If you’ve been observing the 2016 Sundance Film Festival from afar, you’ve surely heard about two films that are receiving the lion’s share of attention for distinctly different reasons. The first is The Birth of a Nation (above), an often-compelling real-life tale about Nat Turner, the heroic black preacher who led a slave revolt in 1831 Virginia, which shares a title with D.W. Griffiths’ 1915 blockbuster that is today viewed as an ugly homage to racism. The drama, which marks an impressive directorial debut for charismatic actor Nate Parker (Beyond the Lights, The Secret Life of Bees), made headlines for its record-shattering acquisition price of $17.5 million dollars, as well as being considered a welcome antidote to the charge of white bias in the film industry. In numerous interviews, Parker declared that he wants his film to act as an agent of change.
Another film that grabbed headlines is Swiss Army Man, which was dubbed by wags as “the Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie.” The film, helmed by music video vets Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, stars the former Harry Potter actor as a dead man discovered by Paul Dano’s character, who at one point rides Radcliffe’s lifeless body like a flatulence-propelled Jet Ski. There were countless walk-outs during the film, yet there were nearly as many fans who touted its potential as a future cult favorite.
As always, the festival showcased a number of queer-themed narrative films and documentaries. Other People, which follows a young gay man who sets aside his dreams of becoming a comedy writer to care for his dying mother, was the opening night selection. The autobiographical comedy is the directorial debut of Chris Kelly, a talented staff writer for Broad City and Saturday Night Live, and offers insightful performances from Fargo‘s Jesse Plemons (a young Phillip Seymour Hoffman look-alike) and veteran comic actress Molly Shannon. A very realistic sex scene between Plemons and Zach Woods caused several uptight audience members to head for the exits.
The documentary Holy Hell received a lot of pre-screening attention due to the fact that the name of its director wasn’t disclosed. A very gripping non-fiction look at a secretive utopian community led by a
creepy as fuck charismatic guru, until his followers uncover some incredibly disturbing secrets about him. The director was eventually revealed to be Will Allen, a gay man who’d been a follower for more than two decades and he offers a unique insider’s perspective on cult life, although he prefers the term “community.” Allen told the audience that keeping his identity secret until he finished editing the doc prevented interference by the guru, who now resides in Hawaii, and the people who still follow him. Allen also revealed that he didn’t feel safe while working on the film and joked that he was even nervous there might be followers in the audience.
Another insider-access documentary, Kiki, can be seen as a descendent of Jennie Livingston’s beloved Paris Is Burning, as it follows a group of young urban queer kids dedicated to the fierce world of voguing battles in the Kiki scene of New York City. While the dance-off scenes are, naturally, relentlessly entertaining, the film also sheds insight into the plight of at-risk queer kids of color.
Uncle Howard chronicles the short life of film director Howard Brookner, who helmed acclaimed docs about beat legend William S. Burroughs and maverick theater Robert Wilson as well as one of Madonna’s early films Bloodhounds of Broadway, before he died of AIDS at age 35. Howard’s nephew Aaron uses a video diary kept by his uncle as well as a treasure trove of outtake footage he located in Burroughs’ “bunker” to offer both a loving valentine to his late uncle and a perceptive glimpse in the gay artistic scene in 1980s New York.
In the late 1990s JT LeRoy held much of the world enthralled as a literary wunderkind as readers reveled in the provocative tales of his sordid childhood. Presumed to be a drug-abusing transgender prostitute from rural West Virginia, LeRoy was, in fact, the nom de plum for Laura Albert, a forty-something punk rocker and phone sex operator from San Francisco. Albert tells her side of what was referred to as the greatest literary hoax of the century in Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Jeff Feuerzeig’s fascinating non-fiction film tapestry.
Other distinguished films that aren’t queer-specific include: Becoming Mike Nichols, a rollicking look at the life and career of the great director who gave us film adaptations of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Angels in America, produced by HBO; Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is a valentine to the innovative producer who broke new ground with a string of hit sitcoms in the 1970s, produced by PBS; Director Spike Lee’s Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall examines the life of the late pop icon from his early days performing with his brothers until his decision to pursue a spectacular solo career, will premiere on Showtime in February; Halal Love (and Sex) is a witty and very progressive comedy from Lebanese director Assad Fouladkar that might forever change perceptions of Muslim women as they search for love and relationships.
Several of the films mentioned above are still looking for distributors so keep an eye out for opportunities to see them at other festivals around the globe. For a more comprehensive list of LGBT movies that premiered at Sundance this year, go here.