Windrider Reveals the Spiritual Elements at the Sundance Film Festival
by Marc T. Newman, Ph.D.
It is a little ironic that at a festival called "Sundance" I have spent upwards of twelve hours a day, sitting in a sometimes-cramped seat, completely in the dark. But, rightly considered, the "Sun" – the truth claims embedded in the films shown here – represents the light the filmmakers possess, and the dance is the dialogue that follows between the creators and their audiences. Coming here is nothing like seeing a movie at your local cineplex. It is, at turns, more delightful and more dangerous (but more on that in the next installment).
I was invited to Sundance as part of a group of concerned Christian cultural analysts, and even though my Sundance experience is just beginning, I have discovered that what is covered by the entertainment press – the premiere parties and "beautiful people" – completely misses out on what makes Sundance important. They often overlook the relationships forged between those who have "made it" and those who want to, and the innovative new voices that have come to the festival to illumine the films with the Gospel, and, alternately to let the films shine a light on their faith.
Some people would like to dismiss Sundance as nothing more than a convening of self-congratulatory filmmakers basking in the glow of liberal audiences who eat up every dark, "edgy" movie that screens. Others view Sundance, and many other film festivals, as exercises in modern-day idolatry – as simply a place for star-stalkers to get up close and personal with the objects of their adoration. While there is certainly enough pretentiousness to go around, and bodies can pile up on the ice-slick sidewalks whenever there is a celebrity sighting, this kind of surface analysis would miss the point of what is generally regarded as the most important independent film festival in the world.
For a good number of the featured filmmakers and actors, Sundance is their career launching pad. Many of the films are well-crafted stories filled with Oscar-worthy performances. Some of the films are, well, less so. But what most of these movies have in common are directors with stories to tell; who have invested very large portions of their lives, and in many cases, their livelihoods, in order to bring their visions to life. And regardless of how we feel about the truth claims embedded in some of these movies, just like Paul on Mars Hill, we have to admire the effort.
Historically, most of the prize-winning entries at Sundance have posted generally dismal box office numbers once they are released. There are some exceptions, but focusing solely on future ticket sales would mask the festival's most significant influence. Mixed in with hordes of dedicated film fans willing to shell out hundreds of dollars merely for a chance to see movies here, is a smaller, dedicated core of future filmmakers. Students from film schools, and other amateur moviemakers, come here for an infusion of hope that arises from seeing small-budget films find an audience. They are looking for a chance to interact with the kind of people they desire, in their hearts, to become. The atmosphere pervading all of the "question and answer" sessions with the director, that follow most screenings, is one of mentoring. And into this highly secular educational atmosphere comes the Windrider Forum, gently revealing the sacred elements which reside in the most provocative festival films.
The Windrider Experiment
Four years ago, a collaboration of industry professionals, foundations, universities, and a local Park City, Utah church conspired to create Windrider. This unofficial adjunct of Sundance provides a space for graduate seminary students and undergraduate film students to meet together, see movies, and talk with moviemakers. Collectively they strive to use film as a means of understanding and engaging culture, and illuminating their own spiritual journeys.
Windrider is the brainchild of John, Ed, and Mark Priddy, known corporately as Priddy Brothers. This film production company makes movies, but also seeks out and comes alongside promising filmmakers. Working with Fuller Theological Seminary, Biola University, and Taylor University, and aided by the Angelus Student Film Festival, the Peter Glenville Foundation and the hospitable and generous people at the Mountain Vineyard church, the Priddy Brothers have crafted a thoughtful space for Christianity to meet culture, and where culture can both reveal, and challenge, how Christians communicate their faith.
Given the explicitly Christian nature of Windrider, it seems surprising, at first glance, how many filmmakers enthusiastically agree to come and speak to the students and staff. But after nearly two weeks of question and answer sessions dominated by discussions of budgets, shooting schedules, and film stock choices, directors are eager to talk about the substantive issues that are at the heart of the films they make. The first night's session featured Geoff Haley, the screenwriter and director of The Last Word, a well-received Sundance film of tremendous drama and humor. The focus of the film – a man who makes his living writing other people's suicide notes – wouldn't appear to lend itself to comedy but, as C.S. Lewis noted, only deadly serious things are really worth laughing about.
Haley, who describes himself as "an agnostic or an atheist," infuses a film, heavy on despair, with hope. He went out of his way in the interview not to ascribe that hope to God, and yet Abel is the name of one of his main characters, and his part of the story causes the audience to question, like Abel in the Bible: to what extent am I my brother's keeper? Suicide is an uncomfortable topic. The screening of The Last Word encouraged many students to talk about their own pain, or the pain felt by others in their lives. This led to Haley revealing part of his own story: how his mother, who suffered from mental illness, slowly committed suicide over the span of many years. The Last Word also explores, in one of its final scenes, the relative effectiveness of an apologetic approach versus a relational approach in reaching out to others. (I will leave it to you to discover which is better.) It is odd to think that a film about suicide, one that uncovers so much of the alienation that troubles our culture, would take such pains to value life.
Windrider also provides a forum for student films, such as Driftwood, an imaginative and thought-provoking short film by director/screenwriter Michelle Steffes. Driftwood is a retelling of a very famous children's story, but Steffes has infused her short film with scenes sure to evoke adult discussions about prayer, pain, and the difficulty associated with being a finite creature trying to understand the plans of an infinite God. And it's funny. If your interest is piqued, sign up at the MovieMinistry site for our free newsletter, and we will let you know when you can get your hands on this film, and the accompanying material we intend to create for it.
I feel privileged to have a chance to see these ground-breaking films, and to meet their makers. The better films work on me: sometimes revealing the inadequacies of the way I live out my faith. Other films call forth confrontation and a desire to hold filmmakers accountable for irresponsible decisions. During the remainder of my time here I will continue to encounter both kinds of films; and my prayer is that God will use these movies to reveal to audience members truths about the human condition. Please pray for the Christians here: both the filmmakers and the believers among the audiences, that they will be given opportunities to speak their own stories, and the wisdom to gently engage others.