Film festival leaves the independents wondering

As the Sundance Film Festival closed its 2010 edition with awards and an age-old question: just what is independent film, after all?

As the Sundance Film Festival closed its 2010 edition, the top dramatic prize for a US film went to Winter's Bone, a stark, violent story of a daughter's search for her father in the Ozark Mountains, directed by Debra Granik. The highest documentary honour was won by Restrepo, the "ultimate embed" with US soldiers in eastern Afghanistan in 2007, directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. World cinema top honours went to David Michod's accomplished debut feature, Animal Kingdom, a saga about the collapse of an Australian crime family, and to Mads Brügger's Danish documentary The Red Chapel, which follows a satirical troupe through North Korea.
Sundance awards are always cited as evidence of independent film's vitality (the full list can be found at festival.sundance.org), but what would the ecologically minded Sundance be without doomsday films? Some of the documentaries at the festival took you halfway there, such as one of the documentary prize winners, GasLand, the story of a rural homeowner who opens his mailbox to find an offer from an oil company to lease his property. The radiant future presented by the corporation is that by tapping reservoirs of natural gas through a hydration process called fracking, the US would become the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. Travelling the US to states where similar offers are made, the filmmaker Josh Fox finds that those ambitions of energy superpowerhood are unfulfilled. Yet he does witness the collateral damage: aquifers poisoned, streams turned toxic and kitchen sinks that function like gas burners. It would be dystopian if it weren't happening today.
Another warning comes in Climate Refugees, Michael Nash's documentary about the displacement of populations that results from climate change. Nash's tour takes us from the disappearing islands of the Pacific to the growing deserts of China. Overshadowed by other acute refugee crises (Haiti being the latest), Climate Refugees warns that climate-driven human migration will be a major inconvenient truth.
Yet the most dire projections come in the appropriately titled Countdown to Zero, by Lucy Walker, a probe into the possibility of the use of a nuclear weapon and an examination of its consequences. (This is one of Walker's two documentaries at Sundance. Another, Waste Land, looks at a collaboration between the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz and impoverished rubbish pickers at the world's largest dump outside Rio de Janeiro. Waste Land shared an audience award for best documentary.)
In Countdown to Zero, Walker scrutinises the possibility of a theft of nuclear material (most likely from somewhere in the former Soviet Union) on a troubling how-to basis. In an interview with the thief of some highly enriched uranium, the criminal, a truck driver, says frankly that he wanted the cash that he'd get from selling a weapon of mass destruction to buy a nice car. "Potatoes were guarded more careful than materials that could be used to make bombs," says one former Soviet official. "If truck drivers can get this far, imagine what professionals could do," says an expert who has studied the threat of nuclear terrorism.
Walker also takes on the issue of small-scale proliferation. She focuses not on US-Soviet Cold War spying, but on the Pakistani programme, which began with bomb plans from India's enemy, China, and led to deals with North Korea and Libya. Kim Jong Il is quoted as saying that he would have faced the same fate as Saddam Hussein had North Korea not had the bomb. Even grimmer is the film's final section, which deals with the destruction that a single nuclear bomb can cause. Even for those who survived a blast, there would be no hospitals, no medicines and no communications. It sounds like box-office poison, but a screening on a sunny Saturday morning was packed.
If films such as Countdown to Zero issued a warning - it's no coincidence that Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth premiered here in 2006 before going on to box-office success - Sundance also ended on a question mark. It's still not clear how the audience will end up seeing most of the films that premiered here and won't ever make it to a commercial cinema. The Grand Jury Prize winner Granik's last feature, also set in the Ozarks, grossed $30,000 (Dh110,200) worldwide - not even enough to rent equipment. And the definition of independent cinema is as murky as ever.
A case in point is Twelve, the festival's closing-night film by Joel Schumacher, a veteran director of commercial films who was making teenage "brat pack" movies in the 1980s when the emerging trend of independent film was gaining steam. Schumacher was returning to his 1980s roots, but he was doing it at Sundance with a movie that seemed more like the television series Beverly Hills 90210 than an alternative to Hollywood. In the teenage melodrama, White Mike (Chace Crawford) abandons his private school for drug dealing after his mother dies. Soon his cousin is shot dead over drugs in a Harlem housing project. On the privileged Upper East Side of Manhattan, more young, well-dressed bodies pile up. Money is a curse for the privileged young, the potboiler warns us.
Sundance to the rescue? There's a long line of struggling young filmmakers finishing their annual pilgrimage to Sundance who would be eager to take some of that cash off their hands.