catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 23 :: 2013.12.13 — 2013.12.26


Why I Sundance

After I returned from Sundance Film Festival last January a friend asked me what it is about the festival that draws me in. I think she was expecting me to say something about seeing celebrities or watching movies before anyone else gets to — both of which are fun, I won’t deny that. (I once sat next to Steve Buscemi in a theater in Park City. I spotted him in the lobby and followed him to his seat like a stalker so I could brag about it later — it was awesome.) But as I thought for a moment, that’s not what came to mind. What did come to mind was far more important to me: pilgrimage.

In 2005 I showed up at Sundance for the first time. I was taking a class through Fuller Seminary with Craig Detweiler. The year before, Craig had helped break down some walls in my mind through his class on theology and film and I felt hungry for more. I had long devoured movies for different reasons, but now Craig helped connect dots in my life that had previously been sectioned off from each other. Craig wasn’t creating meaning in films for me, he simply gave me the permission I longed for to see these stories as important, formative encounters with the divine.

That first year at Sundance was significant. I had recently come upon C.S. Lewis’ essay “An Experiment In Criticism” and its wisdom shifted my posture towards art. I changed my primary question about any movie I watched from, “Do I like it?” to, “What does this film say about me?” That may seem like a small thing, but in practice I find that it’s not.

Sundance offered a long look in the mirror. Looking at my life through the eyes of filmmakers helps me avoid the pitfalls of naval gazing. Seeing through the eyes of others expands my world. As Lewis says in his essay,

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality….  In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad of eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

This transcendence happens when I return to Sundance each year; it feels like a kind of pilgrimage. I return to the place where I found and experienced deep meaning, and I am both reminded of the transformation that once took place and looking for more transformation to happen again. As seems to always be the case there, storytellers fill the silver screen with images of humans in the search for love, meaning, acceptance and the good life — the very thing I spend most of my time doing.

A number of great films worked on me this year and thankfully many of them are making their way to theaters and DVD releases. Lake Bell’s hilarious In A World… put its finger on both my journey to find a voice and the beauty of simple things in relationships like “sandwich bars.” C.O.G., David Sedaris’ first musings to hit the big screen, opened my eyes again to the difficult and seemingly universal human experience of figuring out what it means to be who we are, whoever we are. The Square, a documentary shot from the inside of Tahrir Square in Egypt — what feels like ground zero for the Arab Spring — invited me to consider what true revolution requires and at the same time how youthful optimism can’t easily find answers for the complexity of our world. A.C.O.D. somehow pulled off a comedy about being the adult child of divorced parents. While I am grateful to not be one of those myself, the film’s ability to take on the pain associated with relational breakdown while also making me laugh my head off gave me new eyes for my own marriage. Touchy Feely left me wondering if I too will approach the crisis of midlife through regressive behavior or transgressive behavior — what do I believe it takes to live fully? David Grohl’s Sound City reminded me just how powerful music has been and can be in my life and our world. And, God Loves Uganda forced me to confront the reality that, as a Christian, I share a name with many who are doing things in that name that I want to run from and disassociate myself from entirely — but is that the best response?

I also saw a few things that were just plain mediocre, confusing, oversimplified or poorly constructed. I saw one documentary arguing that Obama had been sabotaged from getting his second term by the evils of deep corporate pockets. Of course, the problem is that, just days before the film opened at Sundance, Obama was sworn in for his second term. Oops.

Striking a posture of openness and receptivity towards film doesn’t mean it always has something to offer. But it does mean that if and when it does, my eyes and ears are open for what might be waiting for me. Going back to Sundance always helps me remember and practice this in my life. For me, it is a place of pilgrimage.

To learn more about exploring the relationship between spirituality and culture on site at events like Sundance and South by Southwest, check out Into the Noise.

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