Cowboys and Indies

Texas Sundance roundup

Holy Hell

If this year's Sundance Film Festival had one marquee narrative, it was technology-driven upheaval in the film business. Massive acquisition bids by new-media distribution players drove up the prices of buzzworthy films like Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea ($10 million to Amazon) and Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation ($17.5 million to Fox Searchlight after a reported $20 million bid from Netflix). It won't be long before we see Oscar campaigns coming out of non-Hollywood locales like Silicon Valley and Seattle.

And how about Texas? We may not have a Netflix or Amazon, but we did help build the Oculus Rift, a potentially even more disruptive tech innovation. Up and down Main Street in Park City last week, virtual-reality newbies waited in line to get their first taste of Rift, a headset that allows for motion-picture storytelling in 360 degrees, with the viewer at the center of the action. It could someday upend the film business as we know it. The Rift, which ships to consumers this March, is to a large extent the brainchild of Oculus CTO John Carmack, whose programming team works out of the Metroplex.

Only two Sundance 2016 film selections had deep Texas roots. One, the inspiring Louis Black/Karen Bernstein doc Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny, celebrates the visionary who put Texas on the indie film map. Luminaries from Kevin Smith to Jason Reitman were on hand for what felt like an unofficial Sundance Hall of Fame induction ceremony; Linklater's first trip to Park City was 25 years ago for Slacker (see "Manifest Destiny," below).

Holy Hell is another, remarkable Austin-bred documentary, perhaps the best film ever made about a cult. Director Will Allen was a member of the Buddhafield for over 20 years, serving for much of that time as the religious group's chief videographer. As such, he has an incredible trove of archival material to work with. His film gives viewers a sense of what it might feel like to get swept up in an alternative spiritual community, choose not to notice as things start to go awry, and look up 20-odd years later to see how much it has damaged the lives of one's closest friends.

It was a doc-heavy year for Texas at Sundance; we could claim only minor associations to films on the narrative slate. Kerem Sanga, director of the queer teen love story First Girl I Loved, is an L.A.-based UT grad, whose film took home an Audience Award. Sometime Austinite David Gordon Green co-wrote the frat-hazing thriller Goat. Houston provides the setting for NASA found-footage comedy Operation Avalanche.

Other Sundance docs visited the Lone Star State for onscreen material. Trapped, an important documentary by Dawn Porter, provides compelling portraits of those fighting against what reproductive rights advocates call TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws. The subjects of Porter's film, including Fort Worth-based Marva Sadler, director of clinical services at Whole Woman's Health, are true modern-day heroes, devoting their lives to the uphill battle to make safe, legal abortions available to all women in conservative Southern states. Hopefully a screening has been arranged for Supreme Court Justices Kennedy and Roberts.

Under the Gun, one of two Sundance gun-control docs, features Sandy and Lonnie Phillips of San Antonio, who lost their daughter Jessica in the July 2012 The Dark Knight Rises shooting. Both Republican gun owners, the Phillips have lately become activists for the sorts of common-sense gun-control reforms advocated by President Obama. After the premiere screening, the Phillips took the stage alongside a who's who of national leaders in the fight for gun control, from ex-U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords to the film's executive producer, Katie Couric. Like the festival in general, not a bad club to be a part of.

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Sundance Film Festival, John Carmack, Holy Hell, First Girl I Loved, Goat, David Gordon Green, Trapped, Under the Gun

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