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WOMEN IN FILM DISCUSS A NEW SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS
IN FILM AT SUNDANCE

by Susan Royal

The topic of this year's Women In Film Sundance Filmmakers Panel was "A New Social Consciousness in Film." Moderator Lucy Webb initiated the discussion by stating, "There is an awakening now in America. For the first time the consensus in our country wants to change. Filmmakers can hold up a mirror to society and reflect what is happening."

She then opened up the discussion to the eight female panelists: Emily and Sarah Kunstler, Trudie Styler, Liz Garbus, Mary Ann Smothers Bruni, Beau St. Clair, Nancy Schreiber and Lili Haydn.

Just the night before, Emily and Sarah Kunstler had received the Woman of Worth Vision Award -- a $15,000 grant from L'Oreal in partnership with WIF. The sisters were at Sundance with their documentary, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, which explores the life of their father, the late civil rights attorney. They have produced and directed a number of short documentaries, including 2003's Tulia, Texas: Scenes From the Drug War, which was instrumental in winning exoneration for 35 wrongfully convicted people.

Addressing the panel's topic of social consciousness in film, Sarah Kunstler, a practicing criminal defense attorney in New York, said they would continue to make films "about transformation, courage and the power of the individual."

Liz Garbus (Emmy award-winner for Ghosts of Abu Ghraib) was also at Sundance with a film about her father. She directed and produced Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech, narrated by her father, First Amendment attorney Martin Garbus. She commented on the times: "Yes, we have a new administration, but we've been through a very dark period. Civil liberties have been restricted. People have been afraid to protest in the streets. Conservatives have been very successful in packing the courts – not just the Supreme Court, but throughout the nation. Free speech is only here if we continue to use it and test it."

Producer/activist Trudie Styler said she would only make socially conscious films and that the mission of her production company was to champion first-time writer/directors making such films. The name of her company, Xingu Films, was born out of a humanitarian trip to Brazil during which she was inspired to become a producer as she stood by the river Xingu. "I don't want to be involved in anything unless it has some substance," she said.

Styler was in Park City to present two films at Sundance – a sci-fi drama, Moon, and a documentary, Crude. Sci-fi can be a useful tool in commenting on today's society, as in the case of Moon, directed by newcomer Duncan Jones (aka Zowie Bowie – son of David Bowie). The film, starring Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey, manages to successfully examine both inner loneliness and corporate greed.

Her other film at Sundance, Crude, is a documentary about Texaco's effects on the indigenous people of Ecuador, whose way of life has been destroyed, with many dying of cancer, by water pollution. Styler emphasized the importance of not buying into propaganda. "I'm fortunate enough to be able to take off and go see first hand what's going on. And I saw the short-sighted greed of oil companies who take the money and run, leaving the indigenous people bereft of their rights, sick, and with no resources. This demonstrates in a microcosm how naïve we've been. We've been lied to. Times are changing, but Obama is not God. We all have a part to play. We must be extremely responsible and accountable as filmmakers."

Also on the panel was Beau St. Clair, producer of The Greatest, starring Susan Sarandon, Pierce Brosnan and the buzz girl of this year's Sundance, Carey Mulligan. St. Clair described the film as "quite the 'women in film' project." It was directed by first-timer Shana Feste, co-produced by Lynette Howell, edited by Cara Silverman and production designed by Judy Rhee. "There was a lot of feminine energy – a safe environment for everybody. Shana brought us a screenplay that was the most emotionally honest, raw material I'd seen in a long time."

Still photographer-turned-director Mary Ann Smothers Bruni came to Sundance with her debut documentary, Quest For Honor, a searing exploration of the still-prevalent "honor" killings of women in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. "We were capturing what the activist women, the women on the ground, are doing about the problem."

She explained that a sexual offense resulting in death may be simply possessing a cell phone, because the young woman could talk to a man outside of her family, perhaps someone she met at university. But Bruni warned against the demonization of Kurds. "It's not just a Middle Eastern problem. In the US four women a day are victims to domestic violence, and it's growing."

Also on the panel was Lili Haydn who, along with Kim Carroll, composed the music for Michel Orion Scott's Over the Hills and Far Away – the documentary about a family's journey on horseback through Mongolia in search of a cure for their autistic son.

Lili, who has performed with Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and Sting, was new to film composing. "I came to this as a violinist and singer. Kim and I created a sort of east-meets-west score. The film is about changing perception about what is normal."

She commented on the topic in a unique way. She offered the following: "You can get paralyzed by the challenges and yet so many conflicts that once seemed irresolvable have been resolved...Ireland, Apartheid. The impossible can happen because the human spirit is so strong." And then, to the delight of all, she sang the chorus from her song, "Stranger":

"Stranger, stranger things have happened
Goodness brings a chain reaction
Liberate me from inaction
Stranger, stranger things have happened"


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