Step inside any theater at the Sundance Film Festival this week and you'll find directors unspooling tales of economic despair, food shortages, collapsing healthcare and a broken justice system. But if the troubles of so many American have-nots leave you in the dumps, the festival's corporate hangers-on have just the cure: endless canapés, on-the-house snow boots and iPads, and enough Grey Goose vodka, Sugar lip exfoliations and Paul Mitchell hairstyling touch-ups to make you feel like a million bucks.
Over the last 10 years at the nation's top festival for independent film there has been a surge of exclusive parties, high-end dinners and countless "gifting suites," where companies lavish celebrities with complimentary clothes, electronics and beauty treatments in the hopes they'll get some good publicity out of photos of even B-listers using their products. But never has that world-is-your-oyster profligacy (which Sundance's organizers say they're powerless to corral) clashed so dramatically with the stories that filmmakers are trying to tell on screen.
The result is a steady stream of odd juxtapositions in this mountain resort town, as when some backers of the hunger-in-America documentary "Finding North" warmed up for the movie's Sunday premiere by snacking on deviled eggs stuffed with avocado crème and topped with wasabi roe, and raised glasses of Lambrusco to toast the filmmakers in a ski-in, ski-out home (on the market for just under $2 million).
A day earlier, after the screening of "The House I Live In," a documentary arguing that the war on drugs has been an attack on the nation's poor, the filmmakers celebrated the screening with a sit-down dinner featuring plenty of wine and a chocolate lava cake dessert. And Gina Rodriguez, who plays the up-from-the-streets rapper in "Filly Brown," grabbed two freebies her character would scarcely own: an iPad and a ThinkPad.
Many of the filmmakers wince a bit at the discord but say bringing their messages to the upper crust requires not just marches and protests but also, sometimes, dialogue over filet mignon.
"People sitting around, having scallops and steak, that old chestnut?" director Eugene Jarecki said at the dinner for "The House I Live In." "You can be cynical about it, but a lot of change is driven by people who have the time, and resources, to do something."
Not surprisingly, many of the cinematic tales of America's struggles are being told here in documentaries: "Detropia," a study of Detroit's demise; "We're Not Broke," a look at how U.S. companies exploit the tax code; and "Escape Fire," which argues that profits, rather than care, now drive healthcare. Yet a surprising number of fictional films are using the economic downturn as more than window dressing — in several cases, it's the narrative engine.
In the dramatic comedy "Hello I Must Be Going," an unemployed thirtysomething woman returns home to live with her parents — a home they are on the brink of losing. In the raunchy comedy "For a Good Time, Call…," the two young female leads are so broke they start a phone sex line out of their apartment.
The 6-year-old girl at the center of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" lives in an extremely impoverished part of southern Louisiana called the Bathtub that is severed geographically and economically from the rest of the country. In "Arbitrage," Richard Gere plays a Wall Street tycoon who repeatedly lies so that he can con someone into buying his troubled company. And the characters in a Brooklyn housing project from "Red Hook Summer" lay out their financial misery in stark terms. "The rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer," one says. "It don't matter what race they are."
Benh Zeitlin, who directed and co-wrote "Beasts," said he wanted his drama to call attention to the very real problems of a very real place. "I wanted to make a film about holding on to things that are important," Zeitlin said. "All of south Louisiana is in danger."
Added Spike Lee, the director and co-writer of "Red Hook Summer": "This is where we are in this space and time. People are hurting — they lost their jobs, their homes, their savings," he said. "It's a precarious time we live in. [Co-writer] James McBride and I just wrote from our hearts."
Of all the Sundance films tackling the gap between the richest 1% and the rest of the nation, the documentary "Detropia" stands out for how it encapsulates the causes (and potential solutions). Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady see Detroit as a city at the vanguard of woes now spreading, a metropolis that created a black middle class only to see it ravaged by outsourcing. With rampant unemployment, the city shrinks before their cameras — in the last 10 years, Detroit lost 25% of its population and now has some 40,000 abandoned homes.
"Everything that the country is experiencing happened in Detroit first, and they've been talking about it for 10 years," Ewing said. "They feel everybody else is coming to the party late." The filmmakers looked for hopeful signs, but struggled to find them. "Making the film helped me understand what the Occupy movement was really about," Grady said.
The filmmakers acknowledged the dissonance between what was occurring inside Park City's theaters this week and immediately outside of them. "Sundance is an absolute bubble — it's a very ironic place to show a social action film," Ewing said. "But you have to force the 1% to watch, and they're here. So we are bringing our message to them — the 1% has a lot of power and influence."
Similarly, Kristi Jacobson, the co-director of "Finding North," said chatter over so many passed hors d'oeuvres can be the start of change. "Anything we can do to bring attention to this issue — including cocktail parties — we'll do it," she said.
But some people in town have decided to start taking action right away.
To exploit the issues raised in "We're Not Broke," 10 activists linked to the Occupy movement staged a brief demonstration on Monday at Park City's Wells Fargo Bank branch. "There are so many corporate sponsors here during the film festival," said Kira Elliott, 29, an activist from Chicago. "We'd be crazy to be anywhere else."