length films. By the end of my run I felt as if I'd seen all 115. (Actually, I saw 20.)

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Even for a bleary-eyed veteran of the festival circuit such as myself, the Sundance experience – which is primarily centered in Park City, Utah – is daunting, and not just because of the bales of snow with which we are regularly deluged. Actually, this year’s edition has been mercifully squall-free. I can recall a few years back when the festival resembled the Donner Party with movies.

The true challenge here is sorting out what to see and then attempting to make sense of it all. Trying to understand Sundance is the same thing as trying to figure out the state of the independent movie scene.

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That scene over the past few recessionary years has been going through a model change. No longer can filmmakers and distributors in the indie realm rely on revenues from the sinking DVD market. Presales to foreign markets are down, too, cash from hedge-fund sources and high rollers has dried up, and the number of journalistic outlets willing and able to provide features on the indie scene has dwindled.

Since indie movies rely heavily on good press, the latter is a crucial loss. It's a brave new world. Much of the talk at Sundance this year, where, despite everything, sales and attendance were up, was as much about the ways in which movies will be "consumed" in the future – with all the various digital platforms on the horizon – as on the films themselves.

Opening night I checked into "Sing Your Song," a documentary about Harry Belafonte, who was also in attendance. The film, directed by Susanne Rostock and coproduced by his daughter Gina, is hero-worshipy, but then again, why not? Belafonte is a hero. At 82, bald-pated and leonine, this social activist/entertainer remains as committed as ever to his mantra: "What do we do now?" [Editor's note: the original version of this story incorrectly identified the coproducer.]

When I interview him afterward, he tells me, "We shy away from radical thinking in this country. We must stop being victims and become more aggressive about overthrowing victimization." This is not your father's Harry Belafonte. No "Day-O" here. I ask him if he saw himself back in those calypso days agitating for civil rights around the world, and he answers: "I don't understand how it all happened." Then he lights up like a big, beaming Buddha and says, "I don't even know what kind of singer I am."

"Bobby Fischer Against the World" traces the rise and fall of perhaps the greatest of all chess players from his prodigious success as a preteen whiz to his wresting the world chess title from the Russians during the height of the cold war and his subsequent descent into reclusion and madness.

It's a bizarro reverse-success story and the footage of Fischer, ranging from his pipsqueak days at the Manhattan Chess Club to his final days in Iceland, with his Howard Hughes-like dishevelment, is captivating and singular. The filmmakers brought into Park City a number of grandmasters – including Joel Benjamin, who helped program IBM's Deep Blue in its win over world champ Garry Kasparov – to take on all comers. I played Joel and won handily... not.


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