Monday, January 20, 2014

Presidents and Rebels

I would like to start by saying how difficult it is after a day of being at Sundance Film Festival to sit down and relay my experiences in a coherent, organized way. Sundance is so chaotic, with many ideas being hurled at me; sometimes it feels like an emotional roller coaster. And I love it. 

Today I saw two documentary films: Mitt and Return to Homs. The settings in these movies are very different. One film takes place in crisp hotel rooms across the USA, and the other film brings the viewer into the devastated streets of a city in Syria. I would like to briefly expand my thoughts on both.


I saw the trailer for Mitt several months ago and was immediately attracted to the idea of the film. A documentarian followed the Romney family over a period of 6 years, getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives from Mitt Romney's 2008 Republican run all the way to the 2012 presidential election. The audience is essentially a mouse in the corner of the Romneys' private lives. We see their most intimate family moments right up until Mitt prepares his concession speech as his family sheds tears around him. 

I am going to pull out a fancy film word here: cinéma vérité. It is a term that literally means, "cinema truth," and refers to a style of filmmaking that stresses unbiased realism. In most cases of cinéma vérité, the director just stands back and turns on the camera as reality takes its course. Mitt comes very close to this type of documentary, but occasionally the film's director, Greg Whiteley, crosses into the world of the Romney Family to ask a question. But this is always in the context of the location - there are never any "talking head" interviews in front of a backdrop in a studio. If Mitt Romney is in a hotel room, Greg interviews him on-the-fly in the hotel room. 

There were parts of the second half of the movie that I felt could have benefited from background music in order to hold the audience's attention. Music was used effectively in the first act and helped pull the emotion out in an appropriate way. Other times silence was the filmmaker's most powerful weapon. (Spoiler Warning) For example, in the last scene of the film, Mitt and Ann go back into their house the day after losing the election. Mitt collapses in his chair, looking out the living room window. Ann sits down on the couch and lets out a deep sigh. If this closing scene would have been covered by music it would have lost its raw authenticity. The director made the right choice to leave the bare, natural sound here.

I appreciated the film more after hearing the director talk during a Q&A session after the film. Whiteley said he didn't want to make the audience feel one way or another about Mitt Romney, he just wanted to document the whole experience. He leaves the audience to decide for themselves how they feel about Mitt as the credits roll.

Return to Homs

After watching Return to Homs, I realized I came into Sundance with a tragic misconception. I expected the international films to portray people from different countries (specifically the Middle East) the way I have seen them portrayed on the news - bodies running around, shooting at each other, without personalities and names. This film rattled me. It opened my eyes and filled me with compassion.

The film follows two young Syrian men - around my age, in fact - over the course of three years as they fight to protect their hometown of Homs and its people from the government. The main leader, Basset, is shaken as he watches his best friends become martyrs for their cause. 

It would be unfair for me to not mention the danger the filmmakers were in as they made this movie. Bombs go off near the lens, people surrounding the camera are battered and bloodied, and the camera remains steady and in-focus the entire time. (My friend and I joked that the cameramen in Return to Homs did a better job keeping focus than Mitt did in a hotel room.) Sadly, after the screening the filmmakers informed us that one of the cameramen died on the field just two weeks ago. 

After the film, I was expecting a thunderous applause and emotional, tear-filled questions from the audience. The response from the Sundance crowd was disappointing. One woman stood up and essentially said she thought the filmmakers did an awful job choosing the main characters. (The audience booed her and she was cut off. I wanted to slap her in the face.) This was the first showing of the film in the USA, and I was so sad we didn't show the filmmakers more respect. 

One of the filmmakers concluded by saying that their objective was simply to help Americans care about what is going on in Syria. There are real people in that country with personal stories, and we all share the same earth with them. As my professor Kathy said, these filmmakers weren't at Sundance for vanity, but because they were desperate to have a platform to voice their story.

After the film, I was able to shake the hand of the director and tell him how Return to Homs impacted me for the better. Hopefully, responses like mine will make them feel like it was worth it to risk their lives to tell a story. 

It goes without saying that I can't wait to see what happens tomorrow at Sundance!


  1. Remember, to my knowledge, they have never erected a monument to a critic. People can be very harsh in evaluating the efforts of others. Just keep in mind that emotions are heavily bombarded in such an intense and full setting. So periodically take a few minutes, grab a coffee, and do the necessary intellectual and critical analysis. This will allow you to fan your joy into flame and really live in each moment. Enjoy!

  2. BTW I love what you wrote about these docs. Well thought out and communicated. I am looking forward to more reactions and reflections.