Dispatch from Sundance: Fruitvale, Occupy and Gideon's Army

Posted on: Tuesday, January 22 2013

By Kimberly Bender, Director of Development/Sundance Correspondent

The Bay Area is having a heydey at Sundance this year. The biggest news is Fruitvale, directed by Ryan Coogan, with producer Michael B. Jordan also playing the lead actor in the story of Oscar Grant, the young man shot by BART Police on New Year's Day 2009. I fought hard to get a ticket to the premiere on Saturday afternoon, waited 3.5 hours in the cold and was one of the last people let in - after the film started, so I missed the actual footage of the shooting
captured by BART riders who witnessed it.
Coogan chose to simply tell the story of Oscar Grant's life the day he was senselessly murdered, thus humanizing the character and the tragedy, but also illuminating many social ills that contribute to something like this happening everyday in America. Incredibly acted by Jordan, and so deftly directed by Coogan, the film evoked palpable, raw emotion in the entire room of 525 people. Standing ovation was no surprise.
The big news of yesterday was that the film sold for $2.5M to the Weinstain Company with a major theatrical release planned for August; a huge coup for the young, mostly African American filmmaking team. Kudos to Michele Turnure-Saleo, Ted Hope and the San Francisco Film Society for doubling down on this project early with a $100K grant for script development and another $100K that helped them finish it, including sound mix at Skywalker Ranch, all through the partnership with the Kenneth Raining Foundation. People are asking, "Is Fruitvale this year's Beasts of the Southern Wild?" Very well could be.
The other major impact film I've seen so far was the 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film. Sundance Programmer Shari Frilot introduced the premiere at The Temple Theater by saying "Collaborative films rarely work. But this one does." And she was right. The film covers the story of Occupy and all it's ramifications in a powerful and compelling way, leaving the audience informed about what feels like a coming revolution. Occupy Oakland was very well-covered and its significance in the bigger movement made clear. The film provides excellent context with the banking and housing meltdowns, and individual stories of people such as Ray Lewis, the retired Chief of Police from Philadelphia who chose to be arrested along with protestors.
My only beef with the filmmakers was that they did not provide their website and twitter address or a specific call to action at the end, and said that they were "just filmmakers" that this is "not meant to be a political film." No one believed that, and after the Q&A, when I spoke with Director Audrey Yewell, who had made that questionable claim, she said she wished they had included contact info and potential content for tweets and blogs that could help promote the film and reinvigorate the movement. It will happen, though, in part because Fledgling has just announced their support for this film's outreach strategy. Everyone should take notice of this film to catch up on how things really connect across the country. It's a story of heroism and a belief that the people united will never be defeated.
The linkage between Fruitvale and 99% and Gideon's Army directed by Dawn Porter, cannot be ignored. Following three public defenders in the deep south, Gideon's Army chronicles another angle on the story of America right now: the enormous humanitarian crisis of the corporate funded prison industrial complex. Although the film does not really explore related issues of race and class as much as it should, it attempts to start a conversation about them through the lens of an oft-ignored subject, an approach taken by many of this year's films, both docs and features.
Gideon's Army was supported by both The Fledgling Fund and Chicken & Egg Pictures - both of which have numerous films at Sundance this year - please visit their sites to see which ones. Fledgling and Chicken & Egg have been big supporters of BAVC's field building Producers Institute for New Media Technologies. These films and their transmedia projects could not exist without help from the visionary philanthropy of the women behind both organizations. BAVC is incredibly grateful for their support, and the company they help us keep.
More to come this week about BAVC Producers Institute alumni projects, including American Promise (also supported by Fledgling), When I Walk, and Coral: Rekindling Venus
Follow all of BAVC's Sundance coverage on Twitter with #bavcsundance.